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To Understand What The Flowers Say

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“Arataki… Itto?” The words echoed in Gorou’s head as he tried to make sense of them. “Oh man, I’ve heard of him! Isn’t he… wanted?”

Yae Miko gave a little laugh, and that hand that was always limp around her shoulder pushed back a messy strand of pink hair.

“Please! Do you really think I would hire a criminal to look after you?”

Yes , Gorou answered inside his head. At first sight, Yae seemed like the quiet, observant type, a woman who carried herself with poise, and though that wouldn’t be wrong to assume of her, just a few exchanges with her were enough to let you know she was in fact very scary.

“Arataki Itto will be perfect for the job. He’s lacking in brains, but makes up for it in brawn.” She explained. “He’s also not all that unpleasant, so long as he isn’t talking. And as for you – you’re astonishing as ever, so we’re good to go.”

Gorou sighed, deciding against giving her any reply at all. Yae Miko herself was quite tiresome to speak to, to the point where he thought Arataki Itto could not possibly be worse. The general looked at himself in the mirror, and her taller figure stood behind his reflection. He wasn’t usually one to care for appearances, but he had to (dreadfully) admit that Lady Yae was right: he looked impeccable. It was as if she could do magic with those hands of hers, after all that pushing of his hair and pressure against his skin and tightening corsets to impossible extents.

“This will be your last meet and greet without a bodyguard, so for now just make sure nobody pulls at your hair extensions, or Ei forbid, your dress.”

Those words sent shivers down Gorou’s spine.

Ah, he sighed, he should have listened to the ever responsible voice inside his head, the one that told him to back away when he first sensed this woman’s dangerous aura. A good war general knew when to retreat and when to face battle, and Gorou was no exception (after all, unlike Yae’s description of Arataki Itto, Gorou had come this far by relying on his intelligence to make up for his small stature that was easily lost in the crowds of soldiers). But when it came to Yae Miko, Gorou was so utterly awkward and inexperienced, so incapable of dealing with people like that – people whose tongues were sharper than a blade, sharp enough to fight –, that he found himself pushing on until he ended up in a situation like… this. Dressed up in luxurious fabric, his face painted like a doll’s and his hair done in such a way that it felt heavy and ticklish against his back.

And it’s not that Gorou was stupid, of course he would have said no to such a proposal – hey, Gorou, commander of the forces of Watatsumi Island, what do you say you start crossdressing under Lady Yae’s discretion and attending meet and greets with people who would kill for a chance at lunch with the woman they think you are? – but as with most of Yae Miko’s infallible plans, this one had started simpler than this. Write a little bit for a column, form a respectful fanbase of people who rely on your advice, and before you know it, look! I’ve been signing your stuff under a pseudonym rather than keeping it anonymous, hope you don’t mind, and I’ve also commissioned an artist from Mondstat to draw this new persona of yours and now you have to dress up as her. Also, your fans are getting crazier and crazier by the day. The good old “Ms. Hina fanclub rules” established by its very members had been long since forgotten.

But don’t worry, I’ve hired an oni-turned-wanted-criminal to protect you!

Gorou could hear the mocking voice of Yae Miko, always dripping with disdain like she wanted to start laughing at his expense, and his face began to boil. Although he would have sworn it was just the anger and pent-up frustration, it was really the embarrassment of having to admit defeat. And as he stepped towards the front of Yae Publishing House, a hoard of fans cheered, and the always polite and well-mannered people of Inazuma took on a new form that Gorou had only ever seen before in the scariest of war zones.

Gorou always tried to be polite, simply smiling and waving his hand close to his chest when he couldn’t make out what any one person was saying amidst the crowd of voices. It always started with “Miss Hina! My husband left me!”, “Miss Hina, my son refuses to take his duties seriously!”, “Did you receive my letter, Miss Hina?”, and then escalated to “Miss Hina, step on me!” (Gorou still had no idea why anybody would want to be stepped on), “Miss Hina, go out with me, please!”, “Please, Miss Hina, I’m in love with you!”, and the sight of the dozens upon dozens of hands that tried to reach him from behind the counter were akin to one of those mythological monsters from the books on display at the Publishing House that same day.

Fine , he thought to himself as someone came dangerously close to brushing their fingers against his sleeve, I’ll take the wanted criminal!

 


 

It was amazing how incapable Arataki Itto was of making a simple entrance whenever he arrived anywhere. That’s probably why everyone knew him, like he said, except that wasn’t necessarily a good thing, because everybody viewed him as a nuisance, a possible nuisance or a joke rather than the fearsome gang boss he made himself to be. But today and today only, that was a good thing.

 

Heya Yae!

Arataki Itto speaking. Yes, THE Arataki Itto. I’m sure you’re a little shocked, like whoa, WHY would the GREAT Arataki Itto be writing to some loser like you?

Well… It’s cause I see your looking for a bodyguard for Ms. Hina. I’m sure you were already thinking of me when you put up that ad in the first place, cause ya know I’d be PERFECT for the job. And your not wrong!!

I, Arataki Itto, boss of the Arataki gang, will put my life on the line for Ms. Hina! Not that I’ll ever need to. Those punks won’t even THINK about coming close to the lady when they see me next to her.

You know where to contact me, just pls don’t be too late. Cause I’m a busy man, as I’m sure your aware, and I got a bunch of jobs writing me back already. But I’ll give this one priority cause I feel like I owe ya one! LOL

 

Indeed, everybody had stopped in their tracks to stare at the eccentric man strutting with steps as heavy and loud as his laughter, the men behind him cheering him on and giving friendly punches to each other’s shoulders in celebration.

“Of course you’d land the job, boss!”

“Hah! This one was made for me!” Itto celebrated.

He was a proud oni who loved nothing more than to show off (show what off, exactly, was a different question, because it’s not like Itto had much going for him), but if there was one person he would bow down to with no question at all, that person was the famous Ms. Hina. He had only ever been to one of her meet and greets and had barely been able to get a closer look at her, but he just knew she was the love of his life. And unsurprisingly, love in the romantic sense of the word was quite the shallow concept for Itto, but as far as he understood it, this was as deep as it could get.

Itto cracked his shoulders, a smile full of fangs never leaving his face.

“Man, I can’t wait to get to know her!”, he sighed dreamily. Him and his gang caused a never before seen ruckus as they made their way towards the shrine, annoying the maidens whose voices and complaints were drowned out by the cheering, and even spooking some of the usually unbothered kitsunes walking about.

Upon arrival, Itto knocked his large fist against the counter, his comrades standing behind him while looking like a bunch of vandals. But despite their numbers and sizes, the angry look on one of the shrine maidens was enough to have them cowering and backing away as she yelled, “Lady Yae is waiting for Arataki Itto, not an entire gang! Now shoo, get out of here! The shrine has just been cleaned!”

The same lady turned to Itto with the same angry look in her eyes and didn’t even bother to direct a single word to him. Rather, she made a motion with her head, asking him to follow her, which he did, commenting on everything he saw on the barely ten step walk towards the gigantic sakura that yanked a “whoa!” out of him. Beneath it stood Yae Miko, looking much more enthusiastic than the other maidens.

“Arataki Itto,” she gave him a creepy, but calm smile, and pierced him with her deep purple gaze in a way that froze his soul to its core. Itto wondered if she was still upset about the noodle fight, but maybe this wasn’t the time to tease her about it. “I see you have arrived early. Perfect. Allow me to explain this job’s details to you. I trust you will listen carefully…”

She walked him around the shrine, filling his head with information he did not process at all, because he was more focused on the fact that Ms. Hina was barely a few feet away from him now. Yae Miko knew this, because she realized he was weirdly quiet while listening and seemed to only be smiling to himself, so she took the opportunity to slip in tid bits of “You’re a good for nothing” and “That competition was totally rigged” without him noticing. By the time she had complained to him (about him) to her heart’s content, they had already left the shrine and were approaching the small, hidden construction nearby with just enough space for a lady to prepare her look for the day. “Maybe the reason you could eat so many noodles is because your brain is just a huge yakisoba.”

“Anyway!”, Itto interrupted her mid-speech. “When can I go see her?”

“Huh?” She smiled deviously. “When she’s ready, of course. Ms. Hina is getting dressed right now, so you go stand by the door and wait for her to be ready.”

The smile left the oni’s face immediately, and his heart shattered. So much for getting alone time with the one and only Ms. Hina…

“And if you even think about going inside,” Yae Miko spoke, giving him her coldest glare, which didn’t phase him nearly as much as it did Gorou, “You’ll be fired and banned from every meet and greet.”

“But I’m her bodygua–”

“I’ll even ban you from buying the magazine.”

“Argh, you’re annoying!” He complained, brushing a bunch of his hair back with his fingers. He quickly pulled out a comb and began a semi-desperate attempt to tidy it once more.

Itto stomped his foot on the ground and stood guard by the closed door, his cheeks puffy and his brows furrowed, looking angry like he had just lost another beetle fight to some seven year old. Yae Miko chuckled under her breath, but left. She assumed he wouldn’t go in, but if he did, it would at least be a little bit amusing, and then she could pretend she hadn’t seen it. After all, she had lied – Gorou was ready to leave already, and was just waiting for the time to come.

Now all Itto had for himself was the temptation to cross over the invisible barrier between himself and the door that had been left ajar. Nothing had ever stopped him from doing whatever he wanted to before, but he had to admit he was a little scared he might lose Ms. Hina forever, even more scared than he was of losing the very first job he had ever been able to get. He crossed his arms over his large chest and tapped his foot on the ground, trying to figure out what to do, catching himself stepping a tiny little bit closer to the forbidden door every now and again.

Itto cleared his throat loudly. He couldn’t hear anything coming from inside – was she really there, or was Yae Miko playing him for a fool?

As if to ease his worries, a voice that seemed as if it came from the heavens spoke down to him, “Hello?”

The Arataki gang’s boss felt his heart jump into his throat, threatening to come out.

Ms. Hina’s voice was so beautiful – he had heard a few comments here and there about how masculine it could sound sometimes, but it was just like the time when he first heard it: lovely and befitting of a lady who understood everybody’s deepest struggles, bearing the kindness of an angel and the fragility of a princess. All those little things that Itto didn’t care for when taking his walks around the woods – the flowers, the butterflies, the songs of the birds – seemed to be contained inside that voice, and suddenly they all made so much more sense to him. With his big hands, he wanted to protect the one of a kind lady that was Ms. Hina.

“Ms. Hina!” He stepped even closer, but then stopped in his tracks. Don’t get too excited , he scolded himself, don’t ruin this, don’t go inside, don’t! “Ahem– It is I, Arataki Itto, your newest assigned bodyguard! I-I’m sure you’ve heard of me,” like never before, his voice wavered at the end of his sentence. Ms. Hina was so precious, so otherwordly, she may actually be someone who had never heard of his evil boss gang oni deeds. For once, the theory seemed plausible to him, and he felt embarrassed. “O-Or not, but that’s fine! I’m sure we’ll get along!”

“I… have heard of you,” that gentle voice came back. She sounded shyer than Itto imagined she would be, and it sent his heart into a frenzy. His cheeks were burning; he wondered why. “I, uhm, I look forward to working with you, and… I’m sorry for any trouble I may cause.”

“N-No trouble at all, miss! There ain’t nothing in this world that’s too much for the great Arataki Itto!” He assured her. He would never dare act cocky around Ms. Hina, but it was just a fact, at least to him: absolutely nothing would ever come close to bothering her ever again, for as long as he worked there. So much so that she’d never want another bodyguard! Oh, how would Itto ever balance that job with his duties as a gang boss…? As with most things, his response to himself was that he’d just wing it.

There was a small silence, and though Itto thought to himself that she had probably smiled in response and he just couldn’t see it, every millisecond without a reply felt like an eternity being wasted right before his eyes.

And then he heard it. A light tapping, awkward even, and very slow. From the red door appeared Ms. Hina, fidgeting with her clothes like they were very uncomfortable to her. Itto nearly fell down – what a sorry excuse of a bodyguard he was – because oh my archons she was so beautiful.

There was nothing in his head, in his huge yakisoba of a brain, except I have never seen her so close . And it was a feeling of utmost panic.

It only lasted a second before he regained his composure, and a gigantic smile formed on his face. Itto was usually smiling, that was a fact, but if any of his colleagues had been around to see it, they would have argued that this smile was a tad bit different from the proud, victorious look he usually carried. It was much more honest, genuine, and weighed a little bit of surprise in it as well, and his eyes shone in a different way than ever before. Just who would have thought that Arataki Itto could be so helplessly swept off his feet?

“You’re so gorgeous! I knew you’d be!” He cheered, his voice ever so happy and nearing a roar.

Funnily, Gorou’s cheeks heat up a little.

 


 

Every single time Gorou made the walk from his little place next to the shrine to the back of Yae Publishing House, he always drew people’s attention. People would call out to Ms. Hina, ask him for a handshake, an autograph or life advice, and it was quite bothersome that he couldn’t stop to answer to them all. The diehard fans would always be waiting by the Publishing House, that is until they figured out that Ms. Hina would consistently be seen in the streets taking the same path somewhere around Mt. Yougou whenever a meet and greet was to be held. There were rumours that she lived in the shrine, that she was a shrine maiden, and even that she worked for the Kamisatos or was one of them. But none of those rumours mattered, since Ms. Hina was not even a real person. What matters is that that was when the bodyguard recruitment ad was put up, because Yae’s killer gaze wasn’t always enough to detour the worst of the fans, and Gorou was getting sick and tired of it and threatening to quit writing for the column altogether.

Although he had cursed himself for letting Yae Miko drag him along with her evil scheme, Gorou had to admit that this time, with Arataki Itto by his side, things were completely different. The man was embarrassingly loud and good at drawing all the attention towards himself.

“Oi! Don’t ya even think about coming close to her! Cause this lady’s got herself a brand new bodyguard, and that is I, your one and oni Arataki Itto! And I know you losers don’t wanna mess with me!”, He preached as Ms. Hina walked behind him.

And nobody even tried. Probably not because they were scared, but just surprised. Whenever Arataki Itto made his way through the streets of Inazuma, people stopped and stared because that’s all his overwhelming presence required them to do, really – and such a presence just happened to completely overshadow that of Ms. Hina’s. The walk was tranquil, even with all the yelling and the roaring and the stomping, until it wasn’t. Walking on those tall platforms proved itself to be a challenge when Gorou had to keep up with Itto’s large steps, and he tripped on his own feet. All he could think of as he approached the cold hard ground was that his hair was going to get ruined and a terrible tragedy was going to happen and everybody would figure out who Ms. Hina really was.

He never did hit the ground, however. His head hit something different, although equally hard, and he desperately pulled away as he began to regain his balance – he had fallen right against Arataki Itto’s back, and the oni had then turned around to hold him and help him up. His hands wrapped around Gorou’s clothed wrists and he realized just how much smaller he was compared to the man. He hated that about himself – Itto could not possibly be that much older than himself, and yet Gorou just wouldn’t grow to be of his size.

“I-I’m sorry!” He cried out. Though he forgot to mimic the voice he usually used for Ms. Hina, his tone was so desperate it came out high-pitched enough to pass, and the bodyguard didn’t even notice. Instead, he looked delighted to be holding Ms. Hina so close.

“N-No, I am!” The oni apologized, but with the happy look on his face, he didn’t look to be sorry at all. Still, he cursed his instincts inside his head, wishing he had realized the situation, turned around in time and held her to his chest, like a true knight in shining armor would. There’s no way she wouldn’t have fallen head over heels for him then!, he thought, but as he saw the soft blush on her cheeks, he had another idea. One that couldn’t possibly fail.

“I shouldn’t have let you walk this path on those heels of yours. Worry not, I’ll carry you!”

“H-Huh?”

But before Gorou could complain or protest, Arataki Itto had already picked him up effortlessly into his arms. Oh, Gorou felt like crying! To think the general of the Watatsumi Army would end up in a position like this, being carried away like a damsel in distress by a much larger man who showed no struggle as he held him up… it was embarrassing to say the least. He couldn’t help it, even though he had slowly begun to accept himself, short as he was; he still wished he could grow a little bigger. Someone like Itto surely would have done a much better job than him at aiding other soldiers in need.

This was all Gorou ever thought about, after all – what to do to help others, how to be more reliable, and how to fix the parts of him that got in the way of assisting his colleagues. Perhaps this was the reason why he had never quit the whole Ms. Hina thing. As insane as they could be, those readers relied on him for advice and anonymously sent in their biggest struggles, entrusting them to him and him only. Gorou wanted nothing more than to be of aid to them.

Regrettably, he found that deep inside his chest, it felt a little good to be the one being cared for this time.

Before long, they had arrived at the back of Yae Publishing House. Itto set Gorou on the floor in a motion much too kind to be really fit for an oni of his size, making sure he was alright and okay and could walk, to which Gorou apologized for the trouble.

Yae Miko, who, despite having hired someone to do her job for her, was not yet so convinced that the meet and greet would go smoothly without her holy presence to guard it, had come to watch over the people so eagerly gathered around, holding flyers and autograph books in their hands. Some had even brought flowers or other small gifts.

Things were a little different this time, however, as she could sense a bit of unease in the air.

“Not fair…” She heard a young man mutter amidst the crowd. “How come that guy gets to touch her like that?”

“Is he really her boyfriend?”

“Boyfriend? Don’t be ridiculous. That’s her bodyguard, Arataki Itto.”

“Arataki Itto? Who thought it’d be a good idea to let that guy near Ms. Hina?”

“That’s just no fair. I applied for the position too. I was sure I’d get the job, but if not me, why him?”

Funny , Yae thought to herself, looking quite amused. So the news have already spread this far. And shocking news like these have the tendency to increase in absurdity amidst crowds.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have kept you waiting long enough!” She announced before long, and the entire fanclub turned their heads. The worry and indignation plastered on their faces disappeared completely, leaving behind only the usual bright smiles and anticipation that Yae Miko was used to seeing whenever the subject of Ms. Hina came up. Truthfully, she was a little intrigued, at least more than she assumed she would be at first, and wanted to see how this would play out. She had all the time in the world, but the reason she decided not to drag this moment out was because she was sure that the crowd’s next reaction would be even more priceless. “I now present to you the one and only Ms. Hina!”

They cheered, clapped, and came closer, struggling between themselves for a spot closer to the counter she would gracefully appear behind.

And in came she, her face shy as ever, dragging cheers and dreamy sighs from the adoring crowd, which in turn coloured her cheeks an even darker shade of pink than the make-up job had been able to produce.

And then Arataki Itto appeared behind her, with the best look in the world on his face. You could have taken every single smile in that enormous crowd of people and added them to each other, and still wouldn’t have gotten a complexion as happy and satisfied as the one on Itto’s face. He stood towering over Ms. Hina intimidatingly, arms crossed and all, looking like a fierce dog that could bite at any moment. Because yes, Gorou may be the one with the doggy tail, but Itto was the one who looked like he’d grow one and start wagging it then and there.

And so, Ms. Hina’s 23rd meet and greet event began.

 


 

“Ms. Hina! So pleased to finally meet you again! The name is Aoi, do you remember me still?” Those were quite the common lines, but unfortunately, Gorou did not remember Aoi very much. In fact, the more “regulars” appeared on his meet and greets, the less he managed to remember all of their names by head.

“Of course. How do you do, Ms. Aoi?”

“Oh, Ms. Hina, lovely as ever! Well you see, my husband…”

Shockingly, Itto was beginning to get a little bored, standing there doing nothing while he heard those people beg for help from Ms. Hina. Some of them would give him an ugly glance before leaning in closer to her, to which she would always move a little to the back. It’s like they thought he was eavesdropping, when in reality the butterflies flying about were much more interesting than whatever stories they had to bother Ms. Hina with.

Perhaps that was part of what made her so amazing. She could sit there and listen all day and give good advice to everyone after just a little bit of thinking, and never get bored of it. Itto, on the other hand, had already yawned a considerative amount of times. His heart just wasn’t as kind and understanding as hers, he thought to himself.

“Don’t let this situation drag itself forever. Pull him aside and explain your feelings to him, and be as genuine as you possibly can, avoiding confrontation. After all, if he loves you, he will respect your concerns. He is your husband, after all.”

It wasn’t the most elaborate advice, but it came from the bottom of Gorou’s heart, his desire to really help. The Aoi lady gave a relieved smile – she looked lighter, like a large weight had just been lifted off her shoulders. She thanked Ms. Hina profusely, shook her hand, and left giddily with her autograph.

The next person in line was a younger man who seemed to have been bouncing the entire wait time, as if that would have made it go faster. If Itto remembered this correctly, he was one of the diehard ones who tried with all his might to reach for the lady’s hand upon her arrival. This time was no different, and he threw himself towards her with such speed that Itto was startled out of his daydreams, the yawn threatening to form in his mouth being interrupted. Ms. Hina jumped back, her back hitting the back of the seat. Instinctively, Itto brought himself forward, stepping closer to her side with a hand over her shoulder and another establishing the boundary between them and the young fan.

“Oi! Don’t ya dare come too close, unless you wanna catch these hands!”

The younger man argued back, and the two gentlemen began a petty, childish argument. But the more time that passed, the brighter Gorou’s cheeks began to burn. Itto had practically draped himself over him, and Gorou’s eyes couldn’t help but land on those strong arms that held him in place while also separating the fan from his space. The hand on his shoulder, the protectiveness of the gesture… but worst of all, the proximity. Don’t come close, Itto had said, but Gorou could smell his shampoo from where he was.

Itto was harsh, a brute, but he was passionate about what he loved, just like Gorou was. He felt a little guilty knowing that the woman who inspired him so much didn’t really exist – guiltier than he usually did when he put himself before the cult following he had built over time. For a brief moment, he wished he could really be the Ms. Hina Itto wanted to protect so badly.

When Itto turned to look at him with a victorious smile, Gorou realized he had been staring. He was embarrassed, trying to mutter out an apology that was completely drowned out by the oni’s roaring laugh, “See? I told ya nobody would bother you anymore!”

The defeated fan had walked away, and Gorou felt incredibly bad at the sight, but with Itto now turned to him, he couldn’t help but focus on the fact that their faces were mere inches away. And they were still in front of an entire crowd.

“A-Ah! My apologies, everybody…!”, Gorou turned to face his fans, but rather than looking at him weird or with disappointment, some of them showed support, reminding each other of the precious code of etiquette for Ms. Hina’s fanclub. All this, and I didn’t even pay attention to what that fan was saying , Gorou thought to himself, because he had been staring at Itto instead of paying attention. Hopefully that man hadn’t been too unpleasant.

But there was a bit of a rumbling among the crowd. Yae Miko perked her ears, her arms crossed over her chest as she watched the scene and laughed to herself.

“This isn’t fair!”, somebody protested.

“That guy is ruining the event!”

“He just wants to steal Ms. Hina for himself!”

Gorou cringed a little. It was embarrassing for a war general to be put in such a position – he didn’t appreciate people fighting for him rather than with him. But most importantly, how could these people have such little self-dignity?

“Oi! What’re you saying!” The oni roared from behind Ms. Hina. “I just gotta make sure the lady’s safe from creeps like you!”

And, much like the manchild he was, he stuck out his tongue to provoke the audience. The fans yelled amongst themselves, some trying to hold the angrier ones back, some leaving; Yae Miko laughed; Itto brandished his muscles in a way that made most people back away but still keep on yelling. Seems like it would take more than just a big bodyguard to keep these people in their place.

“Creep? Who are you calling a creep? I’ll have you know, everybody saw you carry Ms. Hina down the mountain!”

“It was so she wouldn’t trip!”

“You just want to steal her away from her loyal fans!”

Gorou looked at Yae Miko like a troubled child would look at their uninterested aunt. And like the aunt she was, she crossed her arms with a satisfied smile on her face and watched the confusion unfold, because that is exactly what she came here for. Books were toppled off their shelves, unrelated passerbys moved the other way to avoid the confusion, and some guy showed up with a kamera and started taking pictures before being screamed at to leave.

I guess I won’t be doing meet and greets anymore, Gorou thought to himself a bit sadly.

“...And since you’re calling me a lady stealer, I might as well just become one! Out of spite!” Itto announced. Gorou perked his ears, and before he knew it, he was being scooped up into the oni’s arms once again. The bodyguard rushed towards the exit, and when Gorou looked up at him, he saw that huge smile with fangs sprouting from his teeth plaster his gleeful, confident face. Under the scorching sun, he had begun to sweat.

The last remaining audience members, heated up as they were, rushed after the duo. Some yelled desperately for Ms. Hina, still wanting to hear her words of advice, or at the very least profess their undying love and lust for the writer; others cursed at Arataki Itto, because damn that oni, running away like that and ruining an event that many had looked forward to for so long! Some stayed, trying to reason with Yae Miko, who shrugged as if she’d seen nothing.

The angrier bits of the fanclub jumped after the fleeing oni like dogs in pursuit, but Itto was much faster and known to be better at running away from a crowd than anyone else.

Gorou felt the adrenaline rushing through his veins at the same speed that the wind hit his face. Arataki Itto sure was a speedy one, he thought. Gorou himself wouldn’t have fallen behind if they were to race, so long as he was allowed to wear anything a little less uncomfortable together with his usual shoes, but the feeling of being carried against the breeze like this was something different. Like gliding at a really fast speed. He heard Itto’s heavy breaths behind him, his loud cheering (Gorou had no idea how they’d been able to outwit all the people chasing after them, because not once had Itto stopped taunting their now long gone pursuers).

When Itto finally stopped sprinting, Gorou realized that the world around them had grown much darker. The oni put him down. Ms. Hina’s visual was ruined, but on the reflection in the pond illuminated only by the sparkly fireflies and mysterious glowing plants, Gorou was happy to confirm that his hair extensions were only threatening to fall off, but not losing the battle just yet.

“Um, sorry I ruined your meet and greet! But I’m sure you didn’t wanna stay there anymore, right? Hah! I told ya I’d be the best bodyguard ever! There’s nothing the great Arataki Itto can’t do!”

Gorou was intrigued by his surroundings, and didn’t respond for a while.

“Is it night time already?” He pondered out loud, mostly to himself.

“Ah,” Itto scratched the back of his neck. Gorou turned to him to hear his answer, blushing once he realized he’d spoken in his regular voice. Yet the bodyguard didn’t seem to notice, or at least care too much about it. “It’s always kinda dark in here, isn’t it? Chinju Forest or something, was that the name of this place?”

Despite working there from time to time, Gorou wasn’t entirely familiar with Narukami Island, so he didn’t know. He sure knew Itto had run a lot, taking lots of weird and unexpected turns in order to lose the persistent men behind them, so it made more sense that they’d end up in such a place than it suddenly becoming nighttime right before their eyes. Gorou caught sight of a funny-looking tanuki in the distance and smiled to himself.

“I’ve been trying really hard these days,” he suddenly spoke. “I want to be better for the people who need me. But I feel like I just can’t. And that Yae…”

Itto looked at him, not entirely sure what to say in this situation. He was caught off guard by his own lack of response. He always had something waiting at the tip of his tongue, and he thought he was better than this at understanding people’s emotions.

He watched as Ms. Hina sat on a stone and stared at the water, and soon joined her, falling onto the grass next to her makeshift stool.

“Ya know, I’m a gang boss. I always wanna look out for my men, too. I want them to rely on me, that’s for sure! And it may not be the same thing, but the job’s easy,” he shrugged. “Not ‘cause I’m some super talented listener like yourself, but because those guys make it great for me, too. They cheer me up and forgive my mistakes. N-Not that I ever make any!”

Gorou smiled at him. Come to think of it, his job back at the resistance had been much easier on him than this Ms. Hina ordeal. Even now that things had become calmer between both sides of the war he had been fighting, commanding the Watatsumi Army still required a lot of effort, both physical when training and mental when making sure each and every soldier was comfortable in his position. He could still remember the day when he received a letter addressed to Ms. Hina that came from one of his own, a young man who had decided to quit but was unsure if it would have been appropriate to do so. He remembered how he encouraged him, both under the pseudonym and in person, as everybody’s beloved general Gorou.

He understood what Arataki Itto meant, in a way that he couldn’t know.

“So what I’m saying is, you don’t gotta blame yourself for not wanting to help people who treat you like that.”

Gorou smiled sincerely, looking at the oni. Ah, so that’s how it is , he thought as he watched him smile: Arataki Itto has a kind heart.

“Thank you, Mr. Arataki.”

“Just Itto’s fine!” He brandished that white, toothy grin of his. “Whoooa… to think I’d be giving advice to Ms. Hina myself! Not doing so bad, am I? Say, Ms. Hina, how ‘bout a beetle fight, since we’re hiding here anyway?”

Gorou wasn’t sure what a beetle fight was, but he was up for it. Like Itto had said, they’d have to stay in hiding anyway. Things weren’t so bad, after all. The forest was beautiful, making itself glown within its own darkness, with wild little creatures creeping here and there as they went about their duties. And Itto was there, too.

 


 

“Waah, I swear I didn’t see the time pass! You’ll have to talk to that Yae for me. She’s after me, you know? She wants revenge for the time I beat her at that noodle eating competition! She got so angry when she saw the bill, you had to have seen her face… I’m sure she’s fuming right now, looking for us! Don’t tell her I dragged you here. I don’t wanna lose this job!” Itto pleaded with his hands clasped together as he and Gorou walked slowly down the stone path where the tanuki ran. “A-Ah, that is, unless you decide not to do these meet and greets again. Which I totally understand, but like, who knows, if you ever wanna go out and about and feel like you can’t ‘cause of the fame, I’ll be right there! Whenever you need me!”

Gorou pushed some of the fake hair back as it began to tickle his face. He looked down at himself, all dressed up as someone he was not. And then he looked at Itto, so sincere and so passionate…

“Mr. Arataki,” he called out to him.

“Itto’s fine, I said!”

With a hand on each side of his face, Gorou pulled the oni closer to himself, and planted a gentle kiss on his cheek.

“Thank you for today. I’ll see you at the event next week.”

It took Itto a while to process what had just happened, a hand going over where Ms. Hina had left the kiss. He swore to never ever ever wash that side of his face ever again. Oh, how he wanted a mirror, just to see if her lipstick had left a mark!

For the rest of the walk, he was mostly quiet, lacking anything to say to her. But he carried a smile even brighter than before, that’s for sure, and everywhere he looked, he thought that the surrounding flowers and fireflies and glowing plants had nothing on the tenderness of the person in front of him.