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Ghosts in the Faces of the Living

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Yushiro turned up his collar and shrugged his shoulders up to his ears in a desperate attempt to keep the wind from stealing his body heat.

He might be a demon but that didn't make the harsh winds of winter any more comfortable. He'd suffered through more than a hundred winters and he still never liked the cold.

He swore under his breath as he plodded through the slushy snow coating the sidewalk.

"Goddamned bank managers needing me to come in to do paperwork," he grumbled to himself. "What's the point of modern life if I still have to be in person just to push paperwork?"

Every few decades, Yushiro created a new identity and began transferring assets to this recently adopted "heir". All of this was done to avoid suspicion over his supposed age. He could use his Demon Blood Art to create the illusion of an aging man,  but eventually the bank or the government would notice how long he lived and be curious about how such an old man remained active. Best to be on the ball and start with a new name and a younger age long before his previous identity's death. On paper and according to the bank's records, he died twice already and had been reborn three times. His newest identity was young and had only begun to accumulate wealth while his current identity aged out and died in a decade.

And since he had to be in person at the bank tonight, Yushiro made sure to withdraw a fair amount of cash, tucking the thick wads of bills into his satchel; money in hand was always more useful than money in the bank.

The most annoying part was the sheer amount of paperwork that accompanied accounts that the bank considered important.

No, that was wrong.

The most annoying part was the sheer amount of paperwork that the bank required to be done in person in Tokyo.

The only perk of being important to a den of suited thieves was he could convince them to do these one-on-one sessions in the winter and after normal bank hours.

Between the early sunsets of winter and the late banking hours, he could travel to Tokyo once every few years safely.

In the past, he had to concoct elaborate excuses like being allergic to sunlight or being an eccentric who slept all day and only left his home at night. Current times and his current wealth let him dictate an overcast evening and the bank manager would fall over himself to obey, so long as Yushiro read and signed the stack of papers presented to him.

It was still a pain in the ass to travel into the city. Winter afforded him the most safety from sunlight, but he wasn't a fan of traveling in inclement weather. Just his luck this blizzard kicked up right as he was arriving in the city, dumping enough snow to be annoying but not enough to cause the bank to cancel their meeting.

He couldn't remember the last time it snowed this much in Tokyo. And even then, his memory told him it was in January or February, not December. TV personalities and newscasters breathlessly talked about the snowfall as if it were a magical event. People on the train and in the shops murmured how "Christmas-y" and romantic it felt outside. And half the people in cars suddenly forgot how to drive now this white stuff coated the ground. Yushiro was nearly hit in a crosswalk by a driver who didn't understand not to speed when driving on ice.

The worst part was the wind! The mountainous buildings created valleys, funneling icy air down concrete corridors. The wind wound its fingers through his clothes, finding the tiniest gaps to needle his skin. The spray of snow forced him to squint against the wind and the half melted sidewalks were slippery. He felt thoroughly undignified.

On top of all that, he was starving.

Well, not starving. Not in that way. He needed such little blood that he could go more than a month without needing a donation from a human.

No, this was the hunger that comes with being a warm blooded creature in the cold, craving something warm and rich to ward off the long, chilly night ahead.

He hadn't been a human for more than a century and those human-like urges still kicked up occasionally. The basic instincts like seeking warmth, wanting to eat a delicious meal, craving a gentle touch, those never went away after becoming a demon. At least, for him, they didn't. Maybe normal demons lost that bit of their humanity as well. Perhaps Lady Tamayo's method of creating him left a few shreds of mammalian instinct intact.

The thought of her squeezed something in his chest painfully. Decades passed and grief never got any easier.

But then Yushiro caught a whiff of something greasy, distracting him. It wasn't so late that every restaurant was closed but the ones that catered to office workers long ago sent everyone home. What was left was probably some hole in the wall place that stayed open all hours.

His stomach growled.

Greasy dive or not, it smelled good. And it would be nice to get out of the cold.

He barreled ahead, fighting the wind each step of the way.

Further up the block, a puttering scooter jumped the curb with a whump, pulling right up to the door. The driver leaned over, not even bothering to get off the bike, and knocked on the door.

Rude punk, Yushiro thought to himself. He hated that he only felt old when it came to witnessing a younger generation's lack of manners. But riding on the sidewalk? Absolutely not acceptable! It didn't matter no one else was out here but him. The driver was too lazy to get off his damn bike. Neither of those things were excuses by Yushiro's exacting standards.

The door swung open with a chime of noisy bells. A woman stepped out, proffering a plastic bag bulging with takeout containers. The man took it without a word and his scooter growled to life as he swerved off the sidewalk and back onto the road. The driver didn't notice the woman waving after him. Yushiro thought he heard a "Drive safe but hurry back!" although the wind all but swallowed her words.

"Hey!" Yushiro called out as he sped up to a slow jog through the wet slush. "Are you still open?" Maybe they were closing up and that was their last order? That would just be his luck today.

The woman turned to face him.

Large pink and green braids swung about her shoulders. Spring green eyes met his.

Yushiro stopped dead in his tracks so quickly that his feet slid out from under him. He tried to catch himself but only ended up with his legs sprawled and landing hard on his ass.

"Oh my god, are you OK?" The woman carefully shuffled through the snow over to him, carefully making sure each step was secure before she put her weight down on her foot.

"No, no, stay there," Yushiro quickly said as he stiffly and slowly got to his feet and stood up. "You're in no condition to slip and fall or help me up."

The woman stopped in her tracks and put a hand over her heavily pregnant belly. "Oh, right, I sometimes forget. But," she nervously brought a fist up to her mouth, "If you're hurt, I can get someone to help you. Are you alright? Really?"

Yushiro brushed the snow and salt off the back of his pants. Nothing worse than a bruised ego. If he were human, he maybe would have gotten a bruise on his ass. His pride ached from the embarrassment more than anything else.

"No, I'm fine."

"Are you sure? I'm so sorry! I thought the city was going to take care of the sidewalk today. My husband's been out when he can to shovel but it won't stop snowing." Her face and voice radiated concern worthy of a saint.

Yushiro took a deep breath, trying to calm his racing heart, and asked, "Are you still open for dinner?"

Her smile lit up with a million watts. "Yes! We can offer you dinner. Here, come inside! Dry off and warm up a bit! You don't even have to buy anything."

As he carefully made his way through the snow after the woman and towards the restaurant door, his mind reeled.

This woman looked exactly like Mitsuri Kanroji. Not just a passing resemblance but nearly identical to his memory of her a century ago. Yes, this woman was obviously a little older and was visibly pregnant. Her clothes were modern and covered with a boringly practical apron, not the salacious slayer uniform with its revealing skirt, but there was no denying the resemblance.

No, her hair was the same eye catching cherry blossom pink and matcha green that stuck out like a sore thumb so long ago. The color stuck out even by current standards. And there were the large green eyes, the twin distinctive beauty marks right below her eyes, and the sunshine bright smile! Even after so long, he could tell that this woman was a spitting image-

A flash of grief flooded his chest as the memory of that night welled up in his mind.

"Sir?" the woman asked, holding the door open for him.

He shook his head, clearing the foggy grief from his mind. "My apologies. It's been a long day."

Ghosts pop up in unexpected places.

She made a little cooing sound of concern and urged him through the door into the restaurant.

Not that there was much room for him to be in the restaurant. Besides the counter that separated the room from the kitchen, only a handful of tables and chairs squeezed closely together. Yushiro thought how if there were more than a couple customers, they'd have to practically sit on top of one another.

"Sit, sit!" she chirped at him, pointing at the nearest table. She brushed past him, nearly knocking him over. If he wasn't blessed with unusual strength, he would have fallen over for the second time in as many minutes.

Yushiro began the annoying process of de-layering from his winter outerwear. Usually, he didn't bother to bundle up since demons couldn't get sick or be frostbitten and he rarely left his house for long anyway. But the frankly unpleasant chill was uncomfortable for him to bring out the whole of his coat closet. In the chair next to him, he dropped his bag, hat, scarf, and gloves. The heavy coat draped on the back of the chair and he peeled off one of the two sweaters he put on that morning.

As he slid into the seat, the woman - he was going to think of her as Mitsuri regardless of what her name actually was - plopped the menu down in front of him.

She said, smiling at him, "Everything's in stock today. Thanks to the snow, we didn't get much of a dinner crowd so we still have plenty of everything." Her voice did have a smallest touch of disappointment but her smile never dipped below being anything but as  radiant as the goddamn sun.

"Hey!" someone barked from the kitchen.

"Oh no," she sighed and turned towards the back. "I'm with a customer! Be nice!"

A man poked his head through the noren and shot her a disapproving look with mismatched eyes. "Stay off your feet."

"I said I'm with a customer!"

"Doctor's orders. No excuses," he said flatly. Something in the kitchen beeped and the man growled in annoyance before disappearing again. "Sit down and I'll be out in a minute."

Yushiro blinked. Of all the places he expected to see the other half of this duo, he didn't expect to see the late great Serpent Hashira as a cook.

No, that was unfair. It wasn't not actually a long dead man from a long lifetime ago. It was just someone who was born identical to him. The same suspicious blue and yellow eyes. The same dark hair. The same raspy, commanding voice. The stubborn bastard still covered up this face, just with a face mask rather than a mess of bandages this time.

"Sorry about that," Mitsuri said with an apologetic half bow. "I am supposed to be taking a break until the baby gets here but then the girl we hired quit suddenly this morning and then the blizzard hit and we have only the one delivery guy and-"

Yushiro used his foot to kick out the chair across the table from him. "I heard the man. Sit down."

She blushed bright pink, flustered over everyone fussing over her, and slowly lowered herself into the seat.

"Is that your husband?" Yushiro asked, eyes darting to the curtained entrance to the kitchen.

She nodded while pulling a pen and a notebook out of her apron pocket. "Do you know what you want to eat?"

"I'll order in a minute," he said, pretending to look over the menu. It wasn't exactly extensive. Noodles and meat mostly.

"We have pretty big portions. If you're real hungry, you'll get enough to eat and we'll box up what's left." She threw him another sunny smile, as if she beamed with pride over the idea that people wanted to keep their leftovers.

"Tempura udon," the demon said decisively and handed her the menu back after she scrawled down what he wanted. "And do you have any beer? I'm going to be stuck in town so I might as well have a drink."

Her eyebrows went up. "Are you old enough to drink?"

Yushiro rolled his eyes and fished out his wallet to show his ID, the one for his newly created younger identity. He knew he looked like a teenager, but it was irksome in the past few decades to be asked to prove he wasn't a child.

He mused as Mitsuri peered at his license, They didn't used to stop anyone from drinking. If you had cash, someone would pony up the booze even if you looked like a baby. Or even if you were a baby.

"Yushiro Yamamato?" She met his eyes as she handed back the ID. "Funny. I don't recognize that name, but I feel like I met you before."

A bud of panic took root beneath his sternum but his face betrayed nothing.

How much does she remember?

The idea that she might recall his face from 100 years ago or - even worse - if she remembered the night of her death chilled him

"I have one of those faces," he said coolly.

"Maybe we met in another life," she chirped, her voice gleeful as glitter. "Wouldn't that be nice to know we keep the same friends lifetime after lifetime?"

Her well meaning words wormed their way through his ribs and bore painfully into his heart.

Oh, if you only knew.

He did not say that his beloved would never walk into his life again. Even if he died and they were reborn, the chances of them meeting were infinitesimal. And Lady Tamayo was never his to begin with; her heart always belonged to others. She would never walk into his life, no matter how time passed.

But these two warriors- their circumstances were different.

Obanai strode out from the kitchen, shrugging past the curtain divider. "I thought I told you to stay put."

Mitsuri shrugged. A giggle got past her lips. "You said sit down, so I did."

"I meant at the counter so you don't have to get up to take orders or answer the phone."

Her pink lips pushed out in an adorable pout as she ripped the order off her notepad and handed it to her husband.

But her husband was unswayed. "Don't give me that look. You know you're supposed to be resting."

"I wanted to talk to the customer."

"You can do that from the counter. Then you won't have to get up."

"Fine," she sighed in resignation. She met Yushiro's gaze and whispered conspiratorially, "You'd think that he'd learn that I'm not made of glass by this point."

"Why are you talking like I'm not next to you?" Obanai - or whatever his name would be in this life - chided. He grabbed the back of her chair and dragged it across the floor to the counter. Mitsuri laughed, grabbing onto the sides of the chair for dear life, as if she were on a carnival ride and not simply being moved 10 feet away.

Once her chair was safely behind the counter, Obanai pointed a commanding finger in her face "Now stay."

She threw him another little pout that was all but ruined by the fact she was trying not to smile and was failing miserably at it.

Yushiro rolled his eyes. This was too adorable and disgusting

"You sound like you're talking to a dog," he snapped.

Obanai's mismatched eyes darted to him, narrowing with annoyance and suspicion.

Yushiro might not be mortal but he felt the animal instinct to freeze when pinned by those eyes.

When Obanai turned back to his wife, his sharp features notably softened. He ducked down and whispered something in her ear that sent her blushing and giggling, batting at him playfully and saying, "Stop it!" A finger hooked over the the top of his mask and pulled it down just far enough for him to deliver a kiss to her temple, before standing back up again and disappearing back into the kitchen. Mitsuri sighed, watching him as he left.

Darkness twisted in Yushiro's gut. It took a moment to wrestle the envy back into its numb hiding spot, but he contained it without betraying so much a flicker of emotion on his face.

Mitsuri, still pink in the face and beaming and filled to the brim with contentment, turned back to him. "I'm sorry about that. He's always worrying over me, even when I don't have a baby on the way. You'd think I was in mortal danger every minute or something with the way he acts."

Yushiro gave her a tight smile that he was sure didn't reach his eyes.

He remembered hiding in shadows as the Kakushi tended to the wounded and dying and the dead after the dawn of final battle. He couldn't step out into the deadly sunlight to help but he could still hear them from the house where he hid. He heard whispers and wails of the aftermath  and in the joyous and grief stricken days that followed.

He heard of a young man who held his beloved, both of their bodies mutilated and torn to shreds. They should have died long before dawn due to their  wounds but they both barely held on until daybreak. With the rising sun, they found each other somehow. Yushiro wasn't clear if the blinded man found the young woman or if a kind and knowing Kakushi placed her bloodied body in his grasping arms.

No one knew exactly what they said to each other in their last moments. Their final words were hidden from everyone but each other. Everyone nearby understood that their last moments should be between them. The sun was barely above the horizon when they both passed. Their bodies were finally unable to endure the hell they were put through.

Yushiro remembered how the Kakushi took a long time to separate them, for the dead man's hands clenched tightly around the woman, unable to give her up and unwilling to part from her even in death.

"Your food will be out shortly," Mitsuri chirped happily, interrupting long ago, sad memories.

"I'm in no hurry," he said evenly, fighting back the slight waver of sadness in his voice. "My train back home was cancelled due to the snow so I'm stuck in town for a day or so, until they can sort out this stupid mess."

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that! Do you have a place to stay?" she asked, truly full of concern.

Yushiro had no doubt that she would have invited him to stay in her own home if he said he didn't have someplace to sleep. That was the kind of person Mitsuri was. Fussing over and loving people, even complete strangers.

"I have a hotel nearby booked. You don't need to be concerned." He didn't want to talk about himself. This strange encounter made him curious about this couple who had the faces and voices of ghosts long ago. He cleared his throat and changed the topic. "Is this- I'm sorry to pry, but is this your first child?"

She shook her head, braids swirling around her shoulders. "Nope! This is kid number five."

Yushiro's eyebrows went up in genuine shock. Five kids was quite a lot. While he could picture Mitsuri as the mother to as many children as she could get her hands on, it was difficult to imagine Obanai as a father to one child, let alone a whole litter of kids. It was like this couple alone was aiming to repopulate Tokyo.

"That's quite impressive."

She blushed but smiled appreciatively. "You know how it goes..." she trailed off awkwardly, embarrassment seeping through her words.

But Yushiro did not know how it goes. The love of his life was taken from him - ripped apart from his presence for all eternity. Besides, demons couldn't have children. His parasitic species could only sire new demons from existing humans, which only furthered misery in the world. He never created any himself and, as far as he knew, he was the last of his kind.

"Congratulations to you two," he said quietly, his voice unusually gentle. His own soft tone surprised him.

"Thanks! People on the street come up to me and say that so many kids but I always wanted a whole gaggle of them. I'm just lucky to get exactly what I wanted."

He had no doubt that a herd of children is what she always wished for. Even long ago, she struck him as the kind of person overflowing with enough love for a hundred people.

Yushiro didn't know Mitsuri prior to that night in the Infinity Castle. Those fleeting, flailing moments in battle let him glimpse into her personality but he felt he only truly got to know her after she was dead. His knowledge of this lively young woman was gained through the words of the surviving Demon Slayers, through the gossip of the Kakushi, through the limited interactions Kiriya shared with him in following decades, and her surviving letters. Oh, the multitude of letters written and answered by her.

In some ways, it was a shame many of her letters were burned with her body. Yushiro figured they could have been historical documents with their details and sheer volume. But a kind and understanding person took the most personal of her letters - a large majority addressed to the Serpent Hashira - and rested them alongside her corpse prior to her cremation. Yushiro vaguely recalled  the letters being tucked into her stiff fingers the morning before her funeral. While he occasionally regretted whoever decided that, he understood the reasoning and knew it was the right choice. The Love and Serpent Hashiras' correspondence was one that was never meant to be shared. Let them take their kind words and companionship to the grave, rather than let following generations spy upon their complicated relationship. No, better to let their kind words to each other be turned to ashes along with their bodies.

"Good for you two," Yushiro said to this version of Mitsuri. Maybe he sounded a bit sarcastic, although he didn't mean to; that was truly his eternal curse even after decades and decades of practice with humans. He wasn't a warm person as a human and time as a demon did absolutely nothing to cure that.

"By the way, I love your hair! Did you do it yourself or did you get someplace around here? I know you said you were from out of town but I'm always looking for a new place for doing my hair," she said, fingering the end of one of her multiple thick braids.

Yushiro couldn't blame her for asking. If this version of Mitsuri didn't have naturally occurring pink and green hair, then that must be a lot of work for her or any hair stylist. Her unbraided hair must go all the way to her knees.

His own hair was a strange color ever since he became a demon. In the past, he disguised it by shape shifting or writing a spell but the past couple of decades had been lenient towards strange hair colors. Even encouraging unnatural hair colors. Less and less often, the teal color caught people's eye and nowadays he rarely disguised it.

He always changed his eyes. A slight effort of concentration and all anyone saw were simple brown eyes, no more unusual than the sun rising in the east. No eerie violet shade, no reptillian pupils.

"I do my hair myself." Not a lie; it was technically true. He did grow his own hair.

"Teal is such a nice color for you. Does it hold special significance?"

Of course, the Love Pillar would ask such personal questions. A passionate person such as her would want to know about other people's emotional ties.

"A random choice. I wanted something different," he lied. Well, it was only a partial lie. A demon's hair color was often random unless they shape-shifted it themselves. The odd color came into his hair within minutes after his rebirth as a demon, once he left the human race.

She tilted her head in thought for a moment, pursing her lips until she found the words. "It's the same color as the sky right before a heavy summer storm."

For a moment, Yushiro was two places in time. One part of him was sitting in a little noodle shop while a kind woman complimented his hair. One part of him laid in the dark sickroom while the most beautiful woman gently ran her cool hand over the curve of his still fevered cheek.

"Your hair is the color of the hydrangea flowers after a spring rain" Lady Tamayo murmured long ago, her voice the same soothing sound as a babbling brook.

Different words. Different times. Same sentiment. Same young man trapped in place.

But his displacement was only for a moment. In the blink of an eye, he returned to the present.

"Thank you," he said quietly. He felt no real gratitude in his heart but the woman was not impolite enough to warrant any kind of rudeness. It was not her fault he felt the twist of knife-like fingers between his ribs.

The phone rang and this version of Mitsuri answered, chirpily greeting whoever was on the other end and jotting down the order on her notepad.

Whatever was happening in the kitchen made a lot of sizzling noise and smelled absolutely delicious.

It felt strange to see their faces in this era. They felt both out of place but like they belonged nowhere else better than here. Their strange features, their strange love, all ill fitting in any time but fitting well together. If he saw people that looked only similar to those two, he could write it off as distant relatives or even mere coincidence. But their identical faces and in such close proximity to each other - that couldn't be an accident, could it?

The cook slid out of the curtain from the kitchen, carrying the largest bowl of noodles Yushiro ever saw in his life in one hand and an opened bottle of beer in the other.

His wife started to get up, but a quick look out of Obanai's mismatched eyes made her sit back down again.

"Are you sure you don't need-" she started.

"It's just setting food out. Even I can manage that without a fight."

A small wince on Mitsuri's face suggested that fighting customers was a problem that occurred before. From what Yushiro remembered from Obanai - both from his brief encounter and the stories he heard afterwards - fighting rude customers sounded entirely in line with his personality.

The huge bowl of noodles and beer clunked down in front of him.

"Here," Obanai stated flatly. "Eat."

Yushiro's eyes widened at the size of the meal. Mitsuri said they had big portions but this was over the top. This bowl of noodles alone could easily feed a family of four or more!

He looked up to say something off the cuff about the ridiculous size but his eyes met the cutting, odd-eyed glare. He shut his mouth.

Demon or not, there were always some humans to fear.

"Is that what you ordered?" Obanai asked, although it sounded more like a threat than a question.

Only this guy could manage to be the world's scariest waiter, Yushiro thought.

The demon scooped up his chopsticks and picked up the first bit of meat and a couple noodles that he could grab. He popped it in his mouth and-

Oh.

Oh!

Oh, it was so good.

On a cold winter night, the crispy outside and the just-greasy-enough-but-not-too-fatty tender meat inside hit the spot. The noodles were soft but just chewy enough to feel satisfying between his teeth. The broth was rich and not too filling and flavorful but not too spicy and - as Yushiro felt his mind fade to mush and forget his usual vocabulary - it was tasty.

He leaned over the hilariously large bowl and shoved noodles into his mouth, slurping them up greedily.

"Good?" Obanai asked, still eyeing him suspiciously but with a touch of pride.

Yushiro tried to chew and answer at the same time, mumbling and nodding an affirmative without bothering to set down his chopsticks.

"Good," Obanai said as he turned and returned back to the kitchen. But before he disappeared to the back, his wife's hand darted out and caught around his slender wrist, delivering a soft squeeze before allowing him to pull away.

Yushiro chewed thoughtfully, noting Mitsuri kept her head turned towards the kitchen curtain after her husband disappeared.

She only looked away when the phone rang again.

So the evening went. Yushiro worked at the delicious mountain of food, which was quite a task to dedicate oneself to. Mitsuri stayed at the counter, answering the phone. Obanai cooked, coming out to hand food to the delivery man on the scooter.

It did warm Yushiro's sense of superiority to see Obanai chew out the delivery guy for riding on the sidewalk instead of parking and walking the five steps to the door of the restaurant to pick up orders. The driver didn't listen one bit and continued to hop the curb when he returned for each delivery, but Yushiro was at least happy to be in the right.

Each time Obanai came into the dining room, Mitsuri looked up from whatever she was doing to look at him with warm, adoring eyes. When he returned to the kitchen, Obanai would give his wife a little kiss on the head or a quick squeeze of the hand. Their eyes met constantly, as if they were both checking to see if the other was there. As if-

As if they might not be there the next time, Yushiro thought to himself.

They couldn't possibly know what fate befell them in a previous life. Yet they acted like they did.

"Wow, you really wolfed that down quick!" Mitsuri said, intruding on his thoughts.

Yushiro blinked, noodle ladened chopsticks halfway to his mouth. The bowl was more than half empty already. How did he eat that much that quickly?

"I was hungrier than I thought."

She smiled so hard that she looked like she could explode with happiness and pride. "Isn't it so good? My husband says I'll eat anything put in front of me - which, alright, is true - but everything he makes just tastes the best!"

Yushiro chuckled a little. "You might be a bit biased."

She pinkened in the face but her smile didn't fade in the slightest. "That's probably true but all our customers agree with me."

The food was far better than he expected. He walked in expecting something greasy and tasty yet stomach churning after half a dish. It  wasn't what anyone would call high cuisine but each bite felt satisfying and delicious. Yushiro found himself continuing to eat, long after his hunger was satiated. No, he didn't want to waste any of this. Leftovers might be an option but being warmed up in a hotel microwave was going to create a subpar experience. He would power through and eat himself sick if he had to.

"How did you two meet?" Yushiro asked. Partly because he was nosy and curious and partly because Mitsuri was bursting at the seems to talk to someone, and it would be best to put her on a subject he could understand.

He expected her to say high school or perhaps they met even as children.

"We met in college through some friends. Funny enough, I was already engaged at the time."

He wasn't expecting that. His eyebrows went up in surprise. "Really?"

"It's embarrassing but I got engaged to the first guy who ever dated me. I mean, I was never popular with boys and I really wanted to be in love and get married, just like my parents. So the first guy who ever asked me out became my fiance after a few years. He wasn't a bad guy but he never made me feel fireworks when we were together. And then," she sighed, eyes going as dreamy as a love-stuck teenager, "I met my husband. The first time we spoke, I felt love for the first time."

Yushiro didn't say anything. He'd been through the same thing. To see someone, to hear the first words out of the mouth, and then to feel your heart leaving you, only to be put in the hands of a stranger you care more about than life itself.

From the moment he met Tamayo while he lay dying in her care, he loved her more than anything. When she offered him the chance to be a demon, he took it not because he feared death but because he wanted to be by her side, to protect her from all of the world.

That didn't pan out so well, now did it?

He silenced the bitterness of his inner thoughts by allowing his attention to return to the conversation.

Mitsuri continued, "I met him through some friends one day and he was all I could think about after that. It was- it was like I found someone I never knew I was looking for."

You two were looking for each other, is what he could have said. Yushiro said nothing but continued to eat.

"So the next day I broke up with my fiance and asked my husband out."

"All in the same day?"

"Yep! My family was disappointed and my friends thought I was crazy. But when my husband - I guess not husband at the time- agreed to meet me for coffee, I knew we were going to get married." She held up her hand and waggled her fingers, showing off a simple silver band on her left ring finger. "Tah-dah! I was right. The best decision I ever made!"

Yushiro let out a little chuckle. She was adorable. "I'm glad for you two."

"Thanks! I know he seems grumpy but that's because he's so serious and he works really hard to support us and he's just really the absolute sweetest to me and he spoils the kids when he thinks I'm not looking and-"

A raspy voice from the kitchen shouted, "I can hear you. I'm 5 feet behind you."

Mitsuri turned as pink as her hair and covered her face with hands, as if hiding her face might undo the past few minutes of enthusiastic babbling.

They deserve this, Yushiro told himself.

They didn't deserve a life without hardship; no one does. But they deserved a life of love and companionship. Out of everyone who left the world that night a century ago, they deserved to find love the most. How lucky that they found it in each other. Or maybe it wasn't luck but rather Fate.

A knife of jealousy cut inside him, but he ignored the twisting pain.

"Are you married?" she asked, most likely trying to be polite.

The smile on his face faded, crumbling into his usual sour expression.

"Oh! I'm sorry if that's rude to ask-"

"No, it's fine," he lied. It was not fine. "I was in love a long time ago but she passed away."

Mitsuri's hand clutched over her mouth. "I'm so sorry! That's terrible. I shouldn't have asked."

"I'm fine now." Another easy lie. No need to burden this bubbly woman with his pain.

She placed a palm against her chest, guarding her heart from an imaginary pain. "I can't imagine. If something happened to my husband, I'd be-" She stopped and a strange expression crossed her face.

Yushiro's heart skipped a beat in fear. "Are you alright?"

"I-" Her eyes unfocused for a second, seeing something that Yushiro could only speculate.

He started to get to his feet, but the harsh scrape of the chair's feet against the floor seemed to startle her back into reality.

She shook her head again. "No, no, no! Sit! Just had the strangest moment of déjà vu."

But as he settled back into his seat, he noticed her clenched fist staying close to her breastbone.

Old wounds still ache, don't they?

He was familiar with old wounds. For demons, injuries always healed perfectly, but not all wounds are dealt to flesh and blood.

"I didn't mean to cause you worry."

"Oh no, you didn't." The glow of her smile began to gradually return. "While it's sad, I think it's better to love someone even for a short time. Better than never having met them."

Better to have love and have lost than to never have loved at all? Only the Love Hashira would believe such trite cliches. His thoughts rang bitterly in his mind.

But he had no doubt that Mitsuri genuinely believed her words. If it were any other person, he would call them out on their vapid words. but coming from the mouth of someone who once sacrificed so much? The phase held a weight.

"Maybe," he mumbled with a skeptical tone and took a swig of the beer and let the woman return to her work.

In his experience, alcohol was a near useless beverage to imbibe. Demon cells regenerated quickly and most poisons were rendered useless in minutes, if not seconds. But in a low stakes situations, where his heart was not pumping with adrenaline and his stomach heavy with food, the beer might give him a few minutes of feeling pleasantly fuzzy headed before his body's cells broke down the alcohol. Just something to take the sharpest edges off the sad memories he held at bay. At the very least, the taste complimented the savory dinner.

Businesses picked up as the evening passed. No one came in to sit down. Yushiro pieced together that between the awful weather and the possibility of Obanai having to interact with other people who were not his wife, any regular customers were getting delivery or stopping in long enough to pay Mitsuri for their food and fleeing to the safety of the half-frozen sidewalk with bags of food in hand. Yushiro thought it was a testament to how good the food was if customers were braving the cold and Obanai's prickly demeanor to get it.

He slowly drank the beer and picked at his food. As delicious as it was, he wanted to draw out his time here. The desperate loneliness inside of him kept him pinned to his seat. Downing the first beer made him a little more chatty with Mitsuri, who flourished when around other people.

"Do you have cats?" he asked, eyes darting to the framed snapshots of cats hung behind the counter.

"Yes! Five of them, actually."

"One for each child?"

"A child for each cat. Cat #5 is a young one and we just adopted him a little bit ago. Obviously we had to make kid #5 to go along with him."

He laughed a little. What a ridiculous statement.

"Dashi, Azuki, Mikan, Momo, and Koko." She pointed to five photos on the wall, listing the name of each cat. "What about you?"

Nodding, Yushiro reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. It took a him a minute to remember where the photo gallery section was - these little devices were very clever and useful but he felt age when using them - and pulled up a picture of Chachamaru. The picture had her sitting on the back of an armchair, pupils wide looking into the camera. He held the phone up and out towards Mitsuri.

"Awww!" she squealed with delight. "A calico! That means it's a girl cat. How adorable! How old is she?"

"Chachamaru is nearly a hundred years old."

"In cat years? She doesn't look that old."

"Something like that," he said coolly as he tucked the phone back into his pocket.

"She looks like she's in great health so you must be doing a great job of taking care of her."

A senselessly  dark thought entered his mind without notice: If I ever decide existence is too much, I could send Chachamaru to live with this version of Mitsuri. I bet she would take good care of that cat, always keeping it out of the sunlight. She would probably feed it blood from her own fingertips.

The door banged open with the bells on its handle ringing away. The delivery boy bothered to get off his bike and come inside.

"It's fuckin' cold as hell!" the delivery boy complained, crossing his jacketed arms around himself and shivering.

Mitsuri pursed her lips in the most gentle disapproving look. "Akira, we have a customer. Be respectful."

He stamped his feet, leaving half melted snow on the floor. "Sorry. It's fuckin' cold as hell, ma'am. Can I go home yet? It's slow as shit tonight."

Obanai left the kitchen with a bag in hand and shot a much more cutting glare. "Two more orders and then we're closing up. You can fucking go home then, you lazy ass."

"We have a customer!" Mitsuri shouted. "Is no one listening to me? Can you two not behave for one evening?"

Obanai swore under his breath and dropped the bag of food into the delivery boy's gloved hands. "This and one more and then dinner."

The man's face, rosy and windburned, lit up with the prospect of going home. "Great! Can you make me some-"

"You get what I cook for you. You don't get to pick dinner."

The young man's shoulders slumped and he whined. "But she gets to pick-"

"She gets special wife privileges. You'll get whatever I feel like making after we close. Not before."

"Aw man," the delivery boys grumbled as he left the shop and hopped back on his bike.

"Goddamn fucking punk," Obanai snarled under his mask, as his eyes followed the delivery boy's bike down the street.

"Language!" Mitsuri yelled again.

Immediately, he spun around and fussed over her. He smoothed her hair with his palms and spoke gently, telling her she shouldn't get worked up and that it was bad for both her and the baby if she was stressed out.

She batted away his hands. "I wouldn't be so stressed out if you weren't coming out here and arguing with the delivery boy all the time."

He cooed something apologetic sounding that Yushiro couldn't quite make out, but Mitsuri's face relaxed. She tilted her head up, lips parted, silently asking for a kiss. Her husband leaned over, pulled down his mask, and obediently delivered one to her waiting lips.

Yushiro turned his head away, partly out of embarrassment of having to witness their affection and partly due to that recurring stab of envy.

Why should they get to have their happy ending while he faced an eternal loneliness? Why did these two people get to find each other? Why couldn't Fate find a way to save his precious Lady Tamayo? Why didn't he just give in to the desire to walk into the sunlight one morning and end it all, gambling that he might find her in the next life?

You don't because a young man tasked you with survival, a feminine voice whispered in his mind. To preserve a memory and capture a beauty that only you know.

He took one last swig of the beer and set the empty bottle on the table.

"I'm sorry you had to listen to all that," Mitsuri chirped from her place at the counter. "It's been a long and stressful day, but those two just don't get along."

"He doesn't get along with most people, does he?"

She giggled but tried to cover the sound with a hand over her mouth. "It's so funny. He's the nicest , most patient man in the world at home but the second he has to interact with anyone who isn't me or the kids, he unleashes hell on earth."

That sounded about right to Yushiro, even with his brief encounter with the Serpent Hashira.

She sighed, a dreamy look in her eyes. "But I wouldn't have him any other way."

"He's a lucky man."

"It's more like I'm a very lucky girl." She then blushed and apologized. "I'm sorry. I'm blabbering on about myself!"

Yushiro scooped up the last of his dinner onto his chopsticks. "It's alright. It's nice to have company to chat with."

"Do you live by yourself?"

"It's me and my cat in a cabin in the woods."

Her eyes lit up with intrigue. "In the woods? That sounds so romantic. It must be lovely to be so far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I mean, I love it here but I wish we could get away."

"It's quiet. I like to be by myself."

"What do you do?"

He struggled with the question. Money was never an issue. Lady Tamayo's medical practice paid for their living expenses when she was alive, and after her passing, he continued her practice for a few decades before shutting down. Damn regulations and the need for certifications and medical degrees. After that, he drifted, bored and unsure of what to do with the next portion of eternity.

He only found his next calling when Kiriya mentioned in passing that perhaps he could try to capture Lady Tamayo's beauty in painting. And so he spent the next few decades learning to paint. It was difficult at first to find someone who could teach him when he couldn't leave the house during daylight hours. But with enough money being offered, he found teachers willing to come to his shuttered cabin during the day or classes that were held in the small hours of the night. From then on, he practiced every day. Sketching, drawing, painting Lady Tamayo over and over again. His cabin filled with paintings and drawings he was unsatisfied with. Yet he felt everyday that he was coming closer and closer to capturing her memory in his art. He would get there one day. After all, he had all the time in the world to practice.

He started to show a few people his work and some of his recent work started to get attention online, according to whoever he was paying to handle his social media accounts. Ugh, he did not understand how that worked but someone with connections in art world told him he needed to "be online", whatever that meant.

"I'm a painter," he finally answered.

"Wow! Lucky you! I wanted to be an art teacher growing up. Not exactly the same thing but kind of similar, right?"

A wry smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Right."

"What do you paint?"

"Portraits." Not a lie but not exactly right. Portraits implied more than one subject. He only ever painted one person.

"Oh, that's wonderful. Getting to really capture people."

Suddenly, Obanai strode out of the kitchen and plunked another opened beer bottle right next to the empty bowl at Yushiro's table.

"On the house," the cook said before turning abruptly and disappearing back into the kitchen.

Bewildered, Yushiro stared at the beer bottle and then looked at Mitsuri.

She busted out laughing, unable to hold back the slightest bit after such strange behavior.

"What was that about?" Yushiro asked, still baffled.

"I think that was his way of trying to make up for his rude behavior earlier." She wiped at the corner of her eye, trying to fight the remnant giggles that bubbled up inside of her.

"It's not poisoned, is it?"

His comment spurred a renewal of Mitsuri's laughter.

"No, no! He's just really not good with people."

"An understatement."

He picked up the bottle and took a drink. As cold and refreshing as it was, his face warmed.

The last of the orders finished up and were sent out with the delivery boy for a final voyage into the snow and dark. He came back once more and complained when he was given a heaping helping of udon when he wanted something else.

"You gave me udon last time! I want yakisoba!"

Obanai didn't even bother chewing out the young man. A firm hand to the back sent the delivery boy back out the front door. Obanai promptly twisted the lock and flipped the sign to close.

His colorful eyes settled on Yushiro and for a second, the demon braced himself for some kind of abrasive comment, but all the cook said, "You can finish your beer. No need to hurry up and leave."

Yushiro took that as a subtle hint to hurry up and leave. He drank faster.

Obanai stopped by his wife, who threw an arm lazily around his narrow hips and gave him a squeeze.

"What a shitty day," he murmured so quietly that Yushiro was sure if he wasn't a demon, he wouldn't have been able to hear it.

"My mom said she'd keep the kids overnight," Mitsuri spoke quietly with her forehead pressed to his flank. "She said it's too snowy to get them home anyway and she knows you'll open up tomorrow anyway. Doesn't matter how bad the weather is, you're going to show up."

His fingers wound through one of her braids. "Tell her I said thanks."

She chuckled quietly. "You tell her thanks when you go pick up the kids tomorrow. And yes, I'm telling you have to go pick them up. I can barely fit behind the wheel of the car anymore."

For a moment, they just stood there, loosely connected, leaning against each other.

Yushiro couldn't take his eyes off of them. These ghosts stood before him in all defiance of time and death.

Obanai glanced over his shoulder and met Yushiro's eyes. Realizing he was being watched, he pulled away from Mitsuri and quickly disappeared behind the curtain.

Like a snake retreating, Yushiro thought.

Mitsuri blushed. "Sorry you had to see that."

Yushiro turned away and turned up the bottom of the beer bottle to his mouth one last time, as if there was anything left but a few drops. His face warmed with the alcohol and shame and envy. "See what?"

"I guess there was nothing to see," she said with a contented smile. "Just an old couple being nice to each other?"

"Oh, how dare a married couple love each other. Spare the rest of us from having to see such filth."

That earned a giggle out of her.

But now he was out of excuses to stay and enjoy their envy inducing company. Time to retreat to a hotel room and hope his train wouldn't be cancelled tomorrow evening. Gods, what was the point of paying taxes for infrastructure if it didn't fucking work?

"You can just leave money on the table. I'll clean up after you leave," Mitsuri said as she stretched, wincing at her aching back.

Poor thing probably hasn't been comfortable for weeks.

Yushiro opened his wallet and set down the money for his dinner plus a bit extra for the second beer. As he began the obnoxious re-layering of winter clothes, his eyes rested on his bag sitting in the chair next to him.

He had enough money to last him an eternity.

He glanced out of the corner of his eye to check that Mitsuri wasn't looking at him and, luckily, she was staring at the cellphone in her hands. Perfect. He flipped open the bag and pulled out one of the many stacks of bundled bills. He left it on the chair seat and, as if nothing out of the ordinary happened, slid the bag's strap over his shoulder as he got to his feet.

"Thank you and goodnight," he said as he flipped the restaurant's front door lock to let himself out. "Tell your husband to lock up after me, ok?"

Mitsuri looked up from her phone and waved like an enthusiastic child. "Thanks! It was nice meeting you, Yushiro! I hope you'll come back next time you're in town!"

He let the door fall shut with a clamber of bells.

Yushiro shuffled through the snow, fighting the wind as he more or less headed in the right direction for the hotel the bank manager booked on his behalf. The wind and the cold felt not pleasant but more tolerable after a hot meal.

But the empty streets left him with little distraction and he was trapped with his thoughts.

 

He remembered their wake.

So many people died in that bloodbath of a battle that funerals and wakes were held one on top of another. Smoke hung thickly in air from so many cremations.

The Hashira were given their own separate funerals. Except these two. Theirs were held together.

Different Kakushi told him different reasons. Iguro didn't have any remaining family willing to claim him. Kanroji's family requested it, saying that she was unmarried and she didn't deserve to go into the afterlife alone. Every single survivor of the battle who knew them said it was what they would have wanted. They told him that they were close. That they were friends. That everyone thought they were more than friends. That they should always be together. That they shouldn't have had to die. That it was unfair.

When the funeral was held, Yushiro hid in a nearby building. A week of heavy overcast skies and rain tricked him into thinking he would be able to stand at their funeral to say goodbye to these swordsmen he barely knew yet somehow felt like friends. But the sun came out of hiding that day. The sky was beautifully clear and sunny, the kind of weather one hopes for a wedding day. He stayed tucked away in the shadows of a nearby building, away from the cleansing light, close enough to hear the wails of Kanroji's large family as they vocally lamented the loss of their beloved daughter. Tears rolled down his face but he did not sob. No, he was still too numb from the loss of Lady Tamayo to truly grieve for all the lives lost.

Perhaps he was still numbed by the loss.

Perhaps he always would be.

 

His memories were interrupted by a shout.

"Hey! HEY!"

Something hit Yushiro in the back and bounced off.

"I don't want your fucking dirty money!"

Yushiro turned around and saw the wad of bills laying in snow behind him.

Obanai stood a dozen feet behind him, knife held defensively in hand. Heat streamed off of him. Waves of steam visible under the streetlight.

Yushiro rolled his eyes. "Just take the damn money-"

The knife came up, pointing towards him. "You're not laundering that shit through my restaurant. Don't ever come back."

Ah, Yushiro finally understood.

"It's not laundering," he snarled. Although Obanai couldn't see his fangs through the disguise spell, Yushiro bared them out of reflex. "I'm trying to help out."

"Yeah? How the hell am I supposed to know that? For all I know, that shit is stolen and the police turn up tomorrow asking about-"

"It's just money. If you won't take that, then you'll get a bigger check in the mail."

The man's strange colored eyes flashed with rage. In the darkness and lamplight, his right eye glowed eerily like a cat's.

"Don't ever come back here," he snarled, his grip on the knife tightening.

"I'm trying-"

"Is this about my wife? Leave her the fuck alone, creep."

"What?" That caught Yushiro off guard.

The tip of the knife aimed at his chest, even from a distance. "We get creeps like you coming in and bothering her. Acting like they can just fucking buy her off of me. Leave her alone."

Yushiro shook his head. "I don't want your garish colored wife. I have much more refined taste in women."

That failed to deescalate Obanai's anger. He stood, bracing himself as if ready to leap at Yushiro with the knife. "Fuck off."

For a moment, Yushiro saw two of Obanai in the same place. Not only was his face the same but the way he held himself; taut and coiled and ready to pounce, just like the snake he styled his sword fighting after. Even his grip on a simple kitchen knife looked the same as the last and only time Yushiro saw him in battle. White knuckled, steady, undeterred by anything.

Yushiro sighed and started to turn away. Forget the money. If this idiot didn't pick it up after he left, then some other desperate soul would eventually dig it out of the snow tomorrow and spend it on whatever.

"Why do you look so familiar? Tell me that much at least."

Only half turned away, Yushiro snapped his head back around to Obanai. Their gazes met and clashed.

"Your wife said that too. Maybe I just have one of those faces."

"No," the man said flatly. "Have you been skulking around, watching her?"

"Ugh, no. That's disgusting. Stop obsessing about that, Iguro."

The name slipped out of his mouth thoughtlessly. He clenched his mouth shut and hoped the other man wouldn't notice.

But unfortunately, the strange expression in the cook's eyes said that he did recognize it. He looked crossed between wary and confused.

"What did you call me?" The knife point came down slightly.

"Nothing," Yushiro said defensively.

"That's not my name-"

"You just looked like someone I knew. I've had a couple beers. Leave me alone."

But the knife finally came down all the way. "It sounded familiar."

A chill that had little to do with the winter weather went up Yushiro's spine.

"We have met before." this person not named Obanai said. All the anger was out of his voice, something Yushiro was sure was a rare event. Instead, Yushiro heard curiosity and fear and apprehension in a handful of words.

Yushiro held his breath for a moment. What could he possibly say that would make any sense?

"I... am a friend of the family," he lied and immediately winced at his own words. It sounded lame to him even as he said it.

"My family isn't the kind of family that has friends."

"A friend of your wife's family."

"No way. She remembers everyone she's ever met."

What could Yushiro say? That he met them on the day of their deaths? That he witnessed their bodies torn to pieces on the worst night of his life? That if his heart wasn't already broken, it would have cracked in two when the Kakushi told him of their story? That he saw their families mourn them?

Yushiro wanted to walk away and forget this whole encounter, but he couldn't will himself to.

Maybe he just wanted to connect with someone - anyone - after all of this time. After all, Kiriya was old enough to start forgetting certain events and he wasn't going to live forever anyway.

Yushiro closed his eyes for a moment and relaxed with an exhale. With his hand in his pocket, he crushed the paper that contained his disguise spell and he felt it dissipate. Funny how nowadays he could blend in easily with just the slightest changes to his appearance.

When he opened his eyes, his own strange colored eyes met Obanai's.

He heard a sharp intake of breath and witnessed a look of panic. Still, the knife didn't come back up.

"What the hell are you?"

Yushiro thought he could hear the slightest tremble in the other man's voice.

"Tell me," the demon said calmly, barely audible over wind. "When you met you wife, did you feel like you knew her already?"

Obanai's eyes widened for a moment before scowling in suspicion.

Yushiro raised an eyebrow. "Well, did you?"

He nodded slowly before speaking, "It was like a wound I never knew was there began to heal."

If anyone else spoke like that, Yushiro would have scoffed in their face for their sappy sentiments. But he knew this version of Obanai truly felt that. Such sweet words from a venomous mouth were not to be thrown away lightly.

"We met before, a very long time ago," the demon said simply.

"I know we have, but I don't remember it."

"That's for the best." Yushiro said it with all the sincerity his bitter heart could muster.

As jealous and frustrated as he was, Yushiro was terrified somehow this man might remember his former life. No one deserved to remember how their beloved die. He wanted to smother that bit of misery before it bloomed in this version of Obanai's mind. Even Obanai didn't deserve to remember century old pain and blood.

Yushiro bent down and scooped up the now damp stack of bills. As he brushed the snow and salt off of the cash, he said, "Promise me this: Treat your wife well."

"I try."

Yushiro didn't know much about their lives from this evening-long glimpse, but he knew it was true. "I get the gist from her that you're succeeding. How many damn kids you have now?"

"Four. Almost five."

"Well congratulations on the fifth."

He tossed the bundle of bills to Obanai who caught it with the automatic grace and precision he expected from a Hashira.

Obanai looked at the wad of cash in hand. What had been filthy and untouchable mere minutes ago was now potentially life changing, or at least life easing. Yet he still hesitated, shaking his head and saying, "I don't need this if it's going to bring trouble."

By this point, the bitter cold and envy mounted to unbearable levels for Yushiro.

He snarled, fangs visible and bared, "Just take the damn money. Keep it for your stupid kids education. The less uneducated brats there are out in the world, the better."

Obanai clutched the money to his chest and issued such a glare that Yushiro wasn't sure if he wasn't going to throw the money back in his face with a violent punch that would send him sprawling on the ground.

"Familiar or no, there's no excuse to be an ass."

Now Yushiro was annoyed. "Of all the people to call me an asshole-"

But the man who was not-Obanai-yet-was-him interrupted with a "Thank you."

Yushiro wasn't expecting that.

A heavy moment hung between the two men, before words welled up inside of Yushirio.

"I... I do mean it when I say to treat her well," he began, not sure what might spill out his mouth. "You both deserve a gentle life. A happy life."

For a moment, Obanai stood staring at him, his eyes uncharacteristically soft and distant.

"You didn't have to-" he started to say.

Yushiro snapped back, "I don't have to do fucking anything. Go back to your- your- your stupid, tacky wife and live your stupid life."

It was probably the lamest insult he ever spat at someone.

This man who once endured blood curdling wounds smiled at him. Yushiro couldn't see the smile itself under the mask but he saw the slight crinkle around his eyes.

"If you come back, the food is free."

Yushiro almost laughed at the absurdity. He left a life changing amount of cash in this man's hands and he literally said he could have a lifetime's worth of noodles for dinner.

"Maybe I'll just tip you guys like that again," Yushiro said with a smirk.

Blue and yellow eyes rolled sarcastically. "Oh no, anything but that."

Yushiro laughed but a serious thought took root in his mind.

"Hey, I do mean it. Congratulations."

"I heard that you lost someone-"

Yushiro cut him off. He couldn't deal with pity. Not right then. Not from this man.

"That is none of your business."

"I overheard-"

"I'm fine."

It was obviously a lie but not one he could admit to at that moment to this awful man and his happy life.

"I don't know what I'd do if I lost-"

"Don't think about it." Yushiro shook his head. "Whatever you do, do not think about that."

Yushiro didn't wish anyone the grief he felt every day. The less bitterness in the world, the better. So it was best to cut off this mean little man from thinking about something that happened so long ago.

Obanai-but-not-Obanai gave a curt bow of thanks and trotted back up the sidewalk. His wife stood in the open door to their restaurant, watching the two with concern.

In the doorway, Mitsuri fanned herself with a hand even in the icy temperatures. Yushiro could see her husband talking, explaining things to her. He could see her mouth move, face twisted with concern and confusion, but eventually her husband pulled her inside to talk. But before they disappeared from his sight, he saw Obanai stand on his toes to press his mouth against his wife's, a quick and reassuring kiss through his mask.

What a ridiculous couple, Yushiro thought to himself.

The door swung closed behind them with a jangle of bells and the clang of a door settling into its ill-fitting frame. Yushiro had no doubt that it was locked instantly.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The chilly winds of winter seemed momentarily distant and unimportant. He felt like a weight - one that he didn't know was there - lift from his shoulders.

Maybe he'd come back. Maybe tomorrow if the snow kept the trains from being able to run. Maybe years down the road or maybe in a couple days. Maybe it would be in the summer, six months from now when he'd have to return to the bank for more obnoxious paperwork and he'd have to ask them to postpone the meeting past the late sunset that summer brought. He knew they'd be willing to accommodate him if he asked; they always were when it came to money.

He pulled his coat tightly around him as he leaned into the wind, making slow headway toward his hotel.

"Quite the weather we're having," he imagined a graceful voice talking over the sound of gusts and snow.

He let himself picture a delicate hand encased in cashmere gloves wrapping around his elbow.

"Thank you for joining me, Lady Tamayo," he said to no one. "It's lovely to see you again."

He pictured her smiling so warming that the weather seemed practically balmy. "Did you enjoy your dinner?"

"I did. I ran into some familiar faces."

"That sounds lovely. Who were they?"

"It was that strange couple that fought Nakime with me."

"Oh, they certainly were a colorful pair, weren't they?" She laughed a little, a gloved hand politely covering her mouth.

"They have children now."

"That's wonderful! I wonder if they got their mother's or father's eyes. Maybe both? I bet they will be striking when they grow up."

Yushiro let himself imagine the conversation with Lady Tamayo as he walked. His mind kept her by his side the entire time, chatting idly about the evening. Even when he found his hotel and checked in, he pictured her in the lobby behind him, smiling patiently with her hands folded politely in front of her, waiting for him to escort her to their room.

When he laid down in bed, he could imagine the weight of her laying down next to him.

"I miss you," he said, words directed to someone who wasn't there.

Her hand- soft as silk - cupped his cheek. "I know."

He closed his eyes, still picturing her as he did every night.

"Sometimes we choose to be haunted by ghosts," her silken words whispered in his ear.

He would never let her go. No, it would be better to keep being haunted by her decades and decades after her death, rather than her go. He'd let the ghost of her memory cling to him until he perfected his art. Perhaps once he truly captured her in his work, then he'd walk into the sunlight for a final time.

"Don't give up yet," Lady Tamayo whispered. "Your heart holds the memories of ghosts. And not just me. You hold so many ghosts inside you. Did seeing those two make you feel better?"

It did. Seeing the couple of long dead, star crossed lovers did lessen the burden in his heart.

Seeing them planted the seed of seeking out others. Perhaps he would try to find the living ghosts of other humans who passed in his long lifetime.

After all, he had all the time in the world.