EDIT 03/06/2013: Edited out some spelling errors. Let me know if there's any more.
AUTHOR'S NOTE 1: I know it's ethical to warn your readers on what they are about to read, especially if the story is M-rated. However, if I provide too much information, it will ruin the surprise. Hence, please keep an open mind when you are reading this story. BEWARE: It may be rather complicated.
And do leave a comment if you have liked it.
AUTHOR'S NOTE 2: THERE IS NO GENDER-BENDING, despite that it may seem to be.
AUTHOR'S NOTE 3: This takes place in Edo, Japan between the years 1968 to 1869.
All other ANs will be in a separate chapter.
Disclaimer: I do not own the characters from Kuroko no Basket and also the poems used in this story.
Kuroko no Obake Monogatari Series
Book One: The Story of Blue
Setsugetsuka: The Fleeting Season (刹月花 ~儚くの季節~)
This was a tale that happened long, long ago in a faraway land.
This is a tale of love, a tale of friendship; a tale of betrayal.
This was not an ordinary folk tale that was simply passed on from person to person, from one generation to the next.
This was a tale that was told by no one, left to disappear within the flow of time just like ashes that are scattered and carried by the wind.
You who have chosen to read this lost tale, may it remain in your hearts.
It all began one night in the lands of a faraway island country of Japan, in a region once known as Edo. It was the time of the Meiji Era, where the 200-year isolation of the country under the Sakoku Policy was soon coming to its end.
With the rise of the Great Emperor Meiji, Japan has made itself known to the world. Masses of foreign ships now littered the harbours of Okinawa, bringing to this country an assortment of goods and items which the people never once knew existed.
What were once villages in the East were now towns and cities. Old buildings handcrafted from wood were torn down; replaced with new, modern ones of brick and stone. Many shops specializing in new Western goods opened; and the economy of the country started to prosper.
However, not everyone welcomed the change. With the instigation of the West, some sacrifices had to be made. And one of these sacrifices involved more than just the abolishment of a two-hundred year-old system. The time of the samurai and of the Bakumatsu was doomed to come to an end.
With modern ideals and advanced weaponry hailing from the West, swords have become outdated; powerless to the new machinery that the foreigners possessed. It took less time, effort and training to simply pull a trigger than to swing a sword.
What use was there for the samurai anymore?
One by one, groups formed by samurai are perishing; the time of samurai would soon be buried in the rest of Japan's history, along with the blood of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Our story begins with a group of friends who have gathered one winter night. They are all young men born of the hatamoto lineage, nobles who act as retainers to the lands on behalf of the Shogun, who have come to enjoy a few good rounds of food, liquor and political chatter with one another.
"It has been a while since have all gathered like this, has it not? How has everyone being doing?" Akashi Seijuurou, their host for the night, spoke as he raised his cup. "A toast to a good evening and to another wonderful gathering."
"It truly has been a while," Midorima Shintarou nodded in agreement. "Things have gotten busy out of late. After all, so much in this country is changing."
"True. They say the Eastern dragon is soon to be consumed by the Western Tiger; if the beast has not started feasting yet," Murasakibara Atsushi added while taking another gulp of his food. "I have heard that there were rumours going on in the palace out of late; regarding that his Highness the Emperor may be planning to get rid of the Bakufu soon."
"It's merely a rumour, is it not?" Kise Ryouta grinned as he turned his cup in hand in a clockwise motion, watching the sake swirl in the cup. "As a piece of advice, you better watch what you say, Murasakibaracchi. Those who are seen as opposing the revolution are said to have perished mysteriously during the night, as if they have been carried away by the God of Death. In fact, not even their corpses could be found."
"Who cares about that?" Aomine Daiki snorted; he looked as if he had a bit too much to drink. "The Bakufu has been around for so long; why get rid of it? It must some ploy to get rid of us nobles, I say!"
"Let's put this small talk of politics one side and enjoy our evening, shall we?" Akashi suggested, taking a small sip from his cup. "It is too rare that we all have time to spend an evening together, after all; even though we have known each other since our youth. In commemoration of our gathering this evening, I have prepared a special performance for all of you tonight."
Akashi snapped his fingers as a signal to his steward, who stood in a corner of the room, to start the preparations for the said performance.
The man gave a bow and excused himself to start on his given task.
"A special performance? That sounds interesting, Aka-chin."
"Indeed; I wonder what you have in store for us this year."
"That, my friends, is a secret that is yet to be revealed," Akashi flicked his wrist, his fan opening with a crisp sound. "Shall we share a poem or two while we wait?"
"I do not see any reason to object."
"Would you like to offer one, Shintarou?"
The green-haired man cleared his throat, once, before he recited:
"Mountains and plains all are taken by the snow nothing remains."
The remaining people gave a small applause.
"That was wonderful, Shintarou. Was that from Naito?"
"Indeed, it was. Would you like to offer a poem as well, Akashi-san?"
"Very well," Akashi fanned himself lightly for a few brief moments before snapping his fan shut.
As he drew a deep breath, he sighed:
"Yesterday, today yawning clouds hide the mountains usually clear: Snow flowers leaf the forest making me cold and bitter."
Another round of applause was offered as he finished.
"As expected from a well-read man such as you, to be able to recite one from such a well-known classic," Midorima praised, a smirk tugging on his lips.
"It was just something that I had read as a child; it is not something to be proud of."
"Akashi-sama," A steward interrupted, knelt down by the door. "The preparations are complete."
"Good. Let it begin, then."
The room grew silent as the paper doors of one corner of the room were opened. A young woman stood in the centre of the other room. She gave a slow bow before straightening up, remaining still.
Two sharp beats of the drum signalled the start of the performance, followed by the sound of the shamisen and the wooden flute.
The dance came to life, the woman moving to the harmonious tune. She held a fan in one hand; moving with fluid, graceful strides as she danced. It was as if she was one of the snowflakes drifting along the flow of the wind in the bleak winter sky; as if she were one with the kazahana.
The men watched the dance, their eyes taking in the graceful movements of the dancer and their ears the music that brought up their lively spirits despite the cold winter. However, there was one man who was more fixated on the performance as compared to everyone else.
Aomine Daiki could not take his eyes away, as if they have been captured by the bewitching figure of the young woman.
The sun had already set; the dark room was illuminated by the glow of the candles placed in the room. Even though the scene had been dyed in hues of orange, it felt as if he was seeing everything in its proper colours.
The winter colours of her kimono reminded him of the powder snow, with flecks of pale blue and grey on the immaculate white fabric. The obi itself was a light ash grey; a reminiscent of the clouds that hovered in the skies above.
Her long, light blue tresses were pinned up in an elegant style, secured with a clip of lacquered wood. Her bangs flowed down the sides of her face, the tips touching her shoulders gently.
The scarlet red of her painted lips stood out against her pale alabaster skin; it curved into a light smile that was beautiful, yet seemed to hide secrets unknown.
The colour of her eyes resembled that of clear skies, yet its gaze seemed to send chills of ice down his spine. They were half-lidded, giving an air of mystery. They were, to his opinion, absolutely captivating.
Mere minutes seemed to have passed like hours to the young noble. Slowly but surely, he felt himself more and more attracted to the beauty of the dancer.
No, it wasn't just her beauty that had caught his attention. It was more than that.
There was something about the air around her. Something about the way she moves. Something about the way she changes her expressions with the mood of the music.
There was something around her that had him hypnotised.
It was only with the sound of applause that he had realized that the performance had ended. The dancer gave another slow bow, as a way of thanking the gentlemen for watching her performance. She then excused herself, but not before giving Aomine a small smile, as if she had noticed the unwavering attention he was paying to her.
For the rest of the evening and for the rest of that winter, the subject of his every one of his thoughts was none other but that beautiful dancer.
Yes, he was drawn to her; bewildered, just like a moth to a flame.
The harsh winter storms had soon come and gone, and the blossoming of the blossoms of the cherry trees welcomed the lush spring of a new year.
Life was back to normal for everyone else.
As for Aomine Daiki, the things that were done day after day were almost the same. He would be rudely awakened by the housekeeper, have breakfast shoved down his throat by his mother and right after that be dragged out and about to various places around the town by his father for reasons that he couldn't be bothered to remember. They would return in the afternoons, where he would be forced to practice the art of the sword with Imayoshi-sensei until dinner. After that it would just be a long soak in the bath and he would head straight to bed, if he hadn't already fallen asleep in the comfort of the warm water, that is.
But tonight was different.
The daimyo's son, his cousin by blood, had invited him to his estate for dinner and a few rounds of sake while viewing the cherry blossoms.
Aomine wasn't keen on flower-viewing of any sort, since they would just wither and die eventually; but he was not allowed to turn down invitations from the daimyo and his immediate family. Not to mention that they always serve good quality sake at events like these.
Despite his father's insistence of having him travel there by a carriage, Aomine had decided to go there by foot. The weather was perfect for a stroll, plus the time taken to reach the daimyo's estate as only about ten minutes. He also had his katana with him at all times, so there wasn't much of a worry about getting mugged by some random rounin.
He was the great Aomine Daiki-sama, for heaven's sake! He was known for his great skill and swordsmanship! Only a fool would dare to come charging at him.
The evening had been, despite the annoying chatter of the young men gathered there, tolerably pleasant. Of course, the food and sake was excellent, but Aomine didn't dread every minute of the gather as much as he thought he would.
Still, he'd rather spend his evenings at Akashi's, whom had been like a brother to him since young. Who knows, he might be able to see that beautiful dancer again.
The moon was now at its peak, scattering its light across the town.
Aomine had just left the estate a short while ago, his face slightly flushed from the alcohol. He had his arms folded, hands tucked in the sleeves of his haori, as he hummed a little tune.
The street was quiet, a layer of fog blocking the road ahead. The only sound that could be heard was the scraping of the soles of his sandals on the ground.
Though the atmosphere seemed to be calm and peaceful, a little voice in Aomine's head was telling him that was something eerie about it. He couldn't seem to shake off the feeling that something was going to happen.
And it did.
The sound of charging footsteps were so light, he probably wouldn't have noticed if he had been less sober than he currently was.
He drew his katana quickly as he turned around, holding it in front of him to block the attack that was aimed at his chest. If there had been a delay in his reaction, he would have been a goner.
Whoever it was who had attacked him was planning to stab him in the chest.
A sharp, ear-splitting wail of metal scratching metal rang out of the tip of his assailant's blade made contact with his own.
The assassin soon broke this contact, retreating a few steps back. His katana was held in both hands, his pose defensive. He was watching Aomine carefully, as if he was carefully contemplating his next move.
The lower half of his face was covered by a dark mask which hid his features, but he also wore a cloth over his head. Aomine had thought it was strange. Why did he bother to go to such great lengths to hide his identity?
Could it be someone he knows?
No, it was not possible. Even amidst the fog, Aomine could see his eyes clearly. The colour if the iris was an unusual light blue-gold that seemed to glow in the dark, with pupils that were slit like an animal's. No one he knows has eyes like those.
But in those strange unfamiliar eyes he could see that was no trace of any emotion; they were the eyes of a cold-blooded killer.
"Are you a rounin? Or did someone send you?" Aomine questioned as he held out his sword, pointing it towards the assassin.
However, he gave no answer.
Aomine grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes. First the bastard attacked him, and now he chose to remain silent?
Just who the hell was this guy, anyway?
Then again, that wasn't the important matter at hand. He needed to focus; he needed to be prepared for the next move. There was no telling when he would strike again.
The seconds of silence ticked by, with Aomine growing more impatient and excited with each passing moment, despite the fact that his opponent was obviously serious in trying to take his life.
It had been a while since anyone managed to sneak up on him like that, especially when he was said to be the best swordsman in the region. Perhaps this masked assassin would provide him with a little challenge.
The hilt of his katana felt comfortable in his hand, as if it had belonged there. The fingers of his right hand were curled around it, gripping it tightly.
A breeze blew past, scattering the sand that had gathered on the ground.
And the assassin moved again.
He was so fast; Aomine could've sworn that he had all but disappeared from his sight.
"Where did he…?"
Aomine turned his body sharply as he felt a presence by his left. He raised his arm as he took a few steps back so as to prepare to block the oncoming strike, but he was a step too late.
He let out a low growl as he felt the sharp metal make its mark on the skin of this upper arm. However, he reacted quicker this time to take advantage of the proximity between him and his assailant.
In a split second, as if it was on instinct, he managed to swing his right arm towards the assassin. Somehow, the blade of Aomine's katana managed to make contact with his chest, moving diagonally across from his waist to his shoulder.
The masked man let out a sharp hiss, one that resembled a python trying to ward off its predators.
He had a hand placed on his chest, on the wound from which blood had started to seep from. His clothes were now dishevelled; Aomine could see an unusual patch of blue on the man's chest.
It was something like a birthmark, yet spread out on his skin as if it had been scorched by fire. However, it was not burn mark; instead it resembled the skin of a snake.
The assassin was panting hard; and Aomine could see that he was struggling to stand. His injuries were taking a toll on him.
Aomine could feel the searing pain that seemed to burn on his upper arm, but he paid no heed to it. This was his chance to strike while his opponent was down; he had to take this opportunity before it slips away.
He held his katana in both hands as he made a charge towards the masked man.
"Now to reveal who you really are!"
However, his attacker reacted quickly, swinging out his leg and delivering a hard kick to Aomine's ankle. Aomine was knocked off balance and fell to the ground in the least graceful manner possible. He let out a loud grunt as his body hit the hard ground.
Taking advantage of Aomine's momentary distraction, the masked man turned on his heel to escape.
"Wait!" Aomine yelled, but he was too late. His assailant had already disappeared from sight.
The dark streets were once quiet again. It was as if the silence was trying to conceal the events that had occurred just seconds before,
Aomine grit his teeth as he pounded his fists on the ground, furious at the fact that he let him get away.
"Damn!" He cried out, breaking the silence of the dark night.
The street returned to its former serenity, as the fog of the night started to seep in again.
All that was left of that brief conflict were the spots of blood that now stained the soil of the path red… and a few specks of faint light that were being reflected off something on the ground.
Aomine carefully picked that small article off the ground with his thumb and forefinger so as not to damage it.
"A scale?" He whispered in confusion as he collected more of them onto his outstretched palm. "What is something like this doing here?"
Holding one carefully, he lifted it up to examine it, hoping that the moon would provide the light he needed despite the thickening fog.
The scales were, as Aomine could see in the faint moonlight, of an ice-blue colour. Each one was about the size of his nail; certain parts seemed to be translucent while others more opaque.
He placed it back onto his palm, running the tips of his fingers over it.
The surface of the scale felt smooth to his touch; and perhaps a little waxy… like that of a snake.
They were beautiful, Aomine had to admit. He would not deny that he had been fascinated with them, but they gave him a feeling of nostalgia that stirred in his chest.
They reminded him of something; something that was mysterious, yet exquisite.
Just like that dancer from that night at Akashi's mansion.
But why did he think of her? And how did that have to with him being attacked just a while ago?
Wait… Akashi? That's it!
Aomine grinned to himself.
Maybe Akashi might know something about these scales, and also about that bastard who had attacked him earlier.
After all, Akashi was the most well-updated and wisest person he ever knew, even more so than Midorima. He should have heard rumours or some sort of information about a masked man going about attacking people in the dead of the night and leaving weird scales behind.
Heck, if Akashi wasn't a nobleman, he'd do a pretty good job being an information broker or something like that.
Holding all the scales he had collected in one hand and clutching his open wound with the other, Aomine mustered his strength to stand. He slowly dragged his feet, leaving tracks on the ground, back to his home.
The next day, when the sun was at its peak, he snuck out and made his way to Akashi's mansion.
"Oi, Akashi!" Aomine shouted as he barged into the estate, swinging the gates open without as much as a knock. "Are you in?"
"Akashi-sama is not in at the moment, Aomine-sama," A young man stood at the genkan, bowing as he greeted Aomine. "Shall I escort you to the study to await his return?"
"And who the heck are you supposed to be?" Aomine raised an eyebrow, wondering where he had seen the man before. "One of Akashi's servants?"
"I am the head steward who serves this household. My name is Mibuchi Reo. Allow me to escort you to the study for some tea as you wait for Akashi-sama's return."
"Don't need it. I'll just take a walk around the place until he gets back." Aomine rubbed the back of his head as he kicked off his sandals, slipping his feet into the slippers that were prepared for the guests.
"I've been here enough to know my way around the place. You don't have to worry about me; so just go and do what you need to. You are busy, aren't you?"
"That will not do, Aomine-sama. It would be greatly appreciated if you could just stay…"
"Look, I said I'll be fine on my own. I'm a man of my word, so you can trust me. Now could you me a favour by just leaving me alone and going away?"
The steward looked displeased, as if he was about to retort, but gave a nod instead.
"I understand. Please be careful."
"You know I will."
"And allow me to offer a little warning. Beware of the things that you touch in the mansion, especially if you enter the deeper areas of this mansion. No matter who it may be, Akashi-sama will not be forgiving to anyone who…"
"Yeah sure; I get it already," Aomine clicked his tongue. "I'll be careful."
Aomine sighed, starting to walk in long strides along the corridor. He wanted to get as far away as possible from that annoying steward. What the heck was wrong with wanting to move about anyway?
A walk definitely felt better than just sitting around.
Besides, he wasn't the type of person who could sit still for too long; it made him feel uncomfortable. He needed to move about, to stretch his legs.
Akashi's mansion was a large one compared those of other noble families. In fact, the plot of land could've been about the size of one used to construct a great temple. Aomine personally wondered how Akashi could stay in this huge place all by himself.
Then again, this place had been different ten years ago, when Akashi's parents were still alive.
They were all still young boys of thirteen back then, close friends as they had been since young with the exception of Kise who only joined them much later.
He did not know the exact details of what had happened back then, but he had heard some rumours. It was said that Akashi's parents had been supposedly killed by a dangerous band of rounin and that Akashi himself had been believed to have lost his life in that incident, even though his corpse was never to be found.
His uncle had taken over the position of the Head of the family back then, but suffered a similar fate five years ago. At that time, a group of bandits raided the mansion, setting the mansion ablaze and burning everything to the ground.
No one, be it one of the nobility or one of the servants, had survived, their corpses burnt into a black crisp in the fire.
Strangely enough, Akashi had reappeared shortly after that, as if he had returned from the dead.
It was Kise, their new-found member of their group who joined while Akashi had been presumed dead, who had found him dying at the foot of a mountain while he was out on a hunting trip and nursed him back to health in his own residence.
According to the blonde, he had been mauled by a tiger and was in a terrible condition.
By coincidence, one of the older maids working in his estate happened to work at Akashi's before she was transferred to Kise's. It was her who had recognised him and told Kise of his identity, otherwise the blonde would have had a difficult time even finding a clue to who he was.
In any case, Kise had taken care of Akashi for a few months, until he was strong enough to stand on his own two feet.
Or at least that was how the story went.
The news of his very existence, the fact that he was still alive after all these years, had shocked everyone, especially the older members of the nobility in the region like his father.
He thought it strange then, when his father did not seem the least bit relieved that the nephew of his old friend was found to be alive.
Aomine recalled the day that they had met once again, remembering that he had been surprised upon seeing his old friend with that golden left eye of his. Apparently, the tiger that had assaulted him injured his eye so badly, it had been crushed.
God knows how he had it replaced, though Aomine had found it difficult to look at Akashi in the eye ever since. It was as if… that eye could see right into the darkest depths of your soul, haunting the existence of anyone who dares to look into it.
Under his gaze you couldn't help but just feel so exposed to him.
After his return, Akashi not only managed to rebuild not only the mansion on this land that had been passed down in his family for centuries, but also the reputation of his family amongst the people of Edo as well as the nobility. It was a long story of how he did it, but he managed in the end.
He was Akashi, after all.
Aomine shook his head roughly. Why was he thinking of things like these at a time like this?
As he rounded the corner, he was greeted with the sight of the large garden that was situated in the middle of the mansion. For a brief moment, he felt as if he had arrived at Takama-ga-hara, the Great Plains of Heaven.
Flowers of various shapes and colours were in bloom, with giving colour to the green leaves of the bushes and shrubs. A large cherry tree stood tall in the middle of them all, as if it were the guardian of this magical sanctuary.
A gust of wind blew past, scattering the blossoms that seemed to welcome him into their world. He wandered into the garden, as if he were pulled in by a mysterious, unseen force.
He walked along the stone-set path with slow, light steps; taking in the scent of the flowers that had blossomed with the season. In the trees above, the birds were chirping a merry tune, singing their etude of joy.
It all felt so unreal, Aomine thought with awe, for a place like this to be so peaceful and beautiful.
Just as he reached the middle of the entire garden, he stopped. Standing still, he laid his eyes on a being that looked as if she could've been a fairy that dwelled this enchanted forest-like area.
"It's her," He whispered under his breath.
Sitting on a small stool under the large cherry tree, with a book in her hands, was the dancer that had captivated him that winter night.
Perhaps it was because of the light that was flowing through the canopy of the leaves, but he felt that she was more beautiful than he had remembered her to be.
Her long teal hair was let down, flowing down her back. Her skin, white as ivory, seemed to glow with a mysterious radiance. The nails of her slender hands were trimmed neatly, the fingertips brushing gently against the page as she flipped it. Her ice-blue eyes were focused on the words that were printed on the paper; she did not even notice that he was slowly approaching.
It was moments later when he could regain control of his body. He moved towards her, creeping quietly to avoid starling her.
However, he had failed to notice a broken branch that had been lying on the ground.
The sound of the wood being trampled was fairly loud; the crack seemed to have resounded through the air. It had unintentionally alerted her of his presence, breaking her concentration.
"Ah… You are…"
"I apologise for starling you! I-I wasn't watching you or anything like that! I just happened to be passing by and… well, I…"
For some reason or another, Aomine felt the need to defend himself. What if she thought he was some stalker? What if she had thought of him as someone weird? What if he had made her think negatively of him?
"You are Aomine Daiki-sama, are you not?"
"W-Wait… How do you know my name?"
"There is not a soul who has not heard of your mastery in the sword," She responded with a shy smile. "I have frequently heard many stories about you from Danna-sama."
"You mean Akashi?"
"Yes. I have also noticed you during that performance last winter. It was so embarrassing to be stared at like that."
"I'm sorry about that."
"You do not have to be. Rather, I am glad that you have enjoyed it. Danna-sama does not have guests over very often, so it was nice to see people other than Danna-sama and everyone else working here."
"Why is that so?"
"Well, Danna-sama prohibits me from leaving the estate. I spend day after day in here."
"But why? Isn't that rather strange?"
"Danna-sama must have his reasons. I do not believe that he is one who would do things without a purpose in mind."
"But that's just not right. I don't think you deserve to be kept locked up in here like this. It's not like you're his… pet or anything like that."
The girl gave him a blank stare.
"D-Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not implying that you are an animal."
"D-Did I offend you? I'm sorry if I did."
"Oh, no; you did not."
"That's good, then," Aomine heaved a sigh.
"May I ask what business does Aomine-sama have here today?"
"Oh, I'm here to see Akashi. There's something I want to discuss with him."
"It must be something of great importance. Most people would not dare to pay an unannounced personal visit to this mansion if it were not. In fact, Aomine-sama is the first person who has done such a thing."
"Well, I guess it's because I do things differently from other people," Aomine paused to scratch his cheek. "Look… Could you not refer to me in such a formal way? It makes me a little… uncomfortable."
"How would Aomine-sama like me to address him by, then?"
"Let's see… How about just Daiki?"
"But that's… "
"Come on, try it. It's not too hard; I tell everyone back at home to address me by that way as well."
"But I serve Danna-sama, not you."
Aomine nearly flinched in surprise at her lack of tact.
"W-Well, that may be true, but why don't you just try? It wouldn't hurt, right?"
"If you insist… Daiki-dono?"
"That's more formal that it was previously!"
"Let's try it without the 'boucchan' bit."
Aomine let out something that sounded like a mix between a sigh and a groan.
"I guess that will do. And that reminds me; I don't know your name yet."
"It's Tetsuna. Kuroko Tetsuna."
"Shall I call you… T-Tetsu, then?"
"If you wish, I do not mind."
He took a deep breath, mustering his courage.
"What do you say to a day out on the town with me? It must be boring being cooped up in here day after day, right? I think it will do you some good to step out once in a while."
"I would have to refuse your offer, Ao… Daiki-sama."
"Is it because of Akashi?"
"Yes, if Danna-sama were to find out, who knows what he might do."
"You don't have to worry about Akashi. I'll just explain everything to him if he finds out. I'm sure he won't blame you for it."
"You obviously know nothing about Danna-sama's temperament, do you?"
"Please, I've known him since we were kids."
Tetsuna simply stared at him with a sceptical look on her face.
"But why are you so insistent on this?" She asked with an unreadable expression on her face. "If you wanted to simply go around town with a lady, there are many others out there that you can choose from. Why did Daiki-sama choose me?"
"Well…" He muttered, avoiding her questioning gaze. "I-It's because…"
Aomine felt his face heat up. He hoped that the unusual tan glow of his skin would mask the blush that was about to make its appearance.
"Because I… IthinkIhavefallenforyou!"
The words came out as a splutter, but judging by Tetsuna's reaction, she had heard every word clearly.
The poor girl was blushing profusely, her eyes looked stunned. She looked like she was at a complete loss as to what to say and do.
She then buried her face in the sleeves of her kimono, hiding it from his sight.
"Erm… Tetsu, look… I-I…"
"W-What should I do?" She wondered aloud, interrupting him. "I-I… No one has confessed to me before… not to mention that I, too, have feelings for Daiki-sama…"
Even though she was mumbling, with her words all jumbled up, Aomine knew he did not mistake what he had heard for something else.
"T-Tetsu…" He managed to choke out, not knowing what to say to her now.
"B-But still," She tried to retort, an attempt to make the situation less awkward than it already is. "I would not be able to go into town with you. Danna-sama…"
"Tetsu, listen… It doesn't matter whether what Akashi says or does. Do you want to go into town with me?"
"I-I do, but…"
"Then you don't have to worry about anything else," He took her by her wrist. "Come with me."
He tugged once and she stood up obediently, still looking uneasy. As he slowly made his way out of the garden, he felt his heart beating faster and faster with each step.
One part of him was excited, yet another was feeling a little regretful for forcing Tetsuna to accompany him. He felt bad not taking her concerns into considerations. However, it is highly unlikely that he would get a chance such as this one.
They soon reached the foyer and the genkan, where Aomine hoped that no one would notice them sneaking out.
He was terribly wrong.
"Just a moment; where do you think you are going with her?" The steward from earlier, Mibuchi, was scowling at them with his arms folded.
"I'm just taking her out for a little stroll around the town. We won't go anywhere dangerous; trust me."
"That will not do. Akashi-sama…"
"I don't give a single damn what Akashi thinks. Whatever his reason, he has no right to keep someone locked up like that. If you try to stop me; the consequences will not be very nice for you, pretty boy. Especially if you value that face of yours, since it would be such a waste to put a scratch on that."
Mibuchi narrowed his eyes at the insult.
"Don't give in to him, Tetsu!"
"Should I try to speak to him, then?"
He let go of the girl's wrist and she stepped forward.
"Mibuchi-san… I promise that I would be okay outside. I would not do anything dangerous; and Aomine-sama will protect me if anything happens."
"Tetsuna-chan… You know perfectly well why Akashi-sama goes to such extremes. You also know the consequences of disobeying his orders. In spite of all this, you still insist on going?"
One look into the girl's eyes gave the steward the answer he needed. He sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"Please try to get back before Akashi-sama returns. Do not forget that I cannot help you if Akashi-sama were to find out."
"I will remember."
"And here," Mibuchi presented her with a pair of geta clogs. "You don't have a pair, do you? Take them."
"Thank you so much, Mibuchi-san."
"And be careful out there. Do not go near any suspicious looking people, or any other man! Those men out there are all wild beasts in human flesh, waiting to pounce on someone as delicate and adorable as you are…"
"Quit your yapping and let us go already," Aomine groaned behind him. "We don't have a whole day ahead of us."
"You better protect her."
"Trust me, I will."
"You have said that countless times today. Are you sure that you are as trustworthy as you proclaim to be?"
"Of course! I am a man, after all!"
"Fine then; I shall trust her to you. Remember, if anything happens, Akashi-sama will be the one who would be issuing the consequences, not me."
The two slipped on their footwear, preparing to leave.
"We'll be off!"
"Have a safe trip, you two!"
The two then set off, taking slow steps along the sandy lane that led towards the main street.
The light spring breeze blew, scattering the petals from the trees lining the side of the path onto the ground and dying the town in its gentle peach-pink hue.
"Here," He offered her his hand.
Tetsuna gave him a blank look, not understanding the meaning of his gesture.
"It'll get really crowded once we enter the market place; you should hold my hand so that we don't get separated."
"I-I understand," She placed her hand in his.
Aomine could not help but notice how her small hand fit perfectly into his.
That realization made him feel a little happy.
As they rounded the corner, one could see the difference between the small lane and the main street.
Compared to the quaintness of the lane where there were little people, the main street was bustling with life. It was not surprising, for it was the place where most of the shops were located.
Aside from the tea-houses and snack shops set up in individual buildings, there were also numerous shops set up by the path by merchants. These little road-side shops sold a variety of local and Western goods, imported from either other parts of the country or from overseas.
There were many kinds of people that one could see in this busy place. There were shopkeepers, shouting out some kind of bargain to lure their customers. There was a group of young men, talking as made their way past the throngs of people. There were also young children, playing with each other as their mothers shared gossip whilst enjoying a warm cup of tea.
"Wow," Tetsuna looked around the place in awe. "This place is so… lively. I did not know that there could be so many people in one place."
"Compared to staying at the mansion all day, this place is definitely better, don't you think?"
"Well… In all honesty, I actually prefer the quaintness and silence that Danna-sama's estate offers as compared to this place," She admitted sheepishly. "Perhaps it is because I am not used to the noise."
"Welcome, all you young ladies and fine gentlemen! We have some special goods today, please come over and check them out! You cannot find these anywhere else in Edo!"
Aomine paused in his steps as one of the items in a particular shop caught his attention.
"Ah, that young master over here! You have very good taste indeed. This selection of special hairpins was hand-crafted from metal and adorned with the finest materials; it would make a fitting present for young lady."
Aomine scanned through the selection of hairpins. Each one had its own unique design that resembled a flower, but there was one in particular that had caught his attention.
"What flower is this?" Aomine asked the shopkeeper, holding up a white hairpin with a white-silver flower on it.
"This is an excellent choice indeed, young master. This is a flower known as the carnation."
"Does it have some kind of meaning?"
"It is said to depend on the colour of the flower itself. This one here is meant to be a white one, which means 'pure love'. It will make an excellent gift for your wife, or perhaps a lover."
"I like it," Aomine nodded, turning towards his companion. "Tetsu, do you want to try it on?"
"I do not mind, but this hair pin seems a little too long… at least in my opinion."
"Well, seeing that your hair is thicker than anyone I know, there shouldn't be a problem with that."
"I do not see how the thickness of my hair actually has anything to do with the length of the pin," She gave him a slight frown.
"Just try it on already. Turn around; I'll put in on for you."
"Are you sure you know how to do it properly?"
"My mother taught me when I was a kid. That was a long time ago, though; but I'm sure I can remember how to do it."
"If you would please, then."
Her hair is really soft, just like threads of silk; he thought to himself as he slid the pin on.
"There. It's done."
"How do I look?" She asked shyly.
"I-It looks good on you. I'll give you that as a present, then."
"Oh, there is really no need for you to give me anything at all…"
"Just take it. I insist," He gave her a wide smirk before turning to the shopkeeper. "I'll be taking that, old man."
"Thank you for your patronage, young master!"
The two continued walking along the busy street, hand in hand.
"Daiki-sama, do you mind if I asked you something?"
"What is it?"
"I have noticed this earlier, but Daiki-sama carries two pouches around when most others only have one to store coins. May I ask why that is so?"
"Well, the first one is used to contain cash, as you have pointed out. The other has something I need to show Akashi," Aomine reached for one of the small pouches, tucked into his obi. "Here, take a look."
"What are these? I have never seen anything like this before."
"They're scales. I found them yesterday."
"But why do you want to show these to Danna-sama?"
"Well… It would be best if you didn't know."
"I understand. You do not have to force yourself to tell me if you do not feel comfortable doing so."
The two continued their walk in silence, leaving the market place to one of the less busy areas of the town. As they were walking along one of streets, a particular flower caught Tetsuna's eye.
"Snapdragons," She whispered under her breath as she paused to examine the purple flowers. "I did not know that one could grow them here in Edo."
"You like flowers?"
"I do. They remind me of the garden at my Father's mansion, back in the capital. It is smaller than the one at Danna-sama's, but it was much more beautiful."
"You were from the capital?" Aomine raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, I was born there. I have only been in Edo for a few years."
"You don't look like someone who's from the Capital."
"I have been told that many a time."
"How's your family like? Are they still living in the capital?"
Tetsuna paused, her head hung low. It was for a brief moment, but he could see a glint of sadness in her eyes before she replied.
"Matters regarding my family is not something that is... particularly interesting to talk about. Why do you ask?"
"I asked because I was curious, that's all. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to. So how did you end up at Akashi's?"
"That is too long a story better left untold until another day. It does not really matter how I got here in the first place. All that matters is that I'm here in Edo now. Everything that happened in the Capital was something best left in the past."
"I see..." Aomine bit his lip, trying to think of another topic to talk about. "Oh yeah, these flowers are really pretty. What did you call them again?"
"Snapdragons. They are my favourite. There were a lot of them growing back at my Father's home."
"Do they carry any meaning? You know, like how people often say that a white chrysanthemum represents truth."
"I am not too sure, but I have heard from somewhere that it is a symbol of a graceful lady."
"A graceful lady, huh… it sounds as if it's describing you."
"Please do not flatter me like that, Daiki-sama," She blushed. "You will make me feel more embarrassed than I already am."
"But I'm just stating the truth. You are the most beautiful; the most elegant… you're truly the best woman I have ever met, Tetsu."
The girl's face turned even redder. She turned it away from him as if to hide it.
"How… could you say such things about me when we have just met?"
"I may not know you very well," Aomine admitted. "But I said those things based on what I have observed. I can tell that you are the one for me."
She said nothing in reply to that earnest confession.
Aomine knew that there were probably numerous thoughts going through her head at that moment. The first, of course, was Akashi. The next one was probably of his status as the son of a hatamoto and a blood relative of a daimyo. He doesn't really care about all that, but he figured that she probably would.
"How about we stop for some dango?" He tried to change the subject. "I'm getting kind of hungry."
"I do not mind."
"There's a place near here that sells really good dango. It's a bit far from my place, but I would highly recommend them. They're the best I ever had. It's a pity that the old man running the shop doesn't have a successor to continue the business."
"That reminds me; how far are we from Danna-sama's mansion?"
"I would say about a twenty minutes' walk from the front gate. Are you worried that Akashi would be back already?"
She nodded in reply.
"You don't have to worry about that. I said I'll cover for you, didn't I?"
"Tell you what; we'll return after we finish the dango. Is that okay with you?"
She gave another nod before asking, "How far is the shop from here?"
"It's just right up ahead. Look, you can see it from here."
Upon reaching the shop, the two took their seats on one of the benches placed outside the shop.
"Excuse me! I'd like two servings of dango and two cups of tea please!"
"Coming right up!" A young voice from inside called out, which surprised Aomine.
Perhaps the old man finally hired an assistant, or perhaps a disciple.
"Say, do you mind if I asked you a couple of questions?"
"It depends on what you ask."
"I just want to know how your life back in the capital was. Is it any different from Edo?"
She narrowed her eyes slightly at him.
"Is Daiki-sama always this curious?"
"W-Well, no; but I was in the mood for a conversation."
"Well, there is not much difference between Edo and the capital, if you ask my opinion. Of course the scenery and perhaps the cuisine are different, but to me it is all the same. The only main difference is the way the people around here speak."
"That's interesting. I never got a chance to go to the capital, so I've always wondered how different it could be."
"Technically speaking, it is merely different parts of one country. No matter how different it may be, it would always be more similar than not."
"I'll have to agree with you on that. To be honest, I'm not exactly happy that the country has opened up to those foreign rodents. I mean, it can be seen as a benefit for the country, but…"
"Thank you for the wait!" A young man, most likely that new assistant, emerged from behind the noren with tray of tea and their dango, setting it down onto the bench.
He was a man of medium height, not as tall as Aomine but not as short as Akashi. He had his long black hair tied into a low ponytail, with his bangs covering one side of his face. He was a rather good-looking young man; though one might describe his features as beautiful rather than handsome.
"You're…" He blinked at Tetsuna, as if he had recognised her.
"It has been a while," She bowed slightly in a greeting.
"It has. Fancy meeting you here," He gave Aomine a quick glance, one of questioning curiosity. "Is he your…?"
"Just a friend of mine," Tetsuna lied swiftly. "What are you doing here?"
"Well, I have been working here-"
"Tatsuya-kun!" The voice of an elderly man called out from inside the store. "I need some help over here!"
"Coming!" The man, whom had been called 'Tatsuya', gave them a small smile as he excused himself. "I guess I'll see you around."
"Hold on a minute," Aomine tossed a few coins towards Tatsuya, who caught them without difficulty. "You forgot about the payment for the dango and the tea. And a tip from me."
"Thank you for the reminder," He gave a smile. "And thank you for your patronage."
After Tatsuya had disappeared, Aomine raised an eyebrow at Tetsuna, as if he was about to ask her something.
"You can say that he is an acquaintance whom I had met a long time ago." Tetsuna sighed as she replied to his unspoken question.
"Back when you were in the capital?"
"Not really, but you could say we… have one or two things in common in our circumstances that allowed us to meet."
After the two of them had their fill of dango and tea, they returned back to Akashi's mansion. As they walked, they shared a conversation with each other.
However, as they approached the gates of the mansion, Tetsuna suddenly stopped in her tracks. She was frozen in place; her eyes were widened, reflecting in them a look of fear.
Akashi had his usual smile plastered onto his face. He was leaning against the wall of the hallway, his arms folded and hidden in the sleeves of his casual dark yellow-gold kimono.
"Welcome back, the two of you. I hope you've enjoyed that little outing of yours today."
"Akashi," Aomine took a step forward. "Look, I…"
"Reo has informed me of your arrival earlier. I shall assume that you have something to tell me, but I will listen to what you have to say later, Daiki. Tetsuna, come here."
The girl moved, her feet trembling with each step she took, towards her master. She came to a stop in front of him, her left hand clutching her right tightly. Tetsuna's head hung low, her gaze directed to the ground. After all, a servant is not allowed to look at her master in the eye.
Akashi's expression changed from a smile to a scowl as he raised his hand; and with one swift motion, brought it across the girl's cheek.
It happened so quickly, Aomine only realised what had happened after he heard the loud 'smack' that was made from the contact.
"Akashi! What do you think you are doing?!"
"Stay out of this, Daiki," Akashi's voice was cold and firm, matching the expression he was wearing on his face. "Tetsuna. I clearly gave you orders not to leave the estate. Why did you not follow them?"
"Akashi! Don't put the blame on Tetsu! It was me who had insisted that she accompany me outside! She has no fault in this!"
"The fact that she knows better than to go against my orders already proves that she is guilty of the act," Akashi turned towards Tetsuna. "You shall return to your room right this instant. I will think of how to handle your disobedience after I am done with this matter. Do you understand?"
With a quick bow, Tetsuna excused herself.
Aomine felt his chest tighten at the sight of her expression: the poor girl looked as if she was going to break down into tears.
"Akashi! Why do you have to be so harsh on her? I already told you that it wasn't her fault!"
"This is a personal matter of this household, Daiki. Those who serve me have the rules that I set for them; and my words are absolute. They are not to go against them at any cost. And outsiders like you are not to interfere."
"Let's take the conversation to the study, shall we? I'm afraid the genkan isn't a good place for a conversation; and you had something you wanted to consult me with, didn't you?"
The two men began to walk in silence along the long hallway; only the sound of their footsteps could be heard.
"Have Eikichi to prepare us some tea and snacks," Akashi ordered Mibuchi as he passed him in the hallway. "When they are done, send it to my study."
"Right away, Akashi-sama."
Once they had reached the study, Akashi slid the door open, inviting Aomine in. The latter did so wordlessly.
The interior of the study was slightly dim, even though it was still daytime. For some reason, it made Aomine feel a little unsettled.
"Take a seat, Daiki." Akashi spoke as he settled down by a table, urging the other to do the same.
Still a little unsettled by the atmosphere of the room, Aomine could not do anything but to do what he was told.
"So, Daiki; what did you want to talk to me about?"
"I just wanted to ask… Have there been any strange attacks out of late?"
"Strange attacks? What do you mean by that?" A look of concern could be seen in Akashi's eyes, though his expression did not change. "Did something happen to you, Daiki?"
Slowly, Aomine explained the events of the night before. Akashi listened with an unmoving, neutral expression on his face. After Aomine had finished, there was a long pause before Akashi opened his mouth to offer his opinion.
"It might be a case of Tsuji-giri, though I cannot be sure. In fact, I was asked to investigate quite a few cases out of late."
"Tsuji-giri? As in those samurai who indulge in crossroads-killing for the sick pleasure of killing someone?"
"Well, there are some engage in Tsuji-giri in the past as a way to test their sword or new techniques; but in this context, we are referring to those who may carry out this practice, rather than the very act itself."
"But I thought that was banned by the Bakufu ages ago!"
"Well, it is an offence that could warrant the death penalty. But with the times changing, it is not uncommon to hear of such activities by numerous rounin who have been unassigned from their masters. In fact, I have heard from Shintarou quite a few of them have been apprehended from carrying out such activities."
"But I thought the Tsuji-giri only attacked commoners?"
"I thought of the same thing as well. You were attacked in your own land, am I right?"
"Everyone living in a specific region would recognize the hatamoto and the members of his immediate family if he were to walk along the street; not to mention that you are known for your skills. It is highly unlikely that anyone there would point a sword at you. Did he seem like he was drunk?"
"No, I doubt so. From the way he had moved, I would say that he was definitely not."
"Did you manage to catch a glimpse of his face? Or any other noticeable traits that we can identify him by?"
"But I couldn't see his face... no, it was more like I did not get a chance to. He covered most of it, and he even his hair, which I thought was really weird. All I could see was his eyes; and they were rather... strange."
"Strange? How so?"
"Akashi-sama," Mibuchi's voice came from beyond the paper door. "The tea and snacks are ready. Shall I leave them out here for you or would you like me to serve it now?"
"Now, if you please."
"I understand." The steward slid the door open and brought in the tray.
He set the cups and plates on the tea table in front of the other two men and excused himself swiftly.
"You were saying, Daiki?"
"The colour of the eyes of the guy who attacked me… they weren't normal. And it's not just the colour that was strange. Those eyes were like… an animal's."
"An animal?" Akashi looked as if he were deep in thought, trying to connect this information to another in his head. "Was there anything left behind by him that we can identify him by?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but after the whole thing, I found some scales on the ground."
"Scales?" Akashi's face showed a mix of mild surprise and confusion.
"I thought they might be fish scales that had been dropped along the side of the road, but I have never seen a fish of that colour," Aomine reached into his obi for the pouch that he had stored the scales in, but was surprised to find that it was not there. "Eh?"
"What is it, Daiki?"
"I can't seem to find that pouch…"
Akashi sighed as he stood up, clearly not amused. He walked towards his desk to retrieve a small wooden box and returned to the tea table with it.
"It is like you to lose something so important."
"It wasn't on purpose, I tell you! It might have dropped somewhere!"
"But," Akashi lifted the lid of the little wooden box and showed its contents to Aomine. "Is this what you found?"
Aomine was surprised to find a few small scales, strangely identical to the one he had found, resting on the silk-lined interior of the box.
"I found this the other day during an investigation. A local fisherman had been brutally murdered and his body was discovered by the townsfolk the next day."
"And it was a Tsuji-giri who had killed him?"
"Most probably," Akashi replaced the lid on the box. "I found these scales near the scene of the crime. However, I cannot determine whether the murderer had intentionally left these at the scene of the crime, or whether they happened to be the belongings of the victim."
"But it is strange to carry scales around like this, right?"
"I had thought as much, which is why I considered the possibility of the former option: where he leaves these scales as a way of marking the deed as his."
"But why would he do such a thing? Is he that desperate to be caught?"
"I don't know until we find him… but that still doesn't explain why he would attack you. If he was merely killing for the thrill of it, he would have selected an opponent that was most likely unarmed and easier to strike."
"Perhaps he was looking for a challenge?"
"I would have thought the same thing, but there is no swordsman in Edo who does not know of your skill. But I'm surprised that he managed to land a hit on you, though. Have you been slacking in your training with Imayoshi, Daiki?"
"Of course not! It was just that I had a little too much to drink yesterday! And I bet that bastard won't be able to move for months thanks to that injury I gave him! Aren't I awesome?"
"Right," Akashi rolled his eyes, once. "However, I also have considered the possibility that he might have been sent to kill you."
"There's no way a mere rounin would challenge someone of your calibre, unless he has a few loose screws in his head… it would have been too risky. I suspect that there may have been some sort of… item or reward that may have compensated for the risk."
"So you think he was hired to attack me?"
"That's ridiculous. Who would want me dead and why?"
"That was a question I was about to ask, Daiki. Have you offended anyone out of late, or fight with them?"
"I haven't offended anyone for a long time now… other than the guys at Imayoshi-san's dojo."
"Tell me more about it."
"Well, you know my dad wants me to constantly practice my skills, so every afternoon he kicks me out of the house to go to Imayoshi-san's dojo for training. But since I'm good enough already, I just end up sleeping there."
"I figured as much."
"Then there was this guy called Wakamatsu, who doesn't seem to like my presence very much. Last week, he told me to take the sword seriously and not to fool around; or something like that. He pissed me off and I punched him in the gut."
"Daiki, you should really learn to control yourself."
"But I'm always serious when it comes to the sword; it's just that I express it in my own way."
"Your words and actions do not match; most would mistake your behaviour as an insult to the way of the sword. So, do you think that Wakamatsu might be the one who attacked you?"
"That would be unlikely. He's too tall. The one who attacked me was of a smaller built. Perhaps a little smaller than Ryou, even."
"Sakurai Ryou. His family comes from a line of stewards; and his cooking is simply the best. He's a timid guy, though. I doubt it can be him."
"Appearances can be deceiving, Daiki."
"I know! But I'm pretty sure that it's not him."
"That guy who attacked me… he had a weird mark on his chest. It looked like some scar from a burn, but it was a light blue-ish kind of colour and had this snake-like pattern. Plus, he's even shorter than Ryou. If I had to compare him, he would be about Tetsu's height."
Akashi's brow furrowed.
"You are referring to Tetsuna?"
"Yeah. That was some sort of a nickname I forced onto her."
"I see. It appears to me that you are rather taken by her. Have you fallen for her?"
"S-She's a good person, that's all."
"That does not answer my question, Daiki."
"I… think I might…"
"I was asking a confirmation, Daiki. Have you fallen for Tetsuna, or have you not?"
Akashi let out a sigh.
"See? It's that so difficult to answer my question."
"Aren't you going to say anything against me wanting to be with Tetsu?
"Well, to be honest, I am having some mixed opinions regarding the matter. As a friend, I want you to be happy. However, it is because I am your friend, I have to take into consideration of your status as well."
"I don't care about that kind of things."
"You don't, but I am sure Tetsuna does. Also, how are you going to explain to your father?"
"As their employer, I want my servants to be happy as well. I am neither blind nor deaf; I am completely aware that Tetsuna has fallen for you as well."
"Indeed. Since that last gathering, she had been asking me if I had plans to host another one. Not to mention that the way she was looking at you that evening… I have never seen her look at anyone that way before."
Aomine was speechless. He had expected Akashi to forbid their relationship, but instead had considered it?
"But that matter aside, we need to discuss about your safety. That assassin may come after you again."
"You don't have to worry about that, Akashi. I gave him a little present to remember me by. He shouldn't be able to move for weeks."
"But what if he isn't the only person is out to attack you? There might be someone out there to assassinate you."
"Akashi... You're actually worried about me?"
"This is no time for a joke, Daiki."
"No, but I though you wouldn't really care that much, since it seems that you enjoy threatening us and all that."
"That is considered a necessary measure to have people to comply to my demands. I'm sure even you use it at times."
That was a fact Aomine couldn't deny.
"Did you think I actually enjoy pointing my sword at people I consider my brothers, Daiki? Even though we have known each other for so long, I am ashamed that you think so lowly of me."
"Akashi, I'm sorry; I didn't mean it that way…"
"You are forgiven."
"Thank you, Akashi."
"And let's settle the matter before we get distracted again. I would assume that there may be someone who is plotting to assassinate you. Even though I have no idea who it may be, but one thing is certain. Whoever it is who is targeting you has most likely done quite a bit of research on you."
"Why are you so certain about it?"
"Most assassins usually sneak into the mansion in the dead of the night and do way with their targets while they are in deep slumber. However, the one who attacked you took a risk by waiting for you on one of many paths that to your home. I would think that it is no mere coincidence that he was luckily enough to get the right one. He must have known where you had gone and waited there for you to return."
"Also, there was only one assassin. Most nobles would usually travel by a carriage or sedan rather than on foot; and are also usually accompanied by at least one other person. You, however, are the few who go about unescorted and unguarded. If he hadn't known about that fact, he might not have attempted to carry out the task alone."
"You got a really good point there," Aomine admitted.
"This may sound a little unreasonable, but I suspect that you wouldn't be safe in your own home. There might be someone else coming for your neck."
"So what are we going to do about that?"
"Well, there isn't a need to make a fuss of things since this is still a mere hypothesis of mine. However, it would be safer if you could find somewhere else to stay."
"But where? An inn is relatively dangerous too."
"I was not suggesting an inn."
"Why don't you stay here with me instead?"
Aomine, who had been taking a sip of the hot tea, nearly choked.
"No sane human would ever consider trespassing into my mansion. And it may not seem like it, but everyone here who serves me are well-trained in both the sword and also in hand-to-hand combat. Except for Tetsuna, of course; since she is the only rose amongst us thorns. And if you stay here, you will get a chance to be nearer to her. Do you not wish for that?"
"Well, I do but…"
"Then it's settled. You shall stay here until we apprehend the culprit. I will have one of my servants to escort you to your mansion to collect your belongings and bring you back here safely."
"But Akashi, I don't want to impose on you…"
"What are you saying? We are friends, are we not?"
"Then I shall accept your offer, then."
"Reo," Akashi called for his steward.
"You called, Akashi-sama?"
"Tell Kotarou to prepare the carriage. I will personally inform him of his task."
"Shall we get going, then? We do not have much time; the sun will be setting in a few hours."
As Akashi and Aomine walked back towards the entrance of the mansion, the latter couldn't suppress his curiosity any longer.
"Akashi, may I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
"What exactly is Tetsu's role in this household?"
"Tetsuna is… what one could describe as a special kind of servant," Akashi's had a wry smile creeping onto his face. "Her job is to ensure that every single one of her master's needs, even the most personal ones, are properly fulfilled."
"Akashi-sama!" A wide-eyed man interrupted Aomine just as he was about to further question the meaning behind the statement. "The carriage is ready!"
"Thank you, Kotarou. Your task is to bring Aomine-sama here," He gestured towards the latter. "Back to his mansion, collect some things and bring him back here before sunset. You will be in charge of his safety. Is that clear?"
"You got it, Akashi-sama! Leave it to me!" The man chirped, turning towards Aomine to introduce himself. "Hey there! The name's Hayama Kotarou; at your service!"
"He will be the one who would be accompanying you. He may be noisy, but he's a reliable person. You will be safe with him. Hurry on now; or you won't be able to return by sunset."
"Oh, right. Thanks, Akashi."
"My pleasure. Do stay on the alert, Kotarou."
"Roger that, Akashi-sama!"
"Have a safe trip, you two."
Akashi watched, with Mibuchi standing behind him, as they set off. After the two were gone from sight, so did the smile Akashi had been wearing.
"What is it, Akashi-sama?"
"Do you have what I gave you earlier?"
"That vial? Of course."
"Good. Give it to Eikichi. He will know what to do with it."
"Right away, Akashi-sama. Where will you be going now?"
"I'm just going to handle a matter that I had left unsettled."
Mibuchi felt a shiver run down his spine as he felt the cold intensity of his master's aura.
"Akashi-sama, please avoid being so harsh with her. She is really not to blame."
"I am aware, Reo. However, she had dared to disobey my order; and that itself is an unforgivable sin."
Akashi walked with a quickened pace towards the far end of the mansion. Even though his appearance may seem calm from afar, the look in his eyes was frightening enough to make a wild beast quiver with fear.
He gave the frame of the wooden door two sharp taps.
"Tetsuna? I'm coming in."
"We're all alone now, aren't we? You don't have to be so formal with me," Akashi gave a smile as he sat down. "Come over here, Tetsuna."
And she did as she was told.
He lifted her up gently on his lap, his arms circling around her waist to bring her closer to him.
"Seijuurou-sama, I… I am very sorry for what happened today…"
"Shh. It's okay," He placed a finger of one hand over her lips before moving it, gently stroking the reddened part of her cheek as if to soothe the pain. "I should be the one who should apologise. Did that hurt?"
"It is alright… Seijuurou-sama is unusually gentle today."
"Is that so? Is it a bad thing, then?"
"No! It is just… different."
"I see," Akashi smiled. "Let's just leave it as that. But…"
"What is it, Seijuurou-sama?"
Akashi did not reply to her question; at least, not with words. He stopped stroking the skin of her cheek, slowly moving his hand up to hold the white pin in her hair between his fingers. In one swift and rough motion, he tore it out her hair; tossing it into a corner of the room.
The girl flinched as she felt the strands of hair tug sharply against her scalp, falling loose from the bun that had been held up by the pin.
"Look at me, Tetsuna."
Tetsuna could feel herself trembling; she did not have the courage to look up at her master.
"I told you to look at me."
She wanted to raise her eyes up to his, but she couldn't move under the frightening pressure of his aura.
"Do not make me repeat myself again, Tetsuna. Look at me!"
Her head snapped upwards towards him; an instinctive reaction to his enraged command.
"Do you have any idea how worried I was when I returned and found you gone?" Akashi's voice was low, but was still as smooth as it always was. "You know perfectly well why I forbid you from going into the outside world, don't you?"
With one hand, he cupped her chin; locking it into place so that she could not turn away from him.
"Where did that filthy sewer rat touch you?"
"A-Aomine-sama did not do anything."
"I doubt so," Akashi scoffed. "Tell me: where did he dare to put his hands on you?"
"N-Nothing happened between us!"
"Stubborn, aren't you? I will force you to tell me, then."
Akashi's grip on her grew stronger, but Tetsuna did not struggle; she knew that it was futile to do so. She felt her body freeze for a moment as she felt her master's wet tongue run over the skin of her neck.
The shock was soon replaced by a tingling sensation as he pressed butterfly kisses, neither gentle nor rough, from her jaw to her collarbone. Each time he bit down on the skin, she gave a little whimper.
As he continued to mark her skin, one hand slipped through the folds of her kimono. She bit her lips to hold back a low moan as he brushed the fingers of his right hand over one nipple.
She let out a surprised gasp as her back leaning hit the tatami-covered floor, her red-haired master hovering over her with an unreadable expression on his face.
Akashi loosened her obi as he pulled the left side of her kimono open. His fingers began to move again, grasping the pink bud roughly, stimulating it with occasional twists and flicks.
Tetsuna's hand flew up to cover her mouth, as if to block out the lewd sounds that were trying to escape.
The kisses and markings soon continued, moving down from her collarbone towards her shoulder and her chest.
Akashi soon removed his hold on her left nipple, trailing his fingers down the pale skin of her flat stomach, as he replaced them with his mouth.
Tetsuna nearly screamed when she felt his hot, wet tongue circling on her skin. He alternated between licking and sucking, sending waves of pleasure down her spine.
But he did not proceed further.
He moved off her, one hand covering his eyes as he sat next to her.
"S-Seijuurou-sama?" She whispered between pants as she noticed he had stopped.
"Silence. You will not speak unless you are told," He growled through clenched teeth, the tone of his voice radiating with authority. "I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour from you again. Have I made my point clear?"
"Good," He stood up, brushing his clothes in the process.
Tetsuna could not move; she was still frozen under the intensity of her master's aura.
"As your punishment, you shall be confined in here until I am certain that you have repented for your actions. Those marks on your body will serve as a reminder to all as to who you belong to. Do you understand, Tetsuna?"
Satisfied that he was able to get his message across to her, he turned to leave. He slid the wooden door close, his back still facing hers. He did not even bother to spare her a glance.
Tucking his forearms into the sleeves of his kimono, he walked, slowly through the hallway by the garden.
There was a bush with beautiful light blue hydrangeas, his favourite of all the plants in the sanctuary. The lovely scent of the baby blue flowers never failed to soothe his senses, especially when there so many things that he keeps on his mind.
However, there was one particular flower that stood out amongst the rest. That particular bloom was of a darker shade of blue than the rest.
Akashi reached his hand out, his fingers gently brushing against the soft petals.
It is always such a pity that such beauty can only be ephemeral.
He grabbed the blossom, plucking it from its stems with a forceful pull and crushing it in the palm of his hand.
"He will pay for touching what is mine."
He released his palm, scattering the crushed petals onto the wooden walkway.
That evening, Akashi and Aomine set down together for dinner.
"How do you find your accommodations, Daiki? Is the guest room too cramped for your liking?"
"It's fine, Akashi. Thanks for having me over."
"Don't mention it. We have done things like this back when we were children with Shintarou and Atsushi, have we not?"
"That was such a long time ago. Time really passes when you're not paying attention to it. We have all grown up."
"You sound like an old man when you say it that way, Daiki."
"Don't tease me like that!"
"My bad," Akashi smiled. "How about a toast?"
"For you being lucky enough to survive an encounter with that assassin."
"It wasn't luck that saved me; it was my awesome skills."
"Yes; and that, too."
"Are you underestimating me, Akashi?" Aomine gave a playful grin. "I'll take you on any day of the week!"
"That is a bold and imprudent statement for someone like you to make."
"I-I was just kidding, Akashi. Don't take it to heart."
"If you say so. Is the food to your liking?"
"It's really good! Especially this beef! My complements to your chef!"
"I will have the message relayed to Eikichi, then. He was pleased to have someone else over; I heard that he overdid himself with the dishes."
"He didn't have to. A simple meal's good enough for me."
"I will inform him of that as well. Oh dear; we are almost out of sake. I will get Reo to fetch some more for us."
"You don't need to. I think I have had my fill."
"Are you sure? I thought you loved sake."
"I do, but I think I have had enough for today."
The truth was, Aomine felt that something was amiss.
For some reason or another, there was this strange heat building up in his body. It was making him extremely uncomfortable; it even took a lot of willpower for him to even sit still at that moment.
"By the way, where is Tetsu? I haven't seen her at all since I got back."
Akashi, who was about to take a sip from his cup, paused. Aomine swore he caught a dark look flash across his face before returning to the neutral face that he usually wore.
"Tetsuna is in her room. I have confined her in there for disobeying my orders."
"Akashi, you… What exactly did you do to her?"
"Confinement is considered a very lenient punishment for committing such a grave sin. She should be grateful."
"Akashi, I'm going to be honest with you. You shouldn't really treat people so cruelly. No matter what, we are all humans! Just because they are your servants, you shouldn't treat them like a lesser being!"
Akashi gave him a look, one that told Aomine that Akashi was not exactly happy with what he heard.
"I do not need anyone to tell me how to run my household; especially from someone like you, Daiki. It is none of your business."
Akashi stood up.
"I am done with my meal. I had Reo to prepare the bath for you, in case you want one. I will be seeing you in the morning."
Before Aomine could say anything else, Akashi left the room.
Aomine grit his teeth, clearly frustrated with Akashi's attitude. He slammed his fist on the table, muttering a curse under his breath. He finished the last of the sake in his cup with one large gulp before making his leave as well.
The sky outside was already dark. Aomine staggered slowly along the hallways, with only the light of the full moon to guide him.
He did not know where he was going, or why he was heading towards that specific direction.
He just kept moving, hoping to find a way to get rid of those uncomfortable sensations that just refused to dissipate. Above that, his was unable to think at all; the only things that was in his mind was to quell the burning desire that was starting to build up, especially in one particular area of his body.
"Where am I?" He muttered upon realization that he was at the end of the hallway, facing the door of a room.
Through the thin paper door he could see the orange glow of candlelight, and a silhouette of a person sitting down on a futon.
"Tetsu…?" He mumbled. Could this be where her room was?
He slid the door open to confirm his suspicion; and he was relieved to find the teal-haired girl in it.
"D-Daiki-sama?" She gave him a look of surprise. "What are you doing here?"
"I'll explain later," He entered the room, forgetting to close the door behind him. "I wanted to meet you, Tetsu."
He dragged his feet slowly, moving towards her. He knelt down on the tatami by her side and, as if it were by some instinct, grabbed her small frame and pulled her towards him in a tight embrace.
"Daiki-sama?" She sounded slightly shocked.
"I love you, Tetsu. You have no idea how much I really do," He murmured, stroking her long, untied hair.
Seeing Tetsu in her room, seeing her innocent and defenceless figure sitting all alone in the room illuminated by the candlelight… How much longer can he control himself?
Don't force yourself, a voice in his head sneered at him. Just take her; claim her as your own. Right there, right then.
"Daiki-sama," Tetsuna spoke, her voice trembling. "I… I love you too."
You have no reason not to.
Everything that happened thereafter was a blur. Before he could even know what was going on, he found himself devouring Tetsuna's lips, kissing his way down her neck.
Tetsuna did not push him away, nor did she utter any protests. She had become as meek and as obedient as a doll, allowing him to do as he pleased with her.
Her voice hitched, producing a low, raspy sort of sound. Turning her head slightly, she allowed herself to be ravished by him. Her breathing grew quicker with each passing moment, her chest rising and falling with each audible pant.
He had noticed from the beginning that Tetsuna's voice sounded deep for a woman. However, he had never once thought of it as weird. Rather, it had been rather pleasant; arousing, even. He had encountered many women before, many with ear-piercing high-pitched cries and squeals that he detested.
But Tetsuna was no ordinary woman; she was special. And he wanted her so, so badly.
"Tetsu," He groaned, unable to restrain himself any longer. "Be mine, Tetsu. I promise I would love you with all my heart; and give you a wonderful life that you deserve. Leave Akashi and come with me, Tetsu. You deserve someone better than him."
The heat building up in his entire body, especially his groin, was starting to get more uncomfortable with every passing second. He paused in his ministrations to loosen his kimono, pulling the fabric roughly so as to slacken the tightness of the obi around his waist.
But it wasn't enough.
The flames of that unquenchable desire had already consumed him.
He pushed her onto her futon, licking his lips as he heard her let out a soft gasp as her back hit the soft bedding.
"Tetsu," He murmured, drawing her into another hot, passionate kiss.
As he ravaged her mouth, he reached down, drawing his fingers along the edge of her obi. With slow, tender movements, he loosened it from its carefully tied knot.
His breath hitched in anticipation as he broke the kiss. Trembling hands grasped the folds of her kimono, a drop of sweat running down the side of his face as he thought of the treasures that lay hidden beneath the silk.
"What are you waiting for?" She whispered slowly, yet sensually. "Just do it already."
Her words spurred him on, giving him the permission and the courage to do as he wanted.
But as he pulled the folds of the garment apart, something strange happened.
Aomine then became completely still, his hands still clutching the silk of her kimono in his hands.
It seemed as if he had entered a state of shock. His eyes, previously clouded with lust, were now widened in disbelief. The expression that was frozen on his face was a mix of past pleasure and present confusion. His hands started to tremble slightly, his brows slightly furrowed.
He was so shaken; he did not even feel the sharp pain that pierced him as he was stabbed. His blood started to escape from the wound, slowly staining his clothes a shade of fresh crimson.
"Ah," Tetsuna grumbled under her breath. "Seijuurou-sama always has to make everything so complicated for me. He never listens when I tell him that it is always harder to do things when aphrodisiacs are involved. He should appreciate that I never fail to carry his orders out successfully."
"What… What is the meaning of this?" He finally spoke, his voice shaking. "Tetsu… You're… Why are you…?"
The look in Tetsuna's eyes were cold, her face was devoid of all emotion.
"A man, you mean? So what if I am one?" She… He spoke bluntly, voice as chilling as his expression was.
The fingers of both his hands remained grasped around a white hairpin, its sharpened end driven deep into Aomine's abdomen. It was the exact same hairpin he had bought for 'her' back then when they had gone into the town together.
Aomine let out a rough cry as the long pin was pulled out, in one swift motion, from where it had pierced into his body; more blood oozing from the wound as the weapon was removed. He could fell all the strength he had in his body falter as he collapsed onto the futon on his side.
He watched, from the position that he lay, for his assailant's next move. Even in the dimly lit room, he could still see everything in great detail; his pupils were dilated from the adrenaline that was running in his veins.
Tetsuya was standing tall over him, his clothes dishevelled. His muscular chest was now exposed; one could see the numerous scars and that large scale-like patch that mar the smooth, pale skin of his chest.
Aomine would never be able to forget that mark on that skin… that mark that resembled the skin of a snake.
"Y-You…" Aomine growled through his teeth.
"Don't even think of trying to escape; that attack had already punctured one of your organs. You would probably have bled to death before you even leave this room." His grip on the hairpin, which was grasped in his right hand, tightened; its latter half stained red with fresh blood.
The colour of his eyes began to change from an icy blue to one that was a mysterious shade of gold-blue that seemed to shine in the dark. His pupils became silted, resembling those of a predator hunting in the darkness of the night.
He had the exact same eyes; and the exact same look in them as the time when he had attacked him: cold and unmoving, devoid of all emotion.
"You were the one… behind those attacks… weren't you?"
He gave no reply to Aomine's question, nor did he show any signs of denial.
"Why…? Why did you attack those people? Why did you attack me…?"
"I was merely following orders."
"Orders…?" Aomine grit his teeth as he tried to muster his strength to stand. "From who…? What exactly are you supposed to be?"
His assailant's eyes were fixated on him, watching his every move. His lips were pressed together tightly—a sign that he had no plans to give any answers to his questions.
"What is this… supposed to mean…?" Aomine grunted between pants. "So the time that we had spent together… what was that supposed to be? A ploy… to get close to me…? To make me lower my guard down…? Hey, Tetsu… don't just stand there… Answer me!"
"There is no need for him to do such a thing."
Aomine let out a sharp gasp as he felt an unbearable pain in his chest. His eyes moved down towards the sensation, widening slightly as he found the blade of a katana sticking out of his chest. The metal was coated with a thin layer of blood that could belong to no one but himself.
"W-What…" He coughed out weakly. "Is the meaning of this…? Akashi!"
From behind him, Akashi Seijuurou gave a light snort.
"There are two reasons for this is simple, Daiki," Akashi paused to pull his katana from the taller man's chest.
Aomine, with no more strength to stand, collapsed to the tatami-covered floor.
"First, I have been tasked with a very important duty to watch all members of the hatamoto under the Fudai Daimyo, as well as everyone that is related to them. Men such as you, who disapprove of our cause, would have to perish for a new chapter of this country's history to begin."
"Y-You're working for the Emperor…!"
"That is one way of saying it, but we prefer to think that we are working for the future of this country. But that is not my only reason," Giving his sword a swing to rid the blade of the blood that stained its clear metal surface, Akashi sheathed it again. "You do recall what happened ten years ago, do you?"
"T-Ten years ago…? What are you…?"
"You mean you didn't know, Daiki? Your father must be a man of many secrets who is unwilling to share them with his own son. Perhaps you should ask him in the afterlife what sins he had committed all these years.
"I'm sure even a man of you have been educated about the 'cleansing' back in the last few years of the Ansei Period, am I right?"
"I do know about it… But does it have to do with…" Aomine's breath hitched sharply as he realized something. "Your parents… They…"
"Revenge is sweet, isn't it?" Akashi smiled as he walked towards his precious servant. "Good work as always, Tetsuna… no, Tetsuya. It is always a pleasure to witness you in action. You shall be well-rewarded."
Tetsuya's brow was slightly furrowed as Akashi approached him. He tossed the pin away, preparing to accept the katana from his master. He set the heavy weapon down on the futon before turning back to him, taking his master's hands in his own.
He held those hands tenderly, as if they were the most precious things in the world.
"But there was no need for you to soil these hands of yours, Seijuurou-sama," He ran his thumb over the calloused knuckles. "I must have you know that I am perfectly capable of handling things on my own."
Akashi gave a chuckle as he held out his arms, holding Tetsuya in them as he started to stroke his hair gingerly with one hand.
Tetsuya leaned into his touch, snuggling into the warmth of Akashi's chest as if he were a cat.
"My sincerest apologies, Tetsuya. I came because I was worried about you. I was afraid that your vision had become… clouded by that man."
"You must have some faith in me, Seijuurou-sama. You know that I belong to you… and you alone."
"Very well said, Tetsuya," Akashi smirked, running a thumb along Tetsuya's bottom lip. "For that, I'll give you a little reward."
Akashi leaned down, pressing his lips to Tetsuya's soft ones.
Tetsuya's eyes fluttered close as he allowed Akashi to ravish his lips.
His arms moved on instinct, moving around his master's neck so as to bring them closer together.
Using his tongue, he gently prodded Akashi's bottom lip, begging for entrance. Akashi broke the kiss, giving him a teasing smile as the two of them panted for air.
"Not now, Tetsuya. Don't be so impatient."
"But Seijuurou-sama… I want to… tonight… I don't think I can wait any longer."
"My, what a spoilt child you are. Don't worry; once we clean up this mess, we would have all the time in the world to do anything you want."
"But I'm exhausted… maintaining this form for too long takes up too much energy. I want to do it now."
"That's not possible and you know it, Tetsuya."
"Che," Kuroko scoffed. "I think I'll just have to bear with it."
"Thank you for your understanding, Tetsuya. You may take a break if you wish."
"That would be nice," Tetsuya gave a light sigh of relief as his body started to fade, as if he were about to disappear into thin air.
A moment later, all one could see was a pile of silk, the kimono that Tetsuya had been wearing, pooled on the floor.
He had disappeared, quite literally, into thin air.
"Oh? You're still alive?" Akashi narrowed his eyes, his face resembling a smiling fox. "You should've lost enough blood to be able to kick the bucket by now. Then again, you always have been clinging onto things and refused to give up no matter what; just like the stubborn fool you are."
"Akashi… Aren't we… supposed to be… friends? Why…"
"My mission aside; I do have my reason for committing such a… cruel act to one whom I have deemed as a brother. Your parents have committed a great sin, Daiki; and this is price they would have to pay for committing that sin. Oh, but then again, you too have sinned against me."
"Sin…? What… have I…"
Before Aomine could even finish his sentence, he drew his last breath.
Akashi did not move, his eyes watching the still corpse. His lips twitched slightly, for he was holding back a smirk of glee.
"Let me tell you something about Tetsuya's favourite flower, Daiki," He picked up the pin that Tetsuya had discarded earlier, as well as his sheathed katana. "Do you know what snapdragons are supposed to represent? The first of course, is a graceful lady. But the other meaning of that beautiful flower… is deception."
He walked over to his friend's dying body with an unreadable expression on his face. With one hand, he snapped the pint into half, allowing the metal to fall from his hand and onto the tatami next to the unmoving corpse.
He glared at the body with such intensity; it was as if he were trying to set it ablaze using his gaze alone.
"Never, ever lay your hands on what is mine."
Stepping aside and away from the body, he walked out of the room, careful not to step on any splotches of blood that might have landed on the tatami. After all, blood-stained tabi socks were nothing but trouble.
An ice-blue snake was coiled around his neck loosely, as if it were his scarf. The snake looked at him with eyes of golden blue, its silent glance expressing its indifference to its surroundings.
Slowly, Akashi opened the sliding door, not surprised to find his steward waiting outside.
"Thank you for your hard work," Akashi gave a smile as he walked past him.
The man gave a silent bow in reply before proceeding to clean up the room.
By morning, all traces of the tragedy that occurred in that room would have been erased.
Akashi walked slowly, in slow strides along the wooden hallway. The full moon shone brightly in the night sky, casting its ghastly light down onto the earth.
The cherry tree stood tall in its position in the middle of the garden, the pink blossoms turning shades of white under the magic of the moonlight. The wind stirred, bringing the petals to life as they scatter with the flow of the spring breeze.
It was a beautiful scene; the white petals of the yozakura dancing across the darkened sky, as if they were setting out on a journey to a faraway land.
Just like the path of life, their journey would take them where the wind blows. The wind decides where they will go and where are to go; it alone commands their destiny.
For destiny is something that is not chosen, but followed.
Humans are the same, walking that path of life that is dictated by that simple destiny.
They are born to the world.
They age and grow.
They fall ill and succumb to all sorts of ailments and diseases.
And finally, they die.
It is the very basis of life itself; even for human life it is ephemeral and transient. Nothing is meant to last forever.
Akashi held out his palm, allowing one small petal to gently fall onto it. Looking up at the night sky and watching the fleeting beauty of the dancing petals, he recited:
"When indeed they fall how much more these cherry flowers are endeared to us— What is within this fleeting world is meant to last forever…?"