Kazuki had expected to see more of Saizou’s sister, as Toufuuin’s acting Master came and went from Yohan’s home. What he hadn’t expected was to see her at Yohan’s instead of his home.
When he visited Yohan to find he and Toshi pouring through some ancient scrolls, he was only surprised. When he found them out in one of the winter-bare gardens, experimenting with forms, he was amused. When he found her arguing vociferously with Yuuri over whether the object forming techniques should remain hidden, and Yohan watching with quiet interest, he was impressed with her dedication.
When he found her listening to Yohan play koto he started to wonder.
“Trading more techniques?” he asked as Yohan closed the piece, stepping softly into the room. Both of them started a little, looking around, and his brows went up; Yohan always knew when someone else was in his house.
Toshi shook her head ruefully. “It wouldn’t do any good. I don’t play; I was just listening.”
Kazuki blinked. “You don’t?” He knew not all the Houses were as strict in their training as the main House was, but he’d thought everyone at least learned koto. It was the root of their art, after all.
“Oh, I have the basic skills,” Toshi waved a hand. “I can follow a written piece of music well enough I suppose. But I just don’t have the ear for music the way you two do.”
Yohan promptly looked out the screens, coloring faintly, and Kazuki stifled a smile. “That must have made training frustrating for you,” he said, drawing attention away from his brother’s embarrassment at being complimented, even indirectly.
Toshi’s dimple flashed as she smiled. “It was. So I argued with Otou-sama until he let me do something else for basic dexterity exercises.”
Yohan looked back around at that. “What did you do?” he asked, head tilted curiously.
“Well… here, I’ll show you.” Toshi uncoiled a string and looped it around her hands. Her fingers flashed back and forth through the string and she pulled her hands apart to show a squared web of strings between them. “This is the butterfly.”
Kazuki looked again and saw the broad upper wings and the narrow lower ones. “String figures?”
She shook it loose and her hands darted together again. “And this is the koto,” she grinned.
Well, Kazuki supposed it was a good dexterity exercise at that, though he couldn’t imagine it was as good for fine control as playing. Yohan, though, was looking at Toshi thoughtfully. “You normally go faster than that, don’t you?”
It was Toshi’s turn to color. “When I’m practicing seriously, yes. Onii-sama wouldn’t agree it was good training until I could make a figure faster than he could get one of his strings into it to stop me.” She looped the string around her hands again and paused for a breath.
This time Kazuki could barely see her fingers moving and the string sang as her fingertips plucked and shifted it. All in a flash, the long string closed into an oval knot between her spread hands. “That’s the tortoise,” she murmured, holding it up.
Yohan smiled, faint but true.
Toshi coiled her string up and asked them to play koto again, and Kazuki obliged. But he remembered that smile.
The next time Kazuki visited Yohan, though, the young woman he saw there was not Toshi. As he came out into the inner garden, he found Yohan in rather stiff conversation with someone Kazuki decided, after a minute’s thought, might be a cousin on his mother’s side, a girl a few years younger than Yohan with the same straight, heavy hair their mother had.
“Aniue.” There was a definite note of relief in Yohan’s voice, and Kazuki was fairly sure the girl heard it too.
“I must be keeping you from your business, forgive me,” she murmured, not looking up. “I should be going.” She bowed and shook her long sleeves back into place with a gesture that made Kazuki nostalgic.
“Not at all,” he told her kindly. “It’s good to see you and know you are well.”
A slight gesture from Yohan brought a Kokuchouin retainer to escort her out and Yohan sat down on the engawa with a thump, careless for once of the disorder of his robes.
“What’s this all about?” Kazuki asked, amused.
“They really are trying to marry me off!” Yohan drove a hand through his hair. “It started with Gorou, who wants me to marry a Kokuchouin girl to mix the bloodlines again, and then Takeo and Akihito decided it should be a Fuuchouin girl instead, and the lot of them have been dragging every girl they can find out here to parade past me.”
Kazuki managed to turn his laugh into a cough but Yohan glared at him anyway. “I ought to tell them I’m going to marry Maiya,” he muttered.
Kazuki sat beside him, setting down the bundle he’d brought, and leaned back to enjoy the early summer sun. “She is one of the people who’s closest to you, after all,” he agreed, though he was reasonably sure Maiya was too much Yohan’s sister to be his wife.
“And she’s a warrior,” Yohan added, frowning in the direction the girl—the latest girl apparently—had left. “None of these will even look at me!”
“You are the clan lord, after all,” Kazuki reminded him gently. “And they were undoubtedly raised to know what’s proper.”
Yohan frowned down at his hands. “I don’t want a wife I could ignore.” As their mother’s council had been fatally ignored, hung unspoken in the air between them.
“Maiya would certainly not stand for being ignored,” Kazuki murmured, seeking to lighten the shadow over his brother today. To his surprise, that shadow only deepened.
“I frightened her, though,” Yohan said, low.
Kazuki frowned and wrapped an arm around Yohan, drawing him close. “What do you mean?”
Yohan was silent for long moments. “It was when you were coming through the Beltline, last winter,” he finally said. “All I could think of was that you were coming, at last. And I would kill you. Or you would kill me. It didn’t matter to me which, then. If I’d killed you, I’d just have died after, because there would have been nothing left. I was… I felt… intoxicated with it. And I kissed her. I’m not even sure what I was thinking, any more.” He took a deep breath and let it out, shaking. “And I frightened her.”
Kazuki’s eyes had been widening all through Yohan’s speech, and now he turned and pulled his brother tight into his arms. “I expect so, yes,” he said quietly, breath stirring the fine, fair strands of Yohan’s hair.
“These proper, retiring girls they bring to show me,” Yohan whispered, “they’re afraid already.”
“Someone will come who isn’t afraid,” Kazuki said firmly. If he was right, someone already had, after all. But he wasn’t sure enough of that to say it yet. He stroke Yohan’s hair back and tipped his chin up. “Do you want to spar, today?”
Relief flickered in Yohan’s eyes again. “You brought flowers, though,” he said, glancing at the package Kazuki had set beside them.
“The calla and water lilies will bloom for a while yet,” Kazuki told him. “And even when they don’t, there will be other flowers.” He smiled. “Sometimes I think that’s the true lesson of ikebana. There will always be flowers still; they just won’t be the same ones.” Now that Yohan had finally agreed to let Kazuki teach him this, it would keep.
“Then yes.” Yohan closed his eyes for a moment. “Please.”
Kazuki pulled him up off the engawa and toward the practice grounds.
Their matches were a joy to Kazuki, especially now that Yohan had regained his balance and his mastery of their arts without the stigma. The song of Yohan’s strings was light and fierce, now, not dampened by despair. Today they played out a match of subtlety and maneuver, rarely striking directly, layering form on form to create attacks from blind spots. The last one Kazuki only escaped by casting down the Comet to break it, and he spread his hands, laughing.
Yohan was smiling again, relaxed. “In a way.”
Kazuki refastened his bells and ruffled Yohan’s hair. “Stop fishing for compliments, little brother,” he scolded. “You’re still stronger than I am.”
Yohan’s smile quirked and he murmured, “In a way, Aniue.”
Kazuki was still smiling when he made his way into the outer gardens, expecting to find Juubei there. What he found, though, was the girl he’d met this afternoon in low-voiced conversation with a woman at least ten years older.
“…should have seen the way Yohan-sama smiled at him,” the girl was whispering. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
The woman sighed. “As if it weren’t bad enough that we have the memory of their mother to compete with. I’ve heard this before, that Kazuki-sama has grown to be Hana-sama alive again.” She looked up to see Kazuki standing at the foot of the bridge and her eyes widened. “Kazuki-sama!” She bowed, hastily but with grace. The girl was more flustered and nearly lost a shoe, turning to make her own bow. Kazuki returned it, politely ignoring both the gossip and their discomposure. As the woman rose he finally recognized her as a second cousin he’d met sometimes during festivals; the girl must be her younger sister, then.
“Megumi-san, it’s good to see you again after so long,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard a thing.
“And you as well, Kazuki-sama,” she murmured, cheeks red. She nudged her sister aside as Kazuki crossed the bridge, and he left them to recover their composure.
He didn’t turn toward the gate yet, though. He headed back around the compound, though the trees, to find Maiya.
If she couldn’t ward this genteel assault off directly, he was fairly sure she’d still be perfectly willing to interrupt these would-be marriage interviews in her own inimitable fashion, and he had no intention of leaving his brother to deal with this alone.
One of the things Kazuki treasured most were the moments when Yohan relaxed for him, enough to sleep. Sleep was a demonstration of both trust and hope, for his little brother, and the sweetness of having Yohan asleep in his lap made Kazuki’s entire world soft and bright. It didn’t happen very often, even now.
Yohan had started out, today, insisting he was fine, but Kazuki had kept an eye on him as he guided Yohan through the little steps and choices of creating a flower arrangement and had seen the droop in his shoulders. Once the delicate stalks of lavender were arranged in their holder, he’d insisted that Yohan rest and Yohan had finally agreed. So when the door slid open, as Yohan’s sleeping weight rested against his shoulder, he looked up with a frown, ready to warn off whoever dared to intrude.
Toshi stopped one step into the room, fingers pressed to her lips. It was a long moment before she managed to drag her eyes away from Yohan, long enough that Kazuki started to smile, and when she finally did she pointed to herself and back to the door, head tipped in a question.
She probably didn’t even realize she was nibbling her lip, or that so much tenderness was plain to read in her eyes. It was that that decided Kazuki and he shook his head with a smile and freed one hand to pat the tatami beside him lightly. She crossed the room on tip toes and sat beside them silently.
“Yohan doesn’t always sleep enough,” Kazuki murmured, breath barely stirring the air of the room.
“He drives himself,” Toshi whispered, frowning. “Only… it’s him so it doesn’t seem that way.”
Kazuki smiled, pleased with her insight and sad at the truth of it. “His skill and power let him accomplish things no one else can, sometimes even with ease. But that doesn’t mean he drives his heart any less hard, pursuing those things.”
“Yes. Yes, that.” Toshi’s hand reached toward him for a second before she caught herself and tucked it back into her sleeve.
“I’m glad to know someone else visits, who will care for him.” Toshi blushed at that, and Kazuki caught back a chuckle before it could disturb Yohan. “You have your brother’s protective streak. I imagine it will stand you in good stead.”
Toshi looked at him sidelong. Kazuki hid his amusement carefully. She was opening her mouth, probably to ask if he was teasing, or how much he knew, when Yohan stirred against his shoulder and rubbed his eyes.
“Aniue?” he murmured.
“Yes.” Kazuki stroked back his hair, fingers gentle. “And Toshi, too.”
Yohan smiled, small. “I thought so.” He sat up, drawing his robes straight again, and he and Toshi looked at each other with pleased expressions.
Kazuki was starting to wonder if the entire world except him was blind, that no one else seemed to have spotted this going on. “Well, now that your research partner is here, shall I leave you to it?” he asked, lightly.
“Oh, you don’t have to go, Kazuki-san,” Toshi said quickly, but Kazuki noticed that Yohan hadn’t answered and smiled.
“No, it’s all right. I don’t want Juubei to worry if I stay too long.” He leaned forward and kissed Yohan’s forehead and rose. “Take care of him,” he added to Toshi in parting, meeting her eyes for a moment and watching them widen.
“I will,” she promised.
Kazuki left them to it and made his way back out through the house, satisfied.
Kazuki had, so far, been mildly amused by the clan’s efforts to find Yohan a bride, mostly because Yohan himself had been more exasperated by it than anything else. At the end of the summer, that changed.
He didn’t find Yohan out in the gardens, or in the room by the waterfall, or even on the training ground, and finally went in search of Maiya instead. He found her outside one of the interior rooms, sitting beside a barely open door and chewing her lip. She looked up as he approached and he stiffened at the worry on her face. She beckoned him closer, pressing a finger to her lips. Kazuki settled silently beside her and peeked through the door.
The first thing he saw was Yohan’s back, and the things he’d learned in the last year made him frown; Yohan was tense, shoulders too straight to be anything else. Looking past that, Kazuki’s brows went up. In a half circle around Yohan sat the Fuuchouin councilors. Toshi sat to his right and Seifuuin Koshijirou to his left; between those two were the three surviving Fuuchouin elders and their new Kokuchouin compatriot.
“It would be reassuring to all if you took one of the Fuuchouin girls as wife,” Fuuchouin Takeo was saying, persuasively. “Surely if you wish to repair the breach between the Houses that would be the best way.”
That argument Kazuki hadn’t heard before, and he frowned. How long had they been pressuring Yohan on those grounds? He drew a string out delicately, not letting his bell chime, and cast it through the door to Yohan’s ear. “I’m here for you, if you wish,” he whispered down it.
Yohan’s shoulders relaxed a fraction and he nodded, as if to Takeo. “It would do little to reinforce the unity of the clan if it is evident that my Fuuchouin wife and I never speak.”
“It would lend legitimacy, at least,” old Seiji grumbled, and Kazuki’s mouth tightened. He stood and nodded to Maiya, who knelt, grinning, and slid open the door for him to step through.
“And what cause do any have to question the legitimacy of my heir and successor?” he asked, settling back to the tatami beside Yohan. And, carefully, just a bit behind him. He lifted his brows in calm question at the councilors, who gaped back at him.
"When did you…"
Through the sudden, chopped off babble, Takeo said, “Your heir, Kazuki-sama?”
“Indeed.” Kazuki smiled, serene. “You may say that, during the previous ten years, I was the proper Master of Fuuchouin. But I have given over that responsibility to my younger brother. He has even completed the Kachoufuugetsu,” he added, just to prick them.
He could see Takeo and Akihito shift uneasily, reminded of Yohan’s strength and ability to master techniques he had only just seen, and felt the tiniest bit revenged for Yohan’s tension.
“A proper succession should have been approved by the clan’s councilors,” Seiji said, gruff.
“Well, then, what is left but for you to approve?” Kazuki asked, and sat calmly while the debate ran aground for a silent moment on the double edge of his question.
Finally Takeo sighed. “What you say may be true. But, Kazuki-sama, a child of the hidden House…”
Kazuki felt Yohan drawing taut again, beside him, and he’d had more than enough of this. He rose, smooth and abrupt, and stood over them. “Yohan is the child of my mother and my father,” he stated, cold and low. “What do you imply?”
They started back from him, even the head of Seifuuin. They remembered the sweetness of the child, no doubt. But he was not a child any longer. He had been, for ten years, Kazuki of the Strings, the Prince of Terror, most feared of the four kings of Lower Town, and he had no intention of tolerating this foolish obstruction.
Finally Yohan stirred and looked up at him. “Aniue,” he said, quietly.
Kazuki looked down and saw the faint light of amusement in Yohan’s eyes, though none touched his face. He sniffed and settled back to his knees. “Very well.”
And if any had doubted that Kazuki had truly given over rule of the clan into Yohan’s hands, they should not doubt it now.
“My honored elder brother has been a long while among rough elements,” Yohan murmured in his most formal periods. “And he is now unaccustomed to having his will crossed.”
Kazuki choked down a laugh at the irony of such a statement from Yohan, of all people, but it did its job. He could see the councilors’ expressions changing as they really looked at him, at his clothes even, which were very much not traditional or formal—as Yohan’s were. As they thought about what kind of clan lord he might make now. Yohan had a talent for this kind of maneuver, Kazuki thought with pride.
Takeo cleared his throat. “I intended no insult to Hana-sama, I assure you, nor does anyone doubt Yohan-sama’s birth.”
Kazuki followed the advantage while they had it. “My brother is blood of Fuuchouin, the highest of Fuuchouin, and yet raised among the Kokuchouin. Who else could possibly heal our clan? Who else would have the knowledge and the compassion to to do?” And if Yohan was still new to his compassion, well more shame to the clan that it took that long for anyone to show it to him.
“Even so, it would soothe the clan if he had a wife of Fuuchouin rearing,” Akihito murmured, and Kazuki started to wonder if he really would have to do something drastic to one of them to break through this stubbornness.
Before he could decide how to convey the offer to Yohan though, Toshi, who had been quiet so far, interrupted, slapping a hand down to the tatami beside her knee. “I will hear no more of this!”
Kazuki blinked, wondering for one shocked moment if she was actually going to put her own intentions forward here and now.
But no. She rose and stood in front of Yohan, facing the elders. “Kokuchouin Yohan is the Master of Fuuchouin and the lord of this clan! Toufuuin has acknowledged him and will tolerate no more of this insolence!”
“Are you so sure of your brother’s feelings in this?” Akihito asked sharply.
“I speak with his voice, in this as in all else,” Toshi shot back with such iron certainty that Akihito subsided. “Toufuuin follows Yohan-sama.” She gave Koshijirou a narrow look, and he gave her back a sardonic smile.
“Our clan lord is the strongest wielder of our arts living,” he observed. “Seifuuin follows him.” Obviously his tone added.
“I have no intention of challenging the Master of my House,” Takeo started, exasperated.
“Then you will say no more of this,” Toshi cut over him. “Your council has been heard. Now be silent.” She stalked to the outer door and threw it open, pausing in the doorway to glance imperiously over her shoulder. Koshijirou bowed to Yohan and joined her with a smirk at the elders, who, after a few glances back and forth, gave in and followed. Toshi saw the last of them out of the room, turned and bowed to Yohan, and closed the door after her very firmly.
“Well,” Kazuki said after a moment. “She knows how to get things done.”
“She does,” Yohan said, low, looking aside. Kazuki turned and gathered him close, protective.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked against Yohan’s hair.
“Ever since I refused the last woman less than twenty years my elder they found to parade in front of me,” Yohan sighed, leaning against Kazuki’s shoulder wearily. “A few weeks.”
“At least Toshi sympathizes,” Kazuki offered.
Yohan laughed softly. “She complains whenever one of their visits interrupts one of ours, at any rate.”
Kazuki hesitated, but who else was going to speak with Yohan about these things? “She likes you, I think.”
Yohan looked up at him, startled. “She… does?”
Kazuki really couldn’t help smiling at his surprise, and stroked his hair back gently. “She visits almost as often as I do, doesn’t she?”
“She helps me research some of the lost techniques.” It was more a question than a statement, though.
“And she talks with you. And she listens to you play. And she defends you from your unwanted suitors,” Kazuki added.
Yohan actually blushed. “You really think so?” he murmured, fingers fidgeting with the edge of Kazuki’s sleeve.
“I’m almost positive.” And he was definitely positive that Yohan liked her back, which seemed a much better start than he had with any other candidate.
Kazuki smiled, satisfied that he’d done his duty as a big brother. Now he just wondered when one of them would manage to bring the topic up.