They gathered on one of the steep trails in the hills overlooking Kanna village.
In the distance, through the mountain mist and encroaching shadow of thick storm clouds, they could just pick out the points of light marking the bandits’ camp.
“Decoys,” Kanbei had said, sparing the field of lights no more than a glance. The bandits would not be so careless as to mark their camp that blatantly.
It was a ruse.
A trap, should they be foolish enough to go on the offensive.
Kikuchiyo wanted to attack anyway.
Night was fast approaching, made all the darker by the rumbling of a distant storm.
“Well, it is the rainy season,” Shichiroji shrugged, preemptively opening an umbrella to hold out over Kanbei’s head.
Kanbei stood, grim as ever, arms folded into his sleeves as he looked down over the valley.
“They’ll use the storm as cover to attack,” he said. No part of his expression shifted. Even his lips barely moved when he spoke. “Heihachi-dono, you’re certain about this new weapon?”
“Pretty certain.” Heihachi nodded and scratched through his hair. “Though I only got the one quick look at it, and Kyuzo-dono’s reports.”
Kanbei’s gaze slid away from the valley to seek out the lone figure standing apart from the rest: a thin silhouette leaning against a tree, sensibly out of the rain’s reach as the first few drops began to fall.
Kanbei met his eyes. A stab of red in the deep gray evening.
Kyuzo, as usual, said nothing.
Kanbei looked away.
“We’ll be ready for them,” he said, the ground darkening with each strike of a new raindrop. Heralds for their brethren. “Destroying the weapon is our first priority. Above all else, it must not be allowed to reach the village.”
Solemn nods all around.
Except Kikuchiyo, who puffed a scoffing sound.
“As if anything could get past us!”
“Certainly not you,” hummed Gorobei. “You’re far too tall. And too wide.”
Laughter to ease their tension and the usual banter ensued as they turned to head down the path, back towards the village.
None of them would sleep much tonight.
Kanbei lingered a moment at his post, maintaining a silent vigil (after shooing away Shichiroji with insistence he would be alright). A cool wind from the north brushed back his hair. Drops of rain landed softly on his robes.
Kyuzo took his weight from the tree once the sound of the others receded and moved to his side, barely making a sound.
They stood together, silent sentinels overlooking their charge.
“If we clear a path,” Kanbei said at length, just over the sound of the breeze, “I can disable the weapon’s engines.”
Kyuzo nodded. Once.
“Heihachi-dono pointed out the weapon’s biggest weakness: its own weight. If we disable its mobility, it will crush itself.”
Kyuzo said nothing.
They listened as the wind picked up its strength, making the trees around them whisper and gossip.
Kyuzo turned aside, and took one step to close the distance between them.
Kanbei turned his face away at the last moment, avoiding Kyuzo’s eyes. Soft lips landed on his cheek instead of their intended target.
Kanbei whispered: “Not here.”
It seemed they were alone, but there were many eyes in the village and hills around them.
Someone might see.
He did not have to see Kyuzo’s face to imagine too-perfectly the slight narrowing of his eyes. The tightening in his jaw and down his neck. The way his fingers curled.
Subtle, barely-there shifts in his posture anyone else would miss.
Anyone but him.
Though Kyuzo’s disapproval burned – as did everything else about him beneath that stoic veneer – Kanbei would not apologize. He kept his eyes turned aside until Kyuzo relented.
“Don’t die tonight,” he muttered, and slipped away down the path to follow the others.
As Heihachi explained it, the bandits’ newest weapon in the assault on Kanna village was really no more than a giant floating piston.
“That’s it?” Kikuchiyo had scoffed. “What do they think they can do with an oversized hole-puncher?”
“Level an entire hill, for one thing,” Heihachi said, gesturing to the scrolls and drawings he’d come up with to dissect the weapon’s design. “It hovers about fifteen meters off the ground and doesn’t move very fast, but the armor plating on its hull is thick enough it doesn’t really have to.”
He pointed to the center of his sketches. The weapon was a massive, inelegant, blocky-looking thing. The size of a building.
“It’s not a very complicated machine. Pretty efficient, actually. The piston is housed here in the center. Every engine along the bottom is dedicated to keeping the whole thing off the ground, and inside just the bare bones to make the piston fire.”
“It’s just the one?” Shichiroji asked.
“Just the one. But it’s big enough to flatten half the village in one hit. Not to mention whatever shockwave it generates afterward.”
“Then we’ll have to catch it before it reaches Kanna.” Shichiroji looked down to Kanbei. “If that thing lands in the valley, the result will be the same.”
Kanbei sat overlooking the schematics with the rest of them. He stroked his beard as he thought.
“Which means leaving the village if we go out to meet it,” he murmured.
“The bandits will know that.”
Kanbei closed his eyes.
“We can’t leave the village unprotected.” A moment’s thought, then: “Shichiroji, Kyuzo, and I will head out to intercept the weapon before it reaches the valley. The rest of you will stay to defend the village.”
“Running off to hog all the fun for yourself.” Kikuchiyo puffed a bit of steam. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Not to worry, Kikuchiyo-dono. There will be bandits aplenty to deal with here.”
“There had better be!”
“Won’t we need you here to coordinate?” Gorobei asked.
“The village defenses are already well in place,” said Kanbei. He slid his eyes open to look to them all. “I will leave instructions, but you already know what needs to be done.”
Katsushiro burst in through the cloth flap door, panting for breath.
“Sensei! Scouts have reported movement over the ridge. They’re coming!”
Kanbei nodded once, his gaze settled on the fire brazier as it burned to give them light.
He picked up his sword.
Outside, it began to rain.
The storm opened up and rain poured from the sky. It turned mountain pathways into mudslides and sloshed the rice fields ankle deep in water.
Fortunately the modified transport they’d stolen from the bandits sped over the ground at a height of about three yards, bypassing most of the hazards.
Shichiroji piloted. Kanbei sat beside him, eyes shielded from the rain as he peered ahead into the torrent. Kyuzo crouched on the front of the vehicle, ready to shield them from gunfire.
Behind they could already hear the sound of attack and see the explosions as battle closed in on Kanna, but their attention did not linger at their backs. They would have to trust the others would be enough to hold the village’s defenses.
All the defenses in the world would mean nothing if they did not destroy that weapon.
Kyuzo had said nothing to him before they left, though their eyes had met once as they mounted the transport in preparation.
It was a brief look. A want for acknowledgement.
Kyuzo had looked away first. It was his way of sulking.
Kanbei did not blame him.
If they succeeded in this, he thought he could find a way to make it up to him.
They sped through the dark, black metal of the transport glistening with rain. The storm hid them with its blustery boasting, its wind concealing the transport’s engine. Their passage went unnoticed.
They reached the edge of the village and the valley beyond. They passed the false bandit campfires, unheeded on their right.
Overhead, lightning pulsed.
Shichiroji pulled up short when the deep shadow of a mountain fell over them.
A mountain that was not truly a mountain.
“Well,” he shouted over the pelting rain, “this is your stop.”
Kanbei nodded and slid off the transport to drop to the ground.
Kyuzo’s eyes followed him.
He said nothing, but smirked, a sentiment more heard than felt before he shot away into the night like a fire-set arrow.
Kanbei watched him go.
“I’ll be back to pick you two up.” Shichiroji flared the transport’s engines to attract attention. “In the meantime...”
He turned and sped away, drawing a line of bandit fighters after him.
Kanbei crouched hidden in the tall grass until their sounds were distant.
Something large – something the size of a city building, perhaps even a warship – moved over him. The deep thrum of its engines reverberated through the ground and into Kanbei’s chest. The rain suddenly ceased to fall.
He looked up.
The sky congealed, already dark, though a faint ambient glow haloed about the village and campfires. The massive weapon was blacker still, carrying faint pinpoints of light about its armament and inner machinations.
It would have to be enough.
Kanbei crouched low, until the time was right, then leaped. His blade sliced to the hilt in thick metal and held fast, enough to use as a grip to pull himself up into a tangle of pipework and power circuits.
Cutting through the hull to make an entrance took a moment.
Inside, the massive floating machine was better lit: red operating lights lined the catwalk and operating stations where workers scrambled at their controls.
Kyuzo was already inside. He’d fought his way in through the top, attacking the pilot station first. Kanbei could hear the shouts of gunfire overhead, and too perfectly imagined Kyuzo dancing between energy blasts and bullets as if they were standing still.
He smiled to himself.
Kyuzo would not let them kill him.
Kanbei pulled himself up through his self-made entrance and cast his gaze about, seeking the weapon’s engines. Kikuchiyo had called the thing a giant hole-puncher, and his description was not far missed. The whole of the machine’s body served the sole purpose of housing a single giant piston, blunt on its end and easily the size of Kanna village. With the amount of firepower Kanbei could see backing the piston’s operations, it could easily crush any vehicle or bunker beneath it. Let alone a settlement of rice farmers.
Engineers wearing protective face masks raised sidearms his way.
Kanbei launched forward.
He took them down quickly. Efficiently.
After three waves, the engine controls were defenseless.
Kanbei could have made sense of them, studied the panel and found a way to sabotage the machine. But, for now, ramming his sword deep into the console’s circuitry worked just as well.
Sparks leaped about his sword blade, dying into the darkness, and smoke leaked from the gash.
A shot rang out overhead.
Kanbei felt first the impact, then the burn of a bullet scraping his side. He turned and ducked low onto the catwalk for cover, just in time to hear the screaming gargle and thud of a body tossed to the machine’s bare flooring.
Kyuzo stood at a higher level on the catwalk, twin swords glistening crimson in the red light.
A chain reaction of explosions burst through the weapon’s interior.
Any personnel left quickly fled.
Kyuzo dove from the catwalk to land near him, slicing through a chunk of debris loosed from the eruptions. He grabbed hold of Kanbei’s wrist and hauled him to his feet.
Both of them ignored the growing stain of red at Kanbei’s side.
“We need to get out of here,” Kanbei murmured.
The floor tipped beneath them as half the engines sputtered and died. They braced against the impact of the massive weapon sagging to one side, its corner slamming into the ground and dragging a trench through the dirt.
The weapon swung round with the resistance of it, half its operations still pushing it to go forward.
Kanbei grabbed onto the railing.
Kyuzo planted one boot and launched himself into the air. He dodged, spun, wove and sliced through debris, using what fell as platforms to fuel his momentum for even more strikes. He carved a path through the mounting wreckage with a deadly, efficient precision.
A sword in himself, with no other thought given beyond what distance lay between him and his target.
There was nothing else.
Kanbei watched him, allowing a moment’s awe to soften his features.
When he landed again, a portion of the machine’s hull had burst outward, allowing a glimpse of the night outside. Kyuzo had made them a path to it.
Kyuzo hooked his arm around Kanbei’s waist. Kanbei’s arm latched over his neck.
Together, they ran. Leaped.
Cool, thin air replaced the stifling warmth and smoky interior of the weapon’s hull. Drops of wet rain struck their faces.
They landed on the ground, heels dug into the dirt to slow their momentum. In a crouch their shadows melded, became indistinguishable, as the collapsing weapon gave its final dying shriek and sank into the ground, smaller eruptions within its hull like the blink of angry eyes.
It exploded in flame, shriveling the grass nearest. Making heat ripple across the valley.
Kanbei and Kyuzo looked to it, squinting their eyes against the light.
They had landed in such a way that Kyuzo crouched over him, Kanbei realized, catching the scene through the flap of red coat tossed on a hot wind. Shielding him.
The weapon burned.
Kyuzo stood first. He pulled Kanbei up by his wrist.
They stood together in the flickering light.
Traces of ash smudged on Kyuzo’s pale face. His coat was ripped and torn in places, dotted with bullet holes. Red firelight colored his cheeks and his breath came still short from exertion and his hair fell partially over his eyes and the air smelled of victory and burning copper.
And in that moment, haloed by fire, still gripping one sword, Kyuzo was lithe and dangerous and beautiful and perfect.
Kanbei forgot to breathe, until Kyuzo locked their eyes.
Hunger lay within.
Kyuzo grabbed the front of Kanbei’s robes and pulled him to his level, claiming his mouth with that same calm, controlled ferocity that did not request. It demanded.
Kanbei found his breath again in a gasp.
He closed his arms around him. Pulled Kyuzo to him. His eyes clenched shut and he tasted Kyuzo on his tongue – steel and will and purpose – as another explosion ripped open the machine’s hull behind them, spilling its heat.
Neither of them cared enough to notice.
After, Kanna celebrated.
Fires were lit and long into the night music and laughter filled the village with a warmth it had not seen in some time. The samurai celebrated with them, telling stories of past battles and inspiring the dreams of Kanna’s children for years to come.
Kanbei and Kyuzo were conspicuously absent.
Kanbei stole away early from congratulations and happy faces, his reasons quiet and arm tight at his side to partly conceal the stain of red.
Some saw, but none questioned.
He retired to one of the smaller cabins they’d been assigned, taking with him a pot of warm water heated over a fire.
Safely alone, he stripped out of his robes. He folded them gently, with great reverence, and set them aside. They would be mended later.
Then he knelt beside the water and dipped in a cloth.
The water felt good against his skin. Kanbei closed his eyes and sighed at the first sting and burn of hot water meeting his collection of tiny cuts and scrapes. He closed his hand around the cloth to press out its excess. Drops trickled over his shoulders. Down his chest. He followed their path with short, gentle rubs to clear the remnants of dirt and char from his dark skin, and swept aside his hair.
He felt, rather than heard, when Kyuzo slipped inside.
The door barely made a click as it closed.
Kanbei did not turn to look, but wrung out his cloth. Dipped it into the bucket for another soak.
“The village is safe tonight,” he said, pushing the cloth over the back of his neck. “You should get some sleep.”
Kyuzo didn’t move.
“We’ll be up early again tomorrow.”
Kanbei sighed. He could feel Kyuzo’s attention on his back, burning like the prickle of being too long exposed to a fire. Or that warning sensation just before an attack.
Kanbei turned at last to look at him.
He knew well Kyuzo didn’t like being faced with his back.
“Are you angry with me?” Kanbei leveled his eyes at him. “Kyuzo, this is not the time or the place. We can’t spare the distraction—”
Kyuzo didn’t speak. He let his actions speak for him as he stepped in, closed the distance between them, and neatly plucked the cloth from Kanbei’s surprised palm.
When he did speak, it was a single, authoritative: “Sit.”
Kanbei sat down on a floormat, careful to watch him and wary of the wound on his side. He did not fear an attack – Kyuzo would never do something so dishonorable – but a curious wonder lifted his gaze as he followed Kyuzo’s movements in removing his coat and swords. Setting them aside near the wall.
He dipped the cloth into the bucket and wrung it out, then knelt in front of him, pushing up Kanbei’s arm to see to the gash on his side.
Kanbei sat in awe, silent, save for the small hiss of breath as Kyuzo pushed the cloth over his side. It only hurt for as long as it took to clean away the excess blood. After that, Kyuzo was gentler, even tender, cleaning out the wound and applying a salve he had brought to prevent infection.
Kanbei did not suppose he should be surprised. A swordsman like Kyuzo was not all brute strength and mindless drive. He was perceptive. Intelligent. Discerning. Knowing just when and how and what sort of power to apply to any attack, whether it be great or small. It stood to reason he would practice the same diligence and discipline in every aspect of his life.
He was everything.
By degrees, Kanbei felt himself relax. After treating his wound Kyuzo saw to the task of cleaning him elsewhere: back, chest, face, and neck. Down his arms to his hands and even to his feet.
Not once did Kyuzo touch him with anything less than reverence.
Only once did their eyes meet again, a small smile and breath, when it came to the inner part of Kanbei’s thighs.
Kyuzo was gentle there, too.
The water slid over Kanbei’s skin, lulling him into ease – into a gentle, willing surrender – so he was not prepared for the jolt it sent through him when Kyuzo bent his head and kissed one of his old scars.
His breath stumbled, a stab of tension up his spine. He looked down but Kyuzo had only a smile to return – small, a brush of mischief – before he did it again. Another old wound. A story marked forever on his body.
Kyuzo kissed and touched each scar and mark he passed. Even Kanbei’s freshest one, as if in apology. Each one lingered as silent recognition of what Kanbei had been through. What he was giving up to go through it again.
When he’d finished, it was Kyuzo’s turn.
He stripped the black jumpsuit he wore beneath his coat and slid into Kanbei’s lap, passing the cloth and a kiss between them.
There was little to do, really.
Save for a bit of ash on his face and hair, Kyuzo was virtually untouched.
The same could be said for his body. Younger. Fresher. He carried little in the way of scars or marks such as Kanbei did. Though he did not smell or feel of battle in the same way as some of the others, of his skill there was no doubt. Nor of his experience.
Kanbei did not know what Kyuzo had gone through before they’d met to put such severity in his eyes. It was not the war. He was too young to have fought in that. But the loss of innocence was there all the same.
They all had faced their trials. Though they were different, they meant no less.
But now was hardly the time to dwell on such things.
Kanbei set the cloth aside at last and cupped his hand at the back of Kyuzo’s neck. He pulled him in for a kiss. Long. Thorough. He tasted the clean, clear water still on his skin and the sharp headiness that was entirely, uniquely him.
Kyuzo allowed a small moan to escape his depths. He leaned into Kanbei’s touch, wrapped both arms around his neck to hold on. To hold him.
“I won’t die tonight,” he whispered over Kyuzo’s skin, nuzzling his cheek, beneath his jaw and to the small of his neck. There he tasted his pulse and kissed that throb just beneath his skin. Blessing it.
Kyuzo tipped back his head, quite willing to expose his neck here. Now.
“Or tomorrow night,” he rasped, hands over Kanbei’s shoulders tightening as Kanbei found that particular spot just beneath his ear. “Or the next...or the next...”
They sealed it between them as a promise.
Kanbei would never let himself die, unless it was at Kyuzo’s hands.
Bodies entwined. Dark copper skin pushed against pale as mouths met. Hands braced against a chest or forearm.
Kyuzo slid his hand down between them, tracing the path of scars and hard lines of muscle that was Kanbei’s body until he cupped his groin. Found him hard.
He smiled. Small. Barely there.
It was a victory each time, winning Kanbei’s interest.
Kanbei, who was reluctant to get involved with anything. With anyone. Kyuzo pushed his palm against him and stroked, gentle, a surety in his fingers and grip that could only come from years of holding a sword.
One could draw the obvious metaphor.
He slid his eyes open to watch Kanbei’s face: his brow lightly furrowed with beginning strain. Beads of water clinging to his chest and neck. Damp hair coiled on his skin.
Kyuzo’s smile turned to more of a smirk and he pressed his touch harder, leaned in to taste the water off Kanbei’s throat.
Kanbei gasped. Sucked a small breath in between his teeth.
There was no need for titles. Not here. But Kyuzo didn’t waste the breath to say so, instead covered Kanbei’s mouth with his own and rising up against him.
Hands on the back of his neck. Teeth and tongue scraping a dark nipple. Kyuzo straddled Kanbei’s lap and left no part of him untasted. Untouched. Beneath his fingers he felt a quiver along Kanbei’s side where he knew he was most sensitive: that spot right above his hip.
Kanbei’s breathing came heavier. His prick strained, hips pushing forward when Kyuzo’s hand passed near. He breathed and whispered and worshipped Kyuzo’s name. He leaned his weight back on one hand, opening himself to attack, but Kyuzo would not take it. He only continued to touch, to taste, to explore, his patience and concentration frustratingly endless.
At last, Kanbei could stand it no longer.
He grabbed Kyuzo’s wrist and twisted, turning him over and reversing their positions in one seamless effort.
Kyuzo landed hard on his back, Kanbei’s shadow falling over him. Legs parted around his waist and Kanbei’s cock pushed flush against his rear as he ground against him. Quick and hard.
Exactly what Kyuzo wanted.
Kanbei’s loss of control was his. Kanbei’s passion, his need and desire, stirred back to the surface where it had been too long buried beneath discipline and bitterness, was his.
Such as it was between them.
Kyuzo smiled – even laughed – into their next kiss, parting his legs wider, and welcomed Kanbei into his arms.
Their battle would continue long into the night.