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it's only water, it's only fire, it's only love

Chapter Text

The first heart Chizuru ate was that of a sparrow, when she was six years old.

In the low light, she watched her father kill the bird. She heard it’s dying shrieks. When her father held out the heart it was still warm, still beating, and his hands were drenched in blood.

She didn’t want to do it and she didn’t know why her father wanted her to. But he hadn’t allowed her food in five days, and scarcely water. She was weak and couldn’t fight. He promised that if she did it, she could go outside for a bit. She just wanted to make him happy, to make it all stop. So she closed her eyes and opened her mouth.

It was the size of a pickled plum. At first, Chizuru didn’t know whether to chew it or simply swallow it whole. Perhaps it was the fact that she’d been starved - she bit down on it with her back teeth, and began to chew. It was tough and sinewy, like a low-quality piece of meat, and tasted of iron and salt. Tears began to stream down her cheeks, unbidden. Her father’s eyes were glowing in the dark. Through the cellar’s single barred window, sparse rays of sunlight filtered through. She imagined this sparrow flying in that sunlight. She imagined wings, and air, and freedom. Blood trickled down her throat. It had been so long since she’d last felt the sun on her skin. She tried to remember what it was like.

She swallowed, she choked, and then the room turned red.

She didn’t remember what happened after that.


Kuren experiment 6
October 26th 1854

Subject, 6 years old, female, pureblood. Placed under extreme physical and emotional stress for a period of 72 hours

Food withheld for 96 hours. Minimal water allowed. Over the test period of 72 hours, beatings were administered every 6 hours. Hot iron used on thighs, shoulders, and forearms a total of 10 times. Psychological torment administered in addition

Subject was fed the heart of one freshly slain tree sparrow. Appeared to consume it willingly, though not enthusiastically. Effects observed as follows:

10 seconds - loss of consciousness.

30 seconds - rapid and astronomical pulse increase. Crested at 250bpm, enough to kill a normal human of that age and body weight.

1 minute - rapid growth and hardening of nails and incisors. Horns emerge from skull plate.

1 minute 15 seconds - rage. Exhibited vocally.

2 minutes - enhanced vision as exhibited by pupil dilation

3 minutes - increase in muscle density and strength. Subject was able to break free of iron chains and produce cracks in the stone floor.

Experiment terminated using hypnotically implanted codeword at 3 minutes 55 seconds for safety of administrator.

Future objectives -
Increase retention of cognitive abilities during period of transformation
Transition to consumption of hearts for maintenance of a state that allows subject to transform at any time
Increase subject's physical strength, endurance, and reflexes through training


Hachiro was eight years old when he caught his first glimpse into the Yukimura cellar.

He knew the doctor Kodo had a child, a daughter. He knew that she was quiet and kept to herself, often avoiding him and the other children. He knew that she was small and pale, with long black hair. The things he didn’t know - like why she was so shy, or what her favorite color was, or why he was so curious about her despite never having spoken to her, or even her name - drove him to slink around the perimeter of the Yukimura clinic when no one was watching.

It was dusk, at summer’s end. The air was thick and the world was sepia. He walked through the dead, brown tallgrasses surrounding the clinic. The wind rustled them gently, a melody atop the cicada’s drone. On the south side of the house he saw it - a small barred window, tucked into the foundation, barely visible among the weeds. He crept closer.

It was very dark down there, but sunset illuminated the room just enough. The light reflected off an array of mean looking silver instruments. Hachiro supposed they were surgical implements, but - this cellar didn’t look like a place for surgery. It was dirty and dingy. The floor and walls were covered in what looked like rust. His eyes moved away from the window and there, on the far end of the room, he saw the Yukimura daughter.

She was sitting in a chair in a very peculiar way, with her arms twisted behind her. He didn’t understand it at first, until he noticed the ropes bunching up her kimono over the shoulders and knees. Her shoulders were hunched and her head was bowed, covering her face in a curtain of black.

There were many things he was too young to understand. He was too young to understand why the Yukimura daughter was bound to a chair in a dark basement. He had no concept of abuse, of the horrible things a parent could do to their child and why. He was too young to understand the silver instruments and the ‘rust’ covering the room. His heart knew something was wrong but his mind tripped over the how and why.

It was like she could sense him. She raised her head, stringy black hair falling away, and found his eyes immediately. She looked sick, her eyes looked like they were set in bruises but the sunlight turned them into molten amber and he felt the breath gone from his lungs. For a long moment she held his gaze. She never seemed to look him or the other children in the eye and now... her eyes bored into him. She was unmoving, unblinking. The intensity was almost painful. It drew something inside of him to a boil, his heart racing, his stomach churning. Eventually, it became too much. He turned from his hiding spot crouched in the grass, and ran all the way home as fast as he could.

That night, he couldn’t sleep.


Human hearts soon followed.

The clinic was a perfect front. People died under the care of doctors, even the best ones. The hearts of the sick and elderly were no good for Chizuru, but often enough someone healthy could slip through the cracks. They died for her, and no other reason. To feed the hunger.

The first one was a farmer’s son, named Daichi. Chizuru listened from behind the door as Kodo told the boy’s parents. He was sorry, there was nothing he could have done. She heard his mother cry.

That evening, Daichi’s body was in the cellar. He looked so peaceful. Like he was asleep. He had black hair and a scar near his left ear. Chizuru reached out and gently touched his face. His skin felt cold and waxy.

Her father approached with something in his hands. It was a short blade, in a lacquered black sheath, the hilt wrapped in golden cord.

"This is the Yukimura family blade, Shotsuren" he said, his voice heavy with the gravity of the moment. "Passed down through generations of noble demon blood. Now, you shall give it new purpose."

The blade called to her, singing out something glorious, irresistible. She took it in her hands. It was light as air. She drew the blade. The steel of it seemed to be swimming, shimmering with impossible brilliance. She inhaled, deeply.

Her father smiled and opened Daichi's robes.

"Here," he pointed to a spot in the middle of the corpse's chest. "You'll need to cut through bone, but it's okay. The blade can handle it, and so can you."

Chizuru didn't know how she knew what to do. Her arms moved on their own, instinctively, like she'd done it a thousand times before. She raised the blade high above her head, pointing straight down. She hadn't known Daichi well, but she knew him to be kind. He loved his parents and worked hard. She turned her head away and squeezed her eyes shut as her arms brought the blade crashing down.


The next day Hachiro found the Yukimura daughter in front of the clinic. She was wearing an indigo-dyed yukata and picking some of the medicinal herbs her father grew. She was seated in a comfortable squat, to keep her clothes out of the dirt, and she would examine the herbs carefully before selecting the best ones and placing them gently in a basket next to her feet. He almost thought he heard her humming - but it could have just been the wind. He marched right up to her.

“Hi!”

Perhaps he was a little too forceful. She flinched. He had startled her. She stared up at him blankly.

“My name is Hachiro.”

She blinked and said nothing, the silence punctuated only by the cicadas.

“What’s your name?”

Her eyes widened slightly. She looked confused, at first, and then - suspicious.

“Chizuru,” she said at last, flatly, and then turned her attention back to the herbs she was picking.

 

He should’ve been deflated by her coldness, but all he cared about was that she’d told him her name. Chizuru. It was perfect. He crouched down next to her.

“What are you doing?”

“Picking herbs. For medicine.”

“Can I help?”

Her hand stopped as she was about to rip out a plant from the root.

“Why?”

He shrugged.

“Because I want to. Tell me which ones to pick.”

Chizuru turned red and stammered as Hachiro scooted over even closer, so their shoulders were touching. Her eyes darted around frantically. When she reached a hand out, it was trembling slightly.

“This one. It’s, um... mugwort. Gaiyou. See the leaves? Five stalks.”

She pointed at each of the stalks and counted out loud. One, two, three, four, five. Hachiro listened intently.

“Is this it?” he pointed to one, and she nodded. When he tried to pluck it, the leaves coated his fingers in an oily substance. It smelled sharp and medicinal and tickled his nose. He tried to wipe it off on his clothes. He heard a funny sound and when he looked up, Chizuru had her hand over her mouth. She was laughing at him. She quickly straightened her face back out.

“Pick it from the stem and you won’t get the oil on your fingers. Like this, watch.”

Soon Hachiro was adept at identifying and picking mugwort, and Chizuru’s basket grew full. She told him the names of all the herbs in the garden and what their medicinal uses were. He had many tutors, he told her, but none had taught him about plants like this. He took joy in this activity, in being close to the earth, his knees on the dirt and the smell of verdant green all around him.

Eventually Kodo came out of the clinic and called Chizuru in for dinner. Hachiro saw the light in her eyes snuff out at the sound of her father’s gruff voice. She lowered her head and muttered a goodnight to Hachiro without even looking at him, and scurried off back to the house with her basket of herbs clutched in her arms.


From then on, Chizuru and Hachiro were inseparable. She still avoided the other village children. Hachiro was her best friend, and one best friend was all she needed. She called him Hachi, affectionately. Hachi-kun, she would say, her voice as sweet as honey. Chizuru was quiet, even as they grew close. She simply didn’t have much to say, which was fine. Hachiro could talk enough for the both of them, and she listened so intently. Most of what Chizuru did talk about was her father, the things he taught her about medicine, and the patients at the Yukimura clinic. It seemed that building, that person, was her whole entire universe. Hachiro never brought up the cellar, and neither did she.

They would hold hands and walk the woods around the perimeter of the village. Hachiro considered it his duty on these walks to expand Chizuru’s universe, beyond the Yukimura clinic and her father. To his father’s disappointment, Hachiro was more interested in academic studies than martial arts. As the eldest son he was meant to inherit his family’s dojo, but he had a weak physique and no interest in swordplay. All he learned in his studies, he passed on to Chizuru. He told her about the mysterious lands beyond the sea, about history and politics, about the strange magic of science. He recited poetry to her, and they scratched haikus into the dirt. She laughed, and smiled. He never saw her laugh or smile with anyone else. That was a precious thing, only for him.


"You know he doesn't actually like you."

Chizuru stared down into her bowl. It was black, inky black, like everything else. She saw her reflection in the clear soup. Little pieces of seaweed floated over her face. Her stupid, ugly face.

"How could he? You're a monster. You're a demon. You aren't fit to be among humans."

Her father's voice was playfully cruel, mocking. The rice in her mouth turned to ash and she struggled to swallow.

"It's only a matter of time before he finds out. I wonder how he'll react... will he scream? Will he try to kill you? Oh, that would be good practice. Could you do it? Could you tear the heart out of your beloved Hachiro?"

She squeezed her eyes shut. She conjured up every good thing about Hachiro. There were a lot. Shining green eyes. His expansive, joyful laugh. The gentle timbre of his voice. Tanned olive skin dusted with freckles. His hand in hers. She was building a wall. A wall against the images her father was trying to plant in her mind. Her heart raced. She built faster, frantically. Eyes laugh voice skin hand smile eyes laugh voice skin hand smile eyes laugh voice skin hand smile Hachi Hachi Hachi Hachi Hachi Hachi

She lost. The wall crumbled.

Her lungs constricted.

She saw her best friend lying in the dirt with his chest split open. Shining green eyes dull and glassy. Laugh stolen, voice silenced. Skin... just blood. Blood everywhere. So much blood. Lurid crimson so bright it hurt her eyes. She looked down and saw it coating her hands and arms. It was hot. It burned. Then she tasted it on the back of her tongue.

She opened her eyes and lay her chopsticks down on the table. Her appetite was gone. Her father laughed.

Chapter Text

Father?

Yes, Chizuru?

What does it mean to be a demon?

Silence, for a moment.

It means we are different. Apart from humans. Our own people, with our own blood.

They tell stories about us. Bad ones, saying we do bad things. Are we evil?

Mankind is quick to condemn that which it does not understand. The stories they tell are reflections on them, not us.

But we hurt people, father.

And that is, perhaps, the thing we have most in common with humans.


It was the new year of 1859.

Chizuru and Hachiro had climbed to the top of the tallest ridge nearby their village. Below, their hometown was full of lights and people, drums and temple bells. They sat with their legs swinging over the edge and watched. The early-spring night air was crisp and fragrant.

The noise and activity made Chizuru feel safe. They blanketed her voice, and so she spoke up.

“Hachi... do you think I’m different? From other people, I mean?”

“Of course you are,” he answered without even looking at her. His eyes were fixed on the horizon. “That’s why I like you.”

Chizuru wrinkled her nose. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that answer. It was both reassuring, and not.

“How am I different? What do you like about me?”

He turned to her with a sort of warm amusement. For a moment he thought about it silently, carefully considering, selecting the right words like they were pearls.

“You’re honest. And not just like, you don’t lie. You can’t hide your feelings. That’s a good thing.”

Was it? Chizuru wasn’t sure. But he continued.

“I like that you don’t say things when they don’t need to be said. I feel like I can be myself around you. You’re smart, and curious about the world - sometimes when I tell you about my studies I feel like you understand it better than I do! And...”

He trailed off.

“And you’re strong.”

“What do you mean?”

He reached over and took her hand. He pushed back the sleeve of her kimono. There were bruises wrapping around her wrist and elbow, old and new, various colors of sickly yellow-green or deep purple-red. Chizuru’s stomach flipped.

"Please let me help you," he pleaded. He'd lost count of how many times he'd begged her for this. "Let me tell someone, my family can take care of you, please, Chizuru."

"No! "

There was panic in her voice and she yanked her arm back forcefully. She clutched her hand to her chest, to calm her racing heart, and turned her shoulders away from Hachiro. No matter what her father did to her, no matter the pain she suffered at his hands... he was the only family she had. It was like he always told her - they were different from everyone else. He was the only one who could understand her. The only one who would ever truly accept her.

"I'm fine. I don't need help."

Hachiro glared, bitterly.

"That's what I mean. You still protect him. You still love him. He doesn't deserve it. You still smile, you still laugh. That's strength."

Chizuru hung her head and chewed on her lip nervously.

“What if I did something bad?”

He shrugged.

“Everyone does bad things. You have a good heart. That’s what matters.”

“What if it was really bad?”

Her voice was scarcely more than a whisper. He placed his hand atop hers and looked her straight in the eyes.

“What could you do that’s worse than what’s been done to you?”

It didn’t seem right. Yes, she suffered at the hands of her father. She hadn’t done anything to deserve it, but neither did the people who served as fuel for the experiments. It was just an endless cycle of blood for blood, pain for pain, suffering for suffering. She didn’t want to be a black hole. She didn’t want that to be all her life was good for.

“Chizuru,” he nudged her. “What’s gotten into you? You don’t have to worry about me, okay? I promise I won’t leave you.”

She didn’t deserve that, but she smiled anyway. She was just a girl. Questions of right and wrong, of pain and suffering, were beyond her. And the future would always be scary. But the sun as rising on the horizon - the first dawn of the new year - and her best friend was beside her now.

“That’s better. You should start the new year with a smile.”

She nodded.

“Let’s have a good year together, Hachi.”


The following winter, her father took her hunting.

In the year that stretched between, Chizuru was growing more and more horrified with what she was becoming. She was developing a terrible hunger, and if she didn’t feed it, she became sick, weak, hardly able to stand or get out of bed. Her father was making her dependent on this awful practice, leashing her to blood and cannibalism. Self-loathing and disgust consumed her. She was so undeserving of Hachiro’s friendship and yet, he never faltered.

Kodo had some sort of agreement with the local jailers. He received a steady stream of prisoners for his experiments. Some met their fate down in the cellar, while others... others served as the prey for Chizuru’s hunts. Out in the forest, in the dark, father would drug them with some sort of red liquid, and they would change. They would scream and trash and claw at their throats, and then they would change. Bloodthirsty beasts, rabid and enraged. Just like her.

They were still working on getting her to be able to transform at will. For now, it happened only when she feared for her life, her body's last resort. She had to run, first. To stumble and fall, to become trapped, to have hands grasp at her ankles and wrists and close around her throat. Only then, when she was sure she would be killed, could she fight back.

And she could fight back. They’d been training. If the prey ran, she could catch it, as her demon legs could carry her far faster than any human. When she caught them, she didn't need her blade anymore. Her claws were sharp and deadly, and she could kill a man with only her hands now. If they tried to fight back, her strength and reflexes were superior. Their bones cracked so sweetly, and the blood flowed readily. Chizuru always came to kneeling above a split-open corpse, dripping in blood, feeling satisfied but sick like she ate too much at dinner.

Her father watched, proud.

His weapon was coming along nicely.


It wasn't enough that she was able to kill.

He needed her to hate.

In spite of his best efforts she was still holding on to some love for mankind. It was because of that boy, Hachiro. Kodo had tried for many years to plant seeds of doubt in Chizuru’s mind, to manipulating her into ending her friendship with the boy, but irritatingly, he persisted. Now was the time to put an end to it, definitively, and harden Chizuru’s heart against humans.

He began to form a plan.


It was snowing that night.

Chizuru liked to hunt in the snow. Well, really, she just liked to be out in the snow, in the woods, at night. The snow turned the world into something mystical and contemplative, a sparkling crystal realm beset with a reverent hush. She didn’t enjoy hunting. But if she had to do it...

She’d learned to transform at will now, too. It didn’t take long - the previous method was highly traumatic, and her body adapted quickly in order to avoid it. It was hard to explain the change that came over her. She felt... more. Just everything, more. Her existence, the world around her, amplified. She was faster, everything else slower. Colors brighter, sounds clearer. It was her highest form. Evolution, completed.

Tonight's prey was a middle-aged ronin who'd been arrested for murder. In spite of the drugs, in spite of the bloodlust, when he saw the beast who would be pursuing him, he ran. Desperately, madly, into the deep, dark woods.


Hachiro would never forget what he saw that night.

As hard as he tried, as badly as he wanted to, he could never forget.

The circumstances that brought him there were inconsequential, obviously orchestrated. Some village kid wide-eyed whispering about how Chizuru needed help and it’s her dad and don’t wake up any adults it can only be you. Later on he would wonder how much Kodo paid the kid, or what he threatened him with. Whatever it was, it ended with Hachiro running into the woods with a lantern as midnight approached, hanten thrown loosely over his shoulders.

“Chizuru!” he shouted, tearing through the trees. It was bitterly cold, and his breath formed clouds in front of him.

Chizuru!” his heart was racing, his mind full of horrible images. If she was seriously hurt, or... or worse... he’d known this whole time and he could have done something. He could have ignored her wishes and saved her. He was so stupid, so careless. He’d never be able to forgive himself.

He skidded to a halt as he reached a clearing in the trees.

There was so much blood.

The snow was soaked in it, blooming out from a central point, stark red against the white.

It was not Chizuru. It was some strange creature. Beneath billowing silver-white hair was a strange, spindly body, huddled in a crouch. It was like her limbs had all been stretched out and folded back up, her proportions all exaggerated. She curled over the body of a man. He’d been split from throat to navel, his skin peeled back like he was an overripe fruit. Hachiro watched the creature’s clawed hands shuffle through the man’s insides, intestines sliding through her fingers and being flung aside, discarded, until she found what she was looking for. There was a horrible crack and Hachiro saw the man’s body lift from the ground ever so slightly. In her grasped fist was a heart, still beating, dripping blood down her arm, into the crook of her elbow.

Hachiro was frozen in place. He wanted to scream, wanted to run, and also - he wanted to come closer. For as horrifying as it was, there was a beauty in it, too. The moonlight shone down and turned the creature’s hair to molten silver. It was magic, terrible magic, like he’d never seen before. She unhinged her jaws and bit into the heart, tearing at the flesh, gnashing and gnawing like a starved animal. Blood gushed down her chin, rivulets flowing down her neck, gathering in the hollow of her throat. The kimono she wore looked familiar. Wrong, but familiar. Pink and blue flowers. Where had he seen that before?

The creature raised her head, an unnerving snap. Her eyes locked onto Hachiro. They were the size of sake cups, and burning yellow-gold. It was then that he realized. It was then that he knew.

He fell to his knees, and screamed.


In an instant she was Chizuru again. No more spindly limbs or uncanny yellow eyes or white hair or claws. That was even worse. Just Chizuru, his Chizuru, covered in blood with a dead man’s half-devoured heart in her hands.

She came back into herself with a great shuddering gasp, and saw that her worst fear had come true. The way Hachiro was looking at her... her father had threatened her with it many times. Said that he would be disgusted, terrified, that he would slay her like the abomination she was. She didn’t care. If she was to die, let it be by his hand. She couldn’t live after this, without him, anyway. Her hands went slack, the gore in them sliding to the snow below without a sound. She rose to her feet, on shaking legs.

“Hachiro...”

She stumbled through the snow over to him, her vision blurring with tears. He didn’t run. He sat, shell-shocked, waiting for her.

“Hachiro,” she was crying fully now. She knelt in front of him and reached for his hand. He didn’t react.

Hachi-kun,” she whimpered. “I’m so sorry. I’m a monster.” There was blood on him now, too. He felt it, hot and thick. “I’m disgusting. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry...”

She fell to pieces, repeating it over and over again, sobbing desperately. Hachiro had never seen pain like this.

“Does he... does he make you do this?” his voice was low and tight. Chizuru nodded.

“What about... that? You looked...”

“I told you, I’m different!” it came out more shrilly than she intended. “I’m not... I’m not human.”

He grabbed her by the shoulders.

Not human?! What do you mean?”

“Father and I, we’re... we’re demons.”

In a way, it felt good to say it at last.

“Our clan was murdered, he says. It happened when I was a baby so I don’t remember. We’re the only survivors. That’s why we came here.”

“Demons? W-what? I-“

She hung her head.

“If you want to kill me... I understand. Father says we demons aren’t bad, that we’re just misunderstood. But I...” her voice broke “I feel bad.

He couldn’t keep up. It was all too much. The blood on Chizuru’s face was starting to dry. What he’d just seen, what he was being asked to accept, was more than his mind could handle. But there was a girl in front of him, who he loved very much, in a lot of pain, and he had a choice to make.

“Chizuru... of course I don’t want to kill you. I want to help you.

Chapter Text

Kodo’s plan backfired.

After that night, his daughter and the Iba boy only grew closer. Of course she found the one kid deranged enough, or stupid enough, to stick with her after that. How terribly irritating.

For the first time in his life, Hachiro picked up the sword. He started training in his family’s dojo. He didn’t know why, exactly. He would tell himself it was to protect Chizuru from the world, but there was a small part of him that wondered if it wasn’t to protect the world from Chizuru.

Chizuru didn’t want to kill humans, she told him. She didn’t want to eat the hearts of men. It was just what her father wanted her to do. She told him about how she started with animals. And so Hachiro became a hunter. He set traps and brought her foxes and wolves and rabbits, so she wouldn’t fall sick to withdrawals. And when her father set her upon drugged men, she let them escape, which only caused more problems for Kodo in the long run. He started locking her in the cellar and torturing her again, but had had to be careful. He had to let her out now and then, and as soon as he did, she went right to Hachiro. She endured her torture with a smile. She was very far away from the pain, now.

Hachiro was growing up. Despite his lack of interest in and late adoption of swordsmanship, he turned out to have a natural talent for it, and progressed further and faster than even his brothers. As he neared fifteen he grew tall and broad-shouldered, his voice deepening. The boy Chizuru loved was turning into a man before her eyes, and suddenly the village girls were very interested in him.

When Chizuru looked in the mirror, she still very much saw a child. A puny, plain-looking child, with sallow skin and eyes the color of dirt and a boyish figure. There was no way she could compete with the other, prettier girls. For the first time, she took interest in her appearance. She saved yuzu rinds and made a paste of them, to brighten her complexion, and tinted her cheeks and lips with berries. She gathered flowers and put them in her hair, choosing the most pleasing arrangement of shapes and colors. She never thought she’d be concerned with such things, but with Hachiro, her world became beautiful. Though her father snorted derisively when he saw the way she dolled herself up, Hachiro lit up like a lantern when he saw her. The look in his eyes made her excited and nervous. The heart-eater’s heart skipped a beat.

That spring, the cherry blossoms bloomed. Hachiro and Chizuru walked among the trees and found their favorite. Every day, while the blooms lasted, they sat beneath that same tree, luxuriating in the soft pink sakura haze. One day, they laid on their backs side-by-side, gazing up into the cotton candy clouds as if they were counting the blossoms. They talked about the Westerners, and reminisced on the day Commodore Perry brought his black ships to Edo Bay. She told him about an ornery patient at the Yukimura clinic, a funny old woman who refused to take her medicine and swatted at Chizuru with her cane. He told her stories about the crazy antics of the boys at his dojo. They talked freely and laughed easily. There was so much light in Chizuru's eyes. In truth, Hachiro was still haunted by what he saw in the woods that night. It was an image that would likely never leave him. But it was just that - an image, static, a fixed point in the past. Chizuru was living, breathing, growing, changing, multi-faceted, and at times like this he could never believe she was a monster.

"What are you looking at me like that for?" she wrinkled her nose playfully and propped herself up on her elbow.

"No reason." He smiled. "You just... seem happy."

"I am. Because of you."

"Good."

He reached for her hand. They'd held hands countless times, but this felt different. Chizuru's stomach flipped.

"I want to keep making you happy. For a long time."

As the first cherry blossom loosed itself from the branch and fluttered to the ground, they shared their first kiss - chaste and innocent.

Hachiro tasted blood.


One evening, Hachiro found himself cornered by Kodo.

“Stay away from my daughter.”

The doctor’s voice was deep and booming, and he stood with his arms crossed and his hands in his sleeves. Hachiro was unprepared for the wave of anger that slammed into him. He clenched his fists.

No.•"

“You’re only making her weaker.”

“Why are you doing this? Why are you making her... why?!”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand. I have plans for my daughter, far larger than anything you could imagine.”

“She isn’t a tool for you to use.”

“No, she’s much more than that. She’s a weapon. A very deadly one.”

Hachiro’s eyes widened. Kodo took the opening.

“Why did you stay? After what you saw... why did you stay? Does the violence excite you? Or... do you enjoy being the only thing has? Does it make you feel good, to be the center of her world?”

Shut up!

Hachiro raised his hand to strike Kodo, but the older man caught the boy’s wrist and held him there.

“You’re the heir of a wealthy, prestigious dojo. Everyone loves you. Your parents will marry you off to a daimyo’s daughter, and Chizuru will be left alone, with nothing and no one. She’s just a plaything for you, isn’t she?”

Hachiro kicked and thrashed. Kodo had approached him on a quiet street corner, there was no one around to see what was happening.

“That’s not true,” he spat. “I love her. I’ll never leave her.”

Kodo released Hachiro’s wrist, threw his head back, and laughed.

“Oh, yes you will. You will, and I’ll tell you why.”

Kodo bent his knee and brought himself to eye level with Hachiro. There was so much evil in that man’s eyes. How did he have the entire village fooled? How did people trust him with their care? He was despicable. When he spoke, it was low and icy.

“I’m sure if I said I’d hurt you, you wouldn’t care. And you know I already hurt her, so that won’t work, either. But let me tell you this. I control my daughter. In spite of your influence, even still, I control her. In ways you cannot understand.”

Hachiro felt his blood turn to ice.

“She doesn’t want to hurt people, but I can make her. Whoever, whenever, wherever. Wouldn’t it be an awful thing? We’ll start with animals. Livestock, pets. Absolutely dismembered, beyond what any beast could do. Then, perhaps, some children? Leave the bodies in the street, ripped open, hm? By then, the whole town will be in a panic. When she’s in that state, she can be sloppy. Only a matter of time until someone catches her. Or maybe... you know, I could even make her hurt you. Would you like that? How do you think that would make her feel? Coming to with your heart in her belly, your blood on her hands, having to live the rest of her life knowing what she did to you?”

Hachiro felt dizzy, sick, like he couldn’t breathe. He took a step backwards, tripped, and tumbled to the ground, scrambling with his hands in the dirt.

“I’ll kill you,” he hissed. “One day, I promise. I’ll kill you.”

Kodo smirked and rose.

“Very well. I look forward to it.”


At first, Hachiro didn’t believe Kodo would actually do it. There was no way - it would only create more trouble for him, having to leave town and go in to hiding. It didn’t make sense. He wasn’t ready to leave Chizuru, not on a threat alone. In those days, he worked overtime to convince Chizuru to let him help her.

Please, Chizuru. Come stay with me. If you tell my parents what he did to you, show them your scars... we can have him arrested. You’ll be safe.”

She was so close. He saw it in her eyes, thinking, considering. He was asking her to give up her whole life, to leave everything she ever knew, the only family she had. Even if that life was pain, and that family was abusive... it was a lot. He took her hands and clutched them in his.

“I know I’m different from you. I know there are things I can never understand. But I want to be here for you. As much as I can, for as long as I can. I want to protect you.”

There was a new world shining in his green eyes, a place where Chizuru could be happy all the time, free of the hell her father had trapped her in. What was she holding on to? Why was she so afraid? There was nothing to lose, and everything to gain. In that moment, she steeled her resolve against her father.

“Okay,” she nodded through tears of joy. “Thank you, Hachiro.”


The leaves were beginning to turn, and autumn’s quiet chill settled over the village.

Hachiro began to prepare a room for Chizuru at his family’s manor. He saw everything with new eyes, imagining what his home would look like once she was a part of it.

Kodo noticed a change in his daughter. She wouldn’t look him in the eye. She disobeyed his orders. She seemed distracted, at all times. He knew exactly what was going on.

The fact that these foolish teenagers thought they could best him incensed him, and made the prospect of crushing their dreams that much sweeter.

Two days before they planned to go to Hachiro’s parents, the carnage started.

Sugihara, the village’s cattle farmer, awoke the entire community with his screaming and shouting as dawn broke. His herd was dead. Not just dead. His cattle had their skin peeled off, their entrails strung along the fence of their pasture, their heads ripped off and stuck on the fenceposts. The village was in chaos, overcome with the stench of blood and guts. People were fainting and vomiting. Parents locked their children indoors. Why, why, why?

Hachiro stayed close to Chizuru that day. She wouldn’t stop looking at her hands. She was scatterbrained, cagey, couldn’t hold a conversation. She turned to him and whispered.

“Did I... do that?”

He felt his heart break.

The next day, a letter arrived for Hachiro, sealed with the Yukimura crest. He opened it, dread pressing down on his lungs.

Six words.

Leave, and do not say goodbye.


They were to meet under the red maple tree.

Chizuru waited, her heart in her throat, excited and terrified. Her life was about to change. For the first time, she had hope for the future. She loved Hachiro so much, and she was so lucky.

He was late. This was unusual. Perhaps he got held up at the dojo, or some aspect of their preparations took longer than expected. She waited, patiently.

Hours passed. Dusk crept in, and she attempted to quell her panic. She’d never been to Hachiro’s home before, but everyone knew where the Iba estate was. She approached one of the guards.

“Um... excuse me. Is Hachiro home? I’m his friend, and we were supposed to meet earlier.”

She felt so very small and foolish, even moreso from the pitiful look the guard gave her.

“He left last night, for Kyoto.”

All the blood rushed to her head.

“What?”

“He’s gone to Kyoto, for training.”

No. It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t. Why would he leave? So suddenly? Without telling her? It had to be a lie, or some sort of mistake.

She humbly thanked the guard and left, but spent the next few days staking out the Iba estate, watching desperately for any sign of Hachiro. She didn’t eat or sleep, only kept vigil, refusing to accept that he’d left. The villagers gave her pitiful glances, shook their heads. How sad. It infuriated her.

A week later, and reality was starting to set in. Her father goaded.

“I told you he’d leave you.”


Winter came, bleak and desolate.

Chizuru took her blade, Shotsuren, and walked out into the forest. Barefoot in the snow. She didn’t care. She couldn’t feel the cold anymore.

She found the spot where, 2 years ago, Hachiro had found out the truth. How foolish of her, to believe he would actually accept her, actually love her. What her father said was true. She was an abomination. No one would love her, and she would never have a place in this world.

But she wouldn’t let herself be used.

She fell to her knees in the snow. It was so soft, so white. She drew Shotsuren from it’s scabbard. Her eyes reflected in the blade. Empty and black.

She drove the blade into her abdomen. Her flesh was soft, and yielded easily. The pain bloomed, shooting through her veins, white-hot, exquisite. She pulled and twisted, saw red fan out over the snow. It was only right. How much blood had she spilled, in her short life? This was justice. This was righteous.

Cold against her skin. She'd slumped over to the ground. In a haze she saw the trees, the snow, and blood. Chizuru had been fortunate, to catch a glimpse of happiness. But it was more than she deserved. It was not meant for her. As her consciousness faded, she held on to images of her happiest memories, of Hachiro's green eyes and an innocent kiss beneath the cherry blossoms.


Nobody came to find her.

Not her father, not Hachiro, not any villagers.

She merely woke up as the sun was setting. Shotsuren was on the ground nearby her and her kimono was torn. The blood that had spread onto the snow was now oxidized and turning brown. She touched her abdomen, poked and prodded. The skin was unbroken.

With bitter disappointment, she picked up her blade and walked back to the village, to carry on with the unpleasant task of living.

Chapter Text

Sannan held in his hand a glass vial.

It was filled with a dark red liquid. Like congealed blood. He turned the vial over in his fingers and watched the liquid drip and flow, slowly, luxuriously.

Images flashed through his mind. A mysterious doctor with cold eyes. A quiet room splattered in blood. Swords drawn, chaos, one of their own men gone mad, rabid. A fighting force that could not be easily killed. Power.

Control.

Madness.

Something in the liquid called out to him. A voice, a chorus of voices, singing sweetly, to the deepest part of his pitch-black heart.

With a sly smile, he closed his eyes and tucked the vial into his sleeve.


“I hate you.”

Chizuru sat at an untouched dinner table, glowering, her voice barely above a growl.

“That’s fine,” Kodo responded dispassionately. “I do not require your affection.”

“It’s your fault I’m like this. It’s your fault I have no friends. It’s your fault... he left.”

He chuckled.

“If that’s what you wish to believe.”

I hate you!” she screamed, bringing her knee up and upending the table. Rice and soup spilled onto the floor. Kodo did not flinch, merely clicked his tongue.

Tsk. How troublesome.”

Her clenched fists expanded into monstrous claws, and her eyes burned yellow. She launched herself across the table.

I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you!

Kodo moved back deftly, and she scrambled towards him.

“Teenagers,” he sighed. He locked his eyes onto hers and spoke in a low, solid voice.

Kuren.

It was the hypnotically implanted codeword that would render her instantly catatonic. His safety measure since she was a child. Countless times he had used it, when she became difficult to control. He watched her face, waiting for it to go slack, her eyes to flutter shut. But there was only anger. For a moment he was disarmed, and she knocked him back. He felt her hands wrap around his throat.

Kuren!” he wheezed, beneath a crushed windpipe. Chizuru’s face was twisted in violent hatred. Impossible. She should be unconscious by now. Never before had she resisted the hypnosis.

His vision blurred and he repeated the codeword over and over again, struggling for breath, Chizuru wringing his neck with the strength and fury he himself had trained into her.

It was of her own will that she calmed herself and shed her demon form. Perhaps seeing the light leave his eyes shook her out of her rage. As Kodo coughed and gasped, Chizuru lowered her forehead to the tatami, her shoulders shaking.

"I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." she sobbed over and over again, as she cleaned up the mess she'd made.


Hachiro Iba returned to his childhood home four years after he left it, a grown man crowned in glory. He’d been inducted into the okuzume- the shogun’s personal bodyguards. There was no higher position for a young samurai. His skill with a blade was matched only by his reputation as being polite, respectful, and diplomatic. The young women of Kyoto plotted after his hand, but he rejected them all, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake.

Stepping foot on that soil again stirred up a complicated cloud of emotions. The bitter taste of his departure lingered, but mostly - he was excited. He’d returned for Chizuru. He had the authority to arrest, or kill, Kodo. To rescue Chizuru, and make her his wife. Four years... he wondered what type of woman she’d grown into. His heart fluttered nervously.

Before he did anything else - even greeting his parents - he went straight to the Yukimura clinic. As he got closer he was overcome with nostalgia. Everywhere he looked he saw her, a slideshow of memories both beautiful and painful. He couldn’t wait to see her again.

The Yukimura’s garden was overgrown, wild. He couldn’t even see the medicinal herbs he’d helped Chizuru gather, or the small path of stepping stones they’d made. It was all ragged weeds and brush. Strange.

He pushed his way through the foliage to the door and knocked. Several moments passed, in which he stood to the side and waited, an excruciating test of his patience. Eventually he could wait no longer. The latch on the wooden door splintered easily beneath the hilt of his sword. He would have it repaired, of course.

The house was empty. There was a thick layer of dust over every surface, suggesting it had been empty for a long time. It was in a strange state. The medicine stores were mostly emptied, and there were blank spots on counters and cabinets where it seemed like something should be but wasn't - but the house hadn't been completely vacated. There were signs that, eventually, it would be returned to. He checked every room. Out back there was a set of thick, gnarled wooden doors that he assumed led to the cellar. They were bolted shut with an iron padlock. He felt an indescribably evil aura emanating from behind those doors. It made him feel nauseous.

He asked his family and all the townspeople. Kodo had been traveling off and on for some time - some business in the south - but recently, after not returning for nearly half a year, Chizuru went looking for him.

She'd always been so inexplicably attached to that evil man.