First they had to wait for Shichiroji and the others to arrive. That would take a day or two. Then another day to go through the Shikimoribito caverns. After that, it was only a few more days in a straight shot across the desert to Kanna, and the Capital.
By his calculations, Kambei had less than a week to live.
He probably shouldn't waste so much of his remaining life sleeping. He must have spent two hours lying here, tossing and turning. It didn't help that he hadn't yet managed to keep his eyes closed.
He tried again—and when he did, the hallucination started. Again.
He opened his eyes, but it didn't do any good. The vision of Gorobei had already reformed, and it didn't go away, even when he tried blinking rapidly, which succeeded only in making him dizzy while lying down. The dizziness wasn't helped by the fact that Gorobei hadn't wavered in his vision one bit.
"What?" Maybe humoring Gorobei would be a good idea, especially because Kambei wasn't entirely certain he was a hallucination anymore.
"Thinking of joining me, are you?"
He didn't answer that. First, because it didn't exactly seem right to admit it aloud—in fact, after reprimanding Katsushiro for valuing death too highly, it would be downright hypocritical—and second, because he didn't want to admit it to Gorobei, who looked strangely smug as a ghost.
"Don't be so morose, old friend, I'm not here to judge!" Gorobei said something else, but Kambei didn't really hear it because he was pondering whether 'old friend' was meant as an endearment—if so, strange, because he hadn't known Gorobei for that long—or if 'old' was meant as a descriptive adjective, which would just feel insulting. He really was tired, and it didn't seem fair that a friend had come back from the grave just to pester him. More than unfair, it was almost cruel. It didn't seem like Gorobei at all.
Then he heard a name mentioned.
"What? What about him?"
The room echoed with a ghostly laugh. "You, my friend, have unfinished business. And, by your calculations, only a week or so to finish it."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You've got to be kidding me! I'm dead, not blind—and you never were exactly subtle." Gorobei's dark face split in a predatory grin. "'I want him'? Come on!"
"I didn't mean it that way," he protested weakly.
"And what did you mean when you said 'I'm in love'?"
"With his skills!"
"Certainly, you said that—after he threw you across the room. I know a recovery when I see one." He added something under his not-breath that sounded like I've made a few myself with…nevermind. "And then there was that caress-thing you gave his wrist before letting him go when your battle was finished."
"Um…" Truth be told, he couldn't exactly remember why he did that. It might have been a way of saying 'stay put', meaning he didn't want Kyuzo to suddenly take a swing at him as soon as his back was returned…or maybe he really did expect to be cut down as soon as he looked away, and wanted to make the most of the time he had left…in any event, it had seemed like a natural thing to do at the time.
"Face it, friend. You're in love."
"I'm incapable of love!" he sputtered. "My heart withered and died long ago!"
"All right, maybe not love." Gorobei rolled his eyes. "Excuse me for being delicate about the matter!"
Kambei's face heated to a temperature it hadn't reached since adolescence. "I…don't…"
"Uh-huh. You're not fooling anybody, you know. Except maybe the water priestess," he added, "but then she's fooling herself anyway."
"All right. So maybe I am in denial…about that. Then what do you propose I do?"
"You can't expect me to draw you a diagram! I'm trying to be delicate here!"
If Kambei jumped into the river out back, as he was considering, he would probably boil the water around him. Gorobei noticed—as he said, he was dead, not blind—and laughed with annoying heartiness. "Why, Shimada Kambei, I never realized you were prudish!"
"Well, I suppose I am." Mentally, he began running through rituals of exorcism, but none of them seemed practicable without access to salt, candles, a human sacrifice, or a zigzagging bridge with something enticing at the end of it.
"Well, my friend…" Gorobei leaned close to Kambei's ear. In fact, Kambei suspected he leaned into his ear, and a good portion of that side of his head, judging by the sudden chill there and adding in the immateriality of ghosts in general. "Would you like to know of a miracle essence guaranteed to have the effects you desire on our sullen friend?"
"What?" Kambei asked, declining to protest the choice of the word 'sullen'.
"Sake—you know, rice wine. Good served warm, cold, or hot. Made by taking rice mash and—"
"I know what you're talking about." It was strange how Gorobei and Heihachi sometimes started talking about commonplace things, like rice products, as if the people around them had never heard of them before and needed some explanation. "I just don't see how…" And it all clicked together in Kambei's brain like one of Heihachi's mechanical contraptions. "Of course! Nobody acts like themselves after enough sake…"
"I knew you'd figure it out," Gorobei said cheerfully. "By the way, where is Katsushiro?"
"Er…he ran away," Kambei admitted. "After I called him a fool…and hit him with my sword…and Kirara slapped him…"
"Oh, for the love of...!" Gorobei smacked his forehead, which produced an odd echo in the room, and vanished muttering, "You've got to be kidding me!"
For a moment Kambei simply relished his absence before debating a return to sleep. There were only a few more hours until dawn, and then he'd have to get up…
…and prepare for his suicide mission.
Kyuzo wouldn't be happy to hear he didn't plan to survive the attack on the Capital, Kambei thought, and then mentally kicked himself for thinking of the red-coated samurai. The hells—he wasn't going to be able to get away from this.
You've got unfinished business, old friend…
He suddenly wanted a drink. Very badly.
"Excuse me, Yukino-san."
She blinked into the hallway. Without makeup, her eyes were gruesome with shadows. Maybe that was because she had just been pulled from a sound sleep in the early morning hours.
"Kambei-dono? Is something wrong?"
"No, not really. Might I ask where you keep your sake?"
He could see the change in her face as she decided she was merely suffering through a very strange dream. Luck was with him, and she saw no reason not to go along with it. "In a cellar below the main banquet room. Why do you—never mind."
She closed the door, collapsed onto her bed, and was back asleep before he had gone halfway down the hall.
The bottles of sake were stored along with the choko it was served in, tiny little ceramics with half the capacity of a teacup. Kambei stared at them for a long time, then looked to the large bases of the sake bottles and to the square area of the tray he was carrying. With a shrug, he brought down a bottle, took a sip from it—warmed or not, the sake at the Firefly was very good—and loaded the tray with more. He left the cups behind.
Kambei quietly slid the door open. The room beyond was utterly dark, and as he waited for his eyes to adjust he saw a patch of…white?
He squinted at the thin shape lying on the pallet. That was Kyuzo, all right, and there were his swords—was he actually hugging the scabbard?—and those white patches in the darkness were the blindingly pale skin of his face, hands…and bare feet.
Kambei started. Kyuzo's boots lay at the foot of the pallet, looking forlorn and a bit put out at their abandonment. A black knot beside them seemed to be Kyuzo's socks, of the same glossy black nylon material as his tights—leggings, Kambie corrected himself almost automatically (from long practice). The sight of his bare feet was surreal, and a little disquieting, as if he had caught the red-coated samurai in an embarrassing state of undress.
With that, he remembered his reason for coming here. Kambei took a bottle from the tray, half-emptied it, and cautiously walked into the room.
When he set the tray down, two bottles clinked against each other. What happened next was a little hard to figure out. Kambei remembered pain and a sharp crack that was probably the back of his head hitting the floor, and then he was going nearly cross-eyed trying to determine if Kyuzo's sword was really as close to his nose as it seemed to be.
"What are you doing?" Kyuzo asked. Under the circumstances, it should have been more of a demand, but he said it with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, as if he didn't really care to know the answer.
That was just as well, because Kambei couldn't think of one to give. I'm here to seduce you, had a nice ring to it, but that sword was awfully close and he'd prefer his last words to be more…dignified. So he settled on the second-most-direct reply, which had the benefit of also being a question. "Would you like to have a drink with me?"
Oh. "Are you sure about that?"
Really sure? seemed like a poor idea, so instead he said, "Well, would you mind if I stayed and had a drink here?"
The sword was gone from his face, but Kambei had barely begun a sigh of relief when he realized that it was only put aside to leave no interference between himself and Kyuzo's venomous glare.
"Please?" he added.
It was then that he learned the power of magic words over his red-coated companion. With one of the weariest sighs he had ever heard, Kyuzo sheathed his sword, sat back, took up a bottle of sake, and drained it. And it wasn't one of the bottles that had supplemented Kambei's determination up to this point, either.
"Go ahead," he said. It sounded like a concession of defeat.
"Thank you." He took up one of his own part-emptied bottles, careful to conserve the greatest part of the sake for Kyuzo's consumption, which was, of course, the point of this exercise. "Ah…" He raised the bottle in a toast. "To Kanna?"
Kyuzo looked at him blankly. The silence quickly became oppressive.
"To the pleasure of my death?"
You just needed to speak the language, Kambei reflected proudly as Kyuzo drained another bottle.
"My turn." He raised a third bottle. "To getting this job finished."
"I'll drink to that." Kambei would also drink to Ukyo's long and fruitful reign with forty children by Kirara, provided Kyuzo would do likewise, but he didn't have to share that. Another bottle and a half down. Kyuzo seemed to be outnumbering him by a ratio of two to one. Added to that his lighter build and what Kambei would bet was an inexperience with heavy drinking, and…he found his eyes straying to Kyuzo's bare feet and quickly pulled them back.
"Another?" he offered. Kyuzo shrugged, and Kambei raised his half-empty bottle. "To the memory of Gorobei-dono!"
Kyuzo shrugged again, and drained another bottle. When he set it down, his red eyes looked decidedly unfocused.
After several more toasts—to custom tailors and the weavers of red and white cloth, to the production of affordable shampoo, volumizing or otherwise, and to the melting of Kikuchiyo into slag metal—Kambei found himself looking for a bottle and unable to find one. He could see the tray easily, but when he reached it seemed to retreat from his hand.
"How about a toast to my sister?" Kyuzo suggested.
"You have a sister?"
He looked quizzical. "I don't remember."
Now seemed as good a time as any to confess his real reason for being here. "Kyuzo-dono," he said, "I am…
He nodded, which from his eyes didn't look like a good idea. "I am too," he admitted after a moment.
"I'm fighting the urge to sing."
"Oh." He peered closely at his companion. From Kyuzo's hard-set expression, it was a trying urge to fight. "Why not…give in?"
"Do you want to listen to me?"
"Certainly." After all, what could be more romantic?
Then Kyuzo opened his mouth. The room was filled with a sound like a rapidturtle being tortured. There might be words to the song, or it might only be an instrumental tune—Kambei couldn't even say for certain if it was an established piece, or something Kyuzo had composed himself spur of the moment. Eyeing the red-coated samurai's invitingly parted lips, he considered moving in for a kiss, if only to stop the singing.
Yet Kyuzo was so obviously enjoying himself… All the same, Kambei was about to give in to the kissing compulsion when he felt a newer, stronger urge.
"Say," he said, "Have you ever heard the Firefly House Anthem?"
Kyuzo's final note hung in the air like a lead weight, or perhaps a severely malfunctioning Nobuseri. Kambei could even imagine severed wires letting off sparks, which all seemed to be landing on his eardrums. He was so absorbed in thought that he almost missed Kyuzo's answer.
"Is that the one that goes—"
Throughout the Firefly Inn, guests, servants, and entertainers writhed in their sleep, momentarily seized by a nightmare in which two voices, hoarse as if the throats from which they issued were eroded by something such as plentiful application of sake, sang—
"…Have a drink and have some more
'Cause that's what sake's for!
Too much pain in life
So lose it for tonight
Drink your stress away
If only for today
Forget your tears, forget your strife
Tonight, forget your wife!
Drink up! Yeah!"
In his room, Ayamaro jerked awake. Fortunately, the worst of the singing was already dying down, and he soon returned to sleep, cheerfully humming the tune. His warbly baritone was not half bad, considering.
"Kambei-sama?" Kirara rolled open the screen door and peered into the room. Empty. Now that was puzzling—where could the old, white-coated, and devastatingly handsome samurai be?
She looked down the hall. Empty—but the fourth door down on the right was ajar. She tiptoed to it and looked in.
The scrying crystal at her wrist flared. She gasped, already large eyes widening to swallow half her face. Kambei was indeed in the room—and, if the other person in it was any clue to the ownership of that chamber, it was Kyuzo-dono's. The two samurai were sprawled, half-pillowed on the pallet bed, and now that she heard their snoring Kirara wondered how she could have missed it from the hall.
They were both fully dressed, some part of her mind realized, and she wondered why she found that important. Except Kyuzo's feet were bare. That was strange, almost surreal—but then, he wouldn't wear his boots indoors, would he? She didn't remember seeing him indoors before. His swords lay beside his socks on the floor, presumably shoved there to make room for Kambei's head and shoulders on the bed. Despite that, when he woke up, she wouldn't envy the older man his spine.
Or his head. The floor that wasn't covered by Kyuzo's boots, socks, scabbard, or Kambei's body was littered with sake bottles, most empty and overturned. Kambei's left hand, the one with the flower pattern tattoo, lay several inches from the last bottle standing. Stepping carefully across the room, Kirara went to the bottle and picked it up.
Sake sloshed at the bottom. It seemed their drinking party had been prevented from completion by the timely arrival of utter drunken exhaustion. She wondered what they were drinking for.
Kirara studied Kambei's sleeping face. She didn't think all those lines had been there the night before. But still…those wrinkles around his mouth…were those smile lines?
The crystal flared again and swung…towards the sake bottle. With a heavy sigh, Kirara raised it to her lips and drank.