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and so it turns

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At the end of the bloodshed, there are few survivors.

This is what Ibuki knows:

Reiji is dead. Haruma killed him. Haruma stopped Ibuki from killing him, and then he killed him, himself.

Haruma, in his arms, as he slumped down against him, blood flowing unstaunched from his chest, his back. Haruma, the look in his eyes as he said, ‘Thank you’. Haruma, the slight smile of relief, Haruma, the blood on his face, Haruma, Haruma, Haruma.

Haruma is dead, because Ibuki’s resolve wavered.

He doesn’t remember the rest.

 

This is what Takahara Ibuki does not know:

The riot police, set up as a human barricade to prevent the eyes of the media, the eyes of the world to view this bloodshed, watch in frozen horror as children - children - are cut down by adults who had proclaimed they were present to protect civilisation. Bodies fall, left and right. Blood spills onto the ground, dyeing crimson the blindingly white uniforms the schoolaged children wear. Gradually, eventually, the two forces, like some bad movie, annihilate each other, falling as they stand, no clear victor. On the roof, they see the man with the eyepatch, the one who had ordered them to stand down, to hold position, as he ordered his men forward. There is a boy, a white haired boy who wields a sword. They fight, and it is a fierce fight.

It is unclear what happened, but, they realize, the man with the eyepatch is dead.

One of the riot police finally snaps out of his horror - “call an ambulance!” he yells. Pauses, looks out over the battlefield, strewn with carcasses. “Call as many as you can! Prioritize survivors! Move!” He is not a commander, not an officer, but having witnessed what he just witnessed, none of that matters at the moment. He does not expect to find many survivors, but as a police officer sworn to protect people - he swallows down his revulsion that he stood aside and watched as children were slaughtered - what could he do now, but save what lives could be saved?

(For a brief moment, he thinks of his daughter. She is in her first year of high school, and so high spirited, ready to fight for what she believes in at the drop of the hat. That was the light of children. Only they were still foolish enough, still optimistic enough, still brave and unjaded enough, to fight for what they passionately held to be their truth.)

There are, as they expected, startlingly few survivors. There are many bodies, and although they check each for a heartbeat, a pulse, any sign of life, those on scene lose hope fast. Yet there are some miracles.

A boy, young, clutching the body of his dead friend, sword still through his body.

There are a pair of twins, on the stairs - both are barely alive, one is bleeding badly, having lost an arm.

The boy on the roof, unconscious, clutching the white haired boy who’d struck down the leader of the extremists, two dead bodies surrounding them.

And--

 

Ibuki wakes up in the hospital, alone. The doctors rush in as he revives. The police by his door do as well. They read him his rights, tell him he’s not allowed to contact anyone, not until the trial. There’s no one for him to contact, no one for him to face. He closes his eyes, and wills sleep to take over.

The trial is closed door, and short.

It’s one week later - he’d gotten off lighter than most. He’s standing, has all his limbs, all his internal organs. He listens to the judgement numbly. Part of him realizes how unfair this all is, that if they hadn’t been forced into this position, none of this would have happened. The rest of him can no longer summon up the strength to care. He’s charged with disturbing the peace, with destroying property, with anything but murder.

He hadn’t killed anyone, but they didn’t know that. They still do not charge him with murder.

He doesn’t speak, not for that entire week. Not until they’re leading him away, in shackles, taking him to juvenile detention - “what…about the others?” he asks. The judge looks at him, and she has in her eyes a look of exhaustion, resignation, and the thankfulness of many parents that week that her own son had not been born a descendant of samurai, or it could have been him standing there. “There’s been a lot of funerals this week,” she says, voice flat. It wouldn’t do for an official to show sympathy, after all.

 

What Ibuki does not know is that after they pried his unconscious form from Haruma’s still body, after they had carried both bodies onto stretchers, ready to cover one with a cloth, is that someone realized the white haired swordsman was still alive. Barely, but alive.

The medics on the scene rushed to staunch the bleeding, hurried to stabilize the boy. The police present had seen the fight, however faintly, on the roof, but it was enough to know that he was a monster, a demon with the blade. But none of that showed on his unresponsive face. A face that seemed to be at peace, a weight lifted, a glimmer happiness.

What Ibuki does not know is that Haruma survives.

 

With Reiji dead, the truth behind the extremists comes to light. The news shows blurred out images of the courtyard of Shiseikan, with a warning that the following images may be disturbing, and that viewers should take caution. Stories begin to emerge about the culture festival, the one that precipitated the massacre. Stories about how the students had carried on despite everything, about how fun and lively it had been, about the beauty and grace of the final performance. Some who had been there that afternoon, realizing that they had witnessed a monumental moment in history, asked how many of the students had survived, and shook their heads in horror at the senseless loss of so many young lives, at a school, entirely wiped out. One young girl, holding her mother’s hand as they stand at an intersection, looking up at a news board, realizes that they’re talking about the nii-chans who had protected her, when those scary men at the school had tried to hurt her. A reporter nearby happens to overhear, and the simple bravery and goodness of the swordsmen at Shiseikan is a story that spreads faster than fear of the swordsmen had spread.

There are many funerals that week. Many parents, burying their children. Some who understand they pride they carried and had carried to the grave. Some who did not, and wondered how their children could have been failed so badly. The funerals are private, quiet affairs. Some, like that of Seishirou’s pupil and successor, Saitou Jin, are stalked by unscrupulous reporters, but the family is adamant as they mourn the loss of their two sons. A public memorial is held by a group of Shiseikan alumni. They expect it to be largely those who had known the students who had perished, those who had followed the way of the sword. Yet, far more of the public attend than anyone had anticipated, and the memorial spills out into the streets. The police do not attempt to shut it down - they merely redirect traffic. They too, understand, as they too are part of a country torn with grief.

With public opinion swaying swiftly towards those at Shiseikan, some petition not to charge the few students yet alive. It is taken into consideration, but there is no doubt that laws had been broken, even prior to the War. There are also still those in power who consider them nothing but troublemakers. And so the arrests proceed.

The right to carry swords is abolished, and they disappear from the streets, are displayed as family heirlooms. Slowly, peace is restored, and the incident becomes a mere memory. In a few years, even the children that had been at that last, fateful cultural festival will only remember swordsmen as a fragment of the past.

And so it was for those who had merely stood witness. For those who had lost sons, brothers, lovers, friends, cousins, uncles - it was a scar that would never disappear.

 

For Kokonoe Haruma, it is an open wound that will never heal.

Haruma wakes up in the hospital, and unlike Ibuki, does not wake up alone. Instead, he finds his father in the bed next to his. Yukari is there, and Kasuga is as well. They both burst into tears. Like Ibuki, both doctors and police enter his room. He is charged, but he will remain in the hospital for the time being.

Like Ibuki, Haruma merely closes his eyes, and does not say a word.

He isn’t sent to prison, a combination of his father’s influence as a staunch member of the former Haitou faction, and because there simply are no detention centers that can handle his medical needs. His survival is kept quiet, and his charges are classified. He spends three months in the hospital, and by the time he’s discharged, he’s regained some of the strength in his arms, but will never walk again. His father takes him home to serve out the rest of his house arrest.

For Haruma, these few months are a blur.

During the day, his family is constantly by his side. At night, his ghosts keep him company.

They remind him that he is alive, but so many aren’t. Jin is dead. Seishirou is dead. Nobochi is dead. His brother…is dead.

He should be dead too.

“Ibuki is alive,” his father tells him, partway through his recovery. He does not say that he is in prison - Haruma assumes that is the case. For the first time since Haruma had awoken, however, there is a glimmer of life in his eyes.

He learns of the funerals that had been held when he’d been unconscious, of the memorial, of the shift of public perception. He learns of the ban on carrying swords, and feels nothing.

No, it is not that he feels nothing, it is that if he were to allow himself to feel that which boils beneath the surface, he is afraid that he will break beyond all repair.

 

"They wouldn't want you to grieve," Yukari tells him.

Haruma's hands, resting on his lap, shift imperceptibly.

It’s been nearly two years, and although he has begun to finally come back to life, every month, as the day comes where he lost some of the things most important to him, he cannot help but sink back into the darkness that had once consumed him. He is aware of the irony of it, has had it pointed out to him many times. That he had accomplished what he’d been burning to do, he’d found the truth behind Seishirou’s death, and had taken his revenge and brought about the spirit of Seishirou’s will. That he had survived as well, was a miracle. Yukari had slapped him at one point, telling him to snap out of it. It hadn’t helped.

Today was one of those days.

The afternoon slowly burnished orange into evening, as Haruma and Yukari sat side by side - he in a wheelchair, Yukari on a bench they had set out on the porch. Far too late, he’d understood what Jin had meant about the things that were important to him. Even then, he hadn’t truly understood until they were wrenched from his grasp, until he’d lost them all.

Comrades, friends. Family.

They’d put Yukinari to rest next to Amane. In the end, despite everything Yukinari had done, everything Yukinari had taken away from Haruma, he had still been his one and only brother. He had, Haruma noted duly during Yukinari’s funeral, saved his life.

Kouya and Kouki both rest now in the Shindo doujo, unused and untouched.

Haruma learns that out of the entire student body, only five others had survived. The twins, the president, Makio. Ibuki. So many had laid down their lives so that he could forge on, so that he could face Reiji, carrying all their hopes in his blade. He plays out every moment, over and over.

In his mind, he plays out Jin, walking through those doors. That last fight, where Jin sacrificed himself in order to bring the rest of them together - if only Haruma had been stronger, had been better, had been more like Jin or Seishirou.

He plays out the moments when the gates opened, and Reiji and his people walked into Shiseikan.

He plays out ever stroke, every cut, every dance of his blade. The way it had pierced flesh, but never killed. What if he had? Ibuki would have stopped him - but what if.

He plays out the moment the second years had urged them into the school, taking on Reiji’s men alone. What if he had stayed? What if he had stood by their sides?

He plays out the last time he’d seen HIdehito, Ren, alive. The looks on their faces, the hope and determination there as he’d glanced over his shoulder. How had they died? How had the fight gone? What if he had stayed? What if he had fought by their sides?

He plays out Ibuki, charging onto the roof, the two of them, fighting side by side, back to back, two pieces of one. He plays out the moment he’d seen in Ibuki’s eyes that they weren’t so different after all, that inside, deep under it all, they were exactly the same. That was, Haruma thinks, the one thing he’d done right.

The one thing that had turned out alright.

There is a distant look in his eyes, as Yukari watches on. She knows, more than anyone, how the loss of Seishirou had affected Haruma. Yet, since that day two years ago, she has never seen him smile, once. She’d moved in with the Kokonoe family, and has spent more time with Haruma than ever before - those brief days where he’d been able to smile freely seem so faint she wonders if they’d ever truly happened. He is still, mechanical, with none of the grace and fluidity that had painted the lines of his body when he’d had his sword in hand.

Kasuga appears behind them, informs that dinner is ready.

Yukari stands, the sun setting behind them, and pushes Haruma back inside.

 

Summer comes once every year, and every year, Haruma sees Yukari stand on the porch, staring wistfully into the distance where the fireworks will bloom.

He’s strong enough now that he can wheel himself around - it’s as he’s making his way from the garden to the kitchen that he passes by the slightly open door of Yukari’s room. She’s kneeling on the floor, smoothing her hands over a yukata spread out in front of her. Her back is to him, but even so, Haruma can see the mixed feelings on her face as clearly as if she’d been facing him. It’s Seishirou’s yukata, the same one that he’d tried to rip off Jin’s body, that last summer festival they’d all had.

Kasuga is in the kitchen, painstakingly crafting a midday meal that could put the frilliest restaurant to shame. With Yukari having moved in with them, and the reconciliation between father and son, Kasuga is happily busier than ever, with all of them taking their meals together. She looks up when Haruma enters, and quickly pushes aside a few chairs so that Haruma can join her at the table.

“Are you hungry?” she asks. “Thirsty?"

Haruma shakes his head.

“I just wanted some company,” he admits.

Kasuga smiles at him, and thinks how much he’s changed since he met Ibuki.

“What are you reading now?” she asks, nodding at the book on his lap as she carefully shapes the mound of rice on the plate into a Totoro shape, her latest obsession.

Haruma glances down as if he’d forgotten himself, picking it up and placing it on the table. It’s Heike Monogatari, an old favourite of his. He’s spent a lot of time reading these days, with not much else to do.

“It’s funny,” he says, “I always thought I understood what these stories meant, but I don’t think he did."

“You’ve grown up,” Kasuga says. She walks over to the cabinet and returns with another teacup, filling it and placing it in front of Haruma. The boy - the young man - picks it up and turns it absentmindedly between his hands. There is something on his mind, it’s written plainly all over his face.

His forehead creases into a slight frown. “I’m not Seishirou,” he says. “And I didn’t grow up to be like Yoshitsune either,” he says.

“You’ve grown up to be yourself,” Kasuga says.

She leans back, regarding the young man that the once scared child has grown up into. His features, still handsome, have become even more solemn than they had been in his younger days. His shoulders have broadened, and although he can no longer stand to his full height, he has grown taller, his body filled out. Beneath his clothes, numerous scars cross his body, something that Kasuga knows well. He has also learned, she notes with some amusement, to speak clearly in full sentences, something he’d always seemed to have difficulty with as a child.

“I never thought about myself,” Haruma says quietly. “I only ever thought about Seishirou, about who I wanted to be.” He pauses. “I couldn’t even live up to Jin."

Kasuga says nothing, only places her hands in her lap, knowing that Haruma needs time and space. Haruma, whose eyes up to now have been fixed on some point on the table, looks up and meets her gaze.

“Kasuga, do you ever think about the past?"

A pang of grief flashes through her core, but Kasuga bottles it down.

“Of course I do,” she says. “But it’s not something that can be changed."

“Mmm."

Haruma’s expression settles into a pensive look, one that so resembles his father. Kasuga moves to the stove, waiting by the kettle as the water bubbles into a boil. She refills the teapot, settling back into her chair as the tea brews, the subtle aroma wafting through the spout.

“Jin and Hidehito…they were like Yoshitsune and Benkei, weren’t they,” Haruma muses aloud.

He shakes his head, sitting upright as he reaches for the teapot, refilling first Kasuga’s and his cup. Kasuga bows her head in thanks, surprised by his initiative.

“I saw Yukari today,” he says, haltingly.

Kasuga raises an eyebrow. “You see her every day,” she points out.

Haruma stares at her blankly, before shaking his head again, clearing his thoughts.

“She’d taken out Seishirou’s yukata,” he clarifies. “It’s almost that time of year again."

“Ahh.” Kasuga nods.

The festival that they’d gone to every year, Seishirou and his friends and his pupils. It was a time full of good memories for Haruma, she knew. He hadn’t gone the past two years, nor had any of them.

In Haruma’s case, he couldn’t, being under house arrest and all. For the rest of them, it was hard to go somewhere alone, when the friends they had once gone with were all dead and gone.

"Kasuga, would it be difficult to have a small festival here? With just the four of us?"

Kasuga, once again, thought about how much Haruma had grown up, as she threw her arms around him, and may have shed a few tears.

"It, it's just for Yukari's sake!" Haruma mumbled, flustered.

"Of course we can," Kasuga said. And she'd make it as grand as she could.

 

"Huh? What's going on? Kasuga? Why are we? Ehhhh why are you taking off my clothes????"

Yukari spun uselessly as Kasuga pulled her shirt over her head and just as quickly redressed her, and before Yukari knew what was going on, she was whisked through the hallways by a very insistent Kasuga - dressed in a yukata? and not her usual maid outfit? - out into the courtyard.

The courtyard, where lanterns were strung across the space, where a few small stalls had been set up, the aroma of freshly prepared food wafting into the night air, quiet music, and Haruma and his father side by side in the middle of it all, Haruma wearing the first smile that Yukari has seen in a very long time.

"Haruma, you..." Yukari's hand flies to her mouth, as she feels tears well up in her eyes.

"Ah? Why? Crying? Are you?" Haruma reached out as if he wanted to run to her, but couldn't.

Kasuga solved the problem, sweeping Yukari off her feet and bringing her to Haruma instead.

Yukari clung to Haruma in the tightest hug, her tears wetting his shoulders, as Haruma awkwardly patted her back, Kasuga and Norikumo watching on fondly with amusement and relief. Suddenly, Yukari stands back, and jabs a finger at Haruma.

"Wait here!" she says, as she turns around and disappears into the house.

Haruma watches her, confused, still very much wheelchair bound. He glances at his father and Kasuga for help, but they just shrug.

It doesn't take very long for her to reappear, a bundle of cloth in her arms.

When Haruma realises what it is, his eyes open wide, his mouth ready in a protest, but it's no use as his father instantly understands and pushes him towards the porch, him and Kasuga lifting him chair and all up, so Yukari can place Seishirou's yukata on his lap.

"I..." Haruma begins to say, but Yukari shakes her head.

"Brother would have wanted it," she says. Her eyes are still red and puffy and tear tracks still run down her face, as she wipes them fiercely away with the back of her hand.

"Besides," she adds, "you wanted to wear it so badly you tried to rip it off Jin, remember? Only you were still too small and now..."

It's a festival he remembers very clearly, and one that Yukari remembers as well. But as Kasuga had said, the past was something that couldn't be changed, and as he's helped out of his usual yukata and into Seishirou's, Haruma realises abruptly that he's grown taller, as tall as Seishirou and Jin had been.

And then he too, bursts into tears.

It's an evening of sweets and laughter and the flowers of fireworks. It's Norikumo who brings out a watermelon and a baseball bat, Haruma staring at his father like he's grown a second head. Kasuga splits it neatly in half on her first try, even while blindfolded, and Norikumo sighs and brings out a second, dictating that Kasuga sit this one out. Yukari nearly manages, but it is Norikumo who finally smashes it. "Don't underestimate experience," he says, and Haruma stares like he has two heads and a pair of wings.

Somehow, Kasuga had arranged for there to be a small pool of goldfish, raised on a table so Haruma can catch them with a net as well. At one point, Haruma and Yukari compete to see who can stuff the most takoyaki in their mouth at a time - they ultimately call it a tie, when they both start choking, much to the adults' alarm.

As the night winds down, Kasuga comes up to them, and says she has one more thing prepared. Haruma and Yukari glance at each other, and nod. Following Kasuga, Yukari pushes Haruma to a room that isn't much used. Inside, to their surprise, is a small altar. However, what surprises them the most is a board with several hooks on it, the kind one would find at a shrine.

"I consulted with a Shinto priest," Kasuga explains, "and he believed it would be alright. You haven't had a shrine visit in a while."

Haruma hesitates, but Yukari runs forward, picking up the ema there, handing one to Haruma, who holds it blankly.

"Go on," Yukari urges, eyes shining. "It's alright to wish."

If only Haruma's deepest wish wasn't one that could never be fulfilled.

 

They’re eating breakfast one day, the four of them, when Norikumo puts down his chopsticks.

“Takahara-kun is being released in a few months. I’ve spoken with the officials, and he will be staying here after he is released."

Yukari nods, because that makes sense.

Haruma’s chopsticks drop from his limp hands, as he stares at his father.

It isn’t that he hasn’t thought about this, that soon, his friends, his former classmates, will have served out their time and would be released. He’s thought about it, a lot. It’s that he still doesn’t know how he’ll be able to face them.

"I...buki?"

"Yes, Takahara Ibuki-kun," his father says. "Is there a problem?"

No. Yes.

It's been nearly five years, and Haruma has seen no one but his father, Kasuga, Yukari, and the household staff. There are visitors, but Haruma has always ensconced himself in his room when this happens. The world has changed without him, and it's a world he no longer knows.

Just like Ibuki is someone who he no longer knows.

They haven't spoken in nearly five years, and Haruma doesn't even know if Ibuki knows he's alive. He doesn't know if his father had told him - doesn't know if his father had spoken to Ibuki himself, either.

Five years is a long time, and Ibuki too, must have changed.

Haruma looks down at his lap. The last time he'd seen Ibuki, his vision had been blurred, his eyes out of focus. Ibuki's face, distraught, above him.

He wonders what Ibuki looks like now.

They'd been sixteen, at the time. Young, in the prime of their youth. They're much older now, mature, adults. He knows he himself has changed, has grown. How has Ibuki changed?

He remembers Ibuki as the one who'd been his light, the one who'd pulled him out of the darkness. The one who'd sworn to keep Haruma from falling back into that darkness. The one who'd decided to never kill. He hadn't killed, not at the time. He wondered if Ibuki was still light, still cheerful, still as bright. He wondered who Ibuki had become.

But, Haruma accepts, this is something that is happening, the passage of time that cannot be stopped.

He nods as well, meets the others' eyes.

"When?"

 

There is a flurry of activity in the weeks before Ibuki is to be released. There are plenty of empty rooms - they prepare one near Haruma's. The room is aired, futon are prepared, a spare set of clothes, for until Ibuki can go shopping for his own. There's a sort of nervous energy, and Yukari seems to be extra cheerful to make up for Haruma's renewed silence.

As for Haruma himself, he seemed to withdraw into himself in the days prior to his release.

If he watched the news or read the papers, he would have seen a small column, a quick bulletin, that the survivors of Shiseikan had just about served their sentences. But he did not, and so he did not.

For the most part, his family left him alone.

They each knew that none of them could know how he felt, or what might be going through his mind. They could only guess at his pain and uncertainty, at the memories and emotions that were being clawed out from where he'd slowly buried them over the years.

The first time he'd met Ibuki, Haruma had been consumed by anger, hatred, and revenge. At the time, he'd never had guessed that the boy would become his best friend, his first friend. The days they'd spent together had been short, and a mere fraction of their lives, but they were days that were indelibly carved into Haruma's very spirit. Even the simple ones, the ones where they'd eaten lunch together, or the peaceful, boring ones of a normal school day. Things that Haruma hadn't known mattered, until Ibuki. Ibuki had saved him - but when Haruma had told Ibuki to throw him his sword, so that he could be the one to kill Reiji, Haruma hadn't expected to survive.

Haruma had blood on his hands. He'd killed someone.

At the end, even though it was everything he'd wanted, he couldn't help but feel as if, just a little, he'd failed Ibuki.

But time marches on, and one spring day, a car pulls up to the gate. Haruma is in his room, as usual, the door closed, a book on his lap. It's a week before Ibuki is to arrive - it's a week early for Ibuki to step out of the black car in front of the Kokonoe household, his heart in his throat as he wonders if what he's been told is really true.

 

And, five years later, this is what Ibuki knows:

The first breath of free air.

A plain button up shirt and a pair of slacks.

A car to take him to the Kokonoe home.

Haruma's father - how can Ibuki face him? - seated inside, as he gestures for Ibuki to sit down beside him.

"There is something you should know, Takahara kun," Haruma's father says. "Haruma is alive."

For the rest of the ride, Ibuki sits in stunned silence.

And now he is here, in front of the doors of the Kokonoe residence, the same residence that he last had to break into, five years ago, to rescue Haruma and bring him back to Shiseikan. This time, the doors had opened easily. Only Yukari is there, when he walks in, trailing Haruma's father. She lets out a small cry of surprise, before she regains her composure.

"You're early," she says, smoothing down her skirt.

"Yes, some arrangements were made," Haruma's father says.

"Sorry...sorry for intruding." Ibuki stumbles over his words, words he has become unused to saying.

Although Haruma's father looks exactly the same, Yukari has grown up into a fine young woman, and a lump grows in Ibuki's throat.

"Not at all," Yukari says. "Everyone is glad to see you."

"Yukari, why don't you show Takahara-kun to his room?" Haruma's father suggests.

But - and this, Ibuki does not know - Yukari doesn't take him straight to the room they've prepared for him. Instead, she opens the door to a room, and gestures Ibuki to go ahead of her.

Ibuki freezes.

Haruma, hearing the door open, slowly turns.

Time, the same time that keeps marching steadily on, skips forward, then comes to a stand still.

 

This is what Takahara Ibuki does not know:

Over the past few months, Haruma has played out again and again, all the ways this meeting might have gone. Maybe he's waiting for him when Ibuki arrives. Maybe he'll be the first to see him. Maybe he'll be the one to pick Ibuki up. Maybe Ibuki hates him. Maybe Ibuki will punch him, or slap him. Maybe this was all a huge misunderstanding, and Ibuki never comes. Maybe Ibuki will run to him. Maybe a miracle will happen and Haruma will regain the use of his legs and they'll run to each other and embrace, as in a movie.

Maybe, if they'd both still been sixteen and sure of their place in the world, all of this might have been true.

But what Haruma hadn't taken into account in his hundred and eight scenarios is that neither of them are sixteen anymore, and that a lot has happened in five years, even if neither of them want to acknowledge it. They've been hurt beyond belief, they've been ripped apart and poorly patched back together. Something was taken from them that is irreplaceable and can never be returned.

When Haruma looks into Ibuki's stunned eyes, he is seized by the desire to know what these past five years have been like. He sees, behind the sadness that settles in the corners of Ibuki's eyes, the light that had once dragged him out of the darkness. He sees himself, mirrored there. He sees the way the past still haunts him, the shackles that extend beyond the physical ones he's just been released from.

The steps that Ibuki takes towards him are slow, hesitant, dreamlike. His hand is outreached, slightly, as if he's unsure whether the arm he will touch is solid, or whether his hand will pass right through.

What are you rushing off for alone!?

Ibuki, on the rooftop, as Haruma faltered, grabbing him and pulling him ahead.

It's because we're friends! Comrades!

You too? I thought we were the same!

"You're...alive."

Ibuki's hand is warm on Haruma's arm. Haruma turns over his palm, grasps Ibuki's hand. Neither of their hands bear the calluses of sword practice, anymore. There are the beginnings of tears in Ibuki's eyes.

"Yes," Haruma says simply. "I am."

And this is what Takahara Ibuki knows:

A lot more is said in those few words, than the words themselves.

And as for Haruma, in that moment, he wonders if his wish can be fulfilled after all - for everyone to be together again. Maybe it's not so impossible.

After all, after all they've been through, they're exactly the same, aren't they? It's always been like this, the two sides of a blade, each at the other's back. It seems as if they've always been driving forwards together.

Nor is it just the two of them. Ibuki could swear that standing behind Haruma, he sees Seishirou with his smile, Jin with Hidehito behind him, Ren with the biggest grin on his face, Odani with a scowl, and the entirety of Shiseikan, right there in that room. And the funny thing was, Haruma could too.

You're not alone anymore, he hears both Seishirou and Jin say.

And yes, Haruma agreed. He wasn't.