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A Stern Heart

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"I'm just as scared as you," Zakuro said, her fear making her voice even sharper than normal as she glared at Agemaki, crouched in the scrub at the edge of the clearing next to her. 

He froze at this revelation, and swiveled his eyes over to meet hers. "Really?" He put up a hand. "You don't have to lie to try to make me feel better. It won't work, anyway. But... really?"

She sighed. "Yes. Yes! How do I convince you?"

"But -- but... you always call me a coward!" The faint hope so visible on his face made Zakuro curl her lip. 

She snapped her head around to check the view in front of them. Satisfied that the spirit they were trying to lure there hadn't yet arrived, she flicked her gaze back to Agemaki. He quailed, then seemed to remember he wanted to be brave and set his shoulders and his jaw. 

"Isn't it obvious? You're a coward because you let your fear stop you from doing things," she said from between clenched teeth. "You run away or try to act cool to cover up."

"Not always!" he protested, voice rising. She slapped her hand over his mouth then took it back, resisting the urge to either wipe off his saliva or do something incredibly unfathomable -- not to mention disgusting -- and sniff it, or maybe raise her hand to her own lips.  

"When it counts, you hesitate," she spat. "I don't. That's the difference between us." 

He swallowed. There was no answer for that, she knew: no matter how many times he jumped into the fray without pause, it didn't wash clean all the other times he fainted or ran off. 

Still, he tried: "I'm not so scared of spirits anymore. I play with Kiri and Sakura and I'm... I'm not scared of you anymore." He cleared his throat and clarified, "At least... not because you're a spirit." 

There was a crackle, weight put on a dried leaf; both their heads whirled around. Yes. Their quarry dashed into the clearing, a vaguely lupine spirit who had been rampaging through the nearest village, maddened, it was supposed, by its partner being slain by the villagers. 

The humans, of course, claimed this was only in retribution for the spirit eating a child. Zakuro doubted this. She didn't know what the true story was, and she didn't care. It was almost irrelevant. Whatever the spirit's reason, it could not be allowed to continue its spree of violence, if only because such behavior nowadays would bring down a heavier and harder human hand on the world of the spirits. 

She stepped out, eyes blazing, cherry blossom wand transformed into knife. Agemaki thumped out of the brush next to her, legs trembling but body held upright. 

Zakuro opened her mouth to begin the incantation that would seal the spirit's fate when it leapt at her.  She twisted her body out of the way an instant before its claws would've shredded her arm. But its forward momentum was unbroken, and as it staggered past its gigantic paw crushed her foot. She hissed and stumbled back. Her heart was pounding, but now it was with at least as much rage and pain as with fearful anticipation. Agemaki had darted out of the way with alacrity. However, he jumped right back in front of it, armed with nothing more than his pathetic human sword.  

"That's not bravery!" Zakuro yelled, shoving him away. "That's just stupidity!" Off-balance, he tumbled backwards into the brush. The wolf spirit grinned, blood-stained teeth a threatening sight.

She had to act before it could pounce again. Agemaki was scrambling to get up, but he'd be too slow -- impossibly slow, human slow. She took a quick few steps, wincing as her injured foot hit the ground, and then leapt, landing on the spirit's head, hanging on around its neck as it thrashed. It was massive, at least twice Agemaki's height with a ponderous head and a long, heavy jaw. She shoved her knife into its skull. The blade stuck; she was holding with one arm but couldn't get any more purchase. She let go of its neck and shoved her blade forward with both arms.

The spirit's collapse was as quick as its charge at her, though this time, at least, she was more prepared, hanging on doggedly to the blade and using her uninjured foot to brace herself as it toppled. She gave the knife a couple of twists just to be sure, then yanked it out. Blood dripped on her robe; she wiped her hair out of her eyes and found her hands were spattered with effluvia. 

Agemaki was just standing there, useless as usual. Annoyed, she climbed carefully down from the corpse, favoring her right foot. Limping, she made her way to the front of the enormous body. "Scary," she said.

"Well, yes," Agemaki began.

"That's not what I meant!" Zakuro shouted. Her foot was throbbing and she really wanted a bath. "It shouldn't have been like this. It's big, but it shouldn't have been stalking humans. It was made like this."

"Made?"

Zakuro said, "Maddened. Probably the village took over its territory." She frowned. "If you had nowhere else to go, wouldn't you fight back too?"

Agemaki blinked and opened his mouth. Before he could reply, Zakuro shook her head. "No, you wouldn't, would you? You haven't had that experience. You've always had a place. You'll always have a place." Her voice was iron.   

She wiped her face again, making an irritated noise as she felt the grime from her hands transfer itself onto her face, instead of the reverse. 

Agemaki offered her a hankerchief. It was pristine, as was the man himself. Typical. She snatched it out of his hand and scrubbed at her face. Tossing the soiled cloth back at him, she turned to leave, sucking in a sharp breath as she unthinkingly put weight on her left foot. 

"Lean on me," Agemaki said, next to her suddenly, offering his arm. His eyes were lowered, his shoulders ever so slightly hunched. He was bracing himself, she realized.

Well, no reason to disappoint him. "I don't need your help!" she said, hobbling forward a couple of steps. She tasted blood from where she'd bit her lip to prevent any sounds of discomfort escaping.

Agemaki stepped forward to match her pace, and said, "It's a long way back. It's the same thing I would offer to Hanakiri or Yoshinokazura." His arm was still there, annoyingly at just the right level to be grabbed.

Zakuro gave in. Her fierce grip made him wince, even though he tried to cover it up. "Don't think this means anything," she said. "Because it doesn't."

It was, indeed, a long way back to the Ministry, even though the villagers, on hearing that the spirit had been dispatched, had offered them a ride in the back of a farmer's cart. Agemaki thanked them gratefully; Zakuro gritted out her own acceptance of their offer.

When Zakuro limped into the house, Bonbori and Hozuki set up an outcry, hands clapped to cheeks and mouths full of words of concern for her -- and veiled criticism of Agemaki. Given his flushed face and stuttered explanations, the message wasn't lost on him.

"I'm always protecting this guy," Zakuro growled as the twins led her away. "It's my job, isn't it?" His eyes were focused on her left foot, purpling darker every minute, with a vague paw shape visible, even, as she left.

The next morning, he went to see her. Not in her bedroom -- she would've disemboweled him, and he knew it -- but in the sitting room after breakfast. They'd sat next to each other at the table, but the frost radiating from her precluded any conversation. Luckily, Hozuki and Bonbori were in extra-fine form that day, teasing Ganryu until it seemed his face would never return to its usual color. Between their antics and Susukihotaru's quieter laughter, it might not have been obvious that they were ignoring each other.

Or, rather, she was ignoring him. She was in no mood to speak with him, but when he arrived in the sitting room, eyes going immediately to her foot, propped up on a chair, she sighed and didn't chase him out. Not that she could chase him away at this point. Maybe that fact emboldened him. She would have to restore things to the usual state of affairs once her foot healed.

"It won't be long," she said, without waiting for his greeting. "Half-spirits heal quickly." She didn't actually know if that was true, but certainly she seemed to heal at a reasonable pace, quicker than fragile humans and with much less whining and drama.

"I'm glad," he said, voice low, hands behind his back, face to the floor. "I'm -- "

"Don't say it!" she growled. "Don't be sorry. That doesn't do anything. Just... do better next time."

"Next time?" he said, looking up. The hope on his face made her want to slap him. Or, perhaps, embrace him tenderly. The contradiction, and the very thought of the latter action, infuriated her.

"Kushimatsu isn't going to reassign you," she said. Not that she'd asked, but she knew. There weren't any other soldiers assigned to the Ministry, and given how reluctant some important officers were to engage with spirits at all, it was unlikely that they'd get any even if they requested some. Besides, Kushimatsu would just say that Zakuro needed to learn to work with her partner better.

"Although if I was assigned to Riken, maybe he'd do a better job than you," she mused aloud. "At least he wouldn't do all the pointless rambling that you do," she said.

His mouth worked, but no words emerged. She laughed -- not a kind sound -- and said, "Riken wouldn't whine about what a coward he is. Riken's not a coward, anyway."

Agemaki's face flushed. His hands darted in front of him, gesturing wildly in anger. "That's not fair. I'm trying -- "

She cut him off. "Try harder," she said. "Because I'm the only partner you've got. We're stuck with each other. Which is unfortunate. Try to make it less so." She swung her foot down off the chair, stood up without putting any weight on it, and hobbled out of the room, brushing away his arm extended in assistance. 

A few days passed with her avoiding him and only speaking to him when absolutely required to do so. She could see Kushimatsu watching her as she snubbed Agemaki yet again and again, but she couldn't help it; once she was on that course, there seemed no diverging from it. Besides, she was still angry about his cowardice. Let him worry a bit while her foot healed.

It was less than a week until she was once again reporting for duty. She and Agemaki made an awkward pair standing in front of Kushimatsu's desk for a briefing. Zakuro was polite, eager even, to Kushimatsu. To Agemaki she was still ice. 

They received their assignment -- a simple-sounding reconnaissance of a shopkeeper who was acting oddly -- and turned to go. Once they left Kushimatsu's office, Agemaki stopped. He put a hand on Zakuro's shoulder to halt her as well. She noticed that it was shaking slightly, an observation which stirred rather contradictory feelings in her. Mostly anger, though.

"What?" she said.

He was just looking at her. It was a little annoying, to be honest. Far too many beats of her heart (which was pounding, for some reason) passed before he said, "I won't let you down again." His voice, too, trembled. It was a little embarrassing. For him, she thought.

Still, one must compromise. Wasn't that the lesson of the modern period? Youkai had to compromise with humans, with this stupid Westernization. 

"See that you don't," she said. Her voice was ever so slightly thawed; he must've picked up on it because he smiled -- that smile, she thought, would make a glacier melt; she kind of hated him for it.

"Let's see how long you manage that," she said, starting down the hall. His face fell and she hid a smile of her own. It wouldn't do to let him get too comfortable.