"His lifespan? Saito asked as the oni stood up again.

"A rasetsu's power is by no means a gift from the gods," Amagiri said. "Extraordinary strength, agility, and miraculous healing abilities... Such powers are hidden within your own body. You are merely using it spread out over the course of several years," he explained. Miyagawa Sumiko had used more scientific terms and had said it had something to do with an irregularity in their 'epiphenomenon' (something to do with the relationship between one's lifespan and number of heartbeats), but he thought this summarization should suffice, seeing as it was basically what hers had boiled down to in the end. She suspected whatever Koudou had done to fix their problem with the sun was to blame for his new rasetsus' more rapid deterioration, since she had never heard of this happening to anyone in the Shinsengumi yet. However, she seemed to have a hard time explaining the rapid disintegration and heatless flames that briefly manifested over the remains, which she suspected was vapors of phosphorus leaving the body. He personally believed it to be their departing souls.

"!" Saito gasped in realization. "Meaning, the more power they wield, the shorter their lifespans become?" he asked.

"Exactly," Amagiri replied.

"So, that rasetsu turned to dust because he ran out of life force?"

"Mn," Amagiri nodded. "That was more or less the theory Miyagawa Sumiko devised after witnessing the same phenomena we just saw."

"Sumiko-san, huh...?" Saito said thoughtfully, narrowing his eyes slightly as he stared down at the ashes and the wind began to pick up. "Is she well?"

"She is, though she is worried for the rest of you," Amagiri replied truthfully. "Well, I shall be going now." He bowed and turned to leave. "Share that information with your friends who have become rasetsus. It would seem that some from the Shinsengumi are also wandering in search of blood."

Neither of them were aware that San'nan was watching from the shadows.


April, 1868

"You've been working too hard," Kazama commented with a frown when he found Sumiko asleep her desk. Ever since learning just how fast a rasetsu's powers could consume the user's lifespan, she had been working nonstop trying to find a cure. He was willing to give her some alone time to work, but it had been days since he last saw her. He reached out and gently brushed her soft hair out of her face. He furrowed his brow. He didn't like that she was overworking herself for the sake of that man.

"Mn..." Sumiko began to stir. She picked her head up off the desk and started rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "Kazama... -san?" she asked sleepily.

"Who else were you expecting? You've been locked in here for days. It's time to come out," he told her.

"Yeah... I guess you're right. I'm getting nowhere. At this rate, I'll just make myself sick, and then I won't be of use to anyone..." she admitted reluctantly, pausing for a moment. She blinked "Days? I guess I lost track of time... what's the date?" she asked, glancing up at him.

"It's already the third day of April," he replied with an internal sigh. He was surprised when her eyes suddenly widened and she looked up at him like she had just been slapped in the face.

"What...?" Sumiko asked, stunned, as the ground seemed to drop out from under her. "No! No, it can't be, not yet!" she cried, jumping to her feet. She ran for the door, but Kazama blocked her.

"What are you doing? Where do you think you're going?" he asked, frowning, as he stared down at her, startled by the sudden change that had come over her. It felt like if he let her out of his sight now, she might disappear forever.

"I have to go!" she said urgently. "Kondo-san... Kondo-san's been captured!"

"Calm down," he said firmly, placing his hands on her shoulders. "What were you planning to do on your own? Assuming you know of this because of the knowledge you have in the future, then you should already know what is going to happen to him."

"Yes," she said lowly, furrowing her brow. "If I don't go... Kondo-san will die. He'll be executed soon. That's what's supposed to happen, according to history, and I've been trying not to interfere too much, but... but now that it's happening, I can't just sit back and watch! If I let it happen when I could've maybe done something, then isn't that the same as killing him myself!?" she said anxiously, looking extremely torn.

"Are you going to change history for those humans?" Kazama asked. "The fact that you haven't tried to do so until now suggests the future you come from is not a bad one. Weren't you trying to protect it?"

"!" Sumiko said, startled by how close to home his question had hit. She bowed her head and clenched her fists. "You're right. It's not a bad future... in fact, it's a pretty good one, all things considered." It could have been a lot worse when you looked at the bigger picture and the different possible outcomes... "What's happening now—what's supposed to happen—may be best for the country as a whole... But I can't just abandon them! I don't know what else could change if I do this, or if I'll even be able to change anything at all. Maybe it's fated to happen this way, but even so... I don't want to give up without ever having tried," she said determinedly, raising her head to meet his gaze. "I'm going to protect what's important to me. So what if the government collapses or the country is ruined? If all of that can be destroyed so easily by one girl, then maybe it should collapse. I'm busy just protecting what's right in front of me. I don't know what'll happen to me or the future, but if something has fallen at my feet, then the least I can do is pick it up! In this mixed up world, deciding what's right and wrong isn't easy. You can't just go by somebody else's rules. If you let yourself be controlled like that, you'll become a puppet that can't make any decisions on its own. You have to live by your own rules." Kazama stared at her for a moment in awe. He was impressed with her determination and spirit, but she seemed to be forgetting something else very important. And that pissed him off.

"Hmph. You think I'll just let you leave?" he asked, tightening his grip on her. "You still haven't given me an answer to my proposal. Even if you leave now to help him, you can't save the commander of the Shinsengumi. What can you do for him that his men can't? If they already have him, there's nothing you can do. If you try to break him out on your own, you will only get yourself killed. You have no political power to bargain with, and I have no intention of incurring more debt with Satsuma just to save a human. If you want to blame someone for his death, blame me. I'm used to being the villain. You can hate me if you want, but I won't let you go off and get yourself killed." He thought she would get angry or try to struggle after hearing that, but her expression melted as she stared up at him.

"... You're a good man, Kazama Chikage," Sumiko said somberly, surprising him. "You're right, I probably won't be able to save Kondo-san. His death will be too public... but the others still have a chance. Please, let me help them." Kazama stared at her for a moment before closing his eyes.

"No matter what I say, you intend to go," he said with a sigh. "Why even bother asking?"

"Because I'd prefer to go with your blessing," she replied with a wan smile, blushing slightly as she continued. "I want to marry you," she said, looking away shyly. Kazama's eyes widened. "When this war is over, let's get married. By then I'll be done taking care of this, and you'll have finished repaying your clan's debt to Satsuma. Don't worry," she said, smiling reassuringly at him when she noticed the concerned look in his eyes. "I won't do stupid things like becoming a human shield anymore. I'll be more careful this time."

"Very well. I suppose I'll have to let you go, for now," Kazama said with a small smile. He pulled her into a deep and possessive, but gentle kiss. "That kiss is proof that you and I are not unconnected," he told her, caressing Sumiko's pink face as she breathed deeply once he pulled away. "Once you've finished sorting yourself out, come back to me. No, if you don't come, I will come and pick you up myself."

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