Saizou trudged up the stairs of Yohan’s compound, trying to not think and just admire the falling leaves instead. He was also trying not to curse himself out loud for an idiot, and a pathetically spineless one at that, which at least helped distract him.
His nerves were practically twanging.
Fortunately, Kazuki was already nearly at the gates, as Juubei had said he would be.
Unfortunately, Yohan and Maiya and Yuuri were all with him.
“Saizou?” Kazuki stepped forward, frowning.
He swallowed down his nerves and waved a hand lightly. “You’re usual escorts were called away, so I came instead. Makubex needed them rather urgently, and Sakura kind of told Juubei off for hesitating, so they went.”
The frown got deeper. “He shouldn’t have asked you to come!”
“Oh, he didn’t.” Saizou grinned. “Just looked all nobly conflicted, the way he does you know, and I couldn’t take the brooding any longer so here I am!”
Kazuki and Yohan gave him such identical looks, sober and piercing and too perceptive for anyone’s good, that he twitched before he could stop himself. The urge to kneel down in greeting to Yohan scraped against the urge to pull Kazuki behind himself and attack. Both were well out of date, but he’d had them for a long time after all. He could feel his smile tilting grimly out of his control.
He relaxed minutely as Kazuki came to him, steps light, understanding in his eyes. “Well, then…”
Yuuri snorted. “Not even going to say hello to your betters? Your manners have gone to hell.”
It was the last little snowflake, floating down on the mountain of Saizou’s self control, and in a breath it all came crashing loose.
Faster than thought his feather was between his fingers and his strings flashed out, slamming Yuuri back against the nearest wall and binding him there. When he shouted and struggled to reach his own bells, Saizou pulled the strings tauter.
“I am no longer constrained to tolerate you, and if you wish to know who is the superior I’ll be very happy to demonstrate,” he said, flat and cold. His fingers itched for the ura techniques, with the urge to spin his strings into a spear and drive it through Yuuri’s stomach and pay back just a little of the hell the past eight damn years had been.
“Saizou.” Kazuki’s voice cut through the ice of his rage, soft but unyielding, calling him back.
One breath, and another, and he made his fingers relax, called his poised strings back. He turned on his heel, leaving Yuuri tied up right where he was, and stalked back to Kazuki’s side. “As my lord wishes,” he said, low and clear. He wanted everyone present to know exactly where he stood, and what Yuuri owed his continued existence to, because it wasn’t Saizou’s own patience!
Kazuki smiled up at him, just a bit rueful, and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Yes.”
“Wow, Saizou is actually really strong!” Maiya put in, chirpily, trotting around Yuuri’s trussed up body for a better look, and Saizou rolled his eyes. Well, he’d always known she had a really low sense of humor.
“I did tell you,” Yohan murmured. Saizou looked around to see him reach out and lay his fingers on Saizou’s strings, damping and loosening them until Yuuri slid down to the ground, coughing. The sight lit a spark of vengeful satisfaction in his heart.
Yohan’s glance chilled it again.
“So, do you intend to withdraw the Eastern House from the Fuuchouin?” Yohan tipped his head as if merely curious. “Or will you give your House over to another leader? Now that you serve another, yourself,” he added, nodding to Kazuki.
He hadn’t thought. He’d known Kazuki had given over Fuuchouin to Yohan, and he’d never thought. His heart had said it was all over, that everything was all right now, but he’d placed Toufuuin under Yohan, and Yohan, not Kazuki, was the clan lord then and now.
The clan lord he, the head of Toufuuin, couldn’t serve any longer.
“You will withdraw them, then?” Yohan asked, watching his face.
But Kazuki had no wish to rule more than their tiny House of Fuuga, now. How could he demand Toufuuin leave their clan with no place to go?
But he couldn’t abandon them. He couldn’t, the very thought clawed at his heart. His sister, his aunt, his little cousins, the old councilors who had supported him as their lord even while hell was breaking loose… “I can’t,” he whispered, and there was a certain cool sympathy in Yohan’s eyes but no mercy, and the familiarity of that sent a shudder down his spine.
“Enough,” Kazuki said sharply, shaking his shoulder a little. “Surely there’s a third way,” he added more gently as Saizou stared down at him.
Yohan opened his hand, palm up. “If Toufuuin is content to have no place in the Fuuchouin councils, well enough for them. But the other Houses will begin to ask about it soon.”
Saizou took a slow breath, eyes fixed on Kazuki’s, on the hope they held out. “Let me consider this,” he said, suitably formal if a little hoarse. Yohan made a careless gesture of agreement, but it was Kazuki’s smile that made Saizou’s chest unclench. “After we get home. Which we should do soon, or Juubei will come up here after both of us.”
Kazuki nodded and bid Yohan farewell and drew Saizou out the gates and down the steps as Maiya got the groggy Yuuri back on his feet. Shock and satisfaction and fear chased themselves through Saizou’s head and he stayed close to Kazuki all the way home.
He’d known it would be trouble, to come up here.
When Juubei and Toshiki got home, Saizou was still sitting on the couch staring at the ceiling. Toshiki took one look at him and went to fetch down the sake cups.
"Saizou," Juubei started, already sounding guilty, and Saizou sighed and looked down.
"You didn’t ask me to go, I chose that myself, and you couldn’t have changed my mind once I decided, so none of that."
Juubei closed his mouth with a snap and Saizou’s lips quirked. He didn’t often use that tone with any of Fuuga, but he was the eldest of them, and, like Kazuki, he’d been raised to command, if only his own House. "Better."
"What happened?" Toshiki asked, passing out filled cups.
Saizou let his head thump back again.
"Yohan says Toufuuin needs to send someone to the clan council soon," Kazuki supplied, leaning forward from where he’d been cuddled against Saizou for hours to pour for Toshiki in turn.
"And I can’t," Saizou said quietly. "I can’t face him; not yet." Maybe not ever. He didn’t know.
"Here’s where those hidden techniques could actually come in handy," Toshiki murmured dryly. At their startled looks he waved a hand. "Well, if you could create a string duplicate, the way Maiya can, and send that in for you…"
Saizou chuckled at that. "If only."
"Wait," Kazuki said, straightening. "Perhaps that’s a good idea."
"Excuse me?" Saizou blinked at him.
"Not a string doll, no, but could you send a proxy in your place?" Kazuki’s eyes turning brighter. "Surely there’s precedent enough for that."
Juubei made a thoughtful sound. "Indeed, there is. My own family has done that on occasion, when the head of the House is too old or incapacitated to easily attend on the Fuuchouin, and sends his heir to act for him."
"Is there anyone from Toufuuin you could send to act in your place?" Kazuki asked.
"Maybe," Saizou said slowly. "It would have to be someone who could hold their own, and also not get too carried away and promise the House to things without checking with me." He started to smile, shoulders loosening as he told over the possibilities in his head. "That might just work." He finally took a swallow of the sake. "I’ll speak to my family."
“Don’t be silly Onii-sama,” Saizou’s sister said composedly from her seat at the low table beside Sakura. “Of course you can’t deal with him. I knew that already.” She took a delicate sip of her tea, hands folded genteelly around the thin ceramic. “It will have to be me.”
“You are the most impertinent snip ever to breathe air,” he told her, ignoring the way Sakura and Kazuki were both stifling laughter. “Are you sure everyone agreed to this, or did you just steamroller the lot of them? Again.”
She gave him an injured look he didn’t believe for an instant. “Everyone agreed, even Great-uncle Keiji. Our aunt is needed to run the House and school while you’re away. And the twins don’t want to do it.”
Saizou snorted at that. His aunt’s two little boys would agree to anything that would give them more time to play, and while he thanked whatever beneficent providence had kept them out of the compound the night the Kokuchouin attacked, he really hoped they’d grow up eventually. He didn’t doubt Toshi had told them being the acting head of the House would be a great deal of troublesome work.
“I’m your nearest blood, and I have the strength and right. Stop arguing, Onii-sama,” she directed.
Saizou sighed. No one ever won when Toshi really set her feet over something. “All right, if he agrees to this it’ll be you.”
“Good. More importantly, though,” she set her tea down and looked at him, sober. “Are you sure this is wise, Onii-sama? This is the man who destroyed the main house and half our own. Will we really still follow him?”
“It wasn’t Yohan who destroyed the main house,” Kazuki said quietly from where he stood at the window. “Not alone.”
Toshi frowned a little. “Well, no, it was all of the Kokuchouin, but…”
“Kokuchouin was the hand. But the force that destroyed us was our own fate.” Kazuki had that distant expression he got whenever he spoke of this, the one that made Saizou’s heart ache. “For three hundred years, the Kokuchouin were the shadow sacrifice of the Fuuchouin. Every death, every curse passed to them.” Kazuki turned away from the window to look at them directly and Saizou heard Toshi’s breath catch under the weight of those clear, sad eyes. “No fate can be evaded forever, though. And finally the fate of Fuuchouin burned through our shadows and returned to us. I mourn my family, as I have for eleven years. But the responsibility was ultimately our own.” He smiled, tiny and heartbreaking. “So will you not meet Yohan yourself and open your heart to judge what kind of clan lord he will make now?”
Toshi bowed over her knees. “As you say, Kazuki-sama.” Her voice was steady but Saizou could see the way her sleeves trembled and recalled that she’d never met Kazuki before either. She was composed when she straightened, though, and Saizou had to hide a proud smile when she looked up. “Onii-sama?”
“He isn’t seeking destruction any more,” he said quietly. “It isn’t for fear that I can’t follow him now.”
Her eyes slid to Kazuki and her nod was perfectly understanding. “Of course. Well, go make introductions, then, and I’ll handle it.”
That was his little sister all over. “Tomorrow,” Saizou specified, just to keep her from having her own way in absolutely everything. It was a big brother’s job.
Toshi sniffed, not fooled for a moment. “Slowpoke.”
On reflection, maybe Yohan and his people deserved her.
Today Saizou was alone as he walked the halls of the new Fuuchouin house, and when he reached a room standing with its screens open to the inner garden, Yohan was alone too. It was a courtesy he hadn’t entirely expected, and when Yohan welcomed him, quiet and formal, he felt the tug again—the helpless conviction that, in another place and time, Yohan would have been a leader he could gladly follow.
He settled across the mats from Yohan and took a breath. “I cannot abandon my House,” he started out. “They have trusted me to lead them, and I cannot simply give that over to another’s hands now.” Another breath. “I do not wish to sever my House from the Fuuchouin clan. We are of Fuuchouin, part of that whole. I will not break that circle.”
Yohan’s listening stillness turned shadowed for a moment, but he nodded, accepting Saizou’s reasons.
Another breath, deeper this time. “At the same time…” And now even formal language failed him. It couldn’t contain this. Saizou closed his eyes, hands locking on each other as he remembered the ice and irony of Yohan’s eyes watching his struggle to save Kazuki by betraying him, knowing its futility. “I can’t,” he whispered. “I can’t. I served you under duress for too long. It would always be between us.” He managed a shaky smile. “And do you really need a head of Toufuuin who can’t help hesitating every time you give an order or even suggestion?”
“It would make things more difficult,” Yohan allowed. “So? Have you found a third way?”
Saizou swallowed down the chill memory that seemed lodged in his throat. “Another of my House will act for me. My sister will attend clan functions, meet with you and the council.” His mouth quirked up crookedly. “As if I were very ill but not dead yet, as Juubei put it.”
“An acting master of Toufuuin.” Yohan cocked his head, and Saizou thought there was genuine amusement in his faint smile. “I think that will be acceptable, yes.” The old irony glinted in his eyes for a moment. “And if the Western House and the council think that it’s only because of your bond to Aniue, well they’ll understand that too.”
Since that was the conclusion his own sister had reached, Saizou figured he was right. And if that meant that no one but the two of them ever knew the whole tale of hate and love and hope and cruelty that had bound he and Yohan together for those years, well Saizou was perfectly happy with that. He bowed slightly, as much as he could bring himself to which wasn’t much. “I will bring my sister to meet you, then.”
“Saizou.” Yohan was gazing out over the garden. “You love Aniue?”
It was one of those Yohan questions that was really a statement, so Saizou just waited for the rest of it.
“How?” Yohan looked back at him, suddenly looking very eighteen, and Saizou had a truly horrible moment of wondering whether Yohan was about to ask him to explain the facts of life. In preference to his foster siblings, which, actually, Saizou could completely understand…
“How did you know?” Yohan finished, softly.
Saizou let his breath out. That was a complicated question, too, but not nearly so horrifying. “I suppose it was love at first sight, after a fashion. Well,” he added, relief making him babble a bit, “it was ‘wow she’s cute’ at first sight. I kind of mistook Kazuki for the Fuuchouin daughter. Right up until I asked for a match with the heir and the cute girl bounced on down, all smiles.” He smiled ruefully. “I like to think that surprise put me off my stride a little, but the truth was Kazuki would have defeated me outright if he hadn’t been having so much fun with the match itself. He was grinning the whole time. I guess it was the smile that caught me first.” He pressed a hand over his heart. “I wanted to see him again. I did, a few times. And when everything came apart…” he flinched from those memories, of Yohan’s terrifying strength brushing past every attack and defense, of running like a rabbit. “Well. When I found him again, he still had that smile. He made a place for himself and the rest of us, carved it out of the chaos and kept it safe for us. He made a home with that smile, with his heart, with the way he saw and knew each of us, and I couldn’t turn away.”
And that was more truth than he’d quite meant to speak to Kazuki’s brother, who was looking outright wistful for once.
“Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he really is strong enough to command obedience, if he wanted to,” Saizou added, easing toward the less loaded side of the question. “Even when he’d suppressed the stigma, no one dared cross him.” Saizou snorted softly, remembering the times he and the others hadn’t even gotten a chance to step in because their opponents were busy cowering already. “Not even us, when you get down to it. It’s just a good thing Kazuki is a kind man, you know, because not a one of us has been able to defy or disobey him for as much as two whole days put together.”
“Yes,” Yohan murmured. “I saw that. At the time, it was just one more thing to try to break.” He was quiet for a moment before adding, “I didn’t succeed.”
Saizou took a long look at Yohan, sitting quiet and still with his head bent, watching his own hands on his knees, and remembered all the moments when Yohan’s pain and conflict had matched so well with his own that he’d almost screamed with the unbearable sympathy it had roused in him. “You have some of that, too,” he said, low.
Yohan looked up at that, brows raised. Saizou sighed.
“You remember how I was with Yuuri and Maiya, right?” He smiled, tilted, at the shadow of distaste that twisted Yohan’s expression. “Yes, it was pretty sickening, sucking up to them, playing the clown. But by throwing away my dignity I kept my pride, secret in my thoughts and heart. You, though…” He took a long breath and let it out. “You let me keep my dignity, even guarded it from them sometimes. It was my pride you broke between your fingers. And you wouldn’t have been able to do that if you hadn’t seen to the heart of me, the same way he does.”
Yohan’s eyes were shadowed. “I see,” he said slowly.
Saizou stood. He didn’t think he could take very much more of this. “I will bring my sister to greet you,” he said again, reaching for the shield of formality, and turned to leave.
He glanced over his shoulder, but Yohan was looking out at the garden again.
“Your sister’s pride will come to no harm here,” Yohan said, sitting with straight shoulders again.
After a moment, Saizou smiled a little. “I have faith that it will not.”
And if his faith was mainly in Kazuki and Toshi herself, at the moment, perhaps it would come to be in Yohan too, a little, by and by.
Saizou walked beside his sister, occasionally giving a brief lecture on the nature of the Beltline as they hiked upwards.
“These, for instance, are not real.” He pointed to the approaching shadowy robes. “You have to pay attention to intent.” There were an awful lot of them, though. He wondered, as they worked their way through, whether Toshi herself was drawing attention. For this meeting she was dressed, not in a maiden’s long sleeves and bright colors, but in the quiet layers of a grown woman and the long, silvery-fair hair they’d both gotten from their mother was tied at her neck with a single ribbon; demure as she looked, though, determination and pride lit the air around her. In this place, she was practically a beacon. Privately Saizou also thought she was fighting with especial ferocity to defend her new finery; she was always like that about new clothes.
“Does he live up here because he secretly wants to be a hermit?” She leaned against a handy pillar to catch her breath and straighten her haori.
“Actually, I think this is the only place he’s ever really felt at home.”
Toshi stopped and turned to stare at him, eyes wide. “Onii-sama…”
Saizou’s mouth tightened. He’d said it already; it wasn’t for fear that he couldn’t serve Yohan. He just knew too damn much. He sent his strings flashing past Toshi’s shoulder to cut apart the last robe and turned back to their path. “Let’s go.”
He was twitchy about this whole thing. This was his little sister, after all, and it was Yohan he was about to introduce her to! He tried to quiet his own mind by observing her objectively, noting the firmness of her step, the maturity of her willingness to take up this duty for their House. It kept getting lost, though. This was Toshi; he’d seen her as a toddler, running down the hall in nothing but soap suds after escaping from her bath; he’d surprised her in front of a mirror, when she was eight, making faces in an attempt to find a way to smile without showing the dimple she hated; he’d stolen her hair ribbons to teach her fast reflexes and tickled her until she shrieked and flailed because sometimes she was just too serious for her own good. She couldn’t possibly be ready for this!
Here they were, though, at Yohan’s gate, and clearly expected as Kokuchouin retainers bowed them inside.
Yohan was waiting for them in one of the outer rooms.
Saizou watched the two of them while he performed the formal introductions. Yohan looked perfectly calm, though maybe a little withdrawn; Toshi had a faintly worrying set to her jaw. Sure enough, once they’d both expressed their pleasure in meeting at last, the bow she gave him was the one she would give the head of a strange House, not her own clan lord. Yohan raised a brow at Saizou, and all he could do was turn a hand up helplessly. Toshi obviously had her own agenda here.
“You are welcome within Fuuchouin,” Yohan prompted her.
“I am most pleased,” Toshi murmured. “But before I accept I must ask you something.”
Both brows went up this time. “Even though the head of your House has already chosen this?” Yohan sounded curious, even a bit amused.
“Onii-sama is Master of Toufuuin. I will follow the path he chooses for us,” Toshi said composedly. “Onii-sama is also too forgiving for his own good sometimes, and I saw some of what happened to him while he served you these past few years. So I must ask you: where do you mean to lead Fuuchouin now?”
“Ah.” Yohan laid his hands on his knees and looked out the screens rather than at them. “I intend to bring the fourth House into the light.”
Toshi’s shoulders stiffened. “You wish to uncover the hidden techniques?”
Yohan shook his head briskly. “No. Not that.” His voice turned soft and distant, and sent a chill up Saizou’s spine. He’d heard nothing but that tone for a long time. “The hidden techniques were created as the ultimate weapons of war. They care nothing for grace or beauty—or the soul of the user. Only effectiveness. Let them remain hidden.” He took a breath in and turned back to them. “No, binding those techniques to one of the Houses was where Fuuchouin took the wrong turning. They corrupted the true strengths of the Kokuchouin and left the other three Houses unbalanced.”
Toshi sat back, staring at him. “Unbalanced?”
Yohan cocked his head at her. “The mark of the Eastern House is speed, yes?” When she nodded he tapped a finger on the floor. “Speed.” He traced a circle clockwise, naming the quarters of it. “Speed, grace, strength…” He tapped the fourth quarter. “And the mark of the fourth House, it’s true mark, is ‘endurance’. To endure the dark and cold just the same as the warm sun, and live on.” His eyes darkened. “That was corrupted when the hidden techniques were given into the Kokuchouin’s hands. Their endurance was turned toward eternal darkness and death, the reverse of their true strength.” He lifted his hand and spread it. “Without endurance, the other Houses fly away, ungrounded; cut off from the light, Kokuchouin sinks ever down until there is nothing but pain and terror left. We have seen what fate that tempts,” he finished quietly.
Toshi was quiet, contemplating her hands, folded in her lap. Saizou couldn’t blame her; he felt breathless. Was this the turn Yohan’s thoughts had taken since Kazuki touched his heart and breathed life on it again? It was… stunning.
“What, then, would become of the hidden techniques?” Toshi asked slowly.
Yohan’s mouth tightened but he answered evenly, “Let those come to it who choose it. Those who are willing to become the shadow of our Houses in order to guard them. Not children.” Those last words sharpened abruptly, though Yohan relaxed again when Toshi nodded vigorously.
“Yes. Not children. Only those who have already mastered the techniques of one of the Houses.” She paused for a considering moment before nodding firmly and looking up at Yohan. “One of the four Houses.”
He actually smiled at that, and Toshi smiled back, and they both actually looked their ages though Saizou wasn’t fool enough to say so to either of them. Maybe they would all get through the day without any catastrophes at all.
“Well then! There’s only one thing left.” Toshi’s smile turned downright sunny. “I’d like a match with you.”
A yelp of protest escaped Saizou before he could stop it and his sister gave him a stubborn look. “It’s the only way I can be completely sure, Onii-sama.”
Yohan, damn him, had that glint of amusement in his eyes again. “You are one who believes that the soul is revealed in battle?”
“Of course.” Toshi lifted her chin, sitting straight and proud. Saizou buried his face in his hand with a faint moan. A little voice in the back of his head pointed out that she sounded an awful lot like he had when he’d challenged the Fuuchouin heir and met Kazuki for the first time. He told that voice to shut up.
“Well.” Yohan glanced between them. “I have no objection. Provided the head of your House consents.”
Saizou caught Yohan’s eye and had to breathe through a rush of panic. Yohan had promised to guard his sister’s pride.
He wouldn’t hold back.
And, yes, Yohan was good enough to defeat Toshi without killing her. Possibly even without injuring her much. But Toshi was strong and determined, and maybe even faster than Saizou was. She wouldn’t make it easy.
“Onii-sama?” Toshi said quietly, and it was the level calm in her eyes that broke him down. She knew. And she was still determined to do this.
Saizou swallowed. “I consent,” he managed, low.
Yohan nodded and rose. “Come, then.” He led them out through the gardens to an open ring littered with the signs of previous matches—splinters and broken ground and shattered stone. Saizou watched as his sister shed her haori and outer kimono, and tried not to hyperventilate. Toshi was serious about this. She unfastened a feather from her hair ribbon and stepped out into the ring.
Yohan drew a bell out of his sleeve. “Very well then, let us begin.”
Saizou watched them, biting his lip hard. He tried to tell himself this was just another sparring match, and a friendly one at that, but couldn’t quite get past the fact that the last time he’d seen Yohan fight he’d gone down without a ripple under that overwhelming, ruthless strength. The memory tightened his throat and made his fingers shake until he twined them together, white-knuckled. There was no sign of the black strings or the hidden techniques today, he told himself as strings sang and flashed across the open space.
Toshi stumbled and blood ran down her arm, and Saizou bit down so hard his lip bled too. He couldn’t interfere; this was Toshi’s decision, and she was still focused on Yohan, eyes bright and sharp. She drew her strings back in and sent them out again in the Butterfly, slipping and floating through Yohan’s barrier. He caught them short and reflected them back with the Mountain Lake, and she cast a dazzling Sunrise in Spring with a second feather and spun aside under its cover. Yohan turned with her, smiling faintly.
So was Toshi.
Saizou took a deep breath, and remembered the way Kazuki had wrung him out their first match, and how much fun he’d thought that was, and sat on his hands. Literally, since if Toshi caught him toying with his feathers he’d be her next target.
It was a hard life being a big brother.
There was blood running from more than one cut when Toshi set her feet in a stance that caught his heart and spun her strings out around her in the Dance of the Green Dragon. That was the last technique he had taught her, before he hadn’t dared any longer for fear the hidden techniques he’d learned would corrupt what he showed her. The signature of Toufuuin.
Yohan nodded a little and his strings flashed and glimmered into the Dance of the Red Bird.
Toshi smiled outright at that and lunged. Strings rang and caught, seeking to cut, seeking to reflect.
And Yohan wove a new shape from a second bell. It filled the space around the Red Bird, and Saizou had never seen it before, but there was only one thing it could be.
The Dance of the Black Tortoise.
Toshi’s strings struck and were deflected, and Yohan’s strings closed down, binding her in place. Toshi seemed too busy staring to entirely notice, and Saizou couldn’t blame her.
“Oh,” she said softly, as Yohan released his strings. “It’s… beautiful.”
Yohan held up his hands, a bell caught between the fingers of each. “Grace and endurance.”
“Yes.” Toshi’s smile turned brilliant. “Yes, I see.”
Yohan contemplated his bells for a moment. “The Black Tortoise I found in the scrolls. There is one more Dance I hope to discover, though, one I’ve only seen mention of. Never a description yet.”
Toshi sucked in a breath. “The dragon of the center…”
“The Yellow Dragon.” Yohan nodded. “We will see.”
Toshi drew herself up, torn clothes and dripping blood and all. “It’s a good path you’ve chosen. I will be most pleased to follow it.” She bowed to him, this time as to her clan lord.
Yohan’s faint smile flashed again, maybe a little softer this time. “The acting Master of Toufuuin is most welcome.”
Saizou forced his knees to hold him up and stood. “I’m delighted we all agree, now can we maybe go get washed up, Toshi?”
“Maiya,” Yohan called.
Maiya popped out of the trees across from Saizou, and almost gave him heart failure. “Yes?”
“Ask Kakei-san to attend us please.”
She caroled agreement and vanished back through the trees with a wave. Saizou, noting the way Yohan very nearly rolled his eyes, grinned briefly. And then he caught his sister’s expression.
Toshi stared after Maiya, wide eyed. “She… Her, um… clothes. Are missing?”
Yohan sighed. “Maiya thinks it’s amusing to dress like a character from one of her manga.”
Toshi contemplated this and finally turned to give Saizou a suspicious look. “You never mentioned this, Onii-sama,” she stated rather ominously.
“You get used to it after a while?” he offered.
“Hmph!” She tossed her hair and stalked back toward the house, only slightly impaired by a limp.
Yohan gave Saizou a puzzled look. “What was that?”
Saizou sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Toshi doesn’t like thinking her big brother looks at girls. Ever. It’s a sister thing.”
“I see.” Actually, Yohan looked even more puzzled. Not that Saizou could blame him, really. They followed Toshi more slowly and with less stalking, Saizou collecting Toshi’s haori and kimono on the way. By the time they caught up she was sitting on a bench in the outer garden having her last cut sewn up. Yohan’s physician gave him a quick look over and nodded with professional satisfaction before bowing himself out.
“You should hang your clothes up properly, you know,” Saizou told her, shaking out her kimono and holding it up for her to put on. “And don’t lift your arm that high, you’ll tear the stitches!”
“Oh, stop fluttering, Onii-sama,” Toshi huffed. “You sound like Juubei-san.”
Saizou opened and closed his mouth a few times. “I do not.”
“You do so.”
Their exchange was interrupted by Maiya’s peal of laughter. “You see, now,” she told Yohan, “that’s what siblings sound like.”
Yohan eyed her like he would a patch of quicksand in his path. “Maiya…”
“She’s only teasing,” Toshi seemed moved to reassure Yohan, smiling as she shrugged into her haori.
“I like you,” Maiya declared to Toshi. “You got Yohan to smile. He doesn’t smile often enough.”
Toshi blinked. “Oh.” She glanced between the laughing Maiya and the now extremely deadpan Yohan. “I’m… glad I could help?”
“I will be pleased to see you here whenever you wish,” Yohan told Toshi in a very firm changing-the-subject tone. Toshi collected herself, recalled to the formalities.
“I will be honored to attend, at your word.” They exchanged parting bows and Toshi nodded to Maiya after a moment’s hesitation, and turned toward the gates.
Saizou paused in the act of following her and looked back. “Yohan.”
Yohan stopped looking after Toshi and looked at him inquiringly.
“You deserve Toufuuin’s service.”
Yohan was still for a moment and then rose swiftly and came to Saizou. He lifted a hand to brush his fingertips across Saizou’s forehead, and Saizou hesitated, the instant urge to jerk away fading. That motion… that was an unbinding. There was nothing left to unbind, though, nothing except… except memory. They looked at each other for a long moment and Yohan finally murmured. “I’m sorry.”
Something inside Saizou loosened. Maybe it was memory after all. “Thank you,” he said, husky.
When he turned to follow his sister out the gates and back home, he found he wasn’t as worried, anymore, about what future she would find here.