Sequel to Uraganashii. Feeling bad about Suikotsu, Jakotsu comes up with a plan to ease his sadness. Along with Renkotsu, the two of them go off in search of the one thing that'll make the claw-bea...
/For Vega-chan who let me borrow Sedako-dono...
Author’s notes: “Hitosagashi” means “searching for someone” in Japanese.
The hour of the horse is from 11:00 am to 12:59 pm, the hour of the snake is from 9:00 am to 10:59 am.
A tansu is a cabinet used to store a variety of things from clothes to medicines to dishes. Tansu made in a ziggurat can also be used as stairs.
A furoshiki is a wrapping cloth, like the one Sango uses to carry her things around in.
A ri is equal to 2.440311 miles.
The suffix “dono” is used as a term of respect and it falls somewhere between “san” and “sama.” Renkotsu and especially Jakotsu use it more out of respect for Suikotsu than for Sedako herself.
Aoki is the Japanese name for a flowering bush that is better known to American gardeners as “Aucuba Japonica.”
Nattou is a dish eaten with rice that’s made from fermented soybeans and it’s a popular breakfast item in the Kanto region of Japan. It’s very strong smelling like ripe cheese and sticky in appearance, but has a rich nutty flavor.
Kayu is rice gruel that looks like oatmeal. It’s usually eaten by people who are sick.
Chazuke is left-over rice heated up in green tea with various toppings added, such as pieces of salmon or tarako (cod roe) for example.
Special thanks go out to Jen for helping me polish this one until it shines! /
Renkotsu quietly slid the shoji open and peered into the dim interior of the room he shared with Suikotsu. The stale scent of alcohol and the sound of snoring greeted him as his eyes adjusted to the dusky light. Looking around, he spotted his lover, lying on his futon, wrapped in Renkotsu’s green quilt. Suikotsu’s dark blue quilt lay nearby in a lumpy heap with a bare leg sticking out from under it.
Looking back outside, he called softly to Bankotsu, “Oo-Aniki! Come back, I think he’s here.”
Bankotsu, who had paused when Renkotsu called out to him, turned and headed over to him. “Don’t tell me he’s in the futon with Sui...” the young leader of Shichinintai said.
“Surprisingly not, and I say ‘surprisingly’ as the place reeks of sake,” the fire-breather said as he stepped inside. I’m sorry, Sui, I tried to get home sooner. Thank Kami-sama Jak was here to help you through it.
Bankotsu, following him, crinkled his nose in disgust. “Eeww... It smells like they took a bath in it and then some.” He looked around the room. “So where’s Jak?”
“Here...” Renkotsu knelt in front the shapeless bundle of quilt. Gently shaking it, he whispered, “Wake up, Jak, Oo-Aniki’s here looking for you. Jak...?”
“Hmph...” The cross-dresser murmured softly in his sleep. “Nnnikichantired... goway...leavemelone...”
“Come on, Sweetness, get up.” Bankotsu looked up at his fellow teammate and grinned. “Sui wants to be alone with Ren,” he whispered softly in the sleeping cross-dresser’s ear.
Jakotsu rolled over and yawned. “Hunh...?” he said sleepily.
“Get out of my room. I want to be alone with Sui.”
Jakotsu cracked an eye open and looked around blearily. “Why do you want to be alone with Sui in my room...?”
/Idiot! /“We’re in my room, not yours,” Renkotsu said. He was tired and upset over being unable to be there for his lover in his time of need, and he wanted to get some rest before Suikotsu woke up.
“Oh...” Jakotsu slowly sat up and stretched. “Why didn’t you say so, Ren...?”
Renkotsu groaned in frustration. “I did,” he said tersely.
“No, you didn’t...”
“Yes, he did,” Bankotsu interjected, quickly preventing an argument between the two. “Come.” He held out his hands and when Jakotsu took them, Bankotsu hauled him to his feet. “I’ll see you later, Ren, after you’ve rested a bit. Then I want a full report on what you thought of that daimyo and whether or not we should accept that mission.”
“Will do,” Renkotsu said as he quietly set his gear down. “I’ll meet you in the war-room at the hour of the horse.”
“Until then,” Bankotsu said, pushing his paramour out of the room.
Leaning against the outer wall, and still half-asleep, Jakotsu asked, “How was your trip, Aniki-chan?”
Bankotsu slid the shoji shut. “Boring. I don’t know if we’re going accept this mission or not. I’m thinking not as the pay isn’t all that great compared to the trouble of going.”
Once Bankotsu had picked up his gear that he had left outside, they padded down the outer corridor to the room they shared.
“Oh...” Jakotsu yawned. “So did you miss me?” he said impishly. The cross-dresser was starting to wake up, and he was looking forward to a morning spent cuddling with Bankotsu amongst other things.
Bankotsu reached out and fondled his paramour’s bottom as they walked. “What do you think?”
“Ummm... I don’t know...” the cross-dresser said airily. “You were away for so long that I was beginning to think you ran off with Ren,” he teased.
“Oh yeah?” Bankotsu grinned wickedly. “So what do I have to do to prove otherwise?”
“I don’t know...” Jakotsu giggled.
Bankotsu chuckled. “You know you’re impossible.” He playfully blocked the entrance to their room as he pretended to keep his paramour out.
“I know, but that’s why you love me...” Jakotsu said smugly.
“You’re damned right I do.” Bankotsu grinned, and turning around, he slid the shoji to their room back and stepped aside to let Jakotsu in. Following the cross-dresser, he paused briefly to close it softly behind him. “Now tell me again why I’m here, Sweetness?”
“You’re here to show me how much you love me and missed me.”
Bankotsu grinned wickedly. “Oh yeah...”
Renkotsu walked over to his folded futon and picked it up. Instead of putting it away for him, Suikotsu had left it out seemingly in anticipation of his return later that night. Unfortunately that wait was more like two weeks rather than a day due to the time it would have taken for them to travel there and back along with the days spent in negotiations. Still, it brought a smile to his face, knowing Suikotsu had missed him so much he left it out just in case Renkotsu was able to rush home in time. He padded back over to his sleeping lover.
I’m sorry I couldn’t be here for you, Sui. We tried, but that damned daimyo was a pain in the ass and then some. So much so, that I spent most of my nights transcribing notes of our meetings from what I could remember of them. That idiot could teach Jak a thing or two about being obstinate and demanding.
Renkotsu knelt and quietly laid out his futon next to his sleeping lover’s. He reached over and picked up Suikotsu’s quilt. As he stood up, he dropped it on the futon, before walking away to take off his armor. Once he had it off, his clothes quickly followed. Shivering in the cold autumn air, the fire-breather hunted around for his sleeping kimono. He was hoping to get some sleep, before having to get up to write his report, and he was annoyed as hell over the fact that his homecoming would be delayed yet again.
Finding his kimono just as he had left it, Renkotsu quickly shrugged into it. Tying the obi, he padded over to his futon. Throwing back the quilt, the fire-breather crawled onto the futon and made himself comfortable. Wrapping himself in the warm confines of the dark blue kakebuton, Renkotsu soon drifted off to sleep.
Shortly after the hour of the snake had begun, Suikotsu woke up with a pounding headache as the full force of his hangover hit him. Moaning softly, he cracked his eyes open only to regret it as the bright sunlight streaming through the shoji’s paper panes made his head pound even worse than before.
“Jak...” he groaned. “Jak...? Could you please make me some willow bark tea? Don’t worry, I’ll tell you how to make it,” he rasped. “Okay...?”
Hearing Suikotsu call out to the absent cross-dresser, Renkotsu surfaced from his dream and said softly as he rolled over to face his lover, “It’s me, Sui, not Jak...”
“Yeah... I’m sorry, Sui. Ban and I tried to get here sooner but that stupid daimyo was such a pain in the ass about everything. I don’t know how he did it, but Ban managed to walk out of there without saying or doing anything we’d regret later on.” Renkotsu sat up and rubbed his face. He yawned and continued as he stood up, “Unfortunately, while Ban did try to overcharge him for our services, the idiot cried poverty and we had to settle for less than Ban wanted out of him. I’m thinking of talking him out of accepting the job, as I have the feeling the idiot’s going to be more trouble than he’s worth...” He looked at Suikotsu. “You might want to close your eyes while I go get some water.” Renkotsu walked over to the tansu, grabbing the tetsubin off the top of it. The small iron kettle had been the only possession Suikotsu had brought with him when he signed up, and Renkotsu remembered being surprised to learn it had once belonged to Suikotsu’s deceased wife. The fire-breather, pausing on his way out to stoke the charcoal in the brazier that heated the room, waited until Suikotsu had covered his eyes with his arm, before going outside.
Returning a few minutes later, Renkotsu set the kettle on the brazier to boil. He quietly rummaged around the room, looking for Suikotsu’s box of herbal remedies. The fire-breather soon spotted it where the claw-bearer had left it, under the low table that was a mess from all the papers and herbs strewn across its surface. Kneeling, Renkotsu opened it and found what he was looking for. He took the small vial marked “willow bark” and brought it over to where he was going to make tea. Since he knew from experience that it was very bitter, the fire-breather also grabbed the small pot of honey when he went to get his jasmine tea and two cups.
“You don’t have to be so quiet, Ren, it’s not going to change the fact I drank too much yesterday.”
Renkotsu sighed. “I know, and I’m so sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know you would have been here if you could.”
“Jak okay yesterday?”
“Yes... While it would have been nicer if you were here instead, he wasn’t as bad as I thought he’d be. He must have behaved himself last night as I’m fully dressed too.” Suikotsu grinned wryly. “Although, I’m surprised he’s not here.”
“He was and you’re right; he did behave, as he was sleeping curled up over there.” Renkotsu motioned to a spot on the floor, about Jakotsu’s height away from the claw-bearer, with his head as he made their tea. “I’m surprised he didn’t kick you in the head during the night, but he must have been cold so he stayed curled up in a ball. I guess you’re lucky he forgot to add more charcoal to the brazier or you’d really have a headache this morning.”
Suikotsu chuckled, instantly regretting it, because it increased the pounding in his head. “Don’t make me laugh, Ren...”
“Sorry... Can you sit up? The tea’s ready.”
Renkotsu picked up the cups and made his way over to Suikotsu, who very slowly sat up.
Taking the proffered cup, Suikotsu said, “Thanks,” before drinking it. He grimaced at the bitter taste, and setting down the cup, he rubbed his hands over his face. “As soon as this takes effect, I want to go bathe. Care to join me?”
“As much as I would love to, I have a report I need to prepare. I tell you what, if you can wait, I’ll go over my report quickly and then I can join you.”
“Then I’ll wait for you. But don’t rush on my account, Ren. Take your time so you can convince Oo-Aniki this is a bad idea. If he wavers, leave him to think it over, but get Jak on your side.”
“Oh yeah... The last thing we need is to go running to do some idiot’s bidding because another idiot thinks it would be fun.”
“I know... But it’s true. Remember that disastrous mission we went on this past summer? We’re lucky we got out that alive and I for one have no intentions of repeating that scenario.”
“I know... Anyway, don’t let me keep you from your work, Ren,” Suikotsu said. He settled back down in his futon and slowly rolled over. Closing his eyes, the claw-bearer attempted to go back to sleep while Renkotsu busied himself with his report.
“Come in, Ren,” Bankotsu said as he looked up from the map he had been studying. The young leader of the Shichinintai was seated at the low table that dominated the room since it was the only furniture in the place aside from a pair of andon. The tall gilded candlestick lanterns were part of the payment from one of their more lucrative missions and Renkotsu suspected the reason Bankotsu was so drawn to them was a similar pair had adorned the grateful daimyo’s main audience chamber.
“I have your report ready,” Renkotsu said as he entered the room. He sat on the floor opposite Bankotsu, placing the stack of papers neatly in front of himself on the low table. The fire-breather waited patiently for his leader’s attention.
“Well...?” Bankotsu said while he studied the map. “Should we go or forget this one?”
“I’d say after careful consideration of several factors, the least of which being the daimyo’s castle is on the side of a hill overlooking a wide plane on three sides. The fourth is completely inaccessible unless one was a bird, making it safe from attack, so there’s nothing to worry about there. Not to mention the fact that his nearest neighboring daimyo is twenty five ri away with a big enough area of his own, and who’d probably see annexing this small fiefdom a waste of time-”
“Ren,” Bankotsu held up a hand interrupting the fire-breather’s report. “Should we stay here and forget this one or go?”
“Well, if I were in charge of things, I’d be inclined to forget it-”
“Okay, then we’ll forget it.” Bankotsu smiled. “Now, all we need to do is write up a letter saying we’ve decided not to accept.” He looked pointedly at Renkotsu.
The fire-breather groaned inwardly. “Would you like me to write that up, Oo-Aniki?”
Renkotsu sighed. He was clutching his report so hard his knuckles turned white, wrinkling the paper, while he reined in his anger. Damn it! I spent the hour of the snake writing this up when I could have been soaking in the tub with Sui and you can’t even give me the courtesy of pretending to listen to it! “What would you like the letter to say?” he asked wearily. Letting the papers go, he smoothed them out as best he could without drawing attention to it, while he waited for Bankotsu’s reply.
“Just the usual bullshit; we regret the fact we can’t come as an urgent matter has come up in the south requiring our immediate attention. If you should need our help at a later time, we would be more than happy to come assist you at that time... Just fancy it up and make it sound sincere, okay?”
“Oh, and uh, Ren, what do you think about going here to visit the hot springs?” Bankotsu pointed to a spot on the map.
Renkotsu, who was about to say something sarcastic, took a few deep calming breaths instead. Hoping to make what he prayed was the correct answer as it would lead to a quick dismissal, he said, “I think Jak would love to go there for a couple of days.”
“Yeah...?” The young leader of the Shichinintai smiled. “That’s what I was thinking. After seeing those monkeys last winter sitting in a hot spring, he’s been asking if we can do that. I guess now that we have nothing else to do...”
“You two can go. Do you want me to make preparations for you two and write to the inn requesting a room?” Since I have nothing better to do with my time than do all the shit you’re too lazy to do...
“Okay.” Bankotsu looked up from the map and grinned. “Thanks, Ren. And, uh... once you get that done; you’re free to do what you’d like.” He turned his attention back to the map, silently calculating how long it would take to get to the hot springs, when his paramour strolled over to them, although Jakotsu paused, before entering, as he knew better than to disturb Bankotsu when he was discussing a possible mission with someone.
“Aniki-chan, can I come in?” Jakotsu asked as he stood patiently just outside, while waiting for a reply. “I need to ask you and Ren something.”
Bankotsu looked up at him. “Can it wait, Sweetness? I’m very busy right now and so is Ren,” the young leader of the Shichinintai said in a tone that brooked no argument, despite the use of his pet name for his paramour.
“It won’t take long...” the cross-dresser assured them.
Oh hell! Please don’t find more shit for me to do... “Maybe we should just hear him out, Oo-Aniki. You know as well as I do that he’ll just stand there until we do,” Renkotsu said. Lacing his fingers behind his neck, the fire-breather leaned backwards, stretching. While he was eager to get started on the letters he needed to write, Renkotsu felt it was better to wait until after Jakotsu left just incase the cross-dresser somehow managed to get their leader to change his mind about going.
Bankotsu sighed, and pinching the bridge of his nose, he gently massaged the area between his eyes. “Fine... What do you want?” He slowly lowered his hand to rest near its mate on the low table and waited.
Jakotsu sauntered into the room as if he had all the time in the world to get there. Sitting next to Renkotsu, he giggled nervously at his lover from across the low table that sat between them, while gathering his thoughts.
“I don’t have all day, Jakotsu,” Bankotsu said, addressing the cross-dresser by name in a subtle warning to hurry up.
“Ummm...” The cross-dresser daintily nibbled on a fingernail.
“Jakotsu, I really don’t have time for your nonsense.”
“I’m sorry, Aniki-chan, but...ummm...”
“Spit it out, Jak!” Renkotsu said, feeling just as impatient with the cross-dresser and annoyed at the interruption as Bankotsu.
Jakotsu glared briefly at Renkotsu, before looking back at his lover, the sweetest of smiles plastered on his face. “Ummm, Aniki-chan, Sui was very upset yesterday...”
“I know and Ren already told me all about why he would be on the way home. Sui knows we hurried back as quickly as we could.”
“Oh... Did you know that Sui drank himself sick?”
“Yes. Remember, I was there to wake you up? No?” Bankotsu sighed as the cross-dresser shook his head. “And besides, I could smell it too. And if you’re going to ask me if I know why; I told you before, I know all about Sedako.”
“Good... Then you know why it’s important we go find her and bring her here.”
“What?” Bankotsu and Renkotsu said in unison.
“I want to bring her here for Sui.”
“But she’s dead, Jak. And I believe she’s been dead for about four years,” Renkotsu said. “You can’t bring her here as there’s nothing left of her.”
“There’s got to be something there, Ren, some bones or something, anything!”
Renkotsu shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry, Jak, and seriously, there’s nothing left of her but her grave soil and maybe a bone fragment or two if you’re lucky.” Sighing softly at the hopeful look on Jakotsu’s face, he continued, “Besides, her spirit is linked to place she died in.”
“But what if we go there and take her grave soil and any bones we find back with us? And tell her we’re bringing her home to Sui? Won’t she come with us?”
Before Renkotsu could reply, Bankotsu said, “But you don’t even know where she’s buried, Sweetness.”
Jakotsu narrowed his eyes and looked over at the fire-breather. “I bet Sui told you where she is.”
Following the cross-dresser’s gaze, Bankotsu replied, “I’m sorry, Sweetness, even if he did tell Ren, we don’t have time to go looking for her. Winter’s coming and I want to be home where it’s nice and warm and I have plenty to eat instead of worrying about having a roof over my head when it snows, or running around trying to find enough food.”
Renkotsu sighed. “Oo-Aniki, this mission we’re about to pass on, it’s near Sui’s old village. If we go now, what if Jak and I stayed behind just to make sure things are going smoothly when we’re done, but in reality, we’re out looking for Sedako’s resting place. I estimate it shouldn’t take us more than seven days, ten at the most, to get there and back home.” I can’t believe I’m trying to talk him into this.
“And if I say ‘no?’” Bankotsu sat back, arms folded neatly across his chest, while he looked from one subordinate to the other.
Please do, but we all know you won’t... Renkotsu snorted in amusement, while mentally groaning. “If you say ‘no,’ Oo-Aniki, ‘Sweetness’ over there,” he motioned towards Jakotsu with his thumb, “will pester the shit out of you night and day until you say ‘yes.’ Why not save yourself the trouble and just give us the go ahead.” As I have nothing better to do than run around the countryside looking for a long forgotten grave.
“Please, Aniki-chan...” Jakotsu pleaded. He sat there, head tilted to the side, hands resting alongside his chin, trying his best to look as sweet and loving as his nickname suggested. “It’ll make Sui really happy...” You can come too if you want...
Bankotsu looked from his paramour to his second-in-command and back again as he thought it over. As much as he hated to grant Jakotsu’s request as he considered it pure nonsense, he realized Renkotsu was right; the cross-dresser would bother him about it until he got to do what he wanted. “Fine,” the young leader of the Shichinintai said. “I’ll let you two go, but on one condition. You have exactly seven days to complete this ‘mission’ and if you’re not back on time, I will personally take great pleasure in kicking your asses up and down the countryside, understood?”
“Understood, Oo-Aniki.” Damn it! That only gives us a couple of days, three at the moist to find her, before coming home.
“Yup! And thanks, Aniki-chan,” Jakotsu said, resisting the urge to crawl across the table to hug him. Instead, he stood and turned to leave. He got as far as the doorway when he paused. Looking back over his shoulder, he asked, “When are leaving?”
“Soon as I can send word to expect us, and we’re ready,” Renkotsu replied.
“No, you and Ren can’t go early to tell him we’re coming.”
“Oh,” Jakotsu whined disappointedly.
“Yes. And I want you to forget about going to get her until after we’re done. If you get hurt in battle because you’re not paying attention, your little mission’s off; understood?” Bankotsu said.
“Yes,” Jakotsu said as he sauntered out of the room.
“Now where were we?”
“Well, we had originally decided not to go, but now it appears you’ve changed your mind, Oo-Aniki.” Renkotsu chuckled as Bankotsu groaned. Can’t you for once in your life stand up to him and tell him ‘no?’ “Instead of writing up that letter informing the daimyo we aren’t coming, I’ll write one up saying we’ll be there as soon as we can.”
“Please do...” I guess we can forget about those hot springs until next winter...
Renkotsu stood there, making arrangements for the provisions they would need on the little side mission he going on with Jakotsu, as well as securing a plan for them to leave their weapons behind and pick them up when they passed through on their trip home. The cross-dresser, meanwhile, was busy saying good-bye to their comrades.
The fire-breather was having some serious doubts about the wisdom of staying behind and, looking for Sedako’s remains as Suikotsu seemed to slip even deeper into his depression. The claw-bearer had been distracted on the battlefield, almost to the point of not caring whether he made it through the battle alive or not, and he was unusually subdued afterwards. Once again, Renkotsu found himself cursing the circumstances that kept him apart from Suikotsu at a time when the claw-bearer needed him the most.
He looked over his shoulder at his comrades, the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach making him want to give up and go home with the rest of them, when he saw the faintest wisp of a smile light up his lover’s face. Apparently something the cross-dresser had said must have been amusing at Bankotsu’s expense because Jakotsu was now hiding behind the claw-bearer while their young leader silently fumed. He was about to join them when the daimyo’s chief retainer coughed, drawing the fire-breather’s attention back to him.
“I will have your supplies ready within the hour,” the man said. “Your weapons will be stored in the main weapons room and I assure you, no one will touch them while you’re gone. So is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No, and thank you for making the arrangements so quickly,” Renkotsu said as he looked back at him. “The sooner my comrade and I can set out, the sooner we can get home.”
“It must be tiring always being on the move; going from one place to another and fighting. Perhaps you should talk your leader again about the wisdom of settling down here and working for my lord.” Although, reputation or no reputation, you’re crazy for going off on a mission unarmed. Maybe the rumors are true... maybe you really are ninja...or monsters.
“As tempting as that offer sounds at the moment... My leader has his reasons for doing what he does.” Renkotsu shrugged and held his hands out apologetically as the chief retainer chuckled.
“Oh, I know that feeling all too well. But...”
“If my leader should change his mind, I hope your lord will reconsider his generous offer.”
“I’m sure he will...”
“Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, Kaoru-san...?”
“Of course, as I’m sure you’ll want to say good-bye to your comrades and get your last minute orders,” the chief retainer said, dismissing Renkotsu, who headed over to the others. Just don’t let this be a ruse to come back and attack us as revenge for attacking our neighbors...
“Save me, Ren!!” Jakotsu cried. He ran over to the fire-breather and whispered, “Everything ready to go?” The cross-dresser quickly ducked behind the taller man.
“Yeah...” Renkotsu said softly, before reaching around behind himself, and grabbing the cross-dresser, who was trying to hide behind him. “Hey, Oo-Aniki, you looking for this?” he called out to Bankotsu as he pulled Jakotsu forward.
Bankotsu folded his arms across his chest, and affecting an air of indifference, he called out, “Nah! You want him, Ren, you can have him!”
“Hey!!” Jakotsu cried as he freed himself from Renkotsu’s grip. He stormed over to Bankotsu, who pretended to ignore him, before turning and, pouncing on the startled cross-dresser.
As the two of them went down in a tangled heap, Renkotsu walked over to his lover. “Go find a room,” he said to them in passing.
“Good idea!” Jakotsu replied.
“We don’t have time for that, Sweetness.”
“Yes we do!”
“No, we don’t!”
Leaving them to playfully argue, Renkotsu took Suikotsu by the arm and led him away from the others.
“I’m sorry I can’t-”
“Sssh...” Suikotsu said. “There’s no need to apologize. It’s not your fault circumstances keep conspiring to keep us apart.” He sighed softly. “Just promise me you’ll do your best to get home quickly.”
“And, Ren, try not to be too impatient with Jak. He promised me he’d look after you and bring you home safely and I know how that can get on your nerves.”
“It’s okay, I won’t kill him, Sui,” Renkotsu grinned wickedly. “I’ll just make him wish I did.”
“Just kidding; I know how precious that little butterfly is.” The fire-breather chuckled. “Seriously, Sui, we’ll only be gone seven days if all goes as planned. If not...”
“I’d rather not think about ‘if nots,’ Ren. Just do what you can to hurry home, okay?” the claw-bearer said tiredly.
“Anyway, I see Oo-Aniki is standing over there, looking like he’s in big hurry to leave now.” Suikotsu pulled his lover into his arms. He held him close for a couple of heartbeats, before letting him go. “Stay out of trouble and keep yourselves safe. I’ll see you in a week.” The claw-bearer smiled sadly and turned to go.
“Yeah... and you too, Sui. I promise I’ll be home in a week even if I have to blow this place up to get there.”
Hearing the claw-bearer chuckle softly made Renkotsu feel a bit better about remaining behind. This had better work out, Jak, and Sui feels better or I swear I’ll borrow his claws and happily spend the afternoon gutting you! Renkotsu thought as he watched them go. Minutes later he was joined by the cross-dresser.
“Ready to go, Ren?”
“Yeah, although I’d rather be going home.”
“Me too, but Aniki-chan understands why, and Sui will too when we get home.”
“If you say so, Jak...” Renkotsu said wearily. “Come, let’s go get our supplies. I want to be out of here as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we need to remain behind for awhile in case they have double back for some reason or another.” The fire-breather turned to go, not caring if Jakotsu followed him or not.
“Ren, is Sui’s old village really that close by?” Jakotsu hurried to walk alongside him.
“Yeah. And before you ask, I know that because Sui and I passed through here last spring on the way home from another mission. There’s nothing left of the place as most of the people died from a massive epidemic, although, most of the buildings are surprisingly still intact. And the ones that didn’t get sick supposedly fled to another village.”
“I know... Sui told us about it when he first joined up. He didn’t make much sense back then as he kept switching between Scary Sui and the Good Doctor and he’d forget stuff all the time. Then one day In-between Sui woke up and things settled down for him and he’d remember stuff like what we did and we could finally sleep at night and not worry he’d slit our throats.”
“He was that bad?”
“Yeah... But after a while I stopped worrying about that and I even told Aniki-chan not to worry too, but he didn’t listen until In-between Sui woke up and assured him it was okay and that we could trust him. I knew that as Scary Sui told me he’d never hurt us as Aniki-chan was just a child and I looked like someone he knew...” Jakotsu paused.
Renkotsu took a couple of steps before he stopped and turned around. “What’s the matter?”
“When you were gone, Sui told me I was like her.”
“Like who?” Renkotsu asked as he walked over to their supplies. He bent and retrieved the bundle of goods Kaoru had left for them.
“I wish I were, Ren. I don’t know if he told you, and don’t get mad at him if he didn’t cuz he probably doesn’t remember, but Sui kissed me and I could tell he wanted to do much more, but I talked him out of it, Ren! I swear it!” Jakotsu cringed at the look on Renkotsu’s face. “He was drunk off his ass, Ren, and hurting very badly over her death.”
“I know... Damn it! I begged Ban to let me go home but he said he needed me here and that you’d look after Sui so not to worry. Shit!” He put most of the supplies in his wooden backpack, before trying it up and handing it to the cross-dresser.
“I’m sorry; I guess I shouldn’t have said anything, hunh?” Jakotsu took the proffered bundle.
“It’s okay, Jak. I know he was drunk, because the room reeked of sake and he was extremely hungover when he woke up. I’m just mad I couldn’t be there for him. Thanks for taking care of him for me.”
They settled their gear on their backs. Wandering around the main building, they tried to hide in the crowd of servants and retainers in case their comrades returned, while they waited to leave.
“So Sui said you were like his Sedako, hunh?”
“Yeah... He said we’re both sweet and pretty,” Jakotsu said smugly.
Renkotsu snorted in amusement. “He did, hunh?” He started walking, after briefly admiring a metal wind chime, hanging from the eaves, which tinkled musically in the light breeze.
“Yeah!” Jakotsu cried as he hurried after him. “What’s so funny about that?”
“Your smugness about being compared to a woman.”
“Hunh?” Jakotsu frowned.
“You heard me. First, it’s being compared to a woman and you’re not upset, secondly, you’re so eager to find this woman, that I guess Oo-Aniki had better watch out as it looks like you’re the one who’s leaving to go chasing after women now,” the fire-breather teased.
“What?!” Jakotsu sputtered.
Renkotsu rolled his eyes. “I was just kidding, Jak. But it does seem a little odd that you’re so, I don’t know...uh, ‘fascinated’ with Sedako-dono, that’s all.”
Jakotsu pouted as he silently fumed. As much as he hated to admit it, Renkotsu did have a point, he was fascinated with Suikotsu’s deceased wife to the point of becoming obsessed about finding her remains. Although, he told himself that was because it would make his friend feel better. And while no one except Bankotsu and the fire-breather knew what it was he was obsessing over, the others did notice something was up.
“Relax, Jak, your little secret’s safe with me.” Renkotsu grinned.
Jakotsu sighed angrily. Trying to change the subject, he started to say, “So how far away is...” until he realized he did not change it at all.
Chuckling, Renkotsu replied, “About ten ri in the direction of the Ox.” He pointed in a north-northeasterly direction. “I figure if we eat a small lunch and we get going soon afterwards, we can make it there by night fall. Since the place is deserted, it also shouldn’t be too hard for us to find shelter. The trick will be to find something that’s habitable.”
“You think we can find Sui’s house?”
Renkotsu sighed. “This isn’t a sightseeing trip, Jak.” When the cross-dresser’s pouted, he quickly added, “Maybe we can come back here during the summer and we’ll bring Sui with us so he can properly show you around.”
“Yeah!” Jakotsu smiled. “So what’s for lunch?”
“Onigiri. I hope you like salmon, because that’s all they gave me.” Renkotsu handed the cross-dresser a couple of large triangular rice balls.
“I was hoping they had tuna ones as those are my favorites.”
“Sorry, but I had no choice in the matter. Besides, last time you ate tuna you got very sick, remember?”
“But that was different, Ren! That was sushi.”
“That was still bad tuna, Jak.”
Leaving later than they should have, they had passed through a few small villages and just before nightfall the fire-breather and cross-dresser managed to stumble upon a rather large town. They quickly found the marketplace, in the waning sunlight, and walked through it, buying some additional supplies along with a thick padded vest and haori for Jakotsu to wear since Renkotsu was getting tired of hearing him whine about the cold.
As they wandered the merchant stalls, looking for something to eat, Jakotsu paused in front of a nondescript booth full of beautifully carved wooden boxes.
“Come’re, Ren!” Jakotsu called out, beckoning the fire-breather to come over to him with his hand. “Look!” he said happily. “Sedako-dono would love one of these!”
I think you’re the one who’d really love one... Renkotsu thought as he said dryly, “She would, hunh?”
“Oh, yes! They’re the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” The cross-dresser lovingly ran a hand over one of the boxes and sighed.
Renkotsu, picking another one up so that he could have a closer look at it in the remaining light, had to admit the cross-dresser was right. “They are beautiful, but I don’t think Sedako-dono would care what we carried her home in.”
“Yes, she would... and even if she didn’t, Ren, Sui would,” Jakotsu whispered as he picked up one of the boxes.
Renkotsu motioned for the merchant to come over. “How much...?” he asked, pointing to the box Jakotsu held.
“One silver coin and three copper.”
“That’s too much, Chou-chan,” the fire-breather said, calling Jakotsu by his feminine nickname.
Jakotsu, picking up on Renkotsu’s subtle hint to play the coquette, pouted at him, before turning to the merchant. Flashing the man his sunniest smile, he said “Oh... And it’s so pretty too, Anata...” He looked back over at Renkotsu, who had sighed softly in exacerbation when the cross-dresser called him “dear husband.” Pouting again, and looking back at the merchant as if to say, “See what a mean husband I have,” Jakotsu lowered his eyes sadly as he handed the box to merchant.
“What about one silver coin? Surely you can afford that for such a pretty wife?” Both the merchant and Jakotsu eyed the fire-breather expectantly. One less box to pack up and take with me as well as a tidy profit... I’m so glad you wandered over here.
“Well...” Renkotsu hesitated. “We do have a baby on the way to think about, so I don’t know about spending what little we have on such extravagant things. I’m sorry, Chou-chan.”
Jakotsu sighed dramatically as he made a mental note to smack the fire-breather upside the head for making him not only a woman in their little charade, but a pregnant one. “If you say so...” he said sadly, wiping a pretend tear away.
“Alright, three copper coins. Consider the rest my gift to you for when the new baby arrives...” the merchant said, handing the box back to a very happy Jakotsu.
“In the spring,” Renkotsu said as he paid out the three copper coins.
“Your wife looks around the same age as my daughter and she has three fine sons already and another one on the way.”
“She does? You don’t look old enough to be a grandfather,” Jakotsu said sweetly.
“You’re too kind!” The man laughed. “Thank you, and good fortune to you both. May your wife bear you many fine sons!” the merchant cried as Renkotsu gently ushered the cross-dresser away from his stall. Three copper coins. I can’t believe I let you get away so cheaply!
Once they were far enough away, Jakotsu playfully hit Renkotsu on the arm. “Thanks a lot, Ren, for getting me with child! Aniki-chan’s going to kill you when he finds out,” he teased.
“Hey! You brought that on yourself when you ate that bad sushi,” Renkotsu teased back.
Jakotsu giggled. “Well, at least we got Sedako-dono a nice place to stay, no?”
“That we did, and so cheaply too.” Renkotsu chuckled. “Remind me you’re with child when we need a cheap, yet nice place to spend the night.”
“Okay!” Jakotsu giggled again as he clutched the box to his chest.
Night had fallen by the time they had reached the remains of Suikotsu’s old village. The abandoned buildings flickered in the shadows cast by the small traveling lantern Renkotsu held up before them. The place was deathly quiet aside from the faint sounds one would usually hear in a forest at night. With Renkotsu in the lead, the pair made their way through the deserted streets, stopping every so often to look over the more intact houses in the hopes they would make a decent shelter for the night.
“What about this one, Jak?” Renkotsu said patiently, although inwardly he was ready to throttle the picky cross-dresser.
“Ummm... I guess it’s okay. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s still there if you know what I mean...” This place is so creepy I wish I was home, snuggling up with Aniki-chan. It’s cold and it’s too quiet and I feel like nobody’s happy we’re here...
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid.” Renkotsu chuckled.
Jakotsu made a face. “Of course not!” he sputtered. “I just don’t want to be sleeping somewhere and have someone or something pissed off at us cuz we’re there,” the cross-dresser added in what he hoped was a reasonable tone of voice.
“It’s okay to be scared, Jak.” Renkotsu said reassuringly. “And if you are, then how are you going to manage bringing Sedako-dono home? Or hadn’t you thought that far ahead?”
Jakotsu nibbled on a fingernail as he thought it over.
Renkotsu shook his head. And as usual you didn’t bother to think things through... “Come; let’s stay here for the night. It’s the best of the buildings we’ve seen so far and we can talk about what to do with Sedako-dono in the morning,” Renkotsu said as he approached the abandoned house.
The building was small, with one tiny window and its woven bamboo door covering was tattered and frayed. When Renkotsu gently pushed it aside, the bamboo mat broke off and crashed to the floor, but as he held up the lantern, the fire-breather saw the rest of place was fine. It was chilly inside, but at least it was dry and more importantly it was small enough to heat up quickly despite the open doorway. Best of all it was empty, aside from a small table and a broom, and devoid of any signs of life.
Jakotsu, following closely behind, sneezed from the clouds of dust Renkotsu had kicked up as he headed over the fire pit.
“Why don’t you make yourself useful and sweep some of the dust out of here, Jak, while I go find some wood that’s not rotten for a fire.”
“Why do I have to sweep?”
“Well, for one thing, you’ve been complaining non-stop about the cold since the sun went down, and a bit of vigorous activity will warm you up.” The fire-breather started ticking the reasons off on the fingers of his hand. “Secondly, you don’t seem to like this place in the dark so I doubt very much you’ll want to go wandering around looking for firewood. Thirdly-”
“Okay, okay!!” Jakotsu grumbled. “Hey! I just thought of something! How am I supposed to see what I’m doing, if you take the lantern?”
“Fine, I’ll leave you the lantern. The broom’s over there where the lady of the house left it. And, Jak, try to do a good job of it as we’re sleeping here tonight and there aren’t any village girls around to come and clean it for us.”
“Okay...” Jakotsu cupped his chin as he pretended to think something over. “Ummm, Ren... Are you sure I should be working that hard?”
“I said ‘are you sure I should be working that hard,’” Jakotsu repeated. He was smiling sweetly, and Renkotsu could feel the little vein in his forehead starting to throb again.
“I don’t see why not...”
“Well, since I’m with child-” the cross-dresser paused when Renkotsu turned and reached for the lantern. “Oh never mind... It was just a joke, Ren!” He tittered nervously.
“If it is, I’m not laughing.”
“Sorry...” Jakotsu said as he came over to the fire-breather. He held out his hand expectantly, hoping that Renkotsu would hand over the lantern, instead of taking it with him when he left.
The fire-breather pushed past him, hanging the lantern on a rusty wall bracket near the hut’s door. Praying the wood behind it would not catch fire and burn the place down, he said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
While Renkotsu searched for enough wood to heat the small house for the night, Jakotsu set the wooden box down on the table. Picking up the broom, he lazily began sweeping the room. As he swept, the dust swirled up into the air, making him sneeze as well as cough, so that by the time Renkotsu returned he was miserable. The only bright side to the situation was he had forgotten all about being scared.
“Why didn’t you tie your scarf around your nose and mouth before you started?”
“I don’t know...” Jakotsu coughed
Idiot! “Once the fire gets going, I’ll make you some tea and we can each have a rice ball, which leaves us with just enough for tomorrow’s breakfast and then we’re done. Maybe we can do a bit of hunting in the morning just to supplement the dried fish they gave me. Then we can spend the rest of the day looking for Sedako-dono, okay?”
“Yeah...” Jakotsu sighed. He was sitting on the floor, watching intently, as Renkotsu got a fire going in the room’s center cooking pit.
“Now what’s the matter?” Renkotsu asked. He was busy riffling through their supplies for the remaining onigiri.
“I want some nattou...” the cross-dresser whined.
Renkotsu heaved a long suffering sigh. “We don’t have any, Jak. We can look around tomorrow and see if any was left behind, although I don’t know how good it’ll be after all this time.” The fire-breather handed Jakotsu a rice ball, before helping himself to one.
They ate in companionable silence, enjoying the warmth of the fire. While they both would have preferred a nice long soak in the bath to ease their tired and achy muscles, as well as washing away the dirt from their journey, once they had finished eating, they unrolled their bedrolls and went to sleep.
As the cooking fire died down, the room cooled off and several drafts made their presence known. Renkotsu, who had been dressed warmer to begin with, barely noticed as he pulled his blanket tighter around himself. Jakotsu, on the other hand, felt the cold. He started to shiver as he curled up into a ball. A series of soft rustlings nudged him from sleep to partial wakefulness as a feral cat investigated their belongings. When the cat knocked over Renkotsu’s wooden backpack, the resulting crash startled it. As the little grey tabby ran from the house, it jumped on the cross-dresser, scaring him awake.
Jakotsu bolted upright and added his own screams to the cat’s unearthly yowl and seconds later, Renkotsu was also sitting up, heart wildly pounding, as he slowly took in his surroundings.
“What the hell?!” He glared at Jakotsu.
Jakotsu, practically hyperventilating with fear, looked around the room madly, his hands clasped tightly to his chest.
“It’s okay, Jak...Take slow deep breaths...” Renkotsu said softly. “In... and out...” he said, lifting his hand as he inhaled only to drop it as he exhaled, emphasizing his words with movements. “In... and out...”
When he calmed down, Jakotsu found his voice. “Something jumped on me, Ren...” he whispered.
“Yeah...” Jakotsu looked around anxiously. “Do you think the house’s former owners are mad we’re here?”
“No. I think you just had a bad dream,” Renkotsu said as he lay down. “Go back to sleep, Jak, everything’s fine.” The fire-breather rolled over and made himself comfortable.
“I can’t, Ren... Something really jumped on me.”
The fire-breather groaned softly. “Then it must have been an animal of some kind. You know, like a tanuki, or a fox or something. Spirits can’t jump on you, Jak.”
“Yes, Jak. That’s the first thing they teach you at the monastery... now go to sleep. If you want, you can sleep next to me as long as you’re quiet.”
It was all the invitation the cross-dresser needed. With a soft rustle of fabric, he got up and moved over next to Renkotsu. And while the fire-breather fell back to sleep rather quickly, Jakotsu found sleep eluded him for the rest of the night.
Jakotsu had finally nodded off when he felt someone shaking him.
“Wake up, Jak,” Renkotsu said softly.
“Gowaynikichn...” Jakotsu mumbled incoherently. “...Immmtired...”
Renkotsu shook him again. “It’s time to get up. And I’m serious, because if you don’t move soon, when you do finally get up, we’re going home...” the fire-breather paused while he waited for his words to sink in. “Without Sedako-chan,” he added.
Jakotsu groaned. “Okay...” Waking up completely, he yawned and rubbed his face. Cracking open his eyes, the cross-dresser said, “I’m awake.”
“Good. Now sit up and eat your breakfast so we can go.” Renkotsu waited for him to comply. Handing him the last of the rice balls and a cup of tea, the fire-breather sat back and ate his own. “I think this morning we should go into the nearby woods and do a little hunting.” He sipped his tea. “If we can get a couple of rabbits, we should be okay food-wise and have no worries on the trip back.”
“Sounds good to me...” Jakotsu also sipped his tea. “You made green tea? I thought you only drank jasmine.”
Renkotsu shrugged. “While I prefer the taste of jasmine tea, I’m not above drinking anything else.”
“Oh... So after we get some rabbits, can we look for Sedako-dono?”
“Well for one thing, you’ll probably be whining about lunch, and for another, Sedako-dono isn’t going anywhere.”
“Oh...” Jakotsu pouted. “So I guess we should go now, eh?”
“Now why not?”
“Because you haven’t finished your tea and I’d like another cup.”
And here I thought you were in such a big hurry to go... Jakotsu thought as he sat there, sulking.
Sitting up and, brushing the dirt off his kimono, Jakotsu said dryly, “Ren, remind me never to go rabbit hunting with you again... and I mean NEVER.”
“You sure? You seemed to be having the time of your life out there. The only other time I’ve seen you that happy was when Sui told Ban he could drag you out to his hydrangeas for some fun on your birthday.”
Jakotsu laughed as he picked bits of dried leaves and broken twigs out of his hair. “Damn it!” he swore when he notice a large tear in his kimono. “And this was my favorite kimono too...” he trailed off in a strangled cry.
Renkotsu chuckled. “Sorry; but when I said to catch them as they ran past, I didn’t mean you should sit on them.”
“Now you tell me!” Jakotsu giggled. “The lil shits tried to bite me on the ass too!”
“So? I bet it’s not like anyone hasn’t bitten you there before.” Renkotsu laughed.
“Yeah... But no one’s ever done it without asking first.”
“Yeah...” Hiking the back of his kimono, and exposing his bare bottom, Jakotsu asked, “They didn’t; did they?”
“Nope, there’s nothing there except a couple of scratches and what appears to be an old love bite, but I don’t want to know how it got there,” Renkotsu said dryly, “as I’m sure those rabbits had nothing to do with it.”
They laughed as the cross-dresser lower his kimono.
“Need a hand?”
“Nah!” Jakotsu bent over and retrieved the poor squashed rabbits, before handing them to the fire-breather. “So now that we have a couple of rabbits, I think we should go back and make some stew,” Jakotsu said as he climbed out of the dry streambed he had fallen into.
“Sounds like a plan to me, Jak, and a good one at that.”
“Why thank you!” The cross-dresser giggled.
“Don’t mention it...”
After packing everything up and, taking it with them, including the remains of the rabbit stew, the pair set off to explore the deserted village.
“Hey, Ren, do you think that’s Sui’s old house?”
“It might be, but I’m not sure.”
“Oh... I was just wondering cuz the village we found him in was burned to the ground by a passing army and he was out in the open. Besides, he said it wasn’t his...Anyway, I thought he’d have a really nice big house or something...”
“You’re right; he probably did have a big house, because he would have needed the room to treat his patients and Sui said they sometimes stayed with him while they recovered.”
Jakotsu nodded. “So do you want to stay here tonight?”
“Good...” Jakotsu said, looking very relieved. “I like this place; it feels ummm...” The cross-dresser shrugged. “Good.”
“No spirits, hunh?” Renkotsu said dryly.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Renkotsu said as he slid the pot of stew off the broom’s handle.
“Hunh?” Jakotsu blinked in confusion when the fire-breather handed him the broom.
“Well, you did such a good job of sweeping out the other place and I bet you were having such fun doing it too, I thought you’d like to do this room as well.” Renkotsu laughed at the look on the cross-dresser’s face. “Don’t worry; I’ll help you.”
“Thanks. But you know what would really be a big help?”
“You doing it by yourself.”
“That isn’t going to happen, Jak.”
“Didn’t think so...”
“Ren, can I sleep over here, next to you?” Jakotsu asked. He was trying to look as cute and pathetic as possible, a ploy that always worked with Bankotsu when trying to wheedle something out of him. “Please...?”
Renkotsu, however, was not falling for it. “I thought you said this house was okay and there was nothing in it.”
The fire-breather groaned. “If I say ‘no’ you’re just going to bug the shit out of me, right?”
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes.’ But enough is enough, Jak. We’ve passed through numerous deserted villages before and slept on countless numbers of battlefields that were littered with corpses and nothing’s ever bothered you before. So why now?”
“I don’t know....” I think it’s the stillness of this place. When we’re on a battlefield you can always hear the groans of the wounded and dying, and the crows fighting over the carcasses and the horses always make a bit of noise and so do the men who made it through without a scratch...
“Well, this is it. Whatever it is, I want you to get over it and get over it now or else we’re going home without Sedako-dono, understood? And I swear, if you do make me leave here without her, I’ll tell Sui what we planned on doing and why we couldn’t do it.”
“Okay...” Jakotsu said softly. He settled back onto his bed roll and pulled the blanket tightly around him. “Ummm, Ren...?”
“Now what?” the fire-breather said tersely.
“Ummm... what if Sedako-dono doesn’t want to come with us and what if she gives us a hard time about disturbing her?”
Renkotsu sighed. “Jak, we haven’t even found her yet and for all we know she could be very happy to come with us so she could be with Sui again.”
“You think so, Ren?”
“Yeah. Now go to sleep.”
“Okay...” Jakotsu rolled over. “Good night, Ren.”
“Get up, Ren!” Jakotsu said happily. He was kneeling at the sleeping fire-breather’s head, hands on his knees, and he leaned forward to peer intently at Renkotsu.
“No...” Renkotsu rolled over, pulling the blanket close to his face. “Now go away and let me sleep.”
“Come on, Ren! It’s time to go look for Sedako-dono!”
Renkotsu sighed and rolled onto his back again. “I take it you slept well last night?”
“Yup! And I made us some breakfast too.”
“You did?” Renkotsu said, and as Jakotsu sat back on his heels, the fire-breather sat up and stretched.
“Yup! I just took some of the leftover rice we had from last night and mixed it with some tea and the packet of bonito flakes I found at the bottom of my bag.” He patted the furoshiki that he used to carry a few items in. “It’s not bad if I may say so myself!” Jakotsu said smugly as he moved to face the fire-breather.
Renkotsu chuckled. “I’m sure it’s as good as you say.”
“Yeah! Sui made it for me once when I was sick and I didn’t want any kayu and there wasn’t any more nattou.” Jakotsu got up and made a bowl of chazuke for the fire-breather. Bringing it over to him, the cross-dresser handed the bowl to Renkotsu, before going back for their tea.
“Aren’t you going to have any?”
“No, I’ve already eaten mine. So hurry! We need to find Sedako-dono today as we’re running out of time, Ren.”
“I know...” Renkotsu said as he ate his breakfast. “By the way, I noticed a grouping of shrines yesterday when I was looking for firewood. I think that would be a good place to start looking.”
“Yeah?” Jakotsu sipped his tea.
“Uh-hunh...” Renkotsu said as he shoveled his chazuke in.
“Come on! What are you waiting for, Ren? Get up and let’s go!”
Renkotsu set his empty bowl down and sipped his tea. He watched calmly as the cross-dresser reached out and picked up his empty rice bowl. Standing up, Jakotsu hurried over to where he left his own dirty bowl and added it to Renkotsu’s. Grabbing the kettle, the cross-dresser dashed outside, where he presumably gave the bowls a quick cleaning. Just as Renkotsu finished his tea, Jakotsu was back inside.
“You’re not dressed yet?” Jakotsu said as he packed the bowls into Renkotsu’s wooden backpack.
“I’m barely awake, let alone finished with my breakfast, Jak. Even when we’re on a mission, we don’t move that fast.”
The cross-dresser folded his arms and pouted.
“Alright, I’ll hurry. Although, I have to admit I’ve never seen you in such a rush to be with someone, Oo-Aniki included.” Renkotsu chuckled.
Jakotsu rolled his eyes, and the fire-breather could feel the waves of impatience radiating off of him.
Renkotsu finished his tea and threw the cup at the cross-dresser who deftly caught it. “Go rinse that out and I’ll get ready in the meantime,” he said.
Jakotsu smiled. “Okay!” he said as he turned to go do Renkotsu’s bidding.
The fire-breather stretched again, and throwing back his blanket, he crawled off his bedroll, before rolling it up and, securing it to the bottom of his backpack. By the time Jakotsu was back, Renkotsu was tying his bandanna on his head.
“Ready to go?”
“Yeah!” Jakotsu said. “Ren, should we leave our stuff here?”
“Yeah; I think it’ll be safe. I’ll take the shovel...” Renkotsu bent and picked it up. “And you bring the box and we can go looking.”
“Good!” Jakotsu walked over to the low table and picked up the box. “I’m ready to go!”
Renkotsu and Jakotsu quietly walked along the deserted alleyway, between the house they had stayed in last night and its neighbor, and out into the open. The village was starting to wake up, despite the lack of human inhabitants, and they could hear the soft clucking of some feral chickens as they chatted with a flock of sparrows.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“If you’re thinking about dinner, Ren, then yes...” Jakotsu giggled.
The fire-breather grinned. “I was, but let’s leave the chickens until later. First we have a lady to find.”
The two soon found the area with the shrines. What had been an orderly attempt at entombing the dead, soon gave way to chaos as the death toll in the village mounted. Renkotsu was sure a few of them were mass graves due to the large numbers of people who had died during the epidemic that had swept through the village. Hoping and, praying, Sedako was not buried in one of them, Renkotsu trailed along behind the cross-dresser. He would stop every so often to read the name carved into the stone grave markers, moving on when he was certain it was not hers.
“Hey, Ren! Come’re!! I think I found it!!” Jakotsu called out excitedly.
“Yeah?” The fire-breather hurried over to him.
Jakotsu stood before a small stone obelisk. Besides the name inscribed upon it, it had a few butterflies carved into it.
Renkotsu chuckled softly to himself when the cross-dresser, who was illiterate, had stumbled upon the shrine they were looking for, identifying it solely from the butterflies that adorned it.
“Good job, Jak. This is exactly what we’re looking for. You see this...” Renkotsu ran his hand lightly over the inscription. “It says, ‘My beloved wife, Sedako, and our son.’” He brought the shovel down off his shoulder and stuck it as best he could into the frozen ground.
Jakotsu knelt to take a closer look. “It does?”
“Good... Ummm, Ren, shouldn’t you start digging or something?”
“Wait...” Renkotsu held up a hand, curving his thumb inwards, and bowing his head to rest it on his fingertips. Closing his eyes, he softly chanted a short prayer. “Now we can dig her up.”
“What did you say before?” Jakotsu asked.
“It was just a little prayer asking the gods to help her soul find the peace it needs to move on incase it hasn’t already done so.”
“Oh...” Jakotsu nervously nibbled on his thumbnail.
Renkotsu, quirking an eyebrow at the cross-dresser, grabbed the shovel, letting it bite once again into the hard ground. The autumn morning was cold and the ground was covered in a thin layer of frost. It was hard going at first and Renkotsu wondered if it would be better to leave and return in the spring when his efforts started to pay off. Little by little he was able to dig in the ground as Jakotsu stood there, shivering, in the cool morning sun.
“Find anything yet?” Jakotsu asked.
“No... but then she might be lower than I thought...”
“What are you two looking for?” a soft feminine voice asked.
“Did you hear that, Ren?” the cross-dresser squeaked.
Before the fire-breather could reply, the same soft feminine tones said, “Hear what?”
“Nothing...” Jakotsu swallowed nervously.
Renkotsu paused his shoveling and looked up. “Forgive us, Sedako-dono.”
“Sedako-dono?” Jakotsu whispered as he turned towards the sound of her voice.
“Yes...? How do you know me?” The spirit of the long deceased woman eyed them expectantly.
Renkotsu smiled, pleased that his sketches, which he had done of her from Suikotsu’s descriptions, were accurate. Even in the disarray of labor and childbirth, she was still very beautiful, although the fire-breather realized with a sharp pang, she appeared to have been little older than Jakotsu when she died. Even more heart wrenching, was the realization that the bundle of cloth she held was probably their child.
“We know your husband, Sui!” Jakotsu said as if that explained everything.
“Sui...?” A puzzled frown settled over Sedako’s features before it dawned on her. “Oh...You mean Suiichi.” A smile lit up her face. “Where is he? Is he here with you? I miss him so much...”
“He’s fine and he misses you too,” Renkotsu said. “But I’m sorry; he couldn’t come here with us.”
“Yeah... But he’s living with us now,” Jakotsu added.
“And we want to bring you to him, so that you can be together...” Jakotsu said.
“Thank you. You’re very kind to take in my husband and look after him,” Sedako said softly. “Tell me, how is my Suiichi? He used to come and see me, but it’s been so long now that I’m worried about him. Please tell me he’s not ill or that he got caught up in the wars...”
“Sui was sick for awhile...” Jakotsu said vaguely.
“Yeah, but he’s a bit better now,” Renkotsu added.
Sedako nodded. “He fell ill helping someone...?”
“Yeah...” the fire-breather said sadly.
She smiled. “My Suiichi would think nothing of helping someone who was hurt or sick,” Sedako said proudly. Looking away sadly, she said, “I know he wanted to help me, but the midwife made him wait outside. I begged her to let him in, but she said it wasn’t proper for him to be here until after the baby was born... and by then it was too late. I could feel my life ebbing away...” She wiped away a tear with her sleeve. “I wanted to be strong and stay with him... but I was so tired.” Sedako sighed wearily.
“I know, it’s hard having a baby,” Jakotsu said.
“Yes, it is. If you don’t mind me asking, Onee-san, do you have children?”
“Eh?” Jakotsu blinked in surprise.
“Jakotsu doesn’t have any children, Sedako-dono. Or at least I don’t think he does,” Renkotsu teased.
“I most certainly don’t!” the cross-dressed huffed. “I can’t believe you’d say that, Ren!”
Sedako frowned as she looked from one to the other. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand...”
“No, I should apologize, Sedako-dono. Sui has told me so about you that I feel as though we are old friends.” Renkotsu smiled. “So let’s start over. This delicate little flower is Jakotsu.” Renkotsu pulled the cross-dresser towards him. “It’s easy to get confused around him as Jak likes to dress and act like a woman,” the fire-breather said as he rolled his eyes at Jakotsu, who glared at him.
“So?” Jakotsu folded his arms into his sleeves and pouted.
“Well, seeing as you don’t like women with the possible exception of you, Sedako-dono,” Renkotsu said calmly, “it is rather confusing when you think about it,” he finished dryly.
Jakotsu made a little sound of annoyance. “Ren, I told you more times than I can remember that I dress this way because I always did when I was little and besides, I like it.”
Sedako laughed into her sleeve, forestalling their argument. “If I may ask, was your father wishing for a daughter, Jakotsu-san?”
Jakotsu sighed. “I wish I knew, Sedako-dono, but I have no idea who my father was...”
“Oh... I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay; I did fine on my own without him.”
“I see...” she said politely.
Renkotsu coughed. “Yeah... And I’m called Renkotsu.”
“Renkotsu? Forgive me for being so familiar, Renkotsu-san, but your names are so similar. Are you two brothers?”
“You could say that.” The fire-breather glared briefly at the cross-dresser who was about to say something.
Sedako nodded. “You are brothers born of experience.”
“Sui, is our brother too and he also let’s me call him ‘Chichi-ue’ cuz he once said I should have one.”
“That also sounds like something my Suiichi would do. The orphaned children who lived with Baba-chan also called him that.” She smiled at the memory. “I can see you must be very good friends with him, but I don’t think I can come with you,” Sedako said sadly.
“We thought if we could maybe find your bones and took some grave soil with us...” Jakotsu started.
“You’d come back with us,” Renkotsu finished.
Sedako looked away as if thinking it over. “Do you think such a thing is possible?” she asked, the hope she grasped at clearly heard in her voice.
“Honestly, I have no idea, Sedako-dono. But we’re willing to try, right, Jak?”
“Yup! It has to work, Ren, or else Sui will always be sad in the fall...”
“My Suiichi is sad...?”
Renkotsu nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry, Sedako-dono, but your husband misses you so much, that he longs for you and regrets your passing very much this time of year.”
Sedako cried softly. “That is because I died as the weather turned and the flowers faded...”
“Don’t cry, Sedako-dono! We promise to bring you home! Look! I got you this pretty box to sleep in. And you can even use my scarf to wrap yourself up in. Ren?!”
“Don’t look at me; you’re the one who made her cry, Jak.”
“But, ummm... but!!”
“Forgive me for upsetting you, Jakotsu-san. I’m not sad, I’m crying because I’m happy. Happy that my Suiichi has such kind friends who would do this for him...”
“Yes...?” The fire-breather smiled and he was about to say more when he was interrupted by Jakotsu.
“Well, what are you waiting for, Ren? You heard Sedako-dono. Start digging!”
Renkotsu heaved a long suffering sigh. “Uh, Jak, who died and left you in charge? If you don’t mind me asking,” Renkotsu said dryly.
“She did, why?” Jakotsu beamed happily as Sedako tried to contain her laughter.
“Never mind...” the fire-breather replied as he rubbed the little vein that was throbbing again in his forehead, before he resumed digging.
“Find anything yet, Ren?”
“She’s got to be there, no?”
“Jak...” the fire-breather growled. “If you don’t stop bothering me, I’m going to stop and hit you with this shovel before I sit back and watch you try digging. It’s slow going as the ground is hard as a rock because it’s frozen. In case you hadn’t noticed winter’s coming. Better yet, sit down and shut up or I’ll see to it that you join Sedako-dono in the afterlife.” He held up a hand, forestalling the cross-dresser’s protests. “And don’t worry; I’ll take my chances with Oo-Aniki and Sui. Understood?”
It wasn’t long before Renkotsu found what they were looking for. Mixed in with the frozen dirt, the fire-breather had loosened, was a broken skull. The jaw bone was missing and, after digging carefully, he found one of the bones in her arm. Renkotsu also found a couple of tiny bone fragments that he assumed were the remains of her son.
“Look, Sedako-dono! Ren found you!” the cross-dresser said excitedly. However when he turned around, their ghostly companion was gone. “Where’d she go, Ren?”
“I don’t know. Just give me the box so I can put her inside and we can go,” Renkotsu said impatiently.
After casting one more look over his shoulder, Jakotsu handed over the lower half of the box.
The fire-breather carefully placed the bones in the box along with some grave soil and a fragment of muddied textile he also found. He climbed up out of the knee-deep hole and started filling it in with the dirt he had removed. Fifteen minutes later, the pair was on their way back to the house they had stayed in the night before.
“Do you think Sedako-dono is mad at us?”
“Well, she hasn’t come back since we dug her up this morning...”
“I was just wondering...”
“Quit wondering and go to sleep, Jak. Even if she doesn’t follow us back, at least a part of her’ll be there at home with us, which’ll make Sui happy.”
“Okay. Good night, Ren...” the cross-dresser said as he rolled over onto to his side.
“‘Night, Jak,” Renkotsu said as he followed suit.
“Good night, Sedako-dono,” Jakotsu said softly
“Good night, gentlemen...”
They were halfway home when they came upon the small the village they had stayed in on their way to the daimyo’s. Renkotsu breathed a sigh of relief as he was tired of listening to the cross-dresser’s whining about sleeping in the open since they left daimyo’s. At least this time, they had more provisions with them so food was not a problem. Unfortunately the weather was, although there was nothing they could do about the light snow that blew around them.
“Happy now?” Renkotsu asked sarcastically, although his sarcasm was lost on the cross-dresser.
“Yup!” Jakotsu said through chattering teeth. “Maybe we can stay here until it finishes snowing. If we send word to Aniki-chan, he won’t be mad if we’re late.”
“As nice as that sounds, I don’t think we’re going to stay longer than the night.”
“Well, some idiot left the messenger pigeons at home saying we didn’t need any since we were all going,” Renkotsu said pointedly.
“Oh yeah...” The cross-dresser laughed nervously. “Well, it’s a good thing that I did, or else Kyo would’ve eaten them.”
“No he wouldn’t, Jak. He’s not that stupid.”
“But he ate my cat!”
“Are you sure Oo-Aniki didn’t feed him to Kyo?” the fire-breather teased as he quirked an eyebrow at the cross-dresser.
“Yes, I’m sure! Aniki-chan would never do that! Besides, he yelled at Kyo for eating Toraneko-san!”
“If you say so...”
“I do! Uh, Ren...?” The cross-dresser halted in his tracks.
“What?” He also stopped walking.
“Do you think Baby’s okay?”
Renkotsu nodded when he heard Suikotsu’s disapproving voice in his head, telling him to stop teasing Jakotsu before Oo-Aniki got involved. “Oo-Aniki paid that girl to watch over him and besides, they’ve been back for a week by now, so Oo-Aniki’s probably been lavishing attention on him, so that Baby won’t miss you...” It was all the fire-breather could do not to roll his eyes.
“Oh good. I was worried about him.” The cross-dresser sighed in relief. “Look, Ren! There’s the inn we stayed at on our way here!”
“Well, so it is. Come; let’s get a room for a night. If we go to sleep early we can get up that much earlier tomorrow and be on our way,”
Jakotsu smiled. “Hear that, Sedako-dono? We’re almost home! It won’t be long before you can see Sui again!” He hugged the wooden box.
Renkotsu looked at him and shook his head. “That explains everything.”
“Why you go around killing all the women we come across on a mission. “
“Hunh?” The cross-dresser looked at him like he had three heads. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“You like dead ones,” Renkotsu deadpanned.
The fire-breather chuckled at the look on his fellow team member’s face. “Come; let’s go get a room for the night.” And ignoring the angry cross-dresser, he headed towards the inn.
Renkotsu got up and headed for the door. “Come on, Jak, I’m getting hungry. I want to go get something for dinner already,” he said.
““I’ll meet you there.” Jakotsu sat, admiring his reflection in a small hand mirror. He had had just put on more lips rouge and now he was busy cleaning the excess off his teeth.
“Fine, but don’t take too long.”
“Okay...” he said airily as he waved Renkotsu away.
He heard the sound of a shoji being opened and closed, signaling the fire-breather’s departure. Setting the mirror down, Jakotsu looked over at the box that held Sedako’s remains. While they had not seen her since they had left her village and final resting place, Jakotsu was sure she was still with them, or at least he had hoped so. His fellow team member seemed not to care either way since they did manage to complete their objective.
Thinking back, each time Suikotsu had mentioned her or how much Jakotsu reminded him of her, it had piqued his curiosity. And when he was being honest with himself, he admitted he was jealous of the woman who had once held his friend’s heart. That led to thoughts about whether or not Suikotsu actually liked him or the memories he conjured up for him. Sighing peevishly as he stared at the box that held Sedako’s remains, Jakotsu stood up to leave. He gave the box one last glare, before he started to walk away, only to return and pick it so that he could bring it with him.
Despite the chill that radiated off the box, Jakotsu clutched it tightly to his chest like it contained the most precious of treasures. He made his way swiftly to the large room in the front of inn that was used as a dining room. It was lined with rows of low tables and floor cushions, and a large fire pit at one end served to warm the room as well as provide the inn’s inhabitants with a hot meal. The dining room was relatively empty as winter was approaching and no one really passed through the area during the colder months, except the ubiquitous traveling monks and a couple of merchants on their way home after selling their goods in the market. A few samurai sat in the far corner, drinking more than they ate.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim interior, Jakotsu searched the area for signs of Renkotsu, nodding and, smiling pleasantly at the samurai who called out to him as he passed. Spotting the fire-breather sitting off by himself, he hurried over to him and sat down.
“About time you showed up,” Renkotsu said between bites.
Jakotsu shrugged and set the box on the table between them. “I just wanted to make myself look pretty for you.” He giggled.
“Jak, you can’t put that there!” the fire-breather hissed.
“Why not?” The cross-dresser blinked expectantly at him.
Renkotsu could feel the vein over his left eye throbbing in time with his twitching eyebrow. “Because you can’t! That’s why! If anyone finds out what you have in there, there’s going to be trouble like you’ve never seen before! Even bringing her into our room is asking for it!” Renkotsu hissed as he glared at Jakotsu. “You’ve not only polluted our room, but you’ve polluted the dining area as well!” Idiot!!
“Oh...” the cross-dresser said softly when it hit him.
“Oh? That’s all you have to say for yourself?” the fire-breather said incredulously.
Jakotsu nodded. “Yeah... I was ummm... afraid to leave her alone...” he trailed off helplessly.
“You’re kidding. She’s already dead, Jak, nothing worse could happen to her.”
“I know... I was more afraid someone would steal her.”
Renkotsu rubbed his forehead with one hand tiredly to keep from throttling the cross-dresser. “Jak, who in their right mind, besides us, would rob a grave and carry the bones around with us?” he somehow managed to ask calmly.
“I don’t know... but I didn’t want to chance it. She is in a rather pretty box,” the cross-dresser replied as if that explained everything.
Renkotsu simply stared at him for several long tense minutes. Shaking his head and, shoveling the rest of his food in his mouth, he said between bites, “Go get something to eat and hurry up.”
“Okay. You’ll watch her for me, okay?” The cross-dresser stood up to leave.
“Yeah, now go.”
“Thanks.” Jakotsu walked away, heading towards the far end of the room where they served the food. Minutes later, he was back with a bowl of rice and a grilled fish on a stick.
Jakotsu ate daintily, seemingly unconcerned about the box on the table before him and its contents. Renkotsu still marveled at his ability to tune everything out but the task at hand, despite having seen Jakotsu eat several times right after a particularly hard won battle amid stench of the corpses. So he guessed a few bones in an ornate box were no big deal to him.
“I’m finished,” the cross-dresser said with a smile. Do you want the rest of my fish, Ren?”
“Err... no... Let’s go.”
The cross-dresser followed his teammate back to their room, walking a few paces behind him, while he lovingly stroked the wooden box. “I hope you’re not mad at Ren, Sedako-dono. He likes to be a pain in the arse about stuff. If Sui was here, he’d have yelled at him for it,” he murmured softly.
“What did you say, Jak?” Renkotsu called out over his shoulder at the cross-dresser.
“Nothing. I was just telling Sedako-dono we’d be home tomorrow night,” Jakotsu lied.
The fire-breather sighed. “Oh. Anyway, I think we should have a quick bath and then go to bed. That way we’ll sleep better and we’ll be able to get up early with no problems. I want to make it home by nightfall.”
“Okay. Why don’t you go first? That way you can watch Sedako-dono while I’m gone.”
“Sounds like a plan to me, but I think it’s better if you go first. And I’ll settle our debt on the way to the bathhouse and make arrangements for some onigiri to be sent to our room tonight.”
Jakotsu nodded. He had caught up to Renkotsu and was waiting patiently for him to slide open the shoji to their room.
The fire-breather did so. “After you,” he said, stepping aside to let the cross-dresser enter.
Later that night, Jakotsu tossed and turned in his futon, waking Renkotsu when he cried out in his sleep. The fire-breather reluctantly crawled out of his futon to see what was wrong. “Jak, wake up!” He gently shook the cross-dresser. “Jak!”
Jakotsu thrashed about in his sleep for a few minutes, before he want still. Opening his eyes slowly, he looked up at the fire-breather bleary-eyed and said, “Is it time to leave, Renkotsu-san....?”
Renkotsu-san? Renkotsu frowned. “No... You were just having a bad dream and you woke me.”
“Forgive me...” Jakotsu said softly, leaving the fire-breather to wonder if he was dreaming about his days in the bathhouse.
Renkotsu placed a hand on the cross-dresser’s forehead. “You’re not feverish which is good,” he said to himself. “Just go back to sleep. ‘Night, Jak.”
“Sleep well, Renkotsu-san...”
“Yeah, you too...”
The closer they got to home, the more worried Renkotsu became. Jakotsu’s behavior grew more feminine than was normal which was totally unlike him, unless he was ordered to pretend to be a woman for the sake of their mission or getting back at their leader for some imagined fault by flirting with any man he happened to see. And what was even stranger was the fact that he was far from being his usual flirtatious self. This new Jakotsu was demure and lady-like to a fault. Plus he also appeared to have no idea of where they were going. As Renkotsu helped him over a fallen sapling, he found himself longing for the old Jakotsu, who would be leading the way and, demanding how much longer it would take to get home.
“Jak, is everything okay?”
“You sure?” the fire-breather asked, quirking an eyebrow at him.
Jakotsu merely nodded in reply.
Mentally shrugging, Renkotsu had no choice other than to continue and pray his fellow teammate would wait until they got home before getting sick
As they entered the main courtyard of home, Renkotsu called out in greeting. He glanced over at the silent cross-dresser, his suspicions slowly being confirmed. Jakotsu stood there, wide-eyed, as he looked around at what should have been familiar surroundings. He barely paid attention to their approaching leader not that Bankotsu noticed as he was happy to have them back.
“Uh, Oo-Aniki,” Renkotsu started to say as the young leader of the Shichinintai brushed past him to pull his paramour in a warm embrace.
“Sweetness!!” Bankotsu lifted the startled Jakotsu off his feet. “Miss me?” He grinned wickedly at him.
“Uh...” the flustered cross-dresser said helplessly.
“Oo-Aniki, put him down, that’s not Jak,” Renkotsu said. “It appears our mission was a success of sorts.”
“Hunh?” Bankotsu frowned as he set his paramour down and turned to his second in command. “What bullshit is this?”
“No bullshit, I think Jak’s graciously allowed Sedako-dono to uh... borrow him for a little bit.” I hope it’s a little bit, or else there’s going to be trouble...
Before Bankotsu could say anything else, things got even more complicated when Suikotsu rounded the corner of the veranda, heading their way.
“Anata...” Jakotsu said softly. His eyes welling up with tears, he demurely hurried over to claw-bearer.
“Hey, Jak. Welcome home, Ren,” Suikotsu said as he approached.
Meeting Suikotsu halfway, the cross-dresser, abandoning convention, threw his arms around him. “Suiichi...” he murmured softly into his neck. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“Jak?” the puzzled claw-bearer said. He gently removed the cross-dresser’s arms from around his neck and pulled away from him. “Are you okay?”
“He’s fine, Sui,” Renkotsu said. “Our little mission, which was all Jak’s idea, was to bring to bring Sedako-dono here to rest among the flowers in your garden. It, ummm... seems to have gone awry.”
Suikotsu stared at them. “What do you mean?”
“Jak seems to have... uh, how can I put this delicately...?” the fire-breather said, rubbing a finger under his lower lip to gather his thoughts. “He apparently decided to let Sedako-dono move in with him and she seems to like the accommodations...”
“Oh hell...” Suikotsu and Bankotsu said in unison.
“I’m afraid so.” Renkotsu sighed. “If I had realized it sooner, I might have been able to avoid this, but then again maybe she simply wants to say ‘hello’ and then she’ll leave.”
The claw-bearer nodded, a slight frown creasing his forehead. “You have to go, my love,” he said, gently cupping Jakotsu’s cheek.
“Anata...” the cross-dresser said softly. He lifted a hand to cover Suikotsu’s as it rested against his cheek. “Don’t you love me any more...?” He started to cry.
“I do, very much so, but I also love Jakotsu and Renkotsu and Oo-Aniki and the others who’ve taken me in made a family for me. Please don’t cry, Sedako-chan, you know you can’t stay.”
“But I want to be with you again... I’ve missed you so much, Suiichi.”
“I know...” Suikotsu pulled away from him, and taking a few steps back, he rubbed his temples tiredly. “No...”
/They mock us with their hurtful nonsense! a vicious voice hissed in his head. Let’s gut the lil bastard and teach him what pain really is. How dare he pretend to be our Sedako-chan!!
NO! I won’t hurt him! /The claw-bearer sank to his knees, clutching his head, as he fought to hold onto his tenuous control of his sanity.
/Yes!! Look at him!! And I bet the other put him up to it! Sneaky lying conniving bastards!! They worm your way into your heart because you’re weak like he is!!
I’m not!! And I can’t! They are my friends, my family.../
Growling, Suikotsu rose to his feet and looked around wildly. Moving suddenly, he lunged towards Jakotsu and grabbed him by the neck. He glared at him, his fingers digging into the soft flesh of the cross-dresser’s neck, choking him, as he struggled to regain control over his more violent side.
/Let’s snap his neck since we can’t gut him!! He doesn’t deserve to live for his mockery!!
Jakotsu gasped for breath, wild-eyed with panic as he tried pulling the claw-bearer’s hands away, and failing miserably.
Bankotsu watched in horror, unable to do anything for fear of doing something that would cause the claw-bearer to hurt his paramour more than he was, while thanking the gods that Suikotsu did not have his claws with him.
Renkotsu slowly unhooked his flask from his obi. The hollow gourd contained nothing more than cheap sake, but at least it was flammable. He brought it up slowly to his lips, looking for an opportunity to spit some fire as a diversion, when Suikotsu abruptly let go of Jakotsu and sank to his knees, crying.
Surprisingly, the good doctor was the one who had gained control and it was a simple matter to carry them both inside.
Several tense days passed as Suikotsu’s in-between personality surfaced again while Sedako’s hold on the cross-dresser strengthened. As a result, Jakotsu spent his time in the claw-bearer’s company, much to Bankotsu’s chagrin. Even Renkotsu felt like an intruder in their presence and he discretely moved out of the room he shared with the claw-bearer.
The fire-breather spent the time alone in his new room, working on plans for a new a weapon design to distract himself from the situation. When he was not there, he took refuge in his workshop, hammering out his frustrations on the cold hard metal he shaped. While he did not miss the physical aspects of his relationship with Suikotsu, he missed their friendship dearly. As he hammered the iron bar on his forge he found himself strangely sympathizing with their leader.
Bankotsu, on the other hand, seemed lost without his paramour. Nothing he did filled the loneliness in his heart and he spent his days moping around. The sake he drank somehow tasted flat without Jakotsu’s company and not even a good workout with Banryuu could lift his spirits.
None of that was lost on Suikotsu. He felt terrible, lying in his futon at night, with Jakotsu snuggled up against him. And even though he kept things as platonic as he could between them, he felt as though he was cheating on Renkotsu with the cross-dresser. And whenever they came across Bankotsu, the hurt in his leader’s eyes made him cringe in embarrassment. It finally reached a point where he could no longer stand it. He glanced at the box that held Sedako’s remains, where it sat on his low work table. Sighing softly to himself, he took a minute to compose himself, before walking over to Jakotsu, who was standing in the open doorway, watching the sparrows eat the last of berries on the aoki bush that grew in the courtyard. .
“Sedako-chan?” he said softly, hating himself for having to call his friend by her name.
“Yes?” He turned to face him.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t stay here any longer,” Suikotsu said. He reached out, gently pushing the hair out of Jakotsu’s eyes.
“Why not?” The cross-dresser drew his haori tighter around him, shivering as a cool breeze blew in the room.
“Because.” The claw-bearer sighed. “Because it isn’t right, and while I still love you very much, it’s not the same. I look at you and I see my friend, Jakotsu. And when I look at Oo-Aniki, I see someone who’s sad and mourning a loss he shouldn’t be mourning.”
“Oh...” Jakotsu’s eyes welled up with tears.
“And Oo-Aniki and Jak love each other the way we once did and you’re hurting them both by being here.”
“But, I miss you so much...”
“I know...” He gently enfolded Jakotsu in his arms. “And I miss being with Ren,” he said softly.
“I miss Ren.” Suikotsu pulled back to look the cross-dresser in the eye. “While I can never replace you in my heart, Sedako-chan, Ren is there too.”
“Yes... Haven’t you noticed that there aren’t any women around here?”
“It’s not because no one wants them here, it more because ours is a dangerous life and because of that, we’ve grown close to each other.”
“The way men do in the army?”
“I see... I remember hearing stories told in the marketplace, but I didn’t know they were true. But that doesn’t mean I can’t stay and you can’t, ummm...” Jakotsu trailed off helplessly, a delicate blush spilling across his cheeks.
“But you can’t stay, Sedako-chan, and you know it. Besides, now that you’re here, we’ll be able to spend time together.”
“Yeah... I have a garden that I know you’d love and we can lay you to rest there. Plus I spend a lot of time there and I planted hydrangeas in your memory. And you still live on in my heart.”
The cross-dresser nodded wordlessly.
“I love you so much, dear husband.”
“I know and I love you too, my darling. Besides, one day we’ll be together again.”
Wiping his tears away, Jakotsu stood on his tip toes. Leaning in, he kissed Suikotsu good-bye. Taking a step back, he sighed, before his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed.
The next day, Sedako’s remains were laid to rest near the hydrangeas she had loved. Despite the cold rain, they assembled for the claw-bearer’s sake, even the cross-dresser, who had woken up with a horrible headache, somehow managed to drag himself out of his futon to attend. Several prayers later, they dispersed to go about their own affairs, leaving the claw-bearer alone with Renkotsu.
“Why don’t you go, Ren, I know how much you hate the rain.”
“You sure, Sui?”
“Yeah. I want to be alone with her for a few minutes.”
“And then I’d better go check on Jak, he didn’t look so good this morning.”
Renkotsu nodded. “Yeah, Ban said he needed to talk to you about it. He told me Jak woke up with a headache that was so bad, he wanted to die.” At the claw-bearer’s troubled look, he added, “I think it’s just an after effect of the possession. I’m pretty sure Jak was torn between wanting to fight like hell to get her out of there and holding back for your sake.”
Renkotsu nodded and clasped him on the shoulder. “I can meet you there if you want.”
“Here, drink this, Jak, and you’ll feel better,” Suikotsu said, handing him a cup.
The cross-dresser eyed the steaming contents dubiously, before drinking the bitter brew in one gulp. “GAGH!” he sputtered. “What is that shit, Sui?”
“A hangover cure,” Suikotsu said with a grin. “But one for a severe hangover, like the kind you would get if you drank half a barrel of sake by yourself. It’s just willow bark tea that I didn’t add any honey to it.”
Jakotsu made a face.
“I’m sorry; Jak, but I didn’t have any. It’s too cold and wet to disturb the bees.”
The cross-dresser closed his eyes and gave him a slight nod.
“You want to lie down, Sweetness? I can help you.”
“It’s okay, Aniki-chan. I think I’d better sit up as I feel sick.” Jakotsu covered his mouth daintily with his hand.
“You want me to get you a bucket?”
The cross-dresser waved his lover away.
“Jak?” Renkotsu finally spoke up.
“I was wondering what it was like to live with a woman,” the fire-breather smirked.
“It was horrible! Sorry, Sui, but she wouldn’t listen to a word I said!”
Renkotsu snorted in amusement.
“What?!” the cross-dresser demanded, his headache and nausea momentarily forgotten.
“Sounds like a typical day for you,” the fire-breather replied. “Or rather us... You generally don’t listen to a thing anyone says either.”
Bankotsu grinned. “He’s got you there, Sweetness, but then it’s part of your charms,” he said, hoping to mollify his paramour.
Jakotsu stuffed his arms in his sleeves, folding them neatly across his chest, and looking away, as he silently huffed.
“They’re just teasing you, Jak. And I’m glad you put with her so that I was able to be with my Sedako-chan, one last time. Thank you.”
Smiling sweetly, Jakotsu said, “You’re welcome, although, I’d rather not do it again, Sui...”
“Fair enough, Jak. Besides, I wouldn’t expect you to.” The claw-bearer stood up to leave. “Anyhow, we’d better go so you can get some rest. If your headache’s not any better let me know.”
“Okay... Bye, Sui.”
“Bye, Jak, Oo-Aniki.”
“I’ll come get you if there’re any problems, Sui.”
The claw-bearer nodded as Renkotsu stood up.
“Later...” he said as he left with his lover.
“You know what would make me feel better?”
“You coming over here and lying with me.” Jakotsu smiled shyly.
“Okay!” his lover said as he moved to comply.
Snuggled happily in Bankotsu’s arms, Jakotsu sighed softly. He was glad that the whole adventure was over and as he lay there, he wondered if he should mention to Renkotsu what Sedako had told him that would make Suikotsu happy in the futon. Then again, he reasoned, Sui would probably get mad at me and Ren probably wouldn’t believe me either...
Suikotsu knelt at the base of the hydrangea, carefully weeding around its roots. The work was mindless but it needed to be done and besides, it gave him a chance to be alone with her. They had buried his late wife’s remains nearby, the spot marked by a butterfly Renkotsu had forged out of iron. He smiled in her direction, knowing that she would have loved this place had she still been alive.
A faint breeze blew, ruffling his hair against his cheek in a soft caress. The claw-bearer sighed and went back to his weeding. He briefly closed his eyes, imagining she was there. He thought he could hear her faint girlish laughter and was about to dismiss it as nonsense, when he opened his eyes and saw familiar pair of feet. Looking up, he saw the cross-dresser smiling at him.
“Hey, Sui!” He giggled. “Whatchya doin’?”
“Weeding... What are you up to, Jak?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to see the hydrangeas. Yours are blooming already and they’re pretty.”
“Yours’ll bloom too. Maybe if you weeded a bit more often, they would grow better.”
“Yeah...” The cross-dresser laughed sheepishly.
“I’m serious, Jak,” Suikotsu gently chided.
“I know...” He smiled sweetly until his attention was drawn by a bit of fluttering white. “Look, it’s a butterfly!” he cried as he knelt next to his friend.
“I see. Sedako-chan loved them as much as you do.”
“Yeah...?” Jakotsu said softly, a touch of sadness tingeing his voice.
Suikotsu nodded. “Jak, I hope you don’t think I’m comparing you to her, because I’m not. Nor do I wish she was here instead of you. You’re both simply two different people I feel privileged to know.”
Jakotsu looked back at him and smiled shyly when the claw-bearer nodded. “Thanks, Sui.” He impulsively reached out, hugging his friend.
“You’re welcome. Now if you really want to be useful, I’ve got a garden to weed.” Suikotsu eyes twinkled with amusement at the look on Jakotsu’s face.
“Sure, Sui... So what am I supposed do again...?”
“Here, pull anything that looks like this and put it in the basket.”