Chapter 1: Part I
Happy Valentine's Day, Shell-Senji and Sabinasanfanfic! Hijikata & Chizuru: So, You Got the Good Ending, Right?
Thank you to both of you for your kindness and conversation over the past year. I hope you enjoy this story—or find it interesting, at least.
... Part II will be forthcoming, Chibi Saitou willing.
PS Happy Valentine's Day to everyone else too! You can read excellent stories by both these authors (Hakuouki and other) on tumblr, AO3, and FFnet.
Prices to Pay—Part I
Bitter cold and utter isolation. That summed up the newly-renamed Hokkaido, as far as Hijikata was concerned. The Kaitakushi—the so-called Development Commission—had promised great things since the final battles around Hakodate and the star fortress Gōryakaku. So far, the greatest thing they'd done was rename the island, a scant two months after Hijikata's alleged death. For some reason, that annoyed him more than it probably should. In the year or so since, Hijikata and Chizuru had been forced to move farther north, as the Commission's plan for "colonizing" Hokkaido included promoting the relocation of dispossessed and unemployed former samurai. Hijikata had become all too well-known during the last year or two of Shogunate rule.
On the good days, Hijikata found it amusing that the samurai who had looked down on Kondō and him were being forced to become farmers. Of course, the great lords and their families were mostly safe enough, although reduced in wealth and importance. And by 1868—hell, a lot earlier than that—the scions of samurai families grew up to be bureaucrats, not warriors, so that the loss of status hurt more keenly than the loss of a sword. Most of them knew enough not to hurt themselves drawing a blade; however, hitting a target eluded them, especially in actual combat What was the Meiji government supposed to do with hundreds of unemployed clerks and rice counters, many of whom they couldn't trust?
They'd kept the useful ones, of course—those who were competent and practical and appeared likely to accept the defeat of the bakufu and move on. No flies on the new Satsuma-Chōshu coalition—the New Government. Hijikata wondered a little about how they thought of themselves, now that they were in the process of eliminating the hans and at least the outer trappings of the clan system. He shook his head dubiously; he had seen too much war and violent death to believe that there wouldn't be long-term grudges. He'd heard rumours, even here at the edge of nothing, about the slaughter in Aizu, which had supposedly engulfed more than bakufu soldiers and Aizu retainers.
The edge of nothing
Grey water chills rocky shores;
The Great Bear watches
Hijikata frowned, trying to focus on the morning's haiku and not on his personal list of the names of the fallen. It did no good, and only detracted from the precious moments he had with—
"Hijikata-san?" Chizuru walked into their small, neatly furnished principal room, blinking herself awake. She had a near-uncanny ability to know when one of his darker moods threatened to overtake him.
"Good morning, Chizuru. I hope you slept well." Hijikata rose from his desk—a rather roughly constructed creation of his own—and walked around the low central fireplace to his wife. He kissed her brow, and then drew her small body against his, savouring her warmth.
"Yes—I mean no!" Chizuru placed her hands on Hijikata's chest and tried to look up at him. When that didn't work, she obligingly snuggled herself against the hollow of his shoulder, and allowed him to stroke her long, soft hair. "You didn't sleep last night, Hijikata-san—again."
"I came to bed," he protested, knowing the excuse to be even more feeble than usual. He'd returned to their small front window, and his desk, as soon as he'd thought her asleep.
"I doubt you were there for long," Chizuru told him softly. "I had those dreams again."
Hijikata let out a sharp breath. Those dreams meant the nightmares she sometimes had about the furies, the white-haired, blood-crazed monsters created by a desperate government to act as inhuman super-soldiers. A failed experiment that had claimed the lives of many Shinsengumi warriors, and unalterably changed most of its captains. Hijikata assumed that the nightmares were triggered by Chizuru's fears for his future, since he had spent so much time as a fury; in truth, they had no idea how long he had left to live.
He tried to form his question with care. "It's not that you are wrong, Chizuru"—they'd agreed not to lie to each other during that first night in each other's arms, before Hijikata's last battle of the Boshin War—"but I don't see why you link your nightmares to my absence."
With a sigh, Chizuru disentangled herself from his arms and went to the cooking area near the fireplace. He followed, feeling the deep, too-familiar lines forming between his brows. Sōji would mock him for those furrows—if he weren't dead of some combination of tuberculosis and overextended use of his fury powers. Mind you, he didn't know for sure whether Sōji was dead. The ass-end of nowhere didn't get regular news from the rest of Japan, and the final resting place of a sick fugitive like Sōji wouldn't be news to begin with, despite his former reputation as a swordsman. He still regretted that the last he'd seen of the boy with whom he'd grown up as a warrior was the end of a fist, followed by an achingly familiar, painfully straight, retreating back.
"That's your Okita-san face," Chizuru remarked, her hands busy with breakfast preparations.
She still couldn't bring herself to call them by their first names, not even her own husband. The Shinsengumi had raised her in a hard school, Hijikata sometimes thought. Only Heisuke had ever insisted on the familiarity of first names. Hijikata found himself staring at his wife, and thinking that it was time for her to stop treating him as General Hijikata, or the Oni no Fukuchō of the Shinsengumi.
Damn. He hadn't noticed that she'd turned. He'd been feeling so… fuzzy-headed lately. He couldn't help but wonder if it meant that his time was up. Chizuru had never been able to stop him from using his fury powers when he deemed them necessary, although he suspected that he had always used them less than he could have because of her love and concern. Hers and Kondō's. A wave of dizziness caused him to sit down a little less gracefully than usual.
"I'm right here, Chizuru. I'll be fine."
A wooden spoon clattered onto Chizuru's work surface, and the next moment she was on her knees at his side. She appeared to have tears in her eyes, but she also seemed angry. Well, angry for Chizuru, anyway.
"You are NOT fine, Hijikata-san! You haven't been yourself in months! Especially recently. And I'm… I'm worried." The last was spoken in a low tone, irritation fading inexorably into fear. "You aren't like the other men here, after all."
Hijikata tried to frown at her, but the effort was too great. What he really wanted—needed—was her touch, her warmth. Before he could articulate his request in a way that his pride would allow, Chizuru was holding him, her slim, strong arms wound around his chest as best as she could manage.
"What do you mean… Chizuru… that I'm not like other men?" His breathing was becoming laboured, and he honestly couldn't tell if he was hot or freezing. Was he sick or was he dying? It would be a shame to get all worked up about a bad cold. "Being a fury… you mean?"
"Yes, partly, maybe, but… You need to go back to bed, Hijikata-san—"
Chizuru stared at him, caught entirely off-guard. "Ah—"
"Or Toshizō, if you prefer. But I was thinking Toshi." Chizuru didn't respond at once, and Hijikata muttered darkly: "I'll never forgive Sōji for naming that damned cat after me."
"You're burning with fever, Hijika—um—Toshi-san."
Chizuru's face was as red as if she had the fever, not him. But he was truly glad that she'd used his proper name, even though she'd pronounced it very gingerly, as though it might curse her in some way. Hopefully, he wasn't dying. He'd like the chance to hear her say his name more often.
"You have a fever. I'll help you get back to bed—or rather, into bed. Half an hour at nine o'clock last night doesn't count."
"Yes, doctor." He could see the tears in her eyes, but he could also see the courage that held them in check. With an effort, he rose to his feet and stumbled toward the bedroom, one arm curled tightly around Chizuru's shoulders.
"So… why'm'I different Chizuru?" He sounded—and felt—drunk, but for some reason it didn't matter. He buried his face in Chizuru's hair, and inhaled deeply. "I am a hell of a lot smarter, that's for sure. Fucking morons think they can grow rice in a place like this! Rice! Goes to show that farmers can be samurai, but samurai sure as hell can't be farmers!"
"Yes, Hijika—um—oh look, here's the bed!"
Lucidity returned fully for a moment, and Hijikata turned to stare incredulously at Chizuru. Then he grinned at her in a way that she hadn't seen in at least a month. His face immediately became serious again, but there was a gleam in the beautiful purple eyes that had been missing for almost as long as the smile.
"Thank you, dear. It would have been embarrassing to somehow miss an object that takes up approximately eighty percent of this room."
"Oh!" Chizuru was blushing hotly again, but her expression was one of relief more than embarrassment. She managed to smile, and said as seriously as she could, "Do—do you think it's that much, Hiji—I mean, Toshi-san?"
Despite improved awareness, Hijikata could feel his knees starting to buckle. Almost desperate to hold onto this feeling of normalcy—of contentment and affection—with Chizuru, he elected to drag her down onto the bed with him, honed reflexes coming to his aid when muscles started to fail.
"Do I have to get used to Hijitoshi-san?" he asked, grateful for the high, Western-style bed. He occasionally missed the easy practicality of a futon—Western beds wasted too much space—but this was not one of those times.
"Aah! Hijikata-san!" Chizuru had fallen across him, and was struggling to both right herself and roll off to one side.
"Toshi." Hijikata held her securely in place. How could he have forgotten how important she was to him? Not that he had forgotten, exactly; more like he had felt increasingly wrapped in fog since moving away from the Hakodate area, with its visible connection to the main island of Honshu and its sense of activity.
Early on, he had been amazed to be alive at all, let alone alive and able to finally take the time to see Chizuru for all that she was—to him and simply as herself. She had nursed him through his near-fatal wounds—been his doctor, really, since he couldn't be seen in town. He knew that she'd gotten him through at least one significant fever since, although he'd never known if it was an infection or something else, some legacy of the poison ironically known as the Water of Life. He still didn't remember much about that incident, and it bothered him.
"Toshi-san." Chizuru had finally given up trying to move. "We need to talk."
"Never good words to hear from a woman, in my experience," Hijikata replied lightly, running a hand down his wife's back, and caressing the curve of her waist and hip. He could tell that she was determined to tell him something, but she was also reacting to his touch, and he could feel desire flaring in both of them. How long had it been? Not just since making love, but since he could feel the connection between them as clearly as he did now? At least he had had the good sense to marry her last year, while they were still living near Hakodate. It had been the best way he could think of to tell her that both she and his love for her were unique.
"You're trying to distract me." Chizuru's voice was a complicated mix of love, anxiety, hope, and longing.
"You're the one who announced the presence of the bed," Hijikata pointed out. The corners of his lips twitched upward, spoiling his attempt at innocent surprise. He relaxed his hold on Chizuru so that he could run both hands along her body. She was thinner than she should be—he could feel her ribs and shoulder-blades too easily—and he wondered how long she had been giving him an unfair portion of their food. In the past—both distant and not-so-distant—he would have noticed and put a stop to that immediately.
"That was—you know I didn't mean it that way!" Chizuru was becoming flustered and turned on in roughly equal measure, he judged. Though with her, the two often went together. Her ears and neck were almost as flushed as her cheeks now, and the tip of her tongue kept flicking out to moisten her pretty lips. He could feel her heart beating faster—it seemed almost loud to him—and there was a small catch in her breath. She was very lovely, overwhelmingly desirable. How could he have forgotten?
Ignoring her outburst, Hijikata continued to caress her body through the thin night-robe, slowly widening the gap at the front. Chizuru had belted it very loosely in her rush to find him earlier, and soon it became easy to push the fabric off her shoulders and down to the tops of her small breasts. Her skin was as soft as ever, despite hard work and cold weather. He assumed that her Oni heritage helped a great deal, but preferred not to dwell on it. The glowing golden eyes that sometimes haunted his nightmares weren't hers.
"You said something… about not meaning to take me to bed with you?" He brushed aside a lock of hair and then bent to trace his tongue along her upper neck.
A low, almost sub-vocal moan escaped Chizuru's lips as he allowed his calloused hands to run over her bared shoulders and down her arms. Her reaction was satisfying and exciting but... Had it been that long since they'd touched? Surely not—but he found he couldn't quite remember. Somehow, he could sense her emotions very clearly now, and while her deep love and physical longing for him only intensified his arousal, there was a distinct and growing thread of fear in her that suddenly made him hesitate to go on without hearing her out. The former Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi (and former Assistant Minister of War for the Republic of Ezo) wanted to know what the hell was going on. Hijikata Toshizō of The Backwater-to-End-All-Backwaters, unemployed wanderer, sometime farmer, and occasional poet, wasn't sure it was worth it.
With a less-than-happy sigh, Hijikata forced himself to fold his hands behind his head. The Vice Commander had won—again. His body still craved the touch and taste and warmth of his beloved, but his mind was more or less free of the buzz of lust. Momentarily. It was more difficult than he remembered to hold it in check. Chizuru scrambled off him and sat up, pulling together her robe. She was flushed, and there was still fire behind the deceptively meek brown eyes, but she was clearly master—or mistress?—of herself.
"Alright Chizuru… what is it?" He knew that his words were ungracious, but he felt as though he needed all of the Oni no Fukuchō's resolve, and temperament, to stay focused on something other than the graceful lines of Chizuru's neck and jaw. He forced himself to keep his eyes on her face, deciding that staring was less vulgar than ripping off her clothes in a frenzy of—apparently—long-denied need.
"Hijikata-san? At least—do you prefer Toshizō-san now?"
"Yes. I do. Or Toshi. But either way… Chizuru, what's wrong? I can tell that I haven't been myself, and that I scare you—a little. I have the feeling that something has gone completely sideways, but I can't think what. Can you answer a question for me?"
"Yes, Toshi-san?" She still used his name with a trace of doubt in her voice, but he ignored it.
"When is the last time we made love?"
Predictably, Chizuru reddened and bit her lower lip. Then she shook herself with something like her usual vigour, and said bluntly, "Two months ago."
"What?! Matte, Chizuru! Have I been away? Have you? That sounds very unlikely."
Chizuru's back was stiff as a board, and she averted her face. "Can't you remember?"
Unease turned to something approaching panic. "Yes! Of course!" He wasn't sure. How could he not be sure? How could Chizuru tell him 'two months' when he couldn't imagine letting a day go by without making up for a great deal of lost time. He was feeling light-headed again. It must have been another fever, one that had left him weak and listless for longer than he'd realized. And now… now he was regaining his strength and that meant—
"Toshi-san. I'm very, very sorry. I tried to handle things myself and it didn't go well and I may have made it worse."
"Chizuru?" He stared at her blankly.
Chizuru sighed. She laid a cool hand against his cheek, and for a third time he caught the glimmer of unshed tears in her anxious eyes. "…Bloodlust. That fever you had just after we arrived here. And again two months ago. You weren't ill, you were a rasetsu. Mostly. I think."
"Mostly? You think? For the gods' sake, Chizuru, what the fuck—what does that even mean?!"
Up went the small, firm chin that he remembered so well from Chizuru's earliest days in Kyoto with the Shinsengumi.
"Yes, Hijikata-san. I think you were mostly a rasetsu. The rest of the time your eyes were golden, not red."
[END of PART I]
Note: I hope you are looking forward to Part II, gentlewomen and gracious readers!
Chapter 2: Part II
Author's Note: I am terrible at short stories, apparently. Here is Part II of III. Don't ask.
Prices to Pay—PART II
There was a heavy silence, and then Hijikata pulled himself up to sit against the headboard. Chizuru took his hand, winding her fingers through his as if in defiance of whatever had happened and was happening.
"Gomenasai… I should have tried harder to tell you before. I-I'm not sure how well you were doing even before we left Hakodate."
"I thought I was fine," snapped Hijikata, trying not to interrupt and failing. "We seemed to be fine. What the—how much have you been keeping from me? Chizuru… please…" From anger to pleading—how had he come to this? He had known his fate since taking the ochimizu, but apparently the descent into madness was going to be worse for him than for the others. Maybe Kazama had cursed him. Chizuru had said that his eyes were golden at times—he wouldn't put it past that Oni bastard to have caused all this, somehow.
"I'm sorry, I'm not sure exactly when things changed—Toshi-san." Chizuru had apparently decided that a pause was preferable to 'Hiji-Toshi-san'. "And, and when I finally thought you were recovered enough to hear me out, it didn't go very well." The small hand twined around Hijikata's shook and then stilled. "But I'm going to keep trying!"
Hijikata closed his eyes, suddenly overcome by frustration. But at what? Or rather—at which problem? Also, he was starting to grow suspicious of the way that he could still hear Chizuru's heartbeat, even though they were no longer pressed together. Memories of the taste of blood resurfaced, but they weren't recent. There'd been that horrible, bloody kiss just after he'd been shot. And many months before that, one of the earliest times, during the long march north, when she had insisted that he take her blood to appease his agonizing thirst. Unwilling to abandon the last of the Shinsengumi, he'd given in.
She'd made it all so appallingly easy for him, too. He still remembered how she'd loosened her clothes and bared her neck without an instant's hesitation, smooth shoulders flawless and enticing in the weak moonlight that filtered down through the branches. He'd insisted on standing behind her, on making the cut himself… Gods, that had been a near-run thing. Only total exhaustion had kept him from taking her body along with the blood—exhaustion, and years of discipline and restraint. She hadn't realized, or at least that's what he'd always hoped.
"Toshi-san?" Chizuru's voice seemed to meld with the memories of blood and long-suppressed desire.
Hijikata's free hand clutched at the blankets as he fought tooth and nail to hold onto the reality of the present. His body was shaking with fever and lust—though of which kind was unclear—and his mind was a cacophony of fire and noise, like being at the center of an explosion. The smouldering embers of desire from just moments before blazed back into flame, and he heard himself groan aloud. Tangled memories of blood and sex rushed through his body, leaving him gasping and fully aroused, his loose kimono an irritation and his undergarment far too tight. He needed her, he wanted her, was desperate to take her now and find relief—release… His hand clenched around hers so hard that only Oni bones could have remained unbroken. He heard her cry out in pain.
"Hijikata-san, please stop! Please! Don't do this!"
How could he stop? If he stopped he might not survive. Besides, Chizuru was his. She belonged to him. She had no right to be making demands! She had always been far too stubborn—argumentative, even—to be a proper mate. Enraged, he used both hands to drag her fully against him, before taking her mouth in a savage kiss that left blood flowing from her lower lip. He automatically sucked at the blood, every sense alive with need.
At that point, Chizuru smashed her free hand into his ear, snapping his head back in shock.
"Hijikata-san—Toshi-san—stop!" The eyes that glared into his were no longer brown. Bright gold seemed to glow in the dim room, and white hair now framed a pale, not-quite-human face. White hair that didn't quite cover small silvery-white horns. "I will not let you to do this to yourself!"
The frenzy hadn't truly left him, but the shock gave him the moment of sanity he needed to shove Chizuru away and put a world-class strangle-hold on his lust (of whatever kind).
"What the fucking hell is wrong with me?!" He was shouting. It didn't seem right to shout at the woman he'd just attacked. Chizuru. He'd attacked Chizuru. And what was that crap he'd been telling himself? That reminded him way too much of that yellow-haired—oh gods, what if his curse was to become an Oni and start behaving like Kazama?! He'd rather kill himself first—honourable suicide would be an improvement over that kind of pain.
"Hijikata-san? I—I don't think that's how it works?"
Hijikata forced himself to look at Chizuru. The top of one sleeve was torn from her night-robe, and the pale collar showed a spattering of reddish stains. Whatever he'd done to her lip had healed; the bloodlust within him roared its frustration, but he told it to shut the fuck up. As for the other lust, that was still there too, somehow, but it was nothing—nothing—compared to the anger and desolation he felt over what he'd almost done. The law held that a man couldn't rape his own wife, but Hijikata was now absolutely, unshakeably certain that the law was wrong. Sweat ran down his face and drenched his clothing.
"I'm fine," Chizuru said calmly, her bright eyes fixed on his. "You didn't harm me in any significant way."
"No, you're not fine! Stop telling me you're fine—that's what you always say!" He was shouting again, he noticed. "You have horns!"
"I'm a demon." For the first time, Chizuru's steady gaze faltered. "I—I can't help it, I'm sorry."
"Gah! That's not what I meant for fuck's sake! You know what I mean—come on, don't apologize, not now, I can't take it!" And yet, bit by bit—one swear word at a time?—he was regaining control.
Godsdamned, goat-fucking, asshole doctors playing their shitty, power-hungry science games with real lives… Arrogant as Oni lords, and that's not a compliment to EITHER group!
"It saved your life though. Being a fury, I mean. Sort of. Not that I wanted you to be a fury, of course!" She was still Chizuru under the strange hair and glowing eyes. Despite everything.
"And would you stop answering things I'm not saying out loud! Is that new, or just something else I've missed over the last few months?" I'm not shouting now, but the whole raspy voice thing is just ominous.
"I'm sorry! I mean—I can't help it! You're very loud." The golden eyes blinked anxiously. "Not loud-loud, just loud-in-my-head loud."
Hijikata shifted, uncomfortable—in the stoic farmer-turned-samurai meaning of the word—almost beyond bearing in mind, body, and spirit.
"Never mind. It doesn't matter right now." He drew a deep breath—as deep as possible given that his muscles were still giving him problems. "Chizuru… I am so sorry. I hope you can tell, somehow, how sorry. And I have to know—I need to know—did this happen before? And did I… stop in time? I can't remember, but don't you dare lie to me—you're no good at lying and it will just make it worse." He gritted his teeth against a spike of pain that managed to get through the enveloping haze of self-loathing. At least the whole 'I really want to screw my wife' thing is getting the hint that NOW is NOT the right time. Ugh.
"Yes, Hijikata-san." She sounded so forlorn it made him ache to reach out and hold her—which he instantly vetoed.
"Toshi. Unless you're too freaked out." It was a risk. It could be the wrong thing to say. He didn't deserve her—but that had pretty much always been true.
Chizuru smiled, and her shoulders visibly relaxed. It was ridiculous how much she cared about him.
"Toshi-san. I wasn't sure… you might have changed your mind…"
"Chizuru, doesn't this seem like a very small thing to worry about just now? Really?" His voice was still coming out low and a little hoarse, but he sounded less like he'd just screamed his throat raw in pain. Which he hadn't, actually, as far as he could remember. For the first time, it dawned on him that he might have changed forms.
"It's very important, to me!" Chizuru had gone from anxious to stubborn. He tried to focus on the conversation, and not the havoc being wreaked within his body.
"Okay, fine. And no! Don't come any closer!"
"My blood makes it more bearable for you. And last time you didn't"—her voice suddenly dropped to a near-whisper—"you didn't force me. You tried so hard to stop, even when I was fainting." There were undertones that suggested it had been a near thing, but Hijikata didn't have the energy to spare to sort them out. And fainting? Just how bad had it been?
Chizuru hurried on, clearly trying to be encouraging—and to avoid more questions. "I wasn't properly prepared last time, that's all. So won't you please let me help now? I'm sorry I hit you. It's just that what happened before—I think that's why you've been avoiding me. Please take the blood. I'm sure it will be fine, really."
The bloodlust caught Hijikata off-guard as he tried and failed to find a moderately polite way to tell his wife that she was an idiot. A strangled cry escaped him, and he found himself shaking, on the verge of launching himself at Chizuru. Again. She'd offered, and her blood was calling to him.
"Don't… too dangerous…" It hurt, dear gods it hurt… She had to leave—Chizuru!
"I'm so sorry… please forgive me…" There's no time. With surprising speed, Chizuru pulled a small knife from one sleeve and cut open the top of her shoulder. "Drink." Even if you forget. I can't bear to lose you.
Then she was at his side, pressing his mouth to the bleeding wound. Hijikata swallowed one drop, then several more. Chizuru stroked his sweat-soaked hair, apparently content. He could feel the warmth of her arms around him, feel the pain start to fade. But… he didn't want to forget. And he didn't want to go back to some weird half-life, either. Or was that just a description of exile in northern Ezo? No—wrong time for bad jokes. He needed to focus. He wanted answers. Since when did he give up so easily?
Bit by bit, he dragged himself back from the edge of comfortable oblivion. Wasn't his style. Wasn't going to happen. Not again.
"… Baka…" He managed to pull his mouth from Chizuru's shoulder. Funny—the cut wasn't closing as fast as usual. He twisted his head away and clenched his teeth.
"You have to allow him to choose, hime-sama."
Hijikata couldn't see the speaker, couldn't even guess age, or sex. Right now it was all he could do to stay still and fight the bloodlust with every ounce of stubborn pride at his disposal. The scent of Chizuru's blood was everywhere, the taste still on his lips.
"…Don't know… who that is… but I… agree…Chizuru. I want… I need… to stop…"
There was a long silence, and he could sense Chizuru gathering her courage. She'd always had plenty of that. They'd all seen it, eventually—Sōji, and Saitō, and Harada, and Heisuke, and Sannan, and Yamazaki, and—he needed to stop. And Kondō, of course.
"Toshi-san? They all wanted you to live—they told me to look after you for them."
Hijikata frowned. Had he said all that aloud? And… what was a stranger doing in his home? More importantly, why wasn't he more concerned about it? With shocking suddenness, all the pain in his body drained away and clarity returned. He straightened cautiously, distrusting his senses. Chizuru was still in her Oni form at his side. He found it mildly disorienting: she sounded exactly the same, but her colouring was entirely different, and the horns were a definite distraction. On the other hand, her expression was drawn, but resolute; he'd seen the same look dozens of times before. As if concerned by his scrutiny, she pulled her torn and blood-stained robe more tightly around her, and sat up as straight as she could on the soft mattress. Then she sighed and turned toward the doorway, bowing politely.
"Ohayo gozaimasu, sensei."
"Ohayo gozaimasu, Yukimura-sama. Please forgive the intrusion, Hijikata-san. We've met before, but only briefly."
Hijikata finally turned his head to look at the visitor. He wasn't in any shape—mental or physical—to deal with a stranger who appeared to know his identity and the gods knew what else, but such was life. Or rather, such was his life.
"Toshi-san? This is Konkani-san. He is both a leader and a teacher among his people." Chizuru paused, as if unsure what to say next.
"Welcome to our home, Konkani-san," Hijikata said gravely, fully aware of the absurdity—to say nothing of the total impropriety—of greeting a visitor while sitting in bed wearing stained and crumpled night-wear. His hair hung in tangles around his ears and neck, and he could only hope that his face was free of blood. To his chagrin, the thought made him swallow reflexively.
Konkani gave him a sharp look and a very dry smile. His features were young and unlined, but his grey eyes were knowing, and there was a streak of white in his black hair. "A welcome is something of a change isn't it, Hijikata-san? The last I heard, you had warned your lady wife to spend less time in our company."
Hijikata found himself crossing his arms in the old way, and wished he trusted his knees enough to stand. The man was right, of course. Both accent and features—and his very full, bushy beard—identified him as one of the Ainu, a hunter-gatherer people who had inhabited Ezo long before the Japanese had first encountered them many centuries ago. Ainu legend held that they predated the 'Children of the Sun' by millennia, which wasn't a popular opinion with the Japanese government of any era. Naturally, Chizuru had become friendly with a number of local Ainu shortly after their move north.
Since coming to Ezo with the remnants of the bakufu army, Hijikata had learned something of Ainu history and culture, though strictly from a Japanese point of view. That view portrayed the Ainu as uncivilized and not to be trusted. While inclined to be suspicious of what he'd been told—governments invariably lied about such matters—Hijikata knew as a fact that there had been a bloody rebellion as little as eighty years ago. Regardless of the (probably quite understandable) reasons for the rebellion, the Ainu clearly weren't a safe people with whom to associate. On top of that, he suspected that the current government's plan to 'colonize' Ezo included the final assimilation or quiet destruction of the Ainu. That just made the potential for violence that much greater, and he wanted no part of it. Chizuru had a gift for finding trouble.
"You are no doubt aware of the reasons why I would be concerned," Hijikata said at last, feeling his way with care. He was a good judge of men, or had been, and this man was dangerous. "In any event, nothing that I've heard of your people suggests that it is customary to walk into another person's home uninvited. And the question, 'What are you doing in my house?' is absolutely secondary to questions like, 'Why are you so calm about women with golden eyes and horns?' and 'Exactly how much do you know about my situation, and how?' Which leads me to the obvious, 'Do I need to kill you now that you've seen my wife and I at less than our best?'"
"T-Toshi-san—Konkani-san—please let me explain!"
Their visitor shook his head at Chizuru. "No, princess, not this time. I'll explain. Then you and your man can discuss matters to your hearts' content." He turned back to Hijikata, who found himself repressing a growl. The guy was a know-it-all. He hated those types.
"I assure you that I have no intention of trespassing on your time and—goodwill?—any longer than necessary, Hijikata-san. I am here at your wife's request, however."
"Fine, just tell me why."
"I promise to be brief. My people have lived on Ezo since the time that the Oni walked more freely among humans. From time-to-time, part-Oni children were born to our womenfolk. For reasons that should be obvious to you, no Ainu man was allowed to take an Oni lover. Not a female one, that is."
"The point is that the Ainu of Ezo—or Hokkaido, if you prefer"—Konkani's thin smile suggested that he knew very well otherwise—"know quite a bit about Oni and part-Oni. Even though there haven't been Oni seen in Ezo for quite a long time. Part-Oni Ainu generally have a number of advantages over those with little or no Oni blood."
"And naturally, you come from a distinguished line of part-Oni," murmured Hijikata, allowing his 'talking to knowledgeable assholes that I'm not allowed to insult or shout at' face to slide into place. It had become all but permanent during Itō's tenure with the Shinsengumi. "Do continue."
"In a moment," interjected Chizuru, with more haste than dignity. She'd probably recognized his expression. She glanced at him, and then smiled sweetly at their guest. "Konkani-san, you have verified that Hijikata-san is no danger to me at present. Therefore, I would appreciate being able to dress and tidy myself. Please wait for us in the next room?"
Konkani hesitated, but he had no reasonable excuse to stay. He bowed to Chizuru, nodded to Hijikata, and withdrew from the room. Chizuru turned immediately to Hijikata.
"I'm sorry, Toshi-san. I've truly never seen him behave like that before!" She looked genuinely upset on Hijikata's behalf. "He cares deeply about his people, believe it or not, and they ask an awful lot of him."
Hijikata sighed. It felt very natural, and he wished very much that he could rewind the last year—or at least the morning. "He probably thinks he's in love with you."
Chizuru ducked her head slightly, but then forced her eyes back up to his and softly touched his cheek. She smiled, and it finally dawned on him that she was really rather beautiful in this form. He pressed a fleeting kiss to her forehead and hurriedly stood up, making it halfway to the wardrobe before realizing that he felt tired, but far less stretched out and insubstantial than he had just this morning. Maybe he should let Chizuru smack him on the ear more often.
Or maybe he should just ask the question he'd been avoiding for the past several minutes. The Vice Commander of the Shinsengumi—or hell, even Mister Nobody-in-Particular of the Ass-End-of-Nowhere—should have the guts to face facts… so to speak.
"Chizuru, was I—am I—a fury? Usually I know, but this time I have no idea." He turned to face her.
"No, Toshi-san. You are not a fury—at least, not any longer."
"Your face has a very complicated look, Chizuru."
"Well… you see…"
"And now you sound like Heisuke after he's broken something. Ah no—I shouldn't say that." They were all gone. How had he forgotten, even for a minute?
Chizuru came over to stand beside him. Oni or not, she really was too thin.
"Heisuke-kun was a kind man. And he has us to remember him." Despite the small tremble in her voice, Chizuru projected reassurance. "You just haven't had enough time to deal with it all."
"The picnic in the spring under the cherry blossom trees was nice." Hijikata tried to smile at her and found he couldn't. "Men—soldiers—die in war. That's how it goes."
"Heisuke-kun died as a fury, fighting other furies. He was there for you—and for me—because he wanted to find a way for his life to have meaning." Chizuru swallowed and blinked back tears, but this time her voice was firm. "He wanted you to be proud of him, and you were. And Sannan-san… he did everything to make you hate him and fear him, but in the end, you refused to believe he'd betrayed the Shinsengumi—"
"It was a possibility—"
"But you asked him what he was doing, you didn't just accept it like the rest of us."
"And he lived his final days in pain and died a fury!"
"Īe. He died knowing that you had survived thanks to his efforts. He was able to prove to you, and himself, that he had as much courage as anyone. It mattered to him, Hijikata-san."
"Chizuru, I don't—you've obviously thought a lot about this, but—"
"The problem is that you aren't like all the other men who survived the war, Hijikata-san."
"Toshi. It's not that bad a name."
"Sumimasen. It's just… you've always been Hijikata-san. And you still won't listen."
Hijikata sighed. He closed his eyes and tried to quell his ridiculous apprehension. "…Fine. I mean, you're right. But it feels wrong to be talking about these things dressed like this." He heard the contempt in his voice and suddenly chuckled, which startled them both. "I sound like such a pretty-boy lordling, don't I? When at the end of it all I'm back to being a very reluctant farmer."
"I've been telling everyone you're a poet," mumbled Chizuru, with some embarrassment.
"You what?! Good grief! No wonder they wouldn't listen when I pointed out that it was too cold up here to be really successful for rice!" Mechanically, he added, "Morons."
"Well, it explained why you were so good at letters and, and government forms, you know? I didn't do too badly, selling your services as a scribe."
"A lot of farmers are perfectly capable of writing well! Not all, but it wasn't that big a stretch!"
Pushed to her last line of defence, Chizuru blurted out, "But I had to explain the drinking!"
There was a very long silence after that, followed by the sound of Hijikata's uncontrolled laughter. That in turn was followed by a polite knock beside the heavy curtain that separated their bedroom from the main room of the house.
"Sumimasen. My lady? Are you alright?"
"Y-yes, yes I'm fine, Konkani-san. We'll be right there, I promise."
Just a few moments later, Chizuru hurried out to look after her visitor. There hadn't been time to do much more than wash her face and body as quickly as possible—and in cold water—but at least she now wore a proper kimono and obi.
She fussed over making tea, to give Hijikata time to change more slowly. He was trying to come to terms with the reality of white hair and deep golden eyes. And horns. Fortunately, he was also distracted by the fact that she'd told people he had a drinking problem, to cover up for why he rarely (i.e., never) offered his services as a scribe in person, and why he was occasionally 'ill'. Hijikata had told her roundly that she made up the worst stories that he'd ever heard, and asked why she had turned him into a drunken poet, instead of a reclusive farmer with occasional health issues.
Privately, she rather liked the drunken poet idea, and suspected that Hijikata did as well. What hadn't been at all funny had been watching him gradually realize just how many things he had somehow forgotten over the past year. Faced with his obviously genuine sense of betrayal that she'd kept so much from him, Chizuru had chosen to tell him the painful truth: she had told him more or less everything, but he was suffering from significant and increasing memory loss.
She truly wished, for once, that Konkani-san hadn't been keeping an eye on things, so that she could have taken the time to explain things slowly and carefully to Hijikata, and in the proper order. The Ainu man had saved both their lives, and had been invaluable to her over the past year in several ways. His respect, and the occasional visits from the women of his clan, had been a true blessing. It was probably her own fault that she hadn't noticed his increasingly proprietorial air. She supposed that he had assumed—as she had, for quite some time—that Hijikata Toshizō was dying. No wonder he'd been so unhappy with her continued attempts to keep her husband alive at the risk of her own life.
These thoughts vanished completely from her mind when Hijikata stepped into the room not long after. He'd made the best of his time, and his dark purple kimono and elegantly tied obi were in direct contrast to his earlier, slovenly appearance. There was also no denying that he was an Oni in full command of his faculties, at least at the moment. He stood for a moment in the doorway, brilliant eyes adjusting to the greater light, one lean, long-fingered hand holding the tapestry-curtain behind and above him. Chizuru barely prevented herself from spilling her tea onto the floor, as pure desire flooded her senses and left her with a burning need to abandon her visitor to his own devices, and drag her husband back to bed for a more productive exploration of conjugal interests and too-long deferred physical release.
[END of PART II]
A/Note: Stay tuned for Part III: More Answers, and Conjugal Interests
Chapter 3: Part III - When Sanity Falls
Parts III and IV were actually written together over the course of two and a half days. I am generally satisfied with the result, although I can see that my reach exceeded my grasp. As is often the case, I find this story both too short and too long. Nevertheless, I hope you will enjoy the last two chapters!
Prices to Pay—Part III
In a past life, Hijikata had been one of the finest generals of the age, rather than a reclusive poet who feigned alcoholism to hide madness. The fact that he hadn't died between the first life and this one seemed irrelevant to him. The fight with Kazama had more or less killed him, and was as good a marker as any between his public life of the past and his private life of the present. That said, it was the wariness of his past life that had made him place his sword just behind the doorway curtain before entering the main room of his current home.
"Thank you for making tea, Chizuru," he said calmly, ignoring the pain in his head that continued to sweep over him every few minutes. At least he was thinking clearly, and most of the weakness was gone. The glowing, passionate look Chizuru gave him as he approached briefly threatened to overset him, but he was fully in command of himself and had no intention of giving another inch in front of Konkani. The slight swagger that seemed part and parcel of his current form—Kazama's curse-was an asset in the circumstances.
"You're looking better, Hijikata-san," Konkani said politely. His unusually light eyes were both wary and assessing.
"Thank you, Konkani-san." The politeness was for Chizuru's sake. It was also tactically sounder than picking a fight with a man whose strength was as yet unknown.
Hijikata settled himself beside Chizuru, and accepted a cup of tea with a smile. They were both careful not to allow their fingers to meet in the process. Just sitting together was almost too much right now.
"May I continue, hime-sama?" Konkani's question was directed at Chizuru, but his gaze never left Hijikata.
"Of course, Konkani-san." Chizuru's reply was calm and sincere, but Hijikata could hear undertones of anxiety.
"As you guessed, Hijikata-san, my ancestors were among the strongest of the part-Oni born to Ainu women." Hijikata felt his lips curl, but Konkani's next words wiped the smirk from his face. "Almost all of the women who bore Oni children died in childbirth or shortly after. The name of each ancestress is known to us, and honoured even now, centuries later. We know little about the fathers. You see, the Oni did not view us as equals—naturally—and true names were much less freely given then than they are now, even among the Children of the Sun."
Hijikata found himself torn between sympathy regarding the arrogance of demons—his own white hair and golden eyes notwithstanding—and irritation at the overly-dramatic name for the Japanese. It was late in the year 1870 as the Westerners reckoned it; the age of the samurai was over, let alone the age of myths and legends. Except that the existence of the Oni and the rasetsu—of Chizuru, Konkani, and himself—suggested otherwise.
"The Ainu do not give true names to their children until they are old enough to understand the world a little," Chizuru put in, pouring more tea for both her guest and her husband. "In fact, an Ainu's secret name is only shared with the closest of friends and family."
"I believe I remember hearing that," acknowledged Hijikata. Given that some Japanese changed names throughout their lives, who was he to care? It would frustrate the bureaucrats, however. Bureaucrats were generally incapable of taking decisive action, but the current lot seemed determined to force a number of changes through, and they clearly wanted the Ainu 'gone'.
"We've gotten off-track." For the first time, Konkani appeared uncomfortable.
Before Hijikata could agree, his wife shook her head. "With great respect, Konkani-san, that is not so. Your history and your people are very important to you. Hijikata-san will understand you better—and your interest in us—if he knows more about the things that are important to you."
Konkani stiffened a little, and gave Chizuru a look that Hijikata had seen before. It cheered him to know that he knew his wife better than this interloper. Chizuru noticed more than people thought, and spoke her mind just when they believed themselves undetected. She could be oblivious to danger, and was still too trusting, but she had an annoying—sometimes annoying—knack for knowing how people felt. Moreover, after a while, she'd figure out why you felt that way, and then it was all over. So what was driving Konkani? Based on his own first impressions, and the way Chizuru kept nudging the man to discuss his people, he strongly suspected that Konkani was hoping for Hijikata's help against the Meiji government.
"Either way, princess, your husband's abilities, and his behaviour, are the main issues here."
"Forgive my interruption, Konkani-san." Chizuru bowed politely.
"Let's get on with this," Hijikata said shortly.
Konkani nodded to him. "Agreed. Eventually, those Ainu of Oni descent began to gather together. This was inevitable, since part-Oni were almost invariably married to each other. At this point, my personal clan is the last to have members with enough power to be truly distinguishable from normal humans. Also, among the Ainu as a whole, Oni lore and the heritage of those like me are no longer common knowledge."
Hijikata wondered briefly about inbreeding, but he'd had enough of the history lesson, Chizuru's interest—or desire to procrastinate—notwithstanding. There was still an awful lot about more immediate matters that he didn't know.
"So your clan is the go-to myths and mystics squad?" he asked bluntly. "And you're the chief fixer? I can relate to that more than I'd like."
Chizuru fidgeted a little, but Konkani wasn't fazed by Hijikata's description.
"In essence, yes. Which is why the Ainu scout who saw two Oni lords trying to kill each other among the sakura blossoms reported it to me."
"Makes sense. Figures we got seen by somebody who didn't just run away to consume lots of sake like a good little Child of the Sun."
Konkani blinked. Hijikata raised one of his thin black brows. Chizuru's lips twitched. Then Konkani smiled, real humour touching his somber eyes. It made his face come alive, and made Hijikata question how old the man really was. Appearance and authority had made him seem older. Now, Hijikata thought the man closer to Chizuru's age than his own. The smile faded quickly, unfortunately.
"As it turns out," Konkani said slowly, "it was just as well that you were seen, since it gave me reason to come south as soon as I received the news. I was told that the victor had collapsed, apparently dying, while the loser had simply picked up his sword and walked away. Also, although the scout questioned his own eyes and ears, he passed along that the combatants were General Hijikata and an Oni of the noble Kazama clan." He shook his head, and added, "I wish I'd been there!"
Hijikata forced back another stab of pain, together with unexpected amusement. The man's genuine disappointment over missing his fight with Kazama was palpable.
"I regret your disappointment," he responded acerbically, "but I didn't want to be there at all. I wasn't in the best shape to be fighting an Oni just then."
"No, I know you weren't." The light vanished from Konkani's face. He sighed. "Yukimura-sama must be an excellent doctor, based on what I saw of the damage quite a lot later. At least the scout was smart enough to get some supplies to you without arousing your suspicions. He said that your injuries were very bad, and closing too slowly for safety. Of course, eventually I realized how your lady was keeping you alive." He frowned.
Hijikata felt that he was finally seeing the real person behind the revered teacher and mystic. Konkani was a man with the hopes of his people pinned on him far too young, but competent enough to make it work, despite the no doubt punitive toll on his personal resources. He was the leader—or de facto leader—of a people who were losing everything to forcible assimilation and outright destruction. It was difficult for Hijikata not to sympathize, but it would take far more than sympathy to get him involved.
"Sharing blood with humans in any form is supposed to be anathema to the Oni, Hijikata-san. It was and presumably still is punishable by exile or death, according to what we were taught centuries ago." He held up a hand. "Not that you're exactly human, and not that you're under my jurisdiction, except as your actions affect my people. Once I met you and realized that you weren't a true Oni, I assumed you were a part-Oni like me, except closer in generation to your Oni ancestors. I can only transform at great cost, for example, and not for very long. You're sitting there as if born to it, although I sense that you're in pain. Also, I notice that you now have the same fashionable streak in your hair as I do."
"I do?" An instant later, Hijikata was annoyed for having let his surprise show. His mind immediately imagined the probable reactions of the others. Kondō would laugh and gently tease him for being vain about his black hair. Sōji would mock him without mercy. Saitō would say nothing at all until—
"It's new," Chizuru told Konkani. She smiled at Hijikata reassuringly. "And it looks very handsome and distinguished."
"Does it now?" Chizuru's praise had always been direct, sincere, and very embarrassing except when they were alone. Oh well.
"Of course," murmured Konkani. Jealous the man might be—and Hijikata thought that he was—but under all that smug there was a real, live sense of humour. Maybe it had atrophied from all the people Hijikata imagined fawning over him. He chose to ignore his conscience—and experience—which told him that any sense of humour had more likely been crushed by awful responsibility and continuous loss.
"My hair aside, what else do you need to tell me? I gather that there is or was something of grave importance?"
"Yes." Konkani's eyes lost all friendliness—assuming that Hijikata hadn't imagined it there in the first place. "Sometimes when you change form your eyes are red, not gold. I believe that you've become addicted to Oni blood, which is highly problematic, to put it very, very mildly. Let me tell you how I first met you."
Hijikata felt Chizuru stiffen. They were finally coming to it. The gods knew it had taken long enough.
"Konkani-san, it would be better if I explain—"
"No it wouldn't," said both Konkani and Hijikata in unison. They stared at each other in real shock for a moment, before Konkani glanced away and Hijikata turned to Chizuru.
She looked as startled as they were, but forced a smile. It was short-lived, however, and quickly replaced by a look of tense, unhappy anticipation.
"Go ahead Konkani-san," Hijikata said quietly. "You're up."
The other man studied him through narrowed eyes, and then shrugged.
"The Ainu have a handful of spies around Hakodate. Only way to know what your damned government is thinking—"
"I think it's fair to say that they aren't my government," muttered Hijikata.
"To be blunt, General, the Ainu don't really care. The Tokugawa used and abused us as much as any."
"Hence the rebellions. Go on."
"One of those spies watched your battle with Lord Kazama, as I explained. Lord Kazama vanished completely. My man was unable to either find or track him."
Hijikata scowled. He'd hated Kazama Chikage, and for very good reasons. He still did—mostly. But somewhere in there, right at the end, something had changed. It was incredibly frustrating. Plus, even though he'd technically won their contest and disarmed the arrogant, murdering blond bastard, there was absolutely no denying that the Oni had chosen to let him live. For whatever time remained to him, as an Oni, not a fake. He was grateful for Chizuru's sake, but sometimes bitter on his own account. If Kazama had really wanted him to live, he could have just given up on his witch-hunt and gone home. Hijikata had never wanted to accept mercy from the Oni.
"Hijikata-san?" Two voices, both concerned. Why did the Ainu leader even care?
He tried to shake himself free of the fugue. At some point, months after he'd physically recovered, the memories of that fight had started to surface in his dreams. He suddenly realized that they'd been bothering him while awake recently as well. That and the very worst of the war: Kondō's capture and death (always that, his greatest guilt and deepest pain); Sōji's anguish and despair, and his raw, bleeding anger; Sannan's lonely endurance and final sacrifice; Heisuke's sunshine smile drenched in blood, his body first smashed and then changed into something monstrous; Gen-san betrayed, but brave to the end; Yamazaki—gods, he couldn't think about Yamazaki. Yamazaki's face haunted him, dismayed and ash-white with pain and horrific blood-loss. (So many reasons to hate Kazama. Why was it so difficult these days?)
Unseeing, Hijikata buried his face in his hands. His cup tumbled to the mat-strewn floor, ignored by all present.
Saitō walking off to his death in Aizu, so that the great clan that had given the Shinsengumi their name and pride wouldn't die without the Shinsengumi at their side; an unexpected grief that Hijikata had never quite sorted out. Saitō had become a fury in order to preserve both the Shinsengumi and the army with which Hijikata had entrusted him while too injured to fight. He hadn't sought command, but had done his duty as efficiently as always. Ironically, Saitō had become the last official Commander of the Shinsengumi; Hijikata hadn't been able to bring himself to update the register.
Harada and Nagakura—rowdy and supremely skilled and loyal, and human to the end. To him, they'd been the true soldiers of the Shinsengumi: wild when off-duty, competent and dependable otherwise; the ones who did what needed to be done and didn't need him as a parent or mentor; the most likely to treat him as an actual person—especially Nagakura. Hijikata had both understood and deeply regretted their departure.
"Stop this, Hijikata-san!"
"Toshi-san, please… you must come back to us."
To everyone's surprise, including his own, he responded with reasonable lucidity.
"I'm right here. Just me and a few dozen ghosts and his fucking Oni highness." Drenched in sweat—again—but present. A bit hoarse, but he sounded human. Probably was, for now.
Chizuru had wrapped her arms around him. Konkani was standing nearby, expressionless and subtly menacing. Hijikata could read both ability and readiness to kill in his grey eyes, although it was tempered by a preference not to waste lives. He wasn't sure how he knew the last bit, but he did. That said, Konkani had found Hijikata's sword and was binding the hilt to the scabbard with expert knots. Hijikata's eyes narrowed, but before anger could overset reason, Konkani abruptly resumed his earlier story.
"My scouts sent word to me about you as quickly as possible, but by the time I found you, you and Yukimura-sama were already heading north, right toward me. I came across you after you'd stopped for the night. The fire was blazing untended, obviously newly-made. You'd managed a rough shelter and it looked like your lady had started meal preparations."
Everything started to hurt again—especially his head—but Hijikata forced himself to nod. "Continue."
"The signs suggested that you'd attacked your wife. When I found the two of you, there was quite a bit of blood—including on your mouth and clothes. However, Yukimura-sama only had one wound, a mangled cut on her upper shoulder that was rapidly closing. Well, I thought it was fast—turns out it was slow, for her. She was barely conscious, probably because you'd taken too much blood. You were trying to force yourself on her—or so it appeared to me. Yukimura-sama insists that I misunderstood, but I'm not so sure."
"You should have killed me." Hijikata's voice was flat and cold.
"I agree." Kankoni gave him smile as sharp and bitter as a winter wind. "But you were out of your mind, not physically weakened. Frankly—and take this as you will—you looked exactly like a man capable of fighting and disarming an Oni lord while near-mortally wounded. And you kept shifting form—human, Oni with gold eyes, Oni with red eyes—it was difficult to know how best to take you down."
"The princess somehow knew I was there. She begged me not to harm you. Which, between you and me, was not my main concern. In the end, I knocked you out. Heavy throwing spikes coated with poison. It's not designed to kill, but I had to use a lot of it." Kankoni turned rueful eyes on Chizuru, who was looking pale. "Fortunately for all of us, I'm a very good shot. Your reflexes are incredible, Hijikata-san. It's been a long time since I was so tested."
Hijikata had been warned, had even expected some tale of the sort, but hearing it told bluntly by a virtual stranger was still shocking. You should have killed me, he told the Ainu man, suddenly certain that he would hear.
I know. I wasn't allowed to.
"Stop it, both of you!" Chizuru's voice was panicked, but still forceful. "Nobody is going to kill anyone. Not now, not later! Hijikata-san didn't actually harm me"—she ignored Konkani's evident disbelief and Hijikata's derisive snort—"and he's improved a lot in the months since. In fact, he's been improving even as we speak!"
"I'm not so sure," Hijikata said quietly. "And you can't be so sure, Chizuru, although I appreciate the sentiment"
"I am sure. You've heard Kankoni-san's tale—and I admit that he's seen you since when you've been at your worst—but it's only fair to hear me out as well." Chizuru relaxed her hold on Hijikata and sat back just far enough that she could look into his eyes without craning her neck. "On top of all that," she added, a measure of steel entering her soft voice, "you gave me your absolute promise to live, Hijikata Toshizō." Her chin went up defiantly, and her golden eyes blazed. "I do not give you permission to retract that promise."
Hijikata stared at her and then at the part-Oni Ainu man. The latter shrugged.
"She's an Oni princess, Hijikata-san. Her words must be taken seriously. The names of the ruling Oni clans have been passed down among my people for hundreds of years. She and Lord Kazama—wherever he is and whoever he is—are among the highest-ranked Oni in Japan, unless things have changed a great deal since the Oni were last in Ezo. However, based on known facts—descriptions of your battle, and my impressions of Yukimura-sama—I do not think I am mistaken regarding their status and likely power."
"You're not. But if I could beat your damn Oni prince—even temporarily—then what does that make me? Plus, I'd recently been shot in the back and thrown from a galloping horse. He was rested and uninjured. Just like he was the last time he tried to kill me. Kazama Chikage has the weirdest sense of honour—and I use the word loosely—that I've ever known. He threw a temper tantrum when I scratched his cheek—and he was trying to kill me for fuck's sake! Later on, he attacked me after I'd spent several hours in hard battle. I was hurt and exhausted. He'd made sure to bring a magic sword for crying out loud! How can the man—Oni—be said to have any honour at all! His retainer Amagiri has all the honour his lord doesn't, but I owe him for several deaths as well!"
"And for at least one life," Chizuru told him, her voice somehow cutting through his building rage. "Two lives, in fact. Amagiri-san interposed himself bodily between you and Kazama-san on more than one occasion. And he chose not to kill Saitō-san during the battle at the Magistrate's Office. You heard his—Saitō-san's—report yourself."
"Lord Amagiri sounds like a very interesting Oni."
"Forget it, Konkani-san. From the little I've seen, the big red-head is serious when he says he doesn't like humans."
"Even though he saved you from—"
"Look, he's a weird guy. He's polite even while trying to kill you, and he does exactly what he believes to be right. Usually that means obeying his lord. However, he takes protecting said lord to the extreme of trying to get him to be less of an asshole. That's my interpretation, anyway."
"He's a lot like Saitō-san," Chizuru put in quietly. "I think Saitō-san respected him."
"Maybe. Doesn't change the fact that Saitō's dead and Kazama isn't. Or Amagiri, as far as I know."
"Hijikata-san." Konkani waited for Hijikata to turn his (currently) purple eyes in his direction. "I got word yesterday that a number of the Aizu soldiers from the last of the fighting around Aizuwakamatsu Castle were imprisoned, not killed. While I doubt they were well-treated, the information I received states that they were released almost a year ago."
"They'd kill Saitō," stated Hijikata baldly. "Do you have any idea how many Satcho guys he personally took down? He became something of legend—a lethal swordsman in an age of guns. If Sōji'd been with him they'd have been unstoppable."
"It is rumoured that Saitō Hajime, former Commander of the Shinsengumi in Aizu, was among the prisoners released. Naturally that has been firmly denied by the government."
"I don't believe it." Hijikata knew that Saitō wouldn't have quit unless he'd been down. Plus, there was the whole fury… problem.
Konkani shrugged. "It's not my concern, but the princess wished me to find out. I agree with you that he either died or went to prison under an alias."
"I think he's alive."
Hijikata lifted his head sharply. "Chizuru. Just don't, okay?"
"No, it's not okay. And it's my turn to talk. Because nobody is going to die, or be killed—at least not anymore—especially you."
Now Chizuru was standing as well. Her glare was divided evenly between Konkani and Hijikata. She was no longer in Oni form—when had she changed?—but the two men listened anyway.
"Konkani-san. You agree with me that Hijikata-san is suffering from the same illness as many of men now here in Ezo. An illness that has nothing to do with being an Oni."
With obvious reluctance, Konkani nodded. "I agree."
"Toshi-san. What I was trying to tell you is that you're no worse than many of the warriors who have been told to return to peaceful lives, especially those who survived the war in Aizu, or the war here."
"I have no idea what you mean."
"I've spoken with a lot of people. Many of the men who served in the war—on both sides—are not dealing well with what they saw and endured."
"That's ridiculous," Hijikata scoffed. Problem was, he'd seen the way the war had affected his men as time went on. Some, especially those who'd seen the worst of the civilian casualties, just shut down. Most drank. A few became killers, living for the thrill of battle. Remaining aware and empathetic either got you killed or drove you crazy; that was the warning the veterans always gave the newbies.
"Exactly," said Chizuru. "There are quite a few ex-soldiers here in Ezo now."
"Fine, let's assume that I'm crazy with battle horrors." Hijikata tried for a bland expression, but as Chizuru's words sank in, he had to admit she might be—might be—right. "So what? Battle horrors combined with being some kind of Oni reject sounds like a bad combination to me."
"I agree with Hijikata-san," Konkani put in. "I must protect my people, and of course the Oni princess. Nothing I've seen in the last ten months has persuaded me that Hijikata-san is either sane or safe. I apologize most sincerely, Yukimura-sama."
"Well, I don't agree, and it just doesn't matter. Hijikata-san cannot take or wish harm upon himself without breaking his sworn word to me." Chizuru squared her shoulders, and Hijikata looked up at her. He loved her. More than she could possibly know. He would give up both life and honour if that's what it took to protect her.
"No," Chizuru told him sharply. "Since when is the Oni no Fukuchō a person who gives up! Listen to me—please listen to me, Toshi-san."
"When you fought Kazama-san, he named you an Oni—not a fake. He gave you an Oni name."
"So? His opinion wasn't important to me then and it isn't now."
"In your sleep you see his eyes."
"Yeah, well it's not a romance, trust me."
Chizuru put her hands into her kimono sleeves and gripped her elbows—tightly. Hijikata suddenly realized that she was very angry.
"This isn't the first time I've told you this, Toshi-san, but I believe it will be the last. And while Konkani-san doesn't approve of the way I've kept you alive, he admits that it may have contributed to what has happened."
Konkani sat down, holding Hijikata's now peace-bound sword in his lap. His expression was grim, but he remained silent. Hijikata sighed and rubbed at the lines between his black brows.
"Chizuru… I promise to listen. Properly. Will you please sit down?"
Having commanded her audience's attention, Chizuru suddenly looked embarrassed, and hurried to reseat herself. "Sorry," she murmured. Then she cleared her throat.
[END of PART III]
A/Note: Part IV concludes this "short" story. I hope you will enjoy both the story and (finally) the heavy breathing.
Chapter 4: Part IV - The Will of an Oni Princess
Without further ado, here is the conclusion to my particular musings on Hijikata, Chizuru, the Ainu, and the Oni.
I swear this was just intended to be a gift fic for my Hijikata- and HijiChi-loving friends. I'm still not sure what happened.
With sincere affection and respect:
Prices to Pay—Part IV
"A long time ago, before the battle at the Magistrate's Office, Osen-chan—Sen-hime—told me that the most important thing was who I was truly, um, in love with." Sensing an amused kind of wariness from her audience—mostly from Hijikata—she hurried on. "Before we had to flee Edo, I saw her again. She said that the Oni have legends relating to her ancestor, the famous demoness Suzuka Gozen. This demoness fell in love with and married a human prince after he defeated her in battle. While many Oni simply assume that the descendants of Suzuka Gozen have some degree of human ancestry, Osen-chan told me that her family doesn't accept this. According to their family legend, the strength of the feelings between the couple, and his unusual strength and endurance, allowed the prince to become an Oni."
Hijikata restrained his initial disbelief, and considered the story and what Chizuru was implying. Finally, he shook his head. "You think I'm becoming an Oni for real? Permanently? With all due respect—and I do respect your opinion, Chizuru—it doesn't seem very likely. I'm not an Oni." He winced, as pain blossomed in his head again.
"Stop it! You're just hurting yourself! You don't want to be an Oni. The Oni have been responsible for the deaths of so many friends and comrades, directly or indirectly. Kazama-san turned his anger at me—at my refusal—on the Shinsengumi, and you know how sorry I am about that. But you chose to protect me, to keep me with you. And you were all so kind to me." Hijikata's mouth quirked a little, and she added, "Well eventually! Even Okita-san let me help him you know, and Sannan-san, remember?"
"Konkani-san, you're the expert in ancient Oni customs, I believe. Do you agree with Chizuru?"
The man stared down at Hijikata's sword for some time, and then said quietly, "Yes, I agree, insofar as the legends of the ancient Oni go. The descendants of Suzuka Gozen were as strong as or stronger than any so-called pureblood demon. At least, that's what we were told."
"There's something else, too," Chizuru continued. "Oni blood is forbidden to humans, for many reasons. Originally, it was forbidden because it might be used to create humans with Oni strength and speed, but no understanding of the Oni way of life." Chizuru held Hijikata's eyes for a moment before going on. "However, among the more tolerant Oni clans, it was also forbidden because it was simply too strong for humans to ingest. Put simply, it would kill them. And yes, I'm afraid that the amnesia and some of the other difficulties are probably because you've had too much of my blood. But it hasn't killed you, and it usually makes you clear-headed instead of the reverse."
Hijikata nodded, partly to indicate his comprehension and partly to acknowledge her warning: she'd never told Konkani about the Water of Life. Even as he had the thought, Konkani sighed.
"I have long suspected that Hijikata-san's strange condition might be related to the previous use of some vile concoction of Oni blood," he told them flatly. "So there is no need to be so cautious around the subject. All I can say is that if such suffering—for both the taker and those around him—is the result, then the Oni were wise to ban such a thing."
Chizuru looked stunned, but Hijikata laughed. "Good to know! Makes this whole conversation that much easier."
Konkani gave Chizuru a long-suffering look. "My people were here long before the—the Japanese. The entire Tokugawa era is recent history, by our standards. The first Shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty—Tokugawa Ieyasu—is variously said to have either used, or covertly opposed the use of some kind of 'demonic' potion that granted extra strength and speed. However you look at it, that means something of the kind has been around for a long time."
"Oh—yes, I do see that. But you didn't mention any of this before, Konkani-san." Chizuru seemed a little hurt.
"I must safeguard my people first and foremost, hime-sama. It was quite clear—despite my hopes—that you were completely bound up in your husband. From my perspective, Hijikata-san was and is a dangerous man. In the first place, he was the key field general for the loyalist army. This is Ezo; few grown men on this island are unaware of Hijikata-san's reputation as a warrior and a strategist. Second, he defeated an Oni lord, a prince among his people. And he did it while near-mortally wounded, as he just pointed out to us. My scouts do not exaggerate—it's not in their nature. Finally, he is a man simultaneously burning with the power of Oni blood, and frozen by the despair of a soldier adrift after a brutal war. Nothing I have seen today has changed my opinion that he is a danger to those around him."
"He hasn't hurt me," Chizuru repeated stubbornly. "And I think that he's an Oni now, or just about. I truly wish you hadn't shown up this morning, Konkani-san."
Hijikata tried to interject. "Chizuru—"
Chizuru didn't let Hijikata continue, and he accepted her interruption without demur. He still agreed with the Ainu man's assessment of the situation, but Chizuru was entitled—more than entitled—to be heard. Also, underneath all the fear of hurting Chizuru, he didn't really want to die. He wanted Chizuru. He had waited so long to become her lover—too long, according to various critics over the years—and if there were a way to stay with her then he needed to listen.
"You've both assumed that my influence—or my blood—is the major factor contributing to Hijikata-san's apparently precarious condition," she told her listeners. "Personally, I believe my husband's condition to be less unstable than you think, and the result of an unconscious attempt on his part to overcome the limiting effects of the—the serum he took previously. However, regardless of exactly what is going on, you are forgetting that a second, and very powerful Oni has also been involved in Hijikata-san's life for many years."
"… Please tell me you don't mean the blond bas—I mean, not Kazama Chikage, Chizuru, please…"
Was he whining? He was. Chizuru's stern expression told him as much.
"Kazama Chikage followed you to the very edge of Japan, abandoning his own people in the process and risking being exiled from those people forever. You frustrated him, infuriated him, puzzled him, and refused to do either as he predicted or wanted."
"You are not saying that he was in lo—no, I can't even say it, don't make me. Besides, he wanted you as his bride, that was perfectly clear. You were going to make beautiful pureblood Oni children together."
Hijikata saw Chizuru flush and regretted his last remark. Apparently, he was still jealous of Kazama's time with her while he suffered alone in a fortress on Ezo—even if that entire fiasco was his own fault. However, before he could find a way to mitigate what he'd said, Chizuru nodded in acknowledgment.
"He did want all that, you're right. When we arrived on Ezo he asked me not to go looking for you. Partly, he feared for my safety. But he also just… wanted me to stay with him. That's not the point. The point is that you were important to him. As an unfinished project, a hated or beloved rival, a thorn in his side, an irritant to his mind, whatever. His actions went well beyond hunting down a man who'd taken a forbidden medicine, wouldn't you say?"
"Sounds like it." That was Konkani-san, but his emotions were well-contained, and Hijikata couldn't tell if he was serious, or just being a pain. Or both.
Hijikata stared wordlessly at Chizuru. He couldn't bring himself to say anything. Not about Kazama having changed him as a result of some kind of profound emotion that linked them together. Not without a lot of swearing and maybe not even then. The Kazama curse just couldn't be real—he had to repress an urge to tell the gods that he really hadn't meant it.
"Toshi-san, I travelled with Kazama-san for weeks. I was there when you fought him. He couldn't accept that a human and a fake could behave as you had, or get to him as you had, or that such a creature could have your indisputable strength. On top of all that, he couldn't understand how I could choose you over him. So he decided that you must be an Oni, and named you as such. It didn't matter much to you—or so you said at the time—but it mattered a great deal to him. And somehow—I saw it happen—you changed. A fury doesn't have golden eyes."
"That makes no sense, Chizuru! Sen-hime filled your head with legends, and the rest is wishful thinking." It wasn't true. He remembered every moment of that fight—including the unsettling feeling that he and his opponent were no longer… quite… enemies. He'd hated it then, and apparently something had been wrong with him ever since. He was a danger to Chizuru, and—
"Konkani-san. I know you won't leave, so please close your eyes." Chizuru's voice conveyed the terrifying calm of a person goaded beyond endurance.
"Ah… that wouldn't be very prudent, princess. You can't really know—"
"Fine, I don't care. Not right now, anyway. Hijikata-san doesn't want to die, and you don't really want him dead—well, mostly. But you're both still missing the point: I won't let him die."
Hijikata felt his eyes widen perceptibly as Chizuru stood up, smoothed her kimono, unpinned her hair, and then sat down in his lap. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulling his head down to hers and then tangling one hand in his hair. Before he could do more than open his mouth to protest, she had pressed her lips to his, and then stolen his breath along with all of his attention. Her tongue traced his lips, and moved teasingly along the inside of his mouth; her free hand stroked the edge of his ear and caressed the line of his jaw, before sliding down his neck and under his collar.
He felt as though she'd set his nerves alight, and heat radiated from each place that their bodies touched. He gripped the back of her head with one hand, and roughly dragged her even closer to his chest with the other. It was not a kiss to promote self-restraint, nor an embrace destined to encourage moderation. When Chizuru bit down on his lower lip with small, pointed teeth, he hummed aloud and staggered to his feet, still holding her close.
"You win, princess!" Konkani's voice impinged on Hijikata's consciousness, and not in a good way. "I'll just leave this oversized bit of ironmongery over here. I wish you all the best, and I hope not to find one or both of you dead in the morning."
Hijikata wrenched his mouth from Chizuru's, panting. Propriety and courtesy were meaningless at this point, and there was something he needed to say.
"You're a dead man if you show up here tomorrow morning." He had seldom been more sincere.
Konkani-san's expression instantly switched from embarrassed concern to something more complicated and a lot less friendly. The aura of power that Hijikata had sensed before was suddenly palpable.
"It's been a very long time since anybody's been a threat to my life, Hijikata-san," the Ainu man said softly, grey eyes as bright and hard as steel.
"Don't kid yourself." For a heartbeat, nobody moved. Then Hijikata smiled in a way that his former subordinates had known all too well. "Thank you for your help. Thank you for looking after Chizuru. Goodbye."
He kept his eyes on Konkani just long enough to ensure that the other man set down the katana before he left. He suspected that the polite bow he received before the door clicked shut was mostly ironic and almost certainly challenging. It was irrelevant.
"I hope you know what you're doing, Chizuru," he told the woman in his arms, restraint vanishing as quickly as it had come. "I hope you're right. I hope this is right. " He felt as though he were being torn apart by lust and fear—fear for Chizuru, for his sanity, for his honour. I'm done running, I swear. But I don't want to hurt you. He closed his eyes and pushed away the fear, allowing passion to claim him in its place. The flames rushed in to consume him, and he abandoned all caution.
It wasn't far to their bed, but the sensation of her hands in his hair, and on his ears and neck, drove away reason. Her lips were on his, open and inviting, and their tongues touched and twined, suspending all considerations but immediate pleasure. Hijikata's knees hit the floor as he pulled open Chizuru's kimono and wrenched at her obi, heedless now of such irrelevancies as comfort. Chizuru arched under him, and he bent to find her breast with his mouth, nipping and then sucking hard on the taut nipple. She moaned, first writhing and then pushing her nearly-naked body up to his. Her fingers alternately caressed him and tugged at his clothing, and he ground himself against her to relieve the aching pressure in his groin.
There was little tenderness in this frenzied encounter. Hijikata didn't notice or care that his teeth pierced her skin, or that his strong, calloused hands were leaving bruises and scratches in their wake. Her cries resonated with desire, not pain, and she matched him without reservation, her own sharp fangs and nails giving back as much as she took. Her golden eyes were wild, and her breath was warm in his ear, as she whispered, "You won't hurt me; not now, not ever."
He didn't bother to reply. Her clothing was finally gone, and his. Their bodies were hot with desire, and slick with sweat. The sight and scent of her was dizzying. Without words, he stroked the wet, quivering folds between her legs until she was desperate for him, her wordless, hungry cries more than enough to overwhelm all control. Without warning, he shoved her thighs further apart and buried his hard length within her, eliciting a sharp gasp and the longed-for sensation of her tight inner walls clenching around him.
Her teeth drew blood from his neck and shoulder as he claimed her, moving faster and harder with each thrust. Or maybe she was claiming him? The thought crossed his mind and made him laugh, for no apparent reason. There was no denying that this was her decision, and the voice that alternately coaxed and cried out to him was thick with passion. His own panting cries were formless, his climax upon him almost too quickly. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered but finding his release and hers. He knew that his eyes were golden, knew that he'd changed form long before this final storm of sensation; even that was unimportant just now.
When he finally came, hot and hard and deep within her quivering, demanding body, he could barely hear his own voice for the rushing of the blood in his ears. He might have called her name, but he was incoherent and overwhelmed and couldn't be sure. He found that he was clinging to Chizuru, and shaking with more than physical release. Later, he would find it ridiculous—though not funny—that what had jolted him back to awareness was the sudden, awful thought that it would be humiliating to cry at such a moment. Nevertheless, that was the truth, and if there were tears then he prevented them from falling.
At the time, awareness reminded him that they'd made love—could it still be called making love? He hoped so—on the floor, and Chizuru lay beneath him. A quick look at her flushed face reassured him that she was in no way unhappy or disappointed with what had happened. In fact, she wore a rare expression of heavy-lidded self-satisfaction that made him want to laugh again.
He cleared his throat, and her eyes drifted up to his. He tried to speak, but she reached up and covered his mouth with her hand.
"No apologies. No apologies, and no guilt, and no more self-destructive comments. I'm not interested. No saying that you were too rough, or unkind, or unfair. Nod if you understand." Her eyes glimmered with both laughter and her own unshed tears.
Hijikata paused to consider her list, and then nodded. Her small fingers deliberately brushed the curves of his lower lip as she withdrew her hand.
"Thank you for bringing me back." He paused, and then added, "Again."
"You keep wanting to throw your life away. It's selfish, and shows an insulting lack of trust in my judgment."
"Ouch." Why did her criticism make him want to smile? And not just that. He wanted to take her to bed and not let her get any sleep for several hours. Or days. Their situation was fraught with complications, but he was still incredibly turned on.
"You are more important to me than anyone and anything else in the world."
"Give a man a break—I was trying to find enough breath to tell you the same thing."
Hijikata managed to pry himself away from Chizuru and prop himself up on one elbow. Chizuru sighed, stretched, and sat up. He could still see red marks and faint bruises on her body, and he frowned.
"I've been giving you too much of my blood without eating well enough to replace it. It's been a long time since I've been able to heal properly. I don't care."
"Chizuru." Hijikata had no inclination to laugh anymore. "In what way is that not as self-destructive as—as you accuse me of being?"
Chizuru sighed. "I understand, Hiji—Toshi-san. But I will get better with time and rest and food. You were dying. You hated the thought of being an Oni. That wasn't"—she glanced shyly at him, unperturbed at being unclothed, but embarrassed by her feelings—"well, it hurt, a little."
"I was an idiot. But since you don't want me to indulge in self-pity, you'll have to forgive me."
"I've already forgiven you."
"You really are too easy on me, you know."
She blushed, the rosy tint showing up clearly against her pale skin and white hair.
"I can't help it."
"Well, I guess that's life. At some point I'll just have to grow up and accept how unbelievably lucky I am."
"That's—um, that's going a little far. Toshi-san."
"You don't plan to run away with Mr. Tense-and-Charismatic, do you?"
"You just described yourself."
"I'm just a drunken poet."
"You're the only lover I've ever wanted."
Hijikata groaned. "I can't win."
Chizuru moistened her lips with her tongue. She was blushing again. "It's very cold in here. And the floor's hard."
"We'll get the clothes later." Hijikata rose, gathering Chizuru back into his arms. "We aren't going to need them, are we?"
A passionate kiss from his wife suggested that this was correct. As he settled her under the heavy blankets and slipped in beside her, Hijikata asked one of the questions still bothering him.
"Do you really think that I'm an Oni, Chizuru?" His hand started to run along Chizuru's side and hip.
"I—mmm—I think so. The ochimizu really complicated things, though. I don't think anyone can be both fury and Oni for long—although you tried."
"You know that none of this really makes sense, right?" Relieved to be more aware and more in control this time, Hijikata started to re-familiarize himself with his wife's body. She grew warm very quickly under his touch, and started nuzzling his chest and shoulder. A little to his surprise, she eventually responded to his largely rhetorical question.
"You—mmm—you always told me that nothing—mmm—about the Oni makes sense."
"That was very wise of me." He considered putting the questions on hold while he made up for over two months of missed opportunities, but knew he'd be happier sooner if he just asked. "Chizuru… I understand that Konkani's skill and knowledge were probably of great help to you—and reassuring—but why in the name of all the gods did the two of you subject me to such a lecture on the history of the Oni and the Ainu, instead of just telling me what I'd done and what was wrong with me."
"… I'm a little distracted just now, Toshi-san."
"Look, how about just 'Toshi'? I still don't know why I didn't think of it sooner." He stopped stroking her inner thigh. She wasn't the only one becoming too distracted. "Chizuru?"
His inquiry was met with a sigh. "Mostly, I was trying to delay. You needed time to get over what happened this morning before hearing the truth about the past year. But… it wasn't just that. I owed it to you and to Konkani-san to make sure you understood both the plight of the Ainu and why they would be so fixated on finding an Oni to champion their cause."
"You know I'll turn them down."
"Probably. But I wanted you to have the space to at least consider what we might do."
"We shouldn't get involved."
"At some point you'll want to be more than a farmer and a drunk poet, Toshi."
"You're dangerous." He was delighted to hear his plain, unornamented name on her lips. "Let's move on to other things."
Such as feeling Chizuru's naked body against his. Without being unsure whether it was her or her blood that he craved. Without being so scared of hurting her that he couldn't bring himself to touch her at all. He leaned over and gave his wife a bruising kiss, while one hand returned to teasing the sensitive skin of her lower belly and inner thigh, ghosting lightly over the damp curls in between. Chizuru squirmed against him and began licking the fingers of his other hand in response—or retaliation.
It was time to shelve the doubt—as much as possible for a justifiably paranoid ex-soldier—and trust Chizuru's instincts. If being an Oni was what it took to quench the bloodlust, then so be it. The gods knew that he'd paid enough for the so-called privilege. He still hated even the possibility of being somehow beholden to Kazama, but that worry could wait. So could any decisions about getting involved—again—with a doomed cause rife with mystical, Oni-related complications.
Mind made up—or too distracted to care—Hijikata bent his attention, and tongue, to Chizuru's breasts. She gasped, and managed a breathless laugh.
"I've missed you so much, Toshi."
"It's not a bad name…"
A/Note: My other writing is so behind that I can't promise an epilogue. But you never know. I hope you've enjoyed the roller coaster.
Historical Note: The Japanese government, or at least the warlords who ruled northern Japan prior to unification, were most likely in contact with the Ainu by the late 12th or early 13th century. By the Muromachi Period (1336-1573), there was trade between the two peoples, but also active conflict. The Tokugawa bakufu (1601-1868) encouraged and regulated trade between northern, Ainu-controlled Ezo and Japanese holdings in the south, but there was significant conflict during this period as well. Moreover, the Ainu were in crisis, partially as a result of the spread of epidemic diseases such as small-pox and a developing dependence on foreign (Japanese) goods. There were major revolts in 1669 and 1789. The Meiji government actively campaigned to assimilate the Ainu, and both the culture and the people virtually disappeared during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It wasn't until 2008 that the Japanese government formally recognized the Ainu as a distinct, indigenous people, and admitted as "historical fact" that the Ainu people had been marginalized and forced into poverty