Yukiko lay, staring at the ceiling of Ritsko’s wagon, eyes filled with sadness.
“What am I?”
The dark thing in her heart twisted, but offered no answers, save for the burning hatred it felt for all things. With a soft sigh, she ran a hand over her face, and sat up, trying her best to ignore it. Every day, it seemed to grow more difficult, but after the battle with Tamoki, it felt impossible.
She knew now. She knew what it was capable of. She knew what it wanted. She knew, it was always laying in wait, for her to be weak, to lose focus, to give it even one single opening, where it could take over again. When it did, she knew what it wanted to do, as well.
Erase it all. Everything. Unwind reality, and leave nothing.
The very thought of it filled her with terror. She had chosen, hadn’t she? To be a good person. To help others. To walk in the light. She had made that choice, of what her life would be. So, why, then?
Why did this thing dwell within her? This unending darkness. This horrible desire to erase everything from existence. This thirst for it, that pulsed through her, even as she rejected it.
“It’s not fair,” she whimpered, burying her face in her hand to hold back the tears.
“Nothing ever is,” Ritsko intoned, watching her over his shoulder from the wagon door.
Wiping her eyes quickly, Yukiko tried to smile. “Yeah. I know.”
Ritsko looked away. “Sadness is part of life, Yukiko. With out it, there can be no joy. Just as there can be no hope, without fear. These things, they are not evil. They just are. It is okay to feel them, so long as you do not wallow in them, and give yourself up to them. Only then, do they become evil, by driving you to do evil.”
Yukiko’s smile faded, her eyes growing sad again. “I don’t know that I’m strong enough.”
Ritsko gave a slight laugh. “No one is, my dear. That’s why we have others. Family, and friends, who are there for us. When we cannot be strong enough, they become our strength. If you cannot stand, lean on them, for that is why they are there.”
“If they knew,” she started, the brief hope that had filled her face fading quickly. “If they knew…”
“What makes you think that they don’t?” he asked.
Yukiko found she had no answer for that. Slowly, she pushed herself to her feet, looking past Ritsko, uncertain, and afraid. For his part, the portly alchemist simply waited, curious as to what she would do next.
“How do I face them?” she asked, of herself more than him. “With this inside me, this darkness, this awful thing I can’t control? How do I face them, and ask them to stand by me?”
Ritsko looked at the ground, saddened by the sound of despair in her vice. “That, I’m afraid, is up to you, my dear. I can only advise, but I cannot change the world, and make it be better.”
Forcing herself forward, Yukiko dropped a hand on his shoulder as she climbed down from the wagon. “It’s okay. Nobody expects you to.”
Ritsko could only give a soft smile at that, and watch as she squared her small shoulders, looked to where her friends stood, and with a deep, steadying breath, took the first step towards them. In her mind, if not her heart, she knew, for their safety, it was time for them to part.
Unaware of the choice she was making, Ritsko smiled wider. She was everything he had hoped. She was everything Heaven had hoped. So much rode on those small shoulders. So much rested in those tiny hands.
They were capable of carrying it all, though, he saw. More than capable.
For Yukiko was stronger than she knew. Strong enough, he dared hope, to change the world.
So like her mother.
Katsume stared up at the sky, watching the clouds go by, and for the first time in longer than she cared to admit, really thought about things. She knew, thinking wasn’t her strong suit, but she figured, all things considered, it was past time she handled all the things whirling through her mind, and her heart.
Her father would have been proud, she couldn’t help but muse, to see her taking stock. He had always felt she she should do it more often. Get her bearings, as he had called it.
For once, she really felt like she had to. So much had changed since that fateful day in the forest, when she had seen a small demon girl standing up to a monster, with nothing but an old, battered sword. She had known, of course, just what Yukiko was the moment she had come upon the battle. Shoki always knew a demon, no matter what guise they hid under.
That, and Lord Tso had told her of Yukiko. All the grand posturing she had done when they had met aside, she had been perfectly aware of what, and who, Yukiko was before she had laid eyes on her.
It had taken her aback all the same, to see a demon, looking so human, fighting so hard against another demon. More than that, it had shamed her. For all her arrogant proclamations, she was hardly a legendary Demon Slayer, and had not yet even fully mastered the most basic powers of the sword she carried. To see someone like Yukiko, doing so much more, with so much less, had left her feeling small, and lacking in confidence.
No, she thought, that wasn’t it. She had always felt that way. Watching Yukiko battle Tong had just made her acknowledge it. She had resented the demon girl for that, and acted like an ass because of it.
Iwao, her father’s closest friend, who had raised her after her parents death, had always said her quick temper was going to cause her more problems than it solved. She kind of regretted not having taken his stern lessons to heart. Perhaps, things could have been different between she and Yukiko earlier if she had.
Perhaps, she would have understood what she felt herself sooner, if she had. Why it was she had initially pushed Yukiko away, and then, when she finally did accept her as a friend, had grown so attached. She wouldn’t have asked Inari such a foolish question, or felt such guilt over the whole thing now.
Yukiko was brave, and resolute in her path. Katsume now saw, she never had been. Her bravado was not real bravery, and her goals had always been selfish, not righteous. It was why she had resented Yukiko from the start. She was a demon, yes, but she was a good person, and that, Katsume forced herself to admit, made her feel like the selfish braggart she was.
She had known this, of course. She wasn’t bright, but she wasn’t a total idiot. Her resentment, and poor treatment, of Yukiko was really aimed at herself.
There was only so long she could keep it up, it had turned out. When she had lost her precious pendant, it had been Yukiko who had calmed her, and helped her not only search for it, but recover it. It had been Yukiko who had been unafraid to be blunt with her about her temper, but had accepted her anyway.
Then, it had been her turn. It was Yukiko who had wept, who had felt guilt, and grief, over her mistake. Seeing it, Katsume had forced herself to accept what she had known for a while, but had rejected. She and Yukiko were kindred spirits, more alike they were different.
During the battle with Rekko, Katsume had begged her to take the villagers and flee, but Yukiko had refused, just as she had refused to take the Ginmota-za and flee from Tamoki. She would always choose the hard path, because it was always the right choice, and when she had seen the demon girl so lost to her own misery of her misaction, Katsume had come to terms with what her heart had been saying since the day they had met.
Here is where your soul can heal.
For her parents, she had rejected it still, though not as firmly. She had wavered in her selfish desire to be strong, strong enough she needed no one. Because that had always been foolish. Even her parents had taught her that no one never needs anyone. Something Iwao had kept trying to drill into her thick skull after they were gone.
When her parents had died, at the hands of that monster, she had never wanted to feel so weak as she did then. Unable to do anything but watch, helpless, and useless, she had hated herself for years now. Meeting Yukiko had forced her to face those feelings, to realize that everyone felt that way, really. She was hardly special, and not even remotely alone in it.
At least, not anymore. She had felt alone for so long, so driven by those feelings of being helpless, she had narrowed her focus to becoming strong enough to avenge her family, and nothing else. Even her fiancee, Osamu, was more an allie, than a love, though she did care for him greatly.
Katsume cocked her head to the side, watching a cloud that resembled a dragon drift past. Of course she cared for him. She always had, since they were children. When he had asked her to be his bride, she had, for a moment, forgotten her anger, and been happy. Though, even now, she felt that she didn’t miss him terribly.
Not enough to go home.
She had run into a blazing inferno for Yukiko without a second thought. Faced the nightmarish thing she had become with no hesitation. Because Yukiko was precious to her. Her friend. More than her friend, the one person she knew, understood her, and despite her many flaws, accepted her, and cared for her.
No. It wasn’t just that. Yukiko loved her. When she was being honest with herself, Katsume knew that. Just as she knew, she loved Yukiko. She had since that day she had seen the small, beautiful young woman, fighting for people who would never accept her, because it was the right thing to do.
She had fallen in love with her in that moment. The hard edges of her anger over her parents murder had softened. Her whole world had softened. Everything had just felt a little less jagged, and even now, Katsume felt as if, in some way, that lessened the agony she felt over the death of her family.
Osamu, despite all his gentleness, had never made the jagged edges of her heart softer. No matter how hard he had tried.
So, what then, did it all mean? Inari had said that in Yukiko she had found what she was really looking for. A new family. A new place to belong. She had to admit, he was right about that. She had been looking for it, without even knowing it. Just as he was right that in Yukiko she had found it. Someone who could understand her, accept her, and love her, for not just who she was, but what she was.
That was the difference, she saw. Osamu loved her, but had always been hesitant around her half demon form. Jut as his parents were. It had made her feel ashamed of her heritage, something her mother had always sought to ensure she didn’t feel. With Yukiko, however, she felt no shame. Even Ritsko had called it a wondrous gift.
Yet, she did love Osamu, and did want to marry him. Now, though, she realized she also loved Yukiko. She had for some time, and had just refused to see it. Call it guilt, call it doubt, call it fear, or anything else, but Katsume knew just what it was.
She didn’t feel worthy. Not of her. She who had braved a demon in a forest with nothing but an old sword. She who had stood up to Rekko, with her bare hands. She who had charged into a fight to save a stranger when they had met Kieskei. She who had wept for a man she didn’t even know.
She who had taken up two blessed swords, to protect innocent lives, and risked the loss of herself to save them, even when they rejected her.
When she thought about it, Katsume couldn’t help but wonder, how she couldn’t be utterly, completely, madly in love with her.
Who wouldn’t be?
Katsume sighed softly, and chastised herself for not being more honest with herself sooner. She was in love with Yukiko, and while she was realistic enough to know it could never go anywhere, not between the obligations he had to meet one day, and of course, the fact that Yukiko herself would never feel the same way about her, it didn’t change the fact that she felt what she felt.
There was one other thing, though, that went beyond even that. The thing she had tried the hardest not to see. The thing that made her feel stupidest of all. From the first moment, that day in the woods, Yukiko had been holding out the hand of friendship, and like the dunce she was, Katsume had taken forever to grasp it.
Yukiko was, plain and simple, her best friend. A better friend than she had ever known. The best friend she had ever had.
At the end of everything, no matter how much more she turned it all over in her mind, that was what really mattered the most.
Her friend, her best friend, needed her now. For once, Katsume vowed, she was going to live up to who she was suppose to be. Vengeance, her obligations, and everything else could go piss on themselves. Just as Yukiko had chosen to walk the path of light, Katsume chose to walk beside her, as the one person Yukiko would always know she could count on.
There was, as her mother had often said, nothing stronger in this world than that.
Kieskei gave Katsume a nudge as he spotted Yukiko climbing down from the wagon, drawing the Demon Slayer from whatever reverie she was focused on. Pulling her gaze from the clouds drifting overhead, she joined him in watching as the small demon girl made her way towards them. Inari and Ger joined them a moment later, the nine tails with grief, the Goblin doing a dance of joy that she was well.
For himself, Kieskei felt a small smile spread across his face. Though she had faced much, she still walked with her head held high, and her shoulders back. In that moment, he knew, he loved her, and his heart would be her’s, and her’s alone, forever.
By his side, Katsume made a sound of disgust. He started to ask why, but she was already gone, stalking across the space between them, her body language that of irritation. As the devil hunter watched, Yukiko drew up short, seeing the tall, red head coming at her.
“Katsume,” Yukiko started.
The Demon Slayer slapped her across the face, leaving Yukiko stunned, along with everyone else. When nobody did anything for a long moment, save gape, Kieskei’s soft smile turned to a frown, and took a step towards them. He didn’t make it any farther, however, as Ger tugged at his leg.
“Wait,” the Goblin said, holding Kieskei in his tracks, the look of intensity on his face at complete odds with his usual silly expressions.
Turning back, Kieskei did as Ger bid, and simply watched all that happened next.
“Ow,” Yukiko finally said, looking up at her friend. “What the hell was that for?”
“Scaring me, you annoying ass pipsqueak,” Katsume huffed. “Then walking out here with that look on your face, like you were getting ready to say goodbye, or some shit.”
Yukiko turned her eyes down. “Maybe it’d be better if I did.”
Katsume slapped her again, sending the smaller demon girl staggering.
“Go on,” she seethed. “Say it again. I dare you.”
Pulling herself back up, Yukiko rubbed the sore spot on her cheek. “You saw it, Katsume. You saw what I can become. What I can do. I can’t control it, and that puts all of you at risk, so long as I’m with you.”
Katsume pulled her hand back again, making Yukiko wince in anticipation. “Then what about this, huh?”
“What about what?” Yukiko squeaked out, tensing for the blow that had yet to come.
“This arm!” Katsume screamed at her.
Yukiko went wide eyed at the realization. Katsume had been slapping her with the arm she had lost. The one she hadn’t had time to regenerate. Nor was she still in her half demon form. Slowly, she looked up at the hand the Demon Slayer had raised, her gaze fixed in wonderment.
“This arm, that you gave me back, with your tears,” Katsume was sobbing, her own tears falling freely, no attempt made to hold them back. “This arm that you healed! What about it, then, Yukiko How you do make that something I could be better off without? How do make me better off with out you? Without my best friend?”
“I… did that?” Yukiko managed. “Wait… no… I did do that, didn’t I? How did I do that?”
Katsume’s hand swung out, and Yukiko flinched, only to fell it close around her head, and yank her in, holding her close to Katsume’s breast. “You stupid idiot. It’s because you’re Yukiko, that’s why.”
Yukiko trembled against her, feeling her heart beat, and again, as before, being drawn to it for some reason she couldn’t name. Within her, at each beat, she felt the darkness grow smaller, fading into that small kernel she had first noticed.
“That’s not a reason,” she argued anyway, too shocked to say anything else.
“It’s all the reason I’ll ever need.”
“Katsume,” she tried to say.
“So, no more of that going away, or dying crap. You hear me? We’re in it together, to the end, you and me. I’m not the smartest person around, but even I know when to accept something for what it is. So, enough fighting it, okay? We’re friends, ya know? More than that. We’re family. I love you, and I know, you love me, so knock it off with all this doom and gloom shit. You’re Yukiko, and damn it all, you make my world a better place for being in it. Now, smile, you pain in the ass, cause that’s when I love you most.”
Behind them, Kieskei had to nod and smile. Yes, that was when she was at her most beautiful. Her smile could light the world. It was what had made his heart ache, and what filled him with joy. That smile.
By his side, Inari lowered his head, and wept, for Katsume had found the words he had always longed to say. She had told Yukiko what he had always wanted to, and never could. Somehow, he prayed, she would hear them, and know. Finally, at last, that she would know how much she was loved.
Ger simply smiled as he let go of Kieskei’s leg. She was the one.
As if she were still afraid to, Yukiko wrapped her arms around Katsume, and held her close., lost in the sound of her heart beating. “I got it. Sorry. I forget things sometimes, I guess. Maybe I’m the stupid one. I should know by now, that I’m at my best, when I’m with you.”
Katsume buried her face in Yukiko’s hair. “Damn right you are. Don’t go forgetting it again.”
“If I do, I just have to listen to your heart beat,” Yukiko replied, burying her face against Katsume, and smiling. “It tells me who I am, you know.”
Katsume’s next words were so softly whispered, even Yukiko barely heard them. Barely, but still, she did. They filled her with enough light, the darkness vanished, for a time.
“Because it beats for you.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Kieskei asked as they finished an afternoon meal.
Yukiko exchanged a look with Katsume, then nodded. “The priestess Tamoki mentioned, Ai. We should find her.”
“A demon priestess?” Inari asked, obviously not sure of the idea.
“According to Tamoki, it was my mother who first set Ai on the path of thinking demons and humans could coexist peacefully,” Katsume told him. “While my mom never mentioned anyone named Ai, that does sound just like something she’d do.”
“Not to mention, she may know more about whatever this is inside me, and who I really am,” Yukiko added. “I’ve never really felt any need to look into it before, but after last night, I think the more we know, the better off we are.”
“She’s got a point,” Kieskei said, ruffling the nine tails ears. “Besides, I suspect that whoever this Onihone fellow is, his interest in Yukiko may be tied to the power lying dormant within her. This Priestess may know something about him, as well, and his designs on Yukiko.”
“Get info, get smart,” Ger laughed, rocking back and forth with a wide smile.
Katsume snapped her fingers, and gave the Goblin a shove, sending him swaying. “Out of the mouth of an idiot.”
“Ooohhh,” Ger replied with a look of awe. “Why you not say it, then?”
Katsume glared. Ger grinned. Everyone else found something on the horizon to study.
“Well,” Ritsko said, clapping his hands together. “If it is this priestess you seek, then I suppose I may as well help you get started.”
“Why am I not surprised you know something,” Katsume sighed.
The portly alchemist gave her a sad look. “I am a traveler of the world, you know.”
“Scam artist,” Ger giggled.
“Totally,” Inari said, giving Ritsko a meaningful look.
“Knock it off, guys,” Yukiko chastised. “Ritsko is a friend, and if he hadn’t guided us, a lot of people would have died. He’s brae.”
“Thank you,” he puffed, hooking his thumbs in his jacket and giving them all a smirk.
“In his own way,” Yukiko added.
Ritsko deflated. “Lady Yukiko, not you too!”
His whimpering tone drawn laughs from them all, which he took with a lot of pouting. Only once they had calmed, did he clear this throat, fold his arms into his sleeves, and deign to help them once more.
“In my travels, I’ve heard tale of a strange priestess, though I cannot say for certain it this Lady Ai you seek,’” he informed them. “However, it is said she resides at a temple, high in the Kadoki mountains.”
“Why do you call her strange?” Kieskei asked. “It’s not that uncommon for temples to be put in remote places.”
“According to the stories, she has been the priestess of this temple for almost one hundred years,” Ritsko replied with a smirk. “And, that she has superhuman powers. From what I hear, she protects a village a the base of the mountains, and that no demons dare venture near it, for fear of her.”
“Near a hundred years,” Katsume mused softly. “That would put it right in line with what my mom told me about her own realization that demons and humans don’t need to fight. It was about a hundred years ago that people started calling her the demon of the forest.”
“As I recall,” Kieskei added thoughtfully. “Midori came to protect the small town on the edge of her forest, which eventually became the home to your father.”
Katsume gave him a warning look. “That’s the long and sort of it, yeah. Still, it sounds similar enough, it gives us a place to start.”
Yukiko leaned into Katsume’s view, scowling. “You’re doing it again.”
The red head looked at the sky and gave a nervous laugh. “Doing what?”
“Being evasive about your past.”
Katsume groaned, and gave her a sheepish look. “It’s nothing. Sorry. This is good news, though, yeah? Let’s just take that, and be glad of it.”
Yukiko kept scowling for a moment, then heaved a weary sigh, and waved it off. “fine. One of these days, though, you’re gonna have to give me some kind of a real answer.”
“I will, I promise,” Katsume replied. “Can’t let Ritsko show me up by being more useful, can I?”
“Hey, now!” the merchant whined.
“All that aside,” Kieskei put in quickly. “We make our way to the Kadoki mountains, and search for this temple. Agreed?”
Everyone nodded, save Ritsko, who just rocked in his seat and looked pleased for a long moment, before tugging a small box from his pocket. Giving it a long look, he brushed it off, and made a presentation of handing it out to Yukiko, who eyed it warily.
“For you, my dear, as promised.”
“What is it?” she asked as she took it, sliding the lid open to reveal a pendant, made of iron, in the form of an eye. Lifting it by the simple leather cord it hung from, she considered it for a while.
“As promised,” Ritsko said. “A pendant that will allow you to change the color of your eyes. With this, and a thought, they can be as blue as the sky, or as green as the forest. A simple matter really, almost not worthy of my considerable skill and talent as the most famous alchemist in the known world.”
Yukiko slowly put the pendant back in the box, closed the lid, and handed it back. “Thank you, Ritsko. I appreciate it more than you can ever know. But, I won’t be needing that. There’s nothing wrong with the color of my eyes.”
The alchemist took the box with a warm smile. “Indeed, my lovely young lady, there is not.”
Katsume dropped an arm around Yukiko’s shoulder, and pulled her in. “Don’t you forget it again, either, pipsqueak.”
“Really, can you stop calling me that,” Yukiko sighed, but nestled against Katsume’s chest all the same.
“Maybe,” the Demon Slayer grinned. “But I doubt it.”
“Figures,” Yukiko groaned, then hugged her back.
“Naked times?” Ger asked.
Kieskei coughed and looked at something far away. Ritsko joined him. Katsume and Yukiko sighed heavily, wondering when Inari had stopped being the biggest pervert in their group.
Inari punched the Goblin.
They were family.
©-2018 Cain S. Latrani