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the fragrance of falling petals

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Sometimes, just sometimes, she believed that her little brother might have been better off having never been born at all.

There was something painful, nearly aching about a child being shuffled off into a barren prison at an age where he was barely able to walk, at an age where any creature, human or animal, was meant to crawl or romp over grass and soil, let its learning body be exposed to the exquisite tickles of nature and the gleaming shine of the sun. Perhaps even moonlight would suffice- she had nothing against the day’s counterpart that so lovingly hid her family away in dark caresses and the everlasting twinkle of stars, the only side of the universe that was just as kind to them as it was to everyone else.

In a brighter, fairer world, surely a child would be allowed to leave his strict confinements for at least an hour each day- in the wee hours of the morning where nobody was awake to witness the birth of a smile that would undoubtedly blossom, or maybe even in broad daylight the way he so deserved, radiant and indulgent like he’d never, ever known. But this world was the stark opposite of bright and fair, and it wasn’t at all difficult to understand such a fact. Lightning would strike even the gentlest of men, innocents would be harmed as collateral in bloody situations, and little boys would be kept locked up for the duration of their entire lives, with food being pushed through too-small bars and sunshine being denied in the most elementary of ways.

Yet for all the times she thought, in sickening moments of weakness, that her beloved brother would be better off mercifully dead, she thought even more about how he’d be better off alive- and not in that harrowing, isolated way he’d been surviving since the day he was born, but with a life that allowed him freedom, something he was so deprived of and had only ever skimmed with the very tips of his fingers. Someday, somehow, she’d find a way to grant her sibling that single, precious thing. It was probably a silly hill to die on, but what was the miracle of life without a little bit of silliness, a little bit of downright madness? Eras would change, and lives would follow suit- some people rose while some people died, some people were thrown into unthinkable pits of silence while others were pulled right out by the hand. All it took was one big thing, or maybe a combination of many small things, and the swing would be set in motion.

(When thinking about it practically, she often came to the conclusion that all she needed to do was sneak into the Suous’ quarters and shove a knife down that old geezer’s throat- said ‘old geezer’ being the head of the main family, of course, the one who’d sent her little brother into captivity for his own safety in the first place. She only received a firm swat over the head with a hand fan upon bringing this up to her parents, however, because she was still a child and children shouldn’t be plotting these sorts of dastardly things, much less against a force like the Suous. The whole hierarchy thing didn’t make much sense, really- if the Oukawas protected the Suous and handled all their dirty work for them, then wouldn’t turning on the Suous be the fastest route to overturning this entire system?)

(-well, whatever. If she couldn’t kill that bug-headed grandpa herself, she’d just have to hope that someone else would do it for her. There had to be someone in their family with the guts and the brains to think up an appropriate solution.)

In the meantime…

“Plannin’ to start a black market, are ya?” her older sister raised an amused eyebrow from across the wooden table, lunch having been long cleared away in favour of the best thing this sordid world had to offer: dessert. Sticking a tongue out in playful defiance was a familiar action, though her hands moved in a slightly more recent practice. Dango she knew Kohaku liked, but daifuku would be something far newer to him, assuming nobody else was smuggling him sweet treats he rarely got a share in. “You’ve been sneakin’ dessert out the door in those lil’ bowls of yours for days now. Think I wouldn’t notice?”

“You can notice, but ya don’t have to mention it.” Daifuku went neatly at the bottom of the bowl, coolness gracing her fingertips that gripped its undersurface of smooth clay. White, fluffy ovals sat in a curved triangle of a trio- you, me, and our eldest ane-han- and sticks of dango were carefully arranged over the delectable mochi, thin lengths of wood resting over the rim of the bowl and letting their tricoloured spheres hang in the remaining space below. “Nose outta my business, or I’ll shove all your precious daifuku into my mouth and make my escape before ya even get the chance to react.”

“Tellin’ me your strategy before it even plays out, smart move,” was the deadpan answer she received, prompting an idle wave of hand as she quickly got to her feet, wooden geta clacking rhythmically against traditional flooring. The daifuku would get warm if she took too long on her mission, and her pride insisted she brought Kohaku nothing but the finest of dessert at the finest of temperatures during every snack run. Priceless cargo in one hand and waving goodbye with the other, she didn't quite expect the next sentence that reached her ears from across the room- "The old man's watchin' the entrance today, so take the back route."

The old man- an older Oukawa with eyes of a hawk and a penchant for keeping tabs on youngsters, most prominent of which being a certain lonely boy kept permanently cooped up in a glorified cage. Paying visits to the zashikirou was always a tricky thing when that jailkeeper was on duty- provided one didn't know of his presence, or the ways of getting around him. Turning to glance back at her sister, the younger girl caught a trace of a smile on the former's face, and fought to suppress one of her own with considerably less success. (She was working on it.) "You're the best, Ane-han. See ya at dinner!"

The path to the small, secluded area at the very back of their home was one long-learned and committed to memory. Darting around a hulking tree that would be shedding its cherry blossoms soon enough, she made sure to keep her left hand steady so as not to send dango rolling right off the bowl. A small leap over the large drain that ran all the way out of the compound (sometimes tinted with blood when work got messy and they came home for cleanup), a quick scarper around the inconspicuous shed they kept tools, legally unsound materials and the like in...

Carefully maneuvering herself up onto a windowsill before dropping herself a few metres down onto the ground inside her targeted room while keeping her dessert intact was no easy feat, but she'd been getting better at it as of late. "Hey," she whispered, a glance over at the empty entrance telling her the coast was clear- nobody guarded the zashikirou too close by, lest they arouse suspicion from outsiders. Padding silently towards the woefully familiar criss-crossing wall of wooden bars, she gave the surface a gentle rap. "Asleep, are ya?"

There was some shifting from the telltale lump of fabric curled up on the bedding at the corner of the space, accompanied by a tired mumble that more or less answered her question. "Keep on dozin' like a baby fresh outta its mama's stomach and I'll eat all this sweet stuff myself."

That seemed to get Kohaku's attention, the boy going completely still for a short second before slowly dragging himself up into sitting position like clockwork, a hand lifting to sleepily rub at his eyes. Anyone else would never be caught dead sleeping at the high of noon, but she supposed this Oukawa in particular didn't have much else to do, anyway. The response to her words came uncertain, delayed- "Ane-han? S'that you?"

"Can't even recognise yer own sister anymore," she huffed, jest making itself known as she stuck a hand through the bars and beckoned to him. "Hurry up, come on, the food'll get warm and that's just gross."

Blinking himself properly awake, pretty amethysts were both brought to life and hidden from view with the rapid shutters of eyelids in succession. "Dessert?"

"Like I'd bring ya anything else." That was sort of a lie- she brought him lots of other things, but where food was involved, dessert was always the most obvious want and need- Kohaku was fed well enough for actual sustenance, imprisoned as he was, so it was just non-essential things deemed fun that he was always missing. The boy was pulling himself to his feet and moving towards his prison bars within seconds, eyes bright and a familiar smile curving at his lips. The passing of the goods was easy enough- she handed the sticks of dango to her brother through the bars first, then tilted the daifuku bowl just enough to make it through the gaps in the structure without spilling the balls of mochi out. "Do much today?"

Settling down cross-legged and facing her companion, Kohaku mirrored her position from the opposite side of the bars, dango held carefully aloft in one hand as he tucked into his daifuku with the other. "Finished readin' that knife book this morning, which was some good fun, I'll admit. Bit repetitive, but I wasn't expectin' anything else, anyway."

Knife book- "That one with all those blade techniques?" Receiving a single nod in reply, Kohaku's cheeks slightly puffed as he chewed an entire oval of mochi in one go, a grin found its way to lips as easily as breathing. "That one's cool, I like the one where they stick a needle into the guy's eye an’ go for his carotid with a penknife. Fancy tools compared ta what we have around here, but I could probably pull that off with a fish-guttin’ knife sharpened real fine." The floor was swept often enough for her to comfortably lean herself back on her palms as she spoke, a gentle breeze making its way into the mostly empty area to tease at strands of hair. "They're teachin' me to talk people up today- getting stupid ol' men to do my bidding, and all that. Maybe once I get good enough at it, I'll be able to convince that blockheaded Suou bastard to stop comin' after our family an' let you outta this tiny place."

Kohaku looked wistful, hope shining through at only the bare minimum. Perhaps he thought of all this as empty words, and perhaps without the right amount of tenacity and wit, that really was all they would be. She’d be damned if she taught her little brother that just rolling over and letting the world have its way with them was the way they did things, though, so tenacity and wit was just going to have to become her middle name.

He'd finished the daifuku already? Red bean mochi was probably on its way to becoming a favourite of his, then, so she'd have to be sure to get him some more often. (Or maybe the boy was just so sweets-deprived that anything his sister brought him would be a potential favourite. It wasn't the best to dwell on those kinds of things, however.)

The shadows manning the floor shifted slightly, signalling the movement of the sun and the inevitable passing of time. “Guess my stay’s up,” she said with a sigh, pushing herself up to stand and extending a hand to take her now-empty bowl back. The object was neatly returned through the bars that separated the kindred pair, and she slid her free hand through to give Kohaku’s unfairly soft hair a good ruffle. “They’ll balk at me if I’m late fer lessons, but I’ll let ya in on all the fun stuff they teach me, a’ight?”

Kohaku bounded up to his feet in clear enthusiasm, the sort that always made itself known at the prospect of learning something new, anything related to the outside world that seemed so far away. “Are you comin’ back to visit again later?”

...she was supposed to be spending time on perfecting her makeup so she could pass off as a spoiled, rich girl who was going to end up a possible murder suspect after the newest Oukawa job was done in about thirty six hours, and getting caught idling away while work was meant to be done was possibly disastrous- but when Kohaku was looking at her like that, his ever-present yearning for someone’s company in this otherwise silent room so open, so evident…

“‘course I’ll be back,” she promised, and a small surge of joy made its way through her chest at the smile of pure sunshine that was directed at her in response. If getting caught might land her in a load of trouble, then- well-

-she supposed she’d just have to not get caught.

✿✿✿

Teddy bears, she knew, were a luxury few were allowed to indulge in. A stuffed toy wouldn’t do a thing against a nocturnal intruder or a sneak in the day, wasn’t even substantial enough to be used as a decent projectile against a balding old man. (She’d tried.) Still, special allowances should be made for special cases, and much as she loathed to refer to her little brother as something like that, something cold and clinical and almost pitiful, that was more or less what he was. A special case, a special child- the single son among countless daughters, that one differentiating part of his identity damning him the moment he’d come to life.

Beggars couldn’t be choosers, but Kohaku sure as hell was going to make some choices and get some pretty, useless things that everyone secretly liked to have, if his older sister had anything to do with it.

Slipping into her brother’s solitary home at the crack of dawn was costing her about an hour of valuable extra sleep, but he was worth it. Gift held subtly behind her back and keeping her footsteps light and soundless, she approached the zashikirou and gave the wooden floor a few routine taps with her foot. “Kohaku.”

He was awake this time, as she knew he would be- there was no creature more expectant and excitable on the morning of his very own birthday, after all. “Am I really less important than that little drawin’ of yours?”

“Finished, finished,” Kohaku said hastily, putting his pencil down and carefully smoothing over his colourful sheet of paper before turning his beaming expression onto his sibling like an all-out attack. An unintentional one, sure, but he’d always excelled at assassination attempts, so maybe this wasn’t all that surprising. “I wasn’t expectin’ you to come this early, figured you’d want more of that beauty sleep ya always harp about.”

“Birthday or not, I’m not lettin’ you slander me that way,” she glared, waving a threatening finger. “I could send yer tiny butt flying even from outside these bars, so watch it.”

The quiet huff of laughter she received was a gift all on its own- though she wasn’t the one who was meant to be getting presents today. “Here ya go,” she said, pulling the object she’d hidden out of sight right into their field of vision with a flourish, and proudly watched Kohaku’s eyes go wide in response. “Unique, one of a kind, just for Oukawa Kohaku and nobody else. Coolest and prettiest Ane-han in the world, at yer service.”

A small, huggable stuffed bear, done in pretty blue fabric with warm, brown eyes. Evidence of its homemadeness was plain to see, from the slightly slanted seams on one side to the clumsily knotted thread in its button eyes, but that was what made something truly special, in her opinion- the messiness, the imperfections, the aspects of an existence that could never be replaced. Kohaku’s eyes were still wide as saucers, mouth slightly agape as he was grandly handed the bear through the slats in the bars between them. “He’s so cute,” he marvelled, holding the toy like it was something precious, unbelievable, and maybe that was doing quite a bit for his sister’s ego, but that was for no one to know but her own self. "Didja get pricked with a needle lots?"

A thousand times. "Not at all. Whaddya take me for, some kind of klutz?"

“Definitely not,” Kohaku grinned, and even at this budding age, he seemed to be developing a keen talent for sarcasm. (Maybe it ran in the family.) “Thanks, thanks, thanks, he must’ve taken forever to make-”

“Not that long,” she amended, because she had to keep her newfound reputation as a professional seamstress intact to at least some extent. “Ane-han did help out a bit. Just a bit, though! I did all the heavy liftin’, so this present is still all me.” Her older sister had been visibly amused at the ironclad insistence of a bear and nothing else she’d been faced with, but had offered her assistance amidst endless teasing nonetheless. It’d been fun, sitting comfortably with her sibling in moments of downtime and working on something as important and love-filled as this, occasionally feeling the idle curl of familiar fingers in her hair from behind as tiny braids were made for one’s own enjoyment. “This lil’ guy’s a good one, so keep ‘im well, got it? Hide him under the covers if ya have to, if someone comes in for inspection. He's here ta kindly keep you company when no one else is around."

(Her brother always looked so lonely in this threadbare zashikirou, this volatile emptiness he’d been born to be trapped in. She often thought to herself that he needed a friend, a sort of constant by his side whom he could play with, speak with, all whenever he wanted. Trying to get Kohaku a whole person as a gift seemed like a bit of a stretch, though, so a stuffed toy was the next best option for now.)

“Orders memorised,” Kohaku said confidently, hugging the bear tight to his chest in an affectionate squeeze. His eyes lit up, then, and he quickly turned to the small desk he'd been granted in this boredom-riddled space, picking up the drawing he’d been working on minutes earlier. “I made you something, too!”

The piece of paper was passed through the bars with an ease that came with practice, not a single ruffle or crease marring its flawless surface. She took the gift delicately, almost reverently in her hands, and looking down at it made her blink once, twice, thrice.

It was an amateurish pair of what was clearly meant to be two people, just shy of stick figures but still wearing multicoloured clothes that could only be dreamed of. (Artistic license, she imagined.) Pink had been utilised liberally for the characters’ hair, and the background was filled with vibrant hues as well, surely some faraway location Kohaku had glimpsed in the books and magazines she brought him- one of those popular, modern cities in Kansai, perhaps? The sorts of places others flocked to for joy and entertainment, with people singing and dancing at every brightened corner…

“It’s us!” Kohaku volunteered the obvious information with a kind of giddiness his sister would never be able to quell- nor would she ever want to. “Outside, together. I’m not that sure about where the place is, but we’ll get there. Someday.”

-his words brought a smile to her lips yet made her heart weigh heavier than it ever had. Perhaps it was just the euphoria of it being his birthday that was fuelling this rare, boundless optimism, but Kohaku looked so certain that he really would be able to break free from his chains one day, that the two of them really would be able to roam the streets of contemporary towns they’d never had the opportunity to. On the off chance that he really was being positive about this for good, that he’d somehow found a way to keep his spirits up and his head high in this dingy, quiet cage of his…

...she’d do anything in her power to grant his wish. Silently, meticulously, the way she always did.

“My birthday isn’t fer months, I hope ya know that,” was what she said aloud, allowing an easy grin to take over her expression as she stuck a hand through the wooden bars to take her brother’s waiting one, the two of them squeezing tight, tight, tight, in a playful sort of game they liked to take part in, just the two of them and nobody else. “Tryin’ to butter me up for something, is that it?”

“I’m not,” Kohaku groaned, giving the back of her hand a light smack with the head of his teddy bear. “It’s just- you’re always the one givin’ me things, so I wanted to give somethin’ back. Make you happy too, know what I mean?”

She did, she really did, but also- “You know I’m happy just gettin’ to be with ya, brat. No need to get too big for your boots and try to sweep me off my feet, yeah?” She gave him a gentle (sizeable) shove backwards with the help of their intertwined fingers, making Kohaku stumble with a faint yelp- but the sound was laced with laughter as it was indignation, so that was nothing out of the ordinary. “Really, though- thanks. This masterpiece is goin’ up on my wall, no questions asked.”

The boy before her had the widest, most genuinely adorable smile on his face, and oh, she’d never wanted to hug a person this badly in her entire life- it was even his birthday, for hell’s sake. He deserved to have some kind of physical contact, some tangible form of love that came by way of a human being rather than just material things. The warmth of an embrace, the press of lips to forehead, the inherent cosiness that came with the entire package- this was all completely foreign to someone who’d been imprisoned for as long as he could remember, but with enough luck, that wouldn’t have to be his fate forever. Everyone had to start somewhere, and any time was the right time to do it, so...

...maybe tonight, when adults were a little more lax and prone to drinking or sleeping the best parts of the day away. She hadn't been honing her lock picking skills for nothing, after all.

✿✿

“-sayin’ he's been finally pronounced dead. Good riddance, I say- one of ours did it, then?”

An indulgent huff of laughter, kept on the low in case of eavesdropping ears- “No one else with the power or the grudge to get the job done, like hell it’d be anyone else. Things’re finally lookin’ up, huh- fewer threats, maybe even a little less of treatin’ us like we’re plain dirt. Can’t say I didn’t see this comin’ at some point, that’s for sure.”

Dead, was the single, borderline exuberant thought that bounced and ricocheted off the insides of her tingly, fizzy brain- dead, he’s dead. That disgusting old man from the Suou family, that damned head of the house who’d been responsible for her little brother being locked up for years and years on end- he was gone, burnt and fried and scraped clean from the ground of this earth that was so much merrier in his absence, and no one from their branch of the family would mourn him in the slightest. Pushing herself off her heels and darting away from her parents’ bedroom door, she let their voices fade away into the distance as she ran out into the sun’s everlasting light, making for the zashikirou she’d visited a hundred, thousand, million times. Dead, dead, he’s finally dead-

-the funeral was boring, full of snivelling members of the main family who were all so utterly distraught that their devil of a relative had passed away. She attended the procession and the ceremony anyway, just to make sure facts were facts, to make sure the old snail really was a hundred percent lifeless in his tastelessly ornate coffin. Her hopes were almost laughably proved right, and she couldn’t keep her buoyant energy from bubbling up to the surface with every step across the courtyard, every skip over stray flowers and branches that had fallen from weathered cherry blossom trees. A few metres straight, a neat left corner-

-there was a small, redheaded boy standing in the nearby garden, a secluded area usually only frequented by the Suous and no one else. Her feet came to a halting stop on instinct, yet her heart also leapt- she recognised this child, this youth only a few years younger than she was yet with far more things to indulge in, insurmountable amounts of contradiction curling around them both. On any other day she might have turned the complete other direction and ignored this little heir, no matter how miserable he seemed to be, but maybe today was different. Maybe this boy was different, and not just in ways that set him apart from the Oukawas, but in ways that set him apart from the Suous as well- his very own family, yet a group whose horrid ideals he’d be able to pry himself away from, if he was daring enough. Was she being optimistic? Yes. Almost foolishly so? Definitely.

Was she going to care? Well-

She’d already gotten Kohaku some fancy pink dessert from the funeral refreshments area, which would be a perfectly good gift from her little excursion today. But that was something ordinary, almost the norm between them at this point, and today was a one-of-a-kind occasion, so surely, surely-

-he deserves something special, too.

“Ane-han? What’re you-”

“Hush for a second, or at the very least keep that voice down,” she hissed, quickly glancing over at the thankfully empty entrance of this wide, familiar room. Not a single sound besides them both was to be heard, but their entire family knew how to walk soundlessly, so that really wasn’t a guarantee of anything. Turning her attention back to the cage in front of her, she slipped a prepared hairpin into one of the three locks she was being faced with- the ones that kept a boy trapped, the ones that kept a boy safe. “Everyone else is out moanin’ and cryin’ over that dead hoot, so this is the perfect chance. You get out, I get in. Easy as all hell, ya get it?”

Kohaku blinked at her, eyes all wide and innocent and utterly caught off-guard. “Out?”

“Yes, out, I didn’t think ya had a vocabulary that small.” The first lock clicked and popped open, and she moved on to the next. Really, if her brother was going to be this slow on the uptake, maybe he wasn’t ready for the outside world at all. “You’ve heard of that Suou kid, haven’t ya? Around your age, typical main-family red hair an’ all. He’s out there in the garden near the main building, playin’ in the dirt like any good kid should, so your job right this minute is to get out of here and join ‘im. I’ll take your place in this damned zashikirou, so get yer head ready for the experience of a lifetime.”

Hesitant, so hesitant. “I… join him?”

“Yes, you join him. Talk, play, whatever it is two boys do in huge, sprawlin’ gardens like that.” Two locks down, one to go. “If anyone from our family comes up to meet you two, those actin’ skills of yours had better be up to scratch, ‘cause if you get caught, it’s both our heads gettin’ lopped right off. You’re me, and I’m you. Simple, ain’t it?”

Her sibling looked between her and the interior of his miniature home, the one he’d be leaving soon enough. “But what about-”

“He’s a good kid,” she interrupted, because if Kohaku started thinking about the implications of his sister being in this jail instead of himself, they wouldn’t get anywhere for days. “The two of you are gonna hit it off, I just know it. Go make a friend, would ya? You’ll thank me for it later.” The final lock was worked open with a satisfying, mechanical click, and then she was hurriedly unhooking clasps from their wooden counterparts and pulling the door to the zashikirou wide, wide open.

A soft gasp left her brother’s lips, only barely audible as a playful rush of wind made its way straight into this barren, temporary home, sifting through strands of pastel hair and lifting them up and down in its merrymaking. Come on, come on- she took Kohaku’s hand firmly in hers and tugged him out into the sunshine that teased at the entrance of the area, the boy nearly stumbling in his blessed daze, eyes impossibly wide as he gazed out at gardens and buildings that were so far away yet not anymore. “Kohaku,” she murmured, and that awed, beautifully stunned expression was turned towards her- “go out and play.”

They were quiet for a second, maybe two, even three as the words sunk in and were duly processed- and then there was a bright peal of laughter, so light and undoubtedly happy as Kohaku threw himself into her arms with the widest smile she had ever seen on him, and surely she was smiling just as wide herself. “Ane-han,” came the bubbly sound of pure joy even she couldn’t dispute, and Kohaku was hugging her so tightly she felt like she might just pass out from air deprivation. “Thank you, thank you-”

“No time for all this thankin’, I said that’d come later, didn’t I?” Grinning, she bent down just a little, brother still clinging to her in a warm embrace they’d long gotten used to. “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, ya hear me? I’ll be right here holdin’ down the fort, so get the hell outta this place already.”

An energetic nod, a slight rise in height as Kohaku tiptoed just enough to press a quick, affectionate kiss to her cheek before pulling away. Within seconds he was turning heel and darting out into the wider world, his sun-bathed silhouette something precious, sacred, a sight she never thought she’d ever truly get to see. The sound of leaving footsteps lost itself to the lingering quiet soon enough, and then this now-solitary place was falling into silence once more, the way it was always meant to be.

Stepping neatly into the cage and settling down cross-legged, she only reached up to carefully replace the locks that bound this prison tightly closed. (She didn’t actually lock them back, just made them look as if they had been- there had to be room for quick escape and entry in case of emergencies, and any assassin would be a fool to neglect that.) The room was dark and the four walls around her were gloomy and utterly lonely, but if that smile, that bright, lovely smile stayed on Kohaku’s face for as long as he was outside in the paradise of light and day…

...she knew she’d be able to handle this just fine.

Tsukasa-kun, Kohaku-

Make friends, okay? I’ll be waiting, right here. And one day, one day-

-we’ll all meet again in that bright, colourful city, that place where people dance and sing and allow themselves to live, and do all those newfangled things the three of us could only ever dream of. 

And maybe, just maybe this was selfish of her, but-

-she was glad she’d gotten to make a friend of her own, too- if only for just a day.

(✿)