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The Gods, Laughing

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“Another boy,” said Lady Sakai Nahoko in disappointment.

“A peasant boy.” Lord Sakai Kazumasa echoed her dismay in his frown. Beside Nahoko, the potter lowered her head and bit her lip but said nothing, the only sign of her distress the tremble in her arms as she knelt beside Nahoko.

The baby she held swaddled in clean but old rags yawned, pulling his arm away from the grip of the baby in Nahoko’s arms. Wrapped in fine silk, the heir to Clan Sakai woke instantly, burbling in distress. He reached for the other baby’s hand, their fingers pressing clumsily together, lacking the strength to clasp each other tightly. As their index and little fingers touched, an intricate red pattern wove into view under their skin, a living tattoo that bound their arms together from fingers to elbows in a seamless cradle. The red threads of fate: the akai ito.

The potter stifled her gasp, gently disengaging the children and holding her son close to her chest. “L-lady Nahoko,” she stammered. “Please. Have mercy.”

Nahoko stared at her in surprise. The flush of new motherhood sweetened her delicate beauty, from the long arch of her neck to the soft bow of her mouth. “Mercy? We mean you and your son no harm.” She tucked her son’s hand away into the patterned silk that swaddled him, clucking her tongue as he whimpered in protest.

“We can move to the mainland. You need never see my son or me again,” the potter said, scrambling back on her knees and bowing deeply, touching her forehead to the tatami. “Please.”

“What exactly do you think we mean to do?” Kazumasa said, taken aback by her fright. “We do not lack honour, and it would be dishonourable to harm a mother and her child. Or to separate them.”

The potter looked up. The snarling black armour displayed in the back of the room caught her eyes, and she looked down again in fear. “When Lord Shimura ordered all babies in Tsushima born within the last week with a soul-mark on their fingers to present themselves at the Castle with no reason given, I thought…” she trailed off with a gulp and a sob.

Nahoko sighed. “Dear brother. Ever to the point, and only the point.”

“He is your brother,” Kazumasa muttered. He forced a smile. “Tazuko-san, was it? Your son Ryuzo and my son Jin are bound by Fate. Fate cannot be denied, but I’ve been told that it can be shaped. I invite you and your family to live at Omi Village. We will provide you with a generous living stipend. Your son will grow up as my son’s companion. Should he have the aptitude for a bow and blade, we will name him to the ranks of our kashindan. If he doesn’t—” Kazumasa shrugged. “Surely some other respectable work for him can be found.”

“O-oh. Oh.” Tazuko bowed deeply again, biting down another sob. “I-it will be as you say, my Lord.”

As a pair of kashindan led Tazuko and her child away, Kazumasa exhaled with irritation in the silence of the room. “May the boy grow to be less timid than his mother.”

Nahoko cuddled Jin as Jin burbled and reached for the closed door. “It’s hardly her fault. First rushed here from Castle Shimura despite having just given birth, no doubt after being interrogated by my brother, then us confronting her like this in a room with your armour and swords behind us. She must have thought we wanted her and her son dead.”

“Ah. Yes. Perhaps we should’ve made kinder arrangements. It was a shock for us to see the soul-mark on our son’s finger, but I recognise that isn’t an excuse. I’ll apologise to her personally tomorrow for our rudeness,” Kazumasa said, a little embarrassed. He took the child carefully from Nahoko as she stifled a yawn. “Rest. You’ve had a long day. Yuriko, take Nahoko back to her room.”

Yuriko entered the room unobtrusively with a deep bow and made straight for Nahoko, supporting her gently to her feet. Nahoko smiled as Kazumasa got up. “Don’t drop him,” she teased.

“You always accuse me of the most heinous things out of nowhere,” he shot back. Nahoko laughed and allowed Yuriko to walk her away.

The boy in his arms giggled and pulled curiously at his kimono as Kazumasa rocked him, walking them both to the black clan armour. Jin went quiet, looking up at the scowling mask in open curiosity but without fear, reaching for it with a tiny hand. The polished armour ate at their reflections: a tall, broad-shouldered man with a strong jaw, and a baby with something of the man in his eyes.

“Someday,” Kazumasa said, chuckling, “but not yet. Wait your turn. As to that boy…” Kazumasa’s good humour faded. “May he grow to be worthy of the bond you share.” The Gods had played a cruel trick on both boys, but Kazumasa would see to it that Jin wasn’t the one who would suffer the consequences.

#

“Ryuzo,” Jin said with an anxious glance up into the tree, “be careful. If you fall, you’ll break something.”

“I won’t. I’m invincible.” Ryuzo hauled himself up to another branch and stifled a squeak as his foot slipped, nearly tipping him out of the tree if not for a quick grab for another branch. Below, Jin cried out at the same time he did. “Almost there.”

“Ryuzo!”

“Stop yelling, or you’ll bring your father down on our heads,” Ryuzo muttered. He had no fear of the kind and forgiving Lady Nahoko, or the stern but fair Lord Shimura, but Lord Kazumasa always watched Ryuzo as though measuring him against an invisible standard.

“What if you break your neck?” Jin asked, wringing his hands.

“Then you and your family will finally be free of me, hm?” Ryuzo grit out, annoyed by Jin’s fretting. Jin gasped. Ryuzo looked down and blinked at the sight of Jin running off in tears. He smacked his palm against his forehead and kept climbing. For a boy of seven, Jin still cried more than little girls their age. Often for reasons Ryuzo couldn’t even fathom.

He got to the branch he aimed for after a lot of cursing. As the owners of the nest cheeped anxiously at him from a high branch, Ryuzo carefully took the chick from inside his kimono and set it in the nest. “There. Don’t fall out again next time,” he told it. Ryuzo made his way down the tree, watching where he put his feet. By the time he reached the lowest branch, Yuriko stood with her arms crossed beneath the tree, frowning up at him.

“There you are,” Yuriko said, pressing her lips into a thin line. “What did you say to Jin this time?”

“Nothing,” Ryuzo said, sitting on the branch.

Yuriko glanced up the tree at the nest and back. “Stealing from a nest? That’s unkind of you.”

Ryuzo fought the urge to roll his eyes. Yuriko tended to take her cues from the master of the house. She babied Jin, but Jin only. “I don’t have to justify myself to you. You’re just an attendant.”

“Does that make you better than me?” Yuriko said, tilting her head. “You’re not one of the kashindan yet, boy.”

Ryuzo opened his mouth to say that he had no intention of being anyone’s kashindan, only for a fluffy blur to drop past the branch. “No!” He made a grab for the chick, only to lose his balance and fall off the branch.

The ground rushed up to meet him with bone-breaking speed. Yuriko caught him with a grunt, staggering under his weight and going sprawling. Ryuzo scrambled away from her, looking around wildly. Then he sat back with a frustrated sound of grief. The chick lay unmoving on the grass, its neck broken.

Yuriko knelt beside him. “Ryuzo?” she said, with a gentleness Ryuzo had never heard from her toward him.

“I found it on a low branch. Must have jumped out of the nest. I thought I’d return it. Why did it jump again? It couldn’t yet fly.”

“It didn’t jump,” Yuriko said, looking up at the nest. The birds perched beside the nest, staring down at them watchfully. “They pushed it out.”

“What? Why?”

“You must have handled it with your bare hands. Some animals don’t like that.”

“So I shouldn’t have tried to help it at all?” Ryuzo said, horrified.

Yuriko patted him on the head. “We should always try to be kind. Even if our kindness sometimes has unintended consequences. I’ll help you bury it if you like.”

Ryuzo shivered. “No. I don’t want to… no.” He ran off, ignoring Yuriko’s shout, running into the woods beyond the clan housing, until he reached the cemetery with its teeth of stone. He slowed down, breathing in loud gasps. His index fingers tingled a little the further he walked from Jin, but Ryuzo ignored the sensation, picking his way past the old tombs. Someday Jin would be buried here too, with descendants hauling water to clean the stone for centuries more. Ryuzo? Ryuzo would be lucky to be remembered. Just like his dead mother and unknown father.

“Pushed out of the nest,” Ryuzo muttered, rubbing his eyes as he walked. He found himself making his way down the stairs to the platform where the clan heads were buried, their memorial stones staring down at him. He made a rude gesture at them and stomped around one of the larger stones—Jin’s grandfather’s—and sat behind it, crossing his legs and staring at the sky. Warm day. Ryuzo folded his arms and closed his eyes.

He woke to a body snuggled close, Jin sleeping with his cheek pillowed over Ryuzo’s shoulder, one hand loosely clasped with Ryuzo’s. His rucked-up sleeves sent a brilliant wash of golden yellow over Ryuzo’s sober grey clothes. The red cradle of soul-marks shifted on their skin as Ryuzo moved, disappearing as he pulled his hand away. He flicked Jin on the forehead. “Aren’t you too old for this?”

Jin blinked awake but didn’t move. “I thought you ran away,” he mumbled.

“If I were going to run away, I’d pack supplies.” Ryuzo looked up at the bleak, cloudless night. What time was it? “Damn. Did you tell anyone you were coming after me?”

“No?”

“Jin! Your parents will be frantic by now,” Ryuzo said, scrambling to his feet and hauling Jin to his. “You’d better get back.”

“What about you?”

Ryuzo scowled. “No one’s going to miss an orphan. I’ll sit out here for a while. It’s a nice night.”

“I’ll miss you. Come. We’ll walk back together.”

“I’m not in the mood for a scolding,” Ryuzo said.

“I’ll tell them it’s my fault.”

“When has that ever worked?” Ryuzo scoffed. “Just go. If they have to search for you through the night, we’ll both regret it.”

Jin’s eyes grew wet. “Why do you think I want to get rid of you?”

“I didn’t say that,” Ryuzo said, exasperated. “Don’t your ears work?”

“You think my family doesn’t like you?”

Ryuzo laughed, shaking his head and looking away. “I’m a motherless bastard of a peasant, Jin. I know they don’t like me. Your parents hoped that the baby born with a matching soul-mark to their precious son’s would be a little girl of high birth. They got me. Lucky for all of us, hm?”

Jin frowned at him. “I think I’m lucky. Very few people are blessed with soul-marks.”

“A favourite subject of tragedies, I’ve heard.”

“Is that what you think this is? A tragedy?” Jin made a grab for Ryuzo’s palm. Ryuzo sidestepped him easily, and as Jin tried again, Ryuzo growled and pushed Jin away from him. With a yelp, Jin overbalanced, slipping against the steep incline behind them and falling over the edge.

“Jin!” Ryuzo didn’t even think. He lunged over, tackling Jin and cradling the other boy against him, shielding his head and gritting his teeth as they tumbled down the slope. Tree roots clawed at their clothes. The world spun until Ryuzo’s shoulders slammed against a sapling near the base of the hill, snapping it. Ryuzo bit down his yelp, anxiously checking Jin over. “Are you all right?”

Jin looked stunned. Other than mud ruining his fine clothes and a torn sleeve, he looked unhurt in the dim light. “I… I think so. Just a little bruised. What about you?”

Pain burned down his back, his kimono sticking to his skin. Blood, maybe. Ryuzo got to his feet and brushed himself down. “I’m fine. We’d better—” He stopped at the sound of shouts, as people holding torches rushed over.

It was Yuriko, along with several clan kashindan. She gasped as she saw them, rushing over. “Lord Sakai! Are you all right?”

“We’re fine,” Jin said, getting up.

One of the kashindan glanced up at the slope and back down. “Fell from up there? Lord Sakai, you’re lucky that you didn’t break your skull. Were the two of you fighting?”

“It was an accident,” Jin said, slow and determined, “and it was my fault.”

“Samurai aren’t meant to lie,” Ryuzo said, clapping Jin on his shoulder. “Go home, Lord Sakai.” He couldn’t keep the mocking edge from his tone.

Jin stiffened as the kashindan murmured angrily among themselves. “What about you? Aren’t you coming?”

“I’m going to take a walk.” Ryuzo made a shooing motion. With open reluctance, Jin walked away with the kashindan, occasionally throwing a pleading look over his shoulder at Ryuzo. Ryuzo waved until Jin was out of sight, then he said, “Why are you still here?”

“You probably need something for your back,” Yuriko said, circling him.

“It’ll keep.”

She huffed. “Learn how to accept kindness gracefully when it’s offered, boy.”

“The same ‘kindness’ offered to my mother?”

Yuriko stared at him. “What? Tazuko-san, rest her soul, passed of illness. The clan spared no expense on her behalf.”

“The illness was just the end,” Ryuzo said. Young as he was, he’d seen how desperately unhappy his mother was to be uprooted away from her family and friends in the south and transplanted to Omi Village. Her sadness poisoned their hearth, soured every breath and gesture between them, until at last, it drowned her.

Yuriko set her lips into a grim line. “Whatever slight you think was made to your mother, Jin would’ve been innocent of it.”

He knew that. Hadn’t Ryuzo just jumped off after Jin? Still, Ryuzo wasn’t about to give Yuriko the satisfaction. He curled his lip. “Isn’t he the reason why I’m even here?” Ryuzo turned his back on Yuriko, stalking down the road to the river. He flinched as she tossed something soft that bounced off his head.

“Put that on your wounds,” Yuriko told him, heading back toward the clan estates without a further word. Ryuzo pulled a face at her back but picked up the pouch.

At the stream, Ryuzo swore under his breath as he looked at the mess that tree roots had made of his back. Yuriko’s salve helped numb the pain, but he didn’t use all of it. The rest would go into the bag Ryuzo had been packing since his mother had died, that he’d hidden under their house. It still ached to imagine a life without Jin, but once that eased, Ryuzo intended to be far away from here.

#

“Jin!” Ryuzo pressed his palms to his knees, exhaling loudly in relief as he found Jin curled in a ball in the hollow of a tree. “There you are. Hai. Usually, I’m the one running away. Don’t change the pattern.”

“Go away,” Jin mumbled without looking up.

Ryuzo ignored him, squeezing into the tree. It was a poor fit for two growing boys, which meant squishing Jin into the flaking bark. Jin shuddered as Ryuzo tentatively curled an arm over his shoulders, stroking his hair. “Sorry about your mother,” Ryuzo said. The illness had broken Lady Nahoko down in relentless degrees, first taking away her gentle calm, her beauty, then her voice, shattering it at the end into terrible wet gasps. It’d been hard to watch, even for Ryuzo. Lady Nahoko had always tried to be kind to him in her own way.

“She’s not dead,” Jin muttered. “She’s still out here somewhere.”

“Jin.”

“She isn’t dead!” Jin yelled at him, trying to scramble free. He snarled as Ryuzo pinned him, holding him tight as Jin struggled like a cornered animal, kicking and biting.

“Would you just… calm… down!” Ryuzo hissed, holding on until Jin’s furious energy left him, until he was shaking uncontrollably in Ryuzo’s grip. “Calm. Down. Please.”

“I can’t lose her,” Jin mumbled. “She loves me. She must still be out here, lost.”

“She’s gone, Jin,” Ryuzo said as firmly as he could. “You’ve still got your father. And Yuriko, and the others.”

Jin began shaking his head, trying to wriggle free. Ryuzo grabbed his palms, wreathing their fingers together. The red cradle wove up their arms from the red soul-marks on their index fingers, shifting as Ryuzo raised one of their linked arms. “You’ve got me,” Ryuzo said gruffly.

Jin’s shivering eased. “You mean that?”

Ryuzo laughed. “Do all these lines look like I have a choice?”

“Of course.” Jin’s fingers tightened against him. “You pull away from me all the time. Some days, I’m not even sure whether you like me.”

Ryuzo leaned his chin on Jin’s shoulder. “You could make yourself more likeable. That would help.”

“How?”

“How? You just bit me,” Ryuzo said, nodding at a reddened mark on his arm. “What are you, a dog?”

Jin flushed. “I… I’m sorry. That was uncalled for.”

“I was joking. Move, I’m overheating.” Ryuzo dragged Jin out of the hollow of the tree, pulling him back toward the clan estates. The red threads stretched and eased between their linked hands as they walked. “Good thing we have this so I could find you,” Ryuzo said with a gesture at their fingers. “You wouldn’t have lasted a night out here in the cold.”

Jin squeezed his hand tightly. “Ryuzo. When your… when you lost your mother. Does it feel… no. Forget what I said. It’s impolite.”

“Only you would still be worried about being polite.” Ryuzo bumped his shoulder into Jin’s. “What is it?”

“It isn’t the same,” Jin mumbled.

For a burning moment, Ryuzo wanted to strike him. “Why?” Ryuzo asked coldly. “Because you think your mother loved you more than mine did me?”

“No!” Jin clung to Ryuzo’s hand as Ryuzo tried to pull away. “Not at all. Just. You’re stronger than me. You didn’t even cry at all, and we were years younger than now.”

“Strength had nothing to do with it,” Ryuzo said with a bitter laugh. He’d had longer to get used to the prospect of his mother’s death. When it’d come, it’d been a relief to the both of them. He walked Jin back to the Clan estates in silence, gently pushing Jin toward a grey-faced Lord Kazumasa as he rushed out from the main house to greet them. As Lord Kazumasa drew Jin into a tight hug, Ryuzo snuck off to find a warm and quiet roof to lie on.

Annoyingly enough, Yuriko found him. Though she also brought a small tray of dango. “Thank you,” she said, setting the plate beside him.

“He was wandering the woods looking for Lady Nahoko,” Ryuzo said, taking one of the sticks. “I’d be more worried if I were you. Try leashing him to a heavy piece of furniture until it passes.”

Yuriko lay down on the roof beside him. She looked worn-out, dressed in mourning clothes. “I used to think that you were a cruel and selfish child,” she said, folding her hands over her belly and looking up at the clouds. “That your fate-bond with Jin—a boy who’s very much your opposite—was an ugly joke played on him by the Gods.”

Ryuzo sniffed. He’d heard the same sentiment expressed now and then by the kashindan, sometimes to his face. “It is quite a funny joke, isn’t it?”

“I think you’re a lonely boy afraid of becoming more lonely. That’s why you keep testing the people who love you.” Yuriko glanced at him evenly. “You’re still a child, and callousness is forgivable. But the way you are now, eaten by bitterness and resentment even at your age—you’ll grow into a hollow creature. Never satisfied, never happy.”

“Are you speaking from experience?” Ryuzo said, hoping to goad Yuriko into leaving him alone.

“I might be,” Yuriko said. Ryuzo blinked, startled enough to jerk up onto an elbow. Yuriko turned back to the clouds, pensive. “Some things in life are difficult to ask for. It’s still human to yearn for them, to wish and to hope until the wishing and hoping becomes less and less innocent. More and more unforgivable.”

“You?” Ryuzo said, confused.

Yuriko didn’t answer him for a while, then she smiled sadly and closed her eyes. “Eat your dango, boy.”

#

Ryuzo waited until all the mourners left before walking over to stand with Jin, picking uncomfortably at the new mourning clothes that Yuriko had hustled him into in the morning. “Jin,” he said. When Jin didn’t respond, staring blankly ahead, Ryuzo glanced behind them to check that they were alone, then gently grasped Jin’s hand.

“I wish you'd been there,” Jin mumbled. “You’d have had the courage to do the right thing.”

“We could’ve done nothing even if I’d been there. We’re children. You barely have the strength to raise a katana. Your father’s attacker killed him in single combat, and your father was hardly an average swordsman by any measure.”

Jin’s hand clenched tightly over Ryuzo’s hand. “If only I’d been stronger.”

“We’re children. It is what it is.”

“He called for me to help him.” Jin gulped. “Right before the end.”

“What?” Ryuzo said, incredulous. “With the bandits still there?”

“I should have—”

“What kind of a parent would betray the location of their child to a murderer? You could’ve been killed!”

“Ryuzo,” Jin said, startled by the venom in Ryuzo’s tone.

“Had you rushed out to what, beat on the bandits with a bokken, you would have been killed.” Ryuzo glared at the memorial stone, his jaw working. “What an ass.”

“My father was a great man,” Jin said angrily, jerking his hand away from Ryuzo. “How dare you disrespect him like this. On this day, of all days. Kneel and apologise.”

Ryuzo curled his lip. “Ah, there it is. I was wondering when it’d come. The day when you become Lord Sakai, and remember that your friend Ryuzo is only a peasant. Well, have at it, my Lord. May I be excused?”

Jin stared at him. “Apologise. Now.”

“Or what? You’ll call for your kashindan? Your uncle, perhaps? Have me flogged? That’s what you samurai-class like to do to people who offend you, hm?”

“Ryuzo—”

The sound of a quiet step over the stone had Ryuzo instinctively stepping in front of Jin and shoving Jin behind him, his hand twitching for the bokken he hadn’t been allowed to carry today. He blinked as he recognised Lord Shimura, bowing. “Lord Shimura.”

Lord Shimura wore an unreadable expression on his stern face as he studied the both of them, walking over. “Jin. Ryuzo.”

“Uncle,” Jin said, moving to stand beside Ryuzo. He looked more nervous than Ryuzo felt. Badmouthing Lord Kazumasa before his grave to Jin was one thing, but before the Jitō of the island…

“I thought to mention this to you later, but a matter has come up, and I’ll have to leave for Castle Shimura tomorrow morning. I want you to come and live with me. As my ward,” Lord Shimura said.

Jin blinked. “I… I’m grateful for your care, and honoured by your concern.”

Lord Shimura patted Jin on his shoulder; then he looked over at Ryuzo. “As to your friend—”

“Can’t he come with me as well?” Jin asked quickly. “You’ve seen for yourself how well he’s progressing with a bow and a blade.”

Lord Shimura glanced away over their heads at the new memorial stone. “Ryuzo has a reputation as an unmanageable troublemaker, even at his tender age.”

“I’m right here,” Ryuzo growled.

“To be frank,” Lord Shimura said, looking Ryuzo sternly in the eye, “you are not the sort of companion I would prefer for any member of my family, let alone my sister’s only son.”

“Uncle,” Jin said, anxious enough that his hand instinctively sought Ryuzo’s, the threads lashing up their wrists for a second before Ryuzo hastily pulled free. “The stories you’ve heard are malicious and overblown.”

“Your father warned me about your friend,” Lord Shimura said, studying Ryuzo keenly, then Jin. “Knowing that, do you still want to take him with us?”

“Ryuzo is more than a friend to me. He’s my brother. He’s family,” Jin said, clenching his hands. “If he won’t be going, then neither am I.”

Jin,” Ryuzo snapped. Jin ignored him, staring steadily at his uncle.

Lord Shimura smiled, thankfully more amused than annoyed. “Loyalty is a fine thing, but it should not be unreasonably given. I’ll see you both tomorrow morning,” he said, and made his way back over the steps.

Ryuzo let out a loud breath once he was sure Lord Shimura was out of earshot. “If your mother were here, she’d have cuffed your ear. Talking to her brother like that.”

“No,” Jin said, looking down the slope. “She’d have told off her brother for listening to rumours and hearsay.”

“Hearsay from her husband,” Ryuzo pointed out. He’d been aware of Lord Kazumasa's dislike, but hadn't realised it had run so deeply. Huh. Maybe he should’ve known.

“My mother would’ve said that my father was wrong about you,” Jin said, glancing at Ryuzo, then over his shoulder, his jaw clenching. “Maybe about other things as well.”

#

Life in Castle Shimura was more interesting than Omi Village. For one thing, the other children lacked the automatic deference that everyone in Omi Village paid to Jin. The children of other vassal lords lived and trained there, and to them, nephew of the Jitō or not, Jin was a soft target. In the space of a few months, Ryuzo had learned far more tricks about dirty fighting than he’d ever had to, just to get them both out of scrapes with minimal bruising.

As they lost the other children in the forest and walked over to their favourite fishing spot, Jin said, “My uncle’s started training me personally.”

“I know.” Jin had gotten noticeably better over the last few weeks.

“I’ll practice with you. That way, you’d learn as well.”

“Secondhand knowledge?” Ryuzo said, amused. “That’d work out well.”

Jin frowned down at his hands. “You’re right. I might not be a good teacher at all. I’ll ask my uncle to include you in the lessons.”

“Don’t bother. He won’t agree.” The year so far wouldn’t have made Lord Shimura any more inclined to change his opinion about Ryuzo. “I’m surprised he didn’t suggest sending me away.”

“He won’t. If he does, I’ll go as well.”

“You? No. You’re staying here. Your uncle is one of the finest swordsmen in Tsushima, and he’s invested in you becoming at least as good as he is.”

“He’s a good man,” Jin said.

“Probably.” Ryuzo had thought Lord Kazumasa to be a decent man as well, if perhaps stern and unforgiving, until the moment he’d nearly gotten his son killed.

“This is nice, isn’t it? Living here like this.”

“Dodging Eiji and the others every day? Sure.”

“Once I’m better, they’ll leave us alone. I mean. Living with family. It’s a good feeling.”

Ryuzo laughed. “Lord Shimura is your family, not mine. You’re his ward now, because he has no heir. Once he remarries some pretty samurai-class noblewoman and has a son, he’ll forget all about you.”

Jin stared at Ryuzo in shock. “Take that back.”

“You know it’s true. The people of your class are obsessed with family names. You’re a Sakai, not a Shimura… Jin!” Ryuzo called out as Jin let out a strangled sound and turned, running off into the woods. Annoyed, Ryuzo rolled his eyes and kept walking. He’d hoped Jin had gotten over his strange tendency to run away from things he didn’t like to hear.

By late evening, when Jin was still nowhere to be seen, Ryuzo grumbled to himself. He could feel Jin as a boy-shaped impression in the world, not too far from the castle grounds. As he climbed up crates stacked against the wall to peek over the edge, Ryuzo could make out Jin standing disconsolately by the moat. With a frustrated sigh, Ryuzo looked over his shoulder. If he ran, he could probably make it out of the gate and to Jin before they closed up for the night.

He hesitated as he recognised Lord Shimura striding down the road toward Jin. Ryuzo watched for a while to try and make out how much trouble Jin was in. When it didn’t look like Jin was being scolded, he slipped off the crates to play with the castle dogs. In the morning, there was a strange reserve between them that hadn’t been there before, but Ryuzo didn’t bother apologising. It wasn’t as though he’d said anything that wasn’t true.

#

The reserve between them cracked wider as they grew older and apart. Ryuzo had expected something of the sort eventually—his mother had warned him as much—but it still hurt when Jin had less and less time for him. Ward or not, Jin was being groomed for the position of Jitō. Ryuzo told himself it didn’t matter. Besides, life in the castle was no longer the two of them against the rest. Being willing to train longer and harder than any of the other children had earned Ryuzo the grudging respect of the kashindan kids. They raced horses in the woods, staged mock-battles in the fields, and drank cheap sake by the river as they fished.

“Is it strange?” Yuichi asked as they watched the water. “The akai ito.” He gestured at Ryuzo’s soul-marked finger.

“You get used to it,” Ryuzo said with practised indifference. The samurai-class kids had jeered at him and Jin over it when they’d first come to the castle, asking whether Ryuzo was the husband or the wife. Breaking the nose of the boy who’d said it first had been satisfying, even if it’d earned Ryuzo a beating.

“I’d have thought it’s more of a nuisance,” said Masashi. “Bad enough when it’s between men and women. You hear all those stories about inevitable marriages or… ah. Sorry, Ryuzo. I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m cursing you.”

“It is a nuisance,” Ryuzo said. He’d never said this out loud before, and giving voice to it felt like a relief. “My mother was uprooted from her village and brought to the Sakai lands because of the akai ito, where she died friendless. I’ll be stuck in Jin’s shadow for the rest of our lives. It’d have been easier if I were a girl. Or maybe not.” If he’d been a peasant girl, this would’ve been even worse.

“Lord Sakai could’ve petitioned the shōgun for the right to marry you if you’d been a woman. It’s been done before,” Yuichi said.

“I wasn’t thinking about that. Don’t you think it’s sad? Two people being bound to each other by fate no matter what they do. Even if one of them is a monster, or cruel, or worse. Even if they might want to have their own lives. Marriage is already a gamble. This?” Ryuzo held up his palm, wiggling his fingers. “This is the Gods, laughing.”

“Life as one of the kashindan isn’t so bad,” Yuichi said, patting Ryuzo on the shoulder. “If you stay in Castle Shimura, you’ll have us.”

“Some friends you are. You can’t even catch anything,” Ryuzo said, nodding at their empty baskets compared to his. He smirked as Masashi growled and shoved him hard, making him twist around to steady his balance with a palm. As Ryuzo righted himself, he thought he saw a flash of yellow through the trees, but as he tried to concentrate, Yuichi splashed him with water. Affecting a roar of mock outrage, Ryuzo tackled Yuichi into the river.

#

“What happened to not wanting to send me away?” Ryuzo said as Jin found him packing up his things.

Jin wore a strained expression over his face. “It wasn’t my idea.”

“I don’t see you making good on your threat to come with me,” Ryuzo said with a pointed glance at Jin’s fine clothes.

“This isn’t a punishment. Lord Watanabe offered to train you personally. Maybe even adopt you. That’ll make you one of the samurai-class. It’s an opportunity. Why should I stand in your way?”

“Is that what your uncle told you?” Ryuzo laughed. “You’re naive.”

“What do you mean?” Jin gripped Ryuzo’s elbow. “If you think Lord Watanabe isn’t honest about his offer, I’ll talk to my uncle.”

“A daimyo lord will never adopt a peasant boy as his son,” Ryuzo said, scoffing. “That’s just a sweet little piece of bait that they dangled before you so you’d accept this for what it is. A way to kick me out of Castle Shimura without you making a fuss.”

Jin let out a shaky laugh. He turned away from Ryuzo, hugging himself. “I wanted to be happy for you. Now you’ve made it worse all over again.”

“You mean you weren’t happy for me even when you thought the offer was genuine?” Ryuzo wasn’t sure what to think about that. He hadn’t been as close to Jin as they were when they were children, but he hadn’t thought things were this bad.

“I tried to be, but. I couldn’t be happy about you going away, for any reason. I’ve been busy with bureaucratic matters, but it was always comforting knowing you were close by. Even if we don’t see each other as often as I’d have liked.”

“Mentioned this to your uncle, did you?” Ryuzo asked with a wry curl to his mouth. He should’ve known.

“Now and then,” Jin said, oblivious. ”You were already becoming so much friendlier with the others than with me.”

“Jin.” Ryuzo tugged Jin over. He clasped their hands together and pressed their entwined hands between them, the bond between them growing manifest. “You see this, don’t you? The Gods decided that we can never be apart. Not forever.”

“You wish it never happened,” Jin muttered.

“I do?”

“I heard you that day in the woods. With Yuichi and Masashi.”

“That’s not what I said. Clean out your ears.”

“You said it was a nuisance. Called it the Gods laughing,” Jin shot back, his eyes growing wet.

“Aren’t you too old to be a crybaby?” Ryuzo poked Jin on the nose. “Aww. Did you cry that day too?”

“Yes,” Jin said, lifting his chin. “The whole night.”

“Oh, for…” Ryuzo groaned, resting his forehead against their knuckles. “You are a nuisance. The Gods are laughing at us. But you know what? I’m laughing at them too.” Ryuzo pulled Jin closer. “Because what they’ve done is bind us together in a way nobody can break. Not your uncle, or me, or the other lords or anyone. We belong together, and that will never change.”

Jin swallowed a sob. He leaned in at the same time Ryuzo did, the kiss clumsy until Ryuzo let go of Jin and tugged him into an embrace. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, as inevitable as the rest of their lives had been together. They kissed like drowning people, clutching at each other for air. Jin stroked his cheek, panting between kisses. “I’m coming with you,” he said.

“No, you’re not. You’re staying here.” Ryuzo kissed Jin between the eyes as he stiffened. “Your uncle’s presumptive heir.”

“I don’t care about that.”

“You do. He’s the most important person in your life.” Ryuzo could see that. Jin loved Lord Shimura more than he’d loved his actual father. Not that Ryuzo blamed him. Given the same choices, Lord Shimura would’ve died rather than give a bandit the chance to murder a child.

You’re the most important person in my life,” Jin said, squeezing their hands together meaningfully. “I’ll name you to my clan kashindan. That way, you can’t leave.”

“I don’t want to be one of the kashindan,” Ryuzo said, having seen how they lived. Glorified armed servants, for whom service was meant to be a great honour. Not even for Jin.

“What then?” Jin said, surprised.

“I don’t know,” Ryuzo admitted. He’d once harboured hopes of becoming one of the samurai. Just like Jin. Yet Jin’s life was no freer than that of the kashindan, or the peasants, or even Lord Shimura’s. Society built strictures around them all that weighed them down, a weight that Ryuzo found stifling. “I guess I’m still thinking about it.”

Jin looked so adorably confused that Ryuzo stole a kiss as he frowned. “You want to live like Ishikawa-sensei?” he asked doubtfully.

“What? That cantankerous old hermit? No.” Ryuzo and Jin had once been sent to Ishikawa-sensei by Lord Shimura, who’d been hoping that the legendary archer would take one or both of them as a pupil. Ryuzo would never forget those gimlet eyes glowering at them both as they shot at targets for his measure, then finding them wanting and saying so.

“Then?”

“I’ll think about it.” Ryuzo kissed Jin again as Jin started to object. “This isn’t so bad. If Lord Watanabe’s willing to train me personally like he’s said, I’d get better more quickly there than I will here.”

“You still want to go?” Jin said, hurt.

“I can’t see any way out of it without annoying at least two lords. Besides,” Ryuzo said as Jin tensed, “it might be fun.”

“I’m a lord as well,” Jin said, scowling. “It doesn’t please me to see you sent halfway across Tsushima.”

“I’ll visit. So could you.” Ryuzo kissed their linked hands. “Jin. Look at this. Whatever happens, we won’t be apart forever. Whether we like it or not.”

#

Lord Watanabe had struck Ryuzo as a formidable, inflexible fortress of a person when they’d been introduced. Which made the number of ronin in his small retinue a strange sight. What sort of daimyo lord employed ronin when he had kashindan? Once out of sight of Castle Shimura, the ronin leader Kosei, a man in a dark kimono and a straw hat, rode up to Lord Watanabe’s side and said something that made Lord Watanabe laugh, his mouth twitching into a fleeting smile. Strange.

An hour into the ride, Kosei drew his horse up beside Ryuzo’s. “You’ve been staring at me all this while, Ryuzo. Am I that interesting?” he asked, grinning as Ryuzo flushed.

“I’ve never seen ronin before,” Ryuzo said. He’d tried to be subtle about it.

“Ah, really? I suppose you might not have had the opportunity to travel around Tsushima. You’d have seen us everywhere if you did. I have Straw Hats keeping an eye on several things.”

“Why?” Ryuzo said, surprised.

“Because our lord and master, Lord Watanabe, is a man of surpassing curiosity in all manner of things,” Kosei said, loud enough that Lord Watanabe huffed from the front of the entourage.

“You spy on Tsushima?” Ryuzo blinked. “What for? Aren’t we at peace?”

“Well,” Kosei said, drawing himself up and imitating Lord Watanabe’s gruff voice, “Kosei, smugglers are a blight on our beautiful island. They don’t just bring corruption and iniquity to our shores, they… you laugh? How dare you make light of this rot in our society?”

“Enough,” Lord Watanabe said as Ryuzo bent over his saddle, gasping for breath. “We’re supposed to be a good influence on this boy, not make him worse.”

“Good luck with that,” Kosei said, grinning. “Besides, this isn’t going to work as well as Lord Shimura thinks. Didn’t you see the look on Lord Sakai’s face when we were leaving? I thought the boy was going to burst into tears. Or ride out after us.”

“Don’t be disrespectful,” Lord Watanabe said.

“I’m surprised he held it in,” Ryuzo said. He couldn’t sound as casual as he’d hoped: Ryuzo himself couldn’t look at Jin when they rode off. Their separation ached. Since knowing each other, they’d never been this far apart.

“He’ll have to get used to many things as he gets older. As will you,” Lord Watanabe said.

#

Ryuzo trained first with Kosei, then with Lord Watanabe—not that a daimyo lord had much time for training. Lord Watanabe had interests all over Tsushima: not just smugglers, but the perennial problem of banditry, of possible civil problems in Yarikawa, even internecine strife between clans. He reported some of the issues to Lord Shimura but handled the majority himself with Kosei, taking care to include Ryuzo now and then in their discussions. Ryuzo wasn’t sure why. Did Lord Watanabe want Ryuzo to replace Kosei?

“Replace him?” Lord Watanabe sniffed as Ryuzo ventured this opinion as they sparred. “No one can replace him. Watch your footing. Better.”

“What, then? You won’t adopt someone of low birth as your son,” Ryuzo said. Lord Watanabe was still unmarried, but other samurai clans sent their daughters over all the time—or invited him over to their lands for flimsy reasons. Azamo Bay and its surrounding holdings were fertile and lush, making Lord Watanabe one of the wealthier minor daimyo lords.

Lord Watanabe gave him a look of amusement. “Won’t I?” he said. He struck Ryuzo’s guard vigorously as Ryuzo faltered in surprise, breaking it and smacking Ryuzo hard enough across the ribs to bruise. “Pay attention.”

“Life doesn’t work that way,” Ryuzo said, annoyed. He dodged another strike, slapping the flat of his bokken into the back of Lord Watanabe’s knee and making him stumble. He would’ve struck Lord Watanabe across his back if the lord hadn’t rolled free.

“Better,” Lord Watanabe said, shifting his grip on his bokken. An obvious tell. Ryuzo dodged out of the way of the first two heavy swings but caught the third jab in his gut, sending him staggering and wheezing. “Life isn’t as set in stone as you think.”

“You’re only doing this because of the akai ito,” Ryuzo said, grimacing and straightening, bringing up his bokken. “Without it, you’d have tossed me to Kosei and the Straw Hats to train.”

“If Kojiro were a willing teacher, he’d be a better teacher for you than me,” Lord Watanabe said, not even denying it.

“Him? He’d probably beat any student you send him to death.”

“I know. That’s why you’re here. Yes, in part, it’s because of the akai ito. Lord Shimura would prefer to ignore its existence, but that won’t be possible.” Lord Watanabe came at him with sweeping slices, a graceful dance even when traced in wood. Ryuzo parried what he could, wincing as the bokken caught him on his thigh and arms. “Pay attention.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Ryuzo said, frustrated and annoyed.

Lord Watanabe looked at him strangely. “I can guess. Isn’t that enough?”

Ryuzo complained to Kosei afterwards as they soaked in an onsen, surveying his new bruises. “He means well,” Kosei said, chuckling and utterly unsympathetic. “You taking over the Straw Hats, though, that’s an interesting idea.”

“I don’t want to,” Ryuzo said quickly. He tried to stay on Kosei’s good side—the man was fun to be around, always quick with a quip or with a drink.

“I might as well start looking for a successor. Then I can retire somewhere nice, fish, drink sake all day, and keep chickens.”

“You? Foxes will eat all the chickens in no time. Besides, Lord Watanabe said you couldn’t be replaced.”

“This isn’t the replacing that he meant,” Kosei said, but smiled and refused to elaborate.

#

“I thought you’d hold out for longer,” Ryuzo said as he met Jin at the gate of Azamo Bay. “It’s only been what, half a year?”

“I missed you,” Jin said, dismounting and leading his horse over to Ryuzo. “You could have answered my letters.”

“I’m not interested in providing any number of people between here and Castle Shimura with entertainment.”

Jin frowned, lowering his voice. “You don’t trust Lord Watanabe? Are you all right?”

“I don’t trust his sense of curiosity. Did you know that he’s your uncle’s spymaster?”

“What?” Jin said, blinking. “But he’s a daimyo lord. Spying is dishonourable.”

“I didn’t mean it that way. Before you ask, yes, I’m fine. My bladework’s even improved. We should have a match.”

“What did you mean, then?” Jin said, stubborn as ever.

Belatedly, Ryuzo noticed Jin was alone. “Wait. Did you ride down here from Castle Shimura by yourself?”

“What about it?”

Jin. There’s been bandit activity near the coast! We’re still trying to trace their leadership to somewhere near Umugi Cove.”

“We?” Jin repeated, frowning. “What have you been up to?”

“Did Lord Shimura agree for you to ride here by yourself?”

“I just told him I’d be away for a few days.”

“Perfect,” Ryuzo said, throwing up his hands with a groan. “So he doesn’t know. Worse, he doesn’t know that you’re here.”

“I don’t see why he has to know. I’m an adult and a daimyo lord in my own right,” Jin said. He tensed as Kosei stepped out behind the inner gate to Azamo Bay, chuckling as he walked over.

“Are the two of you usually so noisy? Lord Sakai, welcome to Azamo Bay. Let me get your horse,” Kosei said.

“I’ll do it,” Ryuzo said, surprised that Kosei even offered. He took the reins of Jin’s horse and led it over to the nearby stables, handing it over to a stablehand. When he returned, Jin looked puzzled as Kosei laughed over something or other.

“We’ll speak later,” Kosei said as Ryuzo drew close. “Lord Sakai, do speak to Lord Watanabe before you catch up with your friend, would you? Give him some face.”

“I will,” Jin said, looking even more bewildered. “I was just about to pay my respects.”

“Good, good.” Kosei wandered off to the stables before Ryuzo could say a word.

“What was that all about?” Ryuzo asked as they walked into the village proper.

“I don’t know. He made some joke about subtlety.”

“Annoying old man,” Ryuzo said. Kosei had been needling him ever since Jin had stated in his last letter that he was coming for a visit. “Don’t mind him and his jokes.”

“You look good,” Jin said, openly admiring Ryuzo as they made their way through the town. Mindful of Kosei’s veiled warning, Ryuzo managed not to preen.

“So do you. You no longer look like a skinny shrimp.”

Jin’s ears pinked. “I mean—” Ryuzo cleared his throat and Jin fell silent. Lord Watanabe looked amused when Jin was presented to him, but as usual, was too busy for anything more than a few quick pleasantries. Afterwards, Ryuzo led Jin to an out-of-the-way disused storage shed on the clan grounds that he’d once outfitted for himself whenever he wanted to take a quiet nap.

Pulled up into the shed, Jin stared, appalled. “Is this where you have to sleep?”

“No? I sleep in the main house,” Ryuzo said. “This is where I take a nap if I want to escape from Kosei or Lord Watanabe for a bit.”

“Why? What do they do to you?”

“You have the wrong idea about them,” Ryuzo said, chuckling at Jin’s distress. “They nag worse than old women is what they do. Ryuzo do this. Ryuzo do that. Ryuzo, what is your opinion of this tedious property dispute between a fisherman and a farmer. Ryuzo, a samurai should learn how to write haikus. Play shogi. Archery from horseback. Recite the tax code. What a pain. Is this your normal life?”

“More or less,” Jin said, blinking. “So it wasn’t bait? Lord Watanabe intends to adopt you?”

“Frankly? I can’t read him, and I don’t particularly care.” Whether Lord Watanabe was grooming Ryuzo as his successor or Kosei’s successor was a toss-up, and Ryuzo didn’t mind either way. Hard as it was to live away from Jin, life away from being ‘Lord Sakai’s Fated’ was like finally being able to breathe freely.

“I care,” Jin said with a scowl. “You shouldn’t have to be here under false pretences.”

“Things are fine. I like it here.”

“You do?” Jin’s honest face crumpled. He looked away. “I mean. I hoped that you would.”

“Why, would you rather I were suffering?” Ryuzo asked, drawing Jin into his arms.

“Did you even miss me?” Jin demanded. “Ryuzo, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t thought about riding out to see you. Especially after you never answered my letters. The only word I got about you was the occasional report from Lord Watanabe about your progress. Even then, it was only always a line or two about you improving as a swordsman.”

“Maa, you sound like a jealous young wife,” Ryuzo said, chuckling as Jin growled. “Beloved, haven’t you been thinking about me? Why don’t you answer my letters? Don’t you know you’ve been worrying me sick? Do you love your work more than me?” He snickered as Jin punched him in the arm, leaning down to kiss Jin as Jin snarled. Jin bit him, but as Ryuzo ignored the sting and kept kissing him, he melted into Ryuzo’s arms with a low moan, clutching at the back of his kimono.

They sank against the wall, then onto the old futon in a messy sprawl with Jin on top, kissing Ryuzo desperately as though scrambling for a lifeline. Ryuzo would have to lie if he said he didn’t miss Jin, missed his voice, the scent of his skin. Jin wreathed the fingers of his left hand with Ryuzo’s right, pinning the fate-linked palm beside Ryuzo’s cheek. They whispered each other’s names between kisses, a hungry tension winding tighter and tighter in Ryuzo’s gut until with a growl he flipped them over, pulling impatiently at Jin’s obi and hakama. Jin made an inquiring sound as his clothes were pulled open, then a shocked gasp as Ryuzo grasped him over his fundoshi, squeezing.

“Jin,” Ryuzo said, stroking him slowly, “have you ever thought about doing more than just kissing?”

Jin blushed, reddening all the way down his throat. “Yes,” he whispered. He pushed against Ryuzo’s grip.

“How much more?”

“Having your hand on me,” Jin breathed, scratching at the back of Ryuzo’s palm. “Mine on yours. Other things.”

“Other things? Like what?” Ryuzo grazed kisses over Jin’s cheek to his ear. “My mouth?” Jin’s stifled groan made him laugh. “Lord Sakai, what would your uncle think?”

“I will punch you if you bring him up again,” Jin said, glaring at him. “In the mouth.”

“Don’t you want to do something else to my mouth?” Ryuzo asked, grinning slyly as he kissed down Jin’s body. The musk wasn’t as choking as he thought, easing Jin’s cock from his clothes, He spat on his hand and gave Jin an experimental stroke, and Jin bucked with a yelp. “Quiet,” Ryuzo told him, pinning him down with an arm across Jin’s belly. Jin nodded, stuffing his fingers into his mouth. Lust clawed through Ryuzo at the sight, meeting Jin’s dazed stare as he leant down to lick the tip of Jin’s cock. Saltier than he thought it’d be. Ryuzo tugged at Jin the way he himself preferred, making a tight fist at the base and pulling, all the while tentatively trying to fit the thick cap into his mouth, tucking his tongue over the swollen flesh. As Ryuzo sucked, Jin let out a choked noise, his hips jerking against Ryuzo’s grip as warm fluid burst over Ryuzo’s tongue. Ryuzo jerked back, sputtering and coughing, wiping his mouth.

“Sorry… sorry,” Jin gasped. “I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry.”

“That was the idea, wasn’t it?” Ryuzo said. He’d spent enough time listening to reminiscing kashindan and ronin and their jokes to be able to piece together what two men might do with each other. His cock throbbed in his clothes, and he winced as Jin grasped him with a touch too much strength.

“Let me do that for you too,” Jin urged.

“Not so hard! Just. Wait,” Ryuzo said, removing his clothes. He showed Jin how to take them both in hand as they moved against each other, Jin quickly hardening again as they kissed and learned how to fit together. Their free hands found each other without either of them thinking it over, Ryuzo pinning their linked grip over their heads, the threads shifting under their skin as they thrust against each other until they were spent, their mingling seed cooling between them as they kissed.

“When will you come back to me?” Jin asked as they cleaned up as best they could and lay together on the futon.

“Not yet.” Ryuzo was beginning to understand why Lord Watanabe wanted him here, why he sometimes had Ryuzo draft his correspondence to Lord Shimura. Still, he didn’t want to assume. “How’s life over there? Has your uncle adopted you yet?”

“No. He’ll need approval from the shōgun, and it’ll count as a favour. Politics are involved.”

“Only just learned that, did you?”

“It’s why I rode here,” Jin said, looking up at Ryuzo from where his cheek was tucked over Ryuzo’s shoulder. “If it’s so difficult for my uncle to adopt me, what more…” He trailed off, biting on his lower lip.

“A daimyo lord adopting a peasant boy?”

“I can’t forget your words to me that day.”

“Mm.” Ryuzo petted Jin’s back. “I don’t care whether he adopts me, or is angling to employ me as kashindan, or take over as leader of the Straw Hats when Kosei retires or whatever.”

Jin jerked up onto his elbows with a glare. “Why are you willing to be his kashindan but not mine?”

“Beloved, do you like this other man more than me?” Ryuzo said, assuming a falsetto, and laughed as Jin punched him in the shoulder. “Ow, ow. Ow. Lord Sakai has gotten so much stronger over this half year. All the vinegar he’s been drinking must’ve been good for his muscles.”

“You!” Jin bit him on the throat.

Ryuzo yelped—that’d leave a mark—and wrestled Jin onto his back. As he opened his mouth to give Jin a scolding, Kosei cleared his throat outside the supply shed. “You were both invited to dinner, in case you’ve forgotten,” Kosei said, amused. “That should give the two of you enough time from now to take a bath and fix any clothes that need fixing, hm?”

Jin went very still, but Ryuzo sniffed. “Mind your own business, old man,” he called.

“See if I try to be nice to you ever again, brat,” Kosei said, wandering off.

“Told you he was an annoying old man,” Ryuzo said, even as Jin turned pale.

“If he knows, then Lord Watanabe—”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. I think everyone could see it coming. Not just them. Your uncle as well.” Ryuzo held their hands together in their laps as they sat up. “Why? Would it change anything?”

Jin looked him deeply in the eyes, the steel in him coming closer and closer to the surface with time. “No.”

#

“This is going to be a disaster,” Ryuzo said as the samurai encampment came into view, painfully small.

Lord Watanabe shot him a quelling stare. “Quiet, and watch your mouth once we’re there,” Kosei said, riding beside Ryuzo.

The flags made for a stirring sight, at least. Ryuzo searched the faces of the onlookers as they rode into the encampment for Jin’s, but didn’t see him. As Kosei and their muster split off to set up camp, Ryuzo started to follow them, only for Lord Watanabe to motion him to stay. Ryuzo gave him an inquiring look.

“You’re one of the best swordsmen in my employ, and you have a talent for detail and administration,” Lord Watanabe said as they rode slowly into the camp. “These past few years, you’ve been a fair hand at handling clan matters on my behalf.”

“Praise from you, my lord? That’s ominous,” Ryuzo said.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to do anything about your irritating tendency to speak your mind where it isn’t wanted.”

“Ouch.”

“I share your doubts,” Lord Watanabe said, looking beyond the clan flags where distant lights dotting the horizon against the sea warned them of what was coming. “Yet should the Gods see us through this war and award us with a victory, I’m willing to use our military merits to petition the shōgun on your behalf.”

“My behalf? What for?” Ryuzo said, startled.

Lord Watanabe offered Ryuzo one of his rare, faint smiles. “Kosei said that I should leave that up to you. I am, however, still in need of a son.” He inclined his head as Ryuzo gawked at him and nudged his knees into his horse’s flank, riding in a trot toward the Shimura tents.

“Does he do that often?” Ryuzo asked faintly when he located Kosei after. “Say things that kick you in the teeth without warning?”

“Lord Watanabe?” Kosei asked, without looking up from working on his tent. “Hah, all the time.”

#

Ryuzo nearly stabbed Jin with the dagger beside his futon when Jin clapped a hand over his mouth. “Shh!” Jin whispered, glancing around the small tent.

“How did you…” Ryuzo glanced to a side and noticed a breach. “Did you cut a hole in the back of my tent?”

“Would you rather I was seen going through the front?” Jin said, kneeling beside Ryuzo. He looked tired, but he smiled warmly as he looked Ryuzo over. “It took me forever to get away from the other lords.”

“You didn’t even change.” Ryuzo rapped his knuckles against one of Jin’s sode. “Shimura colours?”

You’re in Watanabe colours,” Jin muttered, still resentful after all this time.

“They’re nice. Black and gold, very stylish.”

“Clan Sakai is in black too.”

“I don’t see you wearing ‘Clan Sakai’ colours. You have no right to lecture me.” Ryuzo poked Jin’s red dō. “Besides, it might become more permanent.” He told Jin of Watanabe’s offer.

Jin brightened. “Why, that’s good news. Congratulations.”

“Is it?” Ryuzo shook his head. “I’ll believe it when it happens.”

“You think he’s lying?”

“I think we’re all going to die tomorrow, is what I think.” As Jin opened his mouth, Ryuzo reached over to slip their fingers together. He couldn’t see the threads under Jin’s armour, but they winked into sight under his sleeve. “It was good while it lasted.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I can read the odds.” Ryuzo squeezed Jin’s fingers. “Jin. If we don’t survive—”

Don’t.”

“Will you look for me in the next life?” Ryuzo pushed on, ignoring the despair that crossed Jin’s face.

“You’ve generally been better at looking for me than the other way around,” Jin said, squeezing him back. “Yes. Always.”

#

“I have good news and bad news,” Ryuzo said as he pushed into the room where Jin lay heavily bandaged on the futon.

“Ryuzo?” Jin said, blinking slowly. He tried to focus on the room. “Where am I?”

“Azamo Bay.”

“Azamo…? Did Lord Watanabe…? My uncle?”

“Good and bad news all at once then.” Ryuzo knelt beside Jin. “Your uncle’s still alive, for now. Captured by the Mongols. All the other lords, not so much.” Gods. That still hurt. The deaths of Kosei, Lord Watanabe, the others–

Jin closed his eyes. “You live. Retreated?”

“Not exactly willingly,” Ryuzo said with a mirthless laugh. “Good thing Kosei went around collecting every good swordsman around Tsushima he could find all these years, regardless of their birth. Found a few monsters. Told them to make sure I lived if he and Lord Watanabe didn’t. While they were dragging me off in the middle of battle, I made them take you with us.”

“We have to. Save my uncle.”

“One thing at a time.”

“What could be more important than that?”

“The Mongols trying to kick my door down are a bit of a greater concern for me right now,” Ryuzo said, and held Jin down as Jin gasped and tried to sit up. “No. Injured people stay down.”

“I can help.”

“You won’t, if I have to look after you while sorting through refugees, rationing food, arranging water chain rosters, organising our defence, and keeping a lid on morale. All the while not sleeping very much and wondering whether you were going to die from infection for an entire godsdamned week,” Ryuzo snapped. Jin flinched and let out a pained gasp. Hastily, Ryuzo patted his palm. “Sorry. It’s been a disaster all round.”

“A daimyo lord after all,” Jin said with a faint, proud smile. “In all but name.”

“The name’s the part that’s important.”

“Not to me. We’re still here because of you,” Jin whispered, reaching for his hand. He dozed off with their fingers entwined, lips parting. Ryuzo kissed their interlinked knuckles, then leaned over to brush another over Jin’s mouth.

“Still here,” he murmured, pressing their foreheads together. Ryuzo glanced up at the sound of approaching footsteps and exhaled, nuzzling their linked fingers. He tucked Jin in and got to his feet, letting himself out of the room on silent feet. There was work to be done.