A/N: Frustrated at the erratic and postponed manga chapter updates, I took a break from FYGK. For six years. After finding this old story in my archive, I've decided to give it, and the series, another chance. My knowledge is outdated, so forgive me if something isn't up to canon. Chapter three won't take nearly as long, promise.
Chapter II – Wrath of Wind
- - - Uruki - - -
You always hear stories about wounded soldiers waking to cool compresses at the hands of young beautiful maidens. How the maidens are gentle and doting and soft-spoken. The soldiers gradually recover, help their maiden's village with some insurmountable task, and win their hands in marriage.
Those stories are full of it.
The world swam slowly back to focus. Everything was on its side. My temples throbbed, the left worse than the right. I realized I was lying in the middle of the road. Snow had drifted down around me and I was covered in a thin dusting. I had been unconscious for hours. The sun hung low in the sky, chased by evening shadows. My fingers and nose were numb. The left side of my face was pressed to cold earth and I tasted dirt.
That girl. Takiko.
I sat up, groaning. The road spun and I leaned forward, cradling my head. Pain throbbed where she had hit. She'd held nothing back and I blinked spots of blur away.
I rose gingerly.
Get it together Uruki.
I went to retrieve Souren's sword, but it wasn't there. Whirling in a circle, I saw only white. No horse. No sword. No footprints.
She must have left before the weather changed.
"Thief!" I wiped snow from my armor, wishing for something to punch. "I'll have to transform to find her."
Our powers were reserved for dire situations. Or arguments about weapon preferences – which were equally paramount in my opinion. The daimyo wanted them kept hidden. Tomite, Hikitsu and I were housed in separate quarters and a different estate to ensure such.
I could smell the wind in my normal form, but tracking at a distance was difficult.
"What do I do when I catch her?" I squeezed the bridge between my eyes. "It's not like I can just parade into town."
I beckoned the wind to my side. It rushed over, swirling and filling the air with sound. My armor grew large as my frame slimmed, and my perspective dwindled to match a new height.
As a woman, everything fit different. It always took a few moments to adjust. There was extra space in places where none had been before, and new pressure where curves filled in. Under my almost-gaudy Tokagawa breastplate, tight across my chest, my slighter shoulders left a bulky overhang. I retied my obi automatically, cinching it tight around small hips. My hair was the last to grow, and I felt it stretch far down my back.
It had been seven years since I'd discovered my birth defect, but it still felt strange. I was left in the skin of another, living as someone else.
The snow began to fall again. I let it pat softly around me, blinking flakes from my too-long lashes. Even my eyes were changed.
Dawning hit. The daimyo hadn't chosen me for this assassination from my skill alone. Why hadn't I realized it sooner?
I quickly yanked the string binding my hair. Long brown waves fell to my face, covering bruised temples and a swollen jaw. I could pass for a clumsy girl who had fallen on a patch of hidden ice.
Lifting my chin, I sniffed the wind. Her scent hit me immediately. It almost had a taste. "Got you."
- - - Takiko - - -
My side hurt. A lot.
I cursed into the horse's flank. The animal turned to look at me. "What?" I brushed him harder. "Don't give me that face. Your saddle was plated in silver. You'll get a new one."
The horse continued to stare.
"You wanna join it? I don't think that trader has left town."
He returned to his hay.
"Thought so," I finished brushing and grabbed a blanket by my feet. The warm pallet would protect him from the worst of the snow. I glanced up to dark clouds. A storm was coming.
"Takiko-san!" A familiar voice called across Morioka's square.
I turned, plastering on a smile. "Oikawa," I stopped my shoulders from sinking. "How are you?"
He ignored the question. "I came as soon as I'd heard," the young man eyed the red spreading across my hip. "Are you alright?"
I looked down in what hopefully was surprise. "Oh! My bandages must be bleeding through!"
What bandages? That saddle hadn't planned on selling itself.
Oikawa took in my pale cast and the shake I couldn't quite hide in my legs. Standing was becoming an effort.
I made my smile grow. "Don't worry. I'll rush home for clean ones right away."
He shook his head. "I don't understand how you got such a wound in the first place. Tree branches don't jab that deep."
"It's just a scrape."
"You shouldn't be so dismissive with your health Takiko-san," he frowned. "Let me examine—."
"No," I palmed the air, keeping him back. "Thank you. I'm fine."
I forced playfulness into my voice. "How am I supposed to get better at healing with you stealing every chance?"
Taking the bait, a wry grin edged Oikawa's face. "You make plenty for us both. I've never met a girl more prone to landing in the path of sharp objects."
My banter, as usual, turned truthful. "Another reason why I wouldn't make a good healer's wife."
His grin fell. Color filled his face and he coughed into his fist. "Yes, well… if you still think that's for the best."
"I do," I said softly.
God, I was an ass.
I cupped my hand gently over his. "You're too kind to me Oikawa-san," I rarely used titles and he knew that.
His blush changed to one of pleasure. The fact he responded to formality was further reinforcement of how different we were.
How different I was.
I bowed to leave.
He flipped his palm, taking my wrist. "I'll accompany you home."
"My hut is within sight," I gestured towards the dilapidated excuse for shelter. "And there are no threatening trees in my way."
He laughed, as I knew he would. "I insist."
I let him keep my hand. We walked in silence, our palms warm. Around us, Morioka got ready for night. Candles were lit and children were doled final calls to come inside. Quiet settled like a cover drawn to chin.
My hut loomed close and I reached again for smile. "Thank you Oikawa."
"Are you sure I can't—?"
"Quite," I gave a soft squeeze. "Goodnight."
He glanced once more to the browning red at my side. "If you need anything—."
"I know where to find you," the edges of my vision were starting to blur. I needed to lie down.
"Well…," worry cut deep lines in his brow. "Goodnight then."
"Yes, goodnight," I was already moving for the doorway.
He turned, shoulders slumped, and folded his arms into his hanten sleeves. I watched him cross the square, dejected. Over his shoulder, I caught a face I didn't recognize. A girl stood on the village periphery. She didn't move for any hut and looked lost. I squinted through the gloom, sure it was only my wound.
She must have felt my gaze. Her eyes met mine. Even at a distance, I saw instant hostility darken her features.
Why was she glaring?
I glanced back into the hut. A neat pile of bandages waited patiently by the banked fire.
They could sit a bit longer.
Squaring my shoulders, I marched from my step. I could stop two strangers from coming to my village this day.
The girl walked forward and we met in the middle. Stopping a handful of paces apart, we scrutinized each other, blatantly and without thought to courtesy. Despite the glare, I liked her already.
Her clothes were plain, but high quality. She was shorter than I and an angry set sharpened the curve of her face. Long hair fell unbound around her shoulders. There was something familiar about its color.
Brown was common enough, I guess.
Without exchanging greetings, her eyes found my hip. "You're bleeding."
Her voice seemed to hold regret. The girl bent her head, bangs shadowing eyes.
"I'm very clumsy," I tried catching her gaze.
"Clumsy?" Her chin fell lower. "That was made by a sword."
Surprise left my mouth in a gasp. Most women didn't know the difference between branch and blade. I recovered. "I was sparring and let my partner get too close."
"You don't spar with bokkans?"
Who was this girl? She spoke as I did. "What brings you to Morioka stranger?"
I noticed a smile beneath the bangs. "My name is Rimudo. I fled from Edo."
"The capital?" I tried to sound disinterested.
"I seek refuge."
Warning appeared in my gut. "Refuge? From what?"
She looked up. I must have imagined the animosity, because her eyes were afraid.
"From Tokugawa dogs who would have me killed for speaking my mind."
The warning evaporated and I told her story in my head. She was a girl who obviously knew what it meant to spar with swords. Like me. Maybe she hadn't liked what she saw in Edo and carelessly mentioned her disgust over too much sake. A conniving daimyo, thinking of earning favor, turned her in as a traitor. Now she ran from her home, displaced and alone.
"You're safe here sister," I let warmth into my voice. "Come, you must be tired."
Her mouth dropped. "You don't even know what I did. I could be a criminal on a murderous rampage!"
"Are you?" I indulged.
"Well… no," her eyes fell again. "But danger follows me."
I laughed, extending my arm. "Then at least the village can blame someone besides me."
She looked to my hand. I wiggled my fingers.
"Come on. I'm obviously in no shape to hurt you."
Her palm slid tentatively to mine.
"You see. Horses and men haven't crashed through the gate. You're fine," I pulled her to my side. "You can stay with me tonight. I'll hear about your journey tomorrow."
We began to walk and I couldn't keep the pain from my face. It was getting worse. Each step felt like teeth ripping and gnawing my side.
"Does it hurt?" The girl pointed with our linked hands to my hip.
"A little," I shrugged. "It was my own fault. My partner was better than I expected."
"Perhaps you were better than he thought too."
"No," the hut appeared through the darkness. "He went easy on me because of my sex. He didn't want to hurt a woman."
"How do you know?"
"I saw it," I reached out for my doorway. The soft wood took my weight and I felt my knees shake. They were about to go. "His eyes spoke plainly."
The girl grabbed my elbow. She supported the rest of me. "Was it the Tokugawa assassin I saw in the road?"
I froze. "He still lies there?"
She nodded. "I've got you. Let's go sit."
Without waiting for an answer, she pulled me inside.
- - - Uruki - - -
I had planned my story carefully. I would give my birth name, mention the shogunate as an enemy, and looked scared. I even practiced my voice wavering in all the right places. I had stashed my armor in a snow-covered bush and taken to the sky. Morioka was beneath me in moments.
I'd hidden in shadow, watching Takiko brush my horse. I moved closer when she spoke to a young man obviously in love with her. The wind carried their words and when he left I stepped into the open.
She was looking at the man, her face pained.
Did she love him too?
I watched him shuffle away, angry that he would just leave. Her injury was worse than she let on. He should have pushed more.
She saw me and our eyes met. She glanced behind her in indecision and then made her way forward. The girl who'd stolen my horse and sword, left me to die, and fought against the regime I'd built my whole life around, moved as someone impossibly fragile.
Her gait was slow and she leaned heavily on her good side. The limp worsened as she drew close, the distance taxing a last reserve.
I should have let her come the whole way. Relished each agonizing step.
I rushed to meet her.
Takiko looked me over, eyes sparked in curiosity. I zeroed in on her hip. The blood was almost black in the growing night. It didn't seem to be staunched at all and I realized she hadn't treated it yet.
She seemed to pause on my hair, a flicker of recognition in her stare.
"You're bleeding," I spoke as much to distract as to appease my conscience. Guilt hadn't been part of the story, but I bowed my head, unable to hide it.
"I'm very clumsy," she replied.
You're such a liar.
"That was made by a sword," I answered pointedly.
What was I doing? Let her lie. What did I care?
She mentioned a sparring partner.
"You don't spar with bokkans?" I didn't know why I was trying to catch her being deceitful. It didn't matter to my mission.
She huffed. "What brings you to Morioka stranger?"
I couldn't help but smile. She'd said the same thing when I was a man. Guess form didn't matter.
Now was the chance to stick to my plan. I gave my name and dropped the word 'fled', sounding unsure if I should disclose that much.
Takiko perked. "The capital?"
I was a genius. "I seek refuge."
She turned wary. "From what?"
I poured vulnerability into my voice. "From Tokugawa dogs who would have me killed for speaking my mind."
The delivery was perfect. Thought flashed in her face. Her gaze grew faraway, as if seeing my entire life before her.
A few more and I was in.
Takiko grinned. It lit up her whole face and held none of the bitter sadness from before. She called me sister with unabashed affection.
My stomach twisted. Had I gained her trust? Just like that? How was she supposed to defend herself when one well-placed lie crumbled every doubt?
"You don't even know what I did!" She needed to be better than this. I wasn't someone she could trust. "I could be a criminal on a murderous rampage!"
I couldn't look at her. I had cheated and it felt wrong.
Her palm hung between us. Exposed. Open.
"Come on. I'm obviously in no shape to hurt you."
I wanted to turn and leave. Souren would have been ashamed.
My hand took hers.
Her smile grew big. She joked of pursuers and pulled me forward.
We started walking and I felt her body tremble. She could barely stand. I braced some of her weight, trying not to make it obvious. She didn't notice.
Her breathing grew hard and her face drained of clinging color.
My mouth opened of its own accord. "Does it hurt?"
"A little," she admitted. "It was my own fault. My partner was better than I expected."
My jaw throbbed in answer.
So were you.
I said as much.
"No," she shook her head. "He went easy on me because of my sex. He didn't want to hurt a woman."
"How do you know?"
"I saw it," she grabbed the doorway. The tremble intensified. "His eyes spoke plainly."
I threw subtlety away and took her elbow. She slumped against me.
"Was it the Tokugawa assassin I saw in the road?"
Takiko stiffened. "He still lies there?"
Was that concern?
Probably worried I would return to exact revenge.
"I've got you," I pulled her from the door. "Let's go sit."
The hut was warm and full of weapons. Spears, daggers, and arrows rested in neat rows along the walls. I even spotted an axe propped in the corner. "Are all these yours?"
She nodded. "Some women collect herbs and baskets. I'm more practical."
Souren's sword had to be here. I helped her to the fire, setting her down gently. My eyes started to search as Takiko reached for a pile of bandages. She fumbled with the first roll.
"Could you help me Nii-chan?" She blushed. "My fingers are numb."
Something unnamed choked up my throat. I tried to swallow, but it thickened. "Of course," I managed. I took the bandage, unwinding it quickly.
Her hands fell to the obi at her waist. She had retied the broken ends my sword had made with a simple knot. I wondered if it was her only one. Again she struggled and I turned to stoke the fire. She didn't need an audience. I built up the flames until they danced high and began to look once more. My gaze passed over shadowed weapons in favor of a cluster of squat, round jars. I realized I was trying to find healing salves instead.
What was I doing?
"On the bottom shelf," her breathing was shallow. "Also leaves for fever."
I grabbed them with shaking fingers.
I turned back to her, still trying to untie the obi. Setting the clay pots down, I crouched before her. "May I?"
She continued to pull at the knot. "I can do it."
"Please?" My hands closed over hers.
I needed to stop.
This was not the plan.
Takiko relented and I undid the obi. Words like ethics and honor bombarded my insides and they grew to a roar as the folds of her kimono fell open. She shed layers, letting them slip down and pool around her. She sat, naked from the waist up, shivering in the new temperature.
This was the worst idea ever.
Holding no reservations in the presence of another woman, Takiko leaned over to reach for a large basin of water. Her breasts grazed my arm and I leapt back.
"Rimudo? Will you get me one of those leaves?" She nodded to the jars at my feet.
Her chest brushed again as the water basin came close. I fought down the red spreading in my face. Moving automatically, I pulled both stoppers and withdrew a brittle, old-smelling plant. Plucking the widest leaf, I handed it over. I forced myself to look no lower than her collar.
She placed the dried remedy on her tongue and I watched her chew.
I knew what was next. She didn't have the strength to clean and bind the wound herself. The roar droned through my senses, leaving everything buzzing with white noise. "Are you ready?" I pushed back my sleeves.
Takiko smiled gratefully. "Thank you sister. I owe you for this."
I dunked my arms wrist-deep in the basin. "No, you've offered me shelter without question. We're even."
I meant it. She may have left me to die, but I was about to touch her under false pretenses. Even if it was to save her thieving, little, life.
Takiko stretched, baring her side. Blood had caked the wound's edges, but it still oozed. I took a cloth hung over the bowl's side and edged forward.
She smiled. "I'm used to it. It's not the first time I've been an idiot."
I shook my head. "Why did you fight that guy?"
"Because I seem the only one with sense left in Japan."
I began to scrub gently, unsure how much she could take.
"Harder Rimudo. I've left it too long."
I scrubbed deeper.
"You think you have sense," I returned the cloth to water. "Yet this has bled for hours."
Takiko flinched as I scoured. "I had to get money for the children. They don't eat unless I feed them."
"No," she didn't falter at my assumption. "Orphans who live outside of town. They're scared of people."
"But not you?" I braced an arm behind her back. "Stop pulling away."
"Sorry," she straightened. "They were terrified when I met them."
Her face hung beside mine. Each sentence left warm breath on my shoulder.
We needed to keep talking. Talking was good.
"How did you gain their trust?"
"I slept outside their camp for two days. There was talk of large cats in the area."
Why was she this warm?
"And they've relied on you ever since?" My voice broke awkwardly.
Takiko clenched her jaw as I returned with more water. "Something like that," her forehead sunk to my shoulder. "You have a lot of experience with injuries Rimudo."
"I can be an idiot too."
She smiled against my skin. The contact made me jump.
"Are you alright?" She didn't lift her head. Her lips brushed me with each word.
I grit my teeth. "Yeah. Just worried about this," the cloth was stained red.
Takiko shifted against my collar. Her nose trailed more skin as she peeked down. The gash was clean, but the area around it remained bright pink.
"Infected," she nodded.
"Maybe you should take another of those leaves," I touched her neck with the back of my hand. "You feel on fire."
With effort, her arm rose. She palmed my face, fingers splayed across my jaw. "No warmer than you."
Her voice was losing strength. She was going to slip from consciousness.
"Hey!" I dropped the cloth and grabbed her with both hands. "Stay with me!"
I felt her eyes close.
"Takiko!" I shook her. She collapsed in my arms, the dancing fire beside us an audience to my transgression.
Worst of the worst ideas.