[Private RP] - They were called the Three, and long ago, they saved the world. But what if it wasn't enough?

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Long ago, more years than mortal men dare count, the oni walked the land, and the people lived in fear. The world was a harsh place, and even crueler than it is now, for these beasts had in them nothing but the hunger for the flesh of men, and we lived in terror, teetering always on the brink of extinction. Sometimes, they simply leveled our settlements, stripped us of our food and our lives, and left us to rot. Others, more insidious oni with beautiful faces, would lure away our strong and youthful men and women, never to return. These haunting demons, those with human masks, were the most dangerous and powerful of them all, and like the rest, they were a plague on our world.

In time, we grew stronger. We raised our children to hunt the oni, to push back, and the strongest of these Hunters were those born to the beautiful demons and their human victims. They were strong, and resilient, and exquisite like their unnatural parents, but even they were not enough. Until, many centuries ago, they appeared. One from the Darkness, one from the Sun, and the last from the Moon, or so it is said.

The Three.

Perhaps they were oni themselves, lovely and terrible but somehow merciful. Perhaps they were those born of humans and the most powerful of demons. Perhaps they were something else, created by the gods themselves to save us. But when they appeared, the world trembled before them, and not even the oni could stand against their might. The first was a man, fierce of spirit and skilled of blade, who drank in the blood of his foes, rendering those who came before him incapable even of remembering their own names for their fear of his visage. The second was a man gentle of thought and tranquil of air, upon whom no oni’s foul witchery would work, and who held the power of life and death in his hands. The third was a woman, brave of heart and stalwart of limb, who could transform herself into a great, savage beast, tearing through the ones who opposed her without hesitation. Together, the three exterminated the oni and brought peace once more, allowing humankind to flourish in the absence of their predators.

What none ever realized was that the Three were not made for that moment. Each of them, even then, had a weakness, a fatal flaw that they were woefully unaware of, that kept them from reaching their potential and fulfilling their true purpose. They were body, mind and heart. Strength, Knowledge and Will. Power, Wisdom, and Courage, and they embodied these traits exquisitely. But what was Power without Mercy? What was Wisdom without Hope? What was Courage without Restraint? Just as much a plague on the world as what they had eradicated.

Until He who had wrought them looked upon them and sighed. From that sigh, they say, was born the Key. The being that would speak Mercy to Power, Hope to Wisdom, and Restraint to Courage. Embodied in a child, the Key came to walk among us, or so they say. Where it is or how it might be found, it is difficult to say. But there are those who would see it destroyed, and with it, any chance for the Three to fulfill their truest design.


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The Story

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia




Shimamaki Village was a quiet place, usually, given to a little period of bustle every morning when the markets opened, but otherwise quite the sleepy little town. Located on the island of Hokkaido near the ocean, its primary resource was fish, and there were plenty to be found. It had been a stable place for many years, safe from territorial aggression by other regions due partially to its remote location. Of course, it also had a reputation of being exceedingly well-guarded, by the occupants of the large castle to Shimamaki’s immediate north. There lived the lord of all Hokkaido, and his household.

One member of that household, well-known to much of the town, was currently happily tucking into lunch within the village’s sole inn and restaurant. Reiko, dressed in a modest brown kimono and practical tabi and geta, hardly would have drawn much notice, were it not for the extraordinary fineness of her youthful features. As it was, the worst of the awkwardness had long since faded, and she was taken to be merely the very lovely daughter of one of the lord’s servants.

That was undoubtedly for the best.

Delicately lifting a mouthful of rice into the air, she was momentarily distracted by the arrival of yet another group of people, this a family of four, who took the last available table on the inn’s lower floor. She almost felt bad for taking up a table by herself, but Sayuri was not with her today, and as such, she had use for only one of the two cushions at this particular area. Well, at least all of this meant very good business for Tsuyoshi, the innkeeper, and his family. The weather outside was absolutely beautiful today, the climate having entered mid-spring with a healthy vigor. The blossoms were in full showing, and the fish were plentiful again after a hard winter. It was sorely-needed good news for the town. While the Fujiwara family of aristocrats kept the town afloat when it could not sustain itself, the villagers were proud people, and preferred it when their food was supplying the lord, as it most often did in return for his protection.

She didn’t have the heart to tell them that the lord scarcely noticed either way. He was certainly in no danger of starvation from fish shortage. And only throwing all of his money into the ocean could possibly spend it fast enough to ruin him.

Chewing thoughtfully over the rice, she smiled and waved to Chizu, Tsuyoshi’s youngest daughter. She was only about five, and liked to wander around the inn during mealtimes and talk to people, most of whom indulged her with patient warmth. Reiko was among her favorite people, but today it would seem that she was distracted by the bright blue of Mori-san’s new kimono, and so Reiko would be eating her meal in relative peace.

Ayla, however, was outside of the small restaurant, rolling her shoulders back in a nonchalant fashion. Dressed in a simple white kimono, she bore no shoes and simply appeared to have been a weary traveler. Nearly a week into living in the place, and already Ayla was bored. Aram had the luxury of playing the simple doctor to the village, however; she had no such luck. She wasn't exactly a people person, and took on simple jobs as any mercenary would. Today, however, saw no such luck in finding such work. She took a soft breath, and before she could take another step, her stomach released a small growl. She raised a brow at herself, and then glanced towards the contents of the restaurant.

"Might as well," she spoke to no one in particular. The aroma, when she entered, immediately flooded her senses, and a grin covered her face. Perhaps she could partake and listen in on the conversations around her. It would be a good spot to sort out information and, perhaps, find a job for herself. The only problem, though, seemed to be in the restaurant's occupancy. It seemed they were at their limit. There were, in fact, two available spots, however; she was less inclined to believe the men at the first table would take kindly to her sudden appearance. Instead, she went to place her meal order, and made her way toward the other available table, where a young woman sat.

"It was either this one, or that one over there," she spoke to the young woman, sitting down and flicking her thumb over her shoulder towards the previous table. "Personally, it would matter little either way, but as it is, I think I would enjoy your company more," she continued, allowing a small smile to cross her face. That, and she was less likely to make a scene. She didn't want to explain why a group of human men were in a bloodied pile to Aram. He'd only scowl at her, but say nothing.

Reiko blinked several times in quick succession when an unknown woman sat down in front of her, explaining the decision with a terse gesture behind her. Leaning to the side enough to see around the lady, the young woman noted that the men in question were actually several of the fishermen, a rough-looking lot. “Oh, that’s just Kosaburo-san and his sons. They look a bit… mean, but they’re actually quite kind.” Or, at least they had been to her. There wasn’t really anyone in the town who caused too much trouble, though there were a few people who were unfortunately too fond of sake and had to be watched in case they drank too much and didn’t make it home some night.

Realizing how her statement might be taken, she paused, smiling very slightly and turning a faint shade of pink. “This one didn’t mean you couldn’t sit here, though. I’m happy to have someone to keep company with, actually.” Reiko thought she knew everyone in town, however, and this woman certainly wasn’t one of the villagers. She would certainly remember meeting someone like her.

The lady sitting in front of her was absolutely beautiful, there was no denying that. She had porcelain skin even paler than Reiko’s, and hair to match, a most extraordinary snowy color. It reminded her of how Tsuya’s looked, when he did that strange thing she didn't like. But there was something different about her scent—she was definitely not one of Reiko’s kind. Ruby-red eyes met crystalline blue ones, and she felt a slight stab of irrational jealousy, pushing it aside as quickly as it had formed. She was rarely one to hold onto such things, though she felt them like anyone else.

“This one has not seen you about before,” Reiko confessed, setting her chopsticks down momentarily. “This one's name is Reiko Hino. Might you be a traveler of some sort?” She was admittedly curious as to how someone so unusual-looking had come to be in Shimamaki, but then… the people here were used to seeing strange-looking folk by now. Practically the lord’s whole family was incredibly beautiful and oddly-hued. This woman was not one of them, though—Reiko knew that without having to ask.

Ayla simply continued staring at the young woman, who had now introduced herself as Reiko Hino. Oddly, the name sounded familiar, as if she'd heard it before. For one reason or another, Ayla could not remember why, and chose to let it go. She'd remember eventually if it was important. She mused the question over lightly, trying to find the best way to say what she wanted to. "You could say that," she finally admitted, taking a sip of from the cup of water provided to her earlier. "My brother and I just moved here, about a week ago now," she continued, setting the cup down and returned her gaze to Reiko.

"I doubt we will be here long. We do not stay in one place for too long," considering that she might accidentally maim someone. Though, that wasn't her fault, really. Aram, however, had decided to uproot them and move, to all places, Shimamaki. Why, he did not say. She wasn't one to question her brother's motives, however; it did irk her a bit to have to just suddenly move. "Ayla," she spoke, "I'm afraid is the only name I have to give," since she was without a surname. It was one of the things their creator did not bestow upon them, and perhaps for good reason. She didn't know, nor did she care to know.

"Reiko, is it?" she questioned, her tone taking a lighter tone to it. "You seem to know this village fairly well, right?" she continued, leaning over slightly to prop herself on her elbows. "I haven't seen much of the village quite yet, would you care to show it to me? It would keep most of the attention off of me if I had a cute little guide," she questioned, the smile turning into a mischievous grin.

Reiko cleared her throat, slightly awkwardly, considering the odd… compliment? She figured it was a compliment, anyway. When her unease had subsided a little, though, she nodded her head. “This one would be happy to show you around, Ayla-san.” And she really would. She had come into the village this morning from a desire to get away from home, after all, and any chance to prolong her time here was welcome, especially when the company was interesting.

“But this one would recommend finishing lunch first. Tsuyoshi really does make amazing food.” Even as she was speaking, Ayla’s order arrived at their table, Tsuyoshi’s wife Emiko the waitress placing it before Ayla with a friendly smile and a short bow, along with a word of greeting for Reiko.

When both had finished their food, Reiko paid for the order, with a smile and her insistence that it was a welcoming gift, and the two had made their way outside, Reiko realizing that Ayla was a bit taller than herself, but only perhaps by a couple of inches. It made walking next to her rather easy, because their strides were about matched. The first stop on the tour was the marketplace, not far from the inn. “You might have already noticed, but it’s really busy here in the mornings,” she advised. “Less so in the afternoon, though it will pick up again as people come by to get ingredients for dinners. The village makes most of its money in the fish trade, and we trade with other towns in Hokkaido for fabrics and the like.” There were, of course, also farmers in the surrounding area, and so they didn’t usually want for rice or vegetables or tofu, either.

“This street is usually the one they decorate for festivals, too. It’s the widest one, and basically everyone in the village can fit comfortably along it.” She smiled softly, recalling the paper lanterns in festive colors from the last Tanabata. “We don't have a temple here, but the castle keeps a couple of priests on retainer to provide any religious services that people need, and the last lord has a shrine dedicated to his memory a few miles north of the castle. People sometimes pray there.”

She chose not to mention that people meant herself and basically no one else.

She couldn't refuse the younger girl, even if she wanted to, and allowed Reiko to pay for the meals, before being chauffeured off into the village. She listened when the girl spoke, letting her words and descriptions take root while glancing in no particular direction. She would like to see a festival one day. The last one she had seen was over a thousand years ago, and it had been the one she and her brothers had witnessed for their victory. Since then, she and Aram hadn't stayed long enough in any one village to witness a festival. Perhaps this time around, they could at least see one. Maybe she'll suggest it to him, later?

Fishing as a way of life? She could fish... with her arrows. Maybe that could be a way of work here, since it seemed to flourish? She wouldn't have to risk being exposed to anything, but then again, she wouldn't be blowing off steam either. A conundrum for another time, at least. Instead, she chose to focus on the last statement. "Personally, I do not believe in anything. Religion is... useless," she stated, turning to glance at Reiko. "But I suppose there is something I believe in," for what kind of fool would she be not to? Her father was a god, was he not?

"This previous lord, you speak of, must have been a generous lord. Not many have shrines in remembrance to them," or at least not the most favorable ones. That, she could attest to. How many lords has she seen rise and fall? Today, if she were to mention at least one of their names, no one would remember him. "Perhaps I should visit this shrine to see for myself, one day," she spoke, shaking her head softly. Another time, perhaps. "Tell me, what is it exactly you believe in, Rei-chan?" she inquired, changing the subject. It would be interesting to see what these people believed in, if they believed in anything.

Honestly, the topic of the previous lord was not something Reiko wanted to linger upon, and so she was glad when the conversation took a more innocuous turn. Perhaps most people would not consider religion an uncontroversial topic, but it was much better than talking about the rest. “Believe?” she echoed, tilting her head slightly to the side as she directed them off the main road and into the residential areas. The houses were all roughly the same size, small but cozy rather than run-down, the thatching on the roofs well-maintained and fragrant.

There were a few children playing a game in the street, something that involved a ball and a lot of running. For a moment, she stopped to watch them, humming a thoughtful note in the back of her throat. “This one supposes I don’t really know. Growing up, I… this one's father was everything. He might has well have been a god, in this one's universe. Ever since he died, I guess I haven’t ever believed in anything else quite the same way. This one has brothers, too, but I think sometimes that they’re just as lost as this one is.” She smiled softly and shook her head. Troublesome, they were, but she loved them all dearly.

“This one supposes... I believe that people can change things for the better, can make the best of their own lives. This one doesn't know if that requires the help of a god or not, but if it gives them the hope they need to believe that something else is out there, watching over them like my father watched over me, then… this one can’t blame them for wanting to believe.” She laughed softly. “This one is sorry, Ayla-san; I did not mean to be so serious!”

Ayla tried to frown, to give Reiko a solemn expression, however; she seemed to fail at it, and merely chuckled lightly. "I guess, in a way, we are all lost children, then," she responded, allowing the soft chuckles to reside. If she could believe that, perhaps she would be a good advisor to Aram? He needed a change of views. "I do believe there is still more to this village you haven't quite shown me, little one," she stated, drawing attention away from Reiko's apology. "And, you should never be sorry for being yourself, even if you were being serious," she replied with a grin. "Now, which shop has the sweets?"

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Mihael
"You seem awfully excited this morning.” The statement was delivered in a dry, observational tone, and she could feel his eyes lazily tracking her across the room, as she moved this way and that, gathering her things together for her venture into town. She paused for a moment in the act of bringing a comb to her dark curtain of hair, and glanced at him in the mirror.

He lounged in a carelessly-easy manner on several cushions, placed at a corner of her small quarters, the front of his haori gaping open just far enough to expose more well-muscled chest than was perhaps strictly decorous, but he wasn’t one for decorum, and that much was plain. He held a long-stemmed pipe in one hand, though out of deference for her preferences, he did not light it whilst he was in here. His aureate hair was tossed casually about his head, as though he’d either just woken or hadn’t bothered to set it to rights whenever he had. The front ends of it brushed his thick eyelashes, doing nothing to mask the clear-eyed intensity of the stare he gave her mirror-self. Their eyes were the same color, but only in a loose sense of the term. His were bright, beautiful, exquisite, even—hers were simply… not.

His narrowed, and she remembered that she’d intended to give him a response. Breaking the eye contact in the mirror, she gained a small half-smile and looked down at the modest arrangement of ornaments and tools in front of her. Reiko had never worn cosmetics, partly because she didn’t know how to apply them and partly because no one had ever expected it of her. Not her father, and certainly not her brothers. She didn’t see any reason to bother, for it seemed a strange and laborious process, and somehow deceptive. She would rather be honestly plain than dishonestly pretty.

"Remember how I told you I’d met someone new in town the other day? We agreed to meet up again today. It’s the rice festival, and she said she wanted to see one, so…” Reiko allowed herself to trail off, sensing the moment he moved, standing smoothly and approaching her from behind. The mark at the juncture of her neck and shoulder tingled faintly at his proximity, but it was not an uncomfortable sensation. It felt… warm.

She made a small noise of token protest when he plucked the comb from her grip, taking a lock of her hair in his other hand and carefully working the wood-and-ivory implement through it, holding fast so that the tangles would not pull at her scalp. One disadvantage of having hair as long as Reiko’s was that it didn’t seem to stay neat through sleep, and required a great deal of looking-after. But she couldn’t bring herself to cut it. She wondered if Ayla ever had these problems, and if so, who helped her brush her hair. Or perhaps she was simply able to do it by herself.

He paused partway through the task, gently setting down the lock he’d been neatening, leaning down from his considerable height to rest his cheek against the side of her head, his eyes fluttering closed as he took a deep breath. She could feel the slight tremors in his hands, the way his jaw was locked tightly in place. Reaching up and slightly behind her, she placed her palm over the nape of his neck, softly tangling her fingers in the cornsilk of his hair. It was best that she act as though she didn’t sense his unease, she knew. So instead of acknowledging it, she spoke of something else, a light smile in her voice. "You need another haircut, Tsu. You’re starting to look shaggy.”

His head dropped a little further, his arms winding around her waist, and she felt rather than saw him smile against the skin of her neck. "I think the word you were looking for is enticing,” he replied, and she chuckled.

"This one hardly thinks anyone should mind if you had a trim, Tsu. I suspect they would flock to you even if you were bald.” She laughed a little louder when she heard the grumble of vague disgust he made in reply, his slight tremors subsiding. He didn’t let her go, though, not for a while, and she stood steadily in place, letting him lean on her and draw from her constancy. He was like a flame, beautiful and bright and dangerous, but no flame could exist for long without something to contain it, lest it burn itself out consuming everything else.

In the end, he loosened his hold, then finished with her hair, which she tied into a simple bun atop her head, allowing the remainder to flow down her back in a single tail to her waist. Adjusting her tan obi over the russet kimono, she tucked a few extra strands of hair behind her ears, then turned to smile at her brother.

"This one will be back before nightfall. Try not to pick a fight with Jirō, okay?”

He smirked down at her, crossing his arms over his chest. "Such impudence, you telling me what to do. I can’t help it; Jirō’s face just makes me want to hit something sometimes. Mostly, I just want to hit his face. It’s really a miracle that I have this much restraint.”

"A saint, you are,” she teased back, then shook her head, winding her arms around him in a quick hug before she drew away. "Now this one really must go, or I’ll be late.” He nodded and waved her off, looking vaguely dissatisfied still, but then Tatsuya usually looked like that; it was something Reiko had gotten used to.

Down in the village, preparations for the rice festival were well underway. It was one of the smaller events Shiramaki held annually, but also one of the most family-oriented. Rice dishes of all kinds were on display and for purchase, and families milled about over the main street, neighbors talking and laughing with one another while the children tossed little balls made of rice paper. The atmosphere was a relaxed one, and the sake was already flowing, though of course it wouldn’t become a predominantly drink-centered event until later in the afternoon and evening, when the children had gone home and only the younger and older adults remained.

Glancing around, Reiko attempted to locate Ayla by her hair, but she didn’t seem to yet be present, so the younger woman settled in to wait, exchanging a few mon for a rice ball, which she nibbled on as she watched the people go by, leaning up against the side of the vendor's stall.

How long had it been since she'd been excited about something? A faint humming sound could be heard coming from the back of Ayla's throat, a smile spreading across her painted lips. She couldn't recall the last time something so small made her feel happy. Maybe she was reading too into it? Pulling the final strands of her snow-white hair up, she glanced sideways, noticing the empty spot and sighed. He'd be gone today, attending to small injuries and sicknesses. He hadn't left without parting words of advice, though, and the reminder caused the smile on Ayla's face to widen to a grin.

"You worry too much," were the only words that echoed within the home as she parted for the festival. The sounds of people laughing and whispering to each other, filled Ayla's ears. She allowed an impassive look cross her face as her eye twitched. She could hear some of them speaking about her, however; it was nothing of what she was used to. She could hear a name, very faintly, and she pursed her lips together. They were accustomed to strange appearances, it would seem. Shaking the thought from her head, she allowed her nose to lead her. There was a very particular scent Reiko emitted, and it was one Ayla knew she wouldn't forget soon.

"Starting without me, I see?" Ayla stated as she found the person she was searching for. Reiko, apparently, was snacking on a rice ball, and Ayla feigned a hurt look.

Reiko swallowed, her face breaking into a bright smile, like dawn over the ocean. Her eyes narrowed then, in a slightly sly expression, and her free hand produced a second rice ball. "Yes,” she confessed without an ounce of shame, "but this one is confident you will forgive me. It is hard to be around all the food and not want to eat!” The villagers of Shimemaki really went all-out for this festival, small as it was. They liked to showcase their skills and their goods, and everything on display would be delicious—this she knew from experience.

She offered the second rice ball to Ayla with a small bow. "For you, Ayla-san. Shall we go and see what else is on offer?” By now, Reiko knew most of what would be set up, of course, but Ayla wouldn’t. Getting to do these things with someone who had not yet experienced them was making it all seem so much fresher and more engaging to her as well, and she found that the smile simply would not leave her lips.

The feigned hurt look was replaced by a smile as Ayla took the rice ball from Reiko. She inspected it, turning it in her hands before taking a bite from it. "It would seem that you are correct, Rei-chan. This one has forgiven you," she responded, mimicking Reiko's speech. She took another bite from the rice ball and tapped her chin in a thoughtful manner. "The aromas do seem enticing," she stated, leaving her finger to rest on her chin. She pulled it away and laughed lightly.

"Since you are my lead, where should we head first? Shall we visit the vendors and try their food?" she suggested, raising her brow slightly. She didn't much care for the food right now, though the smells seemed nice enough. She wanted to do something. No one would hire her as a mercenary, yet, and she had pent up energy she needed to burn. Even though it wasn't a full moon, Ayla was half tempted to visit the neighboring forest and just run. She frowned at the thought, seeing Aram's disappointed face lingering in her memory. She chuckled lightly at the thought, but pushed it aside.

Reiko contemplated the look on Ayla’s face for a moment, wondering what, exactly, had made her laugh at that moment, but in the end, she decided it wasn’t something she should ask about. Correctly interpreting the other woman’s attitude as slightly restless and desirous of activity, she started to the west. "This one doesn’t know if it is the kind of thing you’re interested in, Ayla-san, but I do believe there will be an archery contest a bit later in this direction.”

Actually, the realization that she didn’t know whether Ayla would care to watch or participate in an archery contest reminded her that she didn’t know much about the other woman at all. "May this one ask what it is that you do? A few of the villagers have mentioned a new doctor in the area; would that be you?” It was really the only recent change anyone had mentioned, actually, though apparently there had been two arrivals at around the same time, so it was possible that Ayla and the doctor were two different people. It would have indeed been unusual to meet a woman doctor, but then, just as the folk around here were used to people with strange appearances, professions did not always run in the expected manner, either. The local blacksmith, for example, was a woman, too.

Ayla's trail of thoughts came to a halt when Reiko mentioned an archery contest. A light, for a fraction of a second, bloomed behind her eyes as she turned to the younger woman. Before she could answer about the archery contest, her thoughts were taken elsewhere by Reiko's words. She contemplated for a minute how she would respond. "That title belongs to my brother," she finally answered, pausing for a moment to adjust the sleeves to her kimono. She slipped her hands in the folds, and continued walking beside Reiko.

"Remember when I told you that my brother and I moved here? He is the one who took up shop as the local doctor," she began, a placid expression falling upon her face. It was one more of annoyance, as she continued to think about it. Ayla, however, chose not to linger upon the subject, and glanced down at Reiko. "Believe it or not, I own my own restaurant," she spoke, truth spilling from the words. She'd opened it the first week they had arrived, however; Aram was the one who mainly managed it. It wasn't safe for her, so he said.

"Before that, though," she paused for a second, collecting her thoughts together before she continued. "I was a warrior," she she neglected to say which war it was that she fought in. Over the last few centuries, there were numerous wars, and the most recent one was only a few decades ago. She allowed a melancholic laugh to escape her lips and sighed. How long had it truly been since she'd seen war? She glanced away, momentarily from Reiko, and allowed her facial expressions to soften.

"What I am interested in now, is to see if my skills as an archer are still good," but Ayla knew they were. "I'm afraid I might be a little out of practice," she continued, a grin spreading across her lips. "What of you, Rei-Rei-chan? What is it that you do? You... do not look like one who labors, nor do you have that particular scent of one," she turned to ask. Reiko had the scent of something clean, something that was not accustomed to hard labor, however; Ayla knew better than anyone that scents and appearances were deceiving.

Well, that idea seemed to have gone over well, and Reiko felt a small blooming of pleasant warmth in her chest. She was glad she’d been able to pick out something that interested her newest acquaintance, and accepted the explanation about Ayla’s brother easily enough. She wondered if he was as beautiful as his sister was, but dismissed it as unlikely, and moreover, irrelevant. It would certainly be interesting if he had hair like hers, though; Reiko only knew one other person with a similar shade, and that was her youngest brother. Though his was more silver than white.

"Oh, this one should visit your restaurant sometime, then,” she mused thoughtfully. She had not yet heard of the new business opening up in town—perhaps she simply hadn’t been paying enough attention to the gossip lately. She wasn’t able to visit town as much as she liked, but it struck her as possible that she could bring Sayuri to the place, as her friend was quite fond of trying new foods. Reiko was, too, of course, but her appetite was only quite small, for most things.

She wasn’t exactly sure how to answer the question. What did she do with herself? Reiko had what most people would probably describe as an extravagant lifestyle, and she didn’t need to work as such. Still, it would be an exaggeration to say that she lived a carefree sort of existence. Much the opposite, in fact. "This one is afraid I lack the skills for a trade,” she replied quietly. "Though… this one is not much to look at, but I have also fought in defense of the land, from time to time.” Though she had never been in a war, as such, there were always border skirmishes, and the occasional attempt to seize portions of the Fujiwara domain by other lords, ones that didn’t escalate to anything more than minor armed conflicts. The last had ended a couple of months ago.

Ayla raised her brow in curiosity when Reiko spoke, and stopped, her hand latching onto Reiko's arm. She pulled the girl closer to her, and peered down at her, grabbing her chin and turning her head from side to side. It was as if she were inspecting Reiko, and for a moment, she held Reiko's face in place, staring into her doe-like eyes. Ayla's own eyes narrowed slightly before a bright smile appeared across her face. "You are correct," she spoke, releasing Reiko's face.

"You might not look like much, but," she continued, bringing a finger up to her lips. "It is because there is too much to look at," she finished, closing her left eye in the process before dropping her hand. "You musn't doubt your own worth, Rei-Rei-chan. If you have done as you say, you are much more to look at," she stated softly before continuing ahead of the young woman. A flash of something crossed Ayla's face, and it wasn't something pleasant, however; she kept it at bay. It was a peeve of hers when people said things such as that, especially coming from a woman.

She'd had her fair share of womanly responsibilities told to her that it was the reason she and Aram had moved around so often. She felt her eye twitch slightly, however, and tossed her thoughts in a different direction. "I will be looking forward to your visit, Rei-chan. I'll have to tell Onii-chan to prepare something special for you," she smiled over her shoulder towards Reiko as she spoke. She wouldn't let Aram anywhere near a stove, though. The last time he prepared something, it nearly kept her in bed for three weeks. Even with all the medicine at his disposal, nothing could cure her. It simply had to pass through her system.

The memory caused her face to pale further as a light shiver went down her spine.

Reiko was not especially used to being touched so casually, really; only members of her family and Sayuri ever came into contact with her at all. So perhaps it was unsurprising that she froze like a deer exposed to bright light when Ayla took hold of her chin, turning her face this way and that. She didn’t understand exactly the meaning of what was said after that, but she had the sense that she had somehow upset the other woman. What was wrong with saying that she didn’t look much like a warrior? It was quite evidently true—Reiko was small, and her construction had an obvious aspect of delicacy. It was deceptively so, to some extent, but the impression she gave off was definitely more porcelain than steel.

She had been taught to always make her thoughts and feelings as clear as possible, to avoid misunderstandings. Her father had told her this, and told her that he had learned it the hard way, that a misunderstanding had estranged him from someone he cared about a great deal, and that he’d always regretted it. While Reiko could not say that she and Ayla were close, she certainly didn’t want to make anything turn sour.

"You are upset.” Though the expression had been but the briefest flash over Ayla’s features, Reiko knew it with certainty. She could feel it, in a way that other people could not. "This one is sorry, Ayla-san. This one did not mean to say anything offensive. This one was only suggesting that this one does not look like a fighter, or any other kind of extraordinary person like that. This one did not mean to imply anything else.” Eyes wide, she blinked, then dropped into a perfectly-positioned bow, her head ducked, eyes on the ground. It was deep, and perhaps more formal than it needed to be, more like someone would bow to a superior, but she did not want to offend by seeming insincere in her apology, either. Better to apologize too much than not enough.

Ayla blinked slowly at first, trying to process what Reiko had spoken. She blinked again when the girl bowed, and continued to stare at Reiko. Why was she apologizing? Why was she bowing in such a formal way? Ayla felt something stir in her chest, and she placed both of her hands on Reiko's shoulders, pulling the girl back up to stand properly. Her eyes had darkened considerably, however; the aura she exuded wasn't one of malice or ill-intent. It was solemn, and if anything, a bit depressed. Perhaps she read into Reiko's words wrong, but it was not necessary for Reiko to apologize for it.

"This is why Aram tells me to think before I speak, but do not apologize Rei-chan. You did nothing wrong. Please, do not apologize," she spoke, sighing softly through her nose. "Besides... I don't like it when people bow," she continued, though the last words spoken were mumbled. She didn't have any particular reason, however; Ayla never really liked it when people bowed to her, or if she had to bow to someone else. Something inside always stirred when people bowed, and though they no longer bow to her, or even Aram, having been forgotten, it still irked her.

"How about we go to that archery competition, ne?" she stated, trying to change the subject. It was making her a little uncomfortable, and she didn't want to linger on the subject. Besides, she was itching to see what kind of competition she would have during the contest. Would it even be considered a contest? Should she not compete? Would it be fair if she competed?

Reiko was surprised, again, to be forced back upright, but it appeared that any damage had been mended, however that had happened, and so she let herself relax slightly, though she never lost her straight-backed posture. A small smile appeared on her face, and she nodded slightly. "I prefer the sword, but I would be happy to cheer for you,” she offered, a note of warm cheer suffusing her voice.

It had certainly been an interesting day so far.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


0.00 INK

#, as written by Aethyia
The light from the moon glowed eeriely down below, glistening off of the white sheen of Ayla's hair. Her eyes, normally a powder blue, were flickering gold, and her hair was taking on shades of black. Her lips were curled back, her fangs extended like a vampire's, however; Ayla was no vampire. For all that she was, she was anything but a vampire. A feral growl passed through her lips as she tried to calm herself. How could the smallest of insults have set her off so completely? Her eyes trailed up towards the sky, and she cursed beneath her breath. The full moon, how she hated it so. If it weren't for Masashi, for what he said, she wouldn't be on the verge of a transformation.

"I'm going to kill that man," she stated through clenched teeth. She could feel the itch, the one that always came before she snapped. She could see the day's events playing through her mind, every touch against her skin, and every word that was spoken. She loathed people like Masashi. How dare he think he could simply take what did not belong to him? How dare he think he could make her, of all people, submit to him because she was a woman? The way he slid his finger against her arm, the way his breath lingered in front of her face, it only caused the beast inside of her to stir more. She belonged to no one.

The final thread holding her control together, snapped, and the sounds of bones popping and realigning themselves, echoed throughout the forest. Short grunts could be heard following each pop as the wind seemed to pick up. The tresses, no longer their snow-white shade but instead a deep black, seemed to extend, covering Ayla's entire form. When the black ball finally shed, where Ayla once stood, was a white wolf. It was large, larger than what would have been deemed normal for its standards. She stood on all four of her legs, a howl that echoed anger filled the area as she ran.

Where her limbs were taking her towards, she did not know. All she knew was that there was a scent that filled her nostrils, and she wanted to destroy it. The beast would have what it was due.

Deeper in the forest, the scene was quite the opposite: where Ayla’s state was one of uncontained violence and rage, Reiko was rather tranquil, humming pleasantly to herself as her feet carried her softly over the leaf-strewn ground. Several spheres of light hovered around her, moving as she did and bathing the surrounding area in a soft, contented golden glow. She was dressed in the manner of a man, at the moment, the garmets somewhat oversized, being tailored-down versions of clothes that had once belonged to Takahiro, the smallest of her brothers. Of course, “smallest” was relative—Takahiro was still a good eight inches taller than she was, which meant she’d had to hem the loose grey hakama considerably. She didn’t mind, of course; having something to do was often a blessing of its own.

Tonight, she was out gathering herbs, mostly so she could use the leaves in tea. She grew some in her garden, but others were abundant in the wild, and so she saw little need to cultivate them. A medium-sized, flat basket rested against one thin hip, her arm draped carelessly over the other side. Her hair was simply braided over one shoulder, as there was no image to maintain at the moment, not even for the villagers. She could be as comfortable as she liked, baggy men’s clothes and relaxed hairstyle included.

She was laying some sprigs in her basket when she sensed something out of the ordinary. A great deal of hostility was headed in her direction, but it was… confused. Muddled, somehow, or not completely lucid. Sometimes, animals were like that, but this anger was too… focused to be the frustration of an animal. Besides, they usually only became violent as part of a fear or protection response. This was an aggressive angry. And that was distinctive of the human, or humanesque, condition.

Perhaps contrary to the common sense of anyone with a lick of self-preservation, Reiko turned herself towards that feeling, pointing her feet southward, and starting in that direction. Something was wrong—and she intended to find out what.

Ayla kept her gaze focused in front of her, the scent of the night breeze filling her nostrils along with his scent, however; there was another scent that filled her senses. She knew that scent, right? It was... familiar, however; his scent flooded her again, and she ignored it. Her paws dug into the earth, carrying her across the forest floor as she headed towards her destination. It wasn't until the other scent, the familiar one, assaulted her senses a bit stronger this time, and it brought her to an abrupt stop. The earth beneath her paws seemed to fold over, destroying the plants that were once planted there. Blue eyes were fixated upon the young woman's form, teeth pulled back into a snarl.

This woman, who was she? Why was her scent familiar? It didn't matter. She was not the one Ayla was after. She wanted Masashi, and she wanted him dead. The creature before Reiko did not care if she was in the way, and as if to signal this, Ayla charged Reiko. She would not care if this human was harmed in the process. She should not stand between a wolf and what it wanted to kill.

Reiko began to question the wisdom of her decision only when she came face-to-face with the being emitting the tangled web of aggressive feelings. For what seemed like a long moment, they simply stared at one another. The wolf’s coloration reminded her oddly of Ayla; if she survived this, perhaps she would have to tell the other woman that there was another blue-eyed, white haired creature about. It was a silly thought, really, and it tapered off into nothingness when she was charged. Dropping the basket, Reiko sprang to the side, her legs carrying her much further than any human legs could. She landed sideways against the trunk of a nearby tree, using the strength in her legs to redirect her trajectory, carrying her over the charging wolf and allowing her to land softly behind the beast.

She drew in a soft breath, unsure if it would make to attack her again. She had brought no weapon with her, not believing she would need one so close to her own home. She kept herself calm, though, knowing that if her emotions reached a certain level of distress, it would summon Tatsuya here, and his solution to the situation would be to kill the creature. Reiko didn’t want to do that. She knew not what it really was, for it could be no wolf that felt so human, but that didn’t mean it deserved to die.

Her once focused gaze was abruptly shifted to the young woman. How did she manage to dodge so easily? She was a human, was she not? No human should be able to move like that, and even as a wolf, she knew that. The wolf's mind may be in control, however; it still knew the difference between human and something else. She fixated her gaze on Reiko, the hairs along her back rising. Was this being dangerous as they once were? A deep growl escaped Ayla, stepping forward and lowering her head in a threatening manner.

Her jaws opened, her teeth glistening beneath the moon of the same color. This woman needed to perish, Masashi could wait. With that in mind, the wolf had a new target, and once again, charged Reiko. She wouldn't let this creature get away. Her claws stretched out, intent on grabbing the young woman and tearing her apart.

Though the spring was much faster than she expected, Reiko managed to mostly evade it, the extended claws—too sharp for a canine’s—catching her on the shoulder before she could move out of the way completely. They shredded the sleeve of her gi, cutting into the flesh beneath and spilling her blood down her arm. Several drops fell from the tips of her fingers to the forest floor, and Reiko raised her other hand to apply pressure to the injury, more a reflex than anything. It was a deep cut, but nowhere vital, and it would be healed very soon regardless.

"Wait,” she said, her voice soft but still quite audible. How she knew the wolf would understand her, she could not say, but she had the feeling that it would. "I don’t mean you any harm. I don’t want to hurt you. There’s really nothing to be angry about, is there?” Slowly, she reached out, not physically, but with her mind, in that strange way she could only describe as connecting her emotions to those of another. The touch, such as it was, was tentative, and still the anger and violent intent hit her like a brick wall, causing her to flinch back a bit. But she remained steady, and licked her lips nervously, sending her own feelings, gentle and without hostility, through the connection in the other direction.

She could feel the connection attempt, but Ayla shook from it. She would not be dissuaded from her current mission. Her eyes, however, did flicker from the powder blue, to a molten gold color, before retaining the blue again. For a brief moment, Ayla had managed to retain her senses, however; it seemed not to last. There was reason for her anger. Originally, that source of anger belonged to Masashi, but when Reiko showed up, it shifted to her. She did not know what Reiko was, and if she posed as much of a threat as they had, then she needed to be dealt with.

She shook the warmth the woman was trying to send, and charged her again, however; instead of running the young woman over, Ayla came to an abrupt stop. She was a few inches away from Reiko, her jaws open, teeth extended and ready to sink into Reiko's flesh, however; she stopped. The gold once more took hold of Ayla's eyes, and her lips receded over her teeth. She growled, still, at Reiko, her eyes taking caution intead of hostility. "Reiko?" Ayla conveyed, though her lips did not move. It was stated, rather than questioned, however; she could still feel the beast clawing its way back out.

"Why are you out by yourself, it is not safe," she continued, forgetting momentarily that she was still in wolf form. She could feel the previous warmth from Reiko, and felt the previous anger subsiding softly. It wasn't completely gone, however; Ayla had more control of it now than she did a few minutes ago. She could, for a brief moment, smell blood on the air, and it took Ayla a moment to realize that part of Reiko's attire was ruined. A slow sigh escaped her as she brought a paw up to her head. "Aram is not going to be pleased about this," whether she told him or not, he always knew.

What on earth…? She was being spoken to, but it wasn’t a voice, in the usual sense. Nor, however, was it the telepathy Takahiro could use. This was something distinct from both, or caught somewhere in between. It was hard to say. One thing she did know, however, was that she recognized the creature in front of her. "Ayla-san?” her voice carried a perceptible note of disbelief, like she could not quite reconcile the image of the woman she’d met with that of the wolf in front of her. And yet… had she not heard, before, that such a thing was possible? Did not even more unbelievable things happen to her from time to time? Did she not live the sort of life where this should be, if not expected, at the very least possible?

She did, and she was well aware of it. Heedless of the blood still on her gi, she smiled softly, allowing the empathetic link to establish itself more fully. She could feel that Ayla’s rage, though still simmering somewhere beneath the surface of her consciousness, no longer threatened to consume her, and that was good enough, for the moment. "I’m glad you’re all right.” She was also glad she’d made the decision not to fight the wolf, and not to alert Tatsuya to her distress. It was difficult, concealing things from him through the Mark, and interestingly, it seemed to get more and more difficult as she accepted its presence, rather than easier to control.

"It seems I am not my usual self," she mused, glancing away from Reiko as she gave a dejected sigh. Aram really wasn't going to like this little fact, however; Ayla focused back on Reiko, and raised a brow. "I am fine, but why are you? You should be dead," she stated, giving Reiko a gentle push with her paw. She was vaguely aware of what happened, if the destroyed patches of earth were anything to go by, and also the dried blood on Reiko's gi. Ayla was fast, and she knew for a fact that she was faster than a human, however; there were two other creatures that were faster or on par with her.

"So it seems we are both creatures of mysteries, are we not?" she chuckled, though it wasn't darkly. It held an amused note to it, and the sounds of bones realigning themselves filled the air once more. Though she still lost control from time to time, Ayla learned to master the art of remaining partially clothed when she reverted back. It wasn't an easy thing, and it had taken her nearly five centuries to get it right. She'd grown tired of Aram's facial expressions when she shifted back, and Amon... her thoughts paused there as she pulled the sleeve of her torn kimono back over her shoulder.

"Care to join me on a stroll?" she didn't feel like being alone at the moment.

Reiko paused a moment, then nodded, casting one of her little bobbing lights in front of the both of them, to illuminate the path forward. "This one’s father used to tell me stories,” she murmured softly, shrugging out of her gi. She still wore the second kosode layer underneath, and had bandage-bindings on besides, but Ayla wasn’t quite as clothed, and she didn’t want anyone to come across her in such an indecent state. With a deft motion, she draped the gi over the other woman’s shoulders, still warm with her body heat.

"Sorry about the blood; this one is afraid I don’t have anything else to offer you. Anyway, like this one said… he told this one that people like you existed. He said some people called you werewolves.” He’d had a different word, but he wasn’t sure if he’d used it for all members of the kind, or just the one he’d known. She wondered how many there could be, anyway. Maybe the first one had had many children, or changed many others. It was certainly possible. "He said it was harder to stay in a humanlike form on the night of the full moon, or when they were upset.” Both of which would help explain Ayla’s state tonight.

She paused a moment, then looked down slightly, shaking her head. "As for this one… well, you’re right that I’m not human. This one is something much worse than that.” The truth was, she tried not to think of it, what she really was. It disgusted her, on some level, and it was much nicer to ignore it and imagine that she was just an especially long-lived human, without this terrible thirst. But she couldn’t no matter how much she might want to, and deep down, she knew that was for the best. What monster should be able to forget its own nature?

"This one is… a vampire. An oni.”

Ayla was going to object the gi, however; once the clothing was draped over her shoulders, she held her tongue, and tucked it closer around her. She could smell Reiko's blood on it, but she chose to ignore it when Reiko apologized about it. She released a dejected sigh and shook her head, remaining silent as Reiko continued to speak. Others? Like her? As far as she knew, she was the only one of her kind. She'd never had kids, and she never turned anyone. She wasn't even sure she was capable of turning someone. She'd bitten a few people before, but they were all still human. Not that they didn't deserve the bites, because they did.

The only people who knew of her state, though, were Aram and Amon. She had been careful enough to keep her secret a secret, so how could Reiko have known? It wasn't plausible that Reiko would know of this secret of hers, and before she could ask how Reiko knew, it all made sense at the next set of words. Vampire. There was only one person she knew of that could have told Reiko those stories, and Ayla stopped in her tracks. Something, like a weight, applied itself to her chest, and for a moment, Ayla couldn't breathe. It didn't make sense. There was no way she could be his child, could she?

"What you are is nothing worse than an human, Rei-chan. Oni... are terrible creatures, and what I see before me is not a terrible thing. For what kind of creature would shed its clothing and share it with another? Horrid creatures do not do that for others," she spoke, offering a warm smile in the process. "Your father must have been a knowledgeable being, to know what I am," She neglected to say that she was the only werewolf. Reiko did not need to know that, and Aram would not be pleased with her if she told the vampiress. Maybe Ayla was over analyzing it? Maybe Reiko was a child of a different person who still knew of the three? Was that even possible?

Reiko’s expression didn’t seem to change much, the lights floating around her dimming to a dull grey, but she didn’t reply to the reassurance. It was nice of Ayla to say so, but the fact remained that she drank the blood of innocent people to survive. Only a monster was capable of something like that. She let out a soft sigh, smiling to mask her discomfort a bit. "You don’t have to worry, though. This one is not going to tell anyone your secret. If you… um… if you find that you are losing yourself again, this one will be glad to assist you in the future, if this one can.” She wasn’t sure that anything she had done had helped Ayla at all, really, but in case it had, she figured making the offer couldn’t hurt.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


0.00 INK

#, as written by Mihael
Reiko hummed happily to herself as she fastened Sayuri’s obi in place, the pale blue of the fabric a sharp contrast against the hue of the kimono itself. Her own yukata was much simpler in design, the colors duller, though both were suitable for going out into the town. Reiko never made much use of all the nicest pieces in her wardrobe, most of them inherited from her mother, but she felt absolutely no reservations about sharing them with Sayuri. In fact, she probably would have given them all to the other girl if she thought her adopted sister would ever accept.

It had been about twelve years ago that the human girl had been introduced to their household, the last survivor of a pitched battle somewhere to the south, somewhere near Edo. Her father had rescued the child from what was sure to be a fate of poverty, death, or work in one of the brothels in the red lantern district, and brought her here, where the household had sort of collectively looked after her. Her father had officially adopted her, and so even after he died, she was a welcome ward of the house, though Reiko knew that some of her brothers weren’t especially keen on a human sharing one of the family names. Too bad for them—Sayu was here to stay.

And today she was free, so Reiko was taking her into town to meet Ayla. It had occurred to her that it must be awfully lonely, living like Ayla did, with only a brother for company most of the time. Not that there was anything wrong with brothers, of course, but there were things you could only get out of friendships with other females, and it was Sayuri herself that had taught Reiko that, as she grew up and they became closer, in the manner of two women rather than a lady and a little girl.

With sure hands, Reiko wound Sayuri’s dark hair up into a simple, but flattering topknot. The length was not as absurd as hers, but there was still a fair amount of it to be dealt with, and Reiko never bothered to hide the fact that she enjoyed doing her friend’s hair this way. It was soft and shiny, and pleasant to work through with her bare hands. A small, glittering ornament provided the final touch, and she stepped back, smiling softly into the mirror.

"Looks like we’re ready. This one hopes you’re hungry; Ayla-san owns a restaurant and this one would feel bad if we didn’t go there to eat!”

Sayuri had never been one to tell Reiko no, so when the older Hino spoke of venturing into town, Sayuri had happily obliged. She sat, motionless, while Reiko played with her hair, fixing it in a way that always looked pleasant. A gentle smile played on her lips, listening the brush strokes and the way her hair moved with Reiko's careful hands. Once she was finished, Sayuri turned and grinned at her surrogate sister. "Of course, I'm hungry. Can't you hear my stomach?" she replied, and as if on cue, her stomach released a small growling noise. A faint blush covered Sayuri's face as she placed a hand over her abdomen.

"I was only joking," she stated nervously. Still, she managed to smooth herself over and coughed into her hand. "I am surprised that a woman owns an establishment. Oh, but I don't mean it that way," Sayuri stated, waving her hands in front of herself as if to dismiss the idea. "I only meant it that those who are not from this village own such things and are still women," she corrected herself. She wondered how the woman fared before coming to their lord's village. Surely she didn't own a restaurant before? That, however, was a question for another time.

"Forget I mentioned anything. I am hungry, Reiko-chan. Let's go get something to eat. I would like to meet this Ayla-san, of yours," she confessed.

Reiko of course took no offense whatsoever, merely smiling a little wider and nodding. "Mhm. We shall!” The two left the estate without much difficulty, seeing as how they had every right to, and though the path down to the village was a little bit slower due to Sayuri’s presence, Reiko didn't mind at all, nor did she mention it, and the two passed the time as they always did, chatting about this and that. At one point, the recent negotiations between the Fujiwara house and a southern human daimyo came up, but only because the daimyo would soon be visiting, it seemed. It had been a very long time since the estate had any guests, indeed, which made it quite an interesting piece of gossip.

Other than that, though, their banter was light, and they walked with linked arm, stopping to greet many of the villagers they knew before eventually making it to Ayla’s restaurant. The signboard out of the front read simply ‘cuisine,’ and so she took it that the place didn’t have a name as of yet. Entering through the open doorway, the women seated themselves at a small table, and were soon given menus by a young waitress, a local village girl named Hana. Ayla had said she would join them, so they left an extra place for her as well.

Sayuri sat in comfortable silence as they awaited Reiko's friend. She decided to read the menu, instead, and glanced over the recipes. There was one that caught her eye and as another person approached the table, she set the menu down. It didn't take her long to realize who this person was, given the white hair and pale blue eyes meeting her own dark gray eyes. It took her a moment to realize that the woman, Ayla, was giving her a questioning look, and that she had been staring at the woman for what was longer than necessary. Immediately, Sayuri allowed her eyes to widen slightly, and muttered an apology. An amused smile crossed Ayla's face as she took a seat in the empty spot.

"You don't have to apologize, I'm used to it," Ayla replied, leaning on her hands as she stared at the young woman. She could tell by her scent that she was a human, which oddly reminded her of geraniums. There were, however, other scents softly mingled with hers, scents that were not human. Was she being used as a source of food? That didn't seem right. If that were the case, the young human wouldn't be human. "I'm glad you made it, Rei-Rei-chan," she stated, taking her attention off of Sayuri and placing it on Reiko. "Is she your mistress, Rei-chan?" she teased, watching as a faint blush spread across Sayuri's face.

"I am nothing of the sort!" Sayuri blurted, allowing the red to brighten. Ayla raised a questioning brow before chuckling lowly.

"Oh? Is that right?" Ayla questioned, keeping her gaze on Reiko.

"That's not very nice, Ayla-san,” Reiko said, her tone mild, but her eyes glinting with faint amusement. "Sayuri-chan is this one’s sister. Tou-chan adopted her about twelve years ago.” She smiled fractionally—just a bit. Reiko wasn’t one to grin or flash her teeth when she smiled, mostly out of cautious habit. Her fangs were not always visible when she did, but she didn’t want to risk it amongst humans. Sayu knew, of course, what she and her brothers were, but most did not, and everyone had been impressed by their father that things were better that way.

"But of course, if this one were interested in having a mistress, this one might ask Sayu-chan. She is very smart, and kind, and pretty, too.” Her smile widened just a little, as though she hadn’t said something hopelessly embarrassing for her friend, and she hid it behind one of the menus, her shoulders shaking just faintly with well-stifled laughter.

"Oh? Now I'm jealous, Rei-chan. And here I thought you would have chosen me," Ayla spoke, a frown tugging at the ends of her lips as she grasped Reiko's hands from the menu. It was enough for the blush on Sayuri's face to turn into a bright, tomato red, color. She rubbed her hands up and down her face, much to Ayla's amusement, but only succeeded in turning her face red. "You should know, Yu-chan, that I do not like sharing, but in this case," she stated, releasing Reiko's hands and gently grasped Sayuri's. Sayuri felt as though her heart were going to jump from her chest at any given moment, and her vision seemed to blur.

"You are a horrible onee-chan, Reiko-chan," she managed through light stutters. Ayla, however, could not contain the small fits of laughter that finally escaped her, and let Sayuri's hands go. "And you, Ayla-san, are a horrible person," though the blush receded, a small smile perched itself upon her lips, Ayla's own turning into a feral grin.

"I've been called worse," she stated, shrugging her shoulders in the process. She was being completely honest about it, too. "So Tou-chan adopted you, eh?" Ayla questioned, slightly curious as to why a vampire would take in a human ward. There must have been some reason behind it, other than as a late night snack. The red finally subsided from Sayuri's face as she glanced down, folding her hands together and letting them rest on her lap.

"Yes, that is right. Fujiwara-dono adopted me when I was eight. If it weren't for him, I don't know where I'd be right now," and it could have been any place, really. She was, and would be, forever grateful to the Lord for showing up when he did. "But I am glad he did save me, because I got to meet Reiko-chan," she continued, smiling as she glanced at her surrogate sister. Ayla tried her best not to sigh at the story. Just who was this lord to have done such a thing? She set the thought aside, though, and turned towards Reiko.

"Well, then I am as well, because then I wouldn't have met you either. Sorry Rei-chan, but I think I might take Yu-chan from you. I think she'd make a better mistress for me, wouldn't you?" Ayla spoke, moving her hands so that she placed them gently on Sayuri's. Sayuri's face turned a lovely shade of red, again.

Reiko snorted, the sound turning into a series of giggles, and shook her head. "But Sayu-chan needs someone gentle, Ayla-san. You’re much too willful to be her type, is it not so?” She leaned to the side, knocking her shoulder into Sayuri’s in a playful sort of way. Honestly, she was just as bad as Sayu when people teased her this way, and she knew her friend was about at the limit of what she could take before dissolving into a puddle of embarrassed goo, so she decided to ease up on her a little, just in time for the waitress to come back with their drinks and appetizers, as well as to take Ayla’s order.

"Mm, it smells delicious!” The appetizers were dango, actually, but they smelled of some unique spice or another, and she picked one up delicately, nipping off the end of it and smiling. It was quite something—plain food given a little more taste by an innovation in preparation rather than basic constitution. "Did you come up with this recipe, Ayla-san?”

"And how do you know someone willful isn't what she needs?" Ayla continued, however; she pulled back in time to see Sayuri's body shaking slightly. She chuckled lightly, glanced at the waitress, and placed her order. There was only one dish she liked, and it was one of her own. Sayuri, however, looked like she was about to pass out before taking a drink of water set before her. Ayla blinked slowly at Reiko's question, and a frown appeared on her face. She was tempted to say yes, that the recipe was indeed hers, however; this one, oddly, belonged to Aram. He couldn't cook for the life of him, and she was hesitant to try the ingredient. As it turned out, though, the food became better. She never thanked him for that, actually.

"No, unfortunately. The recipe is one my brother made. Don't get me wrong, I love the man, but don't... just don't ever ask him to cook for you unless you have a death wish," she stated in a serious tone. Her gaze did not waver from its position, causing Sayuri to raise a brow. Was his cooking that dangerous? Surely it wasn't too bad, was it? It was enough to cause Sayuri's blush to fade, and a look of curiosity crossed her face.

"You have siblings, Ayla-san?" she questioned, the slight curiousity peeking through her voice. Ayla nodded in response, and a light brightened behind Sayuri's dark eyes. "Are they your older siblings, or are you the oldest?" she found herself asking, leaning a little further on the table. It was nice to have siblings, even if Reiko was the only one who tolerated her. "I bet they have hair as pretty as yours," that caused Ayla to snort, startling Sayuri in the process.

"No, they do not have the same shade of hair as I do, thankfully," she responded first. "And I only have one older brother, now. I... lost my oldest a long time ago," she continued, trying to keep her voice from softening at the last sentence. "But that is a story for another time," she stated, waving a hand in front of her as she tried to grin.

Reiko’s eyes softened. Knowing what it was like, to lose someone precious like that, she wasn’t going to make Ayla talk about it if she didn’t want to. So instead, she shifted the topic. "We have six brothers,” she said, shooting Sayuri a knowing look. Really, only a few of them ever paid much attention to their human sister, but perhaps that was to be expected. When you were as old as some of them, she imagined the dozen years Sayu had been with them were not nearly enough for them to have become accustomed to her, certainly not enough for most to pay her much mind. There were some who were colder than others, but it wasn’t like any of them actively disliked her, either.

"Tatsuya’s the oldest. Then there’s Jirō, Tsubasa, Kentaro, Daichi, and Takahiro. Actually, all of them except for Takahiro are this one’s half-brothers, but that doesn’t make much of a difference. Most of the time.” They’d been a little contentious along the family lines recently, but she didn’t feel the need to dump all of her family issues on Ayla in a casual conversation like this, and furthermore, she knew for a fact that some of them would be unhappy with her if they’d learned she did so.

"It’s a pretty big household, which means things can be quite chaotic sometimes, with the eight of us, staff, retainers, and so on, but it’s also quite enjoyable.” Since Sayu had just essentially outed her as the former daimyo’s daughter, she didn’t feel the need to be as delicate about her position as she had been. "You’re welcome to come visit, if you ever have the inclination.”

Sayuri gave an apologetic smile as Ayla listened to what Reiko was saying. She seemed to have a large family, how did they manage that? Surely they didn't have much to their name, right? It took all of five seconds to realize that the lord Reiko had spoken of before, and the one Sayuri mentioned, were one and the same. It all fell into place for Ayla, as she chuckled lightly. "Rei-chan, you had me fooled. Here I thought you were some commoner like myself," she stated, leaning on her hands. Sayuri blinked slowly as she glanced between the two. What would have given Ayla that impression? She glanced towards Reiko, and it made a bit more sense.

"It is because Rei-chan does not dress as a lady of the house should," Sayuri chimed in softly. "Perhaps we ought to change that, Ayla-san?" she stated, turning to face Reiko with an innocent smile. Ayla's grin, however, wasn't so innocent. She let a soft humming noise be her response as her gaze fixed on Reiko, sharp like a predator's fixed on its prey. "Since Rei-chan has invited, perhaps we can make use of this invitation," she added.

"I do believe you are right, Yu-chan. Reiko has invited, and I would be a poor friend indeed to refuse. I would like to see Rei-chan out of her clothes, after all. I'm sure it'd be a delightful appearance once she was adorned in proper clothing," Ayla spoke, allowing the mischief to coat her words. She only teased, though, and wouldn't do anything of the sort. As appealing as it sounded, dressing up the princess to see what was beneath that layer of hair would be entertaining, however; she had a feeling Reiko wouldn't be too keen on the thought. Of the visit, maybe, but not the undressing and being dressed portion of the visit.

Reiko appeared to choke on the mouthful of water she’d been about to swallow, and only just barely managed to get it down before erupting into a fit of coughing, her face just about as red as Sayu’s had been earlier. "You will do no such thing. This one dresses perfectly well, thank you.” She’d never been one for pretty things, honestly, feeling that they were wasted on someone like her. Even now, Sayuri was dressed more like a lady of nobility than she was. More than that though, the thought of being dressed up like a doll, while not entirely unappealing as a way to amuse herself and her friends, was generally something she preferred to do to others. Why waste the effort on her when Ayla would look so much better in red? Or blue, or violet. Really any color.

She wrenched her thoughts away from that though, and hastily changed the topic. "A-anyway, Ayla-san, what made you want to open a restaurant…?” Lighter conversation was probably better for the moment.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
Tatsuya folded his arms into his sleeves, his lip curling slightly at the variety of smells filtering in through his nose. Honestly, he didn’t know how Reiko could stand the village. The people were not particularly unclean, but the whole place smelled strongly of fish, and, in the afternoon as it was now, sweat. It failed to turn his stomach the way it had when he was a child, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed it in the slightest.

Picking up on the thread of something more exotically-scented in the air, he tracked it through the busy market. Ordinarily, people had to mind themselves not to run into each other, and had he been another man, he might well have gone to lengths to duck around people and so forth. As it was, however, people ducked around him. This was partially due to the fact that he was openly wearing a sword, and thus readily identifiable as belonging to the lord’s household or perhaps as a ronin, but the exquisite quality of his rather simple garments basically eliminated the latter possibility. Few knew him to actually be the lord, but some did. These took care to bow low, but not too low, as he had made his displeasure for recognition known with them.

Partially, however, the deference of others was due to his appearance. Not his coloration—enough members of his family had ventured out this way that even golden hair like his was not completely unthinkable, but rather they avoided him because of the way he carried himself. Reiko was graceful, but it was an understated, gentle grace. Tatsuya had all the gentleness of a tiger, and all the associated predatory carriage. It wasn’t something he did particularly on purpose, but it served his ends here, getting him to his destination much faster.

When at last he spotted the woman he was looking for, he snorted softly, under his breath, a flicker of amusement passing through his red eyes. Not for anything the woman was doing, but rather for something he recalled. Reiko, in attempting to convince him to come, had used the argument that the person he was seeking was exceptionally lovely. Not a completely ill-chosen ploy, but certainly not enough to motivate him to come all the way out here to find her. Still, his sister had not been wrong, as such.

He drew within relatively polite distance, his face smoothed over into impassiveness, and blinked slowly. When he spoke, he wasn’t loud, but nevertheless his voice cut clearly through the other sounds of the marketplace, a deep, smooth baritone.


A frown marred Ayla's lips as she glanced down at the product. Aram, as he'd always been, was currently busy, and could not afford the time to go into the market place for a few necessities that were needed. Given that Ayla was the one always cooking, Aram had been charged with the gathering of ingredients. Today, however, proved to be otherwise. She sighed heavily through her nose as the scents filtered through. The product wasn't especially bad, however; none of it smelled good. Perhaps she should just go get everything fresh, from the outside. She mentally rolled her eyes at the thought. Another day, maybe, she'd do it, but for now, she needed to mingle with the humans. She didn't do it as often as one might think, given her restaurant, but Aram had been insistent.

As she reached to pick up a piece of fruit, the sound of someone's voice startled her, and she dropped it back into its place. She furrowed her brows and turned towards the source, ready to snap at whoever called her, however; she found her thoughts, and voice, momentarily gone. Her eyes widened a fraction before resettling, and she released a breath she did not know she was holding. For a moment, she thought it was him. She thought it was her brother, however; though he bore a resemblance to Amon, he was definitely not. Still, it did not help the fact that her heart had felt like it stopped beating, and a painful squeeze nearly rendered it dead.

"What do you want?" she stated, the sound of her voice coming out rather deadpanned. A hint of annoyance could be heard behind it, but she was trying her best not to let it show. She did not know who he was, only that he looked like someone she once knew. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but she chose not to think further on the subject. She was afraid of what it would do to her if she did. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she continued to stare at the male before her. Something seemed familiar about him, and it wasn't just the resemblance to Amon. She could detect the faint scent of someone she knew, but she couldn't quite place it.

"I am busy, so if you have something to say, could you hurry it up? I don't have all day," she continued.

Tatsuya lifted his chin slightly, making it clear that he was looking down his nose at her. It was actually a rather subtle gesture, but the way he did it left no room for ambiguity as to his meaning. He would have to talk to Reiko about her choice in friends, if the ones she picked were routinely so rude. That didn’t count him of course; Tatsuya fully believed himself well within his rights to be as discourteous as he liked, particularly if he was treated that way first.

"Reiko will not be coming to see you today. I can’t imagine why.” Actually, he knew perfectly well why, but the sarcastic tone he used conveyed perfectly the insult meant. His message delivered—if not explained to the extent he was sure his sister would have preferred, Tatsuya turned away and began to walk again in the opposite direction. If he was in town already, he might as well pay a visit to the local constabulary. It was the one function of this place that he ever bothered to personally take an interest in—the enforcement of its laws.

She could feel the hairs along the back of her neck raising, and she didn't like it. If she could have, she would have growled at the way he peered down at her. She would not lie and say she enjoyed people looking down at her, and though it was in a subtle way, she knew that was exactly what he was doing. She was about to snap at him until he spoke. A visible look of confusion crossed her face before the entirety of his statement filtered through. Reiko wouldn't be making it? That was odd to Ayla. Reiko always came. What could have possibly happened that she had to send someone like him to tell her? She gritted her teeth and stalked after the retreating man. Once she was in reach, her arm jerked out and grabbed him by the elbow, effectively stopping him.

"What do you mean she's not coming? What's going on with Rei-Rei-chan?" she nearly demanded. If he knew why she wasn't coming, then he needed to tell her.

The moment Tatsuya felt an unwelcome presence on his arm, his free hand went to the blade at his hip, and faster than one could blink, it was unsheathed, the bare steel laying against the marble skin of Ayla’s collarbone, the edge of it flirting dangerously with the flesh of her neck. It was an automatic reaction, really, and he didn’t look pleased about it, his eyes darkening to the color of blood. "Remove your hand.” His tone was chilly, completely contained, consciously restrained, and indeed the temperature of the air surrounding them dropped perceptibly.

As soon as the blade was drawn, it took all of Ayla's restraint not to literally bare her fangs at the man. Her eyes never left his as they took a more defiant appearance to them, however; she hadn't realized her hand was still on his arm. She didn't mean for it to linger, but she wanted to know what was going on with Reiko. Her hand removed itself from its grasp, and instead, she placed two fingers on the tip of the blade, pushing it away just slightly. It wasn't the first time a blade had been pointed at her, and it certainly wouldn't be the last. A visible tremor went through her being, but it was not one of fear. It was one of irritability and annoyance.

"This isn't the first time a blade has been drawn on me, and it certainly wouldn't be the last, boy," she stated. It was taking every ounce of self control she had to not simply break him, or at least maim him, but for Aram's sake, she wouldn't. Instead, she'd simply let her displeasure be known. "Where is Reiko?" she repeated.

"Do not be so confident, hag,” he replied, just as coldly, but he withdrew the blade as soon as she moved her hand. In truth, it had been little more than an automatic reaction, as instinctive as breathing. Reiko had told him what Ayla was, mostly because she couldn’t really keep secrets from him anyway, and he’d been incensed when he’d figured out what she’d risked in discovering this fact. That didn’t mean he was afraid—quite the contrary. Tatsuya didn’t really understand fear; he wasn’t wired for it.

The sword slid home in the sheath with a decisive click; there was no reason for her to know how much he knew. Or even who he was. "She is otherwise occupied today; one of her brothers called a diplomatic meeting with some neighboring lord. She is acting as mediator. Dynastic matters are considerably more important than meeting with some friend, are they not? She is, after all, a princess.” He raised a brow, the arrogance in the gesture not even on his own behalf, really. For all she knew, he was a particularly uppity samurai serving the house. Actually, the fact amused him, but he did not let it show.

"Hag? That's a new one," she replied in a nonchalant fashion. She was old, and she knew it, but the way he said it made her more iritable than she already was. When the explanation followed after, though, the tension resided slightly. "You know, you have one of those faces that just makes me want to punch it, just so you know, asshole," she stated, her face pulled into a rather meaningful glare. She'd actually meant it, though. It was taking a lot out of her to not just hurt him in some way or fashion.

"Then we can both have new experiences today, because I have never up until this point met a woman I found quite so distasteful,” Tatsuya sniped right back, though there was a flicker of something that passed over his eyes. He was quite entertained with this change in their interaction, though he didn’t make a show of it.

"If being a princess entails attending such matters, I'd hate for her to become Empress," Ayla muttered, more to herself than to the man beside her. She continued to glare at him, though. She really did have the urge to punch him in his face... or at least bite it off. She shook the last thought from her head. That would be the last thing she did, but she wasn't against the idea. "I hate ronin like you. Well, if she's not coming, I'll simply have to make an effort to go see her. Not today, though. I don't want to intrude on her," she stated, trailing off on the last of the sentence as if she were talking to herself. She ignored the male in front of her for a moment, though the hostility was still present.

"Should I simply call you the Asshole Ronin, or do assholes like you actually have a name? I'd rather not be so forward around Rei-Rei-chan," she stated, her eye visibly twitching.

"You can call me whatever you like, and I shall call you hag or old bitch, and I assure you the lady Reiko will not so much as bat an eyelash.” She’d heard worse things in the arguments their brothers got into with each other. Tsubasa, in particular, had a very colorful vocabulary, though it took a bit of work to get him riled enough to use it. Shrugging, Tatsuya folded his arms back into his sleeves, his face regaining the exact same blasé expression it had possessed when first he spoke.

"If you really do intend to come see her, I’m sure we’ll run into each other again. Maybe by then you’ll be a little less bark and a little more bite; I certainly wouldn’t mind.” He let a slow smile, predatory and feral, creep onto his face before it faded, and turned to leave.

That had been… interesting.

"Then you shall be referred to as Fucking Asshole. Seems about right," she retorted, a hint of gold leaking into her eyes. If it were not for the humans around them, she'd have done more than just bark at him.

"Fucking asshole," he really was asking for it.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
"Oh, of course we’re late!” Reiko wasn’t usually one to raise her voice, and to be honest, she wasn’t really doing so now, either, but there was a certain urgency to her tone that was usually absent. Negotiations with the ningen lords were still ongoing, and the session that day had ended later than planned, meaning that she had to hurry to dress herself in something more suitable for going out into town. In the end, she didn’t want to waste the time with an obi, so she forewent her yukata and various kimono, and simply stepped into her practice gear—a red gi a few shades darker than her eyes, and dark grey hakama. It was more color than she usually wore, but not at all ornamental, save that her family’s crest was emblazoned on the back of the gi in gold. She chose to tie her hair up in a simple topknot, reasoning that Ayla-san wouldn’t much care if she looked like a boy.

Fortunately, Sayuri was already prepared to depart, and at a brisk pace, though one still manageable for the human girl, they made their way down to the village. They were meeting Ayla out on the other side of it today, something about her wanting to explore the outlying farms and countryside. Reiko certainly didn’t mind—their lands were beautiful; she’d always thought that her father must have selected them at least in part because they were distinctively lovely for all four seasons of the year. Now, in late fall, the harvesters would be finishing their work, and storing away the rice for the winter months. The brewers would be making ready to ferment much of it into a special kind of regional sake, too. Winter would be upon them soon, and with it, a great deal of snow.

"This one wonders when we’ll get the first snowfall of the year,” she mused, partly to herself and partly to Sayu. "Tatsuya’s always a little less grumpy in winter, but Kentaro gets worse.” She shook her head faintly. Maybe it was because they had abilities related to ice and fire respectively? She touched the mark on her neck for just a moment, feeling a gentle pulse of warmth from it when she did. It was a little piece of comfort she’d grown accustomed to over the last year or so, since it had been put there. A faint smile curled the corner of her mouth.

Sayuri merely smiled and tried not to laugh at her friend. Reiko was in a hurry to meet Ayla, and she could understand the haste behind their strides. "You shouldn't worry too much about it, Reiko. I'm sure Ayla will understand. You've been busy with the lords," she spoke, trying to reassure Reiko that it would be fine if they were late by a little bit. The remainder of the walk had been fairly quiet until Reiko spoke, and Sayuri lifted her head towards the sky. It felt nice this time of year, and she had to say, fall was one of her favorite seasons. Spring, however, was her favorite of the four, though. It signaled a new year, a new beginning, and brought with it, the blooming of flowers.

"If we are lucky, we might, and Kentaro's always been a grumpy person, though. I don't think anything could make him any less," she returned, scoffing lightly to herself. "He always seems calm around you, though, no matter what season it is," she added, elbowing Reiko in the side with a hint of teasing to her tone. The smirk stayed on her face for a while longer before it receded into a soft smile. She turned her attention towards the path in front of them.

"Do you think something will be settled soon?" she asked suddenly, peering at Reiko from the side. "I mean, it's nothing too serious, right? They'll be gone soon and we'll have more time for us?" she continued all at once, referring to the current affairs between the lord and Reiko's family.

Reiko’s lips pursed. On the matter of Kentaro, she didn’t say anything; what Sayuri said was true. He was calmer around her than anyone else. What was less obvious was that they all were. Her brothers, they… it was difficult being what they were, and somehow, she was able to ease that discomfort a bit. It was something she was happy to do for them, honestly.

The other matter was one she could contribute to, though. "It’s… hard to say, really.” She sighed, tilting her head back and peering into the sky for just a moment. Her feet were sure over the ground even when she wasn't watching her step, to the point where she almost seemed to float over the path rather than walk. "Part of it is that the negotiations never had a set agenda. Some of the lords want to talk trade, but are wary of alliance, afraid of being betrayed. Others are more concerned with peace pacts, and not in need of anything for trade. And of course, there are always questions of what we can do to cement any kind of alliances, trade or otherwise. Names on paper do not mean much to people who have seen battle, and this one’s brothers are like that, too.”

Of course, matters were further complicated by the fact that her family was so unusual. Tatsuya, while apparently unattached, had been clear that he was unavailable for alliance marriage. At one point, Daichi had suggested using her to cement an especially important agreement, only to cause a massive furor among the lot of them about whether that was in any way acceptable. The consensus was that it was not, though they all had different reasons for thinking so. None of them wanted to take on a human wife. Even those who would have entered an alliance marriage with no issues personally knew that they could not expose the secret of what they were to anyone, and for that reason alone, could invite no more humans into their household than were already present.

That avenue being closed off was a bit of a sticking point for some of their visitors, who were used to doing things that way. So they’d had to find ways around each time, a difficult thing to say the least. Reiko’s head felt like it had been filled with nothing but politics for months, and her outings to the village felt like the only things keeping her sane. "So… we’re dealing with some obstacles. But I’m sure we will have few, if any, visitors in the winter, since travel is so much more difficult this far north.” It would be a little bit of respite, anyway.

"Oh," was the only response Sayuri gave. She didn't quite understand the politics that Reiko and her family were in, but she knew enough that they were never easy. She rubbed Reiko's back, gently, before allowing her arm to fall to her side. "If I can help in anyway, let me know Rei-Rei. I can help too, you know. Even if it's minimal, it's something, right?" she stated, grinning like she'd said something smart for once. Sayuri was, in her own way, intelligent, but by her family's standards, she might as well be an infant still. She shook the thought from her mind and laced her arm with Reiko's, humming softly to herself.

"We need to find you a suitable kimono, one of these days, Reiko-chan. Going around in Hakama's and gi's are not acceptable anymore," she stated, nodding her head once as she changed the subject. Reiko probably had more than enough of the negotiations to last her a life time, and didn't need to be prodded any further. "Besides, you might actually catch an eye or two," she stated, allowing a devious grin to spread upon her lips. She could hear the faint sounds of the market place up a head. Perhaps they should stop first? She knew Reiko wouldn't want to, already being late to meet Ayla as they were, however; what was a few more minutes?

Reiko groaned softly. She knew Sayuri meant well and was really only teasing, but she wasn’t especially fond of being reminded that she dressed substandardly for someone of her station. Part of it, she supposed, was just the fact that she couldn’t stand being looked at for too long. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, of course—her kind had an inborn magnetism that attracted humans to them. It was just part of the way they’d been made, or evolved, or whatever term a person preferred to use. She’d found through practice that loose, boyish garments and dull colors and fabrics helped her blend in, which was really all she wanted to do most of the time. She didn’t have the time or inclination to be catching eyes, as her friend put it. Sayuri could do enough of that for the both of them, and she would happily be plain old Reiko in the background.

Besides, she had far too much to do. Her brothers and the household needed her, and it was nice to feel needed. She had enough in her life as it was, and plenty of time for other things later, should she decide she wanted them. It wasn’t that she thought she never wanted that kind of thing, but… there was always something she needed to do first, and besides that… why burden a human with herself? She would vastly outlive them, and she saw what her mother’s death had done to her father. No, it was best to avoid that.

She saw her friend glancing towards the market and shrugged slightly. "We can go through that way if you want to,” she offered. It wouldn’t take much longer than going around the other way, and it was always nice to mingle with the townspeople for a while. "Maybe this one can get Kentaro some of those anman he likes…” Her brother was oddly fond of the sweet, red bean paste confections. She thought it was kind of funny that someone so stern liked something that most often wound up in the hands of children.

Sayuri smiled brightly and proceeded to drag Reiko towards the market. She hadn't missed the soft groan Reiko released, and it only made the mischievous smile broaden. She'd buy something for Reiko, and claim it was for herself. She could always present it to Reiko later and claim it as a gift. And then she could force her to wear it. She laughed slightly to herself, covering her mouth in the process as they roamed through the town. "You know, for someone so," she paused, trying to find the right word to describe Kentaro, but couldn't. "I wouldn't have placed Kentaro as one for anman. Does he really like those?" she found herself asking with a slight hint of curiosity.

Before she could finish her thought out loud, she glanced towards the nearest stall, and blinked three times in rapid succession. It took almost every ounce of restraint she had not to start laughing at the sight. There was a man standing at one of the vegetable stands, staring precariously at a head of cabbage. It almost looked as if he were expecting it to jump out at him, and he poked it with a forefinger. She shook her head faintly as she pulled Reiko along with her.

Aram, however, continued to stare at the cabbage. Ayla had told him how to point out which ones were ripe and ready, but his memory seemed to fail him at the moment. They all looked the same to him, but he knew he had to be careful when choosing. He poked one of the cabbage's in an attempt to recall how to tell them apart, but sighed dejectedly. The stall manager, however, didn't seem all too pleased with the way his produce was being handled. He folded his arms against his chest as Aram continued to stare at the vegetable.

"Excuse me, how much for this one?" he questioned, lifting the cabbage he had prodded earlier. He had to be careful on what he bought, as well. He didn't understand why Ayla always sent him to gather their necessities. He always ended up broke, afterwards. It didn't matter what he bought, but they always were in need of money. It was a bit odd, considering what he did, and Ayla's restaurant, however; Aram could never discern why they were always without. He sighed inwardly as he waited for the man to tell him a price, and when he did, he nodded and reached for his bag.

"Inoue-san.” Reiko’s greeting to the vegetable vendor was tinged with the faintest hint of disappointment. She’d caught parts of the conversation between the stall vendor and a stranger as Sayuri tugged her by, but she’d gently dug in her heels and forced them to a stop when she heard the price the vendor had named. It was far too much for a few heads of cabbage, and likely, Inoue had expected the stranger to barter for it, rather than going straight for his coins.

“Hino-san. I, um…” He flushed slightly, embarrassed at having been caught out in such a thing, but her smile caused him to relax, and he cleared his throat slightly. Shaking her head a little, Reiko stepped up next to the stranger, her eyes on the vegetables. Taking the one he was holding delicately out of his hand, she turned it over carefully in hers.

"You’re rather lucky, sir. Inoue-san doesn’t sell rotten vegetables, but this one will probably only be fresh for another day or two at most.” She could tell from the smell of it. "If you’d planned to cook it tonight, it would be fine, but if you are buying for a few more days, you will want different ones…” she trailed off, humming a contemplative note, then inhaled delicately, moving a few of the cabbages in the cart aside until she found the one she wanted. A small, bright smile broke out on her face, and she picked it up, turning to face the stranger.

"Like this one.”

Aram, startled to say the least, was not expecting someone to speak out. He glanced down towards the newcomer, and then towards her companion. He titled his head in slight confusion as his eyes lingered a bit longer on Reiko's form. He knew her, or at least had a sense that he did. From where, he couldn't seem to put his mind to it, but nonetheless, nodded his head. "I'm afraid I'm not that good at gathering the necessary items," he stated awkwardly to her. He took the product from her hand and inspected it. It didn't look any different than the one he had, but he would take her word for it.

"Okonomiyaki was on the menu today," he started, allowing his shoulders to slump just lightly. "But we didn't have any cabbage," or any of the other ingredients they would need. "And I would be more than willing to pay the price Inoue-san has named. They are, after all, his product," he continued, once again going for his coin purse. Sayuri had to muffle a laugh, but the slight shaking of her shoulders signaled she was doing a poor job on it.

"Have you never shopped properly, before?" she asked, earning a repeat of "properly," and a slight look of confusion. She shook her head softly and glanced towards Reiko. "I don't think he's used to it, Reiko-chan. Do you think you have enough time to explain it?" she stated, glancing towards Reiko as Aram tried to shake his head in refusal.

"There's no need for that, really. I'm always happy to contribute to their needs as they are to mine," he quickly interjected. There was no need for them to do something like that, especially if they were on their way towards somewhere.

Reiko snorted softly. This man, whomever he was, was quite hopeless. She felt a strange tug of familiarity, like she knew him from somewhere, but perhaps it was simply her mind playing tricks on her, or else she had seen him around in the village before. She thought she would remember a face like that, handsome as it was, but then… she was rather used to that sort of thing. "But sir, no vendor asks for what they actually expect. You’re supposed to barter down to something reasonable. This one bets Inoue-san here would even have felt pretty guilty accepting asking price from you, is it not so, Inoue-san?” She turned her ruby-red eyes on the vendor, who ducked his head, scrubbing at the nape of his neck with his hand.

“Hino-san is right, sir. Everyone here barters. I, uh… I honestly asked for a little too much at first anyway, because you looked like you weren’t too good at it.” Reiko supposed it was true—there was a sort of guilelessness to this man’s face that suggested… not innocence, exactly. His eyes carried too much weight for that, she thought. Not that she’d really kept up more than a couple seconds of eye contact to be sure. But perhaps 'purity' was the right word. Or… whatever it was that made monks and priests and holy men seem so far removed from the trivialities of daily life. That kind of particular distance.

But if he was in charge of buying supplies, be they for his family or just himself, she couldn’t well let him continue without knowing how. "Okay. What did you say the asking price was again, Inoue-san?” He repeated the figure with a twinge of embarrassment, but her gentle smile mollified him. It was with that same smile on her face that she bargained him down, every bit as surprisingly sharp on the market street as she was in the meeting room with all the lords and their retainers. Her father had not raised a stupid daughter, or one who needed to depend on anyone else. When it was done, they’d moved down to about half of what Inoue had initially asked.

"Usually, it’s not half, more like… three-quarters of what they ask is a good range to shoot for. You’ll probably still get a little overcharged, but something tells this one you won’t mind.” Her eyes glittered with amusement when she turned them on him. "And this one is sure your family will appreciate what you mange to save, ne?”

Aram watched with mild astonishment as Reiko managed to dwindle the asking price. Really, he wouldn't have minded paying the asking price, but there was some truth behind her words. When it was done, and his items were purchased, his coin purse still felt, oddly, heavy. A gentle smile found its way on his face as he thought of a way to use it. There was something he spotted nearby that he could get, though she wouldn't be too happy about it. She wasn't particular to gifts of any kind, but it would be a nice thought. He pushed it to the back of his mind and turned his attention towards Reiko.

"Thank you," he spoke, giving a polite bow before returning to his previous posture. "Yes, my sister will be happy to know that there is a little extra coin left. Usually I return with an empty purse," he stated, and Sayuri was half tempted to think he was lying. Before anything else could be said, Sayuri grabbed Reiko's arm and began dragging her away, leaving Aram in his spot to blink slowly.

"You're welcome, Kyabetsu-san! Reiko we're going to be late. Ayla's not going to be happy," she stated as she continued dragging Reiko away. Aram allowed her statement to sink in before shaking his head. It would seem he ran into Ayla's friends. Perhaps he will not tell her it was he who held them up. A slight shiver went down his spine.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Mihael
He could see it, the way her jaw was clenched and the way her muscles were tensed. Something was bothering her, and Ayla was too stubborn to admit it. Aram had inquired about it, however; she refused to speak about it, and instead, allowed whatever it was to continue to bother her. He was slightly grateful that, whatever it was, hadn't coaxed anything out, and she was able to keep a lid on her temper. The sound of a grunt caught his attention, and Aram lifted his head to spot Ayla sitting across from him, taking one of the cups and poured tea into it. It was his own blend, a mixture of calming herbs and jasmine to hide the bitter notes. He could see by the strain on her face that it was one she did not particularly like.

"Will you tell me?" it sounded like a simple whisper, however; Ayla flinched beneath the tone. It was a demand, and she knew it. She lifted her gaze towards him, deep blue eyes mixing with pale ones, and released a defeated sigh. Aram smiled gently, knowing he had won the silent battle at last. She remained silent for a few more minutes, contemplating how she would word herself. She knew if she didn't, Aram would take it the wrong way, and he would place the blame on her and scold her for being so careless. Honestly, it wasn't her fault. She was irritable, the ronin came out of nowhere, and just happened to be a the place at the wrong time. But she couldn't exactly say it like that could she?

"Nothing out of the ordinary, I assure you," she began, however; his eyes did not relinquish their hold upon her form, and she gave a defeated sigh, the light anger surfacing forward. "It wasn't my fault, and nothing happened, but that asshole," she continued, her voice carrying off slightly as a slight shift in the air caused Aram to raise a questioning brow. It didn't take much to rile Ayla, for that he knew, but for someone to be on her mind this long, and to have earned such a title, must have been quite an experience for her. He took a sip from his tea, and continued to stare at her, his gaze never leaving her. It caused the tension in her muscles to grow, however; he fixed her with a stare, and she calmed herself.

"You don't understand, Ara, he came out of nowhere," she continued, and a frown marred Aram's face at the word he. He released a sigh as she continued. "He had the nerve to look down on me with his arrogant stature. He was taller, and I had to look up at him, but still. What gave him the right to talk to me like that? That... that asshole," she stated, her teeth grinding together as she continued. Aram let out a startled chuckle, causing her to stop in her ramblings and turned towards him, giving him a "what's so funny" stare. He merely shook his head, and gestured for her to continue. She narrowed her eyes, but hesitantly obliged.

"The bastard called me an old hag," she added, drawing out the last word in an attempt to mimic the way he spoke it.

"Perhaps an unkind way of saying it, but Ayla," he started, however; her gaze fixed on him, harshly, as if daring him to continue that sentence. He sighed in defeat and placed his cup down. "Perhaps if you hadn't addressed the ronin so rudely, things wouldn't have turned out that way for you. You have a temper, Ayla, and you need to control it. It wasn't his fault that he caused you to drop the fruit back into the bin and sca... startled you," he finally spoke, causing the frown on Ayla's face to deepen. She sighed harshly through her nose, and pinched the bridge. With her eyes closed, and brows furrowed, Aram smiled knowingly.

"It wasn't my fault," she continued, straining her voice in the process. "He shouldn't have just strutted in like he owned the place. Plus, how did he know my name!?" she drawled out, a slight hint of panic entering her voice. How did he know her name?

"Didn't you say Reiko sent him?"

"Don't correct me when I'm wrong," she snapped back, immediately recoiling. That's right, he said Reiko sent him. She let out a long sigh and rubbed her hands against her face. "Still doesn't give him the right," she muttered, releasing a defeated breath as she took to her cup again. It still irked her, how he had done that. She wasn't too engrossed in the fruit to have missed him, however; she decided to leave out the fact that he bore a strong similarity to Amon. She glanced towards Aram over the brim of her cup, watching as his eyes closed. She took a moment to enjoy the silence, allowing the serenity to seep into her. It calmed her slightly, and she chuckled lightly to herself.

"You're welcome," he spoke, saying nothing more on the matter. He could see by the way Ayla's eyes were fixed on him, that something else was bothering her too. He quirked a brow in her direction as a sly smirk covered her features. Leaning forward, she placed her hand beneath her chin, and allowed the smirk to continue to grow.

"Correct me if I'm wrong but," she began, slowly leaning closer. "Yu-chan let slip that they were late because someone didn't know how to barter for cabbage. Said she called him kyabetsu-san. Pray tell, dear brother, were you the reason Yu-chan and Rei-chan were late meeting me?" she asked, the sly smile still worming its way upon her face. From the way he bit back a startled choke from his tea, Ayla could only confirm that it was him. Of course, it could have been any other person in the market that day, but it was too much of a coincidence that he actually brought back money from his previous endeavor.

"Well, you see I was just..." he began, stuttering through his sentence. Ayla merely raised a brow as a tint of pink dusted his cheeks.

"Oh? So it's like that, is it?" she stated, allowing the teasing tone in her voice to seep through.

"It is not like that, Ayla. She merely helped in acquiring what was needed for you,"

"Uh-huh, whatever you say, dear brother."

He forgot how horrible his sister could be.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino


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#, as written by Aethyia



Sitting this properly was beginning to make her back stiff. Discreetly, Reiko glanced around the room—her brothers were in various states between feigning interest and obviously, utterly bored as the talks dragged on. This was thankfully the last major meeting they would be having before the human lords went home for the winter, but the problem was, if they didn’t get these trade agreements hammered out, they’d just be hosting more meetings in the spring, or else having to journey southward to the estates in question. Honestly, they’d probably have to do that anyway…

It wasn’t like she didn’t like the idea of traveling, but a diplomatic trip of that sort would not be a primarily pleasant experience, exactly. Meetings like this were not her idea of fun, but she understood their necessity. Just as well—she was keeping her composure better than most, and someone had to. Jirō, of course, was just as home here as he was anywhere, well-versed in the technical details of trade routes and what each region specialized in. Reiko knew most of it, but she let him do most of the talking, since it was still very strange to most of the human lords that a woman was even allowed to sit in the meeting, let alone actively participate. Still, this was her home, and they went by her family’s rules, and so when she really felt the need to say something, she said it. She thought she might be making some inroads, or at least slowly gaining the acceptance and tolerance of the men in the room, since nothing she said was vapid or stupid.

Tsubasa was bored out of his skull and not really trying to hide it. He sat slouched over, elbow propped on a knee and chin in his hand, occasionally yawning. Still, she knew he was keeping track of what was happening, because the few times Jirō had asked him to contribute an opinion, mostly about smithing, he was able to do so without needing to be caught up on the conversation. Kentaro, who sat immediately next to her, was restless and itched to be out of the room, but only she knew that, because his posture was even better than hers, even if he was overly stiff. He also scared at least half the guests, which was why Jirō wanted him to be around, no doubt.

Daichi was busy pretending not to care, but she caught the occasional flickers of irritation or satisfaction passing over his face when people talked. And Takahiro just sat patiently, a small, disarming smile on his face, blind eyes shut. Tatsuya, of course, was not in attendance.

It was all no different than it had been every meeting they’d had for the past eight months. Not all with the same humans, of course, but one territory at a time. They’d begun with the ambitious, rather daring Akarui-sama, who had been the one to approach them with talks of alliance and trade, even knowing the reputation of the Lords of Hokkaido (and the House of Fujiwara) for being filled with mysterious, reticent, and really quite powerful military commanders. But once he’d done it, the others were falling over themselves for the same alliance, mainly so they’d know Akarui-dono would not turn his new favorite allies on them. They couldn’t refuse without playing into that fear, and that was something they didn’t want to do. Warring with humans was, as Jirō would put it, absolutely pointless. Reiko was just glad the patience of her brothers had lasted this long, but she knew it was fraying.

She interrupted the lord speaking about his family’s trade in dyes. “Please pardon this one, Dojima-sama, but this one is feeling a bit weary, and needs something to drink and eat. Perhaps you would be willing to tell this one more about that indigo over refreshments?” Actually, she was probably the least tired of anyone here, having a tolerance for people that many of her siblings lacked, and a great deal more physical endurance than most people, human or otherwise, but it was, in a way, saving face for everyone. She was a woman, and so asking for a reprieve was expected of her as a member of the fairer sex, and also something they could not refuse and still be mannerly. It would also allow everyone to rest before their nerves became frayed enough to say something they would regret.

It was agreed that a break would be a good idea, and she resigned herself to lunch with a rather dull topic of conversation, knowing that she did it for the right reasons, at least.

"You had lunch with a human.” Tatsuya’s voice contained a note that on anyone else would have been considered pouting or even sulky. Reiko resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She really didn’t understand him sometimes.

The two of them reclined in her garden, enjoying the late fall underneath the deep red leaves of her favorite maple tree. Spring may be the season for blossoms, but autumn was for the leaves. “So it was. This one learned an awful lot about dye, but thankfully it sped up the rest of the negotiations, and so any diplomatic visits in spring will be for tying up loose ends and nothing too serious.” She’d been rather pleased with herself about that, actually. Dojima-sama had been somewhat reluctant to make an actual deal, believing that the terms on offer were not generous enough for what his good were worth. But, armed with her new knowledge and some degree of rapport with the stodgy old human, she’d managed to talk him around. It was nice to feel useful.

Tatsuya made a dissatisfied noise in the back of his throat, narrowing his bright red eyes. "He was staring at you.”

…Only for her brother to successfully imply that her success was due to the fact that the lord had a crush. It stung, but Reiko didn’t let it show. “Well, this one is not really sure what to say to that, Tsu. This one didn’t notice anything of the sort, and so if he was, it wasn’t offensive to this one.” She calmly sipped her tea, setting it down beside her in just enough time for her wrist to be grasped, an action which compelled her to actually meet his eyes, her own lit with query.

"I don't like it when they do that.” He stared back gravely, but she sighed. He could be so childish sometimes. Didn’t he have any idea how unfair he was being? She supposed not; she didn’t believe he would intentionally be so.

“And yet, there is nothing to be done. This one cannot change what has already been done.” His lips pursed, she shook her head. “Tsu, this one was the only female in the room. Perhaps Dojima-dono was simply bored.” Or maybe even interested in what she had to say. She swallowed the comment. When Tsu got like this, he wasn’t speaking from a place of thinking of her as less, or as property. He worried, and the worry was sharpened because he physically required her proximity. All of them did, and she knew that. It was her choice to satisfy that need, and realistically, it gave her a lot more power over them than they would ever have over her, no matter how things seemed on the outside. That frightened her a little, being needed in the same way one needed air, though thankfully not in quite the same doses.

The dissatisfied look to his face didn’t quite go away, not even when he carded his fingers through the hair just above her temple. When he pulled the inky mass all over one shoulder, she knew what he wanted, and tilted her head to the side so he could nuzzle at the nape of her neck and bite down. So relaxed was she that it barely even hurt, certainly not enough for her to flinch or anything. She held his head as he drank, her heart a steady drumbeat in her ears, somehow magnified by the sensation of being fed from.

“This one is not going anywhere, you know,” she murmured softly. “This one belongs here, and this one knows that.” He made a contented noise and pulled away, lifting his head so that they were virtually nose-to-nose. That close, he studied her for a moment.

"Good.” He briefly pressed his lips to her forehead, and she knew it was as close to an apology as he was capable of. Perhaps he understood what his words did to her more than she’d initially suspected. He set her hair to rights, then stood, nodding slightly before he departed the garden. Reiko sighed, slumping back against the tree slightly. She felt… it was hard to put it to words. Something in her was dissatisfied, restless, but she knew she should not be. This was where the belonged, because this was her family, and however much they fought or strained apart, she knew that they were bound together by threads that nothing could sever. She had always been content with her lot here, and yet… for the first time that she recalled, thinking about those things could not cause the unquiet itch beneath her skin to subside.

She had a bad feeling about something, but she knew not what.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


0.00 INK

#, as written by Mihael
The winters in Hokkaido were long and cold, the snow on the ground often persisting well into the spring. This particular one had passed without much incident in the region itself, though there were rumors of conflicts beginning further south. Some of the lords down there were clashing with one another. As yet, it had not yet devolved into outright war, but tensions were high, and many eyes had turned north now that the House of Fujiwara was now once again a player on the political landscape of the rest of the country. Especially so since one of the parties currently colliding was Heisuke Akarui, a recent ally of the lord in the north, at least on paper. The time may soon be upon them to prove that allegiance, because his opponent was no one who had treated with them.

Reiko dearly hoped not. So far, Akarui-dono hadn’t asked for anything like that, perhaps choosing to take care of the matter by himself, and she dearly hoped that it would remain that way. Her family’s army might be relatively small, but because it was composed almost exclusively of vampires, even ten of them could do extensive damage, functioning as a strike squad. She shuddered to think about how many human lives one of her brothers could take before he tired. No, it was better to avoid that kind of exposure, and all the questions and fear that would follow.

Reiko sighed, her feet crunching quietly in the snow the only other sound on the road into town. Most people were in the comfort of their own homes right now, or else at one of the public eating establishments. It was about dinner time, the sky darkening overhead, snow falling in fat, soft flakes to the ground. Many stuck to her conical, straw hat, that and her thicker yukata the only concessions she really made to the weather. It wasn’t as though it bothered her, after all.

Losing her desire to make it all the way into the town, she tipped her head back to look up at the sky, stopping in the middle of the road for a while and staring at the brilliant smatterings of stars visible through the occasional gap in the clouds. "I wonder what you would have done,” she murmured softly, speaking aloud, as she often did, to the father who had left her behind ten years ago. Almost eleven now, she realized, and still it seemed as though at any moment, he might come over the hill to the east, full of stories of adventure, of what he’d really been doing for the last decade, and chastising her for imagining him, her great and loving father, dead like any ordinary mortal man. The imagining was so vivid it hurt her heart, and almost against her own will, she did turn to the eastern hill, only to find that indeed, someone was even now mounting it, heading towards her, or more likely the town that lay past her.

Aram sighed softly to himself, allowing the cool breeze to wash over him. Cold it may have been, but Aram's mind was distracted. As of late, visions had ceased to plague him, and he was allowed his sanity. That, however, was what worried him. Visions always came to him, whether they were in small intervals or all at once. They didn't just stop. Perhaps he was reading too much into it, and needed to meditate on it further, however; for the moment, he would enjoy the rest of his day. There wasn't anything else he could accomplish today, even if he tried. Glancing up from his spot, he spotted a figure in the distance, and tilted his head to the side. He blinked slowly, allowing his eyes to adjust to the lighting and a soft smile plagued his lips.

"Reiko-san, good evening,"" he greeted, giving her a polite bow and pausing a few feet away from her. "Care to join me for a walk?" he asked, his eyes never glancing away. "The day is still on us, and I am afraid I may be swindled by Inoue-san again if you are not with me,"" he continued, the barest switch from a smile to a smirk, present upon his face. If he noticed the difference, he didn't let on.

"Kyabetsu-san?” Reiko was surprised to run into the man again, though perhaps she shouldn’t be. She tended to meet most of the villagers with fair frequency, considering all the time she spent in the town. Of course, it only took a second more for her to realize how she’d addressed him, upon which her eyes widened slightly, and she dropped into a bow. "Oh, please excuse this one. This one… does not know your name, and addressed you without thinking.” It was rather rude of him to continue to call him after a vegetable. Perhaps beautiful women like Sayuri could get away with such things, but she knew she couldn’t—and she did feel rather bad that she’d forgotten to ask his name the first time they met. Though it was a little odd to her that he used her first name. Perhaps he was a more casual person than most?

"Ah, forgive this one for saying so, but this one believes that Inoue-san’s shop may be closed already. It is winter, and past twilight. But… perhaps if we hurry, we may catch him before he goes home?” If he truly wanted her help in a matter like that, well… she thought it odd, but she wouldn’t say no.

"Kyabetsu-san?" he mimicked the words she had spoken earlier, and blinked his eyes in slight confusion. A light chuckle escaped him in light remembrance as he shook his head. "It is no reason to apologize." he stated, watching her as she bowed. The smile returned, fully, to his face as he digested her sentences. He pursed his lips lightly, thinking it over for a minute before he continued.

"While Kyabetsu-san is not my actual name, I do not mind you addressing me as such," he added, a light chuckle hiding behind his tone. He surmised, however, by the way she spoke, that she would not continue to do so. Instead, he opted to give her his name. "But if you must call me something other than that, Aram is what you may use. And you misunderstand, Reiko-san," he started, stopping momentarily to shift in his spot.

"I was returning from meditation and simply on my way home. Your company, however, would be appreciated through the rest of the walk home. Perhaps I can assist you on your endeavor as well, Reiko-san?" he questioned, his head tilting slightly to the left.

Something about this man reminded her, just a little bit, of a crane. One of those delicate and graceful birds that seemed to be only half of this world, and half of something much more mysterious and magical. It was probably silly of her to think so, however, considering that she knew a great deal of what most people would consider otherworldly beings, and to her knowledge, there was nothing like that even in the expanded sense of the world. She smiled shyly, looking back down at the ground in front of her, still a bit embarrassed, but honestly… there was something else, too. Something that wasn’t shame, but still unsettled her somewhat. She couldn’t quite put a name to it, yet.

Of course, when he gave her his actual name, her eyes found his again, widened slightly with her surprise. "Aram-san?” It tickled her memory, something recent, but also something much older, she was almost sure. As if she’d first heard it years ago. Her hands, clasped together in front of her, tightened a little, a strange little flush of nervousness trickling down her back. "Then… you must be Ayla-san’s brother. This one is so sorry; this one had no idea!” A faint glaze of pink came over her cheeks—it was always embarrassing to make such an awkward impression on the family of someone you knew and liked so well She hoped he didn’t think too little of her for her previous faux pas.

"T-this one has no particular errands today. This one, um…” she tried to find the words that would properly explain her presence. "Just wanted to be outside for a while,” she finished lamely, and yet, it was essentially the truth. The castle felt like it suffocated sometimes, despite the best intentions of others, and she needed time outside of it, else she might well lose her sense of what was really important.

Aram could not help the small shake of his head at Reiko. She was timid, perhaps, or just used to being formal with others. Either way, Aram merely waited patiently for her response, and when it was given, he nodded. "Ayla is my sister, yes. I hope she has not spoken ill of me,"" he jested, knowing well that Ayla would not have done so. Perhaps spoken with the intent to embarrass him, but not to tarnish him.

"You could not have known who I was, Reiko-san. Do not fret over it. I didn't introduce myself properly, the first time we met. You should know, though, Ayla has not forgiven me for keeping you that day," he stated, adding the last statement in as a means to divert the apology. "But if you do not mind, would it be imposing if I joined you?"" he asked. "I would understand if you do not wish my company, but it seems that you are in no hurry to return, and as chance would have it, neither am I," he concluded, waiting for her reply.

Reiko contemplated that for a moment. On the one hand, it wasn’t exactly good manners for a woman to be seen about alone with a man not of her family. On the other… that was only if they were seen, and the offer itself seemed to contain nothing untoward. It wasn’t like someone like him would make her that kind of overture anyway. Content in her line of reasoning, she nodded slightly. "If you would find something worth having in this one’s company, this one would be happy to walk with you.” She hadn’t been headed anywhere in particular, and so she struck off in the direction of his home, which would ordinarily carry them through the main part of town. She chose instead, however, to take a longer, but less public route around the village.

Snow still fell around them, for the most part swallowing all sound. Their breaths puffed out in front of them, forming little temporary clouds that rose towards the sky. "Forgive this one for asking, but… is Aram-san like Ayla-san? That is… do you…” she pursed her lips, trying to find a delicate way to phrase it. Ayla wouldn’t have cared, she knew, but honestly Reiko knew little about the man beside her, probably even less than he knew about her. "Do you change? When the moon is full?”

Aram pursed his lips, momentarily, before allowing the smile to return to his lips. He would have commented upon her statement, however; he chose to remain silent, and enjoy their walk. Silent as it was, he allowed it to remain so, taking in the small things around them. He was brought from his thoughts when Reiko spoke, and registered what she had spoken. His lips pursed into a fine line, and his brows furrowed. Ayla had shifted in front of Reiko? She hadn't told him anything of the sort, and he hadn't seen it. He let loose a sigh, allowing it to be drawn out, and folded his arms into the fabric of his shirt.

"Ayla is... she is a creature of her own. I haven't met many like her, however; you may put your mind at ease in knowing that I am not like her. I do not shift when the moon is full," he answered, trying to put the words into a way that wouldn't let on that Ayla was the only one of her kind. "To be honest, she and I are not blood siblings, however; we have been together for many years. She was raised with me, and as such, I consider her my sister. Family is more than blood, as I'm sure you know," he stated with a knowing smile.

"What of you, Reiko-san? Ayla speaks of you very fondly, and she mentioned you had siblings as well," he asked, turning his head slightly so that he was gazing at her through the corners of his eyes.

"Oh, this one did not mean to imply anything,” Reiko pointed out. "This one would not be uneasy if you were the same. Ayla didn’t hurt this one, after all. This one was only curious.” She nodded softly, though, indicating that she understood the point he was making. It sounded, from how he said it, like there were at least a couple of other people like Ayla was, which would make sense, she supposed. Though her father had been the first of their kind, he had had many children, and turned others, too. Perhaps that was also what had happened in Ayla’s case.

She was a little embarrassed, in a pleasant sort of way, to hear that her Ayla spoke of her highly, and she hummed a small note in the back of her throat when he asked her about her family. There was something about the way he asked, gentle and serene, but somehow pointed, like he was really interested in the answer, and wasn’t asking only for the sake of something to talk about. She wasn’t sure what to think of it, exactly. Still, she had no reason to lie, not about this. "This one has many brothers,” she said, her tone taking on a kind of quiet fondness. "They are all very different, from this one and each other, but they are all this one has.” She glanced at him from the corner of her eye, only to discover that he was studying her, and she quickly looked back to the path in front of her, feeling that little twinge of nervousness again. Talking to strangers didn’t usually make her uneasy. Was it simply because she wanted to make a good impression on her friend’s family?

"This one has an adopted sister, too. But this one’s parents are gone now.” She smiled slightly, tipping her head back to seek out some of the stars again, but they were all obscured by clouds now. Snowflakes clung to her eyelashes, creeping under the brim of her hat due to the angle. "This one was just remembering, actually. Tou-chan would sometimes leave town, and come back into it on this road.”

He hummed a soft note in the back of his throat when Reiko spoke, listening to the words she spoke and seemed to dissect each one. She loved her family, dearly it seemed, and it was apparent in the tone she used for them. It was affectionate and warm, something he remembered vaguely from him. Though he'd never been the sort, it was pleasant to know how it had changed him into the person he was. Dismissing the thought from his mind, he chose to glance up the same time she did, and peered at the stars. He did not have the cover of the conical hat that Reiko did, and most of his hair was covered in white specks. He rummaged a hand through his hair, and shook the flakes free.

"In the end, all one truly has is family," he commented, though it was hard to interpret what he meant by that. It was vague, and perhaps a little more of an open thought to himself than it was a statement. Unlike her, Aram never knew his Father. Their creator had been a blank entity in their lives, void of any appearance save the voice he heard once. He only knew his siblings, and that they had been created for a sole purpose. What their purpose was now, however; was still a bit of a mystery to him. He had seen things, but they had been a blur to him.

"Ah, forgive me, Reiko-san. It seems I have lost myself in thought," he stated, shaking himself loose of the thoughts. "Is that so? Your tou-chan must have played a big part in your life. You speak of him with reverence. I suppose your family is lucky to have one such as you, then. I can see why Ayla has taken such a shine to you,"" he stated, a small hint of appreciation laced behind the final words.

Reiko coughed slightly, trying and failing not to color at the praise. She shook her head though, modest almost by reflex. "This one is nothing so special, Aram-san. This one just loves her family, as this one should.” They fell silent after that, though, allowing the rest of the walk to pass in a surprisingly-comfortable silence, each keeping their own thoughts company, though somehow, their paces never fell out of sync. It felt curiously like she’d done it all before.

At length, they reached the home he shared with Ayla, and Reiko bowed again. "It was nice to meet you properly, Aram-san. Perhaps… perhaps this one will see you again, when next she comes to visit Ayla-san.”

Aram returned the bow, pausing momentarily as he straightened his posture back out. "Perhaps. I venture out more than I should," he spoke, though he said nothing further. He cast a glance towards the home he shared with his sister and contemplated whether or not to alert Ayla that he was back, and with Reiko, however; he thought better of it. She would either know Reiko was outside just by scent, or she'd figure it out some other way. For now, he was content to be with Reiko outside for the moment.

"Until we meet again, Reiko-san," and with that, he disappeared into the home, choosing to keep his thoughts to himself for the time.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


0.00 INK

#, as written by Aethyia
"I really don’t see why you insist that I must come with you.” Tatsuya’s tone was gruff, but contained the faintest hint of petulance, and he frowned down at his younger sister, who looked back up at him and smiled knowingly. He didn’t especially like going into town with all the humans, but she was insistent on dragging them all there from time to time, arguing to no one’s satisfaction that it would help them rule more effectively if they knew their subjects personally. And yet, she’d managed to convince all of them to accompany her at one time or another. Kentaro went most regularly, though Tatsuya suspected this was more out of a desire to make sure she stayed out of trouble than any desire to associate with the townspeople.

He supposed he might as well do the same. At the very least, knowing who Reiko knew was likely to alert him to any potential problems that she would be far too naïve to predict. He was not oblivious to the various ways that people might attempt to take advantage of his sister’s kindness, her generosity, or even—he nearly snarled at the thought—her person. He just didn’t trust humans to keep themselves in check, base creatures that they tended to be, and he didn’t trust Reiko to be stringent enough in her own defense, or the allotment of her grace and goodwill. She’d love anyone who gave her the time of day, for no other reason than the potential she saw in them, to be better than they were.

If he’d considered it much further, he would have suspected that this was also how she could bring herself to love him, and would have considered the idea that he might not be so different from a human—after all, when had he ever bothered to restrain his desires and whims? It was not a train of thought that he followed, in part because he could sense those conclusions lurking there, and turned from them.

He knew his flaws well. Tatsuya was possessive of his sister, overprotective, both to the point that he was abound to misinterpret friendliness and good intentions in others for something more sinister. Or, at least the possibility. Everyone who accepted her generosity was a potential extortionist. Everyone who smiled at her a certain way or admired the fall of her hair or the fairness of her face had something dark in mind, or might. It made him bristle, and he exuded, quite purposefully, a foreboding presence that made it known, without ever needing a word or even a look, that she was his, and he would not hesitate to act accordingly. It was for the best—after all, what could any of them possibly understand of her? They saw only a tiny fraction of what she really was. They saw a ray of light, when he knew she was the sun itself. They didn’t deserve her.

"Suya, you’re scaring people.” Her tone contained a note of reproach, and that was all it took. For all his dark thoughts, for all his very real hostile intent, that phrase curbed him, brought short his fulminating darkness, cowed him into compliance. He hated to think that he was making her unhappy. The aura eased off, enough at least that it was no longer enough to cause fear, just unease. He substituted glares at anyone who got close enough in the crowd, even women whose attentions he normally would have welcomed. Even he had priorities, after all.

He loitered behind her while she bargained at various stalls for the ingredients the cooks would need for dinner tonight, to feed the servants. The Fujiwara household employed humans, and saw to all their needs, though strictly speaking, this was servant’s work. But Reiko was insistent that the cook was too old to be making the daily journey into town in weather this cold, and so she did it instead.

For once, Ayla had managed to forget about the seething anger that had clouded her the past few weeks. Each day, she recalled, was one spent fuming over the incident that happened long ago in the market. Grudges were held in voluminous quantities, and she did not know the reason as to why she held this grudge. Perhaps because he had dug beneath her skin in a way that irritated her most? She wasn't sure, but she was glad to be rid of the thoughts and the tension. She had the intentions of celebrating it by cooking something for Aram. He'd been leaving more as of late and was hardly home. Perhaps he finally found someone? The thought alone caused a snort to escape her, causing a passing vendor to stare at her momentarily before continuing on their way.

"The day he finds someone is the day I'm no longer needed," she muttered to herself. There was some truth in the words she had spoken. Aram wasn't exactly weak that he couldn't take care of himself, however; he was oblivious to certain qualities that made them human. Perhaps the Father wanted them to retain some humanity, however; Aram was a hapless fool. He may have been protective of her, but there was without a reasonable doubt that she was the one who was protective. "Then maybe..." she began, lifting her gaze towards the sky as she did so. Her eyes glazed over slightly as memories played over, fondly. A familiar scent, however, snapped her from her stupor, and she turned towards the source, a bright smile covering her face.

She followed it until she spotted the one responsible and immediately headed straight for her. "Rei-Rei-chan!" she stated, making herself known to Reiko as she took the young girl in an embrace. She rubbed her face affectionately against Reiko's cheek, and released her, only for her blood to spike in temperature when she noticed who Reiko was with. She was going to have to have a talk with fate because at the moment, she wanted to rip her pretty little throat out. She opted to glare at the man standing by Reiko before turning her attention back to the brunette.

"I've missed you," she stated, never relinquishing her hold on Reiko. She would ignore the Fucking Asshole, for now.

Tatsuya, on the other hand, merely sniffed, curling his lip as though her very scent was offensive to him, and watched through narrowed eyes as the uncouth woman had the audacity to embrace his sister. Clearly she had no sense of proper respect or boundaries. Reiko herself might not like to lord it over others, but she was in fact nobility, and as such, she deserved to be treated with more consideration than two harlots might show each other. His face smoothed over into icy disdain and seemed to freeze there, the air around them dropping in temperature a further few degrees. Tatsuya was suited to the winter, really.

Reiko shot him a look from the corner of her eye, equal parts confusion and subtle remonstrance. He doubted the bitch gave her as much credit, but he knew she’d picked up on the latent hostility the woman was projecting at him, just as she had certainly picked up on his rather highhanded response to it. Gently, her arms wrapped around Ayla’s waist for a moment, though she politely drew back thereafter.

"This one has missed you too, Ayla-san.” Though why anyone would miss that creature was something Tatsuya could not begin to comprehend. As soon as she stepped back far enough, he reached out and placed a hand atop her head, regarding the hag with the same cold, imperious stare that had so infuriated her the first time.

"Oh! This one believes you have met, but just in case… this is this one’s older brother, Minamoto Tatsuya.” Reiko didn’t react overmuch to the touch of his hand, nor seem in the least uncomfortable, which perhaps lent some credence to the way he’d been introduced. After all, he’d never told the woman that he was Reiko’s brother—he’d allowed her to come to her own conclusions about what he was, and she had thought him a ronin.

Ayla blinked slowly, processing what Reiko had spoken. Brother? This was her brother? All formality seemed to drop from Ayla as her face pulled into an unreadable expression. There was no possible way this man could be related to her Reiko. He was an asshole, someone she wanted to maul and rip apart, however; she stared at the two of them. "This fucking asshole is your brother?" she finally found her words, refusing to censor herself now. That stare was causing the hairs along her neck to rise as she tried to remain civil. She made a promise to Aram, and she was so close to breaking it.

"You're joking, right?" she continued, still in slight denial. Her hand twitched slightly, watching as his hand rested on Reiko's head. She could feel the tension in her throat, the way it was becoming a little tighter to breathe. She really wanted to do something. And part of that was maul. Instead, she took a deep breath and tried to calm herself. The twitching ceased, temporarily, and she turned towards him. "Then I guess that makes you 'Your Fucking Highness'" she stated, folding her arms into the sleeves of her kimono.

Even as the air seemed to chill slightly, she made no notice of discomfort. She was an animal, something not of their kind, but something else. The cold did not bother her. Instead, her eye twitched visibly at her displeasure of being in his company. "Does he have to be here?" she questioned, trying her best to be a little civil for Reiko as she jabbed a finger in his direction.

Reiko, for her part, didn’t even blink at Ayla’s coarse language. Rather, she took in a deep breath, and sighed it out softly. Tatsuya merely raised an eyebrow, still as coolly unconcerned as he’d been to begin. He did enjoy getting under the skin of other people now and then—okay, often, but he rarely let them do the same in return. This time would be no exception. "Suya, what did you do?”

He frowned slightly, focusing his attention on his sister rather than the fly buzzing about her. He didn’t like that she sounded a little disappointed. "I only carried your message. It is hardly my concern if this friend of yours did not take kindly to it.” His eyes snapped to Ayla at her mode of address, and a serpentine smile slid onto his face. "Your fucking Highness is right, bitch. Take care to grovel properly next time.” He sounded almost bored, as though her very existence was of no consequence to him, and proceeded to ignore the rest of what she said. As though she had more right to be around his family than he did. No, quite the opposite, and he was at least confident that Reiko would not send him away.

The thin thread holding her anger at bay snapped. She tried her best to be civil in front of Reiko, for Aram's sake and the young girl's sake, however; Tatsuya managed to crawl beneath her skin. The anger seeped from her, radiating in a red aura for those who could sense such things, and every hair on her stood on end. Grovel? He expected her to grovel? She bowed to no one. She wasn't his property, she wasn't his subject. She didn't have to do anything of the sort if she desired not to.

"You expect me to grovel... to you. I don't fucking think so. You're still just a fucking asshole, and you'll get no such royalties from me," she spat, her hands falling to her sides and clenching tightly into balled fists. "And I'd like to see you try," she threatened, her voice deepening a notch. She'd like to see him try and get such things from her. All she really wanted to do right now was wipe that stupid smile off of his face. "I promise you I'll do more than just bark, this time," she added, remembering his last statement from before and momentarily forgetting Reiko's presence.

Tatsuya’s raised brow lifted another half-inch or so. "Anytime and anywhere, woman. All you have to do is name it.” He still managed to sound like he was bored senseless by her mere existence, his tone level and flat and even slightly put-upon, but anything else he might have said was stopped by a small hand upon his chest.


Given the loose state of his gi, her palm was directly on his skin, and as it always did, the contact gentled him, relaxed muscles that had tensed, just fractionally, and killed any hint of his temper before it even rose. "Both of you must stop this right now.” Her brows were furrowed, and she focused red eyes on Ayla, the flinty glint to them harder than usual. "You are not children, and you will not act like it here, in front of all these people.” Indeed, their budding confrontation, and Ayla’s very evident temper, seemed to have stopped many a passerby in their tracks, some looking torn between helping the small, delicate-looking girl intervene and fleeing to somewhere safe, where the air would not be so thick and choking as their auras were making it here.

Slowly shaking her head, the girl continued. "Suya, Ayla-san is this one’s precious friend, and if you care for this one as you say you do, you will please respect that. Ayla-san… I know he is not the most polite person, but Tatsuya is this one’s brother, and is very dear to this one. This one asks you to please be patient with him, if you can. This one loves him no less than you love Aram-san, this one thinks.” Her voice was quiet, her entreaty polite, but she was firm. Ayla knew how important her family was to her—the question was whether or not she would respect it.

Whatever Ayla was going to retort back, was immediately silenced by her biting her tongue: literally. A deep growl resonated in the back of her throat, however; it died as soon as it appeared. She knew how important her family was, even if it was only Aram and herself now. She glanced at Reiko, and allowed her gaze to soften. Instead, her posture shifted, allowing her hair to spill over her shoulders as she gave a formal bow to Reiko. "I am sorry, Hino-san," she began, her voice soft and compliant. "Forgive me," she stated, keeping herself in a bowed position. The anger that radiated from her dispersed into light waves before disappearing completely.

Reiko was right. She loved Aram as he was, however; Aram wasn't him. She finally allowed herself to straighten her posture back out as her face fell blank. She glanced at Tatsuya, and back at Reiko and furrowed her brows. She almost scoffed at how similar it seemed to her, staring at a reflection of herself and Aram in the two before her. A brief flicker of disgust, however, passed over her face when she compared herself to him. She wasn't like him, and she wouldn't be.

"I am sure there is no difference in the love you have for him and the one I share for Aram. If he is dear to you, then I will try on your behalf," to be patient with him didn't seem like it would be an easy thing. She hoped, dearly, that this would be the last time she would run into him.

"Please, raise your head. This one does not need to be bowed to.” Tatsuya disagreed, but he kept his mouth shut out of respect for his sister’s wishes. He didn’t struggle much to do what she asked, really—he hadn’t been angry with the werewolf so much as he’d enjoyed provoking her, and for now at least, he was willing to let that go. Reiko’s smile was gentle, and she reached out to touch Ayla gently on the shoulder, smiling softly.

"Okay, well… now that this is over with, this one should probably get back to her shopping. Which fish are the freshest today, Ayla-san?” Tatsuya knew her own nose, or his, were adequate to the purpose of determining that, which meant that Reiko was likely just using it as a way to gently turn the conversation around and keep all three of them in each others’ company. He wasn’t sure why she bothered, but decided he’d probably never understand what she saw in that woman anyway. He had to admit, she’d played them both very well. He couldn’t continue to provoke the woman, nor she react to him with so much temper, without directly coming into conflict with Reiko’s stated wishes, and stated in such a way as to appeal to the parts of them that had personal concern for her. It was quite the maneuver.

He hadn’t known her capable. It would seem his little sister was more grown than he’d estimated. Tatsuya wasn’t sure whether to be proud or disturbed.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


0.00 INK

#, as written by Mihael
Sayuri continued to pace in her spot. Excitement was evident on her face with the light brightening her dark eyes. For the moment, she had managed to drag Reiko out of the estate and back into the village. Rumors were circulating that there was a fortune teller around, and that most of what he had spoken of, came true. She knew it was a bit childish of her, however; if what they were speaking of was true, she had to know. What would her future look like? Was she destined for marriage and children? The thought alone caused butterflies within her stomach, however; as soon as they came, they disappeared. What if her future wasn't there? What if she was destined for a short life?

"I don't know if this is such a good idea now," she muttered to herself, grabbing onto Reiko's arm. It was her idea, after all, to visit. "Rei-chan!" she nearly wined, second-guessing herself. She clung to the older girl and pursed her lips up at her. "You're so cruel to me, Rei-chan. How could you bring me here!?" she continued as she continued to pout. She knew it wasn't Reiko's fault, but her own. She dragged Reiko here, not the other way around. Instead, she continued to wail lightly until something sparked in her stomach. It was a pleasant feeling, and it managed to calm her. Maybe she was over thinking this? Shaking her head, she waited patiently for the person to come out of the tent.

"Are you going to get one too, Rei-chan?" she asked, a hint of something light and playful behind her question. "Because it won't be fair if I'm the only one doing it," even if she was the one who instigated to come here. As much as she wanted to know her own future, she also wanted to know what Reiko's would be. She wouldn't live like her family did, and knew she would eventually die before the rest of them. She just wanted to know if Reiko would be okay. She was slightly worried, however; she quelled the fear long enough for her to wait for Reiko's response.

Reiko smiled slightly at Sayu’s antics; she was probably the only person in the world to whom the vampire girl felt like an older family member. She was so used to being younger than her family—it was nice to feel like she had someone to indulge and look after, even if Sayuri didn’t really need her to. She did, however, huff her frustration slightly when her friend seemed to be having second thoughts, and then shook her head. "This one is not so sure this one would want to know the future, Sayu-chan.” Especially not considering how bleak she’d been feeling recently, some unnamable dread taking root in her heart and pressing down on her chest like lead.

"But if you really want this one to come with you, she will.” Reiko hadn’t heard much more than rumors of the strangely-accurate fortunes that had been read to the townspeople, apparently by some mysterious stranger. It was all a little silly for her taste, but then she wasn’t so close-minded as to believe it was impossible for someone to have some grip on precognition. The things that her family was capable of weren’t supposed to be possible, either. "Where are we supposed to go, anyway?”

"Yes I really want you to come. I wouldn't have dragged you here otherwise," she stated, shaking her head slightly. She released Reiko and allowed one of her hands to fall to her side while the other tapped her chin. She didn't know exactly where the place was located, and only knew that it was somewhere on the outskirts of the market place. It could have been any number of places. She released a nervous chuckle before glancing back at Reiko.

"I don't know, honestly," she confessed, glancing back into the market place. "I heard it was on the outskirts of the market place, but I don't know where exactly. In all my excitement, I forgot to ask," she continued, laughing nervously before turning towards one of the passing villagers. She left Reiko's side for a moment, asking if the villager knew, and to her luck, they did. Once she found out the location, she turned to Reiko with a large grin on her face. Grabbing her arm, Sayuri led Reiko through the streets.

"Oh look! This must be it!" she exclaimed, pointing to a rather plain home. There was a sign outside, the words for fortune barely legible as Sayuri resisted the urge to giggle. The kanji was written so poorly, that she could barely make out any of the other words, however; there was no doubt that this was the place. "Here goes nothing," she stated more to herself, and continued to drag Reiko along. Her hold on the older girl, however, loosened once she was inside.

She blinked a few times, trying to process what she had just seen. The place looked every bit as old as it appeared. Parts of the roof were caved in, and some of the tatami doors were torn. Was the fortune teller really in a place like this? She heard the sound of someone laughing, a woman, and tilted her head to the side to find the source. The woman seemed to give a polite bow before standing, making her way out and paused momentarily in front of Sayuri and Reiko. She greeted them before making her way out fully, and Sayuri stood in her spot trying to process the place, still.

"Oh. I wasn't expecting more company," a familiar voice spoke as Aram appeared. He glanced at Sayuri and Reiko, smiling softly when his gaze landed upon the older girl, and Sayuri kept her gaze on the man. "Can I help with something, Reiko-san, Sayuri-san?" he questioned, his gaze lingering upon the two of them.

Reiko’s lips were pursed slightly as she took in the house. Most of those in the village were in much better condition than this—her family kept the tariffs mostly concentrated on those who could afford them, so that nobody fell into financial trouble unless they gambled themselves into it. She suspected this house had once belonged to such a person, but now it seemed to be the one Ayla and Aram were sharing, and she felt a stab of guilt for not knowing that their circumstances were like this. It wasn’t like it would be terribly difficult for her to do something to help, but she suspected that both of them had too much pride to just accept money from her or something like that. Aram almost had too much pride to barter, and she knew Ayla wouldn’t just accept charity, either.

She almost didn’t hear him speak, so absorbed was she in trying to figure out how she was going to get them to accept her help, at least with the repairs and such. But thankfully, she did, and she moved her eyes from an obvious hole in the floor up to his own, red meeting blue. She smiled, not especially broadly, and tilted her head in Sayuri’s direction. "Sayu-chan heard about a fortuneteller in town, and she wanted to have her fortune read. This one is… company, she supposes.” Shrugging lightly, she removed her shoes before stepping properly into the house, treating it as if it were in perfectly fine condition and not at all run-down. Respect was important, no matter what circumstances someone found themselves in, after all.

"This one did not expect it to be you, Aram-san. Are you busy, or do you have time to see us?”

Sayuri kept the fits of giggles under control as she followed behind Reiko. Aram, however, merely chuckled lowly before motioning them towards the same hall he had just been in. "I always have time for Ayla's friends. Fortune teller? Is that what they are calling me now?" he mused out loudly as Sayuri nodded her head. Once they were in the small of the living area, Aram set aside a new spot for Reiko to make herself comfortable. They didn't have chairs quite yet, so the only comfort he could offer her was a pillowed cushion. "Is there a reason as to why you'd like your fortune read, Sayuri-san?" he questioned, turning his attention to Sayuri. She stumbled over her words for a moment, trying to put them together the way she wanted them to be.

"Well," she began, folding her hands in her lap as she sat, her posture correcting itself before it could falter. "I just thought it would be interesting to know what my life had in store for me. I mean, we only have such a short time and..." she paused, shifting her gaze towards Reiko. She wouldn't live forever, she knew that. She just wanted to know if she'd have a purpose to her family before she left. It wasn't a thought she entertained, but one that she had accepted. Instead, the smile brightened on her face as Aram gave a knowing one in return. He reached over the table, motioning for Sayuri to give him her hands in the process.

She complied, and he allowed the warmth of her hands to cover his own. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and waited for something to spark. They remained like that for a few minutes, the silence filling the home as if it were empty. Sayuri could feel the tension building in her hands as she tried to remain calm. Is this how he did things? It felt a little intimate for her, however; she relaxed when the smile faded from his face, and he opened his eyes. The usual blue of his eyes was replaced, almost entirely, by the faint gold that usually resided within his eyes, however; as quickly as he'd opened them, the color receded back to the usual blue.

"You will find yourself in a position to help where no help can be found. It will not be a choice to make so lightly, however; it will give you and those you love, peace of mind. The union may also bear fruit to something you wish for," he stated, but there was more. Her future, one that seemed so bright and innocent, would not be very pleasant. She would endure, suffer perhaps, but she would preserver till she could no longer. It would eventually kill her. It pained him to know that her future wasn't what she wanted, however; it would bring her peace, for now. Sayuri, however, seemed confused by his words until it finally clicked.

"You mean... I'm... what?" she stated in a confused stupor. She turned to Reiko, pointed a finger at herself, and allowed a light tint of pink to dust her features. "I'm.. going to get married," she finally stated. Aram only nodded to confirm her statement, and she beamed at Reiko. She lunged herself towards the girl, wrapping her arms around her neck and tried her best not to let the excitement overwhelm her. "I'm going to get married, Rei-chan," she repeated. Aram's face, however, faltered slightly as he continued to dwell upon her future.

"What about you, Reiko-san? Would you like to see what the future has in store for you as well?" he questioned, trying to tune out what he had seen previously. Perhaps Reiko wouldn't share a similar fate, however; he wasn't so sure he wanted to know, now.

Reiko hadn’t missed the telltale shift in Aram’s facial expression. There was something more to what he’d seen, and it troubled him. Her eyes narrowed slightly, though not from anger, more like thoughtfulness. She knew she didn’t want to ask with Sayu right there, of course; it might be something to bring up later. She still wasn’t sure she believed he could see the future, but if he could and she didn’t ask him about it, she would feel quite the fool.

When the offer was extended to her, though, she tilted her head to the side, still hugging Sayu. Before the other girl could pull away, she made sure to plaster a convincing smile on her face. She knew she was good at this, misleading with the expressions her face could make, even if she tried not to do it. Still, she didn’t want to bother her sister-friend over something that could be nothing, not when Sayuri herself clearly believed what she was told. "Oh, um…” She hesitated when the offer was extended to her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know her future, if indeed he could see it. To her, the future was something one made, with one’s own two hands and the people around them. Certainly, there were constraints—some things were just not possible. But even the improbable could be made real with work and a little luck.

"This one… she supposes it could not hurt.” Giving Sayu a chance to right herself, Reiko shuffled over so that she occupied the spot her friend always had, and extended a hand, palm upwards, fingers curled gently inwards. She caught a glimpse of her own calluses and winced a little. They weren’t awful, of course, but… she lacked soft, feminine hands, from all the time she’d spent practicing with a sword. Sayu’s hands were much prettier than hers, in all honesty.

Aram took her hand into his, clasping his free hand over hers and his, and did as before. He closed his eyes and waited for a spark. Time seemed to stand still for Aram. He continued to wait, however; minutes seemed to pass and Aram found himself stunned. For as long as he had lived, he could always see someone's future. There were no blanks, no empty space, however; he couldn't see hers. Tentatively, he released Reiko's hand, and opened his eyes, peering into the girl's own ruby colored orbs. He studied her for a moment, furrowed his brows, and tilted his head to the left.

"I apologize, Reiko-san," he stated, realizing he'd been staring far longer than what was deemed proper. It dumbfounded him, though. Why couldn't he see her future? Moments ago, he had dreaded knowing her future, but now, he was curious. "I can't see your future. I... don't understand it," he continued, causing the confused look to pass onto Sayuri's. She pursed her lips together as she turned to her friend. Aram merely shook his head and pulled his hands into his lap.

"It seems I am drawing a blank," he confessed. "Perhaps... there are some things I cannot see, after all," he continued, trying to make light of the situation. Still, it bothered him. He would have to investigate upon it at a later time. For now, he had guests to attend to.

Reiko blinked several times, a light dusting of color rising to the surface of her cheekbones as she found herself the object of a rather intent scrutiny. She wasn’t sure he realized he was doing it, and indeed, he soon came to himself and apologized. She wasn’t sure why he couldn’t read her future, but if anything it actually gave her more confidence that he could do something of the kind in other cases. Or at least, something happened. If he just made up his predictions, there would have been no reason why he couldn’t make one up in her case, too.

"Oh,” she murmured softly, looking down at her hand with traces of confusion. "Well, in that case don’t worry about it. Sometimes, odd things happen to this one at the most unexpected times. Perhaps you’re just tired from the other fortunes you read today.” She smiled, as comfortingly as she could, and her hands moved to her waist, deftly untying her purse and counting out three ryo. Normally, she expected such a service would go for no more than a few mon, but… she’d just pretend she didn’t know that, and hope he managed to keep enough of it to do something about the hole in the roof. They were lucky it hadn’t snowed in a few weeks, but Hokkaido’s winters were long—they may yet see more before it was over.

"Thank you for your time, Aram-san. We should not keep you from your work longer than necessary.” She bowed slightly in her sitting position.

Aram glanced at the three ryo she had offered, and blinked. He couldn't take this, it was too much. He tried to hand her back the ryo, however; Sayuri glanced at him and pursed her lips. She shook her head and he sighed in defeat. "Perhaps you are right. The day has been long and perhaps the fatigue has settled more than I thought it has," he stated as he returned the bow. Sayuri resisted the urge to giggle at the behavior between the two, and stood.

"Thank you, Kyabetsu-san, for the fortunes. We should have lunch together, one day. You, Rei-chan, Ayla-chan, and myself! It'll be fun," she stated, smiling brightly. Aram allowed a thoughtful gaze to cross his face before he nodded. "Good, then it's settled," she continued before grabbing Reiko's arm. She bid Aram farewell, as he returned it, and they left his abode. Sayuri continued to beam as she allowed his reading to plague her mind.

"I'm going to get married."

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


0.00 INK

#, as written by Aethyia
The end of winter brought with it more news of the south: what had begun as a minor territorial conflict had escalated into a war, between the Akarui domain of Kanto and the neighboring territory to the south, run by a man named Sanada Nobuhiro. Perhaps it was not surprising, then, that as soon as the winter had departed far enough for Hokkaido to be easily traversable again, Akarui Heisuke paid the Fujiwara residence an official visit.

He came in quite the procession, too, a line of several carriages carrying a proper formal detachement from his household—representatives, advisers, servants, and even a few concubines, though these were hidden away in a closed carriage and not visible to the public as the procession came through the main road in Shimamaki. Reiko was in town at the time, walking down the road with Ayla, when the first of the line became visible, and she pursed her lips, concern creeping into her expression quite evidently.

"That’s… Akarui-sama’s crest. We were not supposed to be seeing him again until we sent our contingent in a few weeks.” Something must have happened—and something big, from the looks of it. Reiko had her guess as to what it might be, but she dare not voice it aloud just yet. Turning to her friend, she smiled apologetically. "Forgive this one, Ayla-san. It would appear that she is needed at home.”

To say Ayla was disappointed, would have been an understatement. She visibly frowned when Reiko spoke, and gave the young girl a flat look. "Must you really?" she asked, keeping her gaze focused. The look upon Reiko's face meant that she had to, and Ayla conceded. Taking a deep breath, she placed a gentle hand on Reiko's shoulder. "Can 'this one' at least escort you home?" she asked, mimicking Reiko's speech pattern. She glanced up towards the small army of people that arrived. Her eyes narrowed in a soft manner before taking her gaze away from them.

"But if you'd rather go your own way, I'll just have to follow you to make sure you get there safely," she added, giving Reiko little chance to deny her request. However, Ayla wouldn't be so forceful upon Reiko if she truly did not wish her to escort her home.

Reiko nodded, smiling a little. "You’re welcome, of course, Ayla-san. This one can’t promise it will be very interesting, since everyone will be preoccupied with Akarui-dono’s arrival, but you are always welcome in this one’s home.” With that, the two of them set off for the north of town, taking the seldom-used road up towards the Fujiwara estate.

Though, as one could easily see upon cresting the hill nearest the location, estate was a bit of an understatement. It was nothing less than a castle, and an impressive one at that. Several outbuildings sat just outside the walls—a couple of guard stations, a house for the groundskeeper, and the like, but the majority of the place was blocked off with a wall, beyond which the layered roofs could be seen to rise. The skeletons of trees told of the beauty the place would have in the warmer months, and from somewhere near the center of the place, motes of golden light seemed to float up towards the sky, gently blinking in the light. The castle was traditional in the extreme from the architecture, but there was a sort of elegant, light beauty to it, despite the fact that it was obviously a fortress above all else.

They reached the front gate, where the guards on duty both bowed deeply to Reiko. “Welcome home, Hime-sama.” She gave them a soft smile and waved her hand to allow them to straighten, then turned to Ayla behind her. "Well… this is it. Would you like to come in, or shall this one be seeing you later?”

Ayla merely smiled and accompanied Reiko to her home. The smile that adorned her face, however, fell flat when they approached Reiko's estate. She glanced down at Reiko, and back at the palace. It took a minute for it to fully process before Ayla chuckled lightly. "I'd rather not cause trouble for the Hime-sama. Perhaps I shall see you some other time, Rei-chan," she stated, grinning at her friend. She wasn't in the particular mood to visit such a place, and honestly, buildings like these brought back things she'd rather not remember. And on top of that, she knew a certain asshole might be around. She didn't want to cause trouble for Reiko.

"Ayla-san! Rei-chan!" a voice called out as Ayla turned to spot Sayuri. The younger girl gave a polite bow before standing next to Reiko. "But Ayla-san, you should stay. After Akarui-sama states his business, and Reiko-chan is finished with it, we could show you around," she began, however; Ayla merely shook her head and bid the two farewell. As Ayla left, Sayuri turned towards Reiko, and frowned.

"What do you think Akarui-sama wants? It's... early, isn't it?" she questioned. She was hardly, if ever, part of the socializations her sister attended, and didn't know much about what was going on. Of course, she knew the things that Reiko told her, but Sayuri didn't want to feel left out this time.

Reiko looked a bit disappointed when Ayla said she wasn’t coming any further, but she understood. The castle was a lot to take in, and honestly, it was much better that no one antagonize her brothers right now. This was going to be important—Reiko could sense it. So she bid her friend farewell and turned to Sayuri, smiling thinly. "He’s probably here about the war, Sayu-chan. It has grown much more fierce in the south than it used to be. Akarui-dono may be seeking our help, because we are allies now.” It was a grim thought—Reiko did not like to entertain speculations about what would happen if her family’s soldiers were unleashed on a field of battle. Not all of them were vampires; most in fact were not. But they were an especially fierce and loyal brand of soldier, trained by vampires, and they were quite elite by comparison to the average samurai, if Tsubasa had told her the truth.

"You should come with us to greet him,” she continued, her smile softening a little bit. "A little hospitality will be most welcome, this one is sure. The journey from Kanto is not easy, and this one thinks that perhaps Akarui-dono’s household must be tired.” Most of the lead servants and retainers of House Fujiwara were already assembling, and Jirō was already there, acting as head of household for this matter, which Reiko doubted Tatsuya would have any interest in.

The two of them moved into the lineup next to Kentaro, who along with Takahiro, was also present. "Taro, why is Akarui-dono’s household accompanying him here?” That was the one thing Reiko didn’t understand about this. If it were an alliance visit, he would have perhaps one or two of his top generals with him, and enough servants to keep them comfortable. That would be it—this was many more people than that.

Kentaro pursed his lips faintly, his face otherwise as expressionless as ever. When he answered, his voice was flat. “I suspect he seeks refuge.”

Sayuri remained silent as Reiko spoke, acknowledging that she had heard the older woman speak. The war down south was growing more fierce? She shivered at the thought of the idea of sending aid to Akarui, however; it wasn't her call to make. Instead, she remained silent as she mused the thought over, walking quietly next to Reiko's side as the two made their way through the compound. Once they reached their destination, Sayuri blinked as she stood a little behind Reiko. Refuge? Why would Akarui seek refuge with them?

"You think they seek refuge? Does that mean that the war has turned against his favor?" she questioned her thoughts outloud, glancing up nervously towards Kentaro. He always unnerved her, and made it a little uncomfortable just being near. She shifted in her spot as she kept glancing from him, and towards Akarui and his household.

An odd look crossed Kentaro’s face as he turned his head to glance at Sayuri, as though he were trying to place how he knew her. Reiko resisted the urge to sigh. Her brother didn’t mean anything by it, she knew; Sayu was a relatively new development in his life, given how many centuries it extended. He usually took a while to get used to such adjustments, if they didn’t immediately concern him. Probably he’d forgotten who she was, exactly. He seemed to either recall or decide it didn’t matter though, because he nodded, feathery strands of blond hair falling into his eyes at the motion. He was the only one who shared the beautiful shade with Tatsuya.

“It would be a fair guess.” His tone was still flat and rather inexpressive, but it wasn’t hostile at all. Taro wasn’t one to stand on rank or ceremony, and so Sayuri’s informal mode of address didn’t bother him, really. “His lands have not recovered form his grandfather’s poor management. He has far fewer troops than his foe.” Reiko pursed her lips, nodding her understanding.

It was at this point that the procession finally made its way inside the gates, and from the most ornate of the carriages stepped Heisuke himself, followed by two of his generals. Only two? Reiko wondered if the others had fallen on the field of battle. She recalled him having seven, previously.

Jirō stepped forward, and Heisuke approached him first, bowing somewhat, his long brown topknot falling over his shoulder with the motion. He straightened up, bringing green eyes to rest briefly on the other members of the family, flicking from Kentaro and Takahiro to Sayuri and Reiko. He turned them back to Jirō, though.

“Minamoto-dono. I have come to request asylum for my household and my family. Our castle has been seized by southern forces, who employed the use of dishonest tactics to overthrow my rightful seat as protector of the Kanto region and its people.”

Jirō nodded slightly. “In recognition of our alliance and the treaty between our domains, the house of Fujiwara grants you asylum, and with you your household and retainers.”

Sayuri sighed softly once Kentaro spoke. She glanced away from him and towards Heisuke and his Generals, watching them with mild interest as he approached and Jirō stepped forward. When he spoke, and Jirō granted him sanctuary, she frowned slightly. "Akarui-sama will be staying with us, it seems," she stated more to herself. Something akin to a shiver rolled down her spine. She wasn't entirely sure what to make of it, really, and felt more like a static shock. She expelled any thought from her mind and turned to Reiko and Kentaro.

"I shall help see to Akarui-sama's accommodations, then," she stated, glancing at the both of them. Servants were usually the ones who did such things, however; as Reiko stated before, a little hospitality would be nice. She knew that the other brothers would not see to things, and Reiko would likely be busy handling other affair. It would be the least she could do.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


0.00 INK

One month.

The household had been filled with humans for a month. And not the humans he was accustomed to either, the servants and that girl his father had adopted for whatever reason. No, these were foreign humans, and he found, not much to his surprise, that he didn’t like them being present. In fact, he hated it so much that he was actually spending a great deal more time around the town and in the surrounding areas, because the townspeople who knew him respected him and were tolerable, and those that were not left him well enough alone.

Not like the humans in the complex.

He supposed that it might have been, at least a little bit, his own fault. Tatsuya was used to living in a certain way, and making certain… lifestyle choices that humans sometimes did not approve of, and he’d not bothered to consider the negative consequences this sort of thing could have when he had to occupy the same area as them for an extended period of time. His father had enacted a strict “no fraternizing” policy with the servants, one that all of his sons kept to even after his death: the Fujiwara estate was staffed by people who were well-paid, discreet, and never involved with the family, outside the occasional casual friendship, and even those were strikingly rare. This was better for everyone; it prevented a lot of awkwardness and unanswerable questions.

The same rule, for Tatsuya at least, had never applied to guests of the estate, and being of the avowed opinion that any woman was allowed to choose what she wanted to do for herself without the input of her father or brothers or whatever, had taken the opportunity to invite several of that Akarui’s female relatives, retainers, and servants of various kinds to his bed. Most had accepted, and if that were simply the end of it, as he’d explained it would be, there would have been no problem.

Unfortunately, someone had run their mouth, and now he was being accused by an insistent general of the visiting household of being a rakish philanderer, which he was, but the issue was that this particular human believed that he should compensate for his behavior by marrying the girl in question, something about preserving honor or some such horror as that. She didn’t get to have an opinion of her own, of course, and so while he was relatively sure she was not especially interested in coercing him in such a way, her father saw opportunity, and was attempting to exploit it.

Honestly, Tatsuya would have told him where he could shove his honor, guest or not, but the disappointed look in his sister’s eyes had stopped him. It had also enraged him, and he’d left before he’d done something worse. Who was some insolent human to tell him what was right and wrong? Who was he to make Reiko so ashamed of her brother? What right did he have to say any of those things in front of his sister? He hated that it had happened and he hated how that look in her eyes made him feel, and he’d decided it was better to get away from it than anything else.

It was really just one in an irritating series of incidents that had been regularly driving him from his own home of late, something he found ridiculous. Honestly, he’d sooner have sent the humans packing, stupid alliance be damned. Heisuke was an entitled little upstart prick, and frankly, Tatsuya didn’t care if his house had an alliance with puny human lords or not. What was the worst they could do? Send their armies to Hokkaido to lay siege to his castle? Not likely; that would be sending lambs to slaughter.

So it was in a foul mood that he stomped into town grumbling invectives under his breath. He needed some kind of distraction, and his best option right now was probably the okiya.

"Now where did he go," Ayla muttered beneath her breath, releasing a frustrated sigh as she glanced back and forth. Normally, she could find him with a quick sniff of the air, and follow his scent, however; Aram had a tendency to just disappear sometimes, and it irked her to no end. It didn't help that the part of town she was in, was filled with overwhelming scents, and some even burned her nose. They were supposed to be getting a few things from the vendors, and she told Aram to stick with her, so that they could have some left over money to put aside, but apparently he had different ideas. Instead, she continued venturing around the area, stopping every so often to glance at a vendor's item.

There was one that caught her attention, but as she made to question the pricing on it, a familiar scent hit her like a stone wall, and her eyes widened a fraction. She tried to calm the beast in her as she lifted her head in the general area it was coming from. Strange, how she could smell him, and not her brother, however; those thoughts were immediately banished when Aram's scent came from the same area. Something or someone somewhere must really have it out for her, and she rubbed her temples in a frustrated motion. Maybe she would be lucky and Aram would be no where near the Minamoto male, and she could avoid him like the plague that he was. Or he could be somewhere near the man, instead.

"Only one way to find out," she muttered to herself, taking off in a slow walk. Aram, however, was no where near the man, but instead, currently stalled by a small group of people asking him questions. He was, after all, a doctor in the village, and most of the questions were related. It didn't take Ayla long to find the Minamoto heir, and her lips pulled back into a slight recoil of disdain. But she managed to smooth it into a fine line and walked so that she was next to him. It was apparent he wasn't going to stop any time soon, and swallowing her pride, Ayla popped the question.

"Have you seen a bird man walking around with a stupid grin on his face?" she asked, giving the only description she could of her brother.

Tatsuya, still extremely agitated, was parting his lips to tell her to fuck off when two things hit him at once. First, that Reiko would be even more disappointed in him if she found out he’d been cruel to her friend, again. Secondly, the question she’d just asked him was absolutely bizarre, so much so that it almost defied any attempt to make a snarling reply. Instead, he furrowed his brows, turning to look down at her with obvious perplexity on his features. She was walking beside him, forced to hasten where he strode casually due to the height difference.

“What?” the question was inflected flatly, almost as though he were still actually processing it. When it did finally catch up with him, he frowned skeptically. “You’re asking me… if I’ve seen a man with feathers?” He shook his head slightly, muttering under his breath.

“I really need a drink.”

Ayla's expression flattened, and she glanced up at him. It was partially her fault, the description she gave him was rather vague. She'd been told by Aram that people used to call him the Crane Doctor because he reminded them of such, and she found it silly. "A man who reminds people of a bird," she corrected, "but he has been known to put feathers in his band," she continued, arching a brow when he mentioned he needed a drink. It took her a second to realize he needed an actual drink, and not what she assumed it to be. Reiko had, after all, told her what they were a while ago. She shrugged her shoulders, rolling them slightly, before folding her hands into the sleeves of her kimono.

"If that's what you need, I won't keep you from it, however," she stated, facing forward so he would miss a spark of mischief crossing her features. She had promised Reiko she wouldn't cause trouble for her family, but that didn't mean she couldn't prod the bull either. "I think I'll tag along for the moment. A drink sounds interesting, and I wonder how much you could drink before you fell under," she continued, lowering her speech towards the end like a whisper.

Well, worse things had happened in his life than a pretty woman inviting herself along for a drink with him, he supposed. Even if he found her insufferable, he was willing to bet a little alcohol would blunt the edges of his irritation. That was why he was after the stuff in the first place. “Suit yourself,” he replied, shrugging nonchalantly. “But I’m not carrying you home after you pass out.” She spoke like she’d stay conscious to see him fall under, but he very much doubted it.

A few more cross-streets put them in front of the Red Lotus, the only okiya in town, one that doubled as a higher-class bar with professional entertainment. The girls there weren’t lacking in talent, either, which meant that there was always nice music to add to the ambiance, something he appreciated more than his attitude might suggest.

He opened the door and gestured Ayla through first. His own presence went immediately noticed behind, with an older woman who appeared to be the owner of the establishment immediately breaking out into a brilliant smile. “Tatsu-chan! It’s been such a long time.” She flowed over to them more than she walked, laying her palms on either side of his face and raising herself to the tips of her toes. He, surprisingly enough, leaned down obligingly, and she kissed him on the cheek before moving her hands to his shoulders. “You know, I keep waiting for you to change, and you never do.”

Her eyes moved past him to his companion, and the smile remained. “And a welcome to your lovely companion. Would the two of you be wanting a private room?” She arched both brows, tilting her head to the side. The occasional streak of silver in her inky hair caught the light, glittering like one of her ornaments.

“Just the table on the engawa, Setsuka-san,” he replied, “And some of your hot sake.” She nodded sagely and gestured to one of the other girls, who immediately bowed before them and led them onto the covered porch, where a low table and several cushions waited. Though the early spring air was still chill, the view looked out towards the ocean, which, considering that the sun was just beginning to set, was truly spectacular.

Tatsuya settled into one of them, and it wasn’t long before the girl was back, this time with several jugs of heated sake, which she set on the table with a skeptical look at himself and Ayla. To be fair, this much would be enough to put four humans out for a long time, but he doubted it would do the same to the two of them. Reaching into one side of his haori, he withdrew an elegant, carved pipe and some tobacco, packing the bowl with the plant and striking a match against the side of the table before lighting it and shaking the match out. “So why’re you looking for a bird-man anyway?”

"I heard they make good stew," was her curt reply, though she was only half-joking. He huffed, the sound actually amused, a small smile playing over his lips. She reached for one of the empty cups before pouring herself some of the drink, staring at it for a second before downing it. The smell of his smoke, however, was enough to cause her to crinkle her nose a bit, the only sign of some discomfort. She shook it from herself though, and continued with her explanation. "This particular bird-man that I am searching for happens to be my brother. It seems he has been lost... again."

He seemed to do that a lot, or so she thought. "He's not particularly good with navigating the place yet. And he is conned very easily," she stated, her face pulling into a flat expression. If she had the choice, he wouldn't be the one buying things. Ever. She could understand his need to help people, but they weren't in the best position at the moment to help, at least not in that way. Their home was still under the weather so to speak. The roof was still partially collapsed, the door that was supposed to be their front was hanging by a thread on a hinge, and their futons were not the most comfortable of things to sleep on.

"And I worry about him," she spoke, the slightest hint of emotion leaking into her voice, and softening her features. He was all she had left, and she'd be damned if she let anything happen to him. She knew he could take care of himself well-enough, but still, it did not stop her from worrying. Shaking the thoughts from her mind, she decided to focus on something other than that. "I didn't take you for the type, but then again you're a fucking asshole, so it's not a surprise," she stated, gesturing to their current place. She held no malice for him at the moment, but it was what she resigned herself to calling him. He'd get no formalities or politeness from her.

He was saved from the need to comment on her family situation by the return of an old mode of address, and he snorts, smoke billowing from his nose in a way that was strangely reminiscent of the way dragons were depicted. He seemed to suit his name quite well in that moment, as it turned out. “The type? To come to a place like this? It wasn’t obvious?” He exhaled again, fragrant smoke wafting into the air. “Though… I expect you’re thinking something different about my reasons than I am.”

He opened one of the jugs of sake, taking out the stopper with a pop sound, holding his pipe in his teeth while he poured two bowls, pushing one deftly over to where Ayla was sitting. It came to a stop at the edge of the table, steaming slightly from its heat. “I am, after all, an educated fucking asshole.” He’d never felt the need to pay for the more erotic services offered here, but he was a welcome patron nevertheless, as perhaps most aptly demonstrated by Setsuka’s reaction to his presence. Still, he wasn’t the kind of person who felt the need to explain himself, especially not to strangers.

"Never said you weren't, and I'm not one to judge on appearance." she chided, taking the cup and holding it instead of drinking. She of all people should know better than that. "You are, after all, Rei-Rei's brother," she would expect nothing less of her family. "But I've been wrong before," she spoke, finally downing the cup. She remained quiet for a moment longer, grabbing another cup of sake and leaving it to warm her face a bit. For once, it felt nice, to just sit where she was and allow the surrounding area out of her senses. It felt familiar, in a sense, and she felt a bit at ease.

She hadn't counted how many drinks she had after that, but it was clear the drinks were finally starting to take hold of her. "Has anyone ever told you that you look like the sun?" she stated out of the blue, referring to the coloration of his hair.

There was a moment when, much to his own embarrassment, Tatsuya nearly choked on the mouthful of sake he was swallowing. He recovered quickly, though, and stared across the table at her, trying to decide what to make of that statement. In the end, he decided it was meant innocently, the sort of innocence brought on by the first stages of amicable drunkenness. With a blink of surprise, he realized that they were already through three of the jugs, and the fourth had only about half the contents left. He was starting to feel the blur at the edge of his senses, but not to any great extent.

“Funny how appearances can deceive, isn’t it?” he muttered into his cup. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like snow?” For a moment, he contemplated his own words—the more obvious comparison was the moon, of course, and he could have even hinted that he knew what she was by that reference. So why compare her to the snow? He pursed his lips momentarily, then shook his head. He must be really out of it, or maybe it was just the warmth of the sake. Glancing outside, he noted the moon herself rising, a thin sliver of crescent tonight, and its light glinted off the drifts of snow and ice that were still left from winter.

On impulse, he reached out with a hand, making a casual flicking gesture. The nearest snowdrift reacted instantly, hurling its powdery flakes back up into the air, where they caught the light and glimmered as they fell slowly down towards the earth. Chilly, lovely, present. Hm.

Maybe it was the more apt comparison, after all.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


0.00 INK

#, as written by Aethyia
"Snow?" she repeated the statement like a question, but one that was more thoughtful than anything. She'd been called a lot of things in her life, but never snow. She huffed a bit, taking another drink before filling her cup again. She was already starting to feel the sake in her system, if the slight haze in her eyes was anything to go by. "I guess there's a first time for everything, then," she continued drinking her cup, but choosing not to refill it immediately. 

"But the sun fits you well, I suppose. Bright, intense, annoying," she stated, the slight tilt of her lips the beginning of a smirk. From there, she finished off her drink, and several others after that. When she passed out, however, it wasn't immediate at first. She was leaning slightly in her chair, her eyes heavily lidded, and the faintest of smiles playing upon her face. It was an odd sight, especially when it was given so freely. Then, the slight slump in her shoulders gave way before her eyes closed completely, but not before mouthing a few words.

"Don't you dare leave me here."

Tatsuya sighed heavily, setting his own drink down and moving smoothly to her side, so as to catch her before she fell totally over and smacked her head on the side of the table. If her durability was anything like his, he should probably be more worried about the table if that were to happen, but in any case, he didn’t want his sister complaining to him that her friend had a cut on her temple or a black eye, regardless of how well it would heal. 

He frowned down at her unconscious form, and sighed again, this one with a note of irritation. “Didn’t I tell you I wasn’t going to take your drunk ass home?” But of course she was somewhat beyond answering him by that point, breathing rather peacefully in her sleep, and he sighed a third time before realizing the fact and frowning more deeply. He wasn’t anyone’s concerned friend, but he supposed he ought to get her home, and let that bird-man brother of hers play nursemaid to her inebriated self. 

Maneuvering so that she was resting comfortably against his side, Tatsuya removed a pouch from between his layers of kimono, counting out enough money for the sake and a generous tip, then put it back and shifted, lifting Ayla into his hold by her back and the crooks of her knees, supporting her head against his chest. What a pain. He supposed it was fortunate she smelled nice, like moonflowers with a hint of plum from the sake, and he unexpectedly found himself salivating slightly in the back of his mouth. Probably Reiko wouldn’t approve if he fed from her friend, either, would she?

He pushed the temptation to the back of his mind and stood, carrying Ayla out of the okiya like she weighed nothing. He ran into Setsuka on the way out, but she let him off with only a look and a parting shot about how to treat a lady, bit his bit down on the rejoinder that this was definitely no lady. There was no point insulting her if she wasn’t even awake to hear it, since he’d get no reaction. 

The trip back through town was mostly quiet; few people were still out this late at night, and those that were let him pass without bothering him, as was usual, though he could almost hear them thinking. No doubt tomorrow the fact that the golden-haired samurai from up at the castle (since no one publicly talked about the lord, even if they knew it was him) had been seen in a rather intimate position with the newcomer, the one with moonsilver tresses that were actually currently proving to be a bit of a pain for how distracting they were. The color was, he had to admit, rather fetching, and the texture they had against his arm was inviting him to touch further. It maybe wasn’t quite as smooth and silky as Reiko’s but something about it invited touch all the same. 

Well, he’d be indirectly getting back at her for all this with the embarrassment she might suffer for being seen with him, since she made it clear she didn’t like him. The best part was, he didn’t really have a choice but to go this way, because he didn’t know where she lived and so had to locate her home by tracking her scent back to it, and she’d come this way. So he couldn’t be any more discreet than he was being, and was thus conveniently blameless. 

Several minutes later, he stopped at the building on the outskirts of town that had to be her home, blinking at it in disbelief. He had some difficulty reconciling the notion of her living here. It was a shack, to put it as politely as possible, and honestly hovel was the better word. It looked from here like pieces of the ceiling were caving in, and he could tell from gaps in the wooden slats composing the wall that it was hardly any protection from the elements. It struck him that Reiko must know she lived here, and he found himself surprised that she hadn’t already done something ridiculous like insist the two of them come to live at the castle or something. 

Wondering if maybe he wasn’t mistaken about this being Ayla’s house after all, he moved to the front door and knocked, shifting her slightly in his grip so as to avoid her slipping out of it. She was remarkably more cooperative when sleeping, he decided.

It wasn't so much as the knock, that woke Aram, but more-so the door falling off of its last thread that did the trick. Startled somewhat, he rubbed his eyes and stood from his futon, making his way slowly towards the front door. "Ayla? Did you break the door again?" he called out softly, opening his eyes to see that it was someone else, with Ayla in their arms. He blinked, as if trying to focus his eye sight, and tilted his head to the side. It took a long moment before a heavy sigh escaped his lips, and he pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Please tell me you did not find her in a tree," he spoke. The last time he had to go looking for his sister, she'd been up in one of the trees, dangling dangerously from one of the branches. He knew the fall wouldn't kill her, or hurt her for that matter, but if someone had seen her, there would be questions. Those were questions he'd rather avoid, though. "I apologize if she has inconvenienced you in any way," he spoke, taking a step forward to retrieve Ayla, however; the moment he reached for her, she seemed to recoil, and gripped tightly to the front of Tatsuya's kimono.

"No, the sun's warm," were the only murmured words she gave, and Aram pursed his lips into a fine line. He glanced at Tatsuya, his head tilting again, to the side, and studied the man. He had vaguely similar qualities, but none that Aram could immediately point to, and instead, he merely sighed and stepped to the side.

"I apologize in advance, but it seems she will not let go. Could you, perhaps, just bring her inside? I'm sure she'll let go once she realizes she's in familiar territory," he stated, glancing at his sister who seemed to be content where she was. He wondered, briefly, why that was. This man before him seemed familiar to her, in some sense, and a brief thought of asshole flickered across his mind. Was this the same person she'd been so angry about a few months prior? He almost chuckled if that were the case. He wondered, for a moment, how she would react to have this kind of information told to her. Poorly, he supposed.

Tatsuya had spent most of the short exchange looking at the front door, now on the floor of the hovel, with what could best be described as disbelief. Ayla’s hands clutching at the front of his kimono drew his eyes to her, though, and he scoffed at her muttered words, lifting his red gaze to her brother. He blinked, and an expression of surprise flashed over his features before he chuckled, a rumble of sound more than anything, muted to suit the time of day. 

“I guess she wasn’t wrong,” he said, shaking his head. There was something about the other man that was vaguely birdlike. He could see why someone might find it appropriate to compare him to, for instance, a crane, but Tatsuya was more perceptive than most, and what he saw was a hunting falcon cleverly disguised as a crane.

He stepped easily over the threshold, avoiding the door with a sort of easy grace that meant he failed to even jostle Ayla. He bit down on his tongue to stifle whatever comment he might have made about the house itself—though that didn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about it. He’d definitely be bringing it up with Reiko, because he knew there was no way she would tolerate such a thing, even if he, personally, didn’t care. She’d be glad he told her, and that was reason enough to do it. 

Finding the threadbare futon that clearly belonged to Ayla, he crouched to put her in it, then changed his mind and re-covered it, so that the top layer served as additional cushion rather than a blanket. It was a bit of a struggle to get her to relinquish her sleepy grip, but Tatsuya had a lot of experience escaping from clinging people without harming them, and he put it to work, until she was laying on the futon, on her side since it was a very bad idea for someone that drunk to lay on their back. 

Standing, he loosened his outer obi, sliding out of the top layer of his kimono, though the lower one remained, tied much less ornately. The heavy silk, white save where it was embroidered at the bottom, sleeves, and shoulders with gold, he draped carefully over her, seeing as how it was bound to be a good deal warmer than anything else in the area. Also considerably more expensive, but it wasn't like he'd ever given a shit about that before, and he wasn't planning to start now. Slinging his outer obi over his shoulder, he turned back to Aram. “She’ll probably have a wicked hangover in the morning. I’m not sure if you’ve got anything for that, but you might want to have it around. I can’t imagine she’s pleasant in that condition.”

A look of confusion crossed Aram's face when Tatsuya first spoke, and he pursed his lips further together, causing his eyes to narrow in the slightest of manner. She wasn't wrong, about what? He pondered a second longer on the thought before moving out of the other man's way so that he could set Ayla to her bed. He watched in mild amusement as Tatsuya rearranged her futon, and his brow arched the faintest clue of his amusement when the man gave her his outer kimono and covered her with it. He had to keep himself from the slight chuckle when he saw her roll further into the kimono, trying to make herself as small as possible. He heard the faint words of asshole muttered beneath her breath, and shook his head. He would never understand what made his sister tick, however; his thoughts were pulled elsewhere when Tatsuya spoke.

"There are a few teas and herbs we have that will provide her with some relief. I cannot say for sure if she's unpleasant with a hangover. She is my sister, whatever the ailments she may bring," he replied. She could be a little loud in some places that disturbed him at times, but he could never recall a moment his sister had been unpleasant. Unless he counted the times she shifted when she wasn't supposed to, but any other time he couldn't say.

"If you'd like, I can prepare you some before you leave so that you'll have them as well. You don't have to, but I'm sure she'd feel better knowing that you had something to ease yours, as well," he stated, though he couldn't say for she really would. If this was, indeed the same man whom she had called an asshole those months ago, she would probably be upset with him later. But at the moment, she was asleep, and they were not, and he could do as he pleased for the moment.

"Ah, forgive the forwardness, but I am Aram," he stated, realizing he hadn't introduced himself quite yet. He gave the other male a more formal bow before straightening himself out, showing more respect for Tatsuya than Ayla had.

Tatsuya scoffed slightly, waving off the offer of assistance. “I won’t get a hangover,” he assured with a wave of his hand, inclining his head in response to the other man’s bow. “Minamoto Tatsuya, but I won’t linger.” It wasn’t like he had any reason to remain, so he chose not to, heading for the doorway and frowning when he once again stepped over the door. 

On his way out, he picked up the whole thing, fitting it back over the frame as well as he could, so as to at least block out what of the cold could be held at bay by the wood.

Minamoto Tatsuya. The name seemed very familiar to Aram, and he tried to place where he'd heard it from. It seemed so long ago since he heard a name like that, however; he chose not to linger on the thought longer than it already had. He frowned slightly when Tatsuya fixed the door and shook his head.

"We should really get that fixed," among other things.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: [NPC] Bartender Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino


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The next morning, as luck would have it, saw Reiko up earlier than usual, though in fairness, her days weren’t always days, considering the schedule her family tended to prefer. But today, she wanted to time something just right, so she had chosen now as most likely to work, and dressed herself accordingly, in rough linen practice garments that served as her best approximation of work clothes. She’d lent Sauyri more of the same, and Kentaro had his own, of course, as well as quite a lot of materials, most of which he was carrying over one shoulder, but she’d arranged for the rest to be delivered on time as well.

They were about ready to depart when one of the inner doors slid open, and Tatsuya stepped out, eyeing them suspiciously for a moment. “This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with a certain hovel standing outside the village, now would it? Perhaps one that contains a she-wolf and a bird-man?”

It took Reiko a heartbeat to decide that he was talking about Ayla and Aram, and she nodded slightly. “Erm… well… yes. It does. We were going to fix up their house, actually. While they’re both out. Since they probably won’t let us do it if they know.” She smiled thinly, almost looking as though she expected him to reprimand her, and Tatsuya sighed, the sound a bit grumpy but not especially irate. He exchanged a glance with Kentaro, then rolled his eyes.

“Fine. But since I doubt you know the first thing about construction, I’m coming along.” It was almost worth all the trouble he knew this was going to be for the expression on her face—bewildered shock followed swiftly by a warm smile, just for him. Tatsuya had to consciously exert effort not to smile back; it would seem he’d done something right, if she was so pleased with him. With a nod to Sayuri as well, the four of them set off down the path to the outskirts of the village, taking a left rather than a right when the road forked, so as to lead them towards where the siblings lived.

“How do you know they won’t be there, anyway?” He lifted a brow, a bit surprised to see the mischief that glimmered in his little sister’s eyes.

“Ayla always goes in to manage the restaurant by this time, and Aram is usually out on his medical rounds around now. This is the best time to make sure neither of them is actually at home.” He blinked, frowning thoughtfully. It would seem she’d really thought this through. He should have known she couldn’t know about the condition of their house and not do anything about it. It didn’t surprise him, really—he’d gotten used to her customary tenderheartedness, though he still thought it was troublesome when directed outside their family.

Sayuri remained quiet during the exchange between Tatsuya and Reiko, a smile of her own lingering on her face when he decided to tag along. She stayed closer to Reiko, holding onto whatever she could hold, and adjusted her clothing so that it fit better. They were going to be doing manual labor, though exactly how much of that she would be doing, she couldn't say. Kentaro and Tatsuya alone could handle all of it, but she knew Reiko wouldn't allow them to take all the credit. She blinked slowly when Tatsuya questioned Reiko, and chuckled lightly at Reiko's response.

"Kyabetsu-san and Ayla-chan usually don't come back until late at night, so we'll have plenty of time," she added. Of course, the only reason why she knew that was thanks to one of the villagers. She tilted her head from side to side, softly, as she spoke. She was in a good mood, and she doubted that anything could change that. Plus, it helped her feel more at ease around the two Minamoto males. Family they were, but it didn't stop a sense of nervousness around them, especially Kentaro. She shook it from herself, though, and smiled when they happened upon the home they were to repair.

"This... might take awhile yet," she spoke, glancing at the home. It appeared the door came off again, perhaps by a none too gentle closure, and one of the shoji windows appeared to have had some kind of fight with something sharp. Perhaps a sword?. The roof had further collapsed on itself, and the frown that appeared, deepened. "How have they been sleeping?" she stated more to herself than to the other three. The elements had not been too kind this winter, and she could recall a few days of snowfall, but this? She turned towards Reiko, her eyes showcasing her confusion.

“Not that much time,” Reiko replied, allowing the last question to remain unanswered. Instead, she nodded slightly and then raised her fingers to her lips, whistling sharply. When she did, several small groups of humans made their way into the area, clearly professional carpenters, builders, and laborers. “Because we’re building from the bottom up.”

Kentaro’s expression didn’t change, but a flicker of surprise crossed Tatsuya’s face. Reiko’s smile was almost sly as he glanced with obvious puzzlement at the humans. “You’re knocking it down and building something new? How did you manage to convince that tightwad Jirō to give you the funds?”

Her eyes glittered. “This one didn’t have to. All these people have been paid with my money. This one got a cut of the trade deal for indigo, and hasn’t spent any of this one’s monthly allowance in years. So this was not too much at all.” Her smile grew as Tatsuya glanced back, clearly impressed by her forethought. And indeed, she had put a lot of planning into this: many of the parts of the new house had been prebuilt by the carpenters, and once the few belongings in the home had been moved out, the entire thing was razed, the rubble cleared away, and the landscapers started their work, reading from blueprints labeled in neat, meticulous handwriting.

“And I suppose you drew the plans, too?” Tatsuya’s tone had shifted, sounding quite wry now.

Reiko shook her head slightly. “Actually, Kentaro did those. This one designed the gardens, and helped him with the plans, but the architecture and the blueprints are his work.” Kentaro blinked, but that was as much confirmation as he gave of what she said.

Within a couple of hours, the landscapers had properly cleared the area, and the builders went to work on the existing foundations, which they determined to be good enough to rebuild on. That would save them a great deal of time. There were close to thirty human workers here, and the builders got to work as the landscapers moved on to the gardens. Reiko and the others mostly took directions from the people who knew what they were doing, and the unnatural strength of Tatsuya and Kentaro helped things proceed much faster. Everything that could have been built ahead of time clearly was, so after they got the skeleton of the new house up, everything else followed pretty quickly.

It was clear that Reiko and Kentaro had designed the new house to be much more spacious: in addition to a living area and a kitchen, there were three separate bedrooms and a washroom, making the space over three times the size of the old hut. It wasn’t a mansion, but it was a comfortable home, comparable with anything else in the village, which was generally much more prosperous than similar settlements. Reiko had also ordered a lot of furniture, including new futons, kitchen utensils, and blankets, from local artisans.

By the middle of the evening, Reiko was planting herbs in the garden, both medicinal and for food, separated by section. She figured that one part of the plot would help Aram with his medicines and the other would serve Ayla’s restaurant well, so she made sure to label them carefully, with little signs painted by Sayuri. Kentaro was working on the name plaque for the doorway, carving it out of a block of cherry wood, and Tatsuya was still helping spread the tatami mats on the floors and arrange the furniture. Reiko’s face was streaked with dirt, but she was wearing a smile of utter contentment.

Sayuri wasn't nearly as streaked with dirt as the others were, perhaps because she wasn't doing much to begin with. She was, instead, resigned to painting the signs that labeled the plant life for the garden and the smaller things. She had not realized how relaxed she was until she glanced up from the last sign, looking to her side and finding Kentaro not too far away. She blinked as she watched him work, slightly awed by the woodwork even if it was just a name plaque. Her lips pursed together though, when she realized that Ayla had not given a family name, only her given one. Did they even have one? It would be odd if they didn't, but perhaps they chose not to take it?

"Did Reiko say what their family name was?" she asked, the question in a slightly curious tone. She wouldn't deny to the curiosity bubbling beneath her since she could address the two a little more formally if the time came for it. She didn't want to resort to just calling them Ayla and Aram, or in Aram's case, Kyabetsu-san. She snickered slightly at the thought. "I don't recall them ever giving one," she murmured softly as an after thought.

Kentaro glanced down to his side, blinking his red eyes at the speaker. It took him a second to decide what he was going to say, or perhaps merely a second to recognize her, but in any case he replied with a shake of his head. His hair was paler than Tatsuya’s, such a light blonde it was almost platinum. “They do not have one, so she is giving them one.” It didn’t take a genius to guess who she was, and Kentaro turned his hands so that the woodwork was visible. Into the wood were etched two characters, “help,” and “wisteria.” The latter appeared in the Fujiwara clan name. Together, they read ‘Sato’.

He glanced down at the little sign in her hand and the brush in her other, and tilted his head to the side. “Your handwriting is beautiful,” he told her, his tone flat and matter-of-fact.

She blinked, slowly at first, when he'd spoken. They didn't have one, so Reiko gave them one? She stiffled a short laugh. Leave it to her sister to do something like that, however; when she read the name, she couldn't help the small fits of laughter that came after. It seemed like a suitable name, given what was going on and all, and once she calmed herself, the second set of Kentaro's words filtered through her ears. She blinked again, almost in slight disbelief, and a small blush krept across her cheeks. She removed her gaze from him, and fumbled with the words she wanted to say.

"T-t-thank y-you," she stuttered, cursing herself for sounding silly. "S-so are you," she replied, the blush deepening on her face. Your woodwork, I meant," she added, feeling herself becoming slightly dizzy. She'd meant to tell him his woodwork was beautiful, but her words came out sounding a little less like what she'd intended, and could have been mistaken for something else. She hoped he wouldn't take it any bad way. She tried to calm the blush on her face in order to keep herself from passing out. She hated those spells, honestly.

Kentaro looked back down at his own handiwork, unsure what about it was supposed to be beautiful. He supposed it was skilled enough, but he had little regard for his own creations. He was no artist, merely someone who whiled away time on woodwork. Still, he nodded his thanks and returned his attention to what he was doing, which now included staining the plaque with a dark lacquer and then painting the characters themselves in a white one. By the time both had dried, the garden was fully set up and the workers were departing, since all that was left was moving the furniture in and around so as to set everything up.

Reiko, far too embarrassed at the prospect of setting up a man’s room, left her brothers to take care of Aram’s things while she and Sayuri set up Ayla’s. Curiously, among the woman’s personal possessions was a man’s kimono, and it looked quite a bit familiar. She could have sworn Tatsuya had one just like it, and indeed it smelled a bit like him too. Reiko’s brows furrowed. The last she had known of it, the two of them did not like one another, certainly not enough for Tatsuya to give Ayla his kimono.

It was definitely something she’d ask about later, but for the moment, she put the garment away with the rest of Ayla’s clothes, and rolled out the brand-new futon. It was about then that she noticed the slightly-distracted look on Sayuri’s face and the residual pink on her cheeks, and tilted her head to the side curiously. “Sayu? Is everything all right?”

The kimono Sayuri was holding fell, gracelessly, out of her hands as she turned towards Reiko, a slight look of bewilderment on her face. She glanced back and forth before realizing the question was directed at her, and laughed sheepishly. "Me? Ah, yeah, no, I mean," she responded, her words coming out jumbled over the other. She took a deep breath and settled the kimono down before turning towards Reiko.

"It's just, I mean I know he didn't mean anything by it but," she began. She spoke with a little speed to her voice, the embarrassment and nervousness laced behind them, and tried to calm the sudden rise in her heart beat. "Kentaro, and don't take this the wrong way, told me my handwriting was... beautiful," she finally answered, the last of the sentence coming out in a mere, muffled, whisper. She knew Reiko would still hear her, though, and she played with her thumbs.

"And I may have accidentally told him he was too, even though I meant his woodwork," she added, the words still whispered and spoken as if they were all one word.

Reiko looked confused for a moment, then smiled softly. “Is there something wrong with that? Kentaro tends to just say what he thinks. He wouldn’t tell you that if he didn’t think it was true. And, well… this one is sure he understood what you really meant.” She paused a moment, contemplating something, and hesitated just slightly before she finished her thought.

“And… I think you probably made him happy, by saying that. He doesn’t seem like it, but he’s not the kind of person who thinks much of himself, so thank you, for saying that to him. Maybe he’ll believe it if it comes from someone besides me.”

A look of disbelief crossed over Sayuri's face when Reiko spoke, and the blush on her face receded. Her lips pursed into a fine line as she lowered her head in thought. "Then we'll just have to rectify that!" she exclaimed, a look of determination crossing her features. She could still feel the blood pumping through her veins, threatening to resurface in the form of another blush, but she fought it down well enough. "Y-you're welcome, Rei-chan," she finally replied, coming down from her little burst.

"It really was pretty, he should do something like that more often. People would enjoy it," even if he wouldn't exactly be open to the idea. It's not like they were low in funds, either, but she believed that he could make a name for himself as a carpenter of sorts. "I would," she muttered beneath her breath, the blush finally returning to her face as she went back to work on Ayla's clothing and items.

Reiko said nothing further, but the smile never did leave her face.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
The evening sun had descended by the time everyone was finished, the last of the workers making final touches before leaving completely. They had, somehow, managed to convince Tatsuya and Kentaro to stay for a surprise for the two siblings, and Sayuri currently was situated between Reiko in the middle, and Kentaro to her left. She could see one of the siblings, Kyabetsu-san, approaching the home, his eyes half closed and not paying much attention. Sayuri couldn't keep the silly grin off of her face as she watched him make a full stop in front of the new home.

Aram, however, blinked owlishly at his new abode, tilting his head to the side and staring in confusion. He remained in that position for a few minutes, perhaps half an hour, before Ayla came upon him, arching a confused brow before turning towards their house. "The hell?" she muttered, finally snapping Aram out of his slight daze to right his head and stare at his sister, who turned towards him with an equally confused look. "What happened to our shit-hole?" she questioned, earning a shrug of his shoulders.

"I'm not certain, but it appears there is a 'Sato" family living here, now," he stated, his voice calm and still trying to discern if he hadn't taken a wrong turn somewhere. If that were the case, it wouldn't be a coincidence that Ayla was here too. Maybe she took a wrong turn, too? He turned to ask her the question, however; she seemed fixated on the home in front of them. Part of her knew this is where they lived, but another part of her had a hard time believing that this was their home. "Ayla?" he questioned, watching as her lips pursed into a fine line.

"Did someone just move in where we were living? Who the hell do they think they are?!" she stated, rolling up the sleeves of her kimono as she made her way towards the home. Before she could get too far, and before Aram could stop her, the sound of laughter caught her attention, and for a brief moment, Ayla's eyes turned a soft golden. A quick look from Aram, however, was all it took for them to recede back to their natural color. Ayla, however, recognized the sound.

"Sayuri?" she called out, glancing towards the spot the sound came from. Very faintly, the scent of her friends came into view, causing Ayla to frown. "Reiko, Sayuri, care to explain?" she stated, folding her arms against her chest as Aram laid a hand on her shoulder.

Reiko had to admit, this was not what she was planning on. When Aram had arrived home, they’d remained hidden mostly because they were waiting for him to do something, react somehow, but he’d just stood there and stared at the new building. That was when the doubt had seeded in her chest, and it had rapidly sprouted when Ayla arrived, and seemed to be angry more than surprised.

Sayu, who didn’t seem to have caught onto the atmosphere, had laughed then, giving away their position, and her doubts had found full bloom the way Ayla was standing now, restrained slightly by Aram’s hand but stiffened, and something about the situation was familiar to Reiko—like this was what her friend was like just in advance of a change.

She felt both Kentaro and Tatsuya stiffen beside her, and immediately stepped forward, though who she was attempting to protect from whom was unclear. In any case, this was her responsibility, and she intended to own up to the consequences. She held herself as upright as she could. “This is… we built it. For the two of you.” She took a deep breath, her father’s advice echoing in her mind.

Leave nothing to chance. If someone doesn’t understand your intentions, explain them as honestly and clearly as you can. Entire friendships have been destroyed because people were not honest or forthright with each other. If you value your friends, you’ll never let that happen. If you make a mistake, admit it and apologize. That’s your responsibility.

“This one visited your house before, and… this one saw how it was exposed to the elements, how difficult it must have been to live there. This one believes it is unfair for this one’s friends, people who have been so unkind to this one, to live in conditions like that.” She pursed her lips, having not anticipated how difficult this would really be. She’d thought it would be easy to always act like her father said, but looking at them now and not knowing how they were going to react—it was probably the most frightening thing she’d ever done.

“So… this one began to plan. This one hired may people in the village to help, and enlisted this one’s brothers and sister, and today, we built a house for you. This one wants you to be comfortable here, and to live well. This one… this one wants you to be a part of the village, and a part of this one’s life, and to be warm and safe at night.” She swallowed thickly—it was difficult to tell in the dark, but her eyes were glistening, perhaps with unshed tears.

She bowed at the waist, low and deep, the end of her ponytail brushing the ground under their feet. “If this one has presumed too much, this one apologizes. No harm or insult was meant. But if any was taken, this one asks that you place it solely upon this one, and not the others.” She remained bowed, looking firmly at the ground, and wondered if she should not have used a dogeza instead.

Ayla hadn't meant to sound angry, however; she realized how upset Reiko had become, and before she could move, or even say anything, Aram was standing in front of Reiko. He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, moving her gently so that she was no longer bowing, but instead able to see him. He held a warm smile on his face before retracting his hand, and folded them in front of himself, and, instead, repeated the action Reiko had. He bowed. "Thank you, Reiko," he spoke, his head still bowed before righting himself.

"Ayla meant nothing by her words, but we were confused as to the house and who lived here. It is thoughtful of you to consider us in such high regards that you would do this for us. Though you should not have concerned yourself with our well-beings. We would have been fine," he spoke, his voice as gentle as he could make it. Ayla, however, stood off to the side, a frown still etched on her face as she stared at Reiko, ignoring the rest of the group. She glanced at Aram, and then back to Reiko before making up her mind.

She made her way so that she was now in front of Reiko, and stood staring at the young woman. A small smile finally wormed its way upon her face, and she repeated Aram's previous posture, bowing in response before quickly straightening up, grabbing Reiko by her arms and pulling the young woman into an embrace. "I'm sorry Reiko, I didn't mean to upset you," she murmured against Reiko's hair. She finally removed herself, her hands still lingering on Reiko's shoulders. "But could you let us know next time? We thought we'd been kicked out of our home," she stated, the playfullness laced in her voice.

Reiko’s cheeks warmed, and she knew they were a light shade of pink, one she hoped wasn’t visible in the darkness, and she glanced back and forth between the two of them before offering a watery smile, her hands loosely placed over Ayla’s arms which grasped her shoulders. “Of course,” she said softly, then shook her head slightly. “The only reason this one didn’t tell you was because this one was afraid you wouldn’t accept it.”

Behind her, Tatsuya’s eyes narrowed slightly, and he crossed his arms across his chest, his gaze sliding to Aram and remaining there for a pointed moment, but he said nothing. Kentaro, on the other hand, cleared his throat softly. It reminded Reiko of something else, which she was somehow sure was his intention. “Oh! And about ‘Sato’… this one knows you do not have a surname, and this one would like you to accept that one. This one chose it because you have helped this one so much—and if you would like, this one can officially file documents that register you as occupants of this village under that name.” It was impossible to officially be a citizen of Shimamaki without a full name and a proper residence, and now they had both, after all.

"You're not wrong," Ayla muttered beneath her breath. They would have refused her help simply because they (meaning she) would have felt indebted to Reiko. Ayla blinked, this time slowly, when Reiko spoke of having a surname. They hadn't need of one before, but she supposed if it was required, there were worse things than having "Sato" as a surname. Aram, however, narrowed his eyes slightly, as if figuring something out. He glanced towards their name plaque, and studied the characters before turning his gaze towards them. He knew Amon had taken on a name, one that he eventually made for himself, and if he remembered correctly, "Fujiwara" was the name he'd taken as a family name.

"We'd be honored," he finally spoke. He knew Tatsuya was Minamoto, and Ayla had mentioned Hino for Reiko. But what she had said, could it be possible? He chose not to dwell on it, at least not at the moment, and watched as Sayuri wormed her way towards the other two, grabbing Ayla's arm and moving it so that all three of them were in a group hug. His lips twitched slightly at the sight, but shook his head. These two, they could be, but he needed more time to make the connections.

"Sato Ayla and Aram, hm," Ayla spoke, chuckling softly at how ridiculous it might have sounded to most of the others. They did, after all, not possess conventional names. Perhaps they should have to blend in better? "I suppose it'll have a nice ring to it, eventually," she continued.

"Maybe, but Sato Kyabetsu-san sounds better," Sayuri spoke, causing Aram to sputter on his words. He'd forgotten, for a moment, that was what they had named him before. Ayla laughed at his expresssion.

Reiko chuckled, too, but she gently extricated herself from the three-way hug. “Actually, there is one more thing this one wishes to do, if you will allow it.” She noted some confused looks in response, but only smiled, making her way back around to the front of the house. She stood in front of the stairs up to the engawa, roughly aligned with the front door, though of course about ten feet forward from it in total.

Taking a deep breath, she clasped her hands together and bowed her head, looking almost as though she were praying. Slowly, the smell in the air seemed to shift, as though her own blend of natural scents were spreading outwards to perfume the area. It smelled of plums, oranges, and wisteria, mostly, as though the ground beneath their feet were a carpet of petals instead of dirt. The air started to shimmer, and from Reiko burst dozens of tiny spheres of light, like little miniature suns, which spread over the grounds of the house and hung in the air, natural lanterns.

The plants in the garden perked up, their roots taking firm hold in the earth, the residual dirt of construction growing over with green shoots of natural grass, and the atmosphere warmed to a comfortable temperature. The tang in the air faded, until it smelled only extremely fresh and verdant, but the little light spheres remained, drifting slowly around. Reiko opened her eyes and smiled.

“There. Now it’s safe, too,” she murmured, almost to herself, and turned back around to face the others. “Well? Don’t you want to see the inside?”

Ayla almost chuckled darkly at Reiko's muttered statement. They didn't really need it to be safe, but she kept her thoughts to herself and appreciated the sentimentality of it. Aram, on the other hand continued to smile, a little odd even for Ayla. "Of course," he stated, making the first step forward. He stood next to Reiko and glanced behind him as if to say Are you coming? and Ayla scoffed slightly. Somewhere beneath the noise, Jerk could be heard muttered softly before she walked, Sayuri to her side, towards the front door.

"Only if that means you're staying for the night. I'll make something to drink, or eat if you're hungry," Ayla stated. Sayuri almost agreed, however; she would wait to see if Reiko accepted or not. "And I suppose the invitation extends to you, too," she added, narrowing her eyes slightly towards Tatsuya, but said nothing to the other carbon copy. He could stay if he wished, or he could leave. Ayla cared neither of what they decided.

"That's not very nice, Aya," he spoke, causing Ayla to flinch slightly. He only ever called her that during certain occasions, and she heaved a heavy sigh. "You all are the ones who built this place, it is only fair," he continued. And it was their right, technically. Ayla rolled her eyes before taking the first step into the remodled home.

"The hell?" were the only words she managed to say. It really was a different place than what they originally had. Aram just sighed.

Tatsuya snorted from behind her, but the truth of the matter was that he watched Reiko very closely. She seemed enthused by the prospect of a night with her friends, and though he wanted quite earnestly to put a stop to that, he knew it would upset her if he did. He could feel her present happiness through their bond, and though he was still deeply suspicious of the whole thing, he couldn’t quite bring himself to ruin her mood. He exchanged a look with Kentaro, who nodded. He would stay, and Tatsuya would go.

After conveying as much to Reiko and reminding her of the need for a chaperone, he took his leave. All of this was a bit too sentimental for him anyway, and he couldn’t say he cared any more about those two than they did about him. Kentaro was completely immune to anything awkward or even boring, so it wouldn’t bother him a bit to stay, and Tatsuya trusted him to look after their sister.

After Tatsuya’s departure, Reiko and Sayuri led the short tour of the new house, explaining where everything was and where they had put some of the siblings’ belongings, just in case they couldn’t find something later. The group of five ended up back in the main room, which now had a table with enough space for six, so it wasn’t hard to get everyone seated. Reiko demonstrated that the little light spheres could be pushed around with just a touch, and that though they were composed of light, they weren’t hot or anything, and wouldn’t start fires or anything of the kind.

“The only thing that might be bad is that they change color with this one’s condition,” she said, her mouth pulling to the side. “Actually, this one will probably put them out, but maybe you would like one or two to stay? They can be quite convenient.”

"And have the possibility of having something of Rei-Rei's go?" Ayla spoke, shooting a glance towards Aram who merely sipped on a cup of tea. She shot him a small grin, one that caused him to slightly choke on his drink before he muttered an apology. "We will keep them. We could always use something to keep the place lit, that way Ara here won't get himself lost in the dark," she stated, watching with faint amusement as Aram tried to recompose himself. He chose to remain silent, finding it difficult to say anything that Ayla wouldn't twist into something it wasn't.

"It would be nice to know what you are feeling every now and then," he spoke. Since he couldn't see her future, and still couldn't, knowing something so small as her emotions might help him see. Ayla, of course, grinned a little devilish grin, and folded her arms beneath her chin.

"Is that right?" she stated, Aram merely nodding and not taking note of the sly note her voice had produced. "You hear that Rei-Rei? Aram wants to know what you're feeling," she stated, her eyes flickering towards Reiko as Sayuri snorted.

Kentaro blinked as the orb of light nearest him flashed a cloudy grey, followed immediately by a bright magenta, before it faded into something close to its original sunny gold, with a thread of green floating near the center. He knew what all those things meant, but it was unlikely the others did. Tatsuya would not be pleased, had he seen it, and the younger Minamoto brother thought to himself that it was rather fortunate that the older was no longer present.

Reiko kept her face impressively neutral for all the blinking her orbs were doing, though she could not avoid looking slightly unsure of what to say, at least until she seemed to realize something. “Well, this one supposes this one would think it strange, too, if there were only one future this one could not see.” She chose to interpret it as a kind of curiosity rather than… whatever Ayla seemed to be trying to imply. She smiled reassuringly at Aram, as though to inform him that she wasn’t getting the wrong idea about anything, his sister’s efforts included.

Aram gave Reiko a thankful smile, however; Ayla merely laughed at the two. It was adorable, if she had to find something as such, and she raised a curious brow at Reiko's statement. So Aram couldn't see her future? It was, she'd admit, a little odd, but she didn't seem to linger on it any further. He would eventually. He always did. Instead, she chose to move on to Sayuri, who seemed quite content that the focus was on Reiko at the moment. She blinked as she locked gazes with Ayla, and subconciously rubbed at her face. Was there something on it?

"I take it that yours hasn't come true yet," she stated, watching as a slow blush crept up on Sayuri's face. "Oh? Has it?" Ayla continued, causing Sayuri's face to deepen in color. She stuttered her first few words, trying to organize them correctly in her head so she could properly respond to Ayla's statement.

"No, Ayla-san, it hasn't," she finally managed to mutter, causing Ayla to sigh. This was no fun if she couldn't get more of a reaction out of the two of them, and so she resigned to standing. "But... I think it would be nice if it happened soon," she stated, a soft smile lingering in her eyes rather than her lips. Aram took this moment to raise an eyebrow. Did she really want that future to come so soon? Granted, she didn't know all that was in store for her, and he could only feel a little bad about not being completely honest with her.

Ayla could see Aram's inner turmoil, and chose to speak before he could say anything he wouldn't otherwise. "Well, if you're hungry, now's the time to place an order. I've got three extra mouths, though I'm not sure blondie over there will eat anything. Do you want something to eat?" she stated, directing the comment to Kentaro and the others. If they weren't hungry, then she could always put on some tea, or let Aram do that. He made the best tea.

Kentaro shrugged. “I will eat whatever the others do.” He wasn’t the sort of person who usually bothered with human food, and had little preference for one kind over another. Reiko grinned and put in her usual from the restaurant, hoping Ayla would enjoy the new kitchen facilities. She’d been working all day, after all, and while she couldn’t really get hungry in the same way humans did, filling her stomach seemed to dull her thirst a little, and so she preferred to do that whenever possible.

“So Aram-sama, what is the silliest fortune you’ve ever read?”

Aram mused the question over. He couldn't seem to recall a silly fortune he'd ever had. Most of them always ended the same; with the person dead. Or in some cases, they seemed to have lived a fulfilled life. Those were truly rare, and also his most precious ones. To be able to see a future where it worked out rather than poorly, he longed for something like that. He would never tell anyone that, of course, but instead, shrugged slightly.

"To be honest, they're never silly. Each fortune I've read always came true. Sometimes they weren't exactly what was desired, but it came true nonetheless. One tried to change her outcome, but...," he paused, pursing his lips as he recalled the one incident. "It did not go so well," was the only response he gave. "Sometimes, though, they do change. It is very rare that they do," he continued, his eyes lingering a bit on Sayuri. Hers had not changed, not in the slightest.

Reiko mulled that over for a bit, her expression becoming thoughtful. “Fate is such a strange thing," she murmured quietly. “This one's father used to talk about it sometimes, too. But he believed that anything could change, if you tried hard enough. This one is sure that sounds naïve to you, but... some of the things this one saw him do, I guess this one believes that, too." She shook her head as if to rid herself of the thought, and then smiled a little too brightly, as if to make up for the fact that her spheres were now a soft blue.

“But anyway, let's talk about happier things, since this is the occasion for them, no?"

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Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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He wasn't going to ever get used to seeing their home like it was. In all honesty, he'd actually liked their quaint home, flaws and all. But Aram had always liked the small things like that. It held a sense of consistency to it, something he knew could change in just the blink of an eye. Though it had, he supposed it was also a lot nicer sleeping in a dryer area too. He sighed contently, taking a sip of his tea as he did so. He didn't know where Ayla was, currently, and that slightly concerned him. She was never up to any good when she disappeared like that, and he glanced out one of the windows. The sun was still high, so it was probably mid afternoon.

"I suppose I should go find her before she causes trouble," he spoke to himself, standing from his spot to set his tea and dishware away. Once he was finished, he paused momentarily, an image flittering across his mind. A frown settled onto his face. It was too fast to make out any details, but there was a strange feeling lingering behind. He pushed it to the back of his mind. It was something to meditate on later, but for now, he had other priorities. Once he was satisfied the door was closed properly, and wouldn't fall off its handles, he left. He was still getting used to that.

"Alright, where are you Ayla," he spoke to no one in particular as he journeyed into the village. It was quieter than usual, but the people in the streets seemed happy and content. Surely she wasn't here. It wouldn't be this quiet and calm if she were. Something did, however, catch his attention, and he made his way back towards it. A shopkeeper had just set out a fresh batch of dumplings, and he eyed them somewhat intently. He wasn't quite hungry yet, but they did look delicious.

“Oh, Takahiro, look. They have dumplings—you should try some!” Though the crowd was big enough that the street was fairly loud, it wasn’t too hard to pick out Reiko’s voice. Not because it was loud, but because the tone was markedly different from the norm.

The woman herself, in a russet-orange gi and brown hakama, had her arm looped through one belonging to a man with white-silver hair, dressed in shades of blue. The milky color of his eyes, as well as the way he walked so closely to her, implied that he was blind. He wore a patient smile, dipping his head at her enthusiasm.

“All right, all right. I’ll try.” They approached the stand, at which point Reiko must have noticed him.

“Aram-san! It’s good to see you.” She beamed at him, waving her free hand. “Were you going to try the dumplings, too?”

Aram smiled in her direction, dipping his head in a proper greeting. "Actually, I was contemplating whether or not I was going to," he confessed. He stood so that he was standing up straight, properly, and glanced at the two before him. "But if the two of you are so inclined, so shall I. They do look delicious, and it's been a while since I last had dumplings. Ayla has been making the same thing for three days straight ever since she discovered her kitchen," he spoke, a slight humorous tone to him. His eyes were bright and he smiled at the two of them.

"Ah, but where are my manners," he continued, turning so that he was facing the man linked to Reiko. "I am Aram, and you must be related to Reiko, if I may be so bold as to presume," he greeted. He caught the name Takahiro, but he didn't need to see in order to see the slight resemblance they had to each other. They may be of different coloration, but there was some subtle hints in their facial structure.

“Ah, yes,” the man said, turning in Aram’s general direction. Reiko let go of his arm and slipped past the both of them to speak to the dumpling vendor. “Takahiro Hino.” He bowed slightly, remaining in his spot. “I’ve heard much about you, Aram-san. Or perhaps I should say Saitō-san?” He smiled mildly.

Aram was confused for a second before it settled in that they had adopted the surname, Saitō. He'd forgotten that, and he'd also somewhat forgotten that it was, perhaps, improper to call someone by their given name. He'd have to remedy that. Clearing his throat, he shook his head to himself. "Ah, yes, that is correct. Forgive me, I had forgotten Hino-san was gracious enough to bequeath us that name," he spoke, his voice full of sincerity. He'd never be anything other, after all.

"I hope everything you've heard has been pleasant enough," he questioned, a sort of lightness in his voice.

Takahiro’s mouth turned up in a close-lipped smile. “It has all been extremely complimentary, I assure you. Reiko is very fond of you and your sister—she is always telling me about this or that thing one of you said or did.” He smoothed down one of the sleeves of his haori, a deep, ocean-colored blue hue. For one with no sight, he seemed to have a real sense of color coordination. Or maybe someone else did on his behalf.

“I doubt Tatsuya would ever say it, so perhaps I should: you do have our gratitude, for that.” His eyes moved slightly beyond Aram’s shoulder, to about where Reiko was. “It is difficult to explain what she means to us in words, for it is not the same kind of thing as human siblings feel. But I think it will suffice for me to point out that her happiness is important to all of us. Perhaps moreso than our own.”

He was a little taken back by that statement. He didn't realize that she was speaking of them and of what they said. It allowed a small smile to cross his face at the thought, and he turned to stare in the general area where Reiko was. She was a bright thing, wasn't she? He smiled and turned his attention back towards Takahiro. "Hino-san is too kind," he spoke, and thought for a minute. "I suppose she just has a sort of air about her. She does the same thing for Ayla, though I doubt she realizes it," he continued.

"But, we are here for dumplings, are we not? Let's see how good they are," he said, offering his arm in place of Reiko's. She was, after all checking out the dumplings herself.

Takahiro dipped his chin, resting a hand amiably on Aram’s forearm. His calluses caught the material slightly—it would seem that even he was accustomed either to manual labor or swordplay of some kind, though he wore no visible weapons now. His stride was confident despite his inability to see; he stopped easily just beside Reiko and withdrew his arm.

She had clearly just finished her negotiations, for she turned towards them with several skewers of dango. She held Takahiro’s out end-first; he grasped it easily and brought it back towards him. With the other hand, she extended one towards Aram. “Since you’re not very good at bargaining, this one did that for you,” she said, a faint glitter of amusement in her bright red eyes.

"Forgive my inadequacy," Aram stated, bowing slightly in apology. The smile on his face, however, belied his actual apology. "But thank you for helping," he spoke, taking the dango from her in the process. He stared at it for a moment before taking a hesitant bite. He blinked for a moment, lost in the flavor. He didn't know dumplings could taste this good. Maybe he'll get Ayla to make some when she returns, or if he ever finds her. It'd be nice to have something other than okonomiyaki or donburi.

"This is really good," he spoke, and he could hear the way it sounded. He was genuinely surprised. "What brings you here, Reiko-san? I doubt you were out for dumplings," he decided to ask, trying to shift his attention from the dango. It was a little distracting.

Her smile dimmed a little at that, and she sighed. “This one’s brothers are in negotiation with Akarui-dono. This one wanted to join, but Akarui-dono’s advisors were not very happy with the idea of me being there.” Her expression fell the rest of the way, but she seemed to make some effort to perk herself up. “Takahiro offered to go with this one down to the village for a while, so that I wouldn’t have to sit and think about what was going on in the meeting.”

Gradually, they moved away from the stand, to permit the small queue behind them to move. “But how about you, Aram-san? Is there some business we’re keeping you from?” She seemed halfway to an apology already.

He hummed when she spoke, taking another bite of his dango. Akarui-dono, he was the one that Sayuri would be promised to, if he remembered correctly. He did not allow his face to falter, and instead, pushed the thought to the back of his mind. It would not end well, but there wasn't anything he could do about it. Instead, he pulled a smile to his face when she asked her question.

"I assure you, I have no intentions of doing any more bartering. I am leaving that all to Ayla, now," he spoke, chuckling softly. "But no, Reiko-san, I do not have any business to attend to, currently. I am seeking Ayla. She disappeared and hasn't come back yet. I am... worried," though that wasn't exactly it. He wasn't worried about her. He was worried that she might be doing something stupid. Like aggravating the Minamoto male, or some other person she shouldn't be.

An expression of understanding suddenly dawned over Reiko. “I think… I know where she is,” she replied, sighing softly. “Suya left the negotiations a while ago. He looked… unhappy, and he said he was going to the bar. I think… she might be with him, actually.” She reached up, rubbing at a spot at the juncture of her neck and shoulder just covered by her gi.

When her hand came away, he could see what looked like a mark in ink for just a moment, before fabric covered it again.

“That would explain quite a lot,” Takahiro agreed, quite sanguine.

"Oh," was the only thing that he could say. He pursed his lips together, though, in a slight frown. What was she doing with him? She was going to get herself in trouble one of these days, he just knew it. Well, perhaps if she settled down, she'd be able to stay out of trouble. His frown deepened at the thought. She wouldn't, and he knew why. Now was not the time for such thoughts, though. He was in the presence of Reiko and her sibling.

"Well I suppose that does explain a lot," he finally admitted, but said nothing further. He blinked, though, suddenly remembering what he'd originally wanted to say. "Ah, Reiko-san. I've been meaning to thank you," he stated suddenly, glancing down at her in the process. He had thanked her the day of the construction of their home, but it had felt somewhat inadequate. Like he could have done more, but couldn't. It was an odd feeling, but now that he had the chance, he could say so now.

"The home you've built for us, it is a gracious gift to have bestowed upon us and I would like to thank you, properly," he continued, though had it been anyone else, those words could have come off a little wrong. But Aram was not that kind of person.

She blinked up at him; she really was quite a small person. A confused look crossed her face for a moment, but then she shook her head, sending a ripple through her extremely long black ponytail. “You don’t have to thank me for that, Aram-san. Really, it was selfish of me—I just wanted to make sure my friends were living in a nice place. It doesn’t… It doesn’t really deserve any special thanks.” There was a very slight pink color rising in her cheeks, and she shook her head again.

Takahiro quirked an eyebrow, but said nothing.

Aram chuckled softly at her reaction. An endearing thing, perhaps, but nonetheless, he shook his head. "Selfish or not, I appreciate it. Perhaps one day Ayla and I can make you a proper dinner to make up for it. Besides," he spoke, tilting his head to the side and smiling, "I think it was very considerate of you to do such a thing for us. We have only known you for a few months, and yet you think so kindly of us," he continued.

"You have an endearing and kind sister, Hino-san," he spoke to Takahiro this time.

If anything, Reiko blushed darker, but Takahiro only nodded, half-smiling.

“That I do.”

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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It was odd, being in the same vicinity as he was. It wasn't intentional at all. In fact, he was the last thing on her mind, however; as it was, they were together, again. She'd been at least three bottles in, challenged to a contest by one of the patrons. Hideyoshi, if she remembered his name correctly. Or was it Hidenori? Ah, now she remembered, it was Nobutaka. Apparently he thought he could out drink her, and that he would be entitled to something if he'd won, however; she'd managed to outlast him. He was currently slumped over one of the chairs in the back, sleeping it off. She was smirking, however; it had disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.

She'd spotted him in the back, and contemplated on just leaving it be. He irritated her to no end, and she really hated his face. Something about it always just raised her hackles. Maybe it was because he seemed to always look down at her, or maybe she was reading too much into it. But she had decided (perhaps because she was slightly drunk) to go bother him. Apparently one thing led to another, and they were currently drinking together. She still couldn't understand why she was drinking with him, only that she was.

"Why the long face?" she finally stated, breaking the, oddly, comfortable silence between them.

He cocked an eyebrow at her, lifting his sake dish to his mouth and taking a swallow. Pushing a breath out of his nose when he lowered it, he set the ceramic down on the table with a soft clink. From somewhere to their right, the soft sounds of a shamisen floated towards them. Tatsuya tilted his head as if to listen closely for a moment, but then he spoke. His tone was unusually serious.

“Why haven’t you told her yet?” he asked, frowning. “I’ve been trying to figure it out. Do you just not want her to know? She’d probably only like you more if she knew.”

Ayla cocked a confused brow in his direction. Told who what? She narrowed her eyes slightly at him, trying to focus properly before she responded to his statement. As far as she knew, Reiko knew what she was. She assumed he was talking about her. What else did she have to say and why would it make Reiko like her more? She took a slow drink before placing the cup down, leaning slightly back in her spot to stare at the ceiling. "I have no idea what you are talking about," she finally responded. And she didn't.

"Reiko already knows who I am, what else is there?" she continued, lowering her gaze to settle on him. Where did this even come from? And what was not to get? It wasn't as if she was keeping anything from her. And if she was, it was probably for good measure. "You're not making any sense."

“You can’t be serious.” He spoke the words softly, watching her through narrowed red eyes. There was a faint note of disbelief in his tone, though no aggression; he didn’t seem to think she was being dishonest. “You mean you really haven’t noticed? I thought you knew. You have to know. It's obvious.” He studied her for a few seconds more, pouring himself another drink.

Tatsuya sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and first two fingers. “Why is it suddenly my job to deal with this shit?”

Now she was definitely confused. She had to know what? What was so obvious that she didn't know? Her eyes narrowed slightly, trying to understand what he meant. She wasn't that drunk, she knew that. But he was not making any sense. What did he have to deal with? Taking another drink, perhaps a little too fast, she set the cup down and pushed it away from her.

"Obviously I haven't noticed shit. If I did, don't you think I would have said something?" she spoke. Now she was just confused about the whole thing.

“Depends,” he muttered. Clearly something was bothering him; the way he frowned—not scowled, there was a difference—indicated that. He seemed to be trying to figure something out; maybe how to tell her whatever it was he’d thought she already knew.

Finally, he knocked back another drink and set his glass down with a clink. “The only thing my mother gave me was the color of her hair,” he said, leaning forward and down slightly so that their eyes were on the same level and he was looking directly into hers. “Pretend it’s black for a second.” He raised one hand to his right eye and covered it, hiding it from view and leaving only one to hold both of hers. In the lanternlight, the color darkened to something sanguine.

“Who do I remind you of?”

Ayla narrowed her eyes for a second, trying to imagine him with dark hair. She tilted her head slightly, and as he covered his eye with one hand, something dawned on her. There was something vaguely familiar about the way he looked. Who he looked like, and as she continued to stare it became obvious. This, this man before her was him, or at least part of him. This was Amon's, Ichirō's son. The sudden realization must have hit her harder than she thought it did, because she jolted back suddenly. She'd forgotten over the centuries what he had looked like, since the last time she saw Ichirō was almost eight hundred years ago. She'd only seen Tatsuya when he was a boy, and even then it didn't make an impression on her.

Because it hurt to know that he was his kid.

"Ichirō, you're his kid," she finally found her voice, though it was soft and cracked. She seemed to sober up quickly after that realization. "That's why..." she'd been so hostile with him the first time they met. Now she knew why, because this was his kid. That meant so was Reiko, then. Her eyes widened slightly at that. She hadn't met Reiko when she was born. Or had she? Now she couldn't even remember that.

His hand fell back away from his eye, thudding to the table below them with a heavy sound. “I only ever met you once,” he said. “And I was so young it took me longer than it should have to remember. Reiko never knew you—but she knows the stories the old man told. About the sun-man and the moon-lady, and how he and his friends fought the oni a really long time ago.”

Tatsuya tugged the sake jug towards him with a soft grumble in the back of his throat, topping off her dish before refilling his own as well. “I figured you had to know—no one who knew him ever shuts up about how much I resemble him. I don’t blame you for not remembering some little brat from eight hundred years ago, but I figured you’d remember his face if it stared back at you long enough.” He snorted. “No one ever forgot the old man, even if he only met them once.” He threw back his head and the sake dish with it; his throat worked as he swallowed.

She sighed deeply, taking the drink he'd poured her and drank it slowly. She could feel the way it burned the back of her throat just lightly, but anything at this moment would do to drown the bitterness that she knew was crawling up. "That's because he always had a sort of charm to him. Even if you wanted to, you couldn't forget him," she knew that from experience. She scoffed lightly, though. "Yeah, well you're still a brat even now. Though I guess that still makes you a bratty asshole," she threw out, choosing not to look at him now.

The resemblance, it was uncanny now, and she wasn't entirely sure how she felt about that. Did Aram know? Is that why they came to this village? Her eyes narrowed slightly at the thought. He had to have known, otherwise he wouldn't have brought her here. He knew how she felt about that, and why she wanted to forget in the first place. She'd have to have a talk with him about it, later. For now, she just wanted to drink and maybe temporarily forget again.

Tatsuya made a vaguely-discontented grumbling noise, but it seemed he wasn’t in the mood to riposte. He glanced at her over the rim of his cup. “If you want to leave, I won’t stop you. He never said it, but I always guessed that the way he ditched you guys wasn’t something you all agreed on. It’s none of my business anyway. And I won’t tell Reiko who you really are. But if you’re going to go, do better than he did and at least tell her why. In person. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

"Sorry to disappoint, but I'm not going anywhere," and she didn't want to. Reiko was her friend, whether she was connected to him or not. Some part of her did want to leave, but how much longer could she keep running from this? She sighed heavily, downing the rest of her drink.

"Besides, I'm not done pestering you, yet."

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#, as written by Aethyia
Kentaro lifted the delicate horsehair brush to the wood balanced on his knee, painting softly with the grain of the plaque. It had been stained a deep red color yesterday; all that remained was to add the detailing. Perhaps ordinarily, he would simply have outlined the kanji in black and filled in the carving itself with white, but for this particular hyōsatsu, he was inclined to attempt something slightly more… delicate. The characters themselves were less complex than some others, having a kind of simple elegance to them that invited embellishment. 小百合. Lily.

So he’d painted the carved lines with a shiny black lacquer, which was only partly dry now. Into it, he dropped tiny flecks of white; on impact they spattered outwards just a bit, creating a natural bloom or impact pattern that he shaped into more defined petal-strictures with the finest brush he possessed.

It was slow going, but Kentaro didn’t mind. Everything in his life was slow—that was simply the way of it when you had hundreds of years behind you and most likely hundreds more to come. He could one day fall in battle, perhaps. But it had been a long time since battle was at his doorstep. Even if it returned, he would be prepared for it.

He always was.

He shifted; the bark of the tree behind him rubbed though his clothes just enough to remind him it was there. As Reiko was off the estate and out of range, her motes of light had shifted to a warm gold and remained that way—even in the full sun of midafternoon, they gave the atmosphere a certain something that was hard to find anywhere else. He seldom paid it much introspective attention; it just was.

Carefully, he shaped another long-petaled flower from a drop of lacquer, taking care not to mix it with the black and grey the whole thing as a result. But he wanted it to be smooth; waiting for the layer underneath to dry would give the wrong effect.

"Minamoto-san," a soft voice called out to him. "Minamoto-san, I brought you some tea," the voice made herself known as she stood in front of Kentaro. She was smiling down at him, her eyes glancing from his face to his work. "It's, that's really nice, Minamoto-san," she stated, nodding her head in the direction of his sign.

He paused in his motions, glancing askance at her. Nodding to the spot next to him, he indicated without words that she was welcome to sit. His eyes moved back to what he was doing, though he angled it slightly away from her, so as to make it less clear what the characters actually were.

She turned slightly so that she could take the seat he had nodded towards, holding onto the plate that held the two cups of tea. Once she was settled, she set the plate to the side and grabbed hold of one of the cups, and offered it in his direction. "I didn't know what kind you liked, so I made a simple one. It's just lavender," she spoke, glancing down at her hands. "Is it a special request?" she asked, trying to make small talk, apparently.

He shook his head, though he set the brush down long enough to accept the cup of tea she offered. He didn’t care much for one kind over another—they tended to mostly taste the same for him. He knew other people could tell the difference, but he wasn’t much of a connoisseur. Raising the cup to his mouth in the hand that once held his brush, he took a scalding sip without discomfort, then set the cup down near his knee.

He wasn’t honestly sure why she chose to talk to him—Kentaro had never been what anyone would call an apt conversationalist. On the contrary; he was actively bad at it. Jirō said he had no charisma, which was true. The others all had various names for it. As one would expect, Reiko’s was the kindest—she said he was just stoic, and better at listening than speaking thoughtlessly like everyone else. That was probably too kind, though.

“No,” he replied to the question. Those at least he usually knew what to do with. “No one asks me to do this. Most people don’t know I can.” All his projects, few as they were, were things he decided he wanted to do, for whatever reason.

She only nodded, taking a small sip from her own cup. "You would be good at it, if they did," she offered, glancing up slightly at him. "Like the sign you made for Ayla-san and Aram-san. That.. that was beautiful," she continued, and said nothing further. She seemed nervous to be here, fiddling with the cup in her hand or occasionally glancing to and from his face. It was almost like she couldn't stare at him for more than a few seconds. That, and her face would take on a strange pink hue. It wasn't quite red, but the more she kept glancing at him, the more color it would get.

"Ah, I know," she stated suddenly, the cup in her hand slipping just slightly. She managed to catch it before it fell completely, though, and laughed a little nervously. "Aram-san needs a new sign for his work place. Is there any way I can request a sign from you that says fortune, on it?" she questioned, staring directly at him this time.

Kentaro blinked red eyes at her. She was such a strange girl… but then again, if she weren’t, she probably wouldn’t be talking to him of all people in the first place. And he probably wouldn’t have remembered her name. He was bad at that sort of thing, too. Really the only thing he considered himself particularly good at was fighting—even this was just something he did to quell that instinct in him. Being here, in Reiko’s garden, helped too.

Though even considering the fact that he wasn’t able to focus on his project, he didn’t have too much difficulty suppressing that itch under his skin right now, either. Maybe it was the tea?

He nodded slowly when she made the request. As he had little preference himself as to what he carved, taking a suggestion for something useful didn’t bother him. “I can do that,” he agreed readily, picking his brush back up and dipping it back into the white lacquer. He only had a few flowers left; then the kanji would be fully painted-in. Kentaro didn’t consider himself much of a judge of beauty, but he liked the effect of the little lilies within the lettering. They contrasted with the black and also the dark wood of the rest of the hyōsatsu.

“It will be summer soon,” he noted, surprising himself. It didn’t really register on his face that he had, though. “Those humans will have been here for half a year.” He paused; a question occurred to him.

“Do you prefer their company to ours? We are… not very similar, I think.”

She seemed thoroughly happy that he had accepted her request, however; she tilted her head in slight confusion at his question. "Not very similar?" she repeated, as if the thought hadn't really occured to her. She hummed a soft note in the back of her throat as she furrowed her brows slightly. "I... don't, actually," she answered. She'd been with the family for a little over a decade, or so, perhaps she'd just grown accustomed to them.

"Fujiwara-dono was kind enough to take me in, and I am happy to be part of this family. I... don't see any difference between you or Akarui-sama or his vassals. I mean," she continued, though she tore her gaze away from him to stare at the ground. "Akarui-sama is Akarui-sama, just as you are Kentaro-san. If there were truly any difference between having their company as to yours, I think," she paused momentarily as if to contemplate what she wanted to say next.

"I would still prefer yours."

Maybe that made sense. She had been with his family for quite a long time, by human standards. Still, he was a bit puzzled that she didn’t find them difficult to relate to. Even Kentaro knew that the lives of his family members were lived at a very different pace and in a very different manner than those of humans. Perhaps she was accustomed to it by now.

“I see,” he replied, lacking much else to say. With the final stroke of his brush, he finished the last of the flowers, then brought the entire wooden block halfway between his knees and his face. Inhaling through his nose, he carefully applied his power to his breath to heat and dry it, exhaling onto the lacquer to set it.

When he was satisfied with the result he held it out to her. No doubt she would be able to see that the finished product indeed read Sayuri.

“For outside your room, if you like.”

She blinked, looking a little surprised. Slowly, she reached out to the sign and took it, staring at it with a small smile spreading over her lips. "You really do create beautiful things, Kentaro-san, thank you," she stated, tracing the characters with her forefinger. She seemed genuinely happy with it.

“You are welcome, Sayuri-san.”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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Aram sighed softly, running a hand through his hair to smooth out any loose strands. Once he was satisfied, he inhaled slowly, before releasing it in the same fashion. It had been a rough week for him. Ayla had seemed to neglect her restaurant for a few days, and he'd stepped in to make sure it was running smoothly. He didn't understand what the change in her mood was, but he knew she was bothered by something. He hadn't pressured her into telling him what it was, figuring she would tell him when she was ready. Then, his side business as a fortune-teller seemed to dwindle.

They didn't have much in the way of coin, and it was becoming a little difficult to provide for themselves. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a proper meal. Actually, the last one he'd had was at the restaurant, when one of the cooks was kind enough to make him something. He couldn't cook, he knew that, and he wasn't going to destroy Ayla's business because of his own inadequacy. Instead, today, he was going to search for odd jobs within the town. Surely there had to be something he could do for now?

With that in mind, he pushed himself up from his spot, and walked out the front door. He still wasn't going to be used to that, the fact that he and Ayla had a new home. Reiko had been too kind to do that for them. Shaking his head softly, he wandered out towards the village. Maybe he could hold signs for someone?

Unfortunately it seemed that, as usual, the villagers all had their work taken care of. The vendors minded their stalls, a few calling out greetings as he passed by, but none needed his help. They were more comfortable with Aram and Ayla by this point, though whether that was because of anything they'd done or not was less clear. Perhaps it was simply the passage of time. Perhaps it was because of his sister's business, or his own. Perhaps, however, it had something to do with the fact that they were on good terms with Reiko—and at this point, everyone knew that.

It almost wasn't surprising at all when he ran across her, chatting amiably with the tofu vendor. As usual, she was dressed in what had to be a secondhand gi and hakama, blue and black today. She had a bright grin on her face; it looked like she was helping the vendor wrap blocks of spiced tofu, or something similar. The vendor herself was an elderly woman, slightly taller than Reiko despite the fact that she was bowed over with age.

He blinked slowly before he smiled in her direction. "Good morning, Reiko-san," he spoke once he was in a polite distance. He bowed in the direction of the elderly woman, greeting her properly, before he straightened out his back. "How are you faring?" he decided to ask. He didn't want to keep her too long if she was busy, after all. That, and he was still looking for work. He shouldn't keep her too long from her own present occupation, and he couldn't afford to linger too long. Otherwise, it would get dark, and most of the vendors would be gone for the night.

She must have been quite wrapped up in the conversation, because she seemed surprised to see him, something which probably wouldn't have been the case if she'd been paying proper attention to what she was smelling. Or perhaps the spices in the tofu were pungent enough to mask anything else. Reiko blinked at him for a moment, but then her smile returned.

“Good morning, Aram-san. Off to buy more groceries today?" She tilted her head at him, earning a chuckle from the elderly woman beside her.

“A vendor's favorite customer, he is. Pays full price without an argument. It's a shame he's got such a pitiful face, or we'd all cheat him and laugh about it." She gave a nearly-toothless smile, a fair sign that she was making a jest.

Aram smiled, still. "I would feel horrible if I didn't pay full price. You all work hard for your products, and who am I to purchase any less of what is due?" he replied, bowing just slightly. He knew she was jesting, however; he was being honest. Who was he to take from them what they worked hard for? Perhaps they didn't see it that way, but he did. It wasn't like it was doing too much harm to him. Sure, he might have had a little more coin to spare, but it was worth spending it, he supposed.

"Ah, but no, I am not. I am looking for..." he paused a moment. He wasn't sure if he should tell Reiko what he was truly doing. If he knew her, she would try to help out somehow. He didn't want her to. He respected her generosity, but he didn't want to feel like he was taking advantage of it. She'd done enough when she'd rebuilt his and Ayla's home.

"I was looking for Ayla, and enjoying a walk through the market," he settled on that. It was mostly true, after all.

Immediately, Reiko's face shifted into a frown; her eyebrows pulled together and knitted just above her nose. She sighed softly. “You can't find her either?" she inquired, worry suffusing her tone. “This one has tried to go see her twice this week, and both times, this one has not been able to find her. This one was concerned, but I thought it wasn't anything to be worried about, since I could always, ah... tell that she'd been around recently." She raised a discreet hand to her nose, indicating what she meant by tell.

She set another wrapped bundle of tofu to the side. The old woman took it and added it to the front of the stall setup with the others, tutting slightly and shaking her head.

“I'm sure there's no reason to be worried, dear," she told Reiko. “Everyone knows she's been around with that samurai from up at the castle. The one you know—that looker with the golden hair. She's probably doing the sensible thing and reeling him in. It's not good to be single all your life, you know?" She shook her head, arranging the tofu in neat stacks.

“A lesson both of you could stand to learn, at your age."

Reiko cleared her throat, shifting her eyes away slightly. “This one... really doesn't think that's it, Ando-san."

Aram blinked a little slowly at the woman's statement. He almost forgot that she was younger than him. He smiled softly, anyway, and shook his head. "But Ando-san, not everyone can be as lucky," he spoke, offering her a brighter grin. "I'm afraid I do not know, though. Ayla doesn't just disappear from something unless something is really bothering her," he spoke a little softly. Perhaps too softly for Ando-san to hear, but he was certain Reiko would hear him clearly.

"Ah, but do not let me keep you, Reiko-san, Ando-san. Perhaps I should let you both get back to doing what your doing?" he spoke, shifting his gaze to them. He'd been glancing around, hoping to spot something to do, and perhaps, actually spotting Ayla. He had no luck with either one.

“This one could help you look?" Reiko asked. “I've promised to help Ando-san with the work for the shop, but if she's missing, then..." She hesitated; it was clear she wasn't sure what to do. Ando-san was too far away at the front of the cart to hear them, which was perhaps a small blessing.

Aram tilted his head slightly, and glanced over Reiko's shoulder. He didn't want to impose, and he really didn't want Reiko to know what he was actually doing, however; Aram wasn't exactly the deceptive type. He couldn't lie to her about it, but he could avoid directly saying anything about it. It was the least he could do to keep her from finding out about his job search, and to keep her from any more generous deeds. He appreciated that, he really did, but it also made him slightly uncomfortable. Not in a bad way, but it just felt weird to him that someone else had their interests at heart. The thought made him smile just a bit too brightly.

"You do not need to trouble yourself for Ayla's sake, or mine, Reiko-san," he replied, the smile still on his face. He bowed politely in her direction. "I am certain she will come back when she is ready. Perhaps she is just out doing some mercenary work. It would not be the first time she's done such a thing," he replied. It wouldn't be, actually. Maybe she was aware of their funds and decided to go do some work, elsewhere? That was certainly a possibility. It would be hard to find the mercenary work because of her gender, but she'd prove to them she was capable.

She'd also likely hurt someone just to prove it because they called her a woman. He shook his head at the thought. He worried about her mentality, sometimes. "Besides, I have work myself, to find," he spoke gently. He blinked slowly at the realization of what he'd just said, but didn't show his discomfort of it. Hopefully, she wouldn't take it the wrong way. She could interpret it as him being lost, or just trying to find something to do on this particular walk of his. He certainly hoped so.

Unfortunately, she seemed to understand what he really meant, though her reaction was perhaps not what he'd expected.

“You're looking for work?" She echoed, glancing down at what she was doing for a moment to tie a string around another tofu bundle. “Well, you should have just said so. This one can help with that." She offered him a small smile, then raised the volume of her voice a little.

“Ando-san, is your sister still trying to hire someone to clear the paddies for spring?"

The old woman looked up from her work at that. She looked a little perplexed for a moment, but then dipped her head. “She is, but I told you, dear. She won't hear of you doing it for free, and that's men's work, besides. I know you're a bit sturdier than you look, but she won't believe it, I'm telling you." She shrugged.

“So then if this one knew a man who would want to be paid for doing the work, that would be to her satisfaction, then?" There was a spark of amusement in Reiko's eyes, as though she'd expected that answer and found it almost funny.

Ando-san blinked at them, shifting her dark eyes from Reiko to Aram. “Well... yes. She'll complain about how thin you are, but she'd hire you, I'm sure. It's hard labor, getting all the snow out of the paddies, but if you're willing to do it, she'll pay you fairly." Clearly, she'd guessed whom Reiko was talking about, because she said that directly to Aram himself.

Aram chuckled softly. It was, surprisingly, nice to be thought of as frail. He was more than capable of doing the work. Having fought in a war saw to that, however; he supposed he wasn't the intimidating figure his brother had been. Shaking his head softly, he glanced back towards Ando-san. "I'd be willing to do it, yes," he replied softly. He sighed, though. He hadn't meant to intrude, nor had he meant to get Reiko involved. Even if it wasn't anything bad, it still felt generous to him.

He would need to find something to repay her kindness, with. He couldn't make her anything, because he knew he was a terrible cook, but perhaps he could make something else for her? He wasn't a craftsman, but he could at least try. That, or maybe when he acquired enough funds, he could purchase something for her. Perhaps he could have Ayla, when or if she returned, go with him to purchase a kimono or something of that nature.

Ando-san nodded. “Well, good then. Reiko-chan, be a dear and take him to the fields, will you? I can finish here by myself."

Reiko finished the last tofu bundle and set it to the side, dipping her chin. “Of course, Ando-san. This one will be back later to check on things, okay?" She smiled when the old woman waved a dismissive hand and wiped her hands on a cloth before moving around to Aram's side of the stall.

“Shall we?"

He smiled gently. "Yes, let us go," he simply spoke. At least it was a job, for now.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
Tatsuya folded his hands into his sleeves, frowning. He wasn't even particularly upset; not at the smith, anyway. “I trust you know to be careful with it," he said, almost tonelessly. Fortunately, he didn't need to work to exude the kind of seriousness required for the situation.

He didn't wait for the smith's response before he exited the workshop. The man was on retainer with his family; he was regularly handed nearly priceless items and expected to maintain them. Tatsuya's personal swords were among them, of course, but it had been a while since anyone had touched their father's. Mostly, none of them touched any of his things, because it wasn't determined to everyone's satisfaction who had the right.

Personally, Tatsuya thought they should just go with what the old man said and give it all to Reiko. She was the one he'd loved the most anyway. That was simply a fact. And it wasn't like any of the rest of them were in danger of being thrown out of the house if she was the one in charge. Most people probably couldn't tolerate all of them, considering the sheer diversity in their personalities and eccentricities. Tatsuya, for example, could barely stand Jirō and actively hated Daichi.

Well, whatever. Someone who cared would work it out eventually. He didn't even give a damn about the castle. Anyone who really knew him knew that there was only one thing in his life that he cared about keeping.

One person, anyway.

Exiting the smith's property through the gate, Tatsuya set himself on the path back towards town. It took him past a great deal of farmland, which mostly lay fallow at this time of year. The humans would be planting their grains in a few weeks or so. Already, laborers were working to prepare for that, clearing the snow away from the paddies and fields so that the ground could thaw under the sun and soften for tilling. More than one of them looked up as he passed, but as he preferred, none of those that knew who he was acted like it, and he reached the edge of town without incident.

"Oh, it's you," it was apparent who it was just by the sound of her voice. It was, oddly, bereft of any tone of irritation, though. She sounded almost tired, perhaps. Regardless, she glanced at him, and then seemed to drift off over his shoulder. She sighed softly, though, and seemed to return her attention to him. "You haven't, per chance, seen my brother, have you?" she spoke, pursing her lips together.

"I can't seem to find him," she continued. It shouldn't be too difficult for her to find him, considering what she was, though. "If you haven't, then if you do, will you tell him I'm looking for him?" she asked, her voice coming out rather monotonous.

“Reiko said he's working the fields for a few days, out that way." Tatsuya glanced behind his shoulder more to show her what direction he meant than from any suspicion that he'd see the bird-man when he did.

He returned his attention to her, raising an eyebrow. “What do you need him for so badly, anyway? Can't it wait until you're both home?" They lived together, for fuck's sake. Even he didn't usually go out of his way to find Reiko during the day if she wasn't around the house.

He swallowed reflexively. He could feel her through their bond, but thinking about her reminded him that he was starting to feel the edge of a thirst. It wasn't like Reiko to complain, but between himself, Kentaro, and occasionally one of the others, she was periodically slightly anemic. He tried not to feed unless it was absolutely necessary. He might have to go back to finding humans for that... but that could get messy with the damn guests who still hadn't left...

She narrowed her eyes at him and pursed her lips together. "What's it to you what I need him for? What I need him for is my own business, and none of yours," she spat back, the familiar irritation returning to her voice. "There was something I wanted to ask him about, if you really must know," she continued, though she still didn't specify what it was.

"I'm not asking you to go out of your way to tell him anything. I simply asked if you would if you'd see him before I did, asshole," she muttered the last part beneath her breath, folding her arms over her chest as she did.

Tatsuya went from bored to ticked off in about three seconds, but he was better at hiding it than she was. He leveled a flat look at her and shook his head. “I forgot you're only tolerable when you're drunk. I assure you that your business isn't actually interesting to me, so have no fear."

So much for ordinary conversation. Damn bitch couldn't take anything in any but the worst possible way. For fuck's sake. He rolled his eyes and moved to walk past her.

“Have fun looking."

She sighed, and released her arms. "Look, Minamoto," she began, pausing slightly. It was the first time she'd actually addressed him by a name, rather than her usual insults. "I'm trying to be civil, but it's not exactly my strong suit," she spoke, shaking her head. That was obvious, enough. "I'm just..." she paused again, narrowing her eyes at him. She rolled her eyes at him and shook her head once more.

"You know what, never mind," she spoke, muttering to herself. "I don't know why I'm even bothering."

“'Not your strong suit' is a bit of an understatement," he said after a moment, pausing in his stride and glancing back over his shoulder. He didn't sigh, though he felt like it wouldn't be completely uncalled for here.

Tatsuya's pride was basically insurmountable. He knew this. He didn't apologize to anyone for any reason, especially not if he believed the other person was in the wrong. On the other hand... this woman was the old man's friend. He didn't know why that meant anything to him. It shouldn't. Tatsuya didn't owe his father a damn thing, and he sure didn't owe her anything, either. But...

His lips thinned as he pressed them into a straight line. “Look. I don't know a damn thing about you, and that's fine. But you don't know a damn thing about me, either, which means it's kind of annoying when you assume things. Like that I'm asking something because I want to be nosy or whatever. Maybe I've been around humans for too long and this is something none of you people ever did, but questions like that are the usual way of advancing a conversation, you know."

She scoffed slightly, but she didn't do anything else. "I'll agree with you there," she spoke, her back straightening out somewhat as she glanced up at him. She was fairly short, after all, so she had to look up. "I don't know a damn thing about you, and you don't know a damn thing about me. Our first encounter wasn't exactly pleasant, and..." she reeled in on herself when she paused. It looked like she was having a little bit of difficulty spitting out the next word, and she didn't seem exactly happy about what she was going to say.

"I'll admit that was my fault," she finally spoke, her eyes narrowing just slightly. "I... apologize," she spoke, though it sounded a little strained. Obviously she wasn't used to apologizing to people, but it did sound a little genuine. "You'd reminded me of him when I first saw you. It... was the reason why I acted the way I did. So," she trailed off towards the end. She was either really bad at apologizing, or she wasn't entirely sure what to say anymore.

Tatsuya glanced away for a moment. This time, he did sigh, folding his arms into his sleeves. “I get that a lot," he said. The words were easier to say than he thought they'd be. “Well... not a lot, in the sense of often, but everyone who knew him thinks the same. I'm really nothing like him at all, if you can get past the—" He drew one hand right back out again and gestured to his face.

Ugh, why was he even talking about this? He hated the subject of his father, and he wasn't interested in rehashing it. He shouldn't care whether anyone thought of them as the same. Especially not someone he barely knew.

“It doesn't matter. Apology accepted. Don't let it bother you." He wasn't sure if that was why she'd apologized or not, but if it was, he might as well at least release her from any guilt for that. It wasn't like it was her fault; she was just doing what everyone did.

“If I see the bird man, I'll tell him you're looking for him." Figuring she was probably done, he turned to leave for the second time.

She scoffed lightly, a small smirk pulling at her lips before it disappeared. "Yeah, you're nothing like him," she muttered, however; she seemed to let him leave. She turned to walk in the opposite direction of him, however; she paused. "Thanks in advance, Tatsuya," she spoke, actually referring to him by his given name. Perhaps it was her way of acknowledging his earlier statement of how he was nothing like his father. Or perhaps it was something else.

He snorted, but did not reply.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino


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Sayuri smiled to herself, enjoying the small bout of sunlight. It wasn't enough to make it warm or anything for that matter, but it was pleasant enough to be outside. Plus, she was dressed for the weather, so that helped a bit. She smiled softly as she waited patiently for Reiko. Things seemed to be going well between her family and Akarui-dono, or at least from what she could tell. There hadn't been any hostilities nor any disagreements, but then again, Sayuri couldn't claim to know what actually went on. She wasn't part of the discussions like Reiko was. That was mostly because Reiko was Head of the household, however; she wanted to take Reiko out today.

At least so that she could take a breather and relax. It was a pretty day for a walk, so perhaps they could at least walk around the compoud? If she wanted, they could possibly go into the market. Actually, that sounded like the better idea. If she could get Reiko to go out into the market, maybe she could also persuade her to get something nice for herself, for once. She could understand, somewhat, why Reiko dressed the way she did, but sometimes Sayuri wished her sister would dress appropriately. Just once would be enough, and she wouldn't pester Reiko again, if she did.

She smiled still, standing patiently as she waited. Hopefully it wouldn't be for much longer.

It didn't turn out to be, but the meeting was less pleasant than Sayuri was expecting. When Reiko found her, she was still dressed from what she'd said was going to be a morning meeting with Akarui-dono and his retainers. Apparently, the southern lord had had some new proposal to make regarding the alliance between them.

Reiko looked distraught; her face and neck were visibly flushed, and her eyes were starting to look a little red-rimmed. She nearly bumped right into Sayuri before she noticed she was even there; steadying herself against the wall, she took a deep breath. It was extremely unlike Reiko to be so out of it—things that would have shaken other people a great deal barely seemed to disturb her serenity, so this was beyond merely strange.

Sayuri was a little worried at that. "Reiko-chan, are you alright? Is everything okay?" she asked. Something must have happened in the meeting that had to have caused Reiko's current state. Maybe it was a request from Akarui-dono? Or possibly something else? Whatever it was, Sayuri wanted to do whatever she could to help Reiko. She didn't like seeing her sister like this. It was a little unnerving for her.

“This one..." Reiko started, shaking her head a bit. Her eyes still looked a little unfocused, but she blinked them several more times until she made proper eye contact with Sayuri. “This one is... will you come to my room with me for a bit, Sayu-chan? This one doesn't really feel like going to the market right now."

"Okay, let's get you to your room," she spoke softly. Whatever was bothering Reiko, it must have been deeper than she'd even suspected. There was hardly a time where Reiko would rather go to her room than to the market or even outside. She frowned in a gentle manner, and walked beside Reiko. If she was tired, at least Sayuri would be beside her if something happened. The walk to Reiko's room had been quiet, and when Sayuri was certain it was just Reiko and herself, she closed the door behind her, and turned to face Reiko.

"Reiko-chan, you can tell me anything, even what's wrong, you know that right?" she questioned. She hoped Reiko knew that, whatever it was that was bothering her, she could count on Sayuri to listen. She might not be able to give any advice on the situation, but she could at least allow her sister to vent or just to speak about something. "Even if it's not about the meeting with Akarui-dono, you can talk to me about something else."

Reiko had gone from looking distressed to simply looking lost. She sat down on one of the cushions at the small table in the front part of her room, falling onto it with a muted whump. She seemed to slowly compose herself after that, pulling in a few deep breaths. She straightened her spine and folded her hands in her lap.

“This one is sorry for making you worry, Sayu-chan." she smiled thinly, then sighed quietly. “The negotiations this afternoon became... tense. Akarui-dono wishes Fujiwara troops to march with him to retake his homeland when summer comes. And... he would like to feel more secure in this alliance. His retainers suggested that an alliance marriage would be the best way to do that."

She swallowed thickly, her eyes falling to her lap. “The obvious candidate for that is this one."

Sayuri pursed her lips in a thin line. An alliance marriage? They wanted Reiko to marry Akarui-dono just to make sure the alliance was secure. She didn't know why, but her brows furrowed, and Sayuri felt a small pang of anger in her chest. The Fujiwaras were not the type of people to go back on their word. She'd known that from her time here, growing up with them. If anything, they were, perhaps, the most honorable people she knew. She almost felt insulted on their behalf, however; all of those feelings subsided to something else.

"Reiko-chan," she spoke softly, trying to keep her voice as calm as she could. She didn't know what to say, though. Was it because she was a daughter of the Fujiwara household that they wanted her as their candidate? She knew that Reiko's brothers wouldn't approve of it, though, and that was likely to put strain on the alliance. Perhaps that was what Reiko had meant, as well. She sighed softly, and shook her head. Words seemed to echo through her mind, from a familiar voice, and Sayuri blinked slowly.

You will find yourself in a position to help where no help can be found. It will not be a choice to make so lightly, however; it will give you and those you love, peace of mind

That was what Kyabetsu-san had told her a few months ago. Was... was he possibly referring to this? But what could she possibly do tha would help Reiko? She wasn't a true daughter of the Fujiwara, however; that thought caused her to purse her lips together. Slowly, she sat in front of Reiko, and folded her hands on her lap. If she could do this, then it would make everyone happy, right? If she suggested herself instead of Reiko, the alliance would still hold, and everyone would be happy. She lifted her gaze to Reiko, and smiled.

"But Reiko-chan, you're not the only candidate," she spoke, the smile still on her face. "I'm part of Fujiwara-dono's family, too, right? I could... I could do it, too," she continued. She could help somehow, right?

Reiko's eyes widened; clearly, she hadn't considered that. “No, Sayu-chan, you don't have to do that. This one's brothers were not happy with the suggestion, but... this alliance is important. This one said I would think it over. This one...this one needs time, but it would probably be best for this one to accept."

That made a certain kind of sense. The Fujiwara brothers would doubtless disapprove of any plan that took their sister away from them for any extended period, but Reiko herself was dutiful, and committed to helping her family negotiate peace with other regions, for the sake of the future. It did seem to be the kind of thing she'd volunteer for. But one look at her face made it clear that it wasn't something she wanted to do.

But then again, so was Sayuri. She owed the Fujiwaras more than she could ever repay them. She still smiled at Reiko, and shook her head. "Reiko-chan, you wouldn't be happy. You would be miserable being married to some human. Plus, what if they start getting suspicious when they age, and you don't? At least... at least I'm human, and they won't have anything to get suspicious about. Akarui-dono, I'm sure, would be fine with me as his bride. And we'd all get what we want, right? Akarui-dono gets his secured alliance, I'm getting the chance to finally repay Fujiwara-dono and you for the life you have all given me, and you'll be able to stay here with the others. Everyone wins," in some form or another.

"Plus, it's something I want to do, Reiko-chan." She really did.

“But you—" Reiko paused, cutting herself off abruptly. There was clearly something she wanted to say, there, but she stopped herself before she finished and shook her head. “It would be complicated if it were this one, but there are ways to deal with that. And besides... that just means that this one would not be giving up her entire life to do this. But you, Sayu-chan... this is forever for you. And this one doesn't... this one can't ask you to do that. You don't owe anyone anything. Tou-chan adopted you with no strings attached."

"And it's a life I'm glad to be giving up for you. It means I'll be able to have done something useful, for once, and it'll mean something for me. You can't ask me to do this, you're right, but you're not asking me. I'm telling you, I will do this, Rei-chan. And he might have adopted me with no strings attached, but that doesn't mean I don't owe him, or you, any less than what I can give," she replied softly, keeping her resolve. She wasn't going to back down from this. Reiko did have a point, though. This would be forever for her, but that didn't mean it had to be bad.

Akarui-dono seemed nice enough, or as nice as Lords went, so maybe it wouldn't be? Maybe, she could learn to love him, in the end, and the rest of her life would be a happy one. "Please let me do this for you, Reiko-chan," because she didn't want her sister to be miserable for any amount of years.

Reiko stared at her for several moments after that. Slowly, she drew in a breath, and then sighed, her shoulders slumping with the force of it. “This one doesn't even know if Akarui-dono will agree," she pointed out softly. “But... if this is really what you want, Sayu-chan, then this one will speak to Jirō about making it a counter proposal. But Sayu." Reiko's voice grew unusually stern.

Rarely ever was it obvious that Reiko was more than a hundred years old. Most of the time, she didn't act that much older than Sayuri. She was mature, yes, but she didn't have the same sense of alienness about her as most of their brothers did. Now, however, her age was evident in the weight of her words, and the solemnity of the voice she used to speak them. “If this ever becomes something that you do not wish to do, you must tell this one. If you cannot promise that, then this one will not make the offer in the first place."

"I promise, Reiko-chan, that if it does... if I decide I don't want to do this, I will tell you. It's the least I can do," she replied almost instantly. She wasn't going to go back on her word, either. She wanted to do this for her family's sake, and no one else's. "Thank you, for letting me help, Rei-chan. I promise if anything happens, you'll be the first to know." It's not like there were other people she could tell or talk to, after all.

Just briefly, Reiko looked unspeakably sad, as though Sayu had just informed her that someone she loved had died, but she seemed to catch herself, and her expression smoothed over thereafter.

“Don't thank this one, Sayu. That's backwards. We're the ones who should thank you, for this." She sighed, then slowly stood. “This one... this one will miss you, you know. When you're gone."

She took in a slow, shuddering breath. She had almost forgotten about that. She'd be leaving them, if Akarui-dono agreed to the arrangement. She didn't show it, but she could feel the onset of a frown coming. She would be leaving them. She smiled, though. "No, Reiko-chan, I owe you all thanks for taking me in, and giving me a family. I'll... miss you too, but I'll write to you every day. That way, we can still be in touch." She would miss her family dearly, however; there was a strange feeling that there was someone she'd miss a little more.

And it wasn't Reiko.

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#, as written by Aethyia
Heisuke shut the door behind him with a snap, letting his face drop immediately into a scowl. Dark eyes flicked to the room's other occupant.

The young lord didn't truthfully know much about the shaman, only that he had appeared more or less on Heisuke's doorstep three years ago and asked for shelter. When Heisuke had granted it, he'd been repaid to a greater degree than he could ever imagine. The priest had promised him all of Japan and an army to keep it—things that Heisuke was no doubt very interested in having.

But the route there was quite circuitous, and when he'd been attacked by his neighboring domain, he'd been about ready to throw the man out as an imposter, a charlatan and a deceiver. Until he'd learned what the conditions on his future empire really were, anyway.

“They've refused to give me the girl. But there's another possibility," he said without preamble. “The other daughter. Sayuri. I've agreed to take her instead, once the spring comes to this forsaken place and we can retake my castle." He hated the dark winter this far north.

The swap was admittedly disappointing. Reiko was a particularly-lovely specimen. Would be even moreso, if anyone had ever bothered to teach her how a woman should dress. She was also apparently head of this household, which meant its resources would pass to whomever she married. Sayuri certainly didn't have that benefit. But she was no hag, and all that mattered in the end was that he had a daughter of the blood, or so the priest had told him.

It was hard to tell what the man was thinking, or even feeling, since he kept a mask over his face. It seemed bird-like, almost like a crane's beak, and the metal was an obsidian color. The only thing that was present, besides his mouth, were the golden eyes that were too bright to be considered human. But that was what he claimed to be. He shifted in his seated position, raising his head to meet Heisuke's gaze, and simply stared at him.

"That is too bad. I heard the blood within the other girl was more potent. Nevertheless, if she is a daughter of the blood, she will do," he simply spoke, keeping his gaze steady with Heisuke's. "Without the blood, all of this," he made a simple gesture with his hand, "will have been for naught."

Heisuke grimaced. “Believe me, I understand that much." the warlord rubbed at his chin, moving down to scratch the stubble on his neck. He wasn't completely sure why the blood of one of the members of this family was required, but it was obviously going to be easiest to get it from one of the women, since they were weaker, and if he could get one alone, that would be for the best.

He wasn't completely foolish, however; he had no intention of simply attacking one of them. Not with six overprotective brothers around. Honestly, he had no idea why they were all like that for one sister but allowed the other one to be offered in her stead. Perhaps because she was head of household and they wished to keep their resources? That made sense to him. In any case, it was a viable solution. All that remained now was to wait.

“It will be better to wait until we're back in Edo to actually take it, of course. Perhaps we'll get lucky and one of her brothers will fall on the battlefield as well." Then they'd be able to collect the blood under the guise of funeral preparations. Heisuke didn't know how much they were going to need, after all.

A slight scoff escaped the man. "They are not so easily felled," he simply spoke. He didn't elaborate by what he meant, and allowed his gaze to drift away from Heisuke. "They are all warriors with merit, even if they do not appear to be. Fujiwara-dono has made sure of that," he continued, keeping his gaze on the paper folded in front of him. It looked like he'd been working on it recently, since he tied a red ribbon around it. Once it was folded, he tucked it into the sleeve of his kimono, and glanced back at Heisuke.

"Be patient, is the only advice I can give. It is still awhile yet before anything useful can come of this. Once I have the blood, it'll only be a matter of time before I can craft you the army you desire," he stated, and fell silent for a moment. He seemed to be thinking, or at least from his posture it appeared that way.

“Yeah, all right." Part of Heisuke was still waiting for the other shoe to fall on this whole thing. What he'd given this man was next to nothing compared to what he was receiving. A single night's hospitality and then a job for an entire army, and eventually, all of Japan? He certainly might like what Eiji was saying, but that didn't mean he trusted him any further than he could throw him.

So he took his advice with a grain of salt. So far, all the things he'd advised doing were things his other retainers had agreed would be beneficial, even without knowing the rest of the plan, so he hadn't had to risk much. Hopefully it would stay that way. Heisuke didn't plan to commit until he knew victory was assured. That was just good strategy.

“No one's suspicious of you, right? It's hard to go anywhere in this place without a servant appearing out of nowhere. It's like they're watching us. They probably are." The Fujiwara themselves were worse still. It was like they could smell him coming—none of them ever seemed to be in the least bit surprised when he appeared somewhere. Not even the little heiress.

"I have made precautions for such things. They are no more suspicious of me than they are of you. I am, after all, one of your retainers, and that is how I appear to them. Worry not of my own well-being. Take care not to give yourself away. There is a reason why I do not tell you much," he replied as swiftly as Heisuke had ended his sentence, as if he knew Heisuke was going to say that.

"And they are watching us, Akarui-dono. They don't trust us any more than we trust them. It is a... human quality, I suppose," he seemed to hesitate on the word he'd chosen, but perhaps he wasn't able to find something else, something more suitable. "But do not worry, everything is going according to plan. We will leave at the first sign of spring, and we shall take the Hino daughter with us. What happens between here and there, though, is up to the fates," he spoke, a sort of sly grin spreading across his face. It was the most expressive he'd been since he'd been with the Akarui household.

Heisuke thought fate was a bunch of bullshit, but he supposed shamans and priests were more or less required to believe in it, so he let it pass without comment. “As you say then."

A month more, and then things would finally begin in earnest.

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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Aram cracked open his eyes, only to find a pair of blue ones staring back at him. He furrowed his brows slightly, as he tilted his head as best as he could, and regarded Ayla with a curious gaze. She was wearing a frown, nothing uncommon for her, however; there was something vaguely different in the way she presented herself. She seemed tired, as if she'd been overworking herself. Maybe she had? He wouldn't know; she hadn't been home in the last few days. He'd surmised that she was out, that maybe the lure of the moon was growing too much for her.

If that was the case, then there was something here that was truly bothering her, but she had yet to divulge any information to him. Instead, he waited until she was a polite distance away before sitting up. "Ayla, is something wrong?" he questioned once he was fully up. He turned himself so that he was sitting on his futon, staring directly at her. She was, oddly, sitting in a rather formal position. Her brows still furrowed, she continued staring at him. She eventually sighed, and her shoulders slumped.

"We're both low on funds, and the work you've been doing hasn't been helping much," she finally spoke. He pursed his lips together. There was a feeling in the back of his mind that that wasn't exactly what she wanted to say, but it's what she settled on. "I would go hunting, to try and put food on the table, but the wildlife seems a little scarce right now," she continued. That was partly due to the fact that, though it was almost over, winter was still around. The wildlife should be returning about this time.

"We are doing the best we can with what we have, Ayla," he replied gently. He was certain they were, at least. Ayla merely sighed and shook her head, though. "It is winter time, Ayla. I doubt that people need their fortunes read at this time, and your restaurant doesn't have food suited to this time of year. Perhaps we could try something different, for it?" he suggested. She merely pursed her lips together.

"What of your work as the local doctor? Humans usually get sick around this time, too, and yet no one has come to you," she sighed, and shook her head. "Nevermind, Aram. We'll figure something out, but right now, we need to go into town. The market just opened and we need to get a few things, otherwise there will be no dinner tonight. That, and you need a new yukata. The one you have is worn out and has at least three different holes in it, and I will not have you looking like you live in the streets."

"And what of you?"

"I have this one," she spoke, pointing to the one she was wearing. Aram raised a brow in her direction. It looked vaguely familiar. It was white, with some gold embroidering on the sleeves, shoulders, and the bottom. His face pulled into a small smile and he shook his head.

"Give me a moment, I need to dress if we are to go out." It was only a few minutes before Aram was able to pull on a proper yukata. Once he was dressed, he and Ayla left their small home. Maybe they could take a detour today, though? There wasn't much going on at the moment, and the weather was, oddly, nice.

Despite the season, the market was bustling at this time of day; most of the villagers were of the hardy sort, clearly used to being out and about in much worse weather. The day had the feel of false spring to it—it was warmer and brighter than it had been in months. Snow was starting to melt at the sides of the road, exposing mud beneath. No doubt it had been extremely smart to clear the fields before days like this became more regular.

There was still plenty of snow around, however—more than enough to blind them with its brightness until they squinted. They weren't alone; many villagers walked with hands up to shade their eyes from the glare as well as they could. A few nodded at Ayla or himself as they passed by; a couple even offered smiles or verbal greetings. It would seem they were integrating, at least to a certain extent.

About halfway down the market street, they came across Reiko and Tatsuya, who were standing in front of what looked like the tailors'. They seemed to be talking about something; it wasn't possible to hear what it was from this distance. Still, whatever the subject, it had put a rare frown on Reiko's face. Tatsuya looked vaguely annoyed, but that was more common, for him.

Ayla seemed to brighten at seeing Reiko, however; she must have noticed the frown. She frowned in return, and glanced at him with a raised brow. He shrugged his shoulders in response. He didn't have her hearing, so he wouldn't be able to tell what they were talking about. Either Ayla wasn't focusing on the conversation itself, or she was distracted by Reiko's frown to notice. They made their way towards them, since they needed to go to the tailor as well. Might as well get that one out of the way. Once they were a polite distance away, Aram smiled at the two.

"Good morning Reiko-san, Minamoto-san," he spoke after they had noticed them. Ayla did not bow, but she didn't seem too hostile or upset about being in Tatsuya's presence. Maybe she was just getting used to him, now? Ando-san said that she'd been spending a lot more of her time with him. He pursed his lips together. Did that mean she didn't hate him anymore? The look on her face said so, but he could still see some vague traces of irritation. That might be from something else, though, he couldn't be certain.

"Good morning, Rei-Rei-chan," she greeted Reiko first with the familiar nickname. She spared a glance towards Tatsuya, though. "Good morning... Minamoto," she spoke with a strange hint of politeness. Maybe it was because Reiko was present, or maybe she was actually getting along with him, now. He could not confess to knowing what his sister felt or did. Sometimes, she was just as eccentric as he was, he supposed.

Tatsuya didn't seem at all surprised to see them. He huffed slightly when he glanced at Ayla, an inscrutable smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. It wasn't exactly a soft expression, but Aram couldn't even be sure he had those. He'd certainly never worn one in his presence before. But there was no maliciousness in it, either. Not even when he turned red eyes on Aram himself.

It was Reiko who responded verbally first, though. Her frown faded, replaced by a smile, but something about it looked a little forced. Perhaps that was the reason the spheres floating outside of their house this morning had been a dark grey color? “Ayla-san, Aram-san. It's good to see you. Are you out looking for more work today?"

Tatsuya shook his head at her a bit. “Looks to me like they're headed into the tailors', Reiko."

She blinked, then cleared her throat. “Oh, right, of course. You weren't here to, um... sorry." She colored faintly, she shook her head, seemingly at herself. “Well, please don't let us get in your way if it's important."

Ayla huffed softly, like she was keeping herself from laughing. Aram, however, had to blink a few times to even process what had been said. He shook his head, though, once he realized what Reiko had spoken. "No, not today, Reiko-san. Ayla insisted that I come with her to the market so that she might find me something more suitable to wear. Apparently, what I have doesn't meet her standards," he replied earnestly. He thought he heard Ayla retort with something along the lines of nothing meeting her standards, but he couldn't be too sure.

"What he's trying to say is, the yukata and other clothing he owns have holes in them. He needs a new one, if only one," Ayla responded, sparing a glance in Aram's direction. She raised a bored brow at him, though. "And you are not in the way, Rei-Rei. We would appreciate the... company," she continued, though she seemed uncertain of her words. She didn't seem to care too much, because she shrugged to herself.

"If you do not mind me asking, but what brings the two of you out? Are you searching for silks and fabric as well?" he decided to ask, to shift the conversation somewhat. Ayla just rolled her eyes at him.

It seemed to be the wrong question somehow, despite how innocuous it was. Both of their faces fell, Reiko's noticeably more than Tatsuya's. But even he went back to scowling. It seemed their discontent was directed elsewhere though—not at the two of them.

“We... yes," Reiko said, sounding almost pained. “This one is here for the materials to design and order a wedding kimono, and an uchikake fitting for such an occasion... and our house." She sighed, shaking her head and dropping her eyes to the floor.

Aram pursed his lips together slightly, however; Ayla was wearing an expression similar to Tatsuya's. Was she getting married? To whom? Why did that even matter? Aram banished the thought from his mind as quickly as it formed, and smiled softly at Reiko. "Perhaps congratulations is in order, then?" he spoke, a little unsure if he should. It was apparent that the situation wasn't exactly a good one, by the look on their faces, however; he supposed things, no matter how grim, always had some bright outcome. Unless he'd seen it beforehand. He had to believe in those small little moments of happiness, though, right?

"Reiko? Are you getting married?" it was Ayla who spoke this time, though she still looked just as confused as he felt. "I thought... wait," she seemed to pause in her words and furrowed her brows deeper. "Let me get this straight, to make sure I didn't miss anything. You're here to get materials for a wedding kimono, because... who's getting married?" she questioned. Perhaps he should have asked the same question instead of jumping to conclusions.

Reiko's eyes went wide for a moment. “Oh, um. No, not this one. Though... it was almost this one, I suppose." She looked pained again for a second. Tatsuya laid a hand on her shoulder and kept it there; Aram could see his knuckles shifting under his skin as he gave it a squeeze.

She glanced down at the ground before looking back up. “It's... an alliance marriage. Akarui-dono asked for one as a way of sealing the agreement between our families. He asked for this one, but... But Sayu-chan insisted that it be her instead, so..." She paused, pursing her lips. There was guilt in her eyes; that much was easy to pick out. “This one figured the least I could do would be to make sure she had the best wedding possible."

If he could see beneath her hair, Aram was certain the hairs on the back of her neck were standing up. She tensed considerably and her eyes widened somewhat. "The fuck... are you serious!?" she nearly yelled, however; he shot her a glance that caused her to reel in. She shouldn't make a scene, especially when it looked like it was weighing heavily on Reiko. "It's the same thing as an arranged marriage. Who the hell does that? Seriously, the asshole. Reiko, you can't let her do this," it was apparent that Ayla was upset, however; Aram had to put a hand on her shoulder to pull her back. She glanced up at him, though.

"Ayla, stop. It was Sayuri-san's decision to do it. At least it was a choice she made," he spoke, watching as her eyes narrowed at him. He knew this was coming, but he didn't think it'd be so soon. So, she made the decision to go through with it, after all. He sighed a little sadly. That meant she really would meet her fate. Some small part, he wasn't sure, of him hoped that she wouldn't. But it looked like the alternative was sending Reiko in her stead. He wondered, if he'd been able to see Reiko's future, would she share the same fate as Sayuri if she'd been the one to wed Akarui-san?

"But Aram," she began to protest.

"Ayla, enough." it was the first time his voice had taken on such a serious note, and it looked like she visibly bit her tongue to keep from lashing at him. He could understand her anger, and why she felt the way she did. She was protective of her friends, but now wasn't the time for her to act this way. "Apologies, Reiko-san, Minamoto-san. We offer Sayuri-san and Akarui-san the best," he spoke, bowing apologetically. Ayla still looked disturbed about the idea, but she didn't say anything further.

Reiko only looked progressively more upset as Ayla spoke. Her eyes were taking on a characteristic vibrant red ring, but she did not begin to cry.

Tatsuya moved his hand up to her head, patting it with surprising tenderness and pulling her slightly towards his chest. She leaned heavily on him. He narrowed his eyes slightly. “You don't have to make her feel more guilty about it; I promise you she's doing plenty well at that on her own," he said, though even more surprisingly, he didn't snap it at Ayla.

“Like it or not, this kind of thing happens all the time when you deal with human politicians. I said we should just let the little prick rot instead of helping him in the first place, but apparently that's not an option." His lip curled somewhat; what he thought of Akarui was quite obvious.

Reiko shook her head slightly. “We can't just abandon them, Suya. He asked for our help, and he was unfairly driven away from his lands and the people that rely on him. I'm sure he just wants to feel like we support him with more than our words."

Tatsuya scoffed. “And our army's not enough, so he has to take away part of the family, too? Fuck him."

It sounded like an argument they'd already had more than once.

Aram pursed his lips together, but he said nothing. Apparently, the arrangement wasn't going to be as easy as he thought it was going to be. He understood, somewhat, where they were coming from. Amon was his family, too, after all. He shook his head, though. "But... is she happy about it?" he decided to speak, his voice gentled more than it usually was so that he wouldn't risk upsetting Reiko further. "I think, that should be the most important thing here, right? That your sister is happy with the decision. Does she not get a say in what she does with her own life?" he continued. Ayla scoffed slightly.

"Who could be happy in an arranged marriage," she seemed to mutter it to herself, though, and shook her head. "I'll see you back at home, Aram. I'm... going for a walk, elsewhere. Reiko-chan, give Sayuri my congratulations, if she's really happy about this," she spoke, and before Aram could advise her against it, she took off. She didn't stay for any response. He sighed.

"My apologies, Reiko-san, I do not mean to upset you further," he really didn't like upsetting anyone. It made him feel bad, because he could have done something about it. He could have told them exactly what was in store for Sayuri, however; there was a chance that they would want to change that. And they couldn't change fate.

Reiko sighed. “This one knows," she said quietly. “And you're right that what she wants matters. But the problem is that she's stuck in this thought that she has to repay us somehow, for taking her in. And she doesn't owe us anything. It's a sacrifice, no matter how you look at it, and this one's father never intended for her to sacrifice anything for us." She sighed again, turning her head to look up at her brother.

“This one doesn't really feel like looking at uchikake today, Suya." After he nodded, she returned her attention to Aram. “But... if Aram-san still needs a new set of clothes, perhaps this one can help? This one knows Ayla-san's standards are finicky, after all; this one would not want her to disapprove of the end result."

Tatsuya snorted. “If you say so." He paused, though, and glanced down at her. There was a question in his expression, though Aram could not tell what it was. Reiko seemed to have no such problems, and shook her head slightly.

“All right. I guess I'll see you back at the house then." He shifted his eyes to Aram, something faintly menacing in them for a moment before it disappeared.

“Farewell, Washi-san." He spared a nod, then departed.

Aram was vaguely confused by Tatsuya's statement, and the expression, but he said nothing as he left. He turned his attention back to Reiko, though, and sighed softly. "You don't have to help me, Reiko-san. I'm sure you'd like to spend time with your family," he spoke. He also knew that, even if he did find something to purchase, Ayla probably wouldn't approve of it. He really didn't need her to approve of anything he wore, actually, now that he thought about it. He just sighed further.

"But I could use the help," he supposed he should at least offer her that much. After all, Reiko was upset, and if she'd rather help him find something to occupy herself, he wasn't going to deny the company. He could only assume where Ayla was going, and he trusted her enough to be outside of the village if she had to turn. He knew she was upset, and it would probably bring forth her beast. Hopefully, it didn't.

"If you would be so kind." He hoped everything would end well, though.

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
The whole thing had left Tatsuya with a nasty taste in his mouth.

He wasn't Reiko. He wasn't as attached to Sayuri as she was. He couldn't be—not only was it not in his personality, but she'd been there for so small a portion of his life comparatively that it was difficult to even say that he was used to her presence. But he saw how it was hurting Reiko to let it happen, even if Sayuri had "chosen" it. As though that was really any choice at all.

Besides, no one, no matter who they were, should be treated as a bargaining chip in other people's business. It was probably the one thing he and his old man agreed on—he definitely hadn't taken that girl in with the intention of selling her off to some asshole lord later.

Deciding to go get a drink before he went home, he made his way to the okiya as usual. Setsuka was inside, and looked up when he entered, offering a small smile.

"Stormclouds in your eyes today," she said gently, tilting her head. The golden ornament in it glinted against the light coming in through the window. "Your lady friend has the same look, today. Perhaps you've come to see her?"

He furrowed his brows, then drew in a breath. Immediately, he smelled Ayla, which must be what Setsuka was referring to.

“She's not my anything," he grumbled, knowing she hadn't meant it that way but too entrenched in thoughts of moving people around like property to avoid the negative reaction he had.

Setsuka, of course, was more than accustomed to dealing with him in bad moods, and didn't let it shake her in the slightest. "And yet, if I am not mistaken, that is your kimono she is wearing."

He should have known she'd notice. Tatsuya sighed; the effort of explaining that one wouldn't be worth it. “Where is she, then?"

"I put her in your usual room," she replied. "I doubt she has a way of paying for those drinks without you, so I thought you might be along."

He didn't have the inclination to tell her otherwise; she'd probably figured that out by now anyway. Snorting softly, Tatsuya accepted the full jug of sake Setsuka pulled down from one of the shelves behind her, as well as an extra dish for himself, then made his way back to where Ayla was, indeed, already drinking.

“Kind of rude, starting the party without the person who's going to pay the bill," he said dryly, lowering himself into a crosslegged position across the table. The door to the patio outside was only cracked, probably because it was the middle of the day and the snow under the sun was damn near blinding.

"You'll have to forgive me if I didn't wait," she replied just as dryly. She didn't look at him, though. Her attention was outside, and with it, the expression on her face. She took another drink before setting the cup down. Slowly, she turned to face him, and her expression was easier to read. She was upset, and that much was obvious, but there was also some strange melancholy behind it. She removed her attention from him, and turned it back outside.

"And I wasn't expecting you to come here. Actually, I wasn't expecting to end up here. Guess it's just too familiar now," she continued with a light shake of her head. She furrowed her brows slightly, though and turned to look at him. "You don't have to pay the bill. I might be low on funds, but I can still afford my own drinks, you know," she spoke.

He shrugged. “Don't bother. I have a running tab here that I settle up once a month. I won't even notice the difference." Tatsuya wasn't in the position of needing to worry about funds. It was nothing to him to pay for the alcohol, even the amount of it the two of them could go through, which he knew from experience was a lot.

“If you need money though, you could always ask Setsuka for a job. I hear it pays well." Most people, he supposed, would not advise that the people they knew ask for a job at a brothel, but he didn't see anything wrong with it. If she was morally opposed to prostitution, she wouldn't come here so regularly. Maybe she didn't want to turn tricks herself, but that was fine. It was only a suggestion.

“Though I guess you've already got that restaurant. Who's running that lately? Because you sure aren't."

She seemed to contemplate his suggestion, though, if the thoughtful expression on her face was anything to go by. She snorted softly afterwards. "It's not a bad suggestion, but as you know from experience, I'm not exactly pleasant," she replied. She seemed to frown at his last statement, dowing her drink in one go before letting out a long sigh.

"No one's running it. I've neglected it the last few weeks, and if I'm right, it should be closed by now. I... was going to close it down, eventually. Unlike you and your family, Aram and I never stay in one place for too long," she spoke. She didn't refill her cup, though, and seemed rather intent on staring outside. Her brows were furrowed, but she didn't seem inclined to speak of anything else, at least not at that moment.

"When is the wedding supposed to take place?" she spoke at last, finally turning her attention back to him. "I should like to say goodbye, at least, to Sayuri. She is a good friend," her voice was surprisingly soft when she said that. "I won't attend, I just... would like to tell her before hand. I don't trust myself enough to attend such things the humans do. Stupid fucking pieces of shit that they are," she grumbled the last part to herself so it was hard to tell if it was intentional or not for him to hear.

Tatsuya made a noncommittal noise. So they'd be moving on, soon, probably. He wasn't sure why they'd bother so soon; it wasn't like anyone would notice they weren't aging for several more years. Even the few people who might get suspicious before then, like Setsuka, knew better than to ask those kinds of questions. But if they'd rather leave, he sure as hell wasn't going to stop them.

It'd break Reiko's heart, but she'd be able to recover. She was stronger than she thought.

“Spring," he said at last, raising a dish to his mouth and tipping his head back. “Not sure exactly when. Probably just after we get his land back. He'll want to have the thing in his own damn castle, of course." He shook his head slightly. There was no mistaking who'd be doing all the work for that particular endeavor. He figured he'd probably go. Tsubasa would want the fight, and Kentaro would probably need it.

He wondered if Reiko would insist on going with. Probably.

She raised a brow in his direction at his statement. "His land back?" she seemed to question. She hummed a soft noise in the back of her throat before something of a small smile, possibly a smirk, crossed her features. "Well, if he'll hire mercenaries, I'll do it," she spoke, finally filling her cup up with the sake. "Assuming he wouldn't have a problem with me being a woman, and all," she scowled slightly.

"If he does, then I wouldn't have to say goodbye to Sayuri until then. I don't plan on leaving here, yet, though. I wouldn't do that to Reiko," she continued, sighing and sitting back properly. "And it's been a long time since I've been in a decent battle. Humans don't really put up much of a fight, but it's something," she continued, shrugging her shoulders somewhat.

"But maybe I'm just getting ahead of myself. Maybe I'll take you up on that offer and ask Setsuka for a job here, though I doubt she'll want me," she spoke, scoffing somewhat.

That was an awful lot of meandering speculation for a few breaths. Tatsuya figured she was thinking out loud more than anything, but he could at least speak to some of the specifics. “If you want to go that badly, I'll hire you," he said with a shrug. It wasn't like her wages for a job would put him out or anything, and presumably Reiko and Sayuri would enjoy her company.

Reaching into the space between his kimono layers, Tatsuya withdrew his long stemmed pipe, lighting it with a match he struck against a small stone provided for the purpose on the table. The plants he lit had a sweet, but not overpowering aroma, but he still angled it away from her.

She wrinkled her nose somewhat, but didn't seem all too bothered by the smell. She did, however, raise a brow in his direction. "You'd hire me?" she spoke it in a slight tone of disbelief, before she rolled her eyes. "I'd do it for free, but unfortunately we need things," she added, leaning forward and placing her chin in her hand. She stared at him for a second, her eyes uncharacteristically focused before she dropped her hand.

"Alright, deal. You hire me, I go with, and I get to be with Reiko and Sayuri. Plus, I get to release some of this pent up tension," she spoke, rolling out her shoulders as if to prove it. "It's been awhile since I've had any fun," she spoke, grinning to herself, it seemed.

“Tension, huh?" he was tempted to make a quip there, about other, less-annoying ways to release tension, but he elected not to, for the moment, pulling in a smoky breath and holding it for a few seconds before he blew it back out through his nose.

“Whatever you say, Ayla."

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Sayuri sighed softly, glancing at the flowers in the garden. There were only about two more weeks before Spring would officially be here, and that also meant that she'd be leaving. She'd be leaving with him to secure their alliance. It was strange how, now of all days, it bothered her. She'd promised Reiko that she would tell her if this bothered her, or if she didn't want to do it. The only problem was, was that she wanted to do it. If this meant she'd be helping Reiko out, and keeping her eccentric family together, then she would do it a thousand times over. She wanted her family to be happy, even if that meant she had to leave. She wasn't so sure why it bothered her, though. It shouldn't.

But maybe that was for the best? Being a human amongst them wouldn't be an ideal way to live. She would age, and grow old, while they would remain as they were. They wouldn't change, and she would, eventually, be forgotten. It hurt knowing that, but she supposed that was what it meant to be a human living in their world. She just didn't belong. She never would, despite how much she loved them. And love them, she did. They were her family, even if she wasn't sure if they even acknowledged her existence. Reiko did, and maybe that's all she would need.

She smiled softly, reaching out to hook her finger around one of the petals of a camellia flower. They weren't quite in season yet, but the flowers in the Fujiwara household always seemed to bloom regardless of the season. That might have something to do with the occupants, however; she didn't linger too long. Instead, she dipped her chin and glanced at the floor. Time was going by so much faster than she'd anticipated. Who was to say if she'd ever get a chance to visit this place again? She shook the thought from her mind, and sighed. She needed something to occupy her mind. Maybe she should go find Reiko? With that in mind, she turned to leave the small garden.

It wasn't until she reached the exit that she spotted Kentaro.

He wasn't looking in her direction, though it was almost certain that he was aware of her presence. Instead, he seemed to be staring very hard at something on one of the engawa that bordered Reiko's sanctuary. His face was as difficult to read as ever, but a slight downturn of his mouth suggested displeasure. His eyes narrowed slightly before he took them away from whatever he was watching to glance in her direction.

The heat hadn't quite left them yet, and for a moment, it looked like he was glaring at her. It was actually rather terrifying; it felt like the air around her had suddenly grown much warmer, too hot for her winter garments. But then Kentaro blinked, and the glare vanished with the heat.


"Ah, Kentaro-san," she spoke, finding her voice. It came out a little shakey, but that might have been because of the way he'd been glaring. Even if it wasn't at her, it was still a little unnerving. She offered him a small smile, and bowed in greeting. "Are you here, looking for Reiko-chan? She's... not here, I'm afraid," she continued, though some part of her scolded herself for saying that. Of course he would know that she wasn't here. They always seemed to know where Reiko was, but perhaps that was a good thing.

"Or are you just passing through? Oh, if you are, don't mind me, I'm just... I'll just go, if you want to be here... alone, I mean," she didn't know why she felt so nervous, all of a sudden. But wasn't that how it always was? Especially around him?

He tilted his head at her. On anyone else, it might have counted as curiosity, but it was honestly difficult to say if Kentaro ever felt curious about anything. “I was not looking for Reiko," he informed her simply. For a moment, his eyes flickered back in the direction he'd been looking before, but he returned them to hers immediately afterwards.

“I was... observing."

Even if he didn't feel curious, Sayuri knew she did, and she mimicked his motion. Tilting her head to the side, she blinked at him. "Observing?" she questioned. There wasn't much going on, that she knew of, that would warrant such a thing. Kentaro was certainly entitled to do whatever he wanted to, though, and she wasn't going to say otherwise. She shook her head, though, and still kept the smile in place.

"It must be interesting enough, if it has you observing it," she spoke softly, like she was talking to herself. Maybe she was? Maybe she wanted to say that to herself, but it was a little too late. She'd said it out loud, and she wasn't exactly going to say otherwise. "Oh," she spoke suddenly. She just remembered something. "I... don't know if you've been able to do it, yet, but," she paused for a second, and glanced down.

It was a little difficult to keep his gaze. "The... new sign I requested for Kyabetsu-san, if you don't... get to finish it before I leave, could you have Reiko deliver it for me? If you haven't started on it, then you don't have to do it at all. I just... I like your craftwork." She wasn't sure if he'd been able to work on it, or not. If he hadn't, that was okay. It wasn't like it was important, or at least she didn't think it was. She just liked his craftsmanship, and she figured Aram could use the new sign, anyway.

“It is finished," he replied. “But as you were the one who thought of it, I believe you should be the one to present it to him." Kentaro paused for a moment, face unreadable, before his eyes again snapped to the side.

Sayuri couldn't see whatever he was seeing, but she could hear the sound of a sliding door opening, and voices—a man's and a woman's. Kentaro sniffed the air, then scowled openly. It was more expression than she'd ever seen on his face before. He scoffed under his breath, shaking his head slightly.

He had a point, though, she supposed. Maybe she could present it to Aram before she left, as a sort of 'thank-you' gift. It would certainly be warranted. After all, if it hadn't been for his advice, she wouldn't have been able to help out Reiko. She did, however, take Kentaro's expression into consideration. She'd never really seen him express anything, least of all a scowl.

"Um, Kentaro-san, do you... want to go elsewhere? I could make you tea, if you'd like, of the lavender kind. Or, would you rather just go somewhere else? There's something that might be bothering you, and I'm not entirely sure what it is, but..." she really didn't know what to say or suggest. Clearly, whatever, or whoever, he was staring at was bothering him, somewhat. She couldn't see, and she didn't recognize the voices, so she didn't know what or who it was.

"Oh, um, if you want to, if it's finished, perhaps you'd like to accompany me to deliver it to Kyabetsu-san? You don't have to, and I could get Reiko to go with me, but I just... figured you'd like to be elsewhere?" she ended it as more of a question than a statement. He could, also, go wherever he wanted to go.

He blinked; when his eyes opened again, they were fixed once more on her. The scowl eased, but he still didn't look happy. “It is not I who has justification for displeasure," he said slowly. “It is you."

Her? She furrowed her brows in confusion. "Me? I don't... what do you mean?" she questioned. She was confused as to what he meant. She should be upset about something? Did it have something to do with whatever he was staring at?

Kentaro pushed a breath through his nose. Reaching out towards her, he closed a hand around her elbow and pulled her so that she was standing directly next to him, and able to see what he saw.

At least, she almost did, but his hand fell over her eyes the moment after. This close, she could feel a peculiar amount of heat radiating from his body, like a small furnace in the middle of winter. “There are some things that it is easier not to know," he told her. “Would you want to know anyway, if something I could show you could hurt you?"

She sighed softly. Whatever she was about to see, if she chose to, must have something to do with her. That much was obvious, but even so, she wanted to know. "Those are just risks we have to take, Kentaro-san. Even if you don't show me, I'm sure I'll find out eventually. At least... whatever it is that you show me, will only hurt me for a small amount of time. If I find out later, I think... that would hurt me more," she spoke honestly.

"Will you please let me know now, rather than later? she asked.

His hand lifted away, uncovering her eyes. It took a moment to understand what she was seeing, but it resolved itself after a few blinks.

Out on the engawa, completely oblivious to their presence, was Akarui-dono, her betrothed. Except he wasn't alone—rather, he was pressed into a secluded corner of the building with a woman. She wasn't one of those that worked for the Fujiwaras, which meant she was likely one of his own servants or retainers or relatives thereof. They were quite... enthusiastic about one another's presence, it seemed.

Kentaro was back to wearing no expression at all, but there might have been a flicker of anger beneath the passive look in his eyes as well.

She smiled softly, though she knew it wasn't one of happiness. Sadness, perhaps, but that was warranted, she supposed. "He is... a Lord, Kentaro-san. We are not married yet, and I doubt I will be the only one he... concubines are not that rare," she spoke, though she wasn't sure if she was trying to convince herself, or him. Of what, she wasn't even sure. It was no secret that most lords had concubines, and even if she was going to be married to one, she wouldn't be the only one he would take to his bed at night. She was aware of that.

"Thank you, Kentaro-san. You are... kinder than you appear to be," she spoke, turning to give him a polite bow. "I..." she paused and smiled again, dropping her gaze from him. "I have chosen to take this upon myself, for Reiko's sake, and for everyone else's. Please... do not think any less of him. We... will both be gone in a couple of weeks, and eventually, we will be gone in a few decades. We are only temporary, after all, Kentaro-san," she spoke softly, shaking her head.

"I'd like to see the finished product, though, if you don't mind." That, at least would keep her mind occupied. Her chest tightened somewhat, but she put it off as the hurt feeling that she'd said would only be temporary.

“That it is not rare doesn't make it right," he said, a strange firmness to his tone. Shaking his head, he turned to leave, presumably to take her to the finished placard as she'd asked him to do. His departure brought a sudden loss of heat in the air around her.

Kentaro walked with perfect posture; most of the Fujiwara did. Even Reiko seemed to have it ingrained by habit into her bearing. He wasn't stiff, though; his gait was rolling and smooth if anything. He glanced back over his shoulder once, to make sure she was following, perhaps.

Right or Wrong, it didn't matter. If she didn't do this, if she didn't go through with it, then the alliance might fall through. She was willing to swallow whatever dignity she had to keep this from doing that. It was, strangely, nice knowing that he had cared enough to tell her. She couldn't claim to know what any of them felt, and she wasn't sure if they could feel in any sense besides what they felt for Reiko, however; it was still nice.

She remained quiet, though, and followed after him.

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Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
Reiko stood outside the house; the sphere of light next to her flickered a contemplative violet. Sometimes, she wasn't entirely fond of the fact that the color of them reflected her true emotions. Fortunately, only a few people had been able to figure out the color scheme, so her feelings weren't generally public.

In that sense, she might be a hypocrite; she herself was here seeking information that someone might not want her to have. She wasn't truly sure she'd even be able to convince Aram-san to part with it, but she had to try. Ever since Sayuri had volunteered to marry Akarui-dono, Reiko had been beset by a deep feeling of unease and troubled dreams. She had to figure out why, and if anyone knew, it would be him.

She wasn't honestly entirely sure she believed in precognition, but... he was Ayla's brother, and Ayla was a werewolf. If she could exist, if Reiko and her family could exist, then it wasn't that outlandish to imagine that someone could see the future, right? She might not have any interest in knowing her own, but... if he could tell her what lay down this path, then she might have some idea of what to do about it.

Walking up the stairs to the front door, she smiled slightly at the brand new plaque on the arch. Fortune, declared the blue letters on black-laquered wood. She knew Kentaro's craftsmanship when she saw it. Knocking once on the door, she stepped back a bit and folded her hands politely in front of her. She could smell him around somewhere, so it was likely he was still inside.

Indeed, not more than a minute later, the door opened to produce Aram. He blinked down at her before he offered her a soft smile. "Reiko-san, good afternoon," he greeted. He glanced around, as if looking to see if she had company with her. He seemed satisfied with the results, and turned his attention back to her.

"Ah, forgive me. If you are here for Ayla, she is not here at the moment. I don't know where she went off to. She seems to be doing that a lot, lately, disappearing," he frowned only for a second before he smiled again. "Or is there something else that brings you here?" he asked, tilting his head to the side in the same questioning manner he always did. It made him seem more bird-like, the way he did it.

She was reminded of Suya's recent decision to call him Washi-san, and struggled to contain her smile. Instead she pursed her lips and nodded slightly.

“Actually, Aram-san... there is something this one would like to ask you." She figured she could try the direct approach first. Maybe it would surprise him into telling her, or perhaps he simply wouldn't have any objections to doing so. Perhaps ironically, she found him difficult to predict.

He blinked a few times, his head still tilted to the side. "Is that so?" he asked. He straightened himself back up, and stood to the side. "Perhaps, you would like to come inside, first. I was just making tea since it is, perhaps, the only thing I can do," he smiled softly to himself. "And I'm sure you do not want to stay out in the cold longer than you have to."

“Oh, the cold doesn't bother this one too much," Reiko confessed with a small smile. “This one has always been fortunate enough to have a very hardy constitution." And that was an understatement. Reiko knew she didn't look like much, but she was quite capable of dealing with a lot, especially in terms of physical hardship.

“But this one is grateful for your invitation nonetheless." It occurred to her a second later that entering a man's house unsupervised was not the sort of thing that she should really be doing, but no one was around to see, and Aram-san was... well, if not exactly her friend, then something close. She followed him inside, closing the door carefully behind her.

"That, and given what you are, makes weathering the cold easier, does it not?" he stated, glancing over his shoulder. It shouldn't be a surprise that he knew, considering Ayla was a werewolf, and all. He must have known about her kind, as well. "Ah, here we are," he spoke, leading her towards the living area. He motioned for her to take a seat, and went to retreive the tea and two cups. He returned a minute later, and set them on the table.

Once he poured each of them a drink, he sat, folding his hands over his cup, and smiled at her. "What assistance can I be to you, Reiko-san?" he spoke, keeping his gaze with hers.

She settled herself comfortably across from him before answering, taking a sip of the tea. It was warm and fragrant; she used that sensation to bolster herself. Glancing down at the table, she carefully arranged her words before raising her eyes to meet his. Such a pretty shade of gold, they were.

“Back when we first met... when you read Sayu-chan's fortune." She tilted her head at him; her eyes sharpened to keenness. Reiko could neither look nor be intimidating, but she could convey seriousness when she wished to. “This one does not... forgive me my bluntness, but this one does not believe that you said everything that you know at that time. This one... this one would like to hear the rest."

The smile that had been on his face disappeared, and a deep frown replaced it. He kept her gaze, though it hardened somewhat. If he could look angry, perhaps this is what it would look like, however; even that seemed like the wrong description of his expression. He sighed deeply, taking a sip of his own tea. He seemed to take her words into consideration, but he still remained quiet.

"I am not certain that is wise, Reiko-san. There are... things that are best left unsaid, unknown. What is Sayuri's future is one that she has to decide for herself. If it appeases you, though, her future is mostly happy," he spoke, though he seemed to hint that it wouldn't always be happy.

“Decide for herself? That's an interesting thing for you to say, Aram-san." She had rather thought that he believed fate was something that could not be changed, regardless of whether someone wanted to choose against it. Perhaps she had only inferred that because of his work.

“You say it is mostly happy, but not how long it is," she observed quietly, taking another sip of her tea.

He shook his head. "That is not what I meant," he sighed softly, taking another sip of his drink. He finally dropped his gaze from hers, and stared intently at his cup. "She has decided her future. Even if I had not informed her of her decision, she would have still made it. She has chosen to wed Akarui-san, has she not? Their union will be pleasant, but I cannot tell you of how long it will be that way. There are things you cannot change, Hino-san," he spoke, referring to her surname, for once.

"If I were to tell you what it is, how long her happiness and life would be, you would attempt to change it as many others have, before you. Each has resulted in a fate far worse than their original one, and I will not be responsible for someone who is important to you," he spoke with an odd sense of seriousness. He genuinely seemed to believe in what he said, if the way his gaze settled on her was anything to go by.

It was unusually grim.

“No," she agreed. “You would not be." Just as his demeanor firmed, so did hers; Reiko shifted so she was sitting even straighter in her spot.

“Aram-san, Sayu-chan is this one's only sister. She is indeed dear to this one, one of the dearest people in all the world. This one will protect her, no matter the cost. If... if you do not wish to help this one do that, or if you believe it is your duty to keep that information away from this one, then that is your prerogative. This one will make no attempt to force you." She paused, taking in a deep breath.

When she met his eyes again, hers were hard. She was not angry, only resolved. “But even by speaking as you have, you have made this one suspect that there is something I must work to change. And this one will not simply give up on the people I love."

Aram sighed deeply, though it was not a sign of capitulation. He did not look to give in, but instead, he met her steady gaze. He stared at her for a moment, perhaps studying her face or trying to read her expression. It was hard to tell. He must have decided on something, though, because the frown on his face disappeared. He didn't smile.

"You are just like her," he spoke, shaking his head. He was probably referring to Ayla, when he said that. "It is not that I do not wish to help you protect her, Reiko, but it is simply the way things must be. You cannot interfere with the way fate has tied her. If you do, you will only be sending her to a worse fate. If that is something you can handle, something you will allow yourself to do, then I will tell you," he spoke. His voice had gentled this time, and he glanced away from her.

Once he seemed to collect himself, he sighed softly, and straightened his posture back out. "Sayuri will not have a pleasant life after she is wed. She will fall in love with Heisuke, and bear him a child, however; the way he treats her..." he paused, swallowing a little thickly as he did so, "she will die in two years time. I do not know the exact cause of her death, but I do know that Heisuke will have been the reason. Whether it is something he did, or indirectly, it will be his fault."

He dropped his gaze after saying that, and took another drink of his tea. "Her future has not changed since I've seen it, though," he paused, pursing his lips together. "Something changed last night. It... was the first time I'd seen something like that happen, but the end result is the same. She will die, however; it was not Heisuke. I could not see who it was," he spoke softly before shaking his head.

"Regardless, Reiko, what you do with the information I have given you is your own, however; I must implore you to not interfere. If Sayuri is as important to you as you say she is, then you will let her go, and you will let her die. If something changes, even in the slightest, her fate will become worse, and I do not believe you would want that for her." He didn't seem apathetic in his plight. He had cringed slightly when he told her to let Sayuri die, and his face pulled into a solemn expression. It looked like it weighed heavily on him to know that kind of information.

Reiko considered that information for a long time. Sayu would fall in love with Heisuke, but he would kill her, directly or indirectly, in two years' time. That could be any number of things: an assassination, neglect, childbirth, or a simple transportation accident. But still... to hear that she would have an unpleasant life even for that remaining two years... that seemed to contradict what he'd said before about her being happy.

Maybe not. Maybe she'd be as happy as she could be in the circumstances. Maybe her love would give her that. But... two years. That was a remarkably short life, even by human standards. And a short life ending in unhappiness was the very last thing Sayuri deserved. So much seemed uncertain, though: what was it that had changed just last night? Aram-san claimed that the future should not be altered, that what was to come would be even worse if she tried, and yet... it was already changing, with or without her interference.

He spoke certainty from one side of his mouth and vaguenesses from the other. She wondered if that was intentional or just a side-effect, of being able to see the things he could see.

Finishing her tea, Reiko set the cup down in front of her. “This one will take your words under advisement, Aram-san. This one believed that you offer them with the best of intentions, and likewise this one would do well to respect your wisdom." That was true. And she did respect him. Very much so.

“But this one cannot live in a world where my only choice is to sit back and do nothing. To allow harm to come to those this one loves simply because I am afraid of worse. This one has to hope that better is possible." Smiling sadly, she rose to her feet and bowed, more deeply than she needed to.

“Please excuse this one for intruding upon your afternoon... and your thoughts." She turned to leave.

"Reiko," he called out just before she could leave. His gaze had softened considerably, but there was still an obvious blankness to it. "There is no better, for Sayuri-san. If you choose to interfere with her fate, you will be causing it to be far worse than it has to be. For Sayuri, the two years of life she has left will be the most happy she'll ever be. Do not deny her that happiness for something that will, inevitably, cause her deeper harm. I know you care for your sister, but... you must not interfere," his tone was so serious it was difficult to tell if this was the same Aram.

"You were not intruding, Reiko-san. I appreciate your company," he spoke, allowing a small smile to appear on his face. "Information like that is not easy to digest, but regardless, you are welcome to stay for tea, if you'd like," he offered.

Slowly, she shook her head. “No thank you, Aram-san." Reiko attempted to smile, but she could not. His words echoed in her mind, weighty and severe, like she was a child being chastised for doing something terrible. The same feeling.

And yet... some part of her truly believed he must be mistaken. That she could not be right. She knew not what to believe, only that she had a great deal of thinking to do before she could make any decisions. “I hope you enjoy your afternoon."

She left without another word.

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Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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Ayla sighed softly, pushing most of it through her nose, as she stared at the door. Aram was out, again, doing field work to help with their dwindling supply of funds, however; something had been weighing heavily on her. After her talk with Tatsuya, some part of her, a part that wouldn't stop nagging her, had the suspicion that Aram knew. She should have known, though, that the coincidence (and resemblance) should have tipped her off as to who they really were. Or at least she should have remembered Tatsuya. She knew Amon had children, and that he had had a daughter, but she didn't know her or his family thereafter.

She felt hurt, and it was a little too much for her to bear. He'd fallen in love with a human woman, whom he turned, and that had hurt more than anything. When he died, though... she wasn't sure if she'd died, too. It had felt as if someone had opened her chest, and ripped her heart out. Like they were just dangling it front of her and squeezing it. It was so painful, and even thinking about it was bringing those feelings back. She didn't like it.

But she had to know if Aram actually knew. She was aware of his abilities, just as he was aware of hers. If there was a possibility that he knew, then why didn't he tell her? Did his vision, somehow, involve her, too? She'd never known him to be secretive about things like that. He always told her, no matter what he'd seen, because he knew she wasn't going to tamper with her fate. If he'd seen her die, then she'd accept it. If he'd seen her some other way, she would accept it. He should have known that. She pushed the thougts away from her mind, and waited patiently for him to come home. It was another hour before he finally showed up, and the look on his face was one of mild surprise.

"Ayla, is something wrong?" he asked, though the look on his face suggested that he knew exactly what was going on. She just stared at him and waited for him to take a seat. Once he did, she folded her hands in her lap, and continued staring at him. She'd forgotten how old he really was, and how good he was at keeping his face passive and unreadable. Unless, of course, he wanted people to read him. That had certainly been the case when they first arrived.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she spoke finally, gauging his face for any reaction. Surprise, confusion maybe. Nothing. He simply stared at her before dropping his gaze. "So you did know," she continued, her voice oddly calm. She wasn't expecting it to be that way, and apparently, neither did he.

"I wasn't certain, at first, Ayla. But I did know that his family was here. I did not tell you because I knew how you would react," he spoke in a gentle manner. She almost scoffed at him. He knew how she would react?

"If you knew, then why even bring me along? Whatever it is you are doing here, it doesn't involve me. You could have left me where was," in a shit hole of a castle playing bodyguard. It wasn't the best job, and the lord she'd been protecting had offered her marriage, instead, however; she left when he did. She was not some woman to be kept as a trophy of sorts. That, and she wouldn't allow herself to be chained in such a way to a human. Aram, however, pursed his lips together.

"Because you were miserable there, Ayla. I wasn't going to leave you behind. Must I lose another sibling?" he spoke, and she flinched. She hated when he brought that up. "What I did, was for your best interests, Ayla. Believe me when I say that, however; I will not regret my decision to not tell you of their heritage. I am sorry you found out the way you did, but..." he paused to glance at her.

"No, Aram. They were not for my benefit. They were for yours," she spoke softly, and sighed. She shook her head at him, though, since he opened his mouth to say something. She, honestly, didn't want to hear him right now. "I do not know what makes you think so little of me, Aram, but do you not think I feel the same way, too? You know I would tell you everything if I had your ability," she began, but stopped herself from going any further. She stood from her spot and glanced at him.

"I don't know if I can trust you, right now, Aram. Until I can... I'm leaving," she stated. She didn't want to leave him behind, but if he did not trust her to tell her that much, how could she trust him? Maybe she was being selfish, or childish, but she did not care at the moment.

"Will you come back?" he asked. He made no attempt to stop her, and she didn't think he would. She only shook her head.

"I don't know, Aram," she spoke honestly. Maybe she would come back, once she reconciled with herself. Or maybe she'd simply leave him forever, and allow him to move on without her. She couldn't see how this played out, but she had a feeling he would. "I won't leave this place, though. I would not wish Reiko any more sadness than she is already dealing with. I'm sure you know about it," she was referring to Sayuri's predicament. He only nodded his head.

"Goodbye, Aram," she spoke softly.

"Goodbye, Ayla."

She walked out of the house, and into the streets. There was still some light outside, which was a good thing. She wasn't going to stay with Aram, not right now. She needed to find someplace else, somewhere she wouldn't be bothered too much. With that in mind, she walked down the streets, and passed by the market. The inns would likely be past them, and she could probably find something there. Maybe she could ask Setsuka for a room? She scoffed at the idea. She doubted the woman rented out rooms for a day. Or maybe she would? It'd be better to check the inns, first.

It had begun to snow outside, even as the sun fell below the horizon. The storm was sudden, from the way people were still outside and trying to protect their carts, stalls, and storefronts against the elements. But they also seemed quite used to it—perhaps late-winter snowfall was common here.

Not much longer afterwards, Ayla picked up the sound of a familiar voice—Reiko's voice. She was at the tofu cart, helping the owner stake down a protective covering of some kind over it and pack up her wares in crates. Since the proprietor was an old woman, she probably did need help with that sort of thing.

Ayla contemplated whether or not she would go assist. She sighed heavily, and slumped her shoulders. She should help out, at least. She made her way towards Reiko, stepping lightly over some products that had fallen from other carts. Once she was within distance of Reiko, she cleared her throat softly. "Reiko-chan, do you need help?" she could offer that much, she supposed.

Plus, being around Reiko would help her collect her thoughts, she supposed. It was always like that, now that she thought about it. Around both of them, Tatsuya included, she was always calm. Though in Tatsuya's case, it was when she was drinking with him. Reiko, however, didn't need to do that. It just happened.

“Oh, Ayla-san! This one would appreciate your help. Can you please move those boxes onto the horse-cart?" She pointed to the crates, and then a nearby cart with an old horse harnessed to the front. “Ando-san needs to get her wares home to ride out the storm."

Ayla blinked before glancing between the cart and the crates. "I can do that, sure," she replied, making her way towards the crates. With little effort, she lifted the crates and moved them to the cart. Once she had them loaded, she turned towards Ando-san and Reiko. "Is there anything else you need help with?" she decided to ask. It'd be better to get as much work done as possible before the storm came down harder, she supposed. Not that it bothered her too much, she was used to cold like this. That, and she always ran at a slightly warmer temperature.

It took a moment for Reiko to answer; she was busy driving a stake into the ground... with her bare hands. Sometimes it was easy to forget she wasn't quite human either, since she seemed so well-integrated with them, unlike most of the nonhumans around here. Other times, though, her heritage was extremely obvious. Fortunately, Ando-san was looking the other way.

Once the stake was secure, Reiko straightened, straightening her clothing a little where exertion had caused it to come slightly loose. “That should be everything. You're sure you'll be able to drive the cart home yourself, Ando-san?"

The old woman nodded. "Yes, dear. Even if I go blind, old Tachi here knows the way in any weather." she patted the horse's flank, though she did accept Reiko's hand up into the driver's spot. "I'll see you some time after the storm passes. Don't you stay out too much longer, dear."

Reiko nodded. “Yes Ando-san. Stay warm now."

With another nod and a flick of the reins, Ando-san was off down the road, and Reiko turned to Ayla. “Thank you for your help, Ayla-san. Can this one ask what you are doing outside? The storm started about half an hour ago; this one would have thought you'd be at home." She adjusted the conical straw hat on her head a little.

"About that," she spoke, glancing away from her. She wasn't entirely sure if she should tell Reiko, or not, that she was looking for a place to stay. "Aram and I are not exactly seeing eye to eye, right now. I was on my way to the inns to find a temporary place to stay," she spoke honestly. At least she didn't have to elaborate on that.

Reiko's expression quickly morphed to one of shock, but to her credit, she smoothed it over again almost right away. “Oh—oh well, you don't have to go looking. You can stay with this one; there are plenty of unused rooms at home." She offered a small smile.

"Reiko, that is kind of you to offer, but I don't think..." she paused, blinking slowly at herself. Well, it wouldn't be a bad idea considering she'd, somewhat, had a break through with Tatsuya, but she didn't want to impose, regardless. It would be weird for her, being in his home with his children. She sighed softly, and shook the thought from her mind.

"I don't want to impose on you and your family, Reiko," she decided to go with that, instead.

Reiko rolled her eyes. “You wouldn't be imposing, Ayla-san. It is exactly as this one said: there are plenty of spare rooms, and we don't exactly have to worry about the cost of feeding one more person, this one promises. Besides..." She sighed slightly, the brightness of her eyes dulling somewhat.

“This one thinks it would be nice to have you around, right now. This one is sure Sayu-chan would feel the same."

Well. Shit. She couldn't exactly say no to that. "If you are certain it will be no problem for you, Reiko, then I will accept your offer," she replied, trying her best to at least smile. It came out rather odd, she could feel it.

"I think it would be nice to be around both of you as well," at least until Sayuri had to leave. That still left a bitter taste in her mouth.

Reiko nodded, apparently satisfied with that. “Okay. Then we should go. This one will make sure a room is ready for you by the time you want to sleep tonight. In the meantime, you can catch up with Sayu-chan."

"I'd like that."

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
Nighttime was a period of relative peace and quiet in the Fujiwara household. Ordinarily, that was simply because the human servants were asleep. Now, they were joined by Akarui and his retainers, meaning that the difference was actually quite vast. Tatsuya preferred it when it was quiet like this; too much noise could make him feel overcrowded quite easily, especially when so many of the people were humans.

They couldn't help that they smelled like food, but they did. Particularly, like now, when he was still hungry.

He'd considered finding Reiko and asking if she felt well enough to offer him some of her blood, but she'd been unusually pensive and wan in the last couple of days. He didn't want to press the point when she was like that. He wondered if it was just Sayuri's situation that bothered her, or something else.

Perhaps she would recover now that Ayla was staying here. He hated to admit it on some level, but his sister did seem bolstered by the wolf-woman's presence. It was clearly mutual. Maybe a few months ago he would have been adamantly against allowing something like that to continue, against allowing Ayla into their home, but now he found that he didn't really mind. If she needed somewhere to be and Reiko wanted her around, he had no objections.

Settling his back against the tree, Tatsuya adjusted himself in the branches. It was a sakura tree, about to come into bloom early because it was in Reiko's garden and nothing in Reiko's garden ever really died, not even temporarily. He glanced at a slightly-orange gold sphere and frowned. Orange was anxiety. But it wasn't the dominant color; all of them had had at least traces of orange since they made that stupid bargain with Akarui.

It was snowing heavily now, but the air was still. Tatsuya actually found it quite pleasant; ice was his element, after all. His body ran cold and didn't suffer in the cold. Even if he shut his eyes, he could feel the flakes falling, bathed in a warm glow from the spheres.

Pushing a breath from his nose and observing it form a cloud in the air, he was about to draw something from his sleeve when he noticed something unusual.

Akarui was out of his room, pacing through the garden, accompanied by that weird advisor of his, the one that always seemed to be wearing a hooded robe. Apparently he was a priest or some shit. Tatsuya didn't care about human religion, but something about that guy made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He cocked his ear, picking up the sound of Akarui's voice.

“—leave soon? I think the blond one hates me. The younger one. Seems like he's everywhere."

“Has he said anything to you?" The advisor's voice was smooth, like oil, and just about as greasy, in Tatsuya's opinion.

They drew closer to his tree, apparently unaware of his presence, and Tatsuya consciously concealed it now, curious as to what exactly was going on between Akarui and Kentaro. His brother didn't waste energy or time on emotions like hate, and definitely would not interfere in the lord's business without a very good reason.

“No," Akarui replied. “But I saw him speaking with Risa the other day. What would he want with her?"

Tatsuya could practically hear the adviser roll his eyes. “Perhaps the same thing you usually want with her?"

Oh, so they thought this was about sex then. Risa must be one of Akarui's women. Most lords had several. But not while they were negotiating a marriage in the home of a host. That was pretty close to dishonoring Sayuri, and by extension, the rest of them. Tatsuya didn't give a fuck what he did, obviously, but it wasn't a wise move. Jirō might get offended by something like that.

But Kentaro didn't give a shit about any of that. Tatsuya wasn't sure he'd taken a lover since that time he and Tsubasa had practically forced him into an okiya a few hundred years ago. If he had, he'd done it much more subtly than Tatsuya ever bothered being.

So then why was he talking to Akarui's concubine?

“You think so? That fucking—"

"I don't suggest you bring it up," the adviser said dryly. "Lest your habits in this matter become the object of public scrutiny. You have not been faultless, Akarui-dono. It would be poor form to make that public knowledge, don't you think?"

They passed out of range of even Tatsuya's excellent hearing thereafter. Snorting, he shook his head. Whatever.

Withdrawing his shakuhachi from the sleeve of his gi, Tatsuya polished the bamboo on his shirt before raising it to his lips. After a few practice scales, he settled into a song, taking advantage of the fact that no one was around to bother him, for now.

"Didn't know you could play that well," he wasn't alone for long, it seemed. "Don't mind me, I'm just passing through," she spoke, though she didn't make an obvious effort to leave just yet. She just stared at him for a moment, shook her head, and then took a step forward. "I take it that that was Akarui? she questioned. Her nose seemed to wrinkle, though, as she did. She probably didn't like the way Akarui smelled.

Tatsuya stopped playing, moving the flute down a few inches. He wasn't surprised at her presence; his nose was likely almost as good as hers, and she had a distinctive scent. But he hadn't expected her to address him.

Blinking, he shrugged. “And his spiritual adviser, or whatever that guy is. But yes. That was them." Tatsuya adjusted himself on his branch, but made no effort to climb down to speak. She could hear him just fine.

Someone had put her in a different kimono; one that had not been his at any point. He suspected Reiko and Sayuri. Reiko did not like to dress in that way, herself; she hadn't since their father had died. But she did enjoy treating other people like her dolls. Even him, sometimes.

“You look different," he said casually, turning his flute over a few times in his fingers. “Blue's a good color on you." If she'd been wearing white, she might well have faded into the snowy backdrop, like the yuki-onna from some of the old man's stories.

She scoffed lightly, rolling her eyes. "Your sister had something to say about that, actually. She wouldn't let me wear what I wanted to," she almost grumbled the last words. She shrugged her shoulders lightly, though. "I obviously have no fashion sense, or so Sayuri told me. But if it's comfortable, I'm going to wear it. If not, I won't. Simple as that," she continued, her words holding some truth.

"As for the color," she continued, glancing down at it. "It's not my favorite color. I'd much prefer something darker, maybe a red or purple. But like I said, I apparently don't have any fashion sense," she said, glancing off towards the side. Her eyes narrowed somewhat, as if she'd heard something he could not, before she directed her attention back to him.

“I don't know; personally I've found some of your sartorial selections to be rather inspired," he replied, arching an eyebrow. “But then, I suspect I'm not the only man who enjoys seeing a pretty woman in his clothes." He shrugged.

For a moment, Tatsuya flipped his flute around between his fingers, turning it end-over-end without really paying much attention. “I trust you're comfortable? My sister and that idiot Jirō would both be displeased if I did not do what a good host must and inquire after your well-being." Though... he found he didn't mind. Perhaps he would have, anyway. He wasn't sure what to make of that.

Ayla gave him a blank stare before she barked out a short laugh. "Yeah, I'm sure," she replied with a light shake of her head. "And I'm sure they also enjoy the thought of removing it as well," she spoke, though she rolled her eyes at that one. "I'm about as comfortable as I can be, I suppose. It's not... quite the same as home, but I can't quite complain," she answered, glancing back up at him.

"She doesn't need to go out of her way to accommodate me, though. I'm not exactly important to warrant such things," she spoke in a nonchalant manner. "I might be her friend, but still," she furrowed her brows at that and pursed her lips together. She probably didn't like the way she was being treated, although anyone else in her position might have been a little too overjoyed.

"But I'd probably just make her upset if I said that."

He shrugged. “Reiko doesn't rank importance with title. You know that. So to her, you're probably the most important guest we have. Besides, rank or no, you are a guest. That's enough for most of them." He paused. “Watch out for Daichi, though. He's a bitter little shit, especially recently."

Tatsuya supposed revealing family politics to her wasn't strictly decorous, but he didn't care, either. If Daichi was going to be a stupid prick, he deserved to have people know about it and avoid him accordingly.

"Oh? Is that concern I hear?" she spoke somewhat amused. She laughed softly, though. "Bitter little shit or not, I don't really have to watch out for much. You should know that. My bite is, after all, a lot worse than my bark. Trust me," she stated, perhaps in a confident tone. "Reiko and Sayuri keep me occupied most of the time, so I don't really have much to worry about. I think I've only really met Kentaro so far," she shrugged her shoulders to indicate she didn't really care.

"And you, of course. So, that makes two out of, what, eight?"

He wasn't saying it because he thought Daichi was going to assault her. So the relative power of her bark and her bite had nothing to do with it. But whatever. He was slightly off-put by the allegation that he was concerned, since he really wasn't but he let it pass.

“Six. You'll run into the rest of us eventually," he said, quite certain of it. “There's Jirō, the idiot with the black hair. He's the oldest after me, and probably already knows who you are since he's a nosy shit who knows more than anyone needs to. You'll know which one he is because he dresses the fanciest. Tsubasa's the loudmouth usually carrying a spear. And he's bored easily. The two of you are kind of alike, actually."

Now there was an alarming thought. “You know Kentaro already. Daichi's a redhead, with a sour look on his face all the time. Takahiro's the blind one; his hair's the same color as yours."

She didn't bother hiding her amusement. She was laughing, as if he'd said something funny. Perhaps to her, it was. "Well then, I suppose I'll just have to stay clear of everyone but Tsubasa, if we're so alike. Even if its the slightest bit," she replied. The amusement died down, though, and her face seemed to pull back into a passive stare.

"I won't keep you any longer. Thanks for the heads up about your family, I suppose. Don't take this the wrong way but..." she paused, a frown tugging at her lips. "If you need anything I can help with, I'll try. I doubt you'll need it, though, but the offer's there," she spoke, though it was uncertain of what she meant by that. Maybe she was just trying to be nice? "I told Reiko the same thing, so..." she trailed off there at the end.

It was Tatsuya's turn to laugh. The sound was deep and rich; he seldom heard it himself. “Yeah? And if I decide it's been too long since I got laid? You gonna volunteer to come to bed with me and help?" He grinned, well aware that that wasn't at all what she'd meant. “Don't ever give me an open offer, Ayla; I like pushing too much."

"Obviously," she replied, giving him a flat look. She didn't look as amused as he was, and her lips were pursed into a fine line. "If it's been too long since you last got laid, I'd suggest going back to Setsuka's. I'm sure she can arrange something for you. That, or you could find other willing subjects," she wrinkled her nose at that.

"But whatever, ass. All I meant is that if there was something you needed that doesn't require your bed, I'll try and help you," she pursed her lips, the amusement dropping from her face. "I don't exactly know how you all deal with that thirst, either. Can't be easy since you have so many humans around," she stated, her eyes narrowing somewhat. She'd know about that, of course.

"See you around, I guess," she stated, turning to leave and waving over her shoulder.

He snorted, shaking his head as she left and raising his shakuhachi back to his lips.

Teasing her was far too much fun.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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Sayuri sighed softly, shaking loose the strands of her hair. It was only a few more days before Spring would, officially, arrive, and that meant she would be leaving. She'd tried not to let what she'd seen bother her, and she'd managed to do okay with it. Akarui-dono was a lord, and she would, undoubtedly, be his wife, but not the only woman in his life. Most lords kept a wife, and multiple concubines just for the sake of having heirs. Maybe she wouldn't be able to give him one, and he'd resort to one of the concubines? Maybe he'd make her a concubine instead? She shuddered at the thought.

"Something bothering you, Yuri-chan?" it was Ayla's voice that snapped her out of her stupor. She turned to greet her friend, and offered her a soft smile. Ayla just raised a brow in her direction. "I'll take that as a yes," she spoke. Sayuri shook her head, though, trying to persuade her otherwise. Ayla didn't look convinced.

"I'm fine, Ayla-chan. I'm just... I think I'm finally nervous about the upcoming wedding and departure," she answered honestly. Ayla sighed, as if she'd been expecting that. "I just, I've lived here since I was a small girl. It's going to be weird to leave. I mean, I didn't really expect to live out the rest of my life here. I'd... probably have gotten married eventually, and I wouldn't be able to stay here." That was, of course, assuming she'd find someone who would marry her despite her relation to the Fujiwaras.

"Yuri-chan, tell me truthfully, why did you agree to take Reiko's place?" Ayla spoke, and the look in her eyes looked serious.

"Because Reiko is loved, here. They wouldn't... everyone would be miserable without her, and she keeps them whole. I don't know how else to explain it, Ayla-chan. At least... with me, I wouldn't be missed too much. I think, really, the only ones who would actually miss me would be you and Reiko-chan," the words she spoke were true, after all. Sayuri wasn't certain if anyone besides Reiko, would miss her. Who was she but a human girl amongst a family of... she wasn't even sure she knew the right word to call them.

"Really? Is that what you think?" Ayla didn't seem to happy about her choice, but she didn't look like she was going to press it any further. Instead, she sighed and shook her head. "Sayuri-chan, you don't give yourself enough credit. You'd be missed by everyone who cares about you, and not just Reiko or myself," she spoke, causing Sayuri to frown somewhat.

"But it's alright, Ayla-chan. I think... this might actually turn out good for me. I'll be able to live out the rest of my life knowing I was able to help my family when they needed it. But, I think I'd rather talk about other things, Ayla-chan, if you don't mind. I just... I need to focus on something else," because the more she thought about it, the more scared she became. She didn't understand why, and she wasn't going to go back on her decision.

"Let's see if Reiko-chan is finished with her duties, alright?" she stated. Ayla sighed, but slumped her shoulders somewhat. She only tilted her head indicating Sayuri to lead the way. Sayuri just smiled. Sometimes Ayla could be thoughtful, and sometimes she could be pushy. She was glad that it was the former, and not the latter, at the moment.

They passed by several of the more official chambers in the castle. Fortunately, that had been the right thing to do; Reiko emerged from one of them as they went by. Sayuri knew it to be Jirō's private office; Reiko usually spent about an hour with him once every few days, in addition to whatever incidental contact they had. It was part of what she'd meant, when she talked about how Reiko kept them whole. All of them sought her out, some more frequently, like Tatsuya or Kentaro, and others less, like Jirō or Daichi.

Reiko was holding a hand to her neck when she exited, but let it fall when she saw them. There was nothing but smooth skin underneath, but Sayuri had lived here long enough to understand what had probably just happened. It clearly never bothered her sister, though, and Reiko smiled softly at both of them.

“Sayu-chan, Ayla-san. What brings you to this part of the house?"

"We were looking for you, actually," Ayla spoke first. Sayuri nodded her head to agree, though she wasn't entirely sure why they were looking for Reiko. Ayla only said to find her if her duties were up, but she didn't know what the woman was planning, if she was planning anything at all. "I think we all need a little time for ourselves, don't you?" she spoke, quirking a brow in their direction. Sayuri was a little confused by what she meant. Didn't they always have time for themselves?

"I am not sure what you mean by that, Ayla-chan," she decided to say. Ayla glanced at her with a rather flat look, and Sayuri almost felt small beneath it. "B-but I'm sure that whatever you have in mind will be good," she added quickly. Ayla shook her head and huffed.

"What I have in mind is something that will both help you relax. The hotspring," she stated as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Sayuri coughed slightly and glanced to the side. She didn't have a problem with it, but she'd only ever really bathed with Reiko. Ayla, though they were friends, was still a stranger in that respect, to her.

"I... don't know about that, Ayla-chan. Maybe... maybe something else?" besides, she didn't think she needed a dip in the hotspring. They'd just bathed recently, after all.

Reiko's face remained more or less neutral. Sayuri knew she was very self-conscious about her appearance, and so probably not the most comfortable with the idea, but to her credit, she didn't give any sign of that. “Well, whatever the two of you wish to do to relax is fine by this one. It seems we could all use a break."

Ayla scoffed just slightly, and rolled her eyes. "If you'd rather do something else, what would you suggest? I can't think of anything more relaxing than a nice hotspring dip, but if there's something else," she spoke, raising a brow in their direction. Sayuri contemplated the decision, for a moment. Having tea would probably be too boring for them, and it wasn't exactly a relaxing method. She chewed the bottom of her lip for a moment longer.

"We could go take a break in the garden?" she suggested. At least there, they would have privacy, and they wouldn't have to worry about anyone, who wasn't part of the Fujiwara household, bothering them. "Some of the flowers are in bloom, and I'm sure it'll be nice to just be able to relax without being bothered by anyone," she spoke. It's not like they would be bothered either way, but perhaps they'd like the idea more-so that way.

"Or we could just stand around and do nothing," Ayla replied flatly. Apparently she didn't like the idea too much, but she didn't seem entirely upset about the suggestion. "You know what, I haven't been around the entire household yet, and I'm sure there are places of interest. How about you show me around a bit? Walking is a good way to relax, too, you know," she suggested. That wasn't a bad idea, and walking could help them clear their minds.

"Because I don't think Reiko would like the idea of being taken out to town and finding something more suitable for her to wear, for once," she added, her lips quirking up slightly. Sayuri shook her head softly. She knew, for a fact, that Reiko wouldn't want that. If anything, it'd get turned around on either herself or Ayla, if they tried.

“We can walk around, then," Reiko said, her silence on the last matter speaking for itself. Smiling slightly at the both of them, she turned to lead the way, but only by a small distance, still close enough to converse quietly with the both of them.

“As you may have guessed, this is the more public area of the castle. My brothers and this one all have office spaces here, where we can take care of any business that needs doing. This one just came from Jirō's office. The one down here at the end of the hall is Tatsuya's." She pointed at the largest of the sliding doors. The screens were done in a tasteful design of black and gold dragons on white rice paper; it was quite elegant, actually.

Reiko paused a moment. “He... doesn't spend much time in there. Tatsuya prefers not to bother too much with the business side of things. It... this one can understand that, but it does tend to make certain things... less clear." It was obvious there was more to say there, but she hesitated.

Sayuri could tell Reiko was probably debating how much to reveal to Ayla. Not even she knew the full details of the family's current situation. The Fujiwara guarded their secrets carefully, for the most part, however open or careless they seemed otherwise.

Ayla didn't seem too bothered by it, regardless, only nodding when Reiko explained something. She scoffed slightly at Reiko's statement about Tatsuya, but it was a little difficult to tell if it was out of amusement or something else. "I suppose that makes some sense, all things considered," she spoke, but didn't say anything further. Sayuri smiled somewhat, and glanced towards Reiko.

"I don't have one, though," she spoke, smiling as she did so. She didn't need an office for the obvious, or not so obvious in this case, reasons. "I don't have duties like they do," she continued, though the smile on her face did not falter. She didn't think Fujiwara-dono would ever give her something like that, not because he didn't trust her, but simply because she wouldn't need it. She was, actually, slightly grateful for that. She didn't have to worry about the things the others did, and that left her to help them recover from it. Or at least Reiko.

"I'm sure that'll change once you become an Akarui," Ayla spoke a little too casually, however; she visibly flinched at the way she said it. "Sorry, Yuri-chan, I didn't mean it that way," she apologized.

"Oh it's alright, Ayla-chan, it didn't do any harm," though it did sting somewhat. She still wasn't entirely sure about it, now, but she'd resolved herself to do it. "And I doubt that I will have any position of importance, other than being Akarui-dono's wife," she spoke, and Ayla frowned deeply. She muttered something softly beneath her breath but Sayuri couldn't hear it.

A strangely-dark look crossed Reiko's face for a moment, then disappeared. “Out this way are the main practice grounds and barracks," she said, gently drawing the topic away from potential awkwardness and back into safe subjects. She pulled open a door, letting them outside.

The practice ring was routinely cleared of snow, so there wasn't any around at the moment. Barracks buildings were set along the property's outer wall, visible over the various areas for weapon training and the like. “This one's family does not have an army in the sense that most do; rather, we have a small contingent of household guards, and then... this one's brothers themselves."

In the ring, a man with unruly brown hair and a red headband was wielding a spear against Kentaro, who had a very long ōdachi in a doublehanded grip. Their sparring was clearly aggressive; both of them moved with exceptional quickness and precision; each clash of metal rang loud in the still winter air. After one particularly rough collision, the spearman split into several identical copies of himself; all of them charged Kentaro at once.

He hardly seemed surprised by that, however, and waited patiently, striking with all the suddenness of an explosion, batting the first spear aside and throwing his elbow into that clone's nose, sending him reeling back. He flowed into a kick, landing it on the second's chest and sending him flying outside the ring, crashing into the wooden fence that bounded it. Shifting his grip so that it was one-handed, he caught the blade of the next spear in his bare hand, sweeping that clone's legs out from underneath him. With careful control, he stabbed downwards, enough to leave a small cut on the clone's neck. Apparently that was the "deathblow," because the clone disappeared.

Red eyes flickered to the watchers; he paused for a moment when they landed on her, as though he were... hesitating?

“Too slow, Taro!"

The spearman reappeared behind him, swinging down. Kentaro blocked, but with only one hand, it wasn't sturdy enough, and Tsubasa's momentum broke it, leaving a thin cut along Kentaro's throat of the same kind the latter had given the clone just a moment ago.

“I yield," he said softly.

“Damn, I thought you had me that time. How long's it been since I won one, eh?" Tsubasa turned his attention to the three women and shot them a broad grin. “Rei! And Sayu-chan. Guess it must be my turn to meet Ayla-san, right?" He closed the distance with an easy jog, Kentaro following at a much more sedate pace.

Sayuri offered them a bright smile, and a polite bow. "Afternoon, Tsubasa-san, Kentaro-san," she greeted them once they were close enough. Ayla had a small look of amusement on her face before it disappeared. There was still a small grin on her face, though, and if Sayuri had the ability to be more preceptive, she looked, maybe, a little agitated? Maybe it was the sparring match?

"I've already met the two blonds," she spoke, tilting her head towards Kentaro, and referring to Tatsuya. They were the only ones, that she knew, that had the golden colored hair. "And it looks like I don't need to introduce myself since you already know my name, but," she spoke, pausing for a moment to glance at Reiko before her attention drifted back to Tsubasa, "I'd rather not be rude to my generous hosts. I am Ayla, yes."

"She is staying with us for the moment, as you know," Sayuri spoke. She didn't really need to say that, since they all knew she was a guest, but she felt, strangely, nervous. She was starting to suspect she might be coming down with something. That, or it was probably something else. She glanced towards Kentaro, and offered him a smaller smile.

He tilted his head slightly at her; his eyes fell to her smile and then returned to hers. He made no effort to replicate the expression, but then... it wasn't even clear that Kentaro knew how to smile. He certainly never did. Still, it was clear in his subtle way that he'd acknowledged hers.

His brother seemed more or less oblivious to the exchange, and addressed Ayla after nodding and grinning at Sayuri. “Well, nice to meet ya, then. I'm Tsubasa. I'd say welcome or whatever, but I guess it's probably a bit late for that since you've been here a few days." Tsubasa was one of those people with a semi-permanent smile on his face and an obvious good nature. He didn't always come off as the sharpest of his siblings, but he was more clever than he let on, at least. He also really, really enjoyed fighting; he trained all the house guards.

He gave Ayla a small bow, then rose from it and straightened to his full height. He was shorter than Kentaro or Tatsuya, but taller than the rest, still well over six feet. “If ya get bored and want to practice or something sometime, you're welcome to use the ring. I'd be obliged if you wanted to beat some sense into a few of my guys; they get tired of only losing ta me." He seemed fully confident that they would lose to Ayla as well.

"I'm afraid they wouldn't give me much of a challenge, Tsubasa-san. You, on the other hand, would maybe be more of a challenge," Ayla responded a little lightheartedly, however; from the tone of her voice, she was slightly serious. Sayuri just blinked in her direction. Didn't she just see how Tsubasa fought? Did she really think she had a chance against the Fujiwaras? She was half inclined to think Ayla was mad, but the grin on her face, and the confident bearing of her stand all pointed to her being serious.

"Ayla-chan, Tsubasa-san and the others are really good at what they do," she began, however; Ayla merely turned to her with a raised brow.


"And you might get hurt," she stated, pursing her lips together. Ayla laughed. Sayuri wasn't so sure it was a funny thing, because Ayla could get hurt. Seriously, so.

"Oh, trust me Yuri-chan, he could try to hurt me," she spoke, offering Tsubasa somewhat of a strange, yet challenging, grin. Sayuri just shook her head and glanced towards Reiko.

Tsubasa shrugged. “Well, challenge is a matter of creativity, Ayla-san. For example, fighting ten of them with your hands tied is very different from dueling one of them with weapons. You don't have ta, obviously; I just figure you might get a little restless around here is all." He didn't seem insulted or even surprised by Ayla's confidence or her insinuations.

“As for me, well, I might take ya up on that sometime. But for now, I've gotta go make a patrol schedule, so I'm afraid I'm gonna have to leave you with Taro here. He might fight ya, though." Tsubasa clapped Kentaro on the shoulder, leaned in to give Reiko a bear-hug, and nodded to Sayuri and Ayla.

“Till next time, then." With a jaunty wave, he was off.

Ayla muttered something beneath her breath, something that vaguely sounded like she wouldn't even need her hands, however; she didn't say anything out loud. Instead, she bowed before Tsubasa left. Sayuri let loose a sigh of relief; she hadn't realized she was holding it. She glanced towards Kentaro, and then towards Ayla and Reiko. Ayla didn't look so inclined to fight with Kentaro, but it was apparent that she was slightly tense. Sayuri frowned somewhat.

"Ayla-san, perhaps you'd like to spar with someone else, for now? I'm sure Kentaro-san would like to rest, if not something else?" she couldn't presume to know what Kentaro felt, only that he might be tired after sparring with Tsubasa. She wasn't sure if they ever really got tired, though, considering how hard they went at each other. And considering what they were, actually. Ayla just shook her head.

"Perhaps another time. I believe Taro-san might actually be a challenge for me," she spoke, grinning somewhat at Kentaro before shaking her head. "Well, unless there are any other places to visit, perhaps we should go find lunch? I'm starving," she stated, drawing out the last word. Sayuri smiled softly.

"I forget how much you can eat, sometimes, Ayla-san," she spoke in a light manner. Ayla ate about as much as three grown men, sometimes, and it was a little hard to believe, considering how she looked. "Ah, would you like to join us, Kentaro-san?" she decided to ask. Reiko and Kentaro didn't necessarily need food the way she and Ayla did, but they did seem to enjoy it when they could. Or at least Reiko did.

Kentaro appeared to consider that for a moment, then nodded slightly.

Reiko smiled a bit. “There's more to see, but we can leave that for later if you're all hungry. The dining room is this way." She led them back inside, down one of the more private hallways this time. Sayuri knew this was the wing where most of the family lived; her own room was down at the end of the hall, next to Reiko's.

Ahead of her, Reiko's shoulders tensed slightly. It wasn't clear why until they'd made it about halfway down the hall—Daichi was approaching. He'd never done more than spare Sayuri a glance; they'd never even really had a proper conversation. He wasn't as physically imposing as some of the others, but his red eyes were sharper than those belonging to his kin. Harsher.

He did not stop to acknowledge them as they passed in the hall, though he did spare Reiko a small nod. The rest of them might well have not existed for all the attention he paid them. Kentaro's expression didn't change, but Reiko frowned slightly and sighed.

“That was Daichi," she explained to Ayla, as soon as he was well out of earshot. “He... he's not a bad person, really. But things have been tense lately, between him and the rest of the family."

"I'll say," was the only thing Ayla said. She looked thoughtful for a moment, as if trying to recall something. "I guess that makes most of the family. I haven't officially met Jiji, or whatever his name is, or Takahiro, but I suppose I'll meet them eventually," Ayla stated. She must have been counting how many of the brothers they'd met so far. Sayuri smiled, though.

"His name is Jirō, Ayla-san," Sayuri corrected. She shrugged her shoulders, and Sayuri just shook her head. Sometimes she wondered if Ayla came from a family similar to her own, or if she'd been raised somewhere else. She certainly didn't have the proper decorum around those of noble blood, and didn't seem to care much either way. She treated everyone about the same, and she wasn't sure how most of them would react to that.

"I guess," she finally spoke. "Well, let's go eat. I've got a hole burning in my stomach, right now," she certainly didn't speak like a noble, either. Sayuri laughed softly.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
Reiko sighed, wrapping the last of the onigiri and placing it into the large basket. It didn't take her long to clean up the kitchen after herself; the trick was going to be making it out of the estate without anyone noticing.

It wasn't that she felt her activities needed to be a secret, exactly; but considering the present state of things... it was just a conversation she'd rather not have. Even she wasn't completely sure how she felt about everything right now, but she couldn't leave someone in a bad situation if she knew she could make it better.

Ironic, that the very same trait that had caused all these problems was moving her now. Or maybe just far too predictable.

She made it out to the front gate without encountering company, but she wasn't lucky after that. Kentaro had appeared in front of her, staring flatly at her with his arms in his sleeves.

“Er, Kentaro. This one..." she wasn't really sure what to say.

He spared her the trouble of figuring something out. “I will accompany you," was all he said.

Reiko, relieved that he wasn't going to try and stop her, nodded. “Please don't tell Ayla-san. This one is sure she wouldn't mind, exactly, but... it might be better not to have the conversation right now. It doesn't seem to be something she wants to think about."

“And you?" he asked. In two words, he managed to strike right at the heart of the matter. Doubtless all of them had noticed her trips to the village becoming less frequent. Too soon for it to be her need to "leave" and eventually "die" as they all did from time to time, so that the humans in the town below would never be able to confirm their suspicions about the lord and his family. There could only be a few things that would cause it instead.

Reiko pursed her lips. “He must be terribly lonely," she said softly. Guilt welled up in her chest. She was no replacement for Ayla's company, she knew that. Arguably, they weren't even friends, as such. That was a word usually reserved for people she knew better than she knew him. But... still. He was alone now, and there was something she could do to make that a little easier, and...

She hadn't.

Not until today.

Kentaro said nothing, leaving Reiko to keep the conversation going or let it die. For a while, she chose the latter, but then she spoke. “Kentaro, if..." she paused, trying to consider her words before she said them. “If you knew that something bad was going to happen to someone you loved..." She took a breath.

“If you knew that, but had good reason to suspect that your attempt to help them would only make things worse... what would you do?"

He was silent for a long time. She chanced a glance sideways at his face; he looked contemplative. To most people, he probably just looked blank all the time, but Reiko could read him better than anyone else.

“I suppose it would depend," he said at last. “On how bad the first thing was. On what the other person wanted. On how reliable the information was."

“So, um... let's say the thing is absolutely terrible. The person thinks they want it, but they don't know how bad it's going to be, and they're the self-sacrificing type in the first place. And... the information is pretty reliable, but not... but not completely certain."

They walked for a few more minutes. “I would try to help anyway," he said. “If the choice was between something that would definitely be terrible and something that might be worse but might be better, I'd take the chance." He sounded almost like he was speaking from some kind of personal experience, or trying to convince himself more than her, but Reiko wasn't sure why.

She nodded anyway. “This one sees."

“One thing, though," he added quietly. “If the information was that it would be worse if I helped, then perhaps I would try to enlist others, as well. The more possible solutions, the less likely you'd get a bad one."

Reiko would have to contemplate that later, because they had reached their destination. Adjusting the basket on her hip, she reached up and knocked on Aram's door. Because she had imbued the area with her power, she knew that he was inside, even without smelling him or hearing him or anything like that. Whether he would answer was another matter. Things hadn't exactly gone smoothly last time she'd visited him.

It was a few minutes before the door opened, revealing Aram. He looked less... himself, than the last time she'd seen him. His eyes were slightly sunken in, and there were dark circles underneath his eyes as if he hadn't been sleeping well. At all. His skin looked a little more pale than it had last time, and that could have either been the lack of sunlight, or something else. He blinked a few times before realization seemed to dawn on him, and he offered her, and Kentaro, a small smile.

"Reiko-san, Minamoto-san," he greeted softly, offering them a polite bow. He didn't open the door, though, even as his eyes landed on the basket she held. "What brings you by? I thought..." he paused in his words, glancing away from them for a second, before his eyes landed back on her.

"Is there something I can help you with?" he seemed to ask, the small smile on his face returning.

Reiko's discomfort only increased. Clearly, he had not been dealing well with the absence of his sister. She supposed she could understand, and it made her feel worse for not doing this before now. She smiled as gently as she could, trying not to seem uneasy, and swallowed before she spoke.

“This one thought... you might be in need of something good to eat. Um... not that this one thinks you can't provide for yourself, that is. This one means—" she cut herself off, red rising to the surface of her cheeks, and made a frustrated noise at her own inability to do this right.

“She cooked for you because she knows you don't know how," Kentaro said bluntly, causing the color to deepen.

Kentaro," she scolded, shaking her head. As usual, he'd told the truth, but in the least-tactful way possible. Sighing, she returned her attention to Aram. “This one... doesn't know what happened, with Ayla-san, but..." She hesitated. The next words could very easily be interpreted wrongly, but there weren't really any better ones.

“This one doesn't want you to be lonely. Or hungry." She held out the basket towards him. If he didn't want her company, she wasn't going to force it on him. But she did want him to at least take the food.

Aram took the basket, gingerly, and stared at her for a moment. His eyes seemed to glisten somewhat, but it disappeared just as quickly, and a smile bloomed over his face. "You are too kind, Reiko-san," he spoke, staring at the basket. He stood there for a moment before he glanced back at them. He seemed to be contemplating something, however; he shook his head, and moved back somewhat.

"I'm afraid I do not have Ayla's flair for cooking. I... you have my thanks," he spoke softly. "You are welcome to come inside, Reiko-san, Minamoto-san. I... am afraid there isn't much I can offer in return, but perhaps I can make you some tea?" he spoke, offering them some space so that they could go inside, if they chose to.

Reiko wasn't sure, but she suppressed her own discomfort. If he was in shape this bad, chances were he hadn't had anyone to talk to in just as long. To her, that was more important than the awkwardness she still felt from their previous disagreement.

“Tea sounds lovely," she said softly. Beside her, Kentaro nodded, and the both of them entered the home they'd helped build. “If you like, I can see what I can throw together with whatever you have right now, too. Everything in the basket will last at least a few days, so you don't have to worry about it for a while." She wouldn't want to eat any of that herself, but maybe he'd be amenable to sharing a meal with the two of them anyway.

He frowned slightly. "I am afraid the only thing I have left are a few carrots, a head of cabbage, and some leeks. I haven't had the chance to venture to the market, in a while," he confessed softly. "I do not mind sharing what you have made, though. It is yours, after all, even if you had the intention of giving it to me," he spoke just as gently. He didn't look like he minded at all, actually, as if offering to share the food was natural to him. He was, perhaps, kind that way, too. He'd share whatever he had, even if it wasn't much.

"The tea, though, is well-stocked. Ayla... wasn't much for tea," he continued, stepping to the side so he could begin work on the tea.

“Okay," Reiko said quietly. Silently, she resolved to herself to visit again within the next few days, and bring more food and groceries with her. She knew Ayla probably hadn't intended to leave her brother destitute when she went, and Reiko wasn't sure she should know that she had. Yet another thing she'd have to think about carefully before deciding on.

Kentaro, with a nod, moved to sit in the living room, allowing Reiko to follow Aram into the kitchen by herself. While he was making the tea, she carefully unpacked the basket, putting things away where they belonged. Only a few items needed to go into his icebox; the rest of them would keep perfectly well in the pantry. She counted out how many meals he had, then subtracted what she was taking from the number of days before she'd have to come back.

She plated and dished still-warm miso soup, since that would taste best now rather than later, and added some rice for each of them, and a bit of gingered fish. “This one is sorry," she said, focusing on her task rather than trying to look at him. “This one should have come by sooner."

"You have nothing to apologize for, Reiko-san. This... is not your fault. It is mine," he whispered the last word softly, as if he truly believed it was. "But I have resigned myself for the consequences of my actions, Reiko-san. Please do not apologize or be upset about my condition. It will pass," he spoke, though he seemed quite certain of his own words. Maybe he was, considering his ability.

"I am glad, though, that you are here now. It is... pleasant to have company again, however brief it may be," he just smiled at her, like nothing was actually wrong.

She wasn't really sure how to respond to that. If he was certain, then she believed him, but... just because it would pass didn't mean it wasn't painful now. Reiko stepped away from the food for a moment, tipping her head back to look him in the eyes, and shook her head. “This one does need to apologize," she said. “This one... this one should not have let our disagreement get in the way of making sure you were all right."

He just blinked slowly at her, and shook his head. "But isn't that how it usually is?" he stated. "What I told you wasn't easy for you to hear, Reiko-san. It was hard, and knowing that something like that will happen to Sayuri-san, isn't easy for you. I understand your concern for your sister. If it were Ayla," he paused, and she could see the slight tick in his jaw as he tried to resume his statement. "I would probably be in your position, however; be that as it may, I am..." he didn't seem to know how to finish that statement.

"Do not apologize, Reiko-san, not for my sake," he seemed a little sad when he said that. "I assure you, I am fine. And I will be fine. Time has a way of seeing to that," he offered her a small smile.

“So then why do you seem so sad?" the question was out of her mouth before she had the chance to properly consider it, and she immediately looked away, shaking her head. “Sorry. It's really none of this one's business." She cleared her throat, returning to where the food was and picking up two of the trays.

When she glanced his way again, she put a smile on her face, even though it didn't feel right there. “A-anyway, we should probably go to the living room, if the tea is done. Kentaro is probably wondering what's taking so long."

"Yes, let us do that." he replied, the same small smile still on his lips. He didn't say anything about her previous statement, likely because he didn't want to answer it, or perhaps there was another reason behind it. He really did seem sad, though.

She resisted the urge to press. She didn't have the right.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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Ayla sighed, perhaps a little too harshly. It'd been almost a week, or so, since she'd last been by to see Aram. She wondered if he was doing alright. Just because she wasn't sure if she couldn't trust him didn't mean she didn't worry about him. Maybe she should at least go see him? He probably hadn't eaten a decent meal since she left, considering the fact that he couldn't cook. And he couldn't afford to go out to eat at the small restaurants. She sighed again. She was a terrible sister, because of that. Here she was, living inside Amon's home with his children, and Aram was left on the outer parts of the village.

Alone. Probably hungry. Ugh. She hated it. "Fine!" she stated to no one in particular. She was currently alone, so she didn't have to worry about someone hearing her. She'd go check on him, at least. Besides, it was only another day, or two, before Spring would be here, and Sayuri would be leaving. She could at least make sure he had something to tide him over until then.

Her route took her through the garden, where she found Reiko hard at work on the plants. Given how soon spring was, it was hardly a surprise that she needed to do some maintenance on it; right now it looked like she was clearing the ground around some of the temporarily dormant spring and summer plants.

It was an awful lot of snow, but the process was moving a great deal more quickly because Tatsuya was helping, sweeping massive sheets of it away with no more effort than the motion of a hand. He leaned up against one of the trees, pipe in his mouth, and pushed aside all of it with his powers. Apparently, they were both quite confident that none of the humans were around.

Tatsuya noticed her first, offering a nod before he resumed his work. Reiko glanced up a moment later, smiling a little. “Off somewhere, Ayla-san?"

"Yeah, I was," and still is, actually. But she wasn't going to say it like that. "I haven't seen the idiot in awhile, and I figured I might stop by. You know, to make sure he's doing alright," she spoke. She was certain they would know who she was talking about. "I haven't really left him alone for so long," at least not intentionally. The last time they'd been separated, it had been a few centuries before he came back, but that was because he had been meditating.

"You know he can't cook, and he's pretty much hopeless on his own," her frown deepened somewhat. She was, despite what she was known for, truly worried about him.

Reiko looked a bit awkward for a moment, then sighed softly. “He's... he's fed, but this one thinks he's probably lonely." She stated it like it was a confession of some kind. Perhaps it was; after all, she wouldn't be in a position to know that unless she'd gone to see him herself.

“This one probably should have told you earlier, but I wasn't sure if... if it was something you'd want this one to bring up."

Ayla sighed softly. "It would have been fine, Reiko. I might be mad at him, but that doesn't mean I'm not concerned about his well-being. I'd be a horrible sister if I wasn't concerned about him," she scoffed to herself at that statement. She was a horrible sister, regardless, but they didn't need to know that.

"But... next time you see him, will you tell me? I'd like to send him something, too," since she knew a lot of his favorite dishes. "Otherwise, I suppose I could stay and help you clear this out... unless you'd rather have me elsewhere?" she stated, raising a brow in Reiko's direction.

“Oh, um... you can help if you'd like." Reiko looked a little like she wanted to refuse, probably on the grounds that Ayla was a guest. But she acquiesced instead. It seemed she was learning to pick her battles where this kind of thing was concerned. “This one really doesn't need any help clearing, since Suya's doing that. But, um... if you'd like to help this one weed, that would be okay. Just, um... make sure it's only the weeds you pull out. Some of the herbs are a little hard to tell apart from those."

"Yeah, he seems to be doing a good job at that," she snorted softly, glancing in Tatsuya's direction. She shrugged her shoulders, though, and made her way towards where Reiko was. "I'll be able to pick them apart by smell, Reiko. Did you forget?" she stated, tapping her nose in the process. She could tell them apart by smell, so she didn't have to really worry about pulling out the wrong ones. The ones she didn't, however, want to pull were the ones with thorns.

Very rare did weeds have thorns on them, and she highly doubted that there were some in Reiko's garden, however; that didn't mean there wasn't a possibility of them being there. With the extra set of hands, it was easier, and faster, to weed the garden. It was, oddly, calming for Ayla. She did, however, manage to prick herself with a thorn, but it wasn't enough to pierce her skin. It just scraped it. She scoffed at it before she straightened out her back, and glanced down at Reiko.

"Alright, what's next?"

Reiko seemed to shake herself, as though her mind had been elsewhere. She blinked and brought her eyes back into focus. Tatsuya, on the other hand, was staring at her now, his eyes darkened for some reason. He pulled them away only when Reiko spoke.

“Not much is left," she said, clearing her throat slightly. “Now we just need to poke holes in the soil so it can aerate a little, and we're done until the weather is good enough for planting." She tossed Ayla what looked to be a thin metal rod of some kind, slightly sharp on one end. Probably for the aerating.

She didn't want to know what that was about, and instead, just stared at the rod. "Right, go around poking holes," she spoke lightly. That didn't seem too hard. She'd poked holes in tougher things, she supposed. Besides, the ground was softer, easier to penetrate, than the hides of those things. She almost scoffed at the comparison. Instead, she went to work, poking holes here and there where they needed to be. Either she was working at a much slower pace, or time was just going by a little too fast for her comfort.

Once she was finished, she glanced back at the siblings, and she could feel her expression softening for a second. They almost reminded her of them. When it was just the three of them at the time. Without even realizing it, she was smiling softly at the two of them.

Tatsuya and Reiko worked close together, almost shoulder-to-shoulder. Or, well, shoulder-to-arm, considering the height discrepancy. He glanced up and caught Ayla's expression. One eyebrow rose, but he didn't say anything about it, simply returning to his work until everything was done.

Reiko let out a large sigh when she was satisfied, straightening up and brushing her palms against her hakama to get the dirt off. “Whew. This one thinks it might be time for a bath, now," she observed with a smile.

Reiko snapped her out of her stupor, and she shook her head. "I'd say it is," she replied. They were all covered in dirt, but she didn't exactly mind. It was dirt. They could be covered in something worse. "So," she began, placing a hand on her hip and quirking a brow in Reiko's direction. "Does that mean I get to finally take a bath with Rei-Rei?" she knew she was smirking slightly. Plus, it was adorable the way Reiko blushed, sometimes. Of course, she wasn't going to admit that out loud.

Tatsuya snorted, but a slanted smile appeared on his face when Reiko did, indeed, redden. “Hm," he said, stepping forward to drape an arm over one of Reiko's shoulders from behind, putting his chin on her head and mock-glaring at Ayla. “And what if I want to take a bath with my dear sister? She was mine first." He raised an eyebrow.

Reiko sputtered. “S-S-Suya!" She squirmed in his grip. “Th-that's not...!"

“What?" he inquired, almost lazily. “We used to do it all the time."

Reiko was quickly going from red to almost purple, her face was so dark. “When I was a child!"

He chuckled, low and rich, fluffing her hair with his hand.

Oh, so he wanted to play that game again. She snorted in response. "Well if Reiko doesn't mind, I wouldn't object to all of us going. You probably need it more than either of us," she spoke, wrinkling her nose somewhat. Of course, she wasn't being serious, but it was fun teasing Reiko.

Tatsuya grinned back at her. It was certainly more broad than his usual smiles, and exposed the sharpened eyeteeth at either side of his mouth.

Reiko didn't appear to find any of this half as amusing, and huffed, crossing her arms over her chest. “If the t-two of you are so f-fine with this, you can t-take one together and leave me out of it!"

"Really, Reiko? You'd let me go bathe with him? Are you not concerned for my well-being? That hurts, Rei-Rei," she spoke, frowning for the effect. She wanted to laugh so much right now at Reiko's expression, but she was also having too much fun. She shrugged slightly and folded her arms across her chest.

"I mean, I suppose I wouldn't mind, but what if he tries to drown me, or something? Do you really want me to disappear? Because that would be on you," she really was a horrible person when she wanted to be.

Tatsuya appeared to be struggling to stifle his laughter. It seemed he didn't mind being cast in the villain role for this purpose.

“O-of course he wouldn't d-do that," Reiko countered, frowning. Of course, she didn't have a face suited to angry expressions, and looked more like she was pouting than anything. “A-And you," she said, rounding on Tatsuya. “Y-You shouldn't say things like that! P-People will get the w-wrong idea!"

He only raised an eyebrow. People, hm?" he drawled languidly. “And just who are you worried about knowing that, Reiko? Ayla here knows I'm joking."

She sputtered again, seemingly bereft of a reply.

She couldn't contain herself much longer, and laughed. She had to hold her stomach for a moment, because it hurt from laughing too much. Once she was able to recover, she straightened back out and stared at them. "You're too easy, Reiko. Too easy," she replied. She took in a breath and shook her head.

"But hey, I'll still go bathe with you both if that's what you really want, Rei-Rei," she couldn't help herself.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto


0.00 INK

#, as written by Aethyia
After his own bath, Tatsuya elected to stalk the halls of his father's house, not after anything in particular, but for the sake of moving around and giving himself the space to think. His wet hair was warm on his neck, though it wouldn't remain that way for long, whether he went outside or not. His muscles were loosened from the hot water, his dark blue evening kimono worn loosely about himself.

He'd always thought that, even years later, this place still echoed with his father's essence. He supposed Ayla likely felt it too: all the ways in which the old man was still here, despite his absence. No one had moved into his rooms, despite them being the largest and most well-appointed in the whole of the castle. Not Reiko, not him, not Jirō, nor Daichi, presumptuous as the both of them could otherwise be.

His swords still hung in the entrance hall, untouched, save when they were removed for maintenance. Even that was something no one was allowed to do but his children. But even beyond the physical reminders... there was just something in the air. Not his scent precisely, but something akin to the way it felt to be in a room after he'd just left. Almost as though one might find him around any given corner.

Maybe it was just him. He'd lived with the old man the longest, after all, even if it was unmistakably Reiko who'd been most dear to him. She was most dear to them all, so it was hard to hold it against them.

"Minamoto-sama," it was the same oil-like voice he knew to be Akarui's advisor. He'd spoken with a strange kind of difference to him, but he was, undoubtedly near. The way he called out his name, almost made it sound like he was hovering near Tatsuya's ear. "Must be difficult living in such a large shadow, hm?" he spoke, perhaps a little too casually. As if he'd known the old man personally, or had been here before.

Tatsuya's eyes narrowed, his metaphorical hackles rising. “You know a lot about living in shadows, do you?" he replied, addressing the man in a rather rude tone. It seemed warranted, considering the sudden interruption.

He didn't seem to mind, though, and merely shrugged. "You could say that," he spoke just as passively. "If you had any inclination to humans and their religious ways, you'd know that not all priests are holy. But of course, Minamoto-sama, I did not say it to insult you. Your father was a man of great bearing," he spoke, almost as if he were apologizing, but didn't mean it. He seemed just as bored as Tatsuya could be.

Tatsuya snorted, folding his arms into his sleeves. An unholy priest, was it? Humans were superstitious creatures... and he hadn't missed how this guy referred to them as though they were distinct from both of them.

He knew.

There was no way he didn't, not when there was that much easy certainty in his words. What was more... he probably wasn't human himself. Discreetly, Tatsuya inhaled. Away from the human stench of Akarui, the man did smell a little different. Not like anything he could identify, though: not like one of his kind, and not like Ayla or that brother of hers, either, though... it was most similar to Aram.

“...And?" he drawled. “You didn't stop me to tell me something obvious like that."

"Ever the sharp blade, you are," he replied, his voice still toneless. It was almost like speaking to him was a burden, but he didn't seem inclined to stop. He merely stared at Tatsuya, his golden eyes lingering on him for longer than strictly necessary. And perhaps in an impolite manner. It was hard to read his expression, with that mask over his face, and the hood covering most of it. He did, however, tilt his head, as if he'd figured something out.

"I wonder..." he spoke out loud, as if he were speaking to himself. "What would you do if you lost something precious to you, something other than your sister?" he questioned, tilting his head further in a slightly curious manner. There was a slight pull to his lips, like he was about to smirk, but stopped himself from going through with it, fully.

“If that's a threat, I'm not feeling very threatened," Tatsuya replied, tilting his head to the side. Clearly, the fool didn't know nearly as much about him as he thought he did, because there was nothing precious to him other than Reiko.

That answer only seemed to amuse him. His lips pulled further beneath his mask, and it almost looked like he was grinning at Tatsuya. As if he knew something that Tatsuya didn't. "I am not making any threats towards the lord of this house. That would be unwise of me to do so, and would not be diplomatically advantageous for us. No, it was a simple question, m'lord. If was the hypothetical," he spoke, the grin disappearing from his face. It returned to his neutral expression, but his head remained in the same half-tilt. It looked similar to the one Aram had.

"There will be a day where that will be tested, just so you are aware. Whether you believe it or not, is up to you," he continued. The man spoke as if he had experience in the matter, but he obviously didn't. "Think of it as advice for the future. There will be something more precious to you that you are unaware of, that you will lose. Worry not, it is not your sister," he added with a light nod of his head. The small smirk reappeared on his lips, though. Either this man was insane, or he truly believed what he said.

That, of course, only strengthened the mental analogy between him and Aram. “Fucking prognosticators," he grumbled, shaking his head. “So damn sure you're right, but too vague to make any kind of sense." He rolled his eyes, deciding he'd had about enough of the conversation, and started walking again.

Unfortunately for this fool, Tatsuya had never been one to do what anyone else told him, or believe that anyone controlled his fate but himself. And in that respect, predictions of what would come to pass were pointless and unnecessary. What would be, would be—because he decided it should be.

"That's the funny thing about fate, Minamoto-sama. Your decisions have already been preordained. What you choose to do from now to then will, inevitably, lead you to the same destination. Everything has already been chosen, down to how you sleep tonight," he spoke almost as if he'd read Tatsuya's mind.

Tatsuya threw an irritated glance over his shoulder. “Yeah? We'll see."

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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Something about the man reminded her of Aram. Maybe it was the way he stood, or spoke, or even looked. Maybe it was the way he smelled, however; Ayla couldn't be certain. She hadn't thought much of it at the time, since he was always around that Akarui fellow, but she'd caught him a few times staring at her. At first she thought he was like the other men in the estate, who gawked at the women, however; the way he stared wasn't quite the same. It looked like he was looking through her, as if he knew what she was. It was slightly unnerving, actually.

There were only a few people who knew what she really was, and that only consisted of Aram, and Reiko and her family. Or certain family members, it seemed. She wasn't sure if Tsubasa or Kentaro knew, but it's not like she really cared. They were his kids, so they should know of her and Aram, at least. Unless, of course, they never took blood from him. Still, that hooded man made her hackles rise, and not in a good way.

Like now, as she stood on the overpass of a bridge that connected to Reiko's small garden, glancing over the pond towards him. He was walking with Akarui at the moment, but they were still a little too far for her to hear them. Instead, she just let her eyes narrow in their direction. She didn't trust him, but then again she didn't trust most people. Reiko and her family had been the exception for obvious reasons though. They'd be gone the day after tomorrow, though, or so she thought.

The relative peace of the morning was broken, however, only moments later. From out of one of the doors on the far side of the garden, Reiko emerged; her expression was unusually dark. Even from this distance, Ayla could see that she was wearing a sword. That was extremely unusual; Ayla wasn't even sure if she knew how to use one. Certainly, some of her brothers did, but she wasn't even sure if that was true of all of them.

Trailing behind her were Kentaro, Tatsuya, Takahiro, Sayuri, some woman Ayla didn't know, and an irritated-looking Jirō. She clearly called out to Akarui, because both the man and his suspicious adviser turned towards her, expressions of surprise on their faces. Ayla could see mouths moving, but she still wasn't close enough to hear.

She had no idea what that was about, but whatever it was, she wanted to know what was going on. Swiftly, she jumped over the edge of the bridge, and landed softly on the ground below. Too many years of practice made that swifter than it should have been for the kimono she was wearing. She wasn't worried about that, though. Instead, she made her way towards the Fujiwaras. She didn't particularly like the look on Reiko's face, and she wanted to be there to find out what Akarui and the advisor had gotten themselves into.

“That's ludicrous," Akarui was saying. “I am well within my rights to—"

“Yes," Reiko said, her voice so hard and stern that it almost sounded like someone else. “You are. But not within the bounds of honor. You cannot possibly expect me, as Sayuri's guardian, to continue to condone her marriage to a man who shows so little regard for honor and respect to my house." She pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes and drawing herself up to her full height. Reiko was not tall, but just now, her presence was impressive.

The air nearly vibrated with tension. In the garden itself, the light spheres were a deep, roiling red. Ayla didn't need anyone to tell her that it was anger. Behind and beside her, her brothers were also tensed, their eyes only occasionally flicking to the human and his adviser. For the most part, their attention was fixed on their sister, waiting, it seemed, for the faintest hint that she needed their assistance. Even Jirō was that attentive to her.

Ayla remained just as silent as the brothers did, however; the advisor seemed to sigh deeply, as if what Reiko was saying was something he'd known about. He probably did, given that he was Akarui's advisor. Ayla was slightly confused as to what Reiko was talking about, though. Apparently, Akarui had dishonored Sayuri somehow, and Reiko. Had it been anyone else, Ayla might not have cared, but as it was, these two were her friends. So she cared. She simply crossed her arms over her chest, and waited for the events to play out. If she needed to say something, she would.

"Akarui-dono, it is, perhaps, best if you do not say anything else," the man spoke, giving Akarui a rather stern look. It was odd, that an advisor would do such a thing, considering that Akarui was a lord and all. Wouldn't that usually mean he'd be reprimanded for it? Apparently that wasn't the case for the man.

Akarui ignored him, in any case. “So what then? The entire alliance, called off because you're offended on behalf of your relative? What will the rest of the country think of House Fujiwara for that? Think of the suspicion and ire you will bring down upon yourselves if you are seen as so fickle."

Reiko shook her head. “I said nothing about the alliance, Akarui-dono. What I said was that I will not allow the marriage to proceed. The Fujiwara honor their word, and we will honor ours to you. We will march with you in three days, to recover what has been taken from you, but you will take nothing, and no one, from us." Reiko's emotions must have really been running high, or else she needed to appear more authoritative, because she'd dropped her humble pronouns entirely.

“And what if I find that my honor has been insulted by your refusal?" Akarui countered. “I accepted a compromise in good faith—now you are telling me I will have nothing at all I asked for on this score."

Reiko raised her head, tipping er chin up slightly. “Then you will do as honor demands, and challenge for what you believe to be your due."

“Challenge who? You?" He looked incredulous. “There is no honor in harming a mere girl."

Reiko's frown deepened. “Then you are fortunate that I am not a mere girl. I am the head of this household, and you will treat me with the honor I am due."

Ayla cocked a brow in Reiko's direction. This man actually had the audacity to say that? She had half a mind to tell him to fuck off, however; she wasn't part of the household. Friend or not, Ayla wasn't going to disrespect her Reiko because of her own selfish pride. She almost scoffed, too, but to her credit, she was doing a damn good job at keeping a lid on her own emotions. This man was insufferable, and he'd deserve any ass-kicking he got. Be it from Reiko or one of the others. Hell, if she'd be allowed to, she'd do it on behalf of Reiko. But this looked far too important to Reiko for her to suggest that.

"Akarui-dono, do the honorable thing, and take the challenge. You know what is at stake," the advisor spoke. He didn't seem too happy about leaving empty handed, too, however; he seemed to have some faith in Akarui's abilities. Maybe he didn't, and was only playing the part of supporting advisor. "Lest you let this dishonor you," he continued. It really was hard to read his expression, given that his tone was flat and his face was covered.

At this point, there didn't seem to be much choice: they would duel, and Sayuri's future was at stake, as well as the good name of the Fujiwara family. Jirō's lips pursed; Tatsuya was openly scowling at Akarui. Kentaro was just as hard to read as the adviser, and Takahiro only wore the same mild smile he always seemed to have. None of them seemed inclined to try and stop Reiko; if anything, they didn't appear concerned about her victory at all.

“Of course I accept it," Akarui said, looking at his advisor almost incredulously. “The sooner the better."

“Then follow me." Reiko glanced briefly at the others, including Ayla, before heading for the practice area, the rest of them behind. Tatsuya fell in next to Ayla as they walked.

“He was seen with another woman," he explained in a low voice, nodding towards the stranger in the group. She didn't look too happy to be there, though it was hard to say why. “More than once, and publically, if you catch my meaning. Apparently she wasn't especially happy to participate, herself." His tone dripped with distaste.


The neutral expression that was on her face turned sour, and she openly scowled. Akarui really was a shit head, wasn't he? She let out a low growl, one that seemed to rumble her throat a bit, and she blinked in mild surprise. She hadn't meant to do that out loud, but it was a little too late for her to take it back. Thankfully, the others were ahead of them, and they wouldn't have been able to hear her unless they were like the Fujiwara. The advisor seemed to be talking to Akarui, however; he spoke in such a low tone, that even she was having difficulty hearing what he was saying. Odd, considering they were kind of close.

"Asshole deserves what's coming to him. I have half a mind to do something myself, but obviously I can't," though there was no doubt that she would enjoy the spectacle that this challenge was going to provide. She almost felt bad. Almost. She turned her attention back to the advisor and Heisuke, and noticed as he slipped his hand towards Akarui. It didn't look like he had anything in his hand, though. Maybe it was one of those touch for support kind of things? She couldn't smell anything out of the ordinary besides the man, himself, and perhaps the Fujiwara kids.

They all arranged themselves along the sides of the ring; Reiko and Akarui ducked under the fence bar or went over it to position themselves inside. Considering that this was a duel for honor, they would both be fighting with live steel. Reiko wore an ordinary katana at her waist, sized slightly smaller than most, probably to accomodate her height. The tsuka was wrapped in red fabric; a small ornament dangled from the pommel.

She didn't draw it right away, unlike Akarui. The two of them bowed to each other, taking up ready stances about ten feet apart. Reiko tilted her scabbard, letting her hand hover over the hilt. Her stance was identical to Amon's favored iaijutsu drawing posture.

The sun beat down over their heads; the day promised to be unusually warm, even for the end of winter. Perhaps some of the snow remaining on the ground would melt.

Akarui moved first, charging in towards Reiko, swinging with obvious strength. Too much strength, for a human. His speed seemed to catch Reiko a little off-guard, but she comensated well, drawing swiftly and carrying the motion into a block.

The two swords clanged off each other, making a loud, echoing noise. Reiko strafed backwards, taking up a defensive stance. It, like her drawing stance, was exactly the same as the one Amon favored. It would seem she had not only learned how to use a sword, but learned directly from her father.

“No human is that strong," Tatsuya muttered. A quick glance down the line revealed that Jirō's expression had soured as well, though Kentaro looked the same. Takahiro looked outright worried.

He was right. No human should be that strong to catch Reiko off guard like that. She side-glanced towards the advisor and narrowed her eyes at him. He seemed to notice her glaring, and held her gaze with a steady one of his own. He didn't seem at all bothered by her glaring at him, and almost seemed slightly amused that she was. That just pissed her off more, and she could feel the hairs on her neck and arms stand up. She didn't like this.

"Are you sure he's completely human?" though she knew for a fact that he couldn't be anything other than human. He had a human scent, and there was nothing exceptional about him. If he wasn't, they would all be able to tell, and she doubted they would have let Reiko do this on her own. She seemed to be handling Amon's style rather well, and that didn't seem too surprising. She glanced back towards Reiko and Akarui and narrowed her eyes.

"Maybe its just the adrenaline," because that would explain something. Most humans could pull of feats like that if they were under that kind of stress. But then again, Akarui didn't look to be stressed. "Shady ass advisor," she spoke beneath her breath, sparing the man another glance. He had to have had something to do with Akarui's strange strength. Maybe she was just being paranoid and biased?

In front of them, the battle continued. Akarui only seemed to get stronger and faster as the fight continued, more evidence against her adrenaline theory. It was more like...

“Intoxicant," Jirō murmured, glancing at Tatsuya. The red eyes they shared locked for a moment, some kind of understanding passing between them.

Whatever it amounted to, though, they didn't act immediately in any way, instead remaining as they were, attention fixed on what unfolded before them. Even considering Akarui's absurd strength and speed, now almost a match for Ayla's, Reiko held her own. Her style was more defensive than Amon's, but the forms matched to a t. She parried with grace and moved with a rare sort of fluidity, turning aside Akarui's rough, aggressive strikes every time.

He didn't seem to quite know how to handle the increase in his capacities, and occasionally misjudged a hit or a dodge. It was clear that Reiko was content to wait for one of those mistakes to be enough to make him vulnerable. The right moment came about ten minutes into the fight. He swung too hard, opening up his guard when she couldn't quite bring his sword back in fast enough. Quick like a viper, Reiko darted in, sweeping his feet out from underneath him with the blunt edge of her katana, then stepping on his sword-arm with one foot and pressing the very tip of her sword to his throat.

“Yield," she commanded, almost softly, but still with steel under her tone.

He nodded, apparently unable to force himself to actually say the words, and she removed her blade, stepping away from him so that he could regain his feet. Akarui looked livid, but he certainly wasn't stupid enough to retaliate. Not when the rest of his alliance would be effectively voided by such a dishonorable act.

Ayla snorted softly, slightly proud of Reiko and the outcome of this particular challenge. The advisor didn't look happy, either, if the way his lips were tugged down beneath his mask was any indication. She still didn't like the fact that Akarui had basically been a match for Reiko when he shouldn't have been. Granted, playing to strengths and advantages didn't seem like something Reiko would do, however; the fact was, Reiko had the advantage being what she was. Not that anyone else knew that, of course, but it still warranted some worry. What did that shady ass advisor give Akarui? More-so, how did the man even know to give Akarui some kind of intoxicant?

Ayla knew she wasn't that quick to put something together like that, not like Aram would have been, however; she could feel something was wrong. Her instincts were kicking in, and she always trusted them. She sighed softly. Maybe she should go see Aram about this? He might know something about the man, surely. He could see almost anything, and maybe this man had been part of whatever vision he'd had that brought them here. She turned her attention back to Reiko and Akarui, watching as the advisor merely bowed, his hands placed out in front of him.

"We accept this defeat, Hino-sama," he spoke, though there was some strange tone in his voice. Something like disappointment, perhaps, she couldn't tell. "The alliance-marriage will not take place, but we shall take your word for your assistance," he continued. He was strangely submissive for all the strange ways he'd looked at everyone. He didn't seem the type to defer to anyone but Akarui. That almost made her scoff out loud.

Reiko smiled kindly, quite the unusual thing for someone who had just humiliated a regional lord in a duel. “Then this one is satisfied," she replied gently. “Let us forget this unpleasantness and instead think of the coming battles. It may be prudent now to begin devising a strategy."

Though the words suggested a continuation, the tone of them was clearly a temporary dismissal. Probably she thought it would be best for everyone to take a break after that. Akarui, his advisor, and Jirō departed immediately.

“Ne, Reiko. You had me worried for a little bit, there." Takahiro was the first to speak, reaching out with his hands to cradle her face in them. He seemed to be making sure she was still in one piece, or at least that was what it looked like. “I don't believe a human should have been able to move so fast, or strike with so much power."

“It's that priest of his; it has to be." Tatsuya sounded much more certain than Ayla was. Perhaps he knew something she did not.

Kentaro, standing next to Sayuri, glanced down at her. “We will have to exercise more caution in their company. I do not know what they want, but Akarui fought far too hard for a marriage he clearly did not care about."

Reiko grimaced, but she didn't deny the truth in that. “This one knows all of you are strong, but please... try not to let yourselves be alone with them. We will help as we have promised, but after that... this one thinks we may need to consider our next actions carefully."

That seemed like the best course of action. She would have to consult with Aram, first, though. She could put aside her petty differences with him if only to see if he knew anything about the shady ass advisor. Maybe she should do that now? She glanced at Reiko and the others. She'll do it tomorrow.

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Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
Kentaro folded his legs underneath him, settling in front of the small portable desk he'd set up in the garden. On it was a scroll's worth of parchment, as well as several charcoal pencils.

He was a restless person. He always had been. Even though he made a conscious effort not to show any of it, there was a constant irritation, almost, under his skin, one that drove him to distraction at times. He knew it also influenced his more violent tendencies, causing him to seek aggressive situations more actively than any of his brothers, even Tsubasa. But he took no enjoyment from that.

Reiko seemed to believe that indulging his more artistic tendencies was helpful in centering him. She told him that he was calmer after he did. He wasn't sure if that was true or not, but even seeming calmer was probably a good thing, and so now he attempted to distract himself by doing something with his hands. But the paper in front of him remained stubbornly blank. He simply had no idea what he wanted to draw. The garden was a collection of beautiful things: plants, water features, and landscape, but none of it appealed to him at the moment, and Kentaro shifted uncomfortably in his spot.

The sound of voices, two precisely, could be heard off in the distance. One he could recognize as Sayuri's, however; the other one belonged to the other woman, Reiko's friend, Ayla. They were talking, it seemed, but it was uncertain what about. Perhaps about the duel with Akarui? Sayuri hadn't seemed too upset about what had happened, but she could have been happy about it, too.

"Ah, Kentaro-san, what are you doing over there?" Ayla called out to him first. Sayuri looked mildly surprised, but smiled at him anyway.

"Good morning, Kentaro-san," she greeted as she always did, and bowed. Ayla hadn't, and she didn't seem inclined to, either. "Are you working on a new project?" she asked, gesturing towards the blank paper.

He inclined his head, allowing his eyes to drop to the paper again. “Working would imply that I have begun," he said flatly. “Unfortunately, I have not." He raised red eyes back to the both of them, tilting his head faintly to the left. He did not expect that they would linger; they had no reason.

Ayla snorted softly, as if what he'd said was something amusing to her. Sayuri, however, gave her a glance, and she just seemed to smirk somewhat. "Oh, well, um," Sayuri began, however; it didn't look like she knew what she wanted to stay. Perhaps they would move on? Ayla made to walk away, however; Sayuri remained. The white-haired woman quirked a brow in their direction before shaking her head.

"I suppose I'll just go wander off by myself then. Maybe I'll go find Tsubasa and we can finally have a match," she spoke with a nonchalant wave of her hand. Sayuri looked like she was about to protest, however; Ayla just shook her head. "You stay and help Taro-san start on his drawing. I'm sure you'll find something," she replied and left. Sayuri's face was pulled into a light frown, but it disappeared after that.

"Well, if you don't mind, I'd like to see what you create, Kentaro-san. You always make beautiful art," she spoke. It wasn't the first time she'd told him that.

He supposed she was within her rights to think so, though he couldn't say he particularly agreed. Kentaro always felt that there was something missing from his works, something he could not identify. But it wasn't important even if he was right. He didn't do this to make nice things. Those were only the byproducts of the real purpose.

He glanced up at her, as usual not sure what to say. He wasn't good at talking to people. “You can sit," he said flatly, not sure if that was the right thing. The only way he'd be able to tell was whether or not she smiled.

He'd know he'd said something right if she did. Kentaro didn't know why that mattered, either, but he knew that it did, somehow. Akarui would never be able to understand that, so Kentaro was... pleased, that she would not be leaving here to go there.

She did smile, though, when he said that. She took a seat next to him, smoothing out her kimono so that she didn't wrinkle it when she did. Once she was seated properly, or comfortably, she turned her attention towards him, the smile still on her face, but it had gentled. "Was there anything in particular that you wanted to draw today?" she asked, seemingly interested in what he was doing or going to say.

Kentaro had no idea why. He wasn't interesting. Not really. But he wanted to have an answer for her. One that wouldn't disappoint. Unfortunately, he didn't believe he had such a thing, so he went with the truth instead, shaking his head. “No. I had hoped that sitting here would help me choose, but..." But nothing was striking him the right way. Kentaro drew or carved because he found something he wanted to draw or carve, or because someone asked him to.

Perhaps that was an answer. “Is there anything you think I should draw?"

She blinked, a little surprised at the question, and hummed a soft note in the back of her throat. She seemed to contemplate his question, but she didn't seem to know, either. Something must have come to her since her face brightened somewhat, and she turned to face him. "Draw the garden with us in it," she stated. She seemed a little serious about it from the expression on her face. She was still smiling, though. "Because I'm sure you'll find something more once you start on it," she began, as if she were trying to give him advice.

"I mean, once you start on something, maybe what you really want to draw will come to mind, and you can add it in, or... not," it was clear she didn't know what she was talking about, but she looked like she was trying.

Kentaro supposed it was as good an idea as any, and nodded slightly, picking up one of the charcoal pencils and putting it to paper. It wouldn't look anything like what he was drawing for a considerable amount of time yet, but he never found that he needed so much concentration he simply couldn't pay attention to anyone else.

With his eyes still firmly on the paper in front of him, he ventured a question he did not know how to ask. “Are you... upset? About what happened?"

"Honestly?" she began, letting out a slow breath. She took a minute before she continued. "I'm glad," she spoke lowly, as if she were afraid of someone else, hearing. "Because that means I don't have to leave, anymore. I'm... not sure why, but the last few days, when they were building up, I couldn't help but feel... sad," she continued. She paused for a moment, and it sounded like she was trying to steady her breathing.

"But now, I don't have to leave you all anymore. I get... I get to stay," she sounded happy about that.

Something in his chest eased. Kentaro wasn't sure why, or even precisely how, but for a moment, the constant restlessness quieted, and he nodded slightly, etching a few more lines onto the paper with a surer hand than before. “Good," he said succinctly. “I had wondered if perhaps you would be upset. Reiko indicated that you wished to do it as a way of assisting the family. As we have now removed the opportunity, it seemed possible that you might... resent it."

He spoke of the whole incident as something they had done rather than as something Reiko had done because it was. His sister had been unsure how to deal with the issue; Kentaro had provided information to her which he knew would push her towards revoking the bargain. He was surprised at himself, in truth: he was not usually one to interfere in anyone else's personal affairs, nor even especially with the business of House Fujiwara.

"No, Kentaro-san, I don't," she spoke, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "I love my family, and I would never resent what you all have done for me. I am so grateful that... I am unsure if I'll ever be able to repay you all for the kindness you have shown me," she seemed to trail off into a whisper towards the end.

"But for now, I'm just glad I don't have to leave. I would have missed you all, especially you," she spoke, her voice still soft.

He glanced up at that, his brows furrowing over his eyes. Surely she meant especially Reiko. Kentaro blinked at her, but didn't point out the mistake. He wasn't certain, but it seemed like the sort of error that might be embarrassing.

Letting his eyes drop back to the paper, he made a few longer, more sweeping strokes, taking up nearly the whole length of the page. He flicked his hair out of his eyes with a short toss of his head, almost frowning when it fell back into place almost immediately.

“Be happy," he said, almost a mutter from how soft it was. “That's how you can repay us. Other people are happy when you are. When you smile, we..." He shook his head, unsure how to finish. Abruptly, he met her eyes again.

“It matters, that you're happy."

She seemed to smile brightly at him and nodded her head. "Alright, Kentaro-san. I will do my best to be happy, and to keep smiling for you all," she replied, though her face did take on a soft pink color.

He nodded, deciding it was probably better that he say no more than he already had.

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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Ayla sighed a little forcefully, running a hand through her hair as she did so. They would be leaving with Akarui to go fetch his lands, or whatever, however; she hadn't had the chance to go see Aram, yet. She was always with one of the Hinos, or occasionally one of the Minamotos. Usually Tatsuya or Tsubasa and sometimes Kentaro. Tsubasa was fun to be around, mostly because he was like her in that weird kind of way. Tatsuya had, oddly, become more tolerable to be around. She supposed it had to do with their weird reconciliation and acknowledgment of not knowing each other. That, and it was hilarious to tease Reiko the way they did.

She snorted softly at that, but sighed again. She'd only seen the Akarui human lord once after the duel, and his advisor at least twice. Sometimes she could almost feel eyes on her, those eyes of his. It was almost as if he was wary of her, but she didn't blame him if he was. He should be wary of her. Still, it was all strange, and she wanted to talk to Aram about it. With that in mind, she continued her way down the hallway. This time, she'll go see Aram, and she wouldn't be impeded. There was still some time before they'd be leaving to reclaim Akarui's homeland, after all.

That, and she wanted to check up on him. She hadn't been able to do that last time because Reiko had said he was being taken care of. She allowed a small smile to cover her lips at that. Reiko really was such a kind person, always looking out for others even if they had no direct relation to her. It didn't even bother her to help out the occasional human out in the markets when they needed it. It was such a rare trait to Ayla, that kindness. Perhaps, she would have been that kind as well if it were not for the way she was raised. She remembered times before when she wasn't who she was today. But perhaps time would do that to Reiko, too.

Ayla certainly hoped it didn't. Pushing those thoughts from her mind, she straightened her back somewhat, and continued down the hall.

She didn't make it all the way out before she ran into Tatsuya; almost literally. He sidestepped in time to avoid a collision at the corner, however, coming to a stop slightly to her left. “Distracted, are we?" he asked, brushing something off one of the dark red sleeve of his haori.

He appeared to study her for a moment, then tipped his head to the side. “I think I know what about, at that. Recent run-in with Eiji?"

"Sort of," she replied, glancing up at him. Sometimes, she hated being reminded of how short she was. She shook her head, though, and sighed. "He's a creepy bastard, and I don't like him. I haven't run into him, exactly, but after that stunt with Heisuke," she trailed off there. She didn't really need to elaborate. He was there, after all. She pursed her lips together, though, as she contemplated whether or not she would stay for a conversation.

"I was actually on my way out, but it seems everytime I try to leave, something, or someone, stops me," she was starting to think that maybe fate was keeping her away from Aram, at the moment. That, or maybe it would be best to consult him after the battle for Heisuke's lands. She couldn't say, for sure, since she wasn't Aram.

“Well, I have no intention of stopping you," he said with a shrug. “Actually... if you were going to consult with your brother, I might go with you. I'd thought of asking a few questions of him as well. They seem..." His brows furrowed; perhaps he was searching for the right word. “Similar."

He lifted a single shoulder, though, letting his other arm rest casually on the hilt of his sword. It wasn't a threatening stance by any means; it looked relaxed if anything. “But if I'm wrong, or you'd rather go alone, that's fine as well."

"You noticed it too?" she spoke, instead. She thought she was the only one who noticed the weird similarities to Aram that Eiji, had, but perhaps he was thinking of something else. For her, it was because they smelled similar. She blinked slowly, though as his statement finally dawned on her. He wanted to go with? She shrugged.

"I'm not going to complain if you want to tag along. It's probably a good thing if you do," she stated. At least then, Aram might be more inclined to talk if someone else was around. Plus, he'd be able to relay the information to Reiko, too.

He nodded, turning so that he could walk at her side rather than in front of her or anything. “Lead on, then." He didn't seem to need to retrieve anything or change before leaving; he was wearing a fairly-typical shitage, kosode, and hakama, with the haori loosely draped over his shoulders. It was undoubtedly all well-made, but wouldn't look too out-of-place in the village. Tatsuya didn't really dress like a lord, unlike his brother Jirō.

Jirō dressed as if he were the lord. She rolled her eyes at the thought, before leading the way. Its not like she really needed to lead. He'd been there when Reiko rebuilt her and Aram's home from the ground up. Regardless, she began walking, anyway. The walk was mostly silent; she didn't have anything to say, really. That, and her mind was still occupied with Eiji and Heisuke. What could they have possibly wanted for Heisuke to fight that hard? It couldn't have been for Sayuri, because if she remembered correctly, he originally wanted Reiko. She could feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand up at that.

This man was just an all around ass, and if it were up to her, there would be one less lord in the world. "What kind of impression did Eiji leave on you?" she decided to ask. It would help her contemplate what to say to Aram, exactly. They weren't too far from the home, now, but there was still some time for a brief conversation.

“He's a snake," Tatsuya said flatly. “But I also think he's a prognosticator, or fancies himself one. He calls himself a priest, talks about fate and the future and all that other bullshit like he knows it. Refers to humans like he's not one. And he smells a little like Washi-san. But I'm sure you noticed that part."

Ayla actually hit the palm of her hand against her forehead. Seriously? This Eiji thought he was like Aram? He had to be an idiot, if that were the case. There was no one else like Aram, and she was certain of that. "I noticed the way he smelled," she replied, though she did frown. "Which is, actually, strange," she would admit. She wrinkled her nose a bit. It was almost as if she could smell him right now.

They reached the house within the next few minutes, and she stared at it. "Hopefully he's here," she spoke. She wasn't entirely sure since she couldn't smell him at the moment. "So help me, the fucker better be here," because if he wasn't, she'd be pissed. Instead of walking in, she opted to knock on the door. She could be polite, she supposed. There was no answer. She furrowed her brows, and knocked again. Still no answer.

"Aram!?" she nearly called out. Still no answer.

“Well he can't be dead," Tatsuya volunteered dryly, folding his arms into his sleeves. “Reiko was down here just yesterday with more food. Where would he be if he wasn't at home? Working somewhere?"

"For his sake, he better be dead," she gritted out. She doubted there was any work for him to do, now that spring was, sort of, here. She sighed softly, and shook her head. "It wouldn't hurt to go see if he's at the fields, again," she spoke. As she turned to leave, though, she came face to face with Aram. He blinked, a little surprised at them, and his expression shifted in various degrees. One moment the surprise was on his face, the next he looked happy, followed by some melancholy, and then surprise again.

"Ayla, Minamoto-san, what are you doing here?" he asked, the surprise still laced in his voice. She pursed her lips at him, noticing the small basket in his hands. It looked like he'd gone to the market to get supplies. Food, mostly.

"One, I still live here, so I'm entitled to come back every now and then," she replied dryly. It, however, managed to cause a small smile on Aram's lips. She really hated when he did that. It made her feel bad about leaving him. "Two, we have questions," she stated, glancing towards Tatsuya as she did so.

"Oh," he sounded almost sad, but his face did not show it. "Well, come inside and I'll make tea," he spoke, shuffling past them. Ayla followed after him, and waited until they were all seated at the small table in the living area.

"Of what service may I be?"

Tatsuya settled in on the other side of the table from Aram, pausing before he spoke. Clearly, he was waiting to see if Ayla wanted to start the conversation, but when she didn't speak, he chose to do so instead. He moved his teacup a little closer to himself, but other than that, he left it unattended. Come to think of it, Ayla wasn't even sure whether he liked tea or not. All she'd ever seen him drinking was sake.

“There's a man at the castle. One of Akarui-dono's advisers. He calls himself Eiji, no name other than that. He's implied that he can do something like you can do—see the future, or some such." Tatsuya's skepticism appeared to extend to Aram's claims as well, but he was relatively polite about it. For him, anyway. “Know anything about him?"

"Eiji?" he spoke, furrowing his brows slightly. He glanced down at his cup, seemingly lost in thought. His lips were pursed into a fine line, and he seemed lost for a minute. "I have never heard of this person," he finally spoke, and it sounded genuine to her. She furrowed her brows.

"You've never seen anything that concerns a man in black robes wearing a stupid bird-like mask?" she decided to ask. Perhaps if she gave him a visual, he'd likely remember. It wasn't like names came to him, or at least she didn't think they did. He shook his head, though, and furrowed his brows deeper.

"No, I haven't. The only things I have seen have concerned..." he paused, glancing in Tatsuya's direction, "Sayuri and Heisuke, so far."

She knew that much, at least. "Has anything changed?" she decided to go that route. The expression on his face, however, gave way that signaled that something did. He sighed softly, and took a drink.

"Sayuri's engagement to Heisuke was called off, wasn't it?" he spoke, and she nodded. "Her... death is still inevitable, but it will not be the way it originally was supposed to be. There is... someone I cannot see, who is responsible for it. It will be slow, and it will be painful for her," he continued, dropping his gaze from hers and staring into his cup. She sighed.

"So nothing concerning Heisuke or Eiji?"


“Someone you can't see?" Tatsuya raised an eyebrow, crosshing his arms over his chest. What he thought of Sayuri's supposed impending death was unclear; perhaps he simply didn't believe it. “Isn't Reiko the only person you can't see?" And that would obviously not make any sense—if there was anyone who could be relied upon not to hurt Sayuri, it was Reiko.

"That is correct," he spoke. That was strange. Reiko was the only one he couldn't see, but this person who was supposed to end Sayuri's life also couldn't be seen. "It is not Reiko, of that I am certain," he spoke, as if he had seen her, somehow.

"How are you certain that it isn't her?"

"Because it will happen somewhere where it is only her and your brother, Kentaro," he spoke, pursing his lips together. "I do not know where it is, or when it will be, however; Reiko will not be present. I may not be able to see her, but I do know that much," he spoke. It was still vague as hell, to her, but she supposed she'd take his word for it. But if it wasn't Reiko, then who?

"You're no help, you know that?"

"I apologize, Ayla. I would help if I knew more, however; you know we are the only three, two," he corrected himself. She sighed heavily. "It is impossible that there would be another like us," he continued.

"If you say so," was the only thing she responded with.

Tatsuya raised an eyebrow at that. “Maybe you just didn't get all of 'em, last time," he said slowly. It was clear he knew at least some of the details of what they and his father had once done. What they'd once been a part of. “Maybe he's some kind of oni."

The word, though his voice lent no particular weight to it, managed to hang heavy in the air nonetheless. It was one with a lot of associations for both Ayla and Aram, and one that she hadn't heard in a conversation like this in a long time.

"He couldn't be. We got rid of them a long time ago," she finally spoke. Even if he were some kind of oni, Aram would still have known of him. He would have at least seen him. Amon had been a type of oni, though, and if she wasn't mistaken, so was Aram. Hell, even she was. Actually, that made sense. "He did smell like you, though," she spoke, frowning deeply.

"Scent or not, it is still impossible that he could be an oni. As you said, we made sure of that. The nests were all exterminated," Aram, for once, seemed skeptical about the possibilty of oni existing. "Even if we had missed some..." he trailed off at the end.

"We would have known about them, if we had. They are not the best at laying low and plotting," at least from what she remembered. The oni had been slow, and a little more suited to rage-battles than anything else. Hell, they would have heard of a village being trampled or something, if the oni still existed, by now.

Tatsuya didn't look even slightly convinced, but he shook his head and negelected to comment further on it. Instead, he shrugged. “With any luck, we'll take back Akarui's holdings and never hear from either of the fuckers again. But I'm not betting on it."

"One can hope," she muttered. Aram quirked a brow in her direction, as if he were confused as to what he meant. "About that," she began, sighing softly. "I'll be going with them," she spoke, and she could see the worry flash across his eyes. "I promise I won't change, Ara. It's only a small skirmish, nothing we haven't been through before," she spoke. It didn't ease the worriedness of his expression though.

"Just... be careful, okay?" she actually smiled at that.

"When have I ever not been? I'm not sure if you want to stick around a little longer, 'suya, but I'm going to stay and fix him a few meals before I go back. He won't be able to eat anything, otherwise," she spoke, shrugging her shoulders. He could stay and eat too if he wanted to, but that was up to him.

"You're not staying?" Aram asked softly, and she scoffed lightly.

"No, I'm not." She wasn't sure if she could, yet. He only dropped his gaze. She hated when he did that. "You can stay for dinner if you'd like, but I'll be staying here tonight," she spoke, glancing back towards Tatsuya. She was a pushover, and she knew it, when it came to him. He seemed to brighten back up, and she sighed heavily.

She hated him sometimes.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia



Reiko adjusted the sword in her obi, reaching up to tighten her topknot ponytail. She had to loop it more than once to keep all of her hair from impeding her movement, but she'd done so. They were marching to battle, after all; she took that as seriously as any of the others did.

She'd been a little surprised to learn that Tatsuya had hired Ayla to come along. It was a good idea, of course; she was an excellent ally to have, no doubt, and doing so would allow them to pay her a substantial sum, one that wasn't a gift. That greatly increased the likelihood of her acceptance, though Reiko didn't think it guaranteed it. But those were typically things she would think. Tatsuya, for all she loved him, was usually not what she would describe as generous or considerate in that way; but there was no other reason to do something like this that she could think of.

The three of them, Kentaro, Tsubasa, and about ten of his men consituted the force they were lending to Akarui-dono's efforts. She supposed that, not knowing what they were capable of, it might seem to be an insulting number. It was fifteen soldiers, and two of them were women. She suspected that Akarui-dono did not protest because the head of household and the man who was properly the heir were both going. No fewer than three of the Fujiwara sons were in attendance. With this few men to protect them, it was a display of great confidence.

Hard to be dishonored, when more than half the members of the allied house rode forth with you.

Sayuri had stayed behind with Jirō and the others; Reiko had asked Takahiro in particular to look after her. He was by far the gentlest of her brothers, but on the off-chance anything went wrong, he could also protect her very effectively. And he would; he wasn't one of the group who didn't much acknowledge her. Besides... Suya had said that whatever bad thing was supposed to happen to her would happen with Kentaro around, and Kentaro was here with them. Reiko wasn't sure how much of that she believed, but she'd planned for it just in case.

The horse underneath her huffed as they crested the top of a hill. Laid out before them, they could see the castle they were to retake. Many soldiers in gold and orange seemed to be stationed about; their ranks spilled outside the castle itself into encampments, tent clusters surrounded by palisade walls, constructed recently, no doubt from the nearby forest's trees. Beside her, Tatsuya's horse shifted. A few of them had gone ahead of the main force to scout.

“They've really dug in," he observed dispassionately. “It's going to be a pain to dig them out again."

Reiko nodded, her mouth set into a frown. “There's so many. They must not have gotten around to taking the countryside yet... or else they just had a massive army to begin with." She hadn't expected the sheer volume of soldiers. There must be at least a thousand.

Their force was three hundred and fifty, in total.

"Kind of like ticks," Ayla spoke, referring to Tatsuya's statement. "They dig in real deep until you burn them off," she continued. She was on Reiko's other side, her horse seemingly nervous to have her as a rider. Perhaps it was warranted, or not. "Same principle could be applied here," she said, a light frown on her lips. It was almost as if she didn't believe her own words.

"But all's fair in love and war, Reiko. Unless they have something to their advantage, we won't suffer too many casualties. I can't say the same for them, though," she said as the frown on her face was replaced with something more neutral.

Reiko didn't like the sound of that. She hated the idea of killing people simply because they were on the wrong side of what amounted to a property dispute. But... according to Akarui-dono and a few of his more honest advisers, diplomacy had already been attempted and failed. His people were beginning to starve. She didn't want to think about what his servants were enduring. Occupation was rarely civil for the people who had to endure it.

It might not justify what they were about to do, but she couldn't really justify leaving things the way they were, either. All she could do was what she thought would lead to the best result, in the end. And hope she wasn't wrong about it.

She made mental notes of particularly strong positions on the way towards the castle; points they have to take if they didn't want to find themselves flanked or surrounded halfway through their push to the castle walls. Once she'd fixed them all in her mind, she nodded to the other two. “Let's go back, then. Akarui-dono will want his report, and then we'll have to devise a strategy." She turned her horse and pointed him down the hill again, back towards their hidden encampment at the forest's edge.

"Right, strategy," Ayla spoke, though she didn't say anything further. She turned her own steed with Reiko's, and followed just to the back of Reiko. "Just a heads up, Reiko," Ayla spoke, a little softly at that. Perhaps she didn't want anyone to hear her since they were nearing the camp? "I'm not exactly a close and personal fighter. Don't get me wrong, I can do that. I just... I'm better at a distance. You've seen my bow," she spoke. Ayla was good with a bow; that had been obvious during the archery contest when they first met.

"It'd be better if I could cover you from a distance. I get a little... excited if I get too close," she continued. It was obvious in the way she said excited, that it meant that she would likely get too into the battle, and change. That should be avoided at all costs. "But whatever you and the others come up with, I'm sure it'll be fine," she didn't say anything after that.

Reiko nodded her understanding. It would be better to keep Ayla in the back ranks with the other archers, but that was surely something they could do. Akarui-dono and they had enough people between them that a front line and back line formation would likely be best anyway.

It took them about fifteen minutes to make it back to the encampment on horseback. Dismounting, they handed the animals over to one of Tsubasa's lieutenants, who bowed respectfully to all three of them. She could hear Tsubasa some distance away, in what must have been Akarui-dono's command tent.

Making her way to it, Reiko cleared her throat, waiting until the three of them were acknowledged before stepping in. Kentaro was there as well, along with the lord himself, Eiji, and one of Akarui-dono's other advisors, and older man named Kanda. He was a proper samurai, with a weathered face and a certain look to his eyes that spoke of many battles. Reiko liked him; he was among the more reasonable members of the lord's entourage, and he didn't talk down to her because she was a woman.

“Hino-sama, Minamoto-sama. Saitō-san." He greeted them with a bow. “You've finished scouting the castle area?"

Ayla returned the bow, and nodded her head. "We have, Kanda-san," she spoke. Her eyes drifted towards Eiji, but they remained neutral and passive. "Their force is at least a thousand strong, probably more," she spoke calmly. She glanced towards Reiko for a moment, before she turned her attention back towards the others. Eiji seemed contemplative, but it was hard to tell, exactly. Even under the tent, he still hadn't removed his mask. He'd kept it on at all times, actually. Perhaps his face had been disfigured at one point?

"What of the fortifications?" Eiji asked. Ayla didn't spare him a glance, and instead, glanced at Kanda-san and Reiko. He sounded bored when he asked the question, though. Perhaps that is why she did not answer?

Reiko took up the question instead, moving over to the table where a map of the castle and its surrounding areas was laid out. “There are lots of palisades around the castle walls, and several key chokepoints we'll probably need to take along the way," she said, moving colored tokens to the spots she indicated.

Kanda leaned over the map with her, helping her fill in the walls on the diagram she was building. She smiled gratefully at him, and then continued. “This one thinks it would make the most sense to divide our forces somewhat, into srike teams. We could then hit all the outermost choke points at once. They will be advantageous to us, because not too many of their troops will be able to fit through at once, reducing the advantage of numbers." Clearly, this army had built its fortifications in anticipation of facing a larger force still.

Eiji hummed a soft note, though it was more of understanding and agreement. His eyes narrowed slightly, though, as he glanced at the map. Ayla did the same, though she seemed to be contemplating something. She glanced towards Reiko, and sighed softly before moving her hands to her side.

"It would be easier to take when they least expect it. We could use the cover of night to do that. It will... reduce casualties, if necessary," she spoke those words particularly to Reiko. "It will also be to our benefit to do this at night. There are usually less patrols, and they might have a bit of arrogance on their side for their sheer numbers," she continued. The way she said it, though, sounded as if she were uncertain that could be the case.

"Either way, regardless if you use the cover of night, catching them off guard would, perhaps, be in the best interests of everyone else. The fewer people we lose, the better." Eiji spoke that time, seemingly agreeing, but he didn't sound too convincing.

“Will the troops be able to see?" Kentaro asked. “Tsubasa's men have done night drills, but that may not be the case for your army, Akarui-san."

The warlord frowned down at his map. “Not as such, but I expect their outposts will be lit. We'll be able to see them before they see us, if we go in without torches."

Reiko nodded. it was sound strategy. “Then we should move in tonight. The longer we linger here, the greater the chance we'll be discovered. Can you have your men ready to move by then, Kanda-san?"

The older human nodded his head. “Yes, Hino-sama. I will prepare them now." He waited for Akarui to dismiss him with a nod before exiting the tent.

She turned back to the maps, tilting her head down at them. “Tsubasa, I think you and your men should take the center of the formation, here." She pointed to the outermost point of the semicircle of fortification. “It's widest, so you'll be able to make the most use of the additional people. Most of Akarui-dono's men should probably go with you." She looked up at her brother, who met her eyes solemnly. It went without saying that he would have to be on-guard, in case their allies tried anything untoward.

“Kentaro and I can pressure from the right." Reiko slid her finger along the arc to indicate the second outpost along the arc. “And Ayla-san and Tatsuya can go left." He would be enough of a distraction to allow her to attack from range, for sure. And the fewer people that saw her family's powers, in the event they needed to use them, the better.

Plus... if Ayla inadvertently transformed, her brothers were the best choices to handle it, perhaps Tatsuya most of all.

“How many troops will each of the flank groups take, then?" Akarui-dono asked, clearly misunderstanding her.

She shook her head. “None. It's best if they remain small, and we're trained to be able to infiltrate this way." Probably better if she let him assume they were shinobi or something of the like. Reiko wasn't actually sure if Akarui-dono understood what had happened in their duel. He was faster and stronger than normal, so perhaps her strength had felt like human strength normally would to him. In either case, she didn't want to give him more reason to be suspicious than she absolutely had to. Rumors were one thing; facts were another thing entirely.

Eiji glanced towards Akarui-dono, and then back towards them. "I agree with Hino-sama. The less people to go with them, the greater chance they will be successful," he spoke, though there was a strange lightness to his tone. It's almost as if he were expecting the outcome, however; he said nothing further. Ayla glanced towards Tatsuya, and then Reiko, and nodded her head.

"Perhaps we should go prepare as well. We still have about two hours before sundown, and we should use that to our advantage," she spoke in a nonchalant fashion. They didn't necessarily need to prepare, but perhaps she was just being formal? She glanced towards Tsubasa, next, though, and grinned at him. "Make sure you make it back in one piece. I still have a spar to collect on," she spoke, her grin turning somewhat into a frown.

She was worried, perhaps, just the same as Reiko was. But maybe it was something else? Ayla wasn't close to anyone in particular except for Reiko, herself, or at least that's what it looked like.

Though... there was something in the way she interacted with Tatsuya, too. Reiko couldn't quite decide what they thought of each other, but it was a far cry from the open hostility they started with.

She missed Tsubasa's reply, but could only assume it had been affirmative. The rest of them took their leave, then, and Reiko filed out with them. They would probably wait until a few hours after dark to strike, but there were at least some preparations to be done in the meantime. Camouflage, for one.

Reiko did not relish the thought of going to battle and killing. But for the sake of this alliance, for the sake of her family and the future, she would.

She wondered if Tou-chan would be proud of her.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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Ayla snorted softly to herself. She had, briefly, entertained the idea of dressing in white just to scare the shit out of some of the enemy soldiers. Let them believe she was an evil spirit of some sort, however; she couldn't exactly do that. One, she wasn't particularly good at that kind of thing, and two, she didn't want to mess this up for Reiko. That, and she really wanted to partake in the skirmish. Sure, she wouldn't be up close, but that was fine. She could pick off whoever thought they could escape, and she could provide a decent cover for them. She might not boast about it, or flaunt it around, however; Ayla knew she was one of the best, if not the best, archer around.

Of course, she had years to perfect that art, kyūdō, if she remembered correctly, so maybe it wasn't fair to think that? She sighed softly, shifting through her belongings to search for her yumi. Once she found it, she simply stared at it, running her finger along the spine before sighing. It'd been too long since she'd actually used it in battle. She wasn't sure if she could call this a battle, per se, but it was one for the humans. Shaking the thought from her mind, she stood from her spot to dress. It was something simple, a shinbobi shōzoku outfit she'd had made a long time ago. It was fitted to her, specifically, and bereft of the mask. She didn't need it, after all.

It was made out of material that easily conformed to her when she moved, which was something she needed. She needed to be as flexible as possible, after all. Once that was on, she pulled her hair back into a high tail, and shouldered her bow. At least that way her hair wouldn't be in the way and wouldn't tangle with the bow. She stepped outside and took a soft breath, glancing around. It would be at least another few minutes before they marched. She didn't like the idea of Tsubasa going out on his own, after what had happened, but it wasn't like she had too much to worry about. He could handle himself. He was a good kid, perhaps that's why she liked him?

That, and he was Reiko's brother. She'd be upset if something happened to him, and in turn, that would make Ayla upset. Shaking the thought from her head, she left to find one of the siblings.

She could see Tsubasa rallying his men; he was clearly pretty busy, and his group would be marching separate from her anyway. Reiko and Kentaro spoke to each other in low voices some distance away. They both dressed similarly to Ayla herself; Reiko's outfit in particular looked like something she'd had a while. Unlike Ayla, however, hers did have a mask, one currently atop her head. A cat, from the look of it. Kentaro's was a fox.

They seemed to be making plans at the moment, from the snippets of conversation she could hear. That left Tatsuya; he was standing by himself on the edge of the clearing, arms crossed and leaning against a tree. His attire was dark as well, but it wasn't anything a shinobi would wear; rather, he'd worn a shitagi, kosode, and hakama with zori sandals, not unlike he usually did, but they were all black. The red of his eyes stood out fiercely against the lack of color, almost luminescent. He wore a sword on each side of his obi; a mask not unlike those belonging to his siblings dangled between two fingers, but it faced away from her, so she could not see it.

"You know, if you were to do that more often, you'd have every woman, maybe man too, after you," she spoke out to him. "You've got the whole 'cool, calm, and collected' samurai thing going for you," she continued, clearly amused by it. Of course, he probably had that anyway, considering what he was, and how he looked. She pursed her lips at that thought, though, and sighed.

"So... you and I on the left, right? I suppose it'll be easier to just let you do all the work," but it wouldn't be as fun. She was joking, of course. She wouldn't let him do all the work, even if he'd suggest it. He wouldn't, or so she thought.

He snorted, arching an eyebrow at her. “If the complete lack of color does it for you, I'll look into ordering more black," he drawled, rolling his eyes as if to say he didn't quite believe she'd included herself in the number.

Turning his eyes back out towards the edge of the forest in the distance, he let the humor drop from his voice. “There will be plenty of work for both of us. Humans or not, there are many of them. Even you or I could die if something catches us by surprise." There was a certain weightiness to the way he said it, as though he were speaking from personal experience or something. As it was, he clarified, so she didn't have to wonder for long.

“Only Reiko was there, when he died, and she doesn't remember what happened. The rest of us figure that must be what happened to him. A lot of humans, and one of them he didn't see. That's all it takes."

Whatever amusement she might have derived from his statement, was immediately quashed. She dropped her gaze from him, but she couldn't stop the sadness that seeped through her. She'd never really known how he died, only that he did. If that were true, if humans were really responsible for his death, then they could all die, for all she cared. After what they did for them, after what they put at stake for them, they go and slay the one being that saved them. Ungrateful things, they were. But... it was years ago, so many that she'd lost track, when they defeated the oni.

Human memories were terrible things, so perhaps they had simply forgotten? Whatever the case, she pushed the thought out of her mind. She didn't need to think about that, right now. There was a battle she needed to focus on without distractions.

"We'll just have to make sure we're not surprised, then," though that wasn't entirely given. Once the scent of blood started permeating the air, it would be hard to tell if there was someone behind them, or not. That, she supposed, as the downside of having an enhanced sense of smell. Too much blood, or one particular scent, could throw everything off.

"Just... be careful, I suppose." She wasn't too sure why she was concerned about his well-being, but there it was all the same. If something happened to him, Reiko would surely be upset, and if she could prevent that, she would do her damnedest. Maybe she was doing it more for Reiko's sake? That seemed about right.

He smirked at her, one corner of his mouth pulling up and back just enough to bare a single fang. The expression was, oddly enough, still almost completely serious, in a strange way. “Careful's not really in my nature. But there's no cause for concern. I, at least, have no plans to leave her behind."

Tatsuya raised the mask to his face. It was a dragon—what else would it have been, really? Unlike the others, it left everything below his nose uncovered. “But how about this? Watch my back and I'll watch yours."

"Deal," she spoke, raising a brow at him. "I'll watch yours, you watch mine," she continued, feeling the oncoming smirk on her face. At least this way, she'd be able to keep an eye on him, and she wouldn't have to worry too much about her own well-being. Not that she particularly cared about her own well-being. If she died... well then the only thing she would regret was leaving Aram too soon. She didn't plan on dying, not any time soon, however; she didn't have the ability to see the future.

Plus, she was ready. She'd never tell him that, of course, and she'd never go willingly to her own death, but if it happened, she wasn't going to complain. Shaking her head from the thought, she glanced back at Tatsuya.

"As long as that is all you do, because I think you might have some explaining to do to Reiko if I end up missing," she joked.

The group around them picked up into a march, and they went along with it. They'd have to split off soon, of course, but for the moment, they moved with the rest. He tread beside her, still chuckling. “It amuses me that you seem to think I'm out to murder you, Ayla," he said, using her name freely. It sounded kind of strange in his voice, actually. Tatsuya didn't say it at all like Amon used to, even though both were fond of teasing her. It was hard to say what the difference was, though.

"Ah, but I didn't say anything about being murdered, now did I? I only said that if I ended up missing, that you'd have to explain it to Reiko. Any number of things could happen that wouldn't necessarily mean you've murdered me, 'suya," she spoke, doing much the same. Though she didn't use his entire name, it was still the same, she supposed. She scoffed lightly, though, and shook her head.

"But when you say it that way, maybe you are? I'm trying to steal your sister, after all, away from you. Remember?" she continued, but she knew he would know she was joking about it. She had no plans to do that to Reiko. "Who knows, maybe I'll steal the other one, instead. He's fun to be around, Tsubasa," she continued, quirking her lips in the process. He was certainly more energetic, but she wasn't quite fond of him that way. She didn't think she was ever capable of being fond of anyone like that, after all.

“You can have him," Tatsuya said immediately, rolling his eyes under the mask. “You would get along with that type, wouldn't you?" He sighed and shook his head, but before she could respond, he raised a finger to his mouth and made the sign for silence.

Not far away, Reiko and Kentaro were breaking away from the group. It was clearly their turn to do the same, and begin the battle in earnest. Tatsuya took the lead, navigating the both of them swiftly and silently over the terrain. His feet made not even a whisper of sound over the debris underfoot. No snapping twigs or rustling leaves. She might have been the one who could look like a spirit, but he made no more noise than a ghost, despite the fact that he wasn't as obviously dressed for stealth as she was.

They drew close to the outpost they were meant to take. He stopped, waiting for her to do the same before moving close enough to speak softly into her ear. He laid one hand on her shoulder to do it, but the touch was in no way inappropriate, despite his usual demeanor. “See the one standing next to the torch?" he asked, jerking his chin towards the opening in the palisade wall.

There was indeed a guard there, leaning lazily against the wall, a bow in one hand but not drawn. “Can you get him quietly?"

"I'm insulted," she replied softly, though she shifted to remove her bow from her shoulder. She fitted an arrow to it, and narrowed her eyes towards the guard. Taking in a breath, she held the bow steady, and aimed. There was a reason as to why she preferred her bow to others. Hers was made specifically for stealth, and had little to no sound, not even the snap of the string. Of course, that had been perfected, too, over the years. She exhaled at the same time she released the arrow, watching as it hit its mark with the softest of 'thuds'.

"You should move him quickly," she spoke, jerking her head in the guards direction. "I'll cover you from behind. They'll likely have a top post," and if they did, she could take care of the guards that would be on it. She was a quick enough draw that she could do it before they suspected a thing, after all.

“Naturally," he replied.

Before she'd even taken another breath, he had vanished from her side like smoke. Barely two seconds later, he was at the wall, dragging the dead man into the shadows cast by the palisade. He stooped, yanking out her arrow and apparently checking it over. His other hand went to the hilt of one of his swords. He drew in enough time to intercept another human coming through the gap in the wall.

That one didn't make it more then three feet away before he lost his head. Literally; Tatsuya's sword cleaved through his neck like a knife through butter. He, too, was dragged out of the circle of torchlight, but someone must have caught on to what was happening, either here or at one of the other outposts, because the clangor of an alarm went up afterwards. Several more guards did indeed appear over the wall. One of them spotted Tatsuya and cried out.

Now the whole lot knew there were intruders here.

"Shit," was the only thing she said. She had the advantage at the moment, though. Tatsuya was the only one they'd seen, but she knew they weren't entirely stupid enough to believe it was just one man. Regardless if he really was a man or not to them, that wasn't her priority. Instead, she moved so that she was just beneath the cover of the trees, and took aim at the guards over the wall. As they turned to take the intruder, she let her arrows fly in quick succession. Each one planted itself in the back of their throats, causing them to fall off their perch.

"We were bound to be spotted, anyway," she spoke, making her way towards Tatsuya. Whether they were actually spotted wasn't the concern. The enemy knew they were here, and they needed to get this over with as quick as they could. "You take the left side, I'll take the right. I'll run out of arrows before we run out of people to kill," she spoke more to herself. She was glad she still had her tantō. It wasn't a katana, or wakizashi, and it would require her to get closer than she wanted to. She didn't have much of a choice, though, if she wanted to make it out alive.

He nodded, putting the arrow he still held back in her quiver. Apparently, he'd thought of that much already.

She moved effortlessly, picking another guard off the wall before he had time to climb down. Unfortunately, it seemed that most of the guards and soldiers were assembling quicker. There was an array of archers forming at the top, however; she knew she'd be able to get some of them, not all. She sighed softly. She was going to get scraped by an arrow or two, but that was alright. It wasn't like she wouldn't heal from the scars. It might take a day, though. Her healing abilities were not that great compared to Amon's or Aram's.

She fitted another arrow, letting it fly as some of the archers took aim at her, moving as quickly as she could to avoid them. Another thing she didn't have in common with Aram and Amon. They were swifter than she was, and she cursed slightly when an arrow whipped past her face, slicing her cheek open. She narrowed her eyes and pulled her lips back into a light snarl.

"Asshole," she muttered, letting another arrow loose. Well, at least this was proving to be more of a challenge than she originally thought it was.

Tatsuya was a whirlwind of steel, in essence. It seemed the fact that he carried two full-length katana was more than for show; his entire style looked to be predicated around using both at the same time. It was an effective mix of attack and defense; he hewed through soldiers like they were simply fodder. Without the need to aim at least once at each individual target, he often felled two or more with a single powerful slash, bending and twisting away from attacks that really should have hit him.

The air, cold to begin with on an early spring night, seemed to only get chillier, clouding in front of them as they expelled breath. One of the humans, charging for Ayla, suddenly slipped on a slick spot that didn't seem to have been there before. It would seem he was using his abilities as well, though not overtly.

It wasn't fair that he could do that, though. All the blood and adrenaline was starting to get to her. She could almost feel the itch under her skin as she let her last arrow fly. She was doing a hell of a job keeping it under control, but there was still that small part of her that wanted the change. She sighed heavily, jumping out of the way as a sword came down at her. She rolled to the side, and stopped, pulling the tantō from its sheath, and held it out in front of her in a defensive manner.

She charged at the soldier, moving as fast as she was allowed, and flicked the blade over his throat. She watched as the blood slid down his neck, and he grasped at it. "That won't help you," she spoke softly, watching the fear in his eyes. It was the same look they all had when they realized death was upon them. Unable to watch his expression, she jerked his head, causing it to snap. It was a mercy he did not deserve. They both continued to cut through the soldiers, though it seemed that there was an endless supply of them. She continued dodging where she could, earning small nicks here and there.

It didn't take much longer, though, when the last one fell. She let out a small breath of relief, and stood. She was covered in blood; a mixture of hers and theirs. She wasn't bothered by it too much, but it did cause her to wrinkle her nose somewhat. She glanced in Tatsuya's direction, and pursed her lips together. "Are you alright?" she decided to say. He was, or he seemed to be, but she wanted to ask, anyway.

In fact, he seemed entirely injured. He was wearing a fair amount of blood; some of it was spattered across the pristine white of his mask. The rest would be impossible to see against his black gear, but his swords were coated in it. He turned to glance over his shoulder at her. She couldn't really read his whole face because of the obstruction, but his mouth was set in a neutral line.

“I'm—" he cut himself off, his head whipping forward again.

At about the same time, something hit Ayla's senses. Something old and familiar, but that should have been impossible. It could not be that any of them yet lived—she and Aram and Amon had killed the last, destroyed the final nest, a thousand years ago.

And yet...

It was on the other side of the field. Where Reiko and Kentaro were.

"No." That was the only word out of her mouth before she darted off towards them.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
“Kentaro!" Reiko scrambled to her feet, pushing herself up off the dirt and taking hold of her sword again.

Her brother, sensing that she was clear, broke out of the lock with the enormous creature that had suddenly appeared on the battlefield, as if from nowhere, it seemed. It was massive: at least ten feet tall, with sickly green skin, grey hair, and massive tusks jutting out from its lower jaw. Humanoid was an accurate description, but only barely. It was massively strong; she'd been knocked off her feet with one hit, and she'd probably be dead right now if Kentaro hadn't interfered.

He jumped back; fire erupted from his fingertips, coalescing into a sphere and shooting right for the creature. She supposed it wasn't much good trying to hide the other beings in the world from humans if such a one as this was right there for them to see.

The creature swung its massive club, intercepting the fireball with the implement, which was big enough to take the hit. It seemed to focus on her; Reiko had to make several swift dodging maneuvers just to stay away from the next series of blows.

She nearly tripped over a corpse on the last landing; Kentaro was at her side immediately, grabbing her around the waist with an arm and launching them both far enough away to get clear.

“We should leave," he advised flatly. He suggested it for her sake, she knew.

But Reiko shook her head. “We can't! Imagine if that thing made it to the countryside. The humans wouldn't stand a chance." It barely even seemed to be intelligent, more like a dog than a person, and from what she'd seen of its behavior, all it did was attack without ceasing. Even now, it was turning to the fallen soldiers, many of them only unconscious and not dead, and began to crush them with its club, nearly mindlessly.

Kentaro tsked, but he didn't argue with her. She could feel Tatsuya's alarm through the Mark; he was most likely on his way. If Ayla was still with him, she was confident they would be able to handle this. It didn't have the advantage of surprise anymore, after all.

She ignored the pain in her back, where it had caught her the first time. Were she human, it would have snapped her spine. As it was, she had a few bloody furrows in her back from the spikes on the club, but Reiko was good at ignoring pain.

She always had been.

It wasn't more than a second later that a large, white blur, ran past her. It seemed fixated on the large creature, and indeed, it charged it. It was, perhaps, a few feet shorter than the creature, but it was obvious enough who it was. Ayla's jaws seemed to snap around the creatures arm, preventing it from crushing any more of the soldiers. Her teeth seemed to sink further into the creature, and what looked like an enormous amount of strength, managed to kick it away. She jumped back, landing on all four paws, and growled. Even her hackles were raised.

Reiko, Kentaro, you both need to leave... now. It's not safe anymore, she spoke in the same, strange, telepathic way. You are no match for it, she continued. She seemed to keep her gaze on the creature, though, watching it as it shook its arm. It didn't look fazed by what Ayla just did, and if anything, looked annoyed by the interuption.

Reiko nearly sighed. She was used to being perpetually underestimated; she hadn't expected her friend of all people to do that. Tightening her grip on her sword, she chanced a glance at Kentaro. He nodded, readying his own blade again.

“Underestimating my family, Ayla?" Tatsuya appeared a moment later, Swinging both blades in a wide arc that flayed open the creature's back. It twisted, trying to backhand him, but he bent out of the way like water, teeth bared under the bottom line of his mask. “That's not wise. Now they just want to show you you're wrong."

I am not underestimating anyone. You are the ones understimating your enemy. This is not a creature you can take, trust me, she sounded like she was pleading to them. It was slightly odd, considering Ayla's own thoughts on the matter regarding such things. She firmly believed anyone, man or woman, could do something, however; the way she spoke now, was something she believed they couldn't do.

Please leave. I do not want any of you to come to harm, she continued, jumping out of the way just in time as the creature came down with its club. She darted around it, and jumped onto its back, sinking her teeth into the juncture of its neck and shoulder. She dug in, it looked like, with her claws. The creature hissed, but grabbed her by the neck, and yanked her off. She took a decent chunk of flesh with her when it did. She was thrown to the ground, though, and the creature held her there, raising its club to strike her.

It managed to get her once, sinking the spikes into her shoulder, and there was a sickening, wet, crunch as it did. Ayla did not cry out, though it was clear that the strike broke her shoulder.

Obviously, none of them listened. Kentaro conjured more fire this time, preventing the creature from striking Ayla a second time and potentially ending her life. With a gout of flames in its face, it bellowed horribly, charging breakneck for Kentaro. He stood steady, patient, unruffled, but Reiko could feel the spike of adrenaline in his system. Her brother did not enjoy fighting, this she knew. But he was very, very effective at it.

He dodged at the last moment, swinging downwards with his blade. It clanged off a roughened patch of verdigris skin, leaving only a small cut. Any normal opponent wouldn't have an arm left after a hit like that.

The creature's counter managed to come in fast enough to clip Kentaro's hip, cracking something and sending him flying. He landed on his feet in a crouch, teeth gritted and lips pulled back from them. Reiko felt his pain.

Tatsuya moved in, preventing it from getting at Kentaro while he landed. Raising both swords and crossing them in front of himself, he caught a downward strike of the club, bending at the knees with the force of the impact. Under his mask, his eyes flashed golden.

If Reiko had had the time, she would have cursed under her breath. That was a bad sign. A terrible sign.

She moved in herself, running forward and leaping, high enough to twiste herself around in midair and slash for the creature's neck. The impact even against the softest portion of its skin jarred her arms heavily, but she did leave a cut, one that bled black, freely dripping down the creature's chest. It was nowhere near fatal on its own, but it was something.

Beside her, Tatsuya disengaged, calling up ice from the ground to encase its legs and impede its movement. Kentaro kept his fire aimed for its head and torso so as not to weaken Tatsuya's work. His sword was alight with the same bright yellow flames; each slash now left scorch marks as well as cuts. Reiko's wounds continued to bleed.

She continued to pay them no heed.

Ayla seemed to shake off the fact that her shoulder was broken. It was probably already healing, though it was difficult to say. She moved with less grace, now, and seemed to limp as she did. She stopped momentarily, though, and narrowed her gaze at it. She seemed to be contemplating something, as if she were sizing it up, so to speak. She turned her attention to Reiko.

If you want to help, then do as I say, she spoke suddenly. You see how thick its hide is. If you want to pierce it, you have to put as much strength as you can behind your blade. You might break your arms doing that, but you have to get in between its ribcage, underneath its arm, where it is the softest. Otherwise its chest cavity will be too much for you. It has an abnormally thick chest cavity, and the only way to its heart is through its side, she spoke, almost as if she'd had experience with this kind of thing before.

I'll do what I can to keep its attention on us, but you have to be quick, Reiko, she was off after that. She managed to weave through Kentaro's flames, and made for the creature's shoulder. She latched her jaws over its shoulder, and looked like she was pulling on it. The sound of something popping, though, gave way to the fact that she was pulling its arm out of its socket. She was thrown off of it, again, with its free arm.

Reiko didn't waste time arguing or second-guessing the strategy. She simply did what Ayla said, because it made sense and it seemed like she was speaking from experience. What that meant, given what this was, was something she would have to deal with later.

No sooner had the creature thrown off Ayla than Reiko was there, bracing her sword in both hands and thrusting with all the power she had. She wasn't as strong as her brothers, and to her dismay, she only managed to get about two inches in. She'd misaimed; she was up against one of its ribs, now.

She wasn't going to make it.

From behind, another pair of arms encircled her, gripping her sword as well. She didn't need to look to know that it was Tatsuya. “Give it all you have, Reiko," he said.

She nodded shortly, pushing forward with all her strength. His added to hers, and together, they cracked the beast's rib, pressing forward until her blade was buried to the hilt. They must have struck its heart, for it gave one last cry and toppled to the side, nearly taking them with it.

But they let go of the blade, and stepped away. Reiko's breath heaved in her lungs, pushing in and out too quickly. But the wounds on her back were already healing, and she could tell that the others were alive.

They'd done it.

She could hear Ayla give out a deep sigh, and it sounded heavy, too. This should not be happening. That thing shouldn't exist, she spoke seemingly to herself. It sounded like she knew what it was exactly. Are you alright? she spoke to them, her golden eyes fixed on both Reiko and Tatsuya. She was bloodied, too, and her shoulder bled just as freely as Reiko's wounds. She could tell Ayla wasn't putting much pressure on it, either. It must have still been broken.

She hadn't changed back, either.

And that it existed at all was obviously something they were going to have to deal with. But for Reiko, priority one was healing the others, and then priority two was finding Tsubasa and the others, to make sure they were all right. It looked like they'd broken the defense; Akarui's army should be able to do the rest. Hopefully, he would accept that as enough for now.

“Ayla-san," she said. “This one can get rid of your injuries. Is it okay if this one comes closer?"

She seemed to shake her head, at first. I'll be fine, Reiko. My wounds are healing already, but they're just a little slower than yours. My shoulder is fine, now, just sore, she spoke, moving her shoulder slightly as if to prove it. Even as a wolf, she still winced, and sighed. I could use a spare cloth, or kimono, though, if you happen to have one. Unless you'd rather I walk back naked, she asked, glancing at Reiko as she said that.

“Oh. Um." She glanced around. Anything the fallen soldiers were wearing was out of the question. She herself was only in one layer and her sarashi. Kentaro was basically the same. That left—

“This is becoming a very strange pattern, Ayla," Tatsuya said. Reiko had no idea what he was referring to, but he was already shrugging out of his shitagi. Rather than give Ayla the bloody garment, though, he opted also to take off the cleaner kosode below. Reiko averted her eyes; he might be her brother, but it was still only polite.

She heard him chuckle at her. “I'm decent, Reiko, fear not." When she turned back, he'd donned the shitagi by itself, and was holding the kosode in his hand. He tossed it to her with a shrug. “For some reason, Ayla doesn't seem to be all that keen on being naked in my presence, so I'll let you two figure this out."

He walked to stand beside Kentaro, both of them facing away from the two women. Reiko took a few steps closer, offering a wry smile. “Considering how tall Suya is, this should at least go to your knees."

She snorted at his comment. "If it were just you and I, maybe, but there are others present, 'suya. Besides, you like me in your clothes," she'd spoken, chuckling softly. She had shifted back to her original appearance. Once she was in the kosode, she sighed deeply. "Now isn't the best time, but I suppose there is an explanation in order. We should head back, though. I'll... explain everything once we do," she stated it as if it were some heavy burdern on her shoulders.

Reiko only nodded. She had plenty of questions, and a theory of her own, but it would be best to hear what Ayla had to say, first.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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This wasn't good.

She knew from experience that she, Aram, and Amon, had eradicated the oni more than a thousand years ago. So how was it that there was one, not that long ago, alive and breathing? They should have all been dead. There was no way that there could have been even one alive. She glanced at the others before her, and sighed heavily. There was an explanation she needed to give, she knew that. She glanced towards Tatsuya. He knew already, who she was. Reiko, however, did not. She wasn't sure about Tsubasa or Kentaro, though.

"I suppose I owe you an explanation," she spoke, drawing out the words as she did so. This wasn't easy for her to say, because she didn't know where to start. The previous day's event had worn heavily on her, specifically, because of what had transpired. "That creature from the other day," she started, pausing only momentarily to glance at them.

"It's called an oni. They're supposed to be extinct, however; as you saw, there was one alive," she continued, taking in a heavy breath. She might as well get this over and done with. She just wasn't sure how they would take it. "It's been at least a millenia since the last sighting because... your father, Aram, and myself took care of them. Amon... was my brother, as well as Aram's," she stated. She shook her head realizing she'd used his actually name.

"You knew him as Ichirō, though," she corrected herself. She still didn't understand how an oni was alive, or where it even came from, however; it was apparent that something was going on. She'd have to tell Aram once they got back, but for now, she could at least let them in on what an oni was.

“You're Tsuki-sama. And your brother is Hizashi-sama." Reiko said it with a quiet certainty, but for once, her tone was completely impossible to read. Even her face was neutral, almost as much so as Kentaro's. “Tou-chan told me stories about you, but I never thought..."

Her lower lip trembled slightly. “You... you knew. You knew and you never told me."

"I..." she began, furrowing her brows softly. She supposed, in a way, she'd done the same thing Aram did. She didn't tell her, however; that wasn't entirely true. "Reiko, I only found out a few months ago, that you were his daughter. I didn't know, myself," she spoke honestly. She didn't know until Tatsuya had told her, but she wasn't going to say that. Let Reiko be upset with her, and not him. She didn't understand why, but that's what she felt.

"I wanted to tell you, but I didn't know how," and even now, it didn't seem right. Whether or not it was right, though, wasn't the concern. "But yes, I am Tsuki-sama, and Aram is Hizashi-sama," she continued, taking a deep breath. "But... as I was saying, the oni that we killed the other day should not have existed. We destroyed every possible nest there was, and we made sure they went extinct. The fact that there was one here, and now, is disturbing."

"They are not easily felled, as you have seen, and it takes alot in order to do so. Even we had problems killing them, at times. They don't have many weaknesses, and their hides are thicker than leather," she paused to let the information sink in a bit. They knew that from experience, how thick an oni's hide could be.

Reiko fell silent, apparently not as willing to put the deception aside as Ayla was. Then again, there had still been months where Ayla knew but did not say. Perhaps she felt that was enough to be hurt by.

That left her brothers to pick up the conversational thread, as far as it went. “Well... shit," Tsubasa said, rubbing the back of his neck. “You know, if there's one around, there could pretty easily be more. Uh, awkward question, but how do their mating habits work? Should we be worried about little oni or whatever?"

Awkward or not, it was still a question that they had to find an answer to. She shuddered. "Kind of. Oni mostly took human women, and mated with them to provide them with more. In other words, oni are always male," she paused and shuddered again. "The oni don't necessarily have little ones. Once an oni is birthed, they grow at an alarming rate. By the end of the week, an oni could be fully grown, though their mindset isn't exactly normal. Nothing drives an oni more than battle and rage," she continued. All of the oni they had fought had been rather stupid, however; what they lacked in intelligence, they made up for in strength.

"But do not take their stupidity lightly. Even a brick wall could damage you if you're not too careful," she said with a light slump in her shoulders.

“Heh. I reckon so," Tsubasa agreed, looking torn between disgusted and oddly amused. Most likely the latter was just her comment, though; he was a lighthearted sort, but no doubt not pleased to learn what he just had.

“Sounds like there's a pretty good chance there are more of them around, then," Tatsuya added. “Not like that one could have just appeared out of nowhere. Who knows how many brothers or sons he has?" He wore a look of obvious distaste, mouth turned down into a scowl.

“What do we do about it?" Kentaro allowed the question to hang in the air. No one had an immediate answer.

"But that's just it; there isn't supposed to be more," and she didn't even know how to deal with the one. There was a possibility that there might be more of them, now, if he'd had his way with a woman. The thing about that, was that the gestation period for an oni was only a month. They grew within the mother's womb at just as an alarming rate as they grew outside. The mothers never survived the birth because of how big they were, and if she remembered correctly, the oni always tore through the stomachs.

"The only thing we can do about it is make sure we are properly prepared. Fighting them is no easy task, and I need... I need to talk to my brother about it. Perhaps he knows something about this," because chances were, he'd seen this. Whether it was recently or not, Aram would know something. He always did.

"For those of you that are capable, your strength will be what saves you," she glanced particularly at Tsubasa when she said this. He wasn't there, so he wouldn't know. "Oni anatomy is different, obviously, from humans and beings such as yourself and I. Their bone structure is a lot more refined, and it is difficult to break any single bone in their body. Their chest cavity, however, is the thickest bone they have. Aiming straight for the heart won't work unless you plan on bringing a sword made out of oni bone, itself. The best way to kill it is to go through the ribcage, the fourth and fifth to be precise." It was easier to pierce the heart that way.

"Other than that... there isn't much a human could do against it. Hopefully, it was just the one oni," but she wasn't exactly the optimistic type.

“Seems unlikely," Tatsuya said, unconsciously echoing her thoughts. “I'm going to bring that corpse back with us. I know the old man's swords are made from oni bones, but we're going to need more than just that if any of them ever show up again."

Tsubasa nodded. “I'll have the men load him up on the cart tonight. Before Akarui and his goons can figure out what to do with him, y'know?"

"It would be best if we did that as soon as possible. I don't want Akarui or his advisor anywhere near it," she spoke. She didn't understand why, but it was just a strange feeling she had. She always trusted her gut. Shaking her head, she turned her attention towards Reiko. She'd remained quiet through the entire conversation, and Ayla understood how she was feeling.

"Reiko," she began softly, "I don't expect you to forgive me for lying to you, but know that it wasn't intentional. And I can't give you a reason as to why I did, but..." she paused.

"I am sorry." It wasn't the apology she wanted to give, but she didn't know how else to say it. Perhaps... what she felt now was what Aram had felt. She took her gaze away from them, and stared at her hands. She really was a horrible person, wasn't she?

Reiko sighed softly. “This one wishes... that you would have told me. Both of you, but..." She took a deep breath and sighed it back out again. “But this one forgives you." She glanced up, offering a small smile.

Ayla sighed. She didn't know what else to say, so she said the only thing she could.

"Thank you."

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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#, as written by Aethyia
The journey back to Hokkaido was swifter than the one south, largely because they'd left Akarui and his entire lot back at the castle they'd reclaimed for him. As promised, Tsubasa had loaded the oni's corpse up on one of their carts, which did slow them somewhat, but overall they were much more efficient travelers by themselves.

Reiko rode near the front; Tatsuya could feel through their connection that she was thinking and didn't particularly wish to be disturbed. Kentaro and Tsubasa spoke in quiet tones at one of the flanks. Tatsuya elected to guard the rear; danger, he thought, was much more likely to come from that direction than any other, despite being the territory of an "ally." Everyone was a little more on edge, given the discovery of the oni, even him.

Tatsuya had suffered no injuries against the creature. His strength had been sufficient against it. In that sense, he was pleased. But... it had brought him closer to losing control than he'd been since Reiko's birthmore than a century ago. That much was unpleasant. He knew, somehow, that if he'd faced it by himself, he certainly would have succumbed. The thought irked him, and that made him irritable. He supposed most of the soldiers could detect as much; they gave him a wide berth.

Ayla gave him no such distance, and had elected to ride beside him. Perhaps she too felt the threat? She didn't speak to him, though, and had remained quiet for a majority of the ride. She'd occasionally glance towards Reiko or himself, but remained silent on what she might have been thinking. She'd obviously had no reserves about losing control when the oni had showed up, however; it was apparent that, for the first time, she was bothered by it. Her brows furrowed slightly as if she were thinking something unpleasant before sighing softly.

"I'm going to need a drink after this," she muttered to herself more-so than to anyone around them. She'd spoken it just as softly as she'd sighed. "I'm going to need a lot of drinks," she continued, finally lifting her gaze to stare out in front of her. She turned her gaze to him, after that, and furrowed her brows. "I didn't get to tell you before, but," she paused, her lips pursing into a fine line. She shook her head and her expression softened.

"Thanks for having my back," were the only words she spoke.

“Yeah," he said. “You, too." Maybe under other circumstances, he'd have poked fun at her for saying something like that, or at least gloated a little about it, but this wasn't a situation where even he felt lightheartedness was appropriate. He knew his father's stories better than anyone. Better than Reiko, even, because the old man had never spared him the gory details of them. The reality of what oni presence meant for humans and anyone else. Especially the women.

It was through interbreeding with unfortunate humans that many types of oni had developed, including some that looked almost humanoid, and they'd developed ranges of different powers, before their extermination. In a way, Tatsuya and his family were oni, if perhaps the highest forms of the creatures. But they still had that same brutal violence in them, in their natures. They could play at being civilized all they wanted, but deep down inside... Tatsuya wasn't sure he was any better than that beast, only stronger.

The evience was in what he'd almost become. It was in the way Kentaro was never quite comfortable until he was fighting something. It was in the way they all subsisted not on rice and tea and fish, but blood. The blood of humans and creatures like them. The way they drew power from it.

Tatsuya had never been ashamed of what he was, of what he ate. Not like Reiko was. But if he lost the control he had, lost the things that made him different from that creature... he scowled deeply and shook his head. At least Ayla and her brother could claim to be different.

She glanced away from him, and nodded her head. She kept quiet again, and remained so for a few moments. "I'm..." she began suddenly, pausing only to furrow her brows. "I'm surprised, honestly, that you were both able to kill it," she scoffed lightly, almost as if she didn't belive they could have done it. She probably did believe that. "It took a lot for us to kill them, and that was when it was just the three of us," she began, shaking her head lightly.

"It's not that I underestimated you, or anything, I just didn't think you'd both be capable of doing it," she spoke softly. It was strange at how soft she was being at the moment. Perhaps the appearance of the oni shook her more than she'd let on? "But I suppose it is a good thing that you were."

She scoffed lightly at that. "I'd probably be dead if it weren't for you all. Or injured deeper than I originally was," she spoke, rolling out her shoulder, the one that had been broken. It didn't look that way, anymore, though.

He supposed that, if he really thought about it, it was a little strange. Tatsuya shrugged his shoulders. “He trained us all," he said, speaking as quietly as she was. For him, it had less to do with his surprise and more to do with his general reluctance to talk about the old man, or acknowledge the significance he'd had in all their lives. “Personally. And he never let us get dull. If we weren't practicing against him, we were fighting each other. We still do."

He and his siblings were always improving, always trying to reach the next level of skill and control. For some of them, it bordered on an obsession. For others, it was a matter of needing the release of volatile energy. Violence was in their natures; they'd just found ways to deal with that. Tatsuya scoffed under his breath.

“He used to goad me. Challenge me to be stronger than he was. At the time I thought he was just being pushy, but I think he really did think it was important somehow. I never beat him before he died. But I still train like there's going to be a rematch someday." He kept his eyes on the road ahead. That was something he'd never told anyone. He had no idea why he was telling her. But near as he could tell, it was an explanation for why they'd been strong enough to handle things. They never stopped getting stronger.

She scoffed slightly when he spoke. There was a slight shift in her expression, but it was hard to tell exactly what it was. It disappeared too quickly to read. "Yeah, sounds like him. He lost once to Aram, though, so," she chuckled lightly as if the memory amused her somehow. "Aram never won after that, but perhaps that was a good thing. Amon was always..." she paused and shook her head. It looked like she didn't want to talk about it as much as he did. Her reasons were, obviously, different than his, but what they were, she didn't look inclined to say.

"Well, I guess it's a good thing you have your own style of fighting, though. Yours is a different from the way he fought, though it looks like Reiko took to that," she spoke, nodding her head in Reiko's direction. "I suppose it suits you, though," she stated, shrugging as she did so.

“I was never going to beat him by trying to be him," he replied, closing off the thread of conversation. They'd both said what they needed to, he was pretty sure; there was no point in lingering after that.

Tatsuya pulled a breath in through his nose, ignoring the salty stench of the oni. It was easier with her this close, actually; she smelled faintly like one of the flowers in Reiko's garden to him. Lavender, maybe. Along with something crisp and biting. It suited her.

“I don't know whether you're planning on forgiving your brother any time soon," he said, “but... you should invite him up to the castle as well. If there's another one of these, we should all be nearby to deal with it." What he didn't say was that he felt like that was what the old man would have wanted. And to an extent, it was still his home. Everyone who lived in it could feel that about it.

She sighed, perhaps a little too heavily. "I don't have much room to say no, actually," she spoke. "I had planned on it when we returned from this battle, but with the new development, I think it's best to do that as soon as possible," she continued, glancing up to him. Even on horseback, she was still shorter than him. "There can be some other time for me to be pissed at him. I'm sure he'll give me another reason, eventually," she spoke, rolling her eyes, though she did smile somewhat.

"And I'm sure he'd appreciate that. Stupid fool's probably..." her face pulled into a frown, and shook her head. "Enough about that; distract me with something. I'd rather keep my mind on other things right now," she muttered, pursing her lips together. Apparently she didn't like thinking about her brother at the moment, or what he was possibly doing.

“Distract you? A rather dangerous thing to ask for." he smirked as he said it, but elected to try and grant the request in the way he presumed she'd meant it.

Glancing out over the horizon in front of them, he picked out a spot well into the distance and pointed at it. “See that tree? I'll race you to it on horseback. See if you can keep up, eh hag?" What had once been a derisive nickname wasn't exactly kind, but more a joke than anything.

Tatsuya spurred his horse into a gallop, peeling off from the main group and letting the animal have his head over the gently-rolling hills of the terrain.

He could faintly hear her call out to him, something along the lines of 'asshole'. She caught up, though, if the sound of hooves behind him, was anything to go by. In another second she was beside him. "Who's the hag now, boy?" she called out, smirking at him. She didn't quite pass him, though. Her horse stayed even with his until they neared the tree.

"Well, this was fun and all, but I've got a race to win," she spoke loud enough for him to hear. She grinned before spurring her horse to go a little faster.

He wasn't about to let her get away with that, however. Tatsuya stood in his stirrups, bending over his horse's neck and urging him the little bit faster, veering to pass the tree on the left. She may have been the lighter passenger, but his horse was larger, and had the longer stride, which was just enough to put him a nose ahead when they passed the goal.

Tatsuya pulled him up, gradualy slowing back to an easy trot, smirking triumphantly. “I'm sorry, what was that? I couldn't hear you over the sound of my superiority." He chuckled when he caught sight of her; the speed of the run had pulled several hairs loose from her ponytail. He could feel that his hair was touseled all over the place, too, as he didn't wear it long enough to pull up.

"You know, it's not exactly fair when your horse has longer legs. You tall shits always get away with that," she spoke, her voice slightly grumpy, probably because she lost. She rolled her eyes though, and pulled her hair loose from the tail so she could straighten it out again. Once that was done, she didn't pull it back yet, and only stared at him.

"Fine, you win this one, but you won't be so lucky next time, your highness," she spoke, rolling her eyes again. She spoke as if there would be a next time, though. She glanced back in the direction they'd come from, though, and smiled. "In all honesty, though, thanks, 'suya," she spoke, keeping her gaze fixed where it was.

He met it without difficulty, arching a brow. He felt his smirk ease slightly, though his expression did not return to neutrality. Impulsively, he reached out, leaning slightly to the side on his horse to brush a piece of snowy hair behind her ear. It was about as soft as he'd expected, and smooth against his callused fingertips.

“You're welcome, Tsuki-sama," he replied, letting the honorific roll off his tongue with mock seriousness. Straightening back up and dropping his hand away, he wheeled his horse back in the direction of the others. No doubt they'd be missed if they didn't return soon.

“You should wear your hair loose more often," he threw back over his shoulder. “It suits you."

She snorted in reply. "I don't know, I mean, I might just have to cut it so that it looks more like yours: rugged," she jested and moved her horse next to his. "Like I said, you have the whole 'calm and collected' samurai thing going for you. Add the ruggedness of your hair, right now, and I think you might actually have difficulty fending off all of those pretty women, or men," she continued, shaking her head lightly.

"Let's go back before they start suspecting you murdered me," she grinned, moving her horse forward so that she was ahead of him.

He snorted, rolling his eyes and following after.

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Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla


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Ayla glanced around her, shifting slightly as she glanced around. Nightfall had come rather quickly, and though she and the others could continue, the humans needed to rest. So, they had stopped to make camp for the night. Perhaps that was a good thing; she didn't really know. Reiko hadn't spoken to her since she revealed herself as Tsuki-sama, and admittedly, it hurt. Now she knew how Aram felt. She hadn't intentionally lied to Reiko; it just never really came up.

That was a lie, and she knew it.

Slumping her shoulders, she took a slow breath and located Reiko. She was still ahead of her, and she could smell Tsubasa and Kentaro with her. Tatsuya was somewhere in the back; she'd left his side when they had returned from their race. She could also, faintly, smell a spring nearby. It wasn't a hot spring, but it was a spring, nonetheless. Perhaps she could persuade Reiko for a bath? Then, she could talk to her, and she could get some of the stench off of her as well. About what, she wasn't certain. All she knew was that she felt bad for keeping a secret from Reiko.

With that in mind, she made her way towards Reiko, and waited for her to stop speaking with the others. Once she had her attention, she spoke. "Reiko, may I speak with you?"

Reiko glanced at Kentaro and Tsubasa for a second. The latter nodded and declared that he needed to go help the men set up camp, though most of that work was already done. Kentaro glanced between them for a moment before inclining his head. He touched Reiko's shoudler briefly, then left without a word.

Amon's daughter turned to face her, half smiling and tilting her head to the side. “Certainly, Ayla-san. What can this one do for you?"

She offered a similar half-smile. "I'm not certain how you feel being covered in dirt, at the moment, but there is a spring nearby if you'd like to accompany me to wash off," she spoke softly. "And I'd like to speak to you without the extra set of ears around," she added. No doubt the three of her brothers would be able to hear them talking, and she'd rather keep this a private talk, for now.

"You don't have to come with me, if you don't want to, Reiko. Even if you said you'd forgiven me, I understand if you're still upset with me," because she'd felt the same way not too long ago. "I just..." she didn't know what to say.

“I could use a bath," Reiko said, apparently not inclined to get into that while there were still other people around. Or maybe simply unconcerned about it; she was difficult to read at the moment. It was a sharp contrast to the usual face she presented—the one where her feelings were right there on her sleeve for everyone to see.

Apparently, she was also able to smell the spring, because she led the way there. Once they'd reached the edge, Reiko crouched down, murmuring something under her breath and touching the ground with the fingertips of one hand. For a moment, light flickered above them, like a dome of it settling into place over the spring, but then it dispersed into tiny little motes, like the spheres in Reiko's garden or the few ones around Ayla and Aram's house, but smaller. They were a neutral-looking sort of grey-blue right now. It was hard to say what that meant.

Reiko snorted softly. “I don't know if, um... eavesdropping would be an issue. But no one will be able to see or hear us now, and I'll know if anyone gets close."

She seemed a bit shy of shedding her clothes, and did so quickly, with her back turned to Ayla, loosing her hair first to effectively cover the rest of her and sinking into the water as soon as she'd shucked her clothing.

Ayla wasn't so shy, and shed her clothing a little slower. It wasn't on purpose, though. She was merely lost in her own thoughts on how to approach the situation. She stepped into the water, shivering just slightly at the cool touch, before sinking in completely. Her hair floated around her, something she didn't mind. She smoothed some of it around her, though, and sighed. Now that they were here, the words she wanted to speak seemed to get caught in her throat. They wouldn't come out, at all. It's almost as if she were mute, and she could no longer speak. She shook her head at herself.

"I should have told you, sooner, Reiko," she decided to start with that. "I should have told you the moment I found out, but I didn't," because she wasn't entirely sure how to approach something like that. Even now, the lump in her throat was forming as she tried to speak the words she wanted to. "It wasn't easy for me, knowing that you were his kids, his anything," she whispered softly. The emotion in her voice was one she knew all too well. She just hoped Reiko didn't know, because she'd never intended for anyone else to know.

The only one who did, was Aram.

"Maybe it was selfish of me to keep the information from you, and for that, I apologize, she continued. She could apologize to Reiko for the rest of her life, but it still wouldn't feel like enough. She sighed deeply, and averted her gaze to the water.

“You loved him." Reiko said it with a quiet certainty, like she'd somehow looked inside Ayla and seen it. Her tone was about as gentle as she'd ever heard it; perhaps she was aware of just how sensitive the information was. “You were in love with this one's father." The second time, it was like something had clicked into place for her, as though she suddenly comprehended something that had been mysterious to her before.

Long as it was, Reiko's hair clouded in the water like dark fog; she sank in up to her chin and pursed her lips. “This one can understand not wanting to... talk about that, with his children. And perhaps... not wanting those children to know who you are."

She'd nearly sputtered in surprise when Reiko said that. She had hoped it wasn't so obvious, and she let her gaze falter again. "I was," and still is. She could never say otherwise, as much as she wanted to. She'd loved Amon a great deal, and when he'd left, started a family and fallen in love, it had hurt her so badly. Was she not good enough for him? Was she so far gone that he could not love her the way she loved him? Those thoughts had plagued her for years, and though they still do, they didn't haunt her as much.

"It's not that I didn't want you to know who I was, I just... I didn't know if I should," she continued softly. She took a deep breath, and pushed it out slowly. "It still does not excuse the fact that I kept that information from you," she added. In love with him or not, she should have said something about it. "I'd only seen Amon once, after he'd left us, and that was around the time 'suya was still a child. He... remembered me, and is the reason how I found out you were his kids," she spoke softly. As much as she didn't want Reiko to know that Tatsuya had known her, she didn't want to keep anything else from her.

Reiko huffed. “He always paid much more attention to tou-chan than he acted like," she said, shaking her head slowly. “This one is not surprised he knew. But he wouldn't have wanted to tell someone else's secret, this one thinks." She glanced down at the water, then submerged entirely for a moment, so that all of her hair was wet.

Swimming to the edge, she grabbed what looked like a bar of soap and brought it back, scrubbing herself down before offering the bar to Ayla. “I can get your back, if you want?" If anything, it was a peace offering.

“This one is a little upset at Aram-san, though. He doesn't really have the same excuse. Uh... at least this one doesn't think he does."

She smiled at that. "He knew before I did. It's why... I left him," she admitted. Now that she said it out loud, it really was a stupid thing to leave him for. He was her brother, and he was just looking out for her. At least that's what she hoped it was. "Aram's... he's not like you or I, Reiko. He's... hard to explain. The things he does, or doesn't do, are all within his thoughts of right and wrong. He believes keeping certain things from people will help them, but... in the end, it doesn't," she continued. Even she couldn't properly explain her brother's eccentricities. The only one who could, was dead. He and Amon had been close, too, after all. She moved her hair, and offered her back to Reiko.

"But really, I think Aram's just... sad. He hasn't really been able to talk to someone who understands, really. Even I have a hard time understanding him, and I think that's why he..." kept her so far from him, now that she thought about it. He wasn't quite close to her as they once had been, but perhaps time had done that to them. Perhaps it was Amon's death, or some other factor they just didn't know. Whatever it was, she sighed deeply.

"I get the distinct feeling, though, that he actually enjoys talking with you. He'd always mention that whenever he had the chance. He always looked... happier," she stated, glancing over her shoulder towards Reiko.

Reiko huffed a short laugh. “This one isn't so sure. This one kind of... bullied him, into telling this one part of Sayu-chan's fortune that he was keeping secret." She lathered some of the soap on her hands, and used it to swipe at the parts of Ayla's back that were difficult to reach, mostly near her shoulderblades, though she went as far up as the back of her neck.

“This one felt bad about it, but... I couldn't let something happen to Sayu-chan without knowing everything I could, you know? This one isn't sure he..." She trailed off, pursing her lips and sloshing some water upwards to rinse. “He has so many secrets. This one thinks it must be lonely to keep them all."

"With no one to share them with, he is," she admitted. He didn't even tell her, about any of his visions. If he did, he kept them really vague. He did, however, tell her a vision of herself, once, but he said it had changed. It was too long ago to recall what it actually was, though, and he'd never spoken to her about it, again. She chuckled softly.

"I doubt you could have bullied Aram into doing something he didn't want to do, Reiko. Aram's... if he has the opportunity, if someone pushes just enough, he will tell you about them," she said, sighing softly. "But it requires a lot of pushing, and I don't push enough," because she gave up easily.

"I'm sure if you tried, though, he wouldn't be too hesitant to tell you. That might be slightly because he can't see your future. It... actually freaks him out a bit. That's never happened to him before," she continued, allowing her lips to curl at the corners. It was a little amusing, though, to see him so worried.

Reiko seemed unsure of something, but whatever it was, she didn't bring it up directly. “This one is used to being odd," she confessed. “Suya says it's a good thing, but this one is not always so sure." She sighed a bit and drifted away, working some more of the soap through her thick sheets of hair.

“Ayla-san... this one knows it must be... difficult, sometimes, to be around this one and my brothers, but..." she glanced up, offering a small smile. “This one is glad you are here."

"I am, too." She offered a smile in return. She couldn't say for certain, though, if it was difficult being around them. She actually felt calmer, so perhaps it really wasn't a bad thing to be around them?

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#, as written by Aethyia
Their return home was a great deal quieter than their leave had been. They'd entered the gates, where Jirō, Takahiro, and even Daichi were waiting, along with a few of the servants and the like. Kentaro found himself searching for one particular face, but though her scent lingered, he did not see her, not even after they all dismounted and handed their horses over to the grooms to take away.

He realized he was still searching even as they dispersed, the men to their rest, his siblings and Ayla to wherever they wanted to be. Kentaro was not especially tired; but he felt slightly calmer than usual, either because he'd worked off a lot of excess energy in the battle or because he was now home; it was hard to tell, exactly. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do with himself now that he was back, though.

So he headed back to his room, changing his travel clothes for more comfortable ones, and then emerged again, only his bound sheaf of paper and charcaol sticks in his hands.

It wasn't until he ventured through Reiko's garden, that he spotted Sayuri. She was sitting in a peculiar way, leaning over slightly as if she were praying. Perhaps she was? She mouthed something, and smiled. She straightened back up, but made no effort to move further. She turned slightly, though, and stared at him. Her expression seemed to brighten considerably, as she stood and made her way towards him. She almost tripped when she did, though. She moved in a slightly hurried fashion, so perhaps it was warranted that she almost did.

"Kentaro-san, you're back," she spoke, the smile still on her face. "I'm sorry, if I'd known that you all had arrived, I would have been there to greet you all back," she continued. She probably didn't hear them, which would explain her absence.

He shook his head. “That's not necessary. We only just arrived, anyway." Kentaro paused. Normally, he felt no particular desire to speak, and only did so when he had to. Even in Reiko's company, he tended to prefer silence, unless there was something pressing on his mind, or hers. But here... he felt like he wanted to say something else. Should say something else.

But he didn't know what.

“What were you doing?" he asked, flicking his eyes to the spot she'd been before his arrival. The question came out as bluntly as everything else he said; Kentaro found himself hoping it didn't sound like a demand for the information, and correcting his words in case it did. “You don't have to say."

"Oh, um, no it's okay," she stated, turning the slightest shade of pink. "I was praying for the safe return of my family," she spoke, not the slightest bit deterred by his bluntness. She was probably used to it, by now. "I know it might seem kind of silly, but, I was worried," she spoke, pursing her lips together. She frowned slightly, but it smoothed back out as she shook her head.

"But it seems that I don't have to, anymore. You all came back safe and sound," she stated, folding her hands behind her. "And... I'm glad that you're safe, too," she spoke, glancing down for a moment. She lifted her gaze back to meet his, though, and offered him a small, nervous smile.

Kentaro nodded. He wasn't sure what to say to that, exactly. It occurred to him that she might want to know about what had happened while they were gone, but also that it was probably something best talked about away from the household and the servants. Jirō would probably want to wait and make an announcement to all of them at once, to prevent rumors and misinformation from spreading, but it seemed to Kentaro that Sayuri deserved to know before that. Why he thought that was was harder to say, but he didn't bother thinking about it too much.

“Do you want tea?" he asked. “I can make it in my office." It wasn't like he ever used the room for anything else. Even he knew, however, that inviting a person to his private quarters would be the source of many rumors of its own, so the office seemed like the better option.

"I would like that," she responded, nodding her head at the same time. She waited for him to lead the way, standing at a polite distance behind him. She knew where his office was, but perhaps she was just being polite? Once they'd reached his office, she stepped in behind him, and slid the door shut.

"I assume that taking back Akarui-dono's lands, was successful?" she asked, taking a seat on one of the cushions provided.

He nodded once, moving towards the teapot set on an end table in one corner of the room. His furniture, ill-used as it was, was kept dust-free by the staff, and the furnishings themselves were of course of good quality. Kentaro had an eye for aesthetics, strange as it might be to those who did not know him well to think so.

The teapot already had water in it; it was not difficult to heat the water with an application of his powers. Once the water inside had boiled to his satisfaction, he eased off on the heat and set it down, spooning the loose tea in and allowing it to steep. He carried all of it over to the table and settled down across from Sayuri.

"Akarui-san has his lands back. But there were complications." Kentaro's brow furrowed. It was difficult to decide exactly how to describe what had happened.

"Complications?" she questioned, tilting her head just slightly. "What kind of complications? Was it the size of the enemy army?" she continued. She wasn't accustomed to battle as they were. She was, perhaps, the only one in the family who didn't fight. She didn't have a reason to.

"Whatever it was, you are all alright, right?" a hint of concern laced in her voice as she kept her gaze steady with his.

"For now," he said slowly.

From the smell of the tea, Kentaro decided that it was done. Reaching for the pot, he poured her a cup first, and then himself. Setting it back down to the side, he pushed a breath out through his nose and sat back with the teacup in both hands. "I do not know if Reiko has ever told you any of our father's stories about oni, but we encountered one there. They are supposed to be extinct, but it is clear that they are not." He pursed his lips, eyes narrowing slightly.

She pursed her lips together. "She used to tell me of Fujiwara-dono's previous life, with Tsuki-sama and Hizashi-sama, but not exactly anything about oni. She used to tell me about a threat they faced and fought, but that was about it," she spoke slowly, as if she were trying to remember exactly what Reiko had told her.

"But if that means they're not extinct, then what does that mean for us?" she asked. Clearly she was concerned; it was written on her face.

"It means we might have to deal with them," he replied. "It turns out that Ayla-san and Aram-san are those people; even she was surprised to see the oni. Perhaps moreso than any of us." He took a swallow from his teacup. It was extremely hot, still, but that hardly bothered him. If it wasn't scalding, it seemed cold to him—such was the nature of his power.

He set the cup down and stared her in the eyes for a long moment. He was trying to figure out why the thought of the threat reaching here, reaching her produced such a strong negative reaction in him. It made him almost... angry, and nothing did that. Well, very few things, anyway. He supposed the idea of Reiko getting hurt was similarly unpalatable. Perhaps that was how he should feel. She was his sister, after all, by adoption.

Perhaps it felt worse in her case because she was not a combatant, and Reiko was. Reiko would be able to hold off or even possibly defeat an oni if she encountered one. Sayuri would be helpless to do anything but run, and that would not be likely to work.

"I want—" he cut himself off for a moment, pursing his lips, then spoke again. "I want to teach you how to defend yourself. But it will not do you any good if you are unwilling to learn." A person armed with a sword who was unwilling to use it was more of a danger to themselves than an unarmed person. He would not teach her if she was against it.

"Will you permit me?"

She blinked in surprise. Whether it was his statement to teach her, or what he'd said earlier, it was hard to tell. She blinked, still, a little slower. "Teach... me?" she finally spoke, though she seemed unsure of he words. She took a deep breath, and shook her head. Returning her gaze to him, she held his gaze with a strange sense of resolve behind her eyes. She nodded her head, finally.

"If it means I will not be a burden to you," she began, bowing slightly forward. It wasn't a proper one, but it seemed difficult to do where she sat. "I wish to help protect my family, too," she continued.

He supposed, in a way, she would be. Not directly, but... if she could learn enough to buy herself precious seconds in a confrontation, the rest of them would be able to assist without doing anything that would put them in more danger than necessary to do so. That would be more than sufficient.

"Oni are not the kind of opponent a human can defeat," he said seriously. "I don't say that to demean you. Only so that you understand. You will learn to defend yourself as long as possible, so that you can safely run, or give us time to reach you if you are in trouble. Do not go into this believing you will be able to successfully act as the aggressor. You must think always of surviving, not winning. Do you understand?" It was more words than he usually said in a day, but he used them all because they were important.

She was important. Even if he didn't quite understand why.

"I am aware of my own limitations, Kentaro-san. I'm... not strong, nor physically imposing as anyone, but," she spoke, frowing just slightly. She had kept her gaze steady with his, and allowed a small smile to replace the frown. "I understand. I won't do anything reckless or rash. As you said, I'm only human," she didn't seem too upset, but there was something in the way she said it, that might have indicated otherwise.

"Thank you, Kentaro-san, for... taking me into consideration. It's nice to know I'm cared for by my family in this way," she didn't say anything after that.

He inclined his head, returning to his tea.

"We will start tomorrow morning."

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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Aram wasn't entirely sure how much time had passed between then, and now. Maybe a month or two? All he knew was that the house he had once shared had grown so cold, and lonely. He wasn't entirely sure if he'd ever felt like that before. It was... oddly constricting on his chest. It had been some time since he'd seen Ayla, and Reiko and her family. He had seen Sayuri a few times; she'd been kind enough to bring him food, too. He was certain that was Reiko's doing. But maybe Sayuri would have done it anyway? She was kind, too. Strangely, though, his business had picked up as a doctor.

People had come to him complaining of illnesses they couldn't identify, or a small sickness that just wouldn't leave them. They weren't anything he wasn't used to, but he found it slightly odd at how increased it was. At one time, he'd have a total of four or five patients. Now he was receiving them almost three a day. He sighed softly, running a hand through his hair to fix it. Letting his hand fall, he stared at the door, contemplating whether or not he wanted a walk.

He might as well, if only to collect his thoughts. As he opened the door to his home, he blinked in mild surprise at the sight before him. "Ayla?" he questioned in disbelief. He hadn't quite expected them to have returned so soon, however; he did not miss the look on her face. It was solemn, and bordered on despair. He'd only seen it once, but it couldn't have been for the same reason, right?

"Aram, we need to talk," she spoke with such a firm tone, that he only nodded his head. He took a step back so he could let her in, however; she shook her head. "Not here. There is something you must see. We're going to the castle, so don't bother locking the door," she spoke, confusing him greatly. Why would he not lock the door? Why did they need to go to the castle to talk? He was confused, however; he wasn't going to press the issue. Instead, he obeyed, and followed her.

"Are you at least well, Ayla?" he asked. He had been worried when she'd left with the army, and he hadn't had any visions of her, or the others. That had unnerved him somewhat, but now that she was here, he didn't need to worry too much.

"I am, Aram. Do not worry about me. You know I'm too stubborn to die," she said it with such seriousness, that he frowned. He couldn't tell if she was joking or not, however; he would take her word for it. He sighed softly, pushing his thoughts to the back of his mind. It was apparent she didn't want to talk right now, but at least she was. Whatever he needed to see must have bothered her a great deal.

It wasn't much longer until they arrived at the Minamoto castle, and Aram simply stared at it. He'd forgotten how large it'd been. Of course, size was relative to him, so it might have only looked like that to him. Ayla, however, had her lips pursed, and her attention was fixed forward.

Tatsuya was standing just inside the gate, arms crossed over his chest. He flicked his eyes to Aram and Ayla when they entered, but it was the latter he spoke to directly. “You want to just show him? No warning or anything?" He seemed amused by something; perhaps he caught onto the idea that Aram was confused.

If he wasn't showing it before, he was showing his confusion now. "Ayla, what is he talking about?" he asked, turning his attention towards her. She stared at him, her expression, oddly, unreadable.

"It's better if you see it for yourself, Ara. Somethings... just can't be explained," she replied. He pursed his lips. Whatever it was that she wanted him to see, surely had to be something great. She always told him things of that nature, though, so he was confused as to why she didn't tell him now. "Do you want to show us the way?" she directed towards Tatsuya.

"If it is so important that you would rather have me see it, please lead the way, Minamoto-san," he spoke, offering a small bow.

Tatsuya inclined his head, pushing away from the wall he leaned against and leading the way through the property. They passed through a lovely, expansive garden; the spheres of light clustered in it were enough to inform him that the place surely belonged to Reiko. Passing a trellis wreathed in wisteria, they exited the garden into a courtyard.

There, laid out on the ground and slowly being deconstructed by workmen, was the green-skinned corpse of a creature Aram had not seen in a thousand years.

“Came across this ugly son of a bitch in Kanto. No offense, Ayla." A corner of his mouth pulled up; he shot a sidelong glance at her.

She scoffed slightly, but didn't say anything. Aram could feel his eyes widen, and immediately, he was by the creature's side. He began inspecting it, lifting one of its massive arms with no effort at all. It wasn't like it was heavy to him, to begin with. He spotted the slit in the skin where it'd been pierced, and his brows furrowed deeply. This was not a good sign at all. How could this be possible? He moved to the other side, and moved its head from side to side, searching for something. Anything that would give him a clue as to how it was here. He found nothing.

"Was it the only one?" he questioned, his voice far more serious than it had ever been. He glanced in their direction and watched as Ayla's expression darkened somewhat.

"It was the only one we came across. I do not know how long its been there, if it had time to breed, or if it has brothers. Ara, what is going on?" she asked. He only shook his head, indicating he did not know. How could he? For all his gift was worth, he hadn't seen this. He sighed heavily, and made his way back towards the both of them.

"I don't know, Ayla. I haven't seen anything about this. Who else knows about it?" he asked. It was better if people didn't know at all, but that wasn't something he could control.

Tatsuya frowned. “Our household, obviously. Akarui, his creepy shit of an adviser, and anyone else he told. We made sure to point out that he might want to keep his mouth shut, but who knows what he'll do? At least we took the body; his people might just think of it as rumors, since the oni never made it into the castle for them to see." He pushed a breath out through his nose. “Our servants will keep it quiet; they've seen plenty of strange things that the town doesn't know about."

That was still too many people. He wasn't comfortable with it, but he couldn't exactly do anything about it, either. He just sighed. "Were you able to smell anything out of the ordinary?" he directed the question towards Ayla. She frowned and shook her head.

"I was a little preoccupied dealing with that one. I wasn't exactly trying to smell what was around me," she replied. He slumped his shoulders. There shouldn't have been any oni existing, however; what lay not more than five feet in front of him was definitive proof that they did.

"Even with the appearance of one, we cannot be too careful. We should prepare in case there might be more. Minamoto-san, I assume Ayla told you about the benefits of the oni's bones?" he turned towards Tatsuya when he said this. If they knew about the oni, there was a possibility that she'd told them about the bones, too.

Tatsuya nodded. “We brought it back here partly to have weapons made from its bones. We've kept the old man's swords in good condition as well." The look that he gave Aram there was keen; it was clear that he at least knew about the connection between his father and the siblings. That made sense; Ayla had to have found out about it somehow.

“We're going to be upping our alertness, of course. But there's not much of anything specific we can do until something else happens. I'd like to know where the damn thing came from. It's pretty shady that we ran into it on Akarui's land, but other than that and that guy he employs, there's nothing concrete to link them."

"I agree," Ayla spoke lowly. Aram nodded as well.

"If you know a blacksmith who can create weapons for you swiftly, it would be ideal to seek them out," he began. He spared Ayla a glance before he continued. "I am afraid I cannot provide you an answer, though, about its origins, Minamoto-san, but I shall do my best to find out. In the mean time, it is, perhaps best, that everyone train harder. It does not appear to have been an easy kill," he spoke, glancing at the dead creature.

"You're damn right, it wasn't easy. I don't remember it ever being easy, Ara," Ayla spoke, frowning in his direction. He returned the frown with his own. "They're already on top of that, though. Amon made sure of that, however; it wouldn't hurt to brush back up, ne? Especially you. When was the last time you took a blade to anything?" she questioned, quirking a brow in his direction.

"Too long."

The last time he'd actually fought something was when they'd fought the oni.

“Well, we can help with that. Aside from oni and each other, probably the only people in the world who can challenge you are here, on the estate." Tatsuya gestured back towards the home itself. Turning towards the both of them, he tilted his head slightly to the side. “I've already suggested this to Ayla, but I think it makes sense for you to move up here as well. It seems smarter for all of us to be in one place."

Aram blinked in mild surprise. "Damn it, I wanted to tell him," Ayla spoke, pursing her lips at Tatsuya. Aram was still a little surprised at the suggestion, though, to pay too much attention. Live here? He felt his lower lip quiver slightly, but he kept his composure mostly calm. Ayla raised a brow at him, though.

"I would be honored," he spoke, bowing more formally. He really was.

"I think you almost made him cry," Ayla spoke softly towards Tatsuya. Aram frowned slightly. She was still teasing him, he knew it.

Tatsuya only arched a brow. “Whatever. I'll have one of the servants get a room ready." He shook his head and departed, presumably to do just that, leaving the two of them to their own devices, for the moment.

Ayla just stared at him for the moment before sighing. "This is not a good sign, Aram. Even one sighting could be disastrous if there are more. Perhaps, once they've managed to create their blades, we'll have to see if there are. We have to be sure," she spoke, not taking her eyes from him.

"If it was sighted in the Kanto region, we should start there. We will have to be covert about it, the humans cannot know we are there," he agreed. There was a chance that the oni might have had time to reproduce with a few humans. If that were the case, they would need to be prepared.

He glanced back towards the dead creature, and sighed.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
“What?" Reiko almost couldn't believe what she was hearing. Her lips parted again, as though there might be more words she could add to her rather inarticulate reaction, but none were immediately forthcoming. It would seem she'd been shocked into silence, at least temporarily.

Jirō looked at her from across his desk with an expression she couldn't read. Fortunately, she didn't need to; she could feel what he felt almost as though the feelings were her own. Resolve, decisiveness, some bitterness she could not quite understand. But also remorse, sadness, and the same love she always felt from him. It was not the overpowering kind Tatsuya felt, nor the same kind of quiet intensity as characterized all of Kentaro's feelings. Nor was it as vibrant as Tsubasa's or as gentle as Takahiro's. But it was love all the same. Filial love, the love of family and duty all bound up together with tender feeling and protectiveness.

Knowing that, she could almost understand why he was doing this.

“You are no longer head of house Fujiwara, Reiko. Father's will made provisions for one of us to take over as custodian of the estate and the family if something should happen to render you incapable of the judgement required to run it. A vote was taken between the rest of us, and we decided that it was so at the moment." He sat back gracefully on his heels, a perfect seiza with flawless posture.

“Jirō... less than half the family was here when you decided that." Only himself, Daichi, and Takahiro had been here when this supposed vote was taken. She knew Daichi didn't approve of her running the family. Not as much because she was female as because she was the youngest and least of them. So with the two of them, they'd have had an easy majority over Takahiro.

“All that is required is that those present when the determination is made vote for it," he explained. “A provision designed for just such situations as this, when the unsound action you've taken may be of immediate danger to the household."

Reiko pursed her lips. “And what unsound action was that, nii-san?"

He tilted his head at her, as though surprised she hadn't already deduced it. She thought she knew, but she wanted to hear it from him. “You challenged a sworn ally of House Fujiwara to an honor duel with tenuous justification at best."

“Tenuous?"" She could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Not twenty-four hours after being betrothed to a daughter of this house, he was seen, in public, engaged in..." Reiko's words hitched for just a moment as she tried to find a delicate phrase for it. “Lewd conduct with one of his own servants. Who, this one might add, was not entirely willing! This one can hardly think of a greater dishonor than allowing my sister to be married to someone who treats women like that! What if she had tried to refuse his advances? What do you think his response would have been, if he's willing to be seen like that with a reluctant servant?"

Of course, the girl in question hadn't outright said no, but how could she? Akarui was her lord, the person who decided whether she lived or died. Saying no to someone like that was hardly an option for a mere servant, but her reluctance had been clear after Reiko had asked her a few questions.

Jirō sighed. “His conduct was absolutely reprehensible," he agreed, meeting her eyes steadily. “But it was also none of our business. Akarui-san is a regional lord; as such, he is entitled to rule his subjects in the manner he sees fit. The servant was not ours, and we have no say in how he treats her. You jumped from his conduct towards her to his future conduct towards Sayuri, but you cannot make an honor claim on guesses about the future, Reiko. That isn't how they work."

But it wasn't a guess. Aram-san had said so himself—if she allowed Sayuri to be married to Heisuke, he would have been responsible for her death in two years' time, either directly or indirectly. The words were upon her lips before she hesitated, choking them back down again. Somehow... she wasn't sure she wanted Jirō to know that. Undoubtedly, he knew who Aram was. Likely, he at least had the basic idea of some of his powers. But... some caution she had never felt before stayed her tongue.

She didn't know if Jirō was on her side. Not now; not after this. He loved her, and she him, but the same was true of Daichi, and he was definitely not on her side. So she kept her reasons to herself, at least the ones with unusual causes.

“Unfaithfulness to one's betrothed is—"

"—not outside the bounds of ordinary conduct. You know that. Not every man is our father. You know how Tatsuya is, for one." He glanced pointedly at the mark on her neck, slightly exposed over the collar of her kimono.

Her hand moved to cover it, almost self-consciously. “You know he didn't mean it like that," she said softly.

Jirō crossed his arms; the expression on his face softened to something almost sympathetic. "I do. But it would have been much easier if he had." He sighed. "You have to stop making decisions with your heart alone, Reiko. I know how much you care; and you aren't necessarily wrong. But these things have to be done in the right way or they'll do more harm than good. For now at least, I can't leave the steering of the house to you."

She didn't really have an argument for that. What was done was done, and even if he hadn't asked Tatsuya, Kentaro, or Tsubasa for their opinions, it seemed he didn't have to. There was little to be done about it this late.

“All right," she said softly, standing. “This one understands." She dipped herself into a short bow; Jirō returned it with a nod of his head.

When she took her leave, Reiko headed straight for her garden.

The only thing was, her garden wasn't empty. Aram was standing in it, looking slightly confused. He looked to be lost, but perhaps that was just the impression of his face. He turned towards her, though, as if sensing her presence, and offered her a gentle smile. He didn't remove his gaze until he shifted somewhat in his stance.

"Reiko-san," he greeted, offering her a polite bow before he straightened back up. He pursed his lips in her direction, though. "Are you alright?" he asked, concern laced in his voice. His head tilted to the side, softly, as his expression shifted into one of concern.

She wondered if her expression was betraying her, or if perhaps he simply had an instinct for the fact that she wasn't quite herself. Reiko tried to at least mitigate that, offering him a small, thin smile. "This one will be fine, Aram-sama." She couldn't quite bring herself to use a lesser honorific, knowing who he was. It was a little different with Ayla, who was by now her friend no matter who she was. Aram was... different, somehow.

"Are you trying to get somewhere?" she inquired, curious as to why he was simply standing there. "This one would be happy to guide you."

He blinked in mild surprise at the honorific, but didn't say anything about it. "I'm afraid I lost myself looking for my room. Ayla was showing me the way, but she disappeared as soon as I took my eyes off of her. I... found myself here, though, wandering," he spoke, his expression gentling as he did. He glanced over her shoulder for a second, before he straightened his posture. He wasn't as tall as Tatsuya, but he was still taller than most.

"I do not mind being here, though. It is... peaceful," he stated suddenly, giving her an oddly serious look. It was as if he were completely serious about what he'd said.

Reiko blinked at him. He wouldn't mind getting lost, she supposed. He was a bit spacey that way. Not that it was a bad quality; just unusual. "This one's mother first planted the garden," she heard herself saying. Why she brought it up, she wasn't sure, but it seemed appropriate somehow. "This one has maintained it since she died. It is... sanctuary. Erm—somewhat literally; that is this one's power. Some people do say it relaxes them to be here."

She tried to make it peaceful, but as far as she could tell, it was nothing but the plants themselves that achieved the effect. Kentaro said he could feel her inside the space, but if so, she was oblivious to it herself.

"That would explain it, then," he spoke, the expression shifting back to something more mild and gentle. He hummed in a thoughtful manner before shaking his head. "Akiko, was her name, right? Amon spoke of her fondly," he spoke softly, smiling as he did so. He sighed afterwards, and shifted his gaze back towards the flowers. He seemed to be studying them, and didn't glance at her for at least a minute. When he did, he had a strangely solemn expression on his face.

"Reiko-san, perhaps it is too late for me to say this, but I offer my sincerest apologies," he began, giving her an apologetic bow in the process. He didn't get back up, though, and kept the position. "We should have said something to you about who we were, yet we didn't. There are reasons that I cannot say as to why I did it, but I can say this much," he continued.

"It was never my intention to upset you, nor anyone else."

She sighed. "This one knows." She doubted he could seriously intend to hurt anyone. That was the kind of person he was. She paused, glancing up to meet his eyes and smiling, the expression tinged with melancholy.

"There is a lot you can't say, isn't there, Aram-sama? This one thinks that must be difficult... but it is also difficult to hear." Secrets were not generally the easiest things to keep in close relationships; knowing someone close to you was keeping important things to themselves could foster distrust. Not that she considered herself particularly close, but she was close to Ayla, and she could see how the very nature of his abilities, as well as his choices about how to handle them, had led to the friction between them.

"That is the nature of secrets, unfortunately," he spoke, a frown on his lips. "But perhaps there will be a day when secrets are no longer necessary," he spoke, and for a second, it almost sounded like he believed it, however; the expression on his face shifted back to its solemnness. "Do not mind the words of this old man, Reiko-san. For now, perhaps you would be kind enough to show me around? Ayla's not going to do it, and... I'm afraid I am not as acquainted with your brothers as she is," he spoke, smiling, it seemed, to himself.

"She does get along quite well with them, doesn't she?" Reiko replied, her smile broadening to something more genuine. "But this one is happy to show you around, Aram-sama, truly. Is there some place in particular you wish to see?"

He seemed to contemplate her words for a moment. His lips pursed together as he placed a thoughtful hand beneath his chin. "I should wish to see the entirety of the place, if you do not mind. I'm certain that if I know the places, I will not lose myself within the walls, again," he spoke, offering her a smile to match her own. He didn't seem so sad, now that he was here.

"All right," she said, dipping her chin. "As you can see, this is the garden. It's basically at the center of the castle itself, so if you find yourself here, you should be able to get to anywhere reasonably quickly." She turned slightly, pointing northwards.

"To the north are the offices. This one's brothers and this one all have one, and if you would like one for yourself, there is space." She wasn't sure if he needed anything of the kind, but it wasn't like it would be an inconvenience to provide it if he did. She moved her hand. "East are the private quarters for this one's family and guests. That is probably where you were headed. To the south is the wing for the servants and staff, and to the west are the public rooms, like the dining room, the receiving hall, and so on. Those open up to the practice grounds and the barracks."

"I do not believe I would need one, but thank you for the offer," he spoke, referring to the offer of an office. He glanced in each direction as she spoke, taking it in with a relaxed expression. He seemed genuinely interested in each area as she spoke, nodding occasionally afterwards. A soft smile etched on his face at the last area, though, and he shook his head softly.

"I assume there is were Ayla spends most of her time," he spoke, a light smile on his face. "She likes to fight just as much as your brothers, perhaps," he continued, turning to meet her gaze. "What of you, Reiko-san?" he spoke, the serious expression back on his face. "What are your thoughts, exactly, on such things?"

"This one's thoughts?" Reiko tilted her head, pulling in a deep breath and sighing it back out. She let her arm drop, resting her wrist on the hilt of her sword. She carried it everywhere now, just in case. "This one abhors violence," she said softly. "If this one could make a world where no swords were necessary, this one would do that in a heartbeat. But..."

She let her eyes drop to the ground. "This one's father taught that sometimes, there will be no one to stand up for what is right except for this one. And this one must know how, so that if that time comes, this one will be able to stand." She felt her smile take on an edge of bitterness. "And this one is a creature who cannot live without hurting others. Because this one must drink blood to survive. It is... monstrous."

"It is not monstrous, Reiko-san," Aram spoke, his voice gentle as he did. He walked closer to her so that he was a polite distance away, but still in front of her. "We must do what is necessary in order to survive. It is no different from the way a human must slaughter a pig, or cow, or any other animal," he continued, though his voice did pull somewhat when he spoke. "I am not comparing human life to those of animals, but what I am trying to say is..." he trailed off, seemingly unsure of how to say what he wanted.

"Surviving is what we must do, despite the ways he have to do it," he spoke sadly, almost as if he'd had experience on the matter. Maybe he did, but he wasn't like Reiko or her family. "But from what I can see, you are merciful. You do not kill when you drink, do you?" he spoke, peering down at her as if he were searching for something.

Reiko's lower lip trembled. This was not something she liked to think about, and yet... every time she sustained herself, she invariably remembered it. "This one has," she said softly. "The first time this one took blood from a human, this one..." She swallowed thickly.

"This one killed. This one is a murderer."

Aram let out a slow, heavy sigh. "Forgive me for being so forward, but," he spoke. It was uncertain what he meant by that until a pair of arms wrapped around her, pulling her into a soft embrace. "You are not a murderer, Reiko," he spoke softly. "It shows in the way you care, the way you remember, and the guilt that you feel because of it. If you were a murderer, you would not feel that way. You would not feel so guilty for taking a life, however; that life has also taught you the value of it. You have not killed since, have you?"

He was warm.

Somehow, she'd expected that. He was also a lot taller than she was, which she was glad of right now, because it enabled her to press her forehead to his chest, concealing her face from view. She was sure she was scarlet—with shame or embarrassment or something else was hard to say.

Mutely, she shook her head, sending a ripple through her long ponytail. She hadn't killed again, not since that first mistake. Everything had been so out of control, and Tatsuya hadn't been able to pull her off the human fast enough. She might have thought he hadn't cared to—he killed his prey often enough, or he used to. But she knew it had been an error, not a purposeful delay. She knew he'd felt guilty for a long time afterward, and she tried not to talk about it in front of him.

"But this one still killed him," she whispered. She couldn't bring herself to look up at him. She exhaled a shuddering breath against his chest. "And now, there are so many people who won't ever exist because of what I did. He'll never fall in love or grow old, or have children. His children will never grow up have children. Because this one stopped them from ever existing. This one took it all away."

She didn't know why she was telling him this, but... the words had started, and she found she didn't have the strength to stop them. She tried not to speak to her brothers about this; it was the kind of problem she would have brought to her father. But he was gone now. Tou-chan couldn't make anything okay anymore. And she'd taken someone away from other people just like her tou-chan had been taken from her. She was no better than the people who killed him.

"Perhaps you did," he spoke, seemingly agreeing with her, however; his tone wasn't one that suggested as much. "Perhaps you have taken from him a life that could have been happy, filled with love and joy and children. But Reiko," he began, moving one of his hands to the back of her head and holding it gently. "What if he had met a fate worse than what you had given him? What if his death, as quick as it might have been, would have been slow? What if he had children, and they too, were taken by such a thing?" he continued, as though he were trying to convince her otherwise.

"You might not see it this way, but perhaps his death was a blessing? Perhaps you alleviated him of a life that he might not have had long to have? Perhaps you brought him peace in a time of suffering," he spoke quietly. "There are some things that are beyond our control, Reiko. You cannot force a wolf to spare the rabbit for the sake of what could have been. Nature is cruel that way, but think of it as the opposite. What if that wolf spared the rabbit, and came back home empty handed to a litter of pups? They would starve, and die without the food to eat. A poor comparison, but one that must be accepted, nonetheless. It is not survival of the fittest; it is just survival."

It wasn't a fair comparison. No one had to die for her to eat. But someone had, because she wasn't strong enough to keep herself under control under strain. Swallowing thickly, Reiko straightened herself, carefully pulling away from his hold. She sniffled, but the hot prickling at the back of her eyes did not become tears. She cried for so little anymore; perhaps she'd lost that with the rest of her innocence. Her blamelessness, which she no longer possessed.

"This one apologizes, Aram-sama," she said dully. "This one has been most indelicate, in burdening you with such matters." And when he already had so many to carry; that was the precise reason she never bothered her brothers with this. Taking a deep breath, she smoothed out her face, straightening her gi. "If you would still like the rest of the tour, this one will gladly show you the castle in greater detail. But this one would understand if you preferred otherwise."

Oddly, he smiled at her. "It is not a burden to one who wishes to listen, Reiko-chan. Do not believe yourself to be such; there are people who care for you who wish to do the same. Burdens become easier to carry when there is someone with whom to share them with. I may not be so fortunate, but you are. You have a family that loves you, and wishes you as much happiness as you can get. Perhaps, if you feel you cannot burden them, you may tell them to me. I will listen," he spoke earnestly.

"But I understand that now may not be the best of times. I would appreciate the tour," he continued, his smile growing slightly.

She thought it rather unfair, that he should bear her burdens while she could bear none of his, but it didn't seem like the time to say so. If there ever could be such a time.

So she smiled slightly and nodded. "Very well. This way, if you please, Aram-sama. This one will show you the offices first."

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla


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Ayla sighed softly, shaking her head as she glanced in Sayuri's direction. It had been a few of months since Sayuri started taking lessons from Kentaro. The only reason she knew that was because Sayuri had told her. She would admit, it was a bit of a stretch, teaching someone how to defend themselves. Especially if that someone who was learning, had never picked up a blade in their entire life. Sayuri wasn't a warrior. It was apparent in her bearing, her stance, and just the way she held a wooden bokken. Ayla wasn't certain she would ever be a warrior, however; she wasn't going to throw her under just yet. She was determined to learn, and Ayla could respect that.

"Shift your hands up a little, Yuri-chan. No, not that much," she sighed heavily as Sayuri readjusted her grip on the bokken. She shook her head and made her way towards her. "Months of training, and you still can't hold it right?" she spoke, letting a little bit of amusement into her voice so that Sayuri knew she wasn't being mean. Sayuri frowned, though.

"I'm trying, Ayla-chan, but I'm not exactly the warrior type. At least I know which end to hold, but the grips are still a little... confusing," she replied. If she was having trouble with grips, then Ayla could help with that.

"Alright, we're going to try something different," she said as she went to the racks where the weapons were kept. She grabbed a bow off of one and made her way towards Sayuri. She had a look of confusion on her face, and Ayla rolled her eyes. "Here, hold this," she spoke, handing the bow to Sayuri. She did as she was told, but remained silent.

"Now, draw it," she commanded.

"Do I need an arrow?"

"No. You're just pulling on the string for now, but make sure you're holding onto the grip, properly," she replied, watching as Sayuri complied. She held the grip, and pulled back on the bowstring. She continued to do this for a few minutes before she frowned.

"What's the purpose of this, Ayla-chan?" she finally asked. Ayla merely grinned.

"That is teaching you tension," she replied. Sayuri pursed her lips together, and stopped what she was doing. "It helps to know how hard or soft you should pull. You don't want to pull so hard that you snap the string, but you also don't want to pull too soft that there is no resistance," she explained. Sayuri made a slight 'oh' with her mouth, but didn't say it.

"What has that have to do with a sword, though?" she asked.

"Kentaro is teaching you kendo, right?" Sayuri nodded. "Learning the tension on the bowstring and gripping it properly will help you with that. The more you pull on the bowstring, the more familiar you become with it. It's the same with your bokken. Learning something is more than just hitting and swinging your sword, Sayuri-chan. And it's not so romanticized as being one with the weapon. It's the feeling of it in your hands, and being able to wield it as an extension of yourself," she explained. She wasn't sure if she was actually making sense, though, but she had faith in Sayuri.

"I'm going to let you practice with that for awhile," she stated, watching as Sayuri pulled on the bowstring, again. This went on for at least an hour before Ayla had given her an arrow to see how she'd fair with a bow, instead of sword. She wasn't too bad with it, and Ayla surmised that Sayuri could be just as good of an archer as herself. Of course, she'd have to practice for a long time, something she didn't exactly have. At least she was improving, though. Pushing that thought out of her mind, she gave Sayuri permission to leave.

They were done for the day.

She watched as Sayuri left, and smiled to herself. She was a good kid, just like the others were. Now that she was alone, though, she might as well practice her martial arts. She wasn't rusty, per se, but it'd been a while since she'd last hit something. Aram was busy, currently studying the oni, so he wasn't available to be her sparring partner. She couldn't smell Tsubasa nearby, otherwise she'd have asked him. Tatsuya wasn't entirely wrong, after all, when he said she got along with someone like Tsubasa. She actually liked the boy, but perhaps not so much as the word would imply. There was a difference between liking someone, and being fond of them.

She liked Tsubasa, but she wasn't fond of him. He wasn't exactly her type. Still, that did not distract her enough from the disturbing rumors of oni sightings the last few weeks. She'd dismissed them at first because Aram hadn't said anything about it. Usually, he'd have seen something by now, however; as of late, he hadn't. That didn't concern her too much, but something nagged in the back of her mind that it should. The warm air on her face caused her to sigh softly. Summer wasn't exactly her favorite season. She was already warm to begin with, given what she was. She didn't feel like burning during the months that followed. There were ways to cool off, but most of that required cool baths and things like that.

She didn't want to be a fish.

“You sure you want to get sweaty?" came a voice from nearby. That was weird; she hadn't been able to smell him at all, but he was no more than ten feet behind her. Tatsuya tilted his head, crossing his arms over his chest. His shitagi and kosode were short-sleeved, apparently the one concession he made to the rapidly-heating weather. Strangely for a being that did not scar easily, he had a big one on his right forearm, pale against his relatively tan complexion.

“You look like you might melt if you overheat out here. Like a yuki-onna, ne?" His tone was blasé and a little bit impertinent, but he had a way of drawling his words so they sounded more languid than anything.

She rolled her eyes at him. "And if I do want to get sweaty? Are you going to help?" she spoke, raising a brow in his direction. She didn't know when it happened, only that she actually enjoyed his company somewhat, and exchanging choice words. It wasn't as much fun if there wasn't anyone else around to tease, like Reiko, but she didn't mind. It was almost like... she stopped that train of thought as quickly as it had formed, and shook her head.

"Yuki-onna have it easy. They get to hibernate during the summer; I have no such thing."

“Always happy to volunteer my services for a good cause." He tilted his head to the side; some of his hair fell loose over his shoulder. It had grown a little to sit near the nape of his neck, but he didn't seem bothered by it in the heat. He arched an eyebrow. “Now of course, you're boring, so you mean sweaty from sparring and not anything more fun. Hand-to-hand, I take it?"

She laughed. "Well, if by boring you mean I don't have a sense of humor, then by all means, I'm boring," she replied, shaking her head. "But hey, if you could sex an oni to death..." she trailed off; he'd get the implication. She might appear boring to him, but she wasn't exactly shy talking about the subject. She just knew she'd never involve herself in the act of it. It wasn't so much as saving anything for anyone. She just didn't think she'd be able to give herself like that to anyone.

He laughed, though it was more a shake of his shoulders than a sound.

"Hand-to-hand is fine. I'm not always going to be able to use my bow, or tantō. And I might not have enough time to change, so," she stated, shrugging lightly and taking a stance. All were true, though. She might run out of arrows, her tantō might get knocked away from her, and shifting wasn't exactly instantaneous. It took at least a minute to complete it.

“If you say so," he replied, cracking his neck to the left, then the right before stepping into the ring properly and taking up a spot about five feet away from her. He bowed shortly, the martial artist's custom, then settled back into a stance of his own. Curiously for a fighter as aggressive as Tatsuya, it looked to be a defensive form.

“Ladies first." He smirked at her with narrowed eyes, a corner of his mouth lifting just slightly.

She returned the smirk with one of her own, and inclined her head. "Look at you being so sweet, calling me a lady," she spoke. The smirk didn't leave her face, and instead, she obliged. She knew better than to go easy, though. They couldn't afford to do that, if the rumors were true. Plus, she wasn't exactly expecting him to go easy on her, either. That's alright, she needed a good fight, anyway.

He met the strike with a smooth catch, enclosing her fist in his hand, then flowing smoothly in a twist, bringing her arm in behind her and pressing up close, his back to her chest, so she'd have a harder time kicking him away. “Aren't you?" he asked, though it sounded like he already knew the answer. The words were close to her ear; close enough for her to tell that his breath was cooler than the outside air by at least ten degrees, if not more.

"Depends on your definition of a lady," she frowned. She resisted the urge to shudder at how cool his breath felt, though. Compared to the warming weather, she'd prefer it if it were ten degrees cooler. "Because frankly," she began, trying to twist out of his grip. "I could care less what people thought defined a lady." Everyone had a definition of it, and she didn't quite care to conform to whatever that definition was. She managed to break free, and stood some feet away from him.

"But I'm sure your definition is a little more... defining," she stated, resisting the urge to laugh at herself. She moved towards him again, this time, going for his legs. He was taller than her, and for some odd reason, she didn't want him to be right now. She hated being short, sometimes.

His balance was steady, though, and even when she kicked at him, it didn't seem to bother him much. He chuckled in her ear, then let her go, jumping backwards and resetting himself ten feet away, taking up the same defensive stance again. “I've always preferred a woman to a lady anyway," he replied. “And you're definitely one of those."

One palm up, he twitched his first two fingers, beckoning her forward and tilting his chin up, just a little. The expression on his face was clearly meant as a challenge.

"You're a smug little bastard, you know that?" she replied, narrowing her eyes slightly. Challenge accepted. The smirk was still on her face, though it tilted up into more of a grin. She kept her eyes narrowed and took a moment to assess rather than attack outright, again. Clearly he had the upper hand. He was taller for one thing, and he had good balance. Oni were kind of the same way, however; the bigger they were, the harder they fell. She'd have to get better momentum if she wanted to take him down.

With that in mind, she smirked. She could use the distance to her advantage. She might not have been particularly swift, but she made up for that by being a little more sturdier. When she ran at him, she did so with every ounce of speed she could muster, and put most of her strength behind her legs.

He seemed willing enough to go with this strategy, however, because he didn't even attempt to get out of the way; rather, he adjusted his stance so that when they went to the ground, he was able to put one of his knees between them, pressing down on her sternum with it and locking her legs in place with his other.

“Really, Ayla? You want to do groundwork with someone who outsizes you this much? I'll give you credit for guts, but not much else." He leaned down, solid in his hold but moving his face closer to hers. “Well... maybe one other thing. This is much more interesting than catching punches."

She rolled her eyes at him. "Yeah, well I never said I was an expert at it. Strategy obviously wasn't my strong point. I'm a distance fighter; up and personal isn't my cup of tea. The only time I get personal," she strained out the word a bit as she tried to move, "Is when I'm not exactly this," she continued, referring to her wolf rather than her human self. She was better at fighting up close when she was a wolf. At least then she could use her teeth and claws to tear out chunks of flesh.

"I'm glad you're having fun and all, but you can let me up now, I yield," for now at least.

He didn't immediately do so, instead studying her with narrowed eyes. “So let it out," he suggested, like it was the most commonplace thing in the world and not an enormous risk. “I'm not going to break like glass just because you grow some teeth worth talking about." He bared his own at her in something between a grin and a snarl; was it just her, or were they thicker and more prominent than usual?

She furrowed her brows in response. Let it out? That was easier said than done, but perhaps, within these walls it would be okay. There wasn't anyone around, and it was obvious enough that the servants of the household wouldn't exactly take mind to it. "Fine, have it your way," she replied, baring her teeth at him in the process. He might have been strong, but the shift from human to beast wouldn't exactly allow for him to remain as close as he was.

Besides, she should take advantage of this. She wouldn't be able to shift when she sparred with the others, and the only other one who could possibly handle her, was Aram. Since he was the one to suggest it in the first place, she would oblige.

Well, this is better, she spoke, shaking her entire body as she did so. She flexed her paws for a moment before she glanced at him. If she could have, she would have arched a challenging eyebrow at him, however; she didn't exactly have eyebrows to quirk. Shall we?

He actually had to look up at her now, though not that far. Not as far as she normally had to look up at him, anyway. Rolling out his shoulders, Tatsuya settled into a different stance. This one looked much more like an attack form. “I'm glad you're taking this seriously. That means I can, too, right?"

He did arch a brow, but gave no further warning before he burst forward with all the suddenness of a gust of wind, making a grab for one of her arms. It looked like he might be attempting a joint-lock, and he was fast.

Luckily, though, she was also quicker. She had to be in order to get an advantage on the oni, however; compared to his speed, she was still a little slower. So instead of moving out of the way, she allowed him to get closer. Granted, he'd have a bit of an advantage being so close, but she would also be closer to him, and she could make for his arm with her jaws. Height wise, it would be easy to grab his shoulder, at least. If she missed, she still had a free arm.

Her attempt to bite was thwarted; surprisingly, Tatsuya actually took hold of her jaws from the safer sides and forced them shut, twisting his whole body away from her first swipe. The second one, however, caught him in the side, tearing through the linen fabric he wore and leaving a bloody furrow in his side.

He hissed softly; from as close as she was, she could see his eye color flicker from red to gold. He pulled in a laborious breath, and they faded back, but they had definitely changed for a moment there. His lips pulled back from his teeth.

“If you can bite, I'm going to think I can too, you know." Even despite the wound, and the fact that he was still holding her jaws clamped shut, he seemed to be amused, though it was edged by something else.

Never said you couldn't, she replied back. Even if her mouth was clamped shut, she could still speak. Though she wasn't sure if she could actually call it that. But I'm afraid you'll only get a mouthful of fur, she added. She would have smirked if she could. She shook her head, trying to get out of his hold.

Bite or no bite, she began, finally breaking lose from his hold and jumping back, You said you were going to take this seriously; use every advantage you can get. If that means you have to bite something, then bite it, though in some perspectives, that might be considered cheating.

Oni won't care either way, and it wasn't like she really needed to give advice.

“I suppose you make a fair point," he replied casually. His side was already nearly healed up; he certain wasn't bleeding anymore. There was only a bit of it soaked through the fabric of his kosode.

Hooking his fingers, Tatsuya cracked his knuckles. This time, when he charged, it was barely even visible. It seemed that he was suddenly just in front of her, and then he leaped, jumping over her and twisting in midair. One of his arms hooked around her neck from behind, forcing her into an awkward position.

Instead of the expected bite, however, he blew cold breath into her ear. “I think I'll collect when it wouldn't taste mostly like dog," he said with a snort. “I don't fancy the tang of fur." But he'd effectively made his point—he could have gone in for a bite there if necessary.

Pushing off her back, he landed a good eight feet behind her, crossing his arms over his chest. “You know, you've made all this fuss about control issues, but I really don't see any. You're not even being the aggressive one here."

She didn't have an answer for him. She didn't even know why that was the case. She sat in her spot, the spar obviously over, though she elected to remain as she was, for the moment. She tilted her head in his direction, and narrowed her eyes. I've got nothing, she spoke the words quicker than she'd realized. She hadn't meant to say it, but she did anyway. She was still calm in his presence, despite the fact that her heart rate was accelerated. That was due to the spar, or so she thought. What else could it be? She sighed softly.

I suppose that concludes the little spar, for now, she spoke. Her lips pulled into a fine line before she sighed. She should really keep a spare kimono around, or at least hide one in every possible spot around the place. She didn't really think at the time when she shifted, but her gaze landed on her torn kimono, and she huffed again. She'd torn his clothing, too, so it wouldn't exactly help, and she didn't need to give him the satisfaction of her wearing something that was his, again.

She rolled her eyes.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to go properly cloth myself. My hair can only do so much," she spoke. She'd shifted with her back towards him and had pulled her hair in front of her. It covered what it needed to considering it was long enough to do that. She wasn't ashamed, but perhaps she should have a little more common decency. She snorted. "So if you'll excuse me," she stated, walking past him, no shame whatsoever. If she was lucky, there wouldn't be anyone in the halls until she reached her room, though.

“You're clear if you take the back hallway," he said, apparently aware of who was where in the castle. “No one's ever there at this time of day." For all his bluster, he kept his eyes fixed firmly away from her for the duration.

“I'll be collecting on that taste someday, by the way." The words followed behind her as she left the ring.

"Yeah? Good luck with that."

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino


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#, as written by Aethyia
Kentaro glanced down at the broken blade of his sword, and then past the jagged edge of it at the fallen oni. This one was primarily blue; he wasn't sure if the color they were made any difference in particular.

This was the closest any such creature had come to Shimamaki Village yet. He was lucky to have caught it on a routine patrol, else it might well have wandered close enough to the settlement to cause serious issues.

Of course, lucky was a relative word. Kentaro shuddered, unable to help grimacing as his wounds pulled. This one seemed stronger than the other, and he'd been forced to fight it alone. His sword had broken off on its ribcage, meaning he had to burn it to death. The smell of blackened flesh still hung on the air. He felt the pain of his injuries flood back in as his horns and claws receded. His vision lost some of its sharp clarity, surely an indication that the irises had returned from gold to red. He didn't actually remember most of the fight; another reason he was lucky it had happened out here.

The wet grinding of bone drew his attention to the fact that one of his legs had broken and was now repairing itself, more slowly than it should have been. It didn't take a towering intellect to know why—so much of his blood was spattered over the snow that he was weaker than he should be, and his healing factor was slowing down so that it wouldn't overcompensate and end up killing him. A fierce thirst clawed at his throat, leaving it bone-dry and cracked, like parched earth.

He needed to get home. In his condition, carrying the oni back with him wasn't a possibility. He would simply have to hope that no humans wandered far enough out to see the corpse. Dropping the now-useless sword hilt, Kentaro straightened his posture and headed for the castle.

It was slow going, since he had to make sure no humans saw the condition he was in. He couldn't let any of them get too close, or he probably wouldn't be able to quash the instinct to feed. He could still feel some of his obviously-inhuman features, too—his ears were still pointed, and from the way his vision flickered in and out, his eyes hadn't settled back to the normal hue either. Red marks stood out prominently against his skin; hopefully they'd just be mistaken for more blood if he was spotted. The hair hanging in front of his eyes was still bone-colored, streaked with more blood. He knew there wasn't really any explaining that.

He pulled in a hard breath as he approached his home; the cocktail of scents there was maddening, but also familiar, something he needed at this moment. He sought the one he needed, stumbling blindly and mutely down the hallways, in search of it.

Of her.

Sayuri had rounded a corner, a flicker of surprise crossing her face before it became one of confusion, and then worry. "Kentaro-san, are you alright, what happened?" she spoke in a hurried breath. She made her way quickly to him, and was standing not more than three feet away. Her hands began to reach forward, but she dropped them suddenly. It was almost as if she were going to check him for something, perhaps his wounds.

"Oh, do you need me to go find Reiko-san? Or one of the others?'' she spoke a little worriedly.

Kentaro groaned softly. This close, her smell hit him like a brick wall. The fangs in his mouth extended; he had to part his lips to prevent them from piercing the inside of his mouth. That was alarming even by the standards of one of his kind. He drew in short, rapid pants; he could breathe no deeper with his injuries, but unfortunately that just meant that there was no relief.

He was so thirsty he felt like he was dying, and food stood not three feet away from him. His every instinct bade him lunge, bat aside her useless human resistance and sink his teeth into her flesh so that he might live, might recover from his wounds. Keenly, he heard the soft patter as more of his blood spilled onto the floorboards of the hallway.

“Get back," he rasped, forcing himself to take a step backward instead of forward. It was, perhaps, the single most difficult thing he'd ever managed to do. “Get away from me."

Scarcely could he think; certainly not enough to remember what he needed, beyond the simple need for sustenance. He'd been moving with a purpose, he knew, but his mind was shutting down alongside his body. All he knew now was hunger, and the thinning, weakening resolve not to have it satisfied here and now.

"Kentaro-san," she spoke, though she did not move immediately. Her lips were pursed tightly, and her eyes were slightly narrowed. She didn't look to be glaring at him, only studying. "Kentaro-san, I can't do that. Let me help you find Reiko-chan, or one of the others. At least... that way you won't hurt any of the servants," she spoke. She either wasn't worried about her own well-being, or there was something else that kept her from leaving.

"I know... it must be hard right now, and you're not quite yourself, but let me help you," she continued. She took a small step forward. "It's okay if you accidentally hurt me; I know you won't mean anything by it," she continued. Clearly she wasn't aware of the danger she was in.


Why wasn't she leaving? Why wasn't he tearing her apart?

Kentaro's instincts warred with what little of his intellect remained in the haze of near-death and the overpowering need to survive. It was barely even a contest. In a moment, he was upon her, one of his hands winding around her neck. He forced her back up against the wall of the hallway, pinning her in place with his weight. His sharp breathing elevated; his wounded muscles coiled with the inevitable hunter's adrenaline rush.

With no more than his thumb on her jaw, he turned her head aside, exposing the thin layer of soft skin over her pulse point. He could hear it there. Her blood. Rushing through the vital vein there, keeping her alive. It could keep him alive, too.

"Kentaro-san," she spoke his name like a soft whisper, though it was evident that it was laced with a hint of fear. Rightly so, perhaps. "Kentaro-san, it's..." she didn't get to finish that sentence, though. Either she couldn't, or she didn't want to. Her pulse quickened, from fear or adrenaline. It was probably both.

Kentaro leaned forward, hovering right over the pulse point. Opening his mouth, he dragged his tongue over the spot—the natural anticoagulant in it would keep her bleeding freely as he drank. He set his teeth at the spot, scraping the skin slightly as he started to press down.

“Taro, no!"

The shout broke through his haze, if only just. Lifting his head, Kentaro glared down the hallway at the intruder, immediately flooded with a new scent, a familiar one. One he knew. Had known, since the moment the child it belonged to was born into the world.

A body immediately inserted itself between him and his prey, pushing his weakened frame away with the strength of health and one of his kind. He stumbled backwards.

“Tatsuya, make sure Sayu's okay."

He didn't quite understand what the words meant. All he really knew was that at the same time, two small, strong hands took hold of his head and guided him down to another throat. This one offered not even a token resistance, and indeed seemed to be encouraging him to drink. He couldn't have stopped himself if he'd wanted to.

Kentaro bit down, tasting the slightly-metallic sweetness he was after. The effect on his injuries was almost immediate; they began to heal themselves rapidly. More even than they should be; he could smell the additional blood as it seeped from new wounds on Reiko's body. She was assuming them herself, allowing her healing factor to take care of them. Though it must have caused her great pain, she made not a sound about it, and did not stop him from taking his fill.

It was through the automatic experience of seeing her memory that he came to understand what had just occurred. Her thoughts reawakened his, allowing reason to reassert itself over instinct, and as soon as he could, he recoiled away from her. The twin puncture marks on her neck closed almost immediately.

“Reiko." He blinked, shifting his eyes over her shoulder. Tatsuya was steadying Sayuri with one hand. He quickly glanced away.

“Oni. Outside the village. Someone should retrieve it before the humans find it."

Her eyes went wide; she turned back over her shoulder.

“On it," Tatsuya said immediately. “I'll find one of those two and deal with the problem."

Reiko nodded, returning her attention to him. “Are you all right?"

Now that the hunger had gone, shame and guilt welled up in its place. Kentaro stared pointedly at the wall, making eye contact with no one. “That is a question you should be asking someone else. Not me." He heard the fabric of her clothes rustle as she shifted to look at Sayuri.

“What happened, Sayu? Are you all right?"

"I'm... I'm fine, Reiko-chan," she spoke softly. "Kentaro-san didn't mean to," she spoke, almost as if she were defending his actions. "I came across Kentaro-san while he was hurt, and... it was my fault; he told me to leave and I didn't," she continued.

"But... I'm okay. There's nothing to worry about," she continued. The soft rustle of her clothes suggested she had moved somewhat. She was standing in front of him, that much was apparent. Warm hands, however, were on both sides of his cheeks, gently pulling his face back in front of him. He could see her face, now.

"Kentaro-san, it's okay," she spoke, dropping her hands as she did. "I told you, it was okay, and that you wouldn't mean anything by it." Her voice was still light, almost whisper like.

Kentaro felt himself flinch; he immediately backed up several paces, taking himself out of her grip, shaking his head. The words he wanted were not ready to his tongue, so he didn't say anything, turning his head away again and trying to suppress the involuntary shaking in his hands.

He heard Reiko push out a soft breath. “Okay, um. Taro, you should rest. Why don't you go back to your room for a while? This one will be by in a little bit with tea, okay?"

Nodding jerkily, Kentaro turned to go. He was leaving a puddle of blood behind in the hallway, but right at that moment, he could not bring himself to care in the slightest. Not even for the servants who were going to have to work the stains out.

He could hear Reiko softly speaking to Sayuri as he departed, but he deliberately shut the conversation out of his brain. It wasn't difficult; the shame of his actions took up most of his thoughts, anyway. His feet fell unusually heavily on the ground, but he only barely noticed.

Control had always been the edge of a razor for Kentaro, more than even Tatsuya. He'd struggled with it more than any of the others ever had, and his struggles were only eased by Reiko's presence, not eliminated entirely. It seemed, however, that he was even more dangerous than he thought. He could not allow himself to pose a risk to the others. Nor to the servants. And certainly...

Certainly not to her. He would not, could not, allow something like that to happen again.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Aram


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Aram sighed softly, shaking his head as he did so. He had stumbled upon Tatsuya, who had mentioned a dead oni on the outskirts of the village. That had not been good. Kentaro had been injured by it, greatly, it seemed, and thus he had to leave the oni behind. He had elected to accompany Tatsuya to the grounds of the oni, leaving the others behind. Ayla had decided to stay behind to keep an eye out just in case. He could understand. If there was an oni this close to the village, chances were that there could be more.

"Did Kentaro-san mention anything different about this oni he fought?" he decided to ask. He'd find out, when they arrived, of course, but the more information he had now, the better.

Tatsuya shook his head. “He wasn't in any shape to. He was half-dead by the time he managed to get back to the castle; if Reiko hadn't interrupted him, he might have killed Sayuri." He frowned at that, though anger did not seem to be the cause. It was difficult to say exactly what was, though.

“It doesn't seem right. That first oni was a challenge, but Kentaro's strong. And now that he knew what to do and where to hit it, he shouldn't have had that much of a problem." Tatsuya shook his head. His estimation of his brother's strength seemed a bit generous, considering how much difficulty the three of them had encountered with oni in the past, but perhaps there was a reason for that. They had been able to handle the first one quite effectively, after all.

Moving quickly, it only took them about ten minutes to reach the site. The smell of blood on the air was so thick even Aram could detect it, and his nose wasn't quite as strong as Ayla's or those belonging to Amon's children. But then... even a human would probably be able to smell it. Much of it had the scent of Kentaro, but even more still clearly belonged to the oni.

It was blue-skinned, and nearly twenty feet from the tips of its massive horns to its feet. It lacked tusks, but the horns and its claws more than made up the difference, and the fangs on it were not unlike a primitive version of those belonging to vampires. The blade of a sword, presumably Kentaro's, was lodged in its side, but seemed to have caught on its thick ribs. The true cause of its death was obvious—the majority of its body was covered in blackened burns, and it still smoked faintly. That was a considerable pyrokinetic talent, perhaps on par with Amon's fire.

“Fuck." Tatsuya's declaration was soft; he shook his head. “Is it just me, or is this one about twice as big as it should be?"

"That is because this one is an alpha," the words left his lips all too quickly. If there was an alpha about, that was definitely not a good sign."Alphas are immediately identifiable by their size. Your brother is lucky to be alive," he spoke. He did not doubt that Amon's children were strong, but for one of them to even take an alpha down on their own, was a feat they should not have been capable of.

"Alphas are harder to kill. Their bones are much thicker to accommodate their size, and even a weapon made from oni bone is not guaranteed to work. They require much more than simple stabs and burns," he explained. He walked closer towards the creature, studying its facial markings. This oni was slightly primitive, even for an alpha. That wasn't good, still. "This alpha appears to be one that was the first to become extinct," he stated, kneeling down in the process.

"If given enough time, they adapt," he continued. It was possible that the oni they were facing now, if left alone, could become something more. "Each new generation of oni born, have a way of evolving. Of course, it takes generations for them to acheive anything remotely human. For an adept comparison, they could essentially take on forms similar to that of yours and your brothers," which was to say more human. That, however, might have been a side-effect of breeding with humans. He pursed his lips together as he stood.

"Alphas were uncommon, but not rare. They were more aggressive, too," if that wasn't obvious enough. He hadn't seen Kentaro's wounds, personally, but he didn't have to to know the extent of how badly he was injured. "This does not bode well at all."

Tatsuya grimaced; he didn't seem especially pleased by the comparison between the so-called "evolved" oni and his family, but he didn't say anything about it. Rubbing at his jaw, he narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “If there's an alpha here, do you think there might be a nest somewhere? It doesn't seem like they'd be solitary; he'd have to be the alpha of something, right? A group of some kind?"

"That is a possibility, yes," he answered. That was how oni worked, unfortunately. If there was an alpha, then there was a nest of other oni somewhere. "The only thing working in our favor, though, is that an alpha will generally have a nest somewhere close to a human civilization. It makes for easier kidnappings and kills," he spoke. He didn't have to clarify what he meant by that; Tatsuya would understand. He sighed and slumped his shoulders.

“It's not working in our favor if the rest of them find the town before we find them," Tatsuya pointed out curtly. “The village doesn't have any walls around it; it's never needed any." He didn't have to spell it out; the relatively sparse village defenses meant that even one oni could walk in and act with impunity for a considerable amount of time before any of them became aware of it.

“If Kentaro hadn't been on patrol this afternoon, chances are this one would have made it in; we don't have the swords yet, either." Such items took considerable time to make, of course. But they were necessary, as the broken blade protruding from the creature made obvious.

Tatsuya crossed his arms, then shot Aram a side glance. “Can't you see the future or some shit? How did you not know this was coming?"

"I don't know," he admitted, the shame leaking into his voice. "I haven't had a vision in quite some time, not after the one involving Sayuri," he continued. He hadn't had a vision in a while, and that was a little alarming. It was almost as if there were something interfering with it. Had this been any other time, Aram would have welcomed the interference. But as it was, he needed to know.

"It is possible that... just like your sister, I cannot see them, as well," but that was not a high possibility. Reiko had been a strange anomaly that could not be explained. For the oni to be the same, would be as if Aram had lost his ability entirely. He knew that was not the case, though. He had been created for that purpose, specifically, or so he thought. Perhaps he just wasn't focusing on them as much as he should be? He would have to rectify that.

"I believe we should find this nest, first, before anything else can happen. From there, we should be able to figure out more," though he wasn't entirely sure what more could be found out. "If there is, indeed a nest, we will need the others and their help. I am not doubting your strength, Minamoto-san, but if there are more than the two of us can handle, it is best we have back up," he stated a little firmly. He did not doubt any of their abilities or strength, but two against a nest of oni was not something even he would dare.

He'd only done so with his siblings because they were created for it. Tatsuya and his family were not, despite being Amon's children.

“It sounds like doubting my strength is exactly what you're doing," Tatsuya replied. While his tone was sharp, it seemed to be frustration more than mere anger. “Look, I get that this is something you and Ayla have been doing since fucking forever, but that doesn't mean you're the only ones who can. In case you forgot, my brother killed this one. Not either of you." He scoffed, shaking his head almost violently.

“I'm not an idiot. I know that trying to wipe an entire nest at once with just the two of us is a stupid idea. But you've got to stop treating all of us like we need your damn protection because we're less than you are. This is our home, our place to protect. I don't expect you to understand that, but I do expect you to stop acting like your age gives you the right to decide what we do."

He deserved that, he supposed. "I did not mean to offend you, Minamoto-san," he stated, giving an apologetic bow. "But your brother nearly died doing so. I apologize if it comes out that we are trying to put you all under protection. On the contrary, we are just not aware of how much strength you all actually have. It is caution, and nothing more, Minamoto-san," he tried to explain. He would have to disagree with him on one point, though.

"And you misunderstand if you think we do not know the same, Minamoto-san. The entirety of this place is our home, and it is our duty to protect it. It is what we were created for, Minamoto-san. Ayla, myself, and your father. We love this place dearly, and we did our best to protect it in the way we could," he spoke softly. It wasn't just this particular region. It was, in a sense, the world that was their home, and they had fought hard to protect it. He shook his head, though.

"Forgive me, Minamoto-san, but I shall endeavor hereafter to not doubt you or your family. I shall only endeavor to make sure you all do not fall to these creatures," because unlike them, Aram could render an oni almost useless against him. Speaking of which... "You should all begin training on your capabilities. They will help you greatly when facing these creatures. They have yet to showcase them, however; oni have abilities as well. The more intelligent ones are inclined to use them to their advantage, but the lesser ones do not. It is especially dangerous if it is an intelligent alpha."

He did not doubt that they all had inherited something from Amon in the way of a kinetic ability. It was apparent that they had control over their abilities, if the scorch marks on this oni were anything to go by. But even control had its limits. They had to be masters of them, and that was not an easy feat.

“Of course we do. But so do you, from the looks of it. If the seer can't see anything, how rusty have the rest of your skills gotten?" He didn't seem particularly mollified by the apology; his lips peeled back briefly from his teeth. But in the end, he only huffed, glancing back down at the corpse.

“Fine. We'll find the nest; I can smell which way he came from. Then we can get the location back to the others and set up a watch on it until the gear comes in and we can sweep them all at once."

Aram frowned. His skills were rusty, come to think of it. He really didn't have a need to keep constant battles like his sister had. He wasn't, by nature, someone who liked fighting. He smiled softly. He supposed he was like Reiko in that sense.

"That is for the best, yes," he agreed. Once they find the nest, and once they had their weapons, they would be able to take it. "I believe there are enough of us to make the watches in pairs. For now, let us find that nest."

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Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
Reiko shifted in her spot, sighing softly.

After Aram and Tatsuya had found the location of the oni nest, they'd set up a watch rotation so that it was under constant scrutiny. On the chance an oni exited, which had happened twice on her shifts so far, the two people assigned to watch had to decide what to do. Most of the time, they split; one kept an eye on the nest and the others, while the other followed the one that left. So far, none of them had wandered near town; they contented themselves with eating animals from the nearby forest. It was gruesome to watch, but better than the alternative.

Equally troubling was the way conditions in town were worsening. Sickness seemed to pervade there; already several townspeople had died. Ando-san was sick as well; Reiko knew her chances of surviving were not good, considering how elderly she was. She visited as often as she could, often when Aram went to check on her in his capacity as a doctor. But there was little to be done; she didn't need to ask him what he saw in the future to know what would happen.

So far today, the cave entrance that served as the nest had been quiet. They'd taken over from Kentaro, now recovered, and Takahiro about an hour ago. The rumors she'd heard on her way through town were disquieting. The townspeople were beginning to wonder if they were being haunted by malevolent spirits. A few had speculated that something the lord had done had to be the cause. It was only a few, and only the desperate rationalization of people who were scared and unsure, but still it shook her.

She had been raised to love this land and its people, and to care for them. She took that stewardship seriously; this was her home, and these were the people she was sworn to protect. To know that even a few of them thought her family might be responsible for their misfortune cut her deeply. Moreso than she expected, even.

Aram had been oddly quiet, staring at nothing in particular. He had not said anything, perhaps out of respect that they were here, alone together, or some other reason. He hadn't glanced at her, either. He seemed too lost in his own thoughts, or perhaps he was just observing. It was hard to tell, sometimes. He always seemed calm and peaceful; relaxed and gentle. Recently, though, he'd been more tense, and always seemed ready for something.

"If it eases your mind, Reiko-san, Ando-san will be fine. She will live out the rest of her days until her natural life expires. She is... fortunate," he spoke suddenly, finally glancing towards her. He had a soft smile on his face. "There is nothing to worry about, though I cannot say the same for the others," his smile faltered slightly.

The news surprised her, given the woman's condition. For a moment, Reiko contemplated the possibility that he was lying to her, or manipulating the truth somehow, but she immediately hated herself for even thinking it. Even if there were plenty of things he couldn't tell her, she had to trust him. She wanted to. Tou-chan had, and while Tatsuya didn't seem to like him much, that hardly surprised her. Tatsuya didn't like most people much.

She looked down at her lap, pressing her lips together. “Do you know what's causing this, Aram-sama?" she asked softly. “Is there really... can curses really do things like that?" She'd never been much of a believer in things like spirits of the dead, or magic. She knew some things could be done, like Aram's prognostication, or the purification rituals shinto priests sometimes performed. But she'd never really believed in kami or curses or vengeful dead.

Maybe because she was the kind of thing those stories had been invented to explain, and she knew the reality was different from that. Not nearly so mysterious.

He sighed softly, but shook his head. "No, Reiko-san. People use curses as a means to justify the fear they feel. It helps them cope with something they do not understand. It is easier to blame something that doesn't exist than it is to admit the truth that, these things just happen," he spoke softly. He glanced up to her, though, and kept her gaze.

"But I do not know what the cause of it is. I speculate it might have something to do with the oni. They have been known to spread illnesses by simply existing. It is an ability of theirs, if you wish to see it that way," he continued, dropping his gaze afterwards. "Do not trouble yourself over something that the people are saying. They are just afraid, Reiko-san, and they do not know how else to handle that fear. They mean no harm by it," he added.

“This one knows," she replied. She knew these people better than nearly anyone; she'd always done her best to live among them instead of apart from them. “But this one also knows that fear is powerful, and to dismiss something as mere fear is to underestimate it. Fear can move humans to all kinds of things. Sometimes courage, but... sometimes worse." And sometimes, what started as fear became harm. Especially when people felt cornered.

“This one does not like seeing them suffer like this."

He hummed softly, as if agreeing with what she said. "Then they are fortunate to have someone who cares so much for them. Let that be what guides you when you have to fight these creatures," he spoke, shifting his gaze towards the nest. He kept it there for a few minutes, before he shifted his gaze back towards her.

"You have much on your mind, don't you," he spoke, tilting his head to the side in an inquisitive manner. "You may speak freely if you'd like. I will listen," he spoke. He'd said this before.

“As do you, this one is sure," she replied. It touched on one of many inequalities in their... calling it a friendship was making too much of it. Acquaintanceship was too distant, though. Whatever it was, they were not equal in it. Perhaps they could not be, when he was so much older and stronger and wiser and better than she was. But this was the inequality that bothered her the most, perhaps: that he could shoulder some of her burdens, that she could allow him into the innermost thoughts and contours of her mind, but the opposite would never be true. No matter how many times she insisted she would not mind.

He kept his secrets. She confessed hers. How simplistic she must seem, to him. How naive and silly.

Reiko sighed. “This one was thinking of the last time humans became suspicious of this one's family. Perhaps you know this already, but... this one's mother began her life as a hunter. A human trained to kill creatures like this one's family." Truthfully, the only way a human could really do something like that was through surprise, but it was in theory possible.

“This one's grandfather was humiliated by his clan, and in punishment, this one's mother was sent to kill this one's father. Tou-chan knew she was there, but he spared her life and gave her somewhere to live. Eventually he changed her, and married her. This one... worries that there will be more hunters, someday soon. And that things will end differently." It was one very natural response to fear: to find something to blame, and then seek to eliminate that thing. Truth itself hardly mattered when fear was that prominent.

And it made her afraid, too. Of what would happen to her family, yes, but also to the humans of Shimamaki and the rest of Hokkaido; those under her protection. Not to mention all the rest.

He smiled softly at her, listening with the patience he'd promised, and only nodded once. "Do you want to know a secret, Reiko-san?" he spoke once she was finished. His head had remained in the same tilt it had taken, but his eyes were closed slightly from the force of his smile, it seemed. It wasn't a forced smile, though.

"I am just as afraid as they are," he spoke, opening his eyes with a deep furrow of his brows. "I do not know what the outcome of this will be, yet, but even then, it does not make me any less afraid. The only thing that brings me both comfort, and despair, is not knowing your future. Out of us all, you may have a greater chance of living," he continued, his voice barely above a whisper. He shook his head softly, though, and put another smile on his face.

"But perhaps, when the future reveals itself to me, that will not be the case," he spoke.

He spoke with an unnerving ease about death. But more even than that, something about the way he put what he said caught her attention. “But... if you think this one has a greater chance of surviving, without having seen this one's future... does that mean you have seen everyone else dying?" The thought was terrifying, and the supposed that if it were true, it would explain his own fear very well. It seemed almost too much to think about, but if he was sharing it with her, then she wanted to understand what he meant.

"Not quite," he answered. "The only death I have seen, so far, is Sayuri's. The future has not revealed itself to me, but when it does, there is a high possibility that we may all die. It is... not something I wish to see," he spoke the last part earnestly, if the way his brows furrowed were any indication. He sighed, perhaps a little too heavily, before he dropped his gaze.

"Death comes to us all, even for beings such as ourselves, Reiko-san," he began, keeping his gaze from her. "It is only a matter of when. Whether our deaths will be at the hands of these creatures, or of something else, I cannot say. The future, though certain, has a way of changing if something interferes. Never for the better, though," he sighed and dropped his shoulders.

"But... " he began, chancing a glance towards her, "perhaps that may not be the case. I apologize if I sound vague, Reiko-san, but even I do not fully understand the gift that was bestowed upon me, at times."

The way he said it, though, didn't sound like it was a gift.

Reiko's brows drew together. “This one is sorry," she said softly. “Sorry that you have to see all those things." She supposed that if he hadn't been able to learn to speak of death in so casual a manner, he might have driven himself crazy. All those dreams, and the consistent sense that there was nothing he could do, that trying to save anyone would only make things worse...

She couldn't let herself believe that was true, but she could see how he might have come to think so. How many times must he have hoped, only for those hopes to be dashed? She couldn't blame him for not hoping anymore, if it was only ever crushed.

Pulling in a deep breath, Reiko offered a tentative smile. “This one will make you a deal, Aram-sama. This one will not try to make you hope that the future will be better anymore. This one realizes now that this one was asking you to do something painful, and this one should not have. And this one will always listen, if you want to talk about anything that you have seen. But no matter what... this one will keep hoping, enough for Aram-sama as well as this one."

"You are too kind, Reiko-san," he spoke, turning his full attention to her. "And I shall endeavor to try and speak of what I cannot to others," he continued. "It will be..." he paused for a second, as if he were unsure of the word. His lips turned down somewhat, but he did not seem too upset about it. "It shall be our secret."

“Okay," she murmured, nodding slightly. For some reason, she could feel her face getting warm. Was she really that happy that they'd have a secret of their own? Mentally, Reiko slapped herself.

She knew she was in a very particular kind of trouble, now.

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Character Portrait: Ayla


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That was how she felt at the moment. Being so near, so close, to the oni again made it feel like her blood was on fire. She wanted to act, to do something, but she knew she could not. If she did, not only would she be horribly outnumbered, but she'd also get herself killed. She knew what she was capable of, but she wasn't exactly a god. She could die just as easily by stupid decisions as she could a blade. Sighing softly, she shifted in her spot.

It would still be another few days before the weapons would be ready, and Ayla wasn't entirely sure if they had that much time to spare. Though the oni had mostly stayed by the nest, venturing into the forest for food, one had recently made towards the village. She had managed to keep it from getting too far, though she also managed not to kill it. Distraction was the best thing at the moment. Even if it had strayed far from the nest, even one death so close would send the rest of them into a frenzy. They didn't need that.

Instead, she'd brought it back by distracting it as herself: a woman merely unfortunate enough to stray too far from the village. Of course, she'd also managed to lose it when she'd brought it back towards the nest. She wondered, though, how Aram was currently faring. He hadn't spoken of it, but he must have seen something, recently. She could see it on his face, that something was bothering him. He wasn't going to tell her, and she wasn't going to pry, however; whatever it was, it couldn't have been good.

She sighed heavily again.

Her next inhalation brought with it a now-familiar scent; something spicy, perhaps akin to a persimmon fruit, with a touch of ash and pine. It was an odd sort of smell, but then, it belonged to an odd sort of individual.

Kentaro passed through the gates of the castle alongside Takahiro, the youngest of Reiko's brothers. He was blind, apparently, but he never seemed to have any problem getting around or knowing where things were. Maybe he'd just memorized where everything was; it seemed possible if you lived in one place for hundreds of years. The two of them parted after entering; Takahiro headed towards where she could smell Reiko.

The older of the two, however, headed in her direction, nodding by way of greeting. Kentaro wasn't much of a talker. “Ayla-san. Have you seen Tatsuya recently?"

She pursed her lips together. "The last time I saw him, he was by the training grounds," she replied. She inhaled softly, trying to see if she could be of more service to Kentaro and smell for Tatsuya, however; she couldn't smell him at all. She frowned. She didn't know people could do that. Granted, they weren't exactly human, however; everything had a scent of some kind.

"Do you need him, specifically, or is there something I can help you with?" she spoke. If he needed Tatsuya, specifically, then she could understand. If it was something she could help with, though, she might as well render her services. She was restless, after all, and doing something would help calm her.

He pursed his lips slightly; it was hard to read him, but it seemed like he was trying to decide if it was something she could help with. His brow furrowed a little, and then he nodded once, just a slight dip of the head.

“I intend to ask him to take over Sayuri's kendo lessons," he replied. “As I understand it, you've already taught her the basics of the yumi; I do not think it would be a bad idea to continue, if you are so inclined." He blinked slowly, but said nothing more, leaving an obvious pause for her input before he continued on his way, it seemed.

She furrowed her brows in confusion. Why would he want to do that? He was doing a good job teaching her, if her progress was anything to go by. She wouldn't mind, per se, but there had to be some other reason for that. "Is there some reason as to why? From what I can tell, you've done a hell of a job teaching her, and she seems to be blossoming under your tutelage," she spoke, quirking a brow in his direction.

"Switching teachers in such a stage could throw everything off for her. Are you sure you want to do that?" she continued pressing. She didn't peg Kentaro as the type of person to just drop what he was doing for no reason at all. Maybe she'd just misunderstood him?

His expression darkened slightly. “You understand what is like, don't you? To lose control of yourself because of what you are?" His voice was still as toneless as it usually was, but there was something else there, like a thread that was almost exposed, just barely lurking under the surface of what he said.

“My own lack of control nearly killed her the other day. I will not allow it to happen again. The risk of disruption is lesser than the risk of harm if I continue to allow her so near."

"Then don't let it happen again," she spoke a little too quickly at that. She sighed, pushing it through her nose. She did know what it was like to lose control of herself. She was, perhaps, fortunate enough to have had Amon and Aram with her when she did. They always brought her back from that. Over the course of a few centuries, though, she'd learned to control it. She smiled, though. It wasn't quite the same, she didn't think, but there was something similiar that she recognized.

"It's because you care, isn't it," she stated it rather than questioning it. "In a way you are unsure of, yourself, right?" she continued. "Look, Kentaro-san, I'm not going to tell you what is best or not for you or Sayuri," she began. She really wasn't in any position to tell anyone, anything. The only thing she could do was offer her own opinion on the matter, and it was up to him what to do with it.

"It's a pain in the ass, trying to control something that doesn't want to be controlled. But if we don't learn to compromise somewhere, it'll only make things that much worse. Tell me something," she stated, keeping his gaze with hers. It wasn't too hard, considering he wasn't as tall as Tatsuya was, but he was still taller than her.

"What does it feel like when she's near? Help me understand something, and if you do, I will consent to taking over her lessons," because if she could understand that one thing, then it would help her understand what was really going on. She may not be an expert in that area, but she knew what it felt like, and what it was like to want to keep that safe.

He was silent for a very long time. The only reason she knew he was planning to answer the question at all was because he had remained in place rather than leaving. Though he looked at her, his eyes went unfocused, almost through her to something she could not see but he could.

“I do not know the words," he said at last. His tone had softened, revealing a touch of uncertainty that had not been detectable before. “When I was injured and returned to this place, I was almost beyond thought. All I could think was to seek out the person who would rid me of my pain. Save my life. That has always been Reiko. But..." His shoulders lowered as he pushed out a breath, near-silently but obviously with great heaviness.

“It was not Reiko I sought then. It was not her scent I followed. My... instinct drew me to Sayuri instead. And I do not know why."

If this wasn't so serious, Ayla might have actually laughed at him. Instead, she sighed softly. "I am not exactly acquainted with how that works, however; I can tell you one thing, Kentaro-san," she spoke, oddly, in a soft manner. "Instinct, whether human, wolf, or other, always leads us to something we need. In this case, you need Sayuri. It's not quite apparent as to why that is," but she could speculate a reason, "but if you deny yourself that basic necessity, it will be far worse for you than you'll realize. You'll end up hurting her another way, and if that's what you really want to avoid, then I'll help you."

"I'll make a compromise for you," she continued, pausing only for a second to collect herself. "I will help supervise your training sessions. If you become a threat to her, I will stop you, and I will take over the training sessions. If you wish to learn control, though," she spoke, this time only pausing to look him square in the eyes. "I will help you with that as well. It's not easy, and it will be difficult, however; if you are willing to learn, then I am willing to help."

If he was serious about keeping Sayuri safe from him, then she would help him to be safer. It would take some time, but she was certain Kentaro would learn a lot quicker than she had. He, after all, has a reason worth learning for. She didn't.

He looked like he was ready to turn her down, but then a thoughtful look flickered across his face, and he dropped his eyes to the ground. “I accept your compromise," he said lowly, “but only if she consents to me continuing to teach her. She was... afraid of me. Not without cause. I will not force her to be in my company if she does not want it."

She offered him a grin. "Something tells me she will," she spoke, though the grin disappeared from her face. It was replaced with a small smile, instead. "Kentaro-san, if I may be so bold," she stated, frowning slightly as she did. She'd never been one to hold her tongue for anyone, however; she felt like this was necessary. She took a deep breath, and held it for a few seconds.

"I don't think it was you, that she was afraid of," she finally spoke. Of course, she couldn't say for certain, whether or not Sayuri was afraid of him, or if she was just afraid for him. Sometimes, it was hard to discern one from the other, and she hadn't been there to see Sayuri's reaction. "You shouldn't be so hard on yourself, Kentaro-san. Being what we are, it is something we have to accept. We can only hope that others will accept us for it, too."

“I will not accept that I nearly killed her," he said firmly. Shaking his head, he sighed. “If she accepts, I will simply have to find some other way to ensure it never happens again."

She just smiled. "Then make that your reason it never happens again. Do not accept it, and let it fuel you, instead," she spoke. "Let that guilt be what guides you to be stronger than your feral side. If you must constantly remind yourself of it, to keep yourself contained, then don't accept it. I told you, Kentaro-san, learning to control yourself isn't easy, and it will be a pain in the ass. So much so, that you might want to give yourself over, however; don't."

"But, I will say nothing more. Find out if she still wants to be your pupil, and if she does, well," she trailed off. He would get the point.

He nodded. After a momentary pause, he inclined himself at the waist in a bow. “Thank you." Without giving her much time to react, Kentaro departed.

She sighed. He was going to be a piece of work, wasn't he? But she supposed he'd be worth it.

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Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
Tatsuya reclined backwards against the trunk of the tree. His shift at the oni nest had just ended; he'd stopped by the blacksmith's to check on the progress of their weapon order on the way home. The new material was proving tough for the smith to deal with, but fortunately he and his apprentice were more familiar with it than most humans, considering that they did the maintenance on his father's blades.

The order should be ready within the next two days. In the meantime, the nest was getting restless. Apparently, they'd only get worse if any of their number were killed, so Tatsuya had spent the better part of an hour this morning playing chase with one. It was more difficult to do, as a man; the oni weren't as interested. That got more disgusting the more he thought about it, so he tried not to.

For the moment, he lit his pipe and settled it between his teeth, inhaling a lungful of the smoke and holding it for a second before exhaling through his nose. It was something he found vaguely relaxing for some reason; a habit he'd picked up from his father, who thought the same. He'd been resentful of even the smallest similarities between them until recently; even now he hated the comparison, but he supposed there were worse people to share some traits with.

Besides, he needed to take the edge off somehow, and his preferred method for doing that was sex, which he'd been avoiding lately. Fuck if he knew why. All he knew was the one time he'd tried, he'd still felt unsatisfied afterwards, restless to the same degree he'd been before. Maybe it was the oni presence making everything worse, so that the usual methods of dealing with that side of himself didn't work as well.

Blowing another cloud of smoke into the air, Tatsuya tipped his head back against the tree and let his eyes fall shut. Didn't help that he was fucking hungry. Kentaro's little emergency had thrown off the schedule they'd put in place years ago to avoid overtaxing Reiko. It wasn't easy for six adult vampires to share a single blood source, even if some of them supplemented with humans.

In the distance, he could hear voices. They were still too far to hear what they were talking about, exactly, but he could recognize them as Washi-san and Ayla. They were coming closer, and it was easier to make out what they were saying.

"Do you really need me coming along, Ayla? You could do this on your own, you know," Aram spoke. Ayla sighed and made some sort of grunting noise.

"If it weren't for you, it wouldn't be broken. Because you decided to sneak up on poor Sayuri, she broke my bow. I need to make a new one, and since it's your fault, you're coming with me," she spoke. Apparently Sayuri broke her bow, and she was dragging Aram along with her.

"I still don't see why I needed to come along."

"Because I said so," was the only response she gave. One of them must have spotted him, because they drew closer to him.

"Minamoto-san, good afternoon," Aram greeted.

He cracked an eye open, shifting his pipe so he could talk. “I hope she cracked you over the head with it. Having a tough time imagining her being strong enough to break it, otherwise." He fixed Washi-san with a flat, one-eyed stare for a moment before moving it to Ayla. “You could let him stay, though. It's not like you need the help, do you?"

"She did, actually. Whacked him pretty good, too," she replied to his first statement. Aram merely rubbed the back of his head as if it still hurt. "Are you going to take his place, then, if I let him stay?" she questioned, arching a brow at him. Aram pursed his lips together, and looked like he wanted to say something. She gave him a look, though, and he remained quiet. For the moment.

"Going by yourself isn't a bad thing, Ayla," he finally spoke, and she replied by giving him a flat look. "I just don't think I'm necessary. You're only going to find wood for your new bow, right?" he spoke, and she nodded.

"That's not the point, Ara. The point is, what if there's one of them out there, and it just so happens to have a brother or son with it? Do you honestly think I can take two of them on my own right now?" she stated. Aram just slumped his shoulders. "I'd rather come back in two pieces rather than not at all, thank you."

If anything, it seemed like Aram would rather stay here for whatever reason. Tatsuya shrugged. “I'll go. I'm bored as fuck just sitting around anyway." He pushed himself into a standing position, flicking a few bits of dust off his hakama and tossing his hair away from his eyes.

“What do you make them out of? Yew? There's a copse of those a couple miles out." He'd lived here long enough to have a sense of where the natural resources were. If her preferred wood was around here, he'd know where to find it.

"And going with me to find wood is less boring?" Ayla questioned, arching her brow in the process. Aram stared at her with pursed lips, and she sighed. "Fine, I'll go with 'suya," she stated. He smiled, bowed in Tatsuya's direction, and departed.

"To answer your question, yes, yew," she spoke. "They make better bows than most other woods, especially long bows," she continued, glancing at him for a second before shifting her gaze outwards. She narrowed her eyes slightly before turning her gaze back to him.

"So, I guess that means you're leading the way," she stated, arching a brow at him.

He shrugged. “Sure. Though it's weird to walk single file." Instead, he dropped in roughly even with her, leading by occasionally shifting direction rather than by walking in front. Since the grove was a few miles away and they were simply walking, it was probably going to take a while. He didn't much mind.

“Didn't know you made your own weapons," he observed, shooting her a glance from the corner of his eye. “Did someone teach you, or did you pick it up on your own somehow?"

"Correction, I make my own bows," she began, shaking her head lightly. "I had someone teach me a long time ago," she continued, glancing up to meet his gaze. "I broke them too often and I didn't exactly have the patience to wait for my order to be filled. Some of the blacksmiths had other orders to fill, and mine would always get pushed last. The one good bow I had," she paused, narrowing her eyes.

"I ended up breaking over an alpha," she snorted, as if she were remembering the incident. "He had me in a grip and I had to drive it through his eye to get him to drop me. They don't like things in their eyes, apparently," she continued, a smirk growing on her face as she did.

"Speaking of which," she began, glancing back up at him, "How are you holding up? I don't speculate any of this has been easy on any of you."

His automatic reaction was denial, but he stopped himself just before he gave voice to it. Instead, Tatsuya sighed, exhaling another cloud of smoke. “Honestly? It's not that hard on me, compared to the others." Reiko was struggling with it the most emotionally, Kentaro the most with what it meant for his control. The others were all dealing with various levels of physical strain; maybe a few of them worried for the village itself as well, but Tatsuya wasn't going to do that until something actually happened to it. Why worry when he could just prevent the damage he'd be worried about?

“None of the fights have been anything I can't handle, and while it's fuckin' annoying to go watch an oni nest for hours while we wait for the gear, it's not beyond my abilities or anything." He shrugged.“The worst part is the hunger. If we're not that active, comparatively, we can survive on less. When we're doing hard work like this, or someone gets injured... it's a strain on Reiko and a strain on the rest of us by extension."

She furrowed her brows, as if she were just realizing something. "You all use Reiko as a source," it didn't sound quite like a question when she spoke. "I suppose when you don't have other options, it would make sense. I don't see why you all don't use each other. You're going... when we go to clear out this nest, you all are going to need to be at your best. If..." she paused in her words for a second, and her steps. She quickly caught back up with him, though, before he could stop.

"Look, don't take this the wrong way or anything, but," she began, glancing up at him. There was something behind her eyes. Determination, maybe? "I said I would help in any way I could. If you need an alternate source for now, at least until Reiko or whoever is not so strained, I can help," she stated. Her expression softened for just a second before she shook her head.

"It's not like I'll turn into one of you, so I don't run the risk a human would," she snorted softly.

Tatsuya's mouth pulled to the side. Could she have made the offer in a less interesting or less-attractive way? He really doubted such a thing was possible. He hated when people did things out of some misplaced sense of obligation or vague and general benevolence.

“We might, except..." He pushed a breath through his nose. It was difficult to explain this in terms outsiders would understand; he'd doubted his dad would have bothered to share all the gritty details. “Well, first of all, we all keep too many secrets from one another to trust each other that much. She's the only one willing to let the rest of us see her memories and all that." If feeding on someone didn't have that little side effect, their lives might be a little easier.

Of course, there was still a problem. “And it's not as simple as getting along better, either." Tatusuya debated just telling her, but he wasn't sure he wanted her to know, in truth. It seemed like... like he might actually care what she thought if he told her. That was bizarre in and of itself.

"Siblings don't get along, that's nothing new. Siblings have secrets, and again, that's nothing new. You're talking to someone whose brother does nothing but keep secrets. Nothing is ever simple, I learned that a long time ago," she stated, furrowing her brows. "But if it's something that Reiko doesn't mind doing, then I've got nothing to say on that subject."

"Like I said, don't take it the wrong way, but if it helps Reiko out, then I'll gladly help too. But hey, it's an offer, not something I'm saying you have to do. I can't force you to do anything you didn't want to do," she spoke, shrugging her shoulders in the process.

Siblings keeping secrets might not be anything new, but he seriously doubted her brother had ever plotted to murder her. Whether the same could be said of Daichi or Jirō, for example, was an open question. He also doubted that the same act that could reveal those secrets could give them actual physical control of one's body in the future, as it could if he took someone's blood. Tatsuya didn't bother making the point. She'd think what she wanted to; it wasn't really any concern of his.

“Enticing as the prospect is," he said instead, referring to her offer, “I'm not interested in favors. Now if you ever decide it's something you want we can revisit this discussion. I am reliably informed that it's a rather pleasant sensation, in the right circumstances." He certainly had a lot of empirical evidence to this effect, though he did not himself make a habit of letting people take his blood.

She laughed. "And if I said yes?" she replied, arching her brow almost in a challenging manner. She rolled her eyes, though. "As appealing as your offer may be, I'm simply afraid I'm too boring, remember?" she stated, and pursed her lips somewhat. It almost looked like she was thinking about something, but she didn't say anything for a few minutes.

"Look, Tatsuya," she began, actually using his first name. "I wasn't offering it as a favor. I don't expect anything in return if I did do this, and I'd make the same offer to Tsubasa and Kentaro. You three are, probably, the only ones I like enough to do that for," she stated, though oddly, her face tinged slightly. It was a little more noticeable against the pallor of her skin.

"Now I feel kind of stupid for saying it out loud like that."

He snorted softly. “It's not the incursion of a debt I'm trying to avoid. If it's a matter of generosity at all, it's still nothing I want." He frowned. He supposed there was a more straightforward way to say it. “What I mean is, if you're doing it out of some kind of altruistic motive, or because you simply want to help, you're still doing a favor, you see? It's an imposition, however minor. To be blunt: I don't want it if you don't want it." He put an obvious emphasis on the second use of the word, then shrugged.

“But if it pleases you to ease the burden, do consider offering to one of the others. They may not see things quite the same way I do." Though he suspected they would. It was a rather intimate sort of thing, taking blood from a person, inherently charged with a certian meaning that didn't correspond exactly to the categories other creatures had.

"If you say so," she stated, shrugging her shoulders. "And I shall. It's not that it pleases me, 'suya. It's the fact of knowing I can help where no one else can. I am, by nature, not a generous creature. Never have been, never will be. What I want... isn't something I can have. It was something I could never have," she spoke softly. She seemed to close the subject off after that.

He didn't press.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Aram


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It was the first time since Sayuri's, that he'd had a vision. It disturbed him greatly by what he saw. He didn't like it. Swallowing thickly, Aram speared a hand through his hair, smoothing out the strands as best as he could. What he'd seen, the way the film of death coated their eyes, it made him sick. It always made him sick. Seeing death as often as he did, did not make him inured to it. He would never become accustomed to it. He might have spoken freely of it, but he did not enjoy doing so. The only thing that brought him comfort at the moment, was knowing that he hadn't seen her among the dead.

That didn't mean she wasn't dead, too, though. She could very well die in the excursion of the nest. He wasn't sure why that produced such a negative reaction in him. The very thought that she might die, saddened him greatly. He hadn't seen himself among them, either, but he knew he could die just as easily. If he didn't know any better, he would have said that the vision would have caused him to cry. He can't remember the last time he'd wept, though. Not even when Amon had died, did he weep. Ayla had done so for the both of them, but he supposed he'd lost his ability after the first millenia.

Sighing softly, he shook his head. The place they had met their demise was not at the nest. He could see that much, but he wasn't certain the actual location. He shook the thought from his mind. He didn't need to focus on that right now. The weapons would be ready tomorrow, and they could go in and eradicate it. Perhaps then, he could examine it without the threat present. For now, they should make sure they were all prepared. He knew Ayla was training on the days she wasn't watching the nest, and if he remembered correctly, she was also helping Kentaro out, somehow.

He smiled at that. She was involved with them so much so, that he could see the positive effects that had on her. She was... happier, and she smiled more. He didn't think she'd ever be able to smile so genuinely anymore. Pushing that thought out of his mind, he continued walking through the hallways. He couldn't remember who was on watch, right now, but they would be needing relief, soon.

All halls in the house eventually passed through or beside the garden. When this one did, he moved out onto an engawa. The smell of the blooming flowers immediately strengthened; at this time of year, it seemed to permeate all through the castle, but of course it was most concentrated here.

It quickly became obvious that he was not the only one out here. Reiko stood near the bank of the small pond near the center, her back to him. She looked to be in a white sleeping kimono, clear indication that she had gone to bed at some point and perhaps found herself unable to sleep. She had her hands held out, palms-up, to either side. Rich, honey-colored light collected in each, flowing up her fingers and drifting upwards in the characteristic spherical shapes, like tiny stars. As they moved away from her, they grew to the normal size, floating on the soft nighttime breeze.

She must have heard him, or perhaps smelled him, because she turned to look at him over her shoulder. Her half-smile quickly became a concerned frown, and she dropped her hands, several more unformed motes of light flaring and winking out in the air around her. Reiko tilted her head. “Aram-sama, you... you had a bad dream, didn't you?" She gave no indication of how it was she knew that.

"I'm afraid it wasn't a dream," he spoke honestly. He had promised he would tell her the things he could not tell the others because unlike them, she did not pose the most threat. How she was a threat in any way possible, he wasn't sure. "It was a vision," he continued. He didn't understand why it felt nice, being able to tell someone of his dreams, his visions, and not have them change in any way. At least, he didn't think they would change. Reiko was his strange anomaly in the world, and he wasn't entirely sure what that meant, yet.

He coughed awkwardly at the thought. He hadn't meant to put it that way. He sighed softly, though. "And what of you, Reiko-san? Could you not sleep?" he inquired. He'd explain in more detail if she truly wanted to know what the vision was about, but as it was, he didn't want to say anything if he didn't have to.

She seemed to accept what he was willing to say without pressing. At his question, however, she sighed softly, and shook her head. “This one... usually has difficulty sleeping at this time of year," she confessed. “This is the season Tou-chan died." The way she said the words was plain, but also managed to convey a deep, lingering melancholy. It wasn't the kind of sadness of fresh tears, but the one that came with a hollow ache in the chest.

Her eyes sought and found the ground beneath them for a moment. Her feet were bare; her toes curled into the soft earth beneath them. Like everything else about her, they were delicate-looking; dainty, really. To look at her, she almost could have been made of paper and silk, especially as vulnerable as she seemed right now, with faint dark circles under her eyes. She looked drawn, as though she hadn't been eating well in addition to having trouble sleeping.

He sighed softly, but did not offer any comfort. He didn't know how, even if he wanted to. Which was strange in of itself. Perhaps because she was vulnerable right now, and he hated seeing people that way. It didn't matter who it was, the look of vulnerability was something he didn't know if he could help with. He knew enough, though, that it was sometimes necessary. To be vulnerable like that was a way of coping, but he couldn't be too sure.

"I miss him, too," he finally spoke. It was the only thing he could offer. He missed his brother dearly, and there was nothing in the world he would not offer to bring him back. But as it was, it simply wasn't meant to be. "The last time I had seen him was before you were born," he confessed lightly. He knew of her birth, because he'd kept in touch with Amon. He had known when all of Amon's children were born, even without having been told, however; he had never actually seen them except Tatsuya.

"But he was happy, I think. He had a family he loved, who loved him, and I think... when he died, it was doing so protecting something he loved," but he couldn't be certain of that, either. He hadn't seen Amon's death, and it had come as a surprise to him when it had happened.

“This one was there," she said slowly, lifting her eyes but redirecting them to a rosebush. The flowers on it were such a deep red they were almost purple; quite the horticultural achievement. “But this one does not remember what happened. All this one remembers is leaving for a trip with Tou-chan. Our cart was hit by something, and this one was thrown from it. Then this one's memory is blank."

She exhaled; he could hear the breath shake. “The next thing this one remembers is Suya's face. This one had never seen him look worried before. He kept touching this one's face, as though he wasn't quite sure this one was real." She lifted a hand to her own cheek and touched it there for a moment, then shook her head. “This one does not believe I was knocked out. It is more like... this one's memory used to be there, and is gone now. Like Tou-chan."

She blinked, as if returning to the present, and smiled thinly at him. “Forgive this one for talking about such lonely things, Aram-sama. It must be the night air."

Aram frowned deeply. Her memory was gone? She had a memory, but somehow, it disappeared. He felt something tug at his chest, and he couldn't explain it. It was almost as if he knew what had happened, how her memory came to be lost, however; he also felt the uncertainty of it all. Perhaps it wasn't the case. Perhaps something else took her memory, however; he couldn't be certain. He, instead, smiled in her direction.

"There is nothing wrong with talking about such things, Reiko. It is how we remember those we love," he spoke to her. He moved so he was standing a little closer to her, but did nothing further. It would be improper, after all, if he stood too close.

"If we did not, we would never be able to move forward. And in the end, that's all we can really do, is move forward," he knew that, perhaps, better than most people. It didn't matter for him in the end; he just had to keep moving forward. At one time, it had been enough.

“This one supposes so," she said, pursing her lips slightly. She didn't seem to mind that he'd moved closer, though she'd obviously noticed; she shifted so that they were both looking out over the pond again. It was quite still, only occasionally disturbed when the breeze picked up, or when a petal from the sakura tree made it far enough to drop into the water. The same breeze stirred their hair; hers less so considering it was much heavier from the length.

After a few moments, she suddenly smiled, huffing softly. “You know, Tou-chan used to tell this one stories about you and Ayla-san. Except in the stories, you were Hizashi-sama and Ayla-san was Tsuki-sama." She glanced up at him from the corner of an eye. “Most of them were very good stories; quite heroic and wonderful. But he also told this one that one time, Hizashi-sama was mistaken for Hizashiko-sama." It was about the politest way possible of implying that he'd once been mistaken for a woman.

He could feel his face warming, just slightly. "I was, uh, mistaken for a woman, yes. It... was mostly Amon's fault," he stated. He pursed his lips as he remembered the incident. "My hair... it was longer at the time," he spoke, pointing to his hip to indicate the length. "We all had long hair at one point, but I had yet to cut mine. There was... an inebriated man who thought I was..." he could feel his face getting warmer still as he tried to finish that sentence.

"He thought I was a beautiful woman and tried to take me home with him," he frowned slightly. "Amon didn't help. He encouraged it."

He was certain his face was the color of Reiko's eyes at the moment.

It didn't help that she started giggling. By comparison to the uproarious laughter Amon and Ayla had shared every time they reminded him of the incident, it was quite tame, but there was no mistaking that she was extremely amused. She tried to conceal it with a cough at first, but that only worked for a couple of seconds before the giggling made itself obvious.

“S-sorry," Reiko said, clearly exerting effort to constrain her mirth. “Th-this one is sorry. Ahem." She cleared her throat softly, having reined her amusement into a bright smile. She tilted her head sideways at him, shaking it for a moment and folding her hands behind her back. She seemed to be scrutinizing his face, though why she did that wasn't immediately clear.

In the end, she shook her head, more definitively this time. “If it helps," she offered mildly, “this one does not see it. Well, that is..." She cleared her throat again, looking a little pink herself. “If you'll permit this one the observation, Aram-sama is indeed very beautiful, but not in a way that this one thinks looks like a woman."

He could feel the warmth on his face growing even as she had laughed, however; he knew without a doubt that, if anyone saw him, they could tell he was embarrassed. He glanced away from her for a second, and coughed softly. He wasn't entirely sure how to take that, really. People had complimented him before, but he wasn't like Amon or Ayla had been. Sure, they all took their compliments in different manners, but Aram was always uncomfortable with them. Even before the incident. Instead, he shook his head and offered Reiko a polite bow.

"Thank you, Reiko. I believe you are too," though it was a little too late to take back what he'd just said. "I mean... you are beautiful as well, and..." he should probably stop talking about now. This was Amon's daughter he was talking to, after all.

“Not in the way a woman looks?" she finished, snorting softly. It was a rather unfortunate implication, but she seemed to take it in stride. “You don't have a lot of practice giving compliments, do you, Aram-sama?"

"No I do not," he answered swiftly. He was just glad she hadn't taken it poorly. He hadn't meant to imply that she didn't look beautiful in the way a woman looks. If anything... he stopped that train of thought, and coughed awkwardly into his hand, keeping his gaze from her. He wasn't sure if he could look her in the face, now.

"It is not often that I can give them," he spoke honestly, still keeping his gaze from her face.

“Then this one will feel special, today." There was something almost sad in the words, softly-spoken as they were, but before he could so much as consider why that might be, her tone brightened again. “And this one promises not to tell Ayla-san about any of it. It can be our second secret, okay?"

"Thank you," because if Ayla knew... he'd never hear the end of it.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Tatsuya Minamoto Character Portrait: Reiko Hino Character Portrait: Ayla Character Portrait: Aram


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#, as written by Aethyia
Between them, they'd decided it was best to leave at least one of them behind when they made the excursion to the nest of oni. Deciding who it was to be was a bit more of a problem, but in the end they'd collectively decided that Tsubasa was the best choice, since he commanded the household garrison and could moblize them fastest in the event of an emergency.

Of course, such an emergency would be the result of the rest of them failing to kill the oni in the nest, and if they did, the garrison's fifty or so humans and solitary vampire were hardly going to succeed. Their instructions were to evacuate all of the townspeople within the walls of the castle, where they would be safest from oni attack due to the fortifications.

Tou-chan had not built his home like a man who'd forgotten his old enemies; it should hold.

Reiko couldn't let herself think too much about that though. Failure was something she could hardly contemplate. If they failed, death would be the lucky end. The other alternatives were horrifying enough to turn her stomach and make her feel nauseated—she dared not linger on them beyond acknowledging that primal fear was part of what would drive her in this battle. She had to accept her fear, or else it could incapacitate her at the worst moment, so she acknowledged it and pushed it aside in the same thought.

Her new sword was a heavy weight on her hip. She'd practiced with it this morning, to get a feel for its heft and balance. It was not nearly as familiar as her old one, of course, but it was the only thing she had that was guaranteed to work. Unlike her brothers', her abilities were not really combative. Certainly not especially useful against an oni.

Beside her. Tatsuya laid a hand on her head, silently offering strength and support. She leaned into the touch for a moment before it was removed. It was time to go.

Aram was standing to her side for a moment, observing his own weapon, it seemed. He seemed more familiar with it, perhaps because he hadn't had to have one made for him. His appeared to be the same one he'd carried with him wherever he went. It must have been made from bone as well. Ayla had a new bow, and a quiver full of arrows at her back. She, too, had a pair of blades attached to her side, but they weren't the size of a katana or wakizashi. They were tantō she'd had made. The blades, themselves, wouldn't necessarily be long to pierce the side of an oni, so perhaps she had them for another reason?

"Alright, you all know what you're up against," she spoke, turning her attention to all of them. "I'm not going to give you some bullshit rally talk, but I will say this," she continued, pausing only momentarily, "don't get cornered."

She didn't say anything after that. Aram didn't say anything, either. He remained silent, but his lips were pursed into a fine line. Ayla spared him a glance before turning her attention back to them.

"If you all don't have any last-minute questions, lets get going. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we'll probably have more answers."

Reiko nodded. The eight of them moved out, immediately slipping into a running pace. They moved slightly slower than usual out of deference to the fact that Ayla was not as fast, though Aram seemed to have no trouble keeping pace. Though the nest was a few miles from the castle, they'd reached it within three minutes of their initial departure.

They drew to a stop a safe distance away. Jirō caught her eye. “Reiko, if you would?"

She nodded. As the one with the kunoichi for a mother, Reiko was better at moving quietly than most of them, and her small size helped her stay under cover. From her obi, she withdrew several small smoke bombs, slotting them between her fingers. The cat mask she wore would help filter the smoke if she accidentally inhaled any of it, but she didn't plan even on that much.

By herself, she crept closer to the nest. It was located within a cave near the outlying edge of the forest. She couldn't smell any oni wandering around outside, but there were definitely some in there. Strategically, it was better to confront them while they were confused and disoriented, and dispatch as many as possible before they recovered. That would mean fighting all the rest at once afterward, which was dangerous, but they had little choice without knowing the exact number. Between them, they'd seen at least five different ones, but whether that was all of them or not wasn't totally clear.

Once she was close enough to the cave's entrance, she struck the wick-lighters on her fingers together, lighting all the bombs in quick succession. She threw all of them in at once with a sharp toss, putting them as deep in the cave as she could get them. They needed to smoke them out, after all. Pursing her lips, she followed up with a flashbomb, hoping to blind at least a couple of them for a longer duration, then fled the area back to where her family and the other two were.

The last thing she needed was to meet them all by herself.

“Here they come," Daichi muttered under his breath, drawing his katana. He spared her a nod, but seemed mostly content to ignore everyone else. Reiko saw Takahiro step slightly closer to him; doubtless Taka intended to protect him if he did anything reckless, like refuse assistance from the rest of them.

The first oni emerged from the treeline in front of them, red-skinned and about eight feet tall. It clutched at its eyes and bellowed its displeasure for all to hear. Kentaro went for it immediately; Jirō followed in his wake, a kodachi in either hand.

The next was almost forest-green, hard to see because of how well it blended against the background. Daichi charged, Takahiro right on his heels.

The one after that was a pale blue color, and slightly taller than the first by a foot. Aram moved first before Ayla. He moved with the fluid grace of water, seemingly serene and just flowing with each strike he made, with each strike he deflected. His face was, oddly, pulled into one of neutrality. He didn't appear worried, scared, excited, or anything for that matter. It was a strange look on his face. Ayla looked like she wanted to jump in to help, however; another oni emerged.

It was a deep orange color, and slightly smaller than the first. It stood about seven feet tall, and made its way towards Aram. Ayla, however, managed to direct its attention to her. Her arrow didn't seem to pierce anything, and seemed to bounce off of it. She didn't look concerned about it, and instead, kept firing her arrows. When she had its full attention, she darted in, sinking one of her tantō's into his back. There, she seemed to curl into its back, and drove the other tantō in, to keep herself in position.

The oni Aram was currently with, however, seemed to be growing frustrated at its lack of connecting hits. Aram still didn't look too worried about it, though. If anything, he looked to be studying its pattern, the way it moved, and how it was moving. He looked intrigued. Perhaps he was trying to figure something out?

There was little choice but to leave them to it. Because what seemed to be the last of them appeared then, and he was considerably bigger than his kin. At a whopping fifteen feet, he was still smaller than the one Kentaro had killed, but clearly still a danger. He also looked least-affected by the smoke and chaos, honing in on a target immediately.

He chose Ayla, and that was when Reiko and Tatusya moved. He was faster to react and got there first, sharpened sword cutting a thick line across the oni's ribcage. That certainly got his attention, and he swung his massive, horned head for her brother. Reiko interfered then, moving in behind it and slicing low, attempting to hamstring the creature.

Her blade cut reasonably well, but her strength was not quite up to par, and though she'd injured him, he was still able to put weight on the leg. Howling his indignation, the oni swung one fist for Tatsuya, perhaps to occupy him, and kicked out with his other leg towards her. Reiko dodged, but he changed his trajectory in midair, clipping her hip with a heavy blow.

The bone shattered, sending pain splintering through her whole side; she pulled in a sharp breath and fought back, slashing again, though this time she missed. She heard Tatsuya snarl; either he wasn't taking her injury well or something else had made him angry. The air around her chilled, dropping probably about twenty degrees within the space of seconds.

The others were still fighting; she had to pull her weight here.

She could hear Ayla snarl in the same fashion as Tatsuya had, however; it was hard to tell if it was for Reiko's sake, or something else. Ayla seemed busy with her oni, driving the tantō into the oni's back as if she were climbing it. Once she managed to get to his shoulders, she managed to settle herself there, and quickly pulled her bow and an arrow. The arrow, even from this distance, was different. The way it gleamed, it looked like it was one that was specifically made. Perhaps she'd had a few bones fashioned into arrowheads? That seemed to be the case when she fitted the arrow to the bow, and released it into his head.

The creature roared, painfully, but it did not go down. Instead, he reached over his shoulders, and grabbed Ayla. She hissed when he did not release her, and instead, seemed to squeeze. There was a popping sound, and from the look on Ayla's face, and the short scream that escaped her, it was apparent that it crushed her ribs. She manuevered the tantō, though, into the creature's hand, using the second one to split the back open. He immediately dropped her, and she landed on her knees. It was apparent that she was in pain, but she pushed forward.

Aram, on the other hand, still looked like he was studying his opponent. The oni had yet to lay a blow on him, and Aram kept on the defensive, deflecting blows where he could, and dodging them when it looked like he couldn't. He seemed to have come to a conclusion since he pushed forward, striking the oni's hand as it landed on the ground with its club. It howled, but only for a sort second. It was silenced thereafter, and it became apparent why. Aram's blade was sticking out of its ribcage, and the oni dropped to its knees. Without missing a beat, Aram pulled his blade out and flicked it across the oni's neck as it went down, effectively severing its head. He was by Ayla's side seconds later.

"You're getting rusty, Ayla," he simply spoke to her, though it sounded in good nature, the grim look on his face spoke otherwise. Ayla merely growled at him, but they both moved in on the oni. She was moving slower, perhaps to accommodate for her injuries, while Aram went back into the defensive position. He kept the oni's attention on him, as it tried to defend against the both of them.

To her left, Daichi and Takahiro had discovered that their opponent had some form of ability to breathe a noxious-looking gas of some kind. Both of them had pulled on their masks, though Takahiro was moving more slowly than he should be, forcing Daichi to make up the difference. They were otherwise mostly unharmed; she could smell some of Daichi's blood, but not enough that she was seriously concerned. He'd probably caught a glancing blow from a claw.

Jirō and Kentaro had already carved one of their foe's arms off at the elbow. That was quite a feat, considering the toughness of the skin and bones there. With only one arm, it was resorting a lot more to stomping the ground. It seemed to have some form of terrakinesis, because doing so produced shockwaves and a few small fissures in the ground, nearly knocking Reiko off-balance despite the distance. Fortunately, both of her brothers avoided the strikes with skill and obvious deliberate patience; like Aram, they were not especially quick to go for a fatal blow, but slowly wore away at it.

Tatsuya was rather another matter. He lunged for the oni, slashing at it again with his sword and again drawing blood. This time, however, he lifted the blade and ran his tongue across the flat side, scowling presumably at the taste of its blood.

But she knew he hadn't done it merely to be intimidating, or because he was hungry. Her suspicion was confirmed when the oni's fist simply stopped in midair, his whole body locking up when he attempted to hit Tatsuya. His muscles trembled and strained against the force holding him in place, but he could not move.

All of Reiko's brothers had the ability to puppet someone with their blood if they'd consumed it, but Tatsuya was by far the best with it. Perhaps because he could also, if necessary, pull around the water inside a body, giving him much more to grip on, so to speak. His eyes glowed with a touch of gold; he locked them on the oni, otherwise utterly still.

“Reiko," he said.

“Yes," she replied, knowing what question had been implied without the need for him to say it.

Ignoring the pain still in her hip, Reiko backed up a few paces and charged, jumping at the end of her run. Rotating herself in midair, she built strength and momentum for her strike, which cut across the back of the oni's neck with jarring force, leaving a deep wound. To make sure it was sufficient, she thrust on her way back down, sliding the blade between his ribs and piercing his heart.

Warm blood spattered her face, spraying out in a fine mist from the artery near his armpit. She tried to ignore the feeling and all the complicated things it awoke in her, keeping her mouth firmly shut and her breathing as steady as possible.

With a short gesture, Tatsuya pulled the oni's blood out of its body, leaving it slightly shriveled-looking and tossing the fluid aside onto a bare spot on the ground. Without his power holding it in place any longer, it fell, just as the other two her brothers fought did the same. That left only the one.

The one Ayla and Aram were dealing with, however, seemed to be slowing. Either it was getting tired, or something else was causing it to slow. It paused in its attacks, temporarily leaving Ayla and Aram to do the same. They both stared at it as it stared at its fallen brothers. It didn't move, and neither did the other two. All three seemed to be holding a staring contest, and it wasn't until Aram flicked his blade did they move again. This time, however, the oni was much faster, as if using something to fuel its speed.

It became apparent that this one was capable of manipulating air, as slices appeared on both Ayla and Aram's faces and arms. Aram's cuts healed almost immediately, but Ayla's didn't look to be having the same effect. Perhaps her healing factor was just slower than the rest of theirs? It was apparent from the way she was breathing, too. Her ribs were probably still broken, and she looked to be having trouble breathing. She glanced at Aram, though, and they both went in.

She drew her bow, cringed slightly, before releasing an arrow to capture the oni's attention. When she had it, it fixed most of its abilities towards her, causing her to take most of the damage before Aram was able to go in for the final blow. Like the one before it, it fell, its head rolling a few feet away from it. Aram flicked the blood off of his blade, and sheathed it, but not before glancing towards Ayla.

"You and I have much to discuss, Ayla, when we return," he simply spoke, his lips pulling into a deep frown. He looked almost upset, as if he knew the reason why she was as battered and bloodied as she was. Knowing her skill, she could have easily avoided most of those wounds. She merely furrowed her brows at him, and almost seemed to glare. Aram paid no mind to it, apparently, as he turned his attention to the others.