Kazuki didn’t think it was his imagination that this spring was more beautiful than any he remembered. Circumstances might be adding shine to the season, to the faces around him that looked up at the clearing light and the drifting petals, but they were circumstances everyone shared, that everyone felt even if they didn’t quite know the reason. He wondered a little whether Yohan let the seasons of the Beltline turn, let himself see and feel this.
He wondered things like that a lot these days.
Did Yohan let the changing season touch his House, was he learning happiness now, had he let go that crane, the child’s paper wish, and taken up a Fuuchouin’s bell for his strings? As the breeze came up, touched with sun and green, Kazuki wondered. And he could find out, of course. There was no reason he couldn’t visit Yohan; they were neighbors after a fashion. More importantly they were brothers.
He also wondered whether Yohan would see it that same way.
It was the flowers that decided him, finally. A few irises had taken hold in one corner of the plaza outside the apartment building where the cement had cracked and water pooled, a striking composition by the hand of nature itself, and they reminded him of Yohan’s taunt about flower arranging and their mother’s death. At the time it had only been meant to enrage him, but looking back he thought Yohan’s faint regret when he said he couldn’t arrange flowers had been genuine.
Well of course he couldn’t! He’d been raised in Kokuchouin, and Kazuki very much doubted if the fine arts of the main house were taught there. Koto, dance, flower arranging, calligraphy. Though, his mouth quirked at the memory, Yohan had clearly learned to compose poetry one way or another.
Kazuki knew those things, though. And surely it wasn’t too late.
It was just as well, perhaps, that the others were out today. Kazuki left a note saying that he had gone to visit his brother and would be back shortly, and walked out into the bright day to cross Lower Town and climb upwards.
He understood the nature of the Beltline much better now than he had at fourteen. The monsters there were shadows of the souls that lived in the place, and he felt neither fear nor satisfaction in clearing them from his way. On this trip he saw only a few people he thought might be real, and they didn’t come close, fading away into the Beltline’s fluidity. He concentrated on his path and it wasn’t too long before the steps of Yohan’s compound were under his feet.
The trees were still in summer leaf here, but at least it was the small daytime moon overhead and no flowerless petals skirled past him on the wind. It was a start, he supposed.
The doors opened as he reached them, with no hand on them, and Kazuki smiled. Yohan knew he was here. He followed the path that presented itself through gardens and over pools, through stands of pine that had not grown on the main house grounds; and yet the place was familiar. He wondered if Yohan had created a home here that was both the omote and ura compounds. That would be a hopeful sign, he thought.
At last he reached a room with its screens standing open, overlooking a low waterfall beyond. Yohan sat alone looking out at the water, still and collected. “Aniue,” he said quietly.
“Yohan,” Kazuki returned, smiling.
“Why have you come?”
“Because I wanted to see my brother again,” Kazuki said gently, coming to sit beside him, setting down the small box he’d brought along. Yohan looked at him, solemn and wary but with a shadow of hope at the back of his eyes that gave Kazuki heart. “Besides, there’s something I wanted to bring you,” he continued, opening the box and lifting out the small arrangement of iris, water, and stones.
Yohan actually blushed. “I didn’t…” he started quickly and then stopped, not looking at Kazuki.
“I know that already.” Kazuki set the flower quietly before them; as deeply as the Phoenix had touched Yohan’s heart, he’d known then that Yohan had lied about their mother being the one dead “flower” he had arranged beautifully. “It’s spring.” He touched Yohan’s shoulder gently. “What does the poet’s heart say of that?”
After a moment, Yohan said, softly, “In the spring chill, / as I slept with sword by pillow, / deep at night / my elder brother came to me / in dreams from home.”
That caught at Kazuki’s heart with the hint that he was indeed welcome here. “You are home now. And courage and friendship come to you and bloom for you.”
Yohan reached out and touched a petal lightly. “Truly?”
“Life changes us, just as the seasons change the flowers.” Witness the fact that after just five minutes in Yohan’s company the language of Kazuki’s childhood was coming back to his tongue again. He smiled. “Truly.”
Yohan darted a quick, uncertain glance at him, and back at the flower. “I thank you,” he murmured.
“There’s no need.” Nor could Kazuki think of better thanks than being able to sit with his younger brother this way. Remembering his earlier thought, he added, “Did you ever learn the koto?”
Yohan’s mouth tightened. “No.”
“Would you like to?”
Yohan finally looked up at him, startled. Kazuki waited, patient, while Yohan regathered his composure. “I would like that,” he finally said, and looked back down at the flower. “Aniue.”
This time the title had less of the bitterness that flavored Yohan’s every word about the past, and Kazuki cherished the shy hint of acceptance in it.
That was more than enough to compensate for the argument he was sure would break out at home as soon as he told them he intended to visit the Beltline more frequently.
Kazuki flexed his fingers, making sure the ivory picks were secure on his fingertips. “The more you hear, the more you’ll be able to play music by ear, but the way we speak of it is in numbers.”
Yohan gave him a sidelong look. “Numbers?”
“Mm.” Kazuki smiled. “One for each string. Listen. One.” He plucked the first string. “Two. Three.” Up the rank he went, and then stilled the strings with his hand. “And if I say ten-nine-eight, five…?” He played the little turn quickly.
Yohan blinked, tilting his head. “Oh.”
“Here.” Kazuki scooted over, patting the tatami in front of the koto.
Yohan was stiff, at first, prone to plucking the strings too hard, but by the end of the day he could run up and down the full tally of thirteen strings and make them ring clear. Better still, his shoulders had stopped stiffening each time Kazuki set his fingers over Yohan’s to guide them.
Yohan frowned faintly at his fingers, touching thumb and index finger together as if testing the sensation, which Kazuki expected was just a bit numb from the pressure of the picks. “Does it have application?”
Kazuki firmly stifled a sigh. He shouldn’t expect to undo the habits of years in a handful of days. “Several different ones, I would say. Here. Rest your fingers on the strings down at the end.” He shifted around back in front of the instrument and thought for a moment. "Midare Rinzetsu", he decided; he thought Yohan would like the energy and sweeping runs of it better than the slow, melancholy sweetness of the simpler compositions Kazuki had first learned.
It took concentration; it had been a long time since Kazuki had played regularly, and Yatsuhashi’s music was always a challenge. He didn’t look up until the last notes, measured and resonant. When he did, though, he smiled. Yohan’s expression was distant, fingers still resting lightly at the base of the strings, but there was a tiny breath of wonder in his voice as he sighed.
“It really does feel just like our strings.” He blinked and looked up at Kazuki. “This is why you always speak of the song of someone’s technique.”
“Exactly,” Kazuki agreed softly.
“I didn’t know.”
It was only an observation, with no particular emotion in it, but it twisted Kazuki’s heart all the same. “That was wrong. How can anyone be expected to understand our arts without this?” Kazuki bent his head over his hands, resting on the strings. “It’s been wrong for so long.”
Yohan’s voice turned dispassionate again. “I expect the division started here, actually.” At Kazuki’s startled look, he gestured at the instrument. “The left hand and the right are both necessary, but they do very different things, don’t they?” The distance in his tone turned darker. “And while the right hand strikes the notes and draws the eye, it’s the left that controls the sound.”
“Yes,” Kazuki said slowly. “I wouldn’t be surprised. But both hands are needed, and no one could play if they ignored the left hand techniques.” A sudden thought came to him and his mouth quirked. “Well, then, perhaps the new song of Fuuchouin will be a bit more… modern.”
He bent over the koto again and struck the opening of Sawai’s “Yume”. This time he listened to more than just the music, and smiled at the sound Yohan made as his left hand flashed over again and again to pluck the strings, melody weaving back and forth between his hands.
When he sat back this time, he had to shake out his left hand. “I like Sawai’s compositions very much,” he said, breathless, sweeping his hair back, “but they’re very demanding!” He smiled at his brother. “I believe you can master it, though.”
Yohan flushed just a little and concentrated on rearranging his sleeves, and Kazuki let it go, satisfied that Yohan had heard what he meant.
Another day, another lesson. Yohan’s touch with the picks was getting lighter, and Kazuki thought about that as he listened. Yohan had yet to even attempt one of the more passionate compositions, gravitating instead toward the delicacy of the oldest, most abstract music.
“Yohan,” Kazuki said softly, as his brother finished, “what is it you fear?”
Yohan’s head came up quickly, and his eyes were wide. Kazuki shifted around to sit beside him, arm around him. “Everyone has their own style, their own favorite music,” he continued, feeling Yohan’s tension, “but there’s music you refuse even to attempt. The music,” he finished, quietly, “that would take from what’s inside you and set it free on the air.”
Yohan laughed, soft and harsh. “Do you really think that’s wise, Aniue?”
Yohan glanced at him, still tense, but a little less rigid, perhaps startled by Kazuki’s firmness.
“This is where our arts began,” Kazuki touched the koto’s strings, “but setting our passion into these strings will draw no blood. What is there to fear?”
“Myself.” Yohan looked away, hair slipping down over his face. “I doubt someone like you understands that.”
Kazuki was quiet for a moment, and his voice was cool and light when he spoke, drifting over the memories he never lingered on willingly. “You were not the only one marked with the stigma, little brother. I know that fear. But that seal is lifted now; it’s the passions every one of us deal with that you face now.” His lips quirked. “If they weren’t, you wouldn’t hear their reflection in that music you won’t touch.”
Yohan was still for a long breath. “Everyone?”
Kazuki softened at the innocent unknowing of that question. “Everyone.” He drew Yohan closer and murmured, “You’re no demon. You never were. You’re a child of the world, like all of us.” He shook Yohan gently. “So stop trying to escape from life. Both hands are necessary, remember? Pain and joy both.”
Yohan looked up at him, and Kazuki’s brows rose. He expected the flash of startlement at his rather peremptory tone; he’d meant to rock Yohan out of his habits of thought a bit. What he hadn’t quite expected was the flash of yearning, of… happiness? Yohan looked down again before he could be sure.
“Yes, Aniue,” he murmured.
Kazuki had more than usual to think about as he left that day.
Kazuki sat with his hands folded and listened to Yohan play.
Another might have wasted time in wonder that, after a mere few months, Yohan was able to play complex compositions with such firm skill. In fact, when Kazuki had considered that at all, he had wondered how frustrated Yohan must be that his progress had been so slow. The cleansing of the stigma had thrown a blanket over the absolute purity and simplicity of Yohan’s perception and art, had left his brother uncertain, and his temper the same sometimes.
No, what caught Kazuki’s breath short today was the way Yohan played.
Yohan had obeyed him, so meekly it had taken Kazuki aback, and chosen a composition that showed his heart. “Tori no You Ni” demanded a light hand and could easily have been turned into another performance of delicate technique. Today, though, Yohan played with his eyes half closed, swaying with the force of the music. The force of his strike, the timing, the clarity and vibrato he drew from the strings wrung Kazuki’s heart. There was grief in the song, wild and passionate, rushing like the wind under straining wings. There was wanting, so intense it almost tore the constraints of the strings themselves. Yet they held.
When Yohan finished, he turned his face quickly away from the instrument and Kazuki rose and came to wipe away the dampness on his brother’s cheeks. “This,” he said gently. “This is what the koto teaches us.”
“This…” Yohan swallowed and said, husky, “this is the Phoenix.”
“It’s the source of it, yes.” Kazuki stroked his hair back.
And then he frowned. This close he could see dark smudges starting under Yohan’s eyes. “Yohan, have you been sleeping poorly?”
Yohan waved a hand shortly. “I don’t have time to sleep right now. I need to re-learn half my own techniques, and half the servants with the cursed seal don’t want to be freed, and…” He broke off blinking as Kazuki touched a finger to his lips.
“In other words, you haven’t been sleeping enough.” Kazuki shook his head at Yohan. “You have to take better care of yourself than that.”
“In what time?” Yohan asked flatly.
“Right now.” As Yohan just stared at him, Kazuki smiled and gathered him closer. “No one will disturb you while I’m here, will they?” He tugged gently until Yohan rested against him, stiff and startled. “So sleep. I’ll see nothing happens while you do.” He eased Yohan down to his lap, smiling as Yohan looked up at him, apparently at a loss.
Kazuki trusted his intuition and scraps of experience so far and said, very firmly, “Hush. Rest now, little brother.” He knew he was right when the stiffness when out of Yohan, and settled Yohan’s head comfortably in his lap. “Sleep.” There was so much he couldn’t restore to Yohan, but this he could give—an elder brother to watch over him.
He stroked Yohan’s hair gently, steadily until Yohan’s eyes closed, and his breath finally evened out into sleep.
Kazuki had less experience than Yohan with imposing his will on the Beltline, but he focused intently on the quiet, the isolation, the sunlit calm of this room, on turning away all worries and concerns. And, as minutes slid by and the sun moved slowly across the tatami, warming them, the only sounds were running water and the light, shifting song of birds beyond the screens.
The sunlight was slanting downward, and the air was cooling before he heard the scuff of feet out in the hall, and an approaching voice.
“Finally found you, honestly Yohan it’s not like you have to hide…”
Kazuki snorted softly to himself as Maiya slid a screen aside.
“There you are!”
“Maiya. Quietly,” he said, low.
She looked at Yohan, curled up asleep, and pressed a hand to her lips. “Sorry!” she whispered. Slipping in she closed the screen silently. “You actually got him to sleep?”
“He certainly needed it.” And he wasn’t exactly blaming Yohan’s people, but his voice was cool on the observation.
Maiya sighed, folding down to the tatami, long sleeves flipped expertly out of the way. “I know. We do try. He just doesn’t listen.” She smiled wryly, looking down at him. “Well, not to us anyway.”
Kazuki was quiet at that confirmation that he wasn’t imagining things. Yohan really did seem to want Kazuki to guide him, and even scold him, like an older brother. Well, Kazuki thought he could do that; he was very glad to, in fact, to reclaim this little bit of what they might have had. He smiled down at Yohan, stroking back his hair again.
“I… never did get a chance to thank you.”
Kazuki looked up at that, brows raised. Maiya was looking down at her hands.
“You saved us. All of us, in the end.”
“That was my duty as the head of this House at the time,” Kazuki said quietly.
“I know. Even so.” Maiya set her hands on the tatami and bowed profoundly. “For Yuuri’s life and mine. For the soul of our brother and Master. For the existence of our very House. I thank you most humbly, Kazuki-sama.”
“And for the care you’ve taken of my brother, I thank you as well,” Kazuki told her gently, and smiled when she looked up, eyes wide. “Only continue to stand by him, and that will be all the return I could ask.”
She ducked her head again, and murmured, husky, “I will.”
Yohan finally stirred, rubbing his eyes. “Maiya?” he yawned, and sat up blinking. Kazuki steadied him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Good morning!” Maiya chirped, and Kazuki had to swallow a smile at the distinctly exasperated look Yohan gave her. If nothing else, she would surely help him learn to deal with people a bit less formally.
“What is it, Maiya?”
“Ah. Well.” Maiya coughed delicately. “You do remember that Gorou-san wanted to speak to you?”
Yohan sighed. “I remember.” From his tone he would rather not.
“Something troublesome?” Kazuki asked, sympathetic, tugging Yohan’s kimono and haori back into order.
“Since I have yet to work out exactly what it is he wants, I don’t know yet.” Yohan sounded irritated by that, too.
“Well, perhaps it will be something cheerful like marriage candidates,” Kazuki soothed. And then had to laugh at the horrified look Yohan gave him, eyes flicking ever so briefly to Maiya. “And when you’ve chosen, I’ll teach her the Phoenix,” Kazuki teased gently.
“I… I’m sure it isn’t that,” Yohan managed past his unaccustomed flusterment.
“You’re evil Kazuki-sama,” Maiya said, admiring.
“Only in a good cause.” Kazuki relented, smiling. “Whatever it is, I’m sure you’ll deal with it well.”
Yohan collected himself. “Will I see you Friday, then?”
“Of course.” Kazuki leaned over to press a quick kiss to Yohan’s forehead. “And before that, if you need me.”
That made Yohan color just a little. “Thank you, Aniue,” he murmured.
Kazuki rose, pleased with his new insight and the opportunities it offered to protect and cosset his brother. “For now, though, I should get home before the others worry so much they come looking for me.”
Maiya grinned at that, looking past his shoulder. “Too late.”
Kazuki blinked and looked around and sighed. Indeed, Juubei was standing in the open screen across the room. “Juubei.”
“You weren’t back at the usual time.”
“I am perfectly capable of walking here and back without coming to any grief,” Kazuki pointed out, though he knew quite well that this simple fact would have no impact on Juubei’s protectiveness. Juubei didn’t dignify the observation with an answer, simply waiting for him quietly. Kazuki shook his head, giving in. “Take care of Yohan, Maiya,” he directed, in parting.
Maiya looked back and forth between Kazuki and Yohan, thoughts moving behind her bright eyes. “Of course, Kazuki-sama,” she agreed, leaning over to twine her arm through Yohan’s. When Yohan glanced up at Kazuki and failed to pull away, she and Kazuki exchanged a look of understanding and complicity. Maiya, Kazuki was satisfied, would borrow Kazuki’s name as often as necessary to make Yohan take care of his health at least.
Kazuki swept up Juubei as he left, well pleased with the day’s progress.
Gradually, Kazuki had started to see more people than Yohan, when he visited, sometimes Maiya or Yuuri, sometimes someone from one of the surviving cousin branches who nodded to him uncomfortably, sometimes one of the silent Kokuchouin retainers. Today the man who opened the gates for him was startled out of his usual unobtrusive quiet to stare at Juubei, pacing at Kazuki’s shoulder.
“This really isn’t necessary you know,” Kazuki said one more time as Juubei followed him into the summer green of the Fuuchouin compound.
“We can hardly guard you, as is our duty, if we aren’t with you.” Juubei paused by one of the outer pavilions. “I can wait here if you wish, though.”
Kazuki sighed, running a hand through his hair. It was about time he started binding the length of it back again, he noted absently. “I should leave you to Maiya’s company.” Juubei gave him a perfectly bland look and Kazuki couldn’t help a laugh. “Oh, all right.”
He left Juubei in the outer gardens and went to find Yohan. He found his brother in one of the inner rooms, today, looking out across a small, raked courtyard, hands folded on his knees.
“Aniue. May I beg a favor of you?” Yohan asked, more formally than he usually spoke these days.
“Of course.” Kazuki settled beside him, curious. Yohan’s face was very still.
“Spar with me.”
Kazuki took a breath. In a way, he’d been expecting this for weeks; their conversations over the koto had always turned, sooner or later, to the application of the Fuuchouin arts. To the distinctions and interrelations of the omote and ura techniques. “If you wish.”
“I don’t entirely know where I stand anymore,” Yohan said quietly. “You’re the only one strong enough to test that against.”
“I understand.” Kazuki stood and held a hand down to his brother. “We can both find out.”
And he did understand. For those first few weeks after he’d sealed away the stigma, when he was younger, he’d felt as though he couldn’t quite see properly any more. As though nothing was exactly where he’d thought it should be. As memory had faded, he’d forgotten the disorientation too, but it had come back to him after the recent troubles, after he’d wakened and then rejected the stigma. He truly wasn’t sure what he himself was capable of now, and as they walked out, beyond the delicate groves of trees to an open, grassy ring, he wondered how this would end.
They started slowly, with the simple barriers and direct strikes that children of the clan might use. Both of them controlled those techniques easily, only just touching each other when a strike slipped through. As they moved faster, turning around each other, they worked up the scale of complexity and one strike and counter built on another and sang through the air around them, Rain to clear the Mist, the Red Bird to ward away the Comet, strategy and power twining together into a single strand. It was intoxicating and, even as Kazuki felt his art wavering on the edge of his ability to grasp, he was almost laughing.
Yohan, though, was frustrated; Kazuki could see it in the tightening of his mouth, the tension in his forearms as his control, too, faltered. One moment his attacks were hard enough to push Kazuki’s strings back but too hard to slip past; the next they flowed through like water, like light, but too slow to catch him.
Kazuki hesitated, hand poised to form the Flower Dance, looking a question at Yohan. Were they ready to try the final scroll? In answer Yohan’s hand flashed up, sending the form darting for him first. Kazuki breathed and stepped into it, and threw the Whirlwind back at him.
Both of them were bleeding by the time they regained their stances.
Kazuki felt none of the crushing power that had marked Yohan’s strings the last time they’d fought, but moment by moment Yohan’s fingers steadied and, slowly, the line of his mouth relaxed. Kazuki nodded to himself and pushed harder, faster, spinning the Empty Moon around his brother. A breath passed as it closed.
When the countersurge of Yohan’s strings undid the sphere, Kazuki laughed out loud even as Yohan’s strings closed around him in turn.
Kazuki shook back his hair as Yohan released him, and went to catch his brother in his arms. “You watched me for a long time, didn’t you?” he murmured as Yohan stiffened, startled.
“You didn’t use the black strings at all today,” Kazuki pointed out. “Only the omote techniques.”
Yohan shrugged. “It never made any difference to me where a technique came from; they were all the same.”
“Once you saw them, yes.” Kazuki smiled as Yohan’s eyes shifted, even it it was a bit sad. “I was the only one you could have learned most of that from.” He shook his head as Yohan started to speak. “I’m honored to teach you. It’s my job, after all; you’re my heir, aren’t you?”
Yohan opened his mouth and closed it again, eyes a bit wide. “Aniue.”
Kazuki rested his hands on Yohan’s shoulders. “Better now?”
Yohan actually smiled a little. “Yes.” He glanced down and back up, collected but Kazuki could read the shyness in his reserve now. “May we do this again?”
“Of course,” Kazuki told him gently.
He was sufficiently distracted by his pleasure at this development that he didn’t think what it would look like to Juubei when he emerged from the House scuffed and bloody, and had to spend a solid five minutes talking him down. Juubei didn’t quite mutter under his breath, but he looked like he wanted to as he briskly sewed up the cuts before letting Kazuki go another step.
“You’ve seen me in considerably worse shape from training, when we were younger,” Kazuki pointed out, wincing a bit but holding still.
Juubei actually glowered at him and Kazuki sighed, resigning himself to another few days of overprotectiveness. As Juubei led the way back down the steps of the Fuuchouin House, back stiff, though, Kazuki paused, attention caught.
“Kazuki?” Juubei looked back, as though he was contemplating carrying Kazuki home bodily, but Kazuki didn’t mind that at the moment.
He reached up and touched the delicate leaves of the maple that grew by the steps. They were just barely tipped with autumn red.
“It’s all right,” he told Juubei, softly. “Everything’s all right.”