Chapter III: Autumn Idyll
Somehow, he'd ended up waking up in his bed. Well, it wasn't really “his” any more than the one they had shared the night before, but even so, it was his, mostly because it wasn't hers. Honestly, in his heart he suspected that neither of them had wanted to sleep apart, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to go to that red room again. She probably would've come to his if he'd asked her to, but... the awkwardness of the maids' presence at dinner had made that too hard, and Akiha was far too proud to ask herself.
So, it was morning and they had slept apart. Somehow, the sight of his room was... uninspiring, despite the fact that it was an entirely luxurious room. The bed was covered in soft silk sheets and equally soft and warm covers that had help put the autumn chill well, but it still felt... cold and lonely after the previous night. Only one night remained before they were set to leave for the trip, but Shiki found that the thought of another night like this one was too unsettling to be allowed to happen again.
However, such thoughts were dispelled by a knock at his door, drawing him back to the present. Light hadn't yet started to filter into the attractive room through the white drapes yet.... A glance at the clock told him it was only a little after six. “...geez. Someone's up in this house at this hour? Ah, come in.”
Some part of him had hoped it would be Akiha who stepped through the door, but that desire ultimately proved futile, for it was instead Hisui who did so. Her blue eyes seemed rather surprised at the sight before her. “...ah, good morning, Shiki-sama. It is good that you are awake.”
“...it is?” Still somewhat tired, he let that slip out, before shaking his head to clear it a little, glad that he'd already put on his glasses before the maid entered. “I guess it is then. Good morning, Hisui.” Suddenly, Akiha's complaint about how long they'd slept felt a lot more ominous. Did his sister expect him to be up at this time every day?
The maid blinked slightly at his strange reply, but she didn't say anything further. Instead, she moved to lay a stack of clothing--another elaborate outfit, from its size--on his bed. “Akiha-sama is in the sitting room. We will await you there, Shiki-sama.” And with that, she had turned away and was gone.
Reluctantly, Shiki eschewed the warmth of the bed, standing up and stretching before setting about changing from his pajamas into the outfit. It was more reserved than the one he'd worn into town, but perhaps more elegant as well, mainly being a royal blue jacket decorated in white and silver. Perhaps blue was his color, he mused....
Whether it was or not, he supposed he would just have to get used to wearing things like this; they would make Akiha happy. Even if some part of him was still uneasy about all of this, he still... had a lot to make up for, having left her alone for such a long time. That thought was reinforced by a rather vivid memory of that terror he'd seen on her face the day before.
Still, unused to dressing up that way, it was perhaps ten minutes before he finished, and exited the room. The mansion felt stranger in the calm moments before dawn, with the corridors shadowed and yet not as gloomy or menacing as they might've been at night. The sky was just starting to light up outside, and a few candles--likely Hisui's doing, he mused--burned along the path back to the sitting room.
Arriving, despite the events of the previous two days, it was hard not to feel a slight rush of anxiety. So much of what had happened seemed like a surreal fantasy, and the pre-dawn calm added to that feeling. Would the reality beyond the door be the same one he recalled? Or was that all some fever dream, some product of desires in his heart that his head refused to accept.
Still, he couldn't just... stand there forever. If the past two days were an illusion, then it wasn't going to... prolong that feeling--that happiness, if he was honest with himself--any longer. So, his hand reached out and gripped the handle. With a soft sound of the mechanism clicking, the door opened, its motion eerily silent, and gave him passage into the room beyond.
And, thankfully, the sight beyond was one that accorded with his memories. Akiha sat at the head of the table, her hair as vibrant as it had been when they'd awakened together. Kohaku stood near her side, while Hisui was sitting again at the far end of the table. The normalcy of the situation washed over him like a warm blanket, fighting off the chill of the morning, though he noted idly that the sitting room was actually colder than the hallway, despite that there were several candles burning in various places on the walls.
Despite the chill air, though, there was something... inviting, as he stepped in. “Morning, Akiha,” he greeted, almost surprised that his voice sounded normal with the somber thoughts that had been assailing his mind before. Already, he was making his way to the chair to her right as he had the day before, giving Kohaku a nod as well.
However, it seemed that his face wasn't quite as normal as his voice had been, because Akiha had frowned after looking at him, slight concern upon her face. “Morning, Nii-san.... Did you sleep poorly?”
“Huh? No, I'm fine. It's just early,” he admitted, slightly guiltily as he glanced toward the window of the room. Here, the curtains had been drawn, and the morning light was starting to filter in. The sun hadn't yet appeared from below the horizon, but its light was driving the darkness from the sky nonetheless.
“Oh, I see.” Her concern shifted to an almost peevish one of disapproval, and she shook her head. “And here I thought maybe I was wrong about you being lazy, Nii-san. But I guess you were just lucky today.”
“Hey, what's wrong with getting up late? It's not like I was sleeping through school or anything,” he complained, though the defensiveness was more playful than anything.
“Hmph. A nobleman should be ready to start the day early, Nii-san. But I guess I can overlook it for now....” She laughed softly, shaking her head. “Kohaku, could you get us some tea?”
“Of course, Akiha-sama. Shiki-san, do you prefer black tea or green?” the maid asked, tilting her head cutely at him.
“Ah... Green tea, please, Kohaku-san.” It was probably just because of the culture of the family that he'd been living with, but Japanese-style tea was what his body was accustomed to.... “What about you, Akiha? Did you sleep well?”
“I guess so,” she answered, evasively, averting her eyes. It was really a rather cute gesture, and it made his heart jump in his chest. Perhaps it was unfair to speculate such things, but the conclusion that she'd been as unhappy sleeping apart as he had was a natural one.
By then, though, Kohaku had returned with two steaming porcelain teacups--she must've had the water ready in advance. Both of them were exquisitely beautiful, and Shiki felt a little uncomfortable holding the saucer and cup he was given, so he set them upon the table quickly. “Ah, thank you, Kohaku-san.”
The maid only nodded, moving to sit by her sister after that as a comfortable silence descended upon the room for several long moments. Akiha and her brother both sipped at their tea; due to the fact that the family he'd been living with was involved in Tea Ceremony, it was one thing he at least knew how to do elegantly.
After several moments of this serenity, though, as the sun finally peaked over the mountainous eastern horizon, Kohaku spoke up. “Hey, Akiha-sama. Why don't we have a welcome home party for Shiki-sama today? The two of you are leaving tomorrow and we haven't done anything to celebrate his return yet.”
This caused the vermilion-haired girl to pause a moment, setting her teacup down as she considered Kohaku's words. Then, slowly, she nodded, though somehow the slight smirk that came with that nod was somehow rather frightening, “Yes, that sounds like an excellent idea, Kohaku. Hisui, you don't mind either, do you?”
“No, Akiha-sama. It would be... a fine idea, I think,” the other maid agreed, which left all three sets of eyes trained questioningly upon Shiki himself. A shudder ran down his spine, yet he couldn't help smiling a little even so.
“Well, I don't know if I think I've done anything to deserve a party, but if you three want to have one, then I'm not going to object,” he replied, unable to keep an entirely straight face as he said it because... despite the words, it was hard not to feel that what had happened was worth celebrating. The uncertainty he'd felt before coming in had driven home how much... he would have it if everything that had happened was undone.
Even with the unease that still lingered and the fear that he wouldn't be able to live up to what was expected of him in his new role... he really was happy to be home. This feeling seemed to be shared by the others; there was a tender smile upon Akiha's face as well, and even Hisui's emotionless had cracked a little. Funny, that smile looked familiar....
“Alright, it's decided, then. Kohaku, after we have lunch, you start preparing a feast. Hisui, you get things ready in here. Nii-san, since you're not officially adopted yet, I still need to handle some family matters this morning, but I'll be free in the afternoon.” Akiha's smile widened a little as she said this, and the request to come see her then made his heart beat a little faster in his chest.
“Okay. I'll just find something to do for the morning, then. I should pack for our trip, I guess. I'll sort out the things I brought that are worth keeping....” He trailed off there, since there wasn't much, but in the rush of everything in the past two days, he'd almost forgotten about the ribbon, and the promise that went with it.
However, he could deal with that matter later. For now... “Have you had breakfast yet, Akiha?”
“Of course not, Nii-san. Even if I thought seeing you early was a lost cause,” she said, lifting a brow at him, “I wouldn't eat breakfast without you. Kohaku, can you go finish preparing it?”
“Of course, Akiha-sama.” And so the four of them breakfasted together, and the day commenced.
Breakfast was over around seven, and the four of them talked another half hour or so after that, but the four and a half hours that followed were tortuously slow. There hadn't been more than half an hour of unpacking, and most of what he'd brought was clothing, none of which would ever live up to the standards that Akiha had started to enforce.
Beyond that, he selected five or six of his old man's outfits for taking along, but that didn't take particularly long either. Another half hour and he had all of that squared away; though he didn't know how long the trip would be, it seemed to go without saying that they would end up buying more outfits. Actually, he didn't even know where the trip was to, except for a general concept of the coast.
But, everything was done and he still had nearly two hours of dead time to kill. The only thing of interest really left in his room was the white ribbon, and so, after several moments of idly thinking, he moved to retrieve it from its place in his handbag, lifting the white scrap of fabric out to gaze upon it.
Actually, scrap of fabric wasn't a good way to describe it, he chided himself. Beyond the value it held emotionally, it was actually a rather well-made silk ribbon. Eight years hadn't much damaged it, though there were signs on wear on the sides of it.
There had been times, he had to admit, in the past eight years, that memories of his sister hadn't been enough to keep him going. Though he thought of her almost always, there had been times when despair had set in. When her letters came, always asking for a reply that he was forbidden to give, or when he thought of the fact that he... could probably never see her again.
Those times, though, there had still been the ribbon. It wasn't that the person who had given it to him was more important than his sister, or that thinking of her was somehow more encouraging. No, it was quite the opposite, actually.... Though his memories of Akiha were of a shy, uncertain girl, they were memories of someone he had cared for and who had cared about him; someone who had cried and laughed and, once in a while, shown him a beautiful smile.
On the other hand, though, the other figure in his memory was... distinctly different. It wasn't like Akiha, or the happy girl who had played with both of them.... That had surely been Kohaku, he thought, but even with that feeling, he couldn't match that name to the face in his dream.
But it hadn't been her, anyway. No, the other person was someone he had only ever seen from afar until that day. Dull, almost lifeless eyes had gazed out upon them all playing every day, always from the same window of the mansion. Nothing upon her face had given any idea of what she was thinking, the third girl; she had just... stared, never changing at all, like a doll.
And then, that last day.... Eight years ago--the accident, in which he had nearly died and which had left a scar upon his chest and back. Eight years ago--all those days alone in the hospital bed, and then, when he'd come home, the news that he was being sent away to live with another part of the family. Eight years ago--sadness and tears and fear; it hadn't been fear for himself, though, but fear for Akiha, the girl he had to leave behind. Eight years ago--the day that the girl from the window had finally spoken to him. “Come meet me under the tree in the yard,” she had said.
So, Shiki had snuck away before he was to leave. Under the tree, in the waning summer sun, she had given him the ribbon. Even now, the scene was so vivid that he could almost smell the sickeningly sweet summer air. It's very dear to me, so you have to bring it back, alright? Under that sun, she had said those words to him. And even though he hadn't known her... Right. I promise I'll bring it back.
Sighing, the boy shook off his reverie. Surely that had been Hisui, but if it had, she had surely forgotten about it by now. It was impossible to imagine the quiet, stern maid remembering or caring about an inconsequential childhood promise, but he knew he should probably give it back.
Besides, inconsequential wasn't really such a good word. Had it really been inconsequential? Those days when his mind had sunken into melancholy and he had despaired of ever seeing any of them again, he'd... still had that ribbon. It was something tangible--proof that he had lived that life in something more than just a dream.
At times, he'd thought it would be better if he hadn't had that proof, but in the end, those thoughts had been overruled. The little white ribbon, and the promise on that sad summer day.... They had tied him to this life, this place. Maybe he wouldn't have come back when Akiha called him if he hadn't had those treasured reminders of it all....
Sighing, he tucked the ribbon into his pocket. “...geez, I must've really been spacing out,” Shiki murmured, running a hand through his unruly hair as he looked at the clock, which had advanced half an hour during his reverie. But still, an hour and a half remained to kill....
With that in mind, he ultimately decided to, in light of his reflections on the ribbon, seek out Hisui. His mood was somewhat tranquil anyway, so he reasoned that the calmer maid would be better conversation. It hadn't managed to be yet, but he had a feeling that Kohaku's cheerful attitude could get a little grating if he was in a mood like this.
It took about five minutes to find Hisui, and only that long because he'd searched his side of the house first; she was in the lobby, with a pile of books. Though she was hiding it well, straightening up as soon as she caught sight of him, Shiki thought he could detect subtle signs that she was out of breath.
“Hisui? Is everything alright?” he asked, blinking a little bit at the pile of books.
“Yes, everything is fine, Shiki-sama. Did you require something?” She was almost convincing, but he could tell she was definitely a little out of breath now.
“No, it's nothing like that. I just thought I would come and see how you were doing. Kohaku-san said I have to take care of everyone, right?” He said it with a slight laugh, though internally he had to acknowledge that that was actual a valid reason more than the joke he tried to make it.
“Ah... I am fine. Akiha-sama asked me to move these books back into Makihisa-sama's room. They were volumes she had to consult to handle some family business,” the maid replied, slightly more talkative than usual--it seemed likely to him that she was glad for the break.
“...wow, she really must've had to do a lot of work...” Shiki's voice was quiet, in part feeling sorry for his sister--especially since she was still working now--and in part feeling his sense of apprehension about what it would mean to be the head of the family grow stronger. “But wait, my old man's room was pretty far away. You shouldn't be doing this by yourself, Hisui.”
“No, it is not a problem, Shiki-sama,” the maid insisted quickly, shaking her head.
“Hisui, you're... human, right?” He waited a moment, and then felt a sense of relief as the girl gave a reluctant nod. “Right, so you're not that strong. You shouldn't be carrying all these by yourself. Let me help.”
“...Shiki-sama, I appreciate your consideration, but that would be improper. It is my duty as a servant,” she replied uncertainly, shaking her head.
“That's not right, Hisui. Akiha said it too, in her letter--you and Kohaku-san are practically members of the family. And it's not like I have anything more productive to do. Really, I don't know what she was thinking, having you do this without even Kohaku-san to help.”
“Ah... I suppose... But do not blame Akiha-sama, Shiki-sama. Nee-san... is not skilled at working inside,” Hisui said, the words uncertain—it seemed likely she'd been trying to find a more delicate way of saying it.
For his part, Shiki had started to pile some of the books into his arms as the girl relented, but he paused a moment as he heard that. “Oh, I see.... I had thought you were both good at everything,” he said after a moment, trying to lighten the mood.
Of course, that didn't do so well. No, if anything there was a hint of a blush on the maid's cheeks. “No, that is not true, Shiki-sama. Nee-san is an excellent cook, but... she is not skilled at all in cleaning inside. She... ah, often breaks things if she attempts it, so we have determined to split the duties of the mansion this way.”
She'd picked up a few books as well, so the two of them set off down the hallway, toward the old man's room. It was on the first floor, not too far from where he had thought the servants' quarters were. It was a strange placement, but he gave it little thought. “So Kohaku-san is... clumsy?” he asked, blinking a little.
“Ah... In so many words, yes, that is the situation. Please do not talk to Nee-san about this, Shiki-sama.... She was somewhat... unhappy when I asked her not to try to clean inside the mansion.” This time, the slight flush was more than imagined, as they walked into the former head of the house's room.
“Alright. I promise I won't say anything about this to Kohaku-san,” Shiki agreed, looking around. It was strange to think this was the old man's room; he had no real memories of it, but then, it did seem to fit what he recalled of Makihisa Tohno. The man had been a meticulous bookkeeper, greatly increasing the family fortune through his business ventures, and the proof of that legacy was in the great oaken bookcase of ledger books.
Beyond that, though, it looked too... sterile to have been lived in so recently. It was likely because Akiha had been working with things--or maybe their old man had just been a cold bastard, he mused--but everything was too perfectly in place for it to look lived in. On the desk he put the books on, everything was in perfectly neat piles, and all of the furniture, including the surprisingly plush bed, was perfectly cleaned and preserved.
“...yeah, it's more like one of those old tombs with burial offerings left in it,” he murmured aloud, as he turned toward the door.
Hisui, following after him quietly, blinked. “Did you say something, Shiki-sama?”
“Ah, no, it's nothing.... I was just thinking that that room doesn't really feel like... a place someone was living until recently.”
“Oh, I see.” The girl fell silent, not saying anything more until they'd returned to the pile and filled their arms with books again. With the two of them--and Shiki's surprising fitness, considering his health--only one more load's worth remained in the lobby.
As they neared it, though, Shiki paused a moment to look back at the girl, nearly causing her to run into him, though the maid skillfully avoided that. She was a pretty girl, really, though, like Satsuki, she couldn't match Akiha's beauty. For a moment, he wondered if it was really because she was a pokegirl now that his sister was so much more striking, or if she had been able to outshine them so easily before as well.
These thoughts brought a pang of regret again for all the years that he'd left her alone, and there was a sigh. Before Hisui could ask its cause, though, he had both started moving again and spoken. “Hisui, do you... remember much from eight years ago?”
“Eight years ago? When you had your accident, Shiki-sama? ...no, not much. It was a sad time for everyone, was it not?”
“Yeah, I guess so.... So you don't remember anything special about it?”
“I... am afraid not, Shiki-sama. Is there something that I should remember?”
Selfishly, instead of telling her about the ribbon, he shook his head. “No, it's nothing. Don't worry about it.”
Not much more passed between the two of them after that, as they finished the last load of books, and Hisui thanked him quietly, asking him not to say anything to Akiha about it. Really, it was obvious to him--which, in all honesty, felt like the way it should be--that his sister was still the true head of the household.
By the time they parted, he had only half an hour left to wait for lunch, but it felt like he would be distracting if he went to find Kohaku now, and there wasn't really enough time left to talk much, so in the end, he just went to the sitting room to wait. With their plans for a feast that night, lunch was a simple and comfortable affair, though....
With lunch done, though, Shiki felt his heart speed up a little as he and Akiha set off together. As they walked the short distance to her room, neither of them spoke yet, though. Even with the maids not present now, each seemed to be waiting for the other to start the conversation, to speak first. But because neither did, the journey was made in silence.
Strangely, this time the sea of red that was her room didn't have much of an adverse effect when he stepped through, looking around quietly as Akiha came in behind him, closing the door. Maybe it was because, red or not, there was a warmth in this room that wasn't just the physical warmth he'd felt from Akiha--actually, it was slightly colder, in that respect. No, it just felt... lived in. His sister was definitely a neat person, so everything was well-organized, but there were personal touches and imperfections in everything. The bed's sheets still had a wrinkle, the floor had a slightly more worn path between that bed, the door, and her desk....
“You're quiet today, Nii-san. Did you not want to come here?” The voice from behind him was surprisingly tender, and a little nervous.
“No, it's not that at all,” he answered quickly, turning to look at her. Instinctively, her face changed back to her usual composure, but not before he caught just a hint of the apprehension that had been in her voice. Impulsively, he reached up and brushed her cheek. “Are you okay, Akiha?”
His touch, though welcome, made her tense slightly, but then she let out a careful breath and nodded, smiling. “Of course I am, Nii-san.”
Though he wasn't convinced, Shiki let his fingers fall from her cheek, instead finding one of her own hands. Akiha's skin was so smooth, compared to his own; it wasn't that he had particularly rough hands, but the various part-time jobs he'd worked at over the last eight years had still left a mark. Their fingers laced together quietly....
Akiha didn't say anything for a moment, but instead led him over to the couch where they had first seen each other again, and sat down on one side, prompting Shiki to do the same on the other side. For a moment, they just sat there, but then, uncertainly, she let her head tilt a little, her hair brushing his arm. When there was no objection, that lovely head came to rest entirely upon his shoulder.
“...are you... really alright with all this, Nii-san?” she finally asked, voice soft and tentative. “I know... that I did kind of coerce you into it....”
“Yeah, you did do that,” he agreed, but when he felt her tense, his hand squeezed hers tightly. “But, I don't have any regrets about it at all, Akiha. I... couldn't stop thinking about you all those years. I guess I would've thought that I just... cared for you as a sister, but if it's that, I guess that makes me a twisted guy, because... nothing could make me lets go of this now. I promised... to protect you, all those years ago, right?”
“I guess you did, Nii-san.... It's funny, isn't it? By the laws of our world, I'm the one who is supposed to be protecting you now. But I selfishly still want you to keep your promise....” She laughed a little, sadly, and shook her head.
“No, to hell with the laws of this world,” he said, voice having become dark, but he didn't realize it had. “I left you alone for eight years when I was supposed to be here protecting you, so I'm not going to... fail that again now just because of some stupid coincidence of biology. I'll still protect you now, no matter what it takes!”
The girl smiled a little at that, but then she sighed. “...thanks, Nii-san. But can you just... stop bringing up what happened before? I don't want to remember that all the time.”
“...sorry, Akiha, but I don't know if I can. How can I forget that I failed you that way?” He sighed and shook his head, looking away.
“Don't forget it then, but can't you at least let me forget it, Nii-san? You... never even sent me a letter back. After Father died, I felt I was... alone in the world. I had to ask you to come back like it was some kind of favor.” Her tone became steadily more unhappy as she said this, and though her head remained resting on his shoulder, her fingers moved from his. “So just stop bringing it up, unless you just came here to make me angry.”
Shiki was silent at this, still looking away from her. Finally, he managed, “...you know I couldn't send you any letters back, Akiha. The old man forbid me to, so even if I tried, he wouldn't have let you have them.”
“I know that! I told you just to let it drop!” she replied, her face darkening as her head lifted from his shoulder. It seemed like she was about to stand up and storm away from the boy, but his arm reached out to touch her shoulder, and he looked at her again, face sad.
“...wait, I wasn't finished, Akiha. I don't want to make you angry but... you weren't the only one alone those years. Yeah, I did have a family, but every night, no matter how hard I tried to think otherwise, I couldn't stop myself from... rejecting them. They took care of me--I was thankful for it--but every night I just... couldn't think of anything but you when I laid down and tried to sleep.” He swallowed, seeing the anger dissipate from her face, but then pressed on before she could say anything.
“I know... it doesn't make your suffering any easier, Akiha, but... I just wanted you to know that it wasn't like I was living happily somewhere without you. That's why I can't just... forget about what happened--every day for eight years, I've thought about how much I failed you. The only reason I... didn't know if I could come back was that I... was pretty sure you would hate me, and I didn't know if I could face that.”
After that, both of them remained still and silent for a long moments; words seemed... of little value, really. Both of them had wounds they'd been trying to pass off as not there, and now both of them had been laid bare to each other. It was not only a melancholy moment, but one of... extreme vulnerability.
Finally, taking a breath, Akiha laid back against the couch, her body untensing a little.... That only lasted for a moment, though; then she was tense again for an entirely different reason as she found her brother's arms wrapped around her. For a moment, with her greater strength she resisted, but that crumbled after a moment and she let herself be drawn into his embrace, pressing her lithe, strong body against his chest quietly, her hair draping over the both of them like a veil.
Thinking of that, Shiki suddenly remembered the words she'd said the night they had been close to making love on this couch. Aren't you even going to carry your bride to a proper bed...? The thought brought a blush to his face, but Akiha didn't notice, having let her head rest upon his shoulder.
No, instead she spoke, in a small voice, and her words quickly made the embarrassment seem... trivial. “...I'm scared, Nii-san. You're... accepting all of this so easily and... after all of this, I know I should just be happy, but I'm scared. Happiness isn't supposed to come to someone this easily.... And you don't even know what I'm turning into. How can you just... accept me without even knowing that! You said yourself that I'm not finished thresholding. What if... I become something that... isn't Akiha anymore?”
Her voice sounded so... fragile, as she spoke, almost clinging to him there, and after a moment Shiki realized the warm, wet feeling against his neck was her crying. His heart felt as though a hand was squeezing it, and his arms tightened along her, clinging to her almost as tightly. “That won't happen... I know it won't,” he whisper.
The words did little to convince her, and she shook her head unhappily. “You say that, but you don't even know what I'm becoming. I'm... supposed to start hating people I cared for when I change, Nii-san. It's hard enough, knowing that, so just... stop bringing up the past! I don't want to think about when you failed, because it wasn't your fault. Just... don't tell me about it anymore. Promise me, Nii-san.” Her tears had been interspersed with a burst of anger, but her unhappiness quelled it again, and she buried her head against him, the tears coming faster though she fought back the desire to let it devolve into sobs.
For his part, Shiki felt his breath catch in his throat as he held her, the cold hand of fear seeming as though it had coiled around that throat and cut off his air. No, that was impossible. It couldn't happen; he wouldn't let it. He wouldn't. “...alright, I... I promise I won't bring it up again if I can help it,” he whispered, finding that he was burying his own face into his sister's brilliant red hair now.
“Thank you, Nii-san,” she murmured, weakly, but her grip didn't slack at all, and the two of them just... laid there for a while, after that, enjoying the comfort of each other's embrace.
After some time had passed, though, Shiki made a weak attempt to bring a little levity back between them. “That necklace you had me buy looks really nice, Akiha,” he told her, tentatively. Really, necklace wasn't quite the right word; it was more of a choker, being a silver chain that rested close against her neck, with a red gem, also circled with silver, hanging down from it. That gem seemed to burn with an inner fire that made it more brilliant than any ruby he had ever seen.
“...ha, you really are a little dense sometimes, Nii-san.” Lifting her head off his shoulder, she looked over at her brother with an affectionate smile that belied the reproach in her words. “You think it's just a ruby, right? Well, I guess it's doing its job, then. Didn't you think it was a little expensive for just a necklace, though, when you saw it?”
“...ah....” Thinking back, she was right; it hadn't been nearly so beautiful when he'd bought it. The stone had been a pinkish color then, in the secluded room full of such items where he had been ushered after asking for that particular maker. “Yeah, I guess so. I forgot, because it's so beautiful on you now....”
Akiha laughed softly, seeming just a little embarrassed at her brother's praise, but at the same time, she wasn't rejecting it by any means. “That's because it's mana crystal,” she told him quietly, the words bringing a tight smile to her lips that eclipsed that sweet embarrassment. “...I'm not going to just be at the whims of this body, Nii-san. I might not have any choice about what I'm going to become right now, but... If we get through this, I'm not going to evolve into something I don't want to.”
Despite the tightness of that smile and of her words, Shiki couldn't help but find that she was... exquisitely beautiful in her resolve. But... “Oh... I see. Won't someone realize why it's glowing, though?” Concern painted his face as he asked this, looking at the stone.
“No, that's the beauty of it. It cost more than a mana crystal should, right?” Shiki nodded, confused, and she continued, “The maker of these is famous for his secret technique of making gems like this. Rubies that burn inside, sapphires that seem to be filled with water.... Because we're not the only family who has something to hide, Nii-san. Only certain people are allowed to buy these, even among the nobility--it wouldn't do if someone saw one of them and realized it wasn't so beautiful when not being worn, right?” Despite herself, she laughed a little, shaking her head as her smooth fingers moved to idly caress Shiki's face.
“I see.... I guess we're lucky, then. But how did they know that I was someone who was allowed to see it? They didn't ask who I was,” he noted with a blink, pressing into her fingers softly.
“They never ask, but the Tohno family has been one of their customers for a long time. They know what we look like--and besides, you were wearing Father's favorite outfit.” Smiling a little, Akiha leaned forward and their lips touched; it was the first time they had really kissed. There had been kisses that night that they made love, but they had been... kisses of passion. This was different; a tender touch of lips as their eyes closed. Those kisses had been burning, but this one was a sweet, brief taste of heaven.
It ended far too soon, but at least, in the aftermath both of them seemed a little happier. Akiha shifted for a moment, then murmured. “Nii-san, there's something else we should talk about....”
“Huh? ...oh,” he replied, confused for a moment then thinking perhaps he knew what she was talking about and focusing on her face, which was serious and a little uneasy, but at least no longer sad or terrified.
“Yeah, it's that, Nii-san. What Kohaku said yesterday made me think too much.... We can't take risks like that, no matter how much we want to. That's why I had you buy it.” From one pocket of her black yukata, Akiha withdrew one of the other items that she'd had him buy.
The basic spherical shape was done in a glossy black that matched her attire, but it was studded with what had to be real rubies, which gleamed attractively in the room's candlelight. These were held in place with wrought silver, so that on the whole the pokeball matched her choker rather perfectly.
Shiki swallowed, looking at it with a sense of trepidation, and could say nothing, so Akiha continued resolutely, “If we... didn't have one, there would always be a big risk if someone figured it out, so... there's no choice, Nii-san. It's a pet owner's ball, without... a cycle of any kind or anything--it's... made to be really comfortable inside. But even so... You have to promise me that you won't use it unless you have to.”
“...I swear it,” he said, without any hesitation. “I won't ever use it if I can help it, Akiha.”
She let out a deep breath and smiled at him a little. “Thanks, Nii-san. I already... had Kohaku use it on me, so you don't have to do that.”
As the ball was offered to him, though, Shiki accepted it with care, as though he was taking some poisonous viper in hand, and quickly it was tucked away in his pocket, the one opposite where his knife still remained. Even if it was probably useless, he'd taken to carrying it there.
But after that, the two of them talked a while longer, mostly about inconsequential things. They also discussed the trip they would set out on the next day and some family business, but even with that, the five hours they spent together passed by infinitely more quickly than those he had spent waiting earlier. And eventually, Shiki agreed to return to her room that night, after the party; he could bear the red now, if it felt... like this to be with Akiha.
By the time both of them emerged together, Kohaku had already started to bring out the food she'd prepared. It truly was a feast, with all sorts of rare delicacies drawn from the family's extensive resources. And, equally impressive was the job that Hisui had done preparing the room itself. The table was covered by a black satin tablecloth that was prepared in such a way that the light of the candles caused it to glimmer softly.
The normal candles around the room had been extinguished, and in their place were two great silver candelabra upon the middle of the table, each of them holding ten large candles--enough to cast the room in a romantically old-fashioned light, as the sun sank low in the sky. As well, the chairs had been arranged slightly differently than usual, with both Shiki and Ahika's at the head of the table, while Hisui would sit at Shiki's side and Kohaku at Akiha's. With all of them at one section of the table, with a candelabra demarcating the end of that section, it gave the room an intimate feel without detracting from the grandeur of it all.
And, of course, all the China had been cleaned especially well, so that it, too, gleamed in the candlelight. Kohaku seemed to be smiling even more cheerfully than usual, and even Hisui seemed happy, as she nodded her greeting to Shiki and Akiha. The two of them still held hands quietly in the darkness.
Shiki, however, was rather startled when Kohaku brought out another tray after the food. This one was of drinks, and as he looked at them, he realized that almost none of them were juice--no, it seemed that, amongst its other rarities, the Tohno house had an exceptional collection of alcohol.
“Ah... Is it really okay if we have this?” he asked, eying it uncertainly. His doctor had told him that that he was allowed to drink, but not too much because of his anemia.
Beside him, though, Akiha lifted a brow. “Don't tell me you're worried about petty blue laws, Nii-san. The Tohno house is above the rules of commoners. Or perhaps you are weak to alcohol?” She smirked at him, having transformed back into the attractively predatory Akiha who seemed to appear in front of others as she lifted a brow.
“No, it's... nothing like that. I can have a little,” he said, uncertainly, looking over at the tray of drinks. Kohaku's smile somehow seemed like a smirk now as well.
“Good,” Akiha answered, reaching for a glass and one of the bottles. “It wouldn't really be a party without something proper to drink, and I know it won't hurt you to have a little--I had Kohaku talk to your doctor after you agreed to come back.” Saying this, she poured a bit of orange juice into her glass, then poured the rest from a bottle of amber liquid; the two mixed well.
“...that's whiskey, isn't it? Are you sure this will be okay?” Shiki sounded rather skeptical as he watched his sister lip the glass to her lips and sip it elegantly.
“You worry too much, Nii-san,” she replied, shifting so that her hair cascaded around her face elegantly. “Now, have something to drink.”
As they were talking, Hisui had stood up and moved to the tray, taking one of the wine glasses from it. Kohaku blinked; “Not juice today, Hisui-chan?”
The other girl said nothing, but she smiled a little as she poured herself a glass of the white wine. Kohaku giggled and shrugged, pouring herself a glass of bourbon and downing it without blinking as she refilled it and moved to sit.
That left only the reluctant Shiki to choose a drink--in the end, he picked the wine as well, like Hisui. Lifting his glass, which looked like some sort of crystal, he slowly sipped it; the taste was enjoyable enough, but even such a weak drink left a burning aftertaste in his mouth.
Akiha and Kohaku, of the four, seemed the most used to drinking; Kohaku, in particular, seemed able to drink quite continuously without feeling it at all, while Akiha's cheeks started to turn red after a time, but she still seemed fairly lucid.
On the other end of the spectrum, as they spoke about various things and even Shiki generally enjoyed himself, Hisui was quickly hit hard by her lack of experience with drinking. Even with the copious and excellent food, she was out cold leaning on the table—it was a rather cute sight, to see her that way, finally relaxed a little. Hisui really... had a rather sweet face when she wasn't hiding behind the mask of a perfect servant.
But, not long after she had passed out, the still unfazed Kohaku moved to carry her sister from the room, leaving Shiki and the rosy-cheeked Akiha alone again. The latter was smiling somewhat freely, which he had to admit... was nice to see, after all the tension and severity of the last few days.
“See, Nii-san? We all just needed a little something to help relax,” she said, as though reading his thoughts as the two regarded each other. “And I know it wouldn't... really be possible normally.”
“I guess you're right,” he admitted with a bit of a smile. Given his doctor's orders, he'd only had about three glasses of white wine so far, but it was still enough to make the world a little... off-kilter. “It's nice to see you smile, Akiha.”
Perhaps it was his imagination, but it seemed like her cheeks flushed darker at that, and she took another sip of the mixed whiskey. “Heh, thanks, Nii-san... You really aren't a very tactful person, but... it's nice that you're so honest, too. I can actually believe your compliments that way.”
Now it was Shiki's turn to blush, averting his eyes. “Ah... Thanks, I guess,” he murmured, laughing a little. Carefully, he took a sip of his wine again. “It feels like it should be... really late at night already,” he complained, glancing at the rebellious clock that told him it was barely even night.
“You really are weak to alcohol, huh.... Well, I guess I can't blame you. You were living with a commoner family after all.” Akiha giggled slightly.
“Hey! That's not it. I'm just not supposed to drink much because of my anemia. Besides, it's not like it's normal to be able to drink like that at your age!” he blurted out, without really thinking--realizing what he'd said, he winced and started to apologize, but Akiha cut him off.
“...I guess you're right, Nii-san. But the members of the Tohno family are not normal anyway.” Though she smiled, there was a certain coldness in the words that made him frown and look away.
“...sorry, I didn't mean for it to sound like that. I just... It's worrisome when you can drink that much without getting drunk, Akiha.” His voice was quieter, a little unhappy.
Akiha fell silent now as well, looking away from him. Despite the lightening effect of the drink—or perhaps because of it--she looked conflicted and a little troubled with how their conversation had been going.
When Kohaku returned, they were still silent, and the pink-haired girl frowned, looking between them. “You two look too down. It's a party, right? You should be happy--we're supposed to be celebrating tonight, so no being depressed!” she declared, her eyes moving between the two still to make it clear she was addressing both of them.
“Ah... I guess you're right,” Shiki said, looking up but still not particularly happy. Akiha still looked troubled, as she met his eyes, but she sipped her drink and tried to put on a strong face.
“It's alright, Nii-san. You just weren't thinking—like I said, you really are weak to alcohol, so don't look so down.” Reaching out, she found his hand, and when that didn't work to cheer him up, she found herself drawing the surprised boy closer and kissing him, in spite of Kohaku's presence.
The latter fact caused her brother to blush, but after a moment of hesitation, he returned the kiss. Watching them, Kohaku just smiled.
After that, though, the conversation improved somewhat, and after another hour or so, even Akiha had hit her limit--and in doing so, dragged Shiki past his, so in the end they stumbled to her room, supporting each other. Despite the early hour, neither had much trouble getting to sleep, reassured by the warm embrace they shared. As for Kohaku, she remained up, drinking quietly, alone, for quite a while longer.