At the Gentle Blossom, the hour is late. Shio, Crow, and Ryojiro, in varying degrees of restlessness, wait for their companions to return; Kaori continues to play her shamisen* for them, though the conversation has long since died off. Kokare rocks in his seat, nervously glancing about their surroundings. His paranoia seems to only worsen with time.
An hour passes before, abruptly, the soft conversation in the common room quickly turns to screams and the tearing of paper walls. The sounds quickly grow louder and more raucous; the samurai rise to their feet, acutely aware of their lack of weapons, and Kokare scrambles to the far corner just as their door is thrown open and a handful of Red Fox thugs spill in. Kaori’s teacup spills onto the floor as one of them grabs her around the neck, a blade pointed outward at the table. His eyes dart around the room before settling on Kokare.
“You will come with us, boy. The rest of you would be wise to let this end here, without further interference.”
Unthinking, Crow lunges to grapple the thug holding Kaori. He swings at her wildly as she comes for him but it’s messy; she manages to duck under the blade of the cheap sword and knock it from his grip. It clatters to the floor and he scrambles after it, releasing Kaori, who quickly retreats to the opposite wall, holding her throat and cowering beside Kokare. Shio gives a hiss of surprise and displeasure before kicking the blade further away. When Crow finally succeeds in finding a good grip on him, she sucks in a breath and heaves with all her strength, throwing him.
Despite his small size,he crashes onto the table, breaking its leg and sending rice and tea scattering across the room. He’s stunned for a moment, gasping atop the remains of the table, before he tries to roll and find his sword again. Shio stops him with a quick elbow to the face, leaving him moaning and blinded on the floor.
Outside in the common room, most of the paper walls have been cut down in the chaos. Two other yakuza are currently locked in a frenzied melee with the bouncer near the door. The other customers have fled and disappeared through the puckered, shattered walls into the rain outside.
Shio curses and sprints through the torn paper, dodging fallen furniture and instruments and swords, to try and find her own weapons. The bouncer seems to have the upper hand on the yakuza, but there’s relief in his eyes as Shio approaches. He parries a swing from one, retreating enough to throw open the weapons cabinet for her. Shio grabs her blade and draws it free from the scabbard, giving a vicious screech and slashing.
The yakuza tries to parry, but Shio cuts him down, then whirls on the one still locking swords with the bouncer. The bouncer looks to her as she approaches, his eyebrows going up as he gives a grim, restrained smile. Shio returns the smile, then levels her blade at the remaining yakuza. The man hesitates, terror bright in his eyes, before he sprints away, diving through one of the ruined walls and into the rain.
Meanwhile, Ryojiro is doing his best to protect Kaori and Kokare. He grabs the yakuza’s fallen sword as the man is still recovering from Shio’s blow. The yakuza lunges for it, and Ryojiro swings wildly at him. The blade is ill-made, but it cuts well enough through the thug’s grey kimono, opening a thin slice over his chest. He gives a shout of pain, stumbling backward as blood wells and stains his clothes. He grits his teeth, glaring at Ryojiro, then at Crow.
“Do you think this is worth it?” he spits at them, gesturing at the carnage. His other hand presses frantically against the wound, trying to stem the flow of blood—futilely.
“Do you?” Crow calls to him as she kneels next to Kaori, offering her an arm to assist her in getting up. The geisha is quick to accept the offer, even as Crow holds the yakuza’s gaze unflinchingly; he grits his teeth,limps a little toward the burst wall, considers—then he bolts.
Ryojiro has a shocked, pleased look on his face, as if he can’t quite believe that went so well. He drops the yakuza’s sword with distaste.
It is at this moment that Daiyu and Atsu return from their trip to the Otomo home. They stop in the entryway, and Atsu surveys the carnage disapprovingly. Shio gives them a hesitant, nervous grin, as if to say “oops?” Daiyu raises a single eyebrow in reply.
Kokare raises his head from his hunched, defensive position in the corner once the fighting and sound of steel has stopped. He sees only one body. “You—you let him get away! He’s going to—he’s going to go back! Back to Chutokire, we have to—
Ryojiro sighs. “I’m sure they’d be missed if they didn’t return.”
“We can handle them if that’s the best they’ve got.” Crow says as she returns from walking Kaori to relative safety. Her arm has since come free of her kosode, and she rolls her shoulder as if she’s about to engage in a sport rather than a bloodbath.
Kokare swallows. “I think—I think Yukira was one of the ones who kidnapped me, but he and the oyabun aren’t warriors! The others are worse…”
Atsu scratches at the side of his nose. “These?” he asks Kokare, giving the dead yakuza a nudge with his foot. He is not impressed.
Shio nods, wiping her sword and sheathing it. “We will have to fight regardless,” she says. “They will try to hunt us otherwise.”
“Best not give them too much of a head start, then.” Crow flexes the fingers of her sword arm, then steps over the broken wooden threshold to retrieve her weapon from the cabinet.
Shio frowns and surveys the ruined geisha house. Her eyes are deep pits of tiredness. “They won’t expect us back tonight. Now is probably the best time.”
Ryojiro looks equally exhausted, but nods in agreement. He daintily steps around shattered tables and porcelain. “Judging by their state when we left, they’re drunk and tired.”
Atsu shrugs as though he actually had something else to do tonight, but decided this was better.
Leaving Kokare in the geisha house is not an option: his father is nowhere to be found, and the likelihood of his being kidnapped again or killed while left unattended is too high. He agrees to go with them, shakily; the food and drink have fortified him somewhat. He tries to look brave. It’s not working very well.
With apologies to the Madam of the Gentle Blossom, they retrieve their weapons from the splintered cabinet and exit once more into the night. They keep up a fairly brisk pace, but after a period of silence, Atsu clears his throat.
“And… what is the plan when we arrive at this fox den?”
Crow shrugs. “Kill them, I imagine.”
Atsu considers this with a “not bad” expression.
The Red Fox Inn is quiet as they approach, but there is a foreboding chill in the air and rain. The front doors are open. Clearly, they are expected.
As they cross through the garden, they are able to see Boss Chutokire sitting in the center of the room. At his right side is Yukira, and a line of yakuza in dark gray, black, and dark blue kimono sit in a line as wide as the common area. There are ten of them in all; two of them are recognizable from the geisha house, though their wounds have been hastily patched. The do not move as the samurai approach.
Atsu audibly tightens his grip on his tetsubo. The veins in his forehead are standing out. Shio cocks her head to one side, then the other, eyes narrowed against the rain. Daiyu keeps herself well surrounded by a safety bubble of samurai, Kokare beside her. She unfolds her war fan with a flick and retrieves a scroll.
Crow slows to a walk, hand on her katana, and she stops just short of the door. She smiles thinly at the yakuza. “Expecting company?”
Yukira laughs, fanning himself despite the breeze occasionally rustling their hair. He smiles at Crow, eyebrows arched. “These are… unfortunate affairs you meddle in, I must admit. Are you the ronin Kitsune Shio spoke of? Or was that also deception?”
Crow raises an eyebrow, glancing at Shio, then back to Yukira. “Does it matter?”
Yukira shakes his head, smiling with a laugh. “Not very much, I suppose. You are quite bold to approach us so directly.”
Shio smiles back. “Boldness should be answered with boldness,” she says.
Yukira bows his head, as if impressed. “So it is.” He looks to Kokare, trembling behind Crow, Atsu, and Shio. “A pity, really. Such a handsome young man.” The yakuza’s swords click from their scabbards. “His tragic death will be most unfortunate.”
One of the wounded yakuza from the geisha house surges to his feet and draws his sword, advancing on them with vengeance in his eyes. Ryojiro draws his wakizashi equally quickly and, with grim precision, throws it; the blade catches the yakuza in the shoulder. Blood splatters the wall. His charge is thrown off-balance; he pauses in shock and pain. Shio takes advantage, taking a wide step and catching him in an arcing slash. A scream; the man falls, blood spreading and smearing over the floor as he writhes.
The third from the left is older than the others, perhaps an old hand. He shouts a kiai and lunges for Crow first. He misses by a hair as she steps out of the way, then digs a heel into his back to seize his momentum and send him sprawling to the ground. Another rushes to challenge her while his companion recovers from his fall, lunging forward with his blade; she manages to sidestep its passing. When he whirls on his heel to attack her again, it is directly into the upward arc of his sword; the blade opens him from belly to shoulder, and he falls to the ground with a spray of blood.
The bald man among the them is large, though not as large as Atsu, who he approaches with his tetsubo hefted. He brings it down in a massive strike, and Atsu is caught off guard just enough for the blow to stagger him. Still, Atsu is quick to recover; the yakuza is knocked prone by the butt of the opposing tetsubo. He rolls to the side too late and is promptly crushed under the weight of a mighty blow. Atsu spits his own blood at his crumpled form with a wild look.
Another of the yakuza is caught off guard by this, mid-stride to Daiyu. His sword is raised to strike when Atsu takes advantage of his shock, rewarding him with a stunning blow to the temple.
One of the yakuza from the Gentle Blossom bolts for Ryojiro as he is pulling his wakizashi from a fallen thug’s shoulder. He is drunk and tired; his footwork is sloppy, his swings messy, his limbs heavy. His attacks are dodged easily, and when presented with an opening, Ryojiro brings his wakizashi into his ribcage, hard. It wakizashi sinks in, a deep puncture in his side, and he falls to the ground.
Daiyu is still; eerily so given the circumstances, as she mutters the words from her prepared scroll. One of the few remaining yakuza lunges for her in her distracted state, but he is stopped short by the force of Atsu’s tetsubo. It smashes into and unseats his shoulder, cheekbone, and his neck, turning him into a crumpled pile before he realizes and much before he hits the floor.
For a time, the kami do not answer Daiyu’s call. Then, slowly, fire creeps out. Around her feet, around the corpses, a line of flame that spreads and slowly devours everything around it. Her look of concentration is broken by a very rare look of concern. This is very clearly not what she had intended.
Yukira and Chutokire have long since begun to look worried, but the sight of a fire is enough to unseat the rest of their calm. Yukira is first to flee, but he helps Chutokire to his feet. The last few remaining men begin to cover their retreat into the rear of the building, though Ryojiro takes one of them out with a wakizashi to the back. The blade slips into his kimono, between the ribs, and he sputters and drops to the wooden floor.
The floor is uneven, and Atsu’s plodding steps crack the burning floorboards, tetsubo raised high above his head, his focus locked onto Yukira. Chutokire turns slowly, and Yukira’s eyes widen in shock, then relax in neutrality, maybe acceptance, as it comes down on him. There is the sound of wood crushing flesh and bone as Chutokire throws himself between Yukira and the attack, managing a “Keep running!” before he is silenced, falling to the floor with a heavy thump.
Atsu withdraws his tetsubo and looks surprised; enough to stall a second swing. Yukira gapes in horror at the black blood of his master pooling at his feet before he turns to do as he was bade. Eyes wide with terror, he stumbles over dead yakuza and out the front door. Shio curses and lunges after him, but stumbles over the fallen warriors’ weaponry.
Crow calls out to her, then the rest of them, urging them outside with her sleeve over her nose and mouth. Once her katana is sheathed, she grabs Kokare by the collar of his kimono and tugs him along with her. By now the Red Fox Inn is a furious blaze, and the six of them narrowly manage to flee the building before a rafter crashes down over the doorway, sealing those inside to their fate.
Yukira is weak and tired; he has not run far, but to catch up with him on foot seems a stretch. Atsu wipes soot and sweat from his brow and peers after him into the dark, rain-slicked street; a streak of lightning illuminates his silhouette. Then another, then another, and another, each closer and quicker than the last until the thunder has grown cacophonous and Daiyu’s chanting can be heard, hoarse and loud, between each deafening crack. Finally the fifth bolt of lightning connects with Yukira’s fleeing form, and he falls to the ground in a pathetic heap. The samurai gawk in horrified silence, and after several moments pass they turn in unison to stare at Daiyu. She does not meet their gaze, a look of concentration and discomfort on her face, and soon she rushes ahead to collect him. They follow not long after.
When they find Yukira, he is, at best, charred: his much-repaired kimono is blackened, his tabi are half-burned off, and the left side of his face is burned and marred. He is breathing but heavily scarred, and the rain has put the fire out.
Atsu grunts, taking a pained breath and gesturing towards him with his tetsubo. “What should we do with this?”
Daiyu kneels at his side, muttering several prayers under her breath. It’s unclear who exactly they are for. “I can…I…” She kneels down and begins another incantation. just barely resting a finger on his charred shoulder
Shio watches, frowning. There is some pity in her eyes, but not much sympathy. Yukira is clearly in shock and halfway to unconsciousness, but keeps muttering ‘Chutokire’ under his breath. The rest of it is hard to make out. Crow winces, clearly made uncomfortable by the situation. Shne pulls her arm back into her sleeve.
Daiyu’s spell succeeds, and a greenish blue light surrounds her hand and fingers. His wounds begin to heal, but even the kami can only do so much; he is still badly burned. Once it is clear there is no more she can do for him, Daiyu stands and does the same for Atsu’s wounds.
Kokare swallows and steps forward, in shock and quiet but still morbidly curious. Crow turns to him, seeking any excuse to look away. “Where might we find your father?”
Kokare swallows, distracted for a moment by the sight. He looks at Crow belatedly. “He is… he would be staying near the magistrate’s home.”
“No. The magistrate’s home is being watched.” Daiyu’s tone is stern as she smooths a hand over a gash on Atsu’s arm. Kokare looks immediately worried.
“Perhaps we should head to the Gentle Blossom,” Crow offers quickly in some half-hearted attempt to ease Kokare’s anxiety, “We can think on where to look next, and perhaps help them clean up a bit.
Though no one seems thrilled at the idea, there is no dissent. Atsu leans down, hefting Yukira’s half-conscious form into his arms, and they start back toward the geisha house.
By the time they arrive, dawn is barely an hour away. Tired geisha, dressed for sleep, help clean the mess left by the Red Foxes. This time the bouncer does not collect their weapons; he is too busy heaving a shattered door frame atop a pile of ruined chairs.
“Kokare!” Comes Otomo’s voice from behind them just as they’ve entered the building. The samurai turn to find Torokai and his charge, freshly dressed and certainly more awake than any of them, approaching from the eastern road. Otomo looks caught between leaping with joy and scolding his son; Torokai stands nearby, stoic but relieved. He ushers Otomo inside, following closely behind as rain begins to pour once more.
Shio bows to them, suddenly very aware that she’s sooty, covered in blood, and soaking wet. The rest of the samurai follow suit.
“I take it you were…successful.” Otomo says in quite a strained voice, trying not to stare at Yukira, bandaged and limp in Atsu’s grasp. Atsu stares somewhere above Otomo’s head.
Daiyu stands straight before Akodo and clears her throat. “We found your son, did we not? This is the last of his captors. We thought it would be best for you to see to his punishment.” Daiyu bows low afterwards.
Otomo nods slowly, then bows in return, unsteady and obviously a bit ashamed. “I… yes. I thank you for your… assistance. And for Akodo-san’s protection. What of the…” he eyes him, “I should not ask. I thank you.”
“He is a rather young man,” Ryojiro adds, gesturing to Yukira, his brow drawn, “and deserves a chance to reform his life with better guidance.”
Daiyu stares daggers at Ryojiro, but Crow nods in agreement. There is a long, pregnant silence that follows for several moments. It is broken by Crow turning away unceremoniously, moving to assist the geisha in relocating scrapped wood to a pile in the corner. Shio follows not long after.
“Yes, well.” Otomo bristles. “That is not for us to decide. Hida-san, if you would come with me. We will take care of this…boy. Akodo-san, I would greatly appreciate it if you would see to our safety in the meantime.”
Atsu does not seem thrilled at the prospect, but he grunts and follows behind. This extends to Akodo, who bows his reluctant agreement and follows the pair of Sojin out from the geisha house.
“It has been a long night.” Daiyu says; it is unclear whether the circles beneath her eyes are due to face paint, soot, or if she is just that tired. She looks to Ryojiro, who nods following an uncomfortable pause. They glance to Crow and Shio as they help clean, then take their leave and head for the nearest inn.