This damn chapter KILLED me to edit. If the stupid, stupid, stupid dialogue sucks...it doesn't surprise me. *sporks the chapter muchly* Although I like it other than that. Kindasortamaybe.
Title: Heir's Choice
Pairing: InuKai (eventually)
Rating: PG (for the time being)
Summary: Kaoru is Lord Shibuki's perfect, obedient heir...up until something changes and his world turns upside down.
~Heir's Choice, Chapter Five~
Sadaharu had only taken off his sight-lenses for a moment. He’d sought to leave the crowded Traveler camp and had gone on yet another herb gathering expedition for Renji. He’d ended up, through no fault of his own, with part of a spider web on the pieces of glass that enabled him to see properly. As soon as he returned to the camp and gave the plants he’d collected to his friend, he stood behind several others at the edge of the fire’s light and removed the lenses to clean them. And it was just then, oh, then, that he’d seen Kaoru through a break in the crowd.
Kaoru was unmistakable, even with his imperfect vision. Kaoru had performed some sort of rolling feint against Akaya, short sword in hand. It was an excellent fighting technique, but that had not been all that had held Sadaharu rapt at the sight, compelled to continue watching by some force beyond his control. Kaoru had been without tunic, the light of the fire gleaming off of the smooth skin of his torso, sending the well-defined muscles into sharp relief. The blurred sight of him was beautiful as Sadaharu watched him move, graceful and powerful at once.
Kaoru defeated Akaya in a fine showing. And as the heir was being cheered and congratulated by those on all sides of him, the two of them, Kaoru and Sadaharu had locked eyes. Sadaharu could not say how the other felt, but he was scarce able to draw a breath. It felt as though he had been set afire...or perhaps not afire, for although it burned, it was sweet as well, and he never wanted the moment to end.
But it had ended, of course, as people had moved between them, breaking the spell. Sadaharu blinked and cursed silently, hurrying to replace his lenses, but he’d forgotten about the spider’s web that covered them. He cursed again, turned to wipe them on his tunic as well as he could. He knew only that he wanted, needed to see Kaoru more closely, more clearly, needed to speak with him again.
Unfortunately, as soon as his lenses were back in place, it was as though he regained some measure of sanity. He put out a hand to the nearest wagon to support himself as he nearly fell. What am I doing? He was thinking that Kaoru was beautiful and intelligent and strong, thinking that certainly this young man was one he wanted to know better. There was something about him that drew Sadaharu as nothing else ever had before, aside from his studies. And that, Sadaharu realized, was worse than anything that Renji had warned him against. Or, perhaps, Renji had been tacitly warning him of this very thing.
With a dismay that shot through him like an arrow, he thought how easy it would be to take a more-than-platonic interest in Shibuki’s heir. He also knew that he could not do so. There was no way that such a thing could end well. Kaoru would almost certainly refuse him outright, which would shatter any chance of friendship between them. And if Kaoru did not refuse him, such a tantalizing but impossible thought, things would be even worse. Shibuki would most likely disown Kaoru, from all Sadaharu had heard of him. The lord had another son, and it would be all too simple for him to give the inheritance to the younger in place of the elder.
Not that Sadaharu was willing to risk anything of the kind. He could not, and more to the point, would not ruin Kaoru’s life, even if he thought there was a chance that Kaoru would accept him. He could not even so much as tell the other of his preferences without risking the Travelers’ welcome here. He glanced back at the circle of firelight, could not see Kaoru but could still hear all present speaking loudly of the fight.
He could, perhaps, maintain a friendship with Kaoru without ever bringing up the possibility that they might become involved in other ways...but could he trust himself? This was no place to think on the matter, Sadaharu decided. As silently as he was able, he walked away from the camp to find a peaceful place where he could consider this newfound problem.
Kaoru was only dimly aware of pushing his way through the ring of people, pulling his tunic back over his head as he did so. It had taken a few moments for the interest in him to fade, and strangely enough, he had Takeshi and Akaya to thank for it. Their fistfight had become the new focus of attention very quickly.
Kaoru looked around, his eyes seeking, but not finding, the one he wished to see. Although he had most certainly been there only moments before, he now seemed to be absent. The word “frantic” could not be given to his search, but he became more and more anxious as Sadaharu was not apparent anywhere.
Renji was just coming out of his wagon as Kaoru passed him. Kaoru would not have so much as given him a glance had he not called out, “Milord Kaoru, you are looking for someone?” Kaoru turned to him, hoping his relief was not evident in his eyes. “Your friend...Sadaharu...where is he, do you know?”
An odd change passed over Renji’s face, and he did not answer for several seconds. Kaoru was about to ask if he’d heard the question, but before he could, Renji replied, almost too softly for him to hear, “Ah...I believe I saw him walking in that direction.” He pointed slightly away from the keep, in the direction of the small stream and the woods beyond. “He could not have gone far.”
Kaoru took a step before remembering his manners, and thanked Renji before setting off that way at a quick jog. The evening was growing darker, the sun close to completely hidden behind the horizon. Kaoru knew the terrain of the area and was careful not to turn an ankle in one of the many holes made by small animals. His worry, however, increased as he walked. Sadaharu did not necessarily know the land so well as he himself, might not know what to watch for; what if he injured himself on the rough ground?
Kaoru nearly did not sight the silhouetted figure in time to avoid stumbling over him. As it was, he was scanning the area and not looking to the ground in front of him when a voice questioned, “Milord Kaoru?”
Kaoru took a quick step backwards, startled by how close he was to the owner of the voice. Somehow in his search, he’d missed what was directly in front of his face. And just then, he forgot his own caution when walking this meadow, and put a foot directly into one of the places where the ground had been made uneven. He let out a surprised exclamation and barely caught himself as he fell. Idiot! he berated himself, feeling his ankle protest when he tried to stand again.
Sadaharu had quickly gotten to his own feet, and Kaoru could feel himself supported by a helping arm. He winced and tested his weight on his right foot again. He could stand, although it was painful, so the bone probably was not cracked. He supposed that he could count himself lucky in that, at least. He was forced to accept Sadaharu’s support from his left side, leaning more than he cared to do.
“My apologies,” Kaoru managed to say once he had caught his breath. “I do not wish to...to inconvenience you.”
“It is no inconvenience; you are injured.” Sadaharu’s tone was mild, but seemed to hold a note of both reprimand and concerned. “It is I who should be sorry, if I am correct in assuming you came here to seek me.”
“Yes,” Kaoru said, “but it was my foolishness that caused my injury.” He could feel himself blushing at the circumstances; he hadn’t done anything so embarrassing in a long while.
“I can aid you in walking back to the camp, or to the keep, if you...ah...if you would accept my help,” Sadaharu said, allowing Kaoru to lean on him as much as he needed to. Kaoru cursed his momentary helplessness. Firstly, the last thing that he wanted to do was give Takeshi more ammunition with which to taunt him, and being aided anywhere would do that. Secondly, to be in this position in front of Sadaharu, of all people, was nearly worse than being this way in front of any of his cousins.
“I would like only to sit down for a moment,” Kaoru said hastily. “I...I should be fine shortly.”
“All right,” Sadaharu accepted this with a nod. He helped Kaoru off of his feet, providing more aid than was even necessary. Kaoru stubbornly refused any of the extra help, sitting more quickly than was truly comfortable. “Perhaps I should check to ensure that the bone has not suffered a break?” Sadaharu said, sitting down beside Kaoru.
“No!” Kaoru shook his head emphatically. Then, realizing how impolite he must seem, he added, “No, it’s not broken. I can tell, my arm was broken when I was younger. And I’ve...” he hesitated. “I’ve read some medical texts as well.”
It was a shock to say such a thing, to admit it to another so close to his own age. Medical texts certainly were not required in the daily lessons, and Takeshi and others would never leave him alone if they knew he read so much. Sadaharu, though, only nodded thoughtfully. “Then I will trust your judgement on the subject. But, if I may inquire...what caused you to walk this way to begin with? Surely the meadow does not hold so much fascination as the camp.”
“It was-” Kaoru stopped. How on earth was he to say that he had come seeking Sadaharu because their eyes had met and caused such peculiar feelings to stir within him? He certainly could not say that, or not exactly, but he did not wish to lie. “It was-I-I saw you leave, and feared that perhaps you would be injured on the unfamiliar terrain...” A sigh escaped Kaoru’s lips. “But it was I who was injured. I apologize again for-”
“Please do not apologize,” Sadaharu said, his tone almost sharp. Then it softened again as he continued, “As you said, it was you who was injured in seeking me, so I am the one who deserves to feel guilt.” Before Kaoru could object to this statement, Sadaharu laughed lightly. “And to ensure this does not happen again, allow me to assure you that this terrain is as familiar to me as it is to you. I frequented the meadows like this one all throughout my childhood.”
“Did you?” Kaoru asked, made curious by this. He had heard much of Sadaharu’s travels, but not enough of the man himself. “Did your parents raise animals, that you brought to pasture or...or the like?”
“No,” Sadaharu told him, gazing into the distance. “My father was a blacksmith, my mother raised chickens...ah, perhaps this would not interest you,” Sadaharu said after a pause in his speech. “Certainly my childhood was not one of...ah...great accomplishments and insights. Several, perhaps, although many would not call them great...”
“It would interest me,” Kaoru said, near surprised to find he was speaking the truth. He disliked conversation in general, but with Sadaharu it seemed different, easier, in some way. And this, the story of the other’s youth, was something important. “I wish to hear it, if...if you are willing to tell me.”
“Then...” Sadaharu closed his eyes, stopped for a moment, then went on. “It was not...it was not to herd animals that I went to the meadows. Nor was I seeking the company of other children, although they did not dislike my presence, for the most part. I sought the meadows as a place where I could be alone, where my parents’...ah...expectations...did not haunt me each waking moment.”
“To escape,” Kaoru murmured, his tongue speaking without his command. He blushed instantly and turned away, embarrassed. “Forgive me, I don’t wish to interrupt.”
“That was precisely it,” Sadaharu said, sounding surprised.
Kaoru looked back at him, startled himself. “It was? I was only...only guessing, from what...” he flushed and did not elaborate.
Sadaharu tilted his head to the side and raised and eyebrow, the expression just visible in the dim evening light. “If I may presume, yet again...perhaps it is because you have felt the need to escape, yourself, that you knew exactly what I meant. I have heard...” Kaoru could hear the cautious overtones in the other’s voice, and as soon as the next words were out, knew the reason for the care. “I have heard from Renji that perhaps you, also, carry the burden of familial expectations.”
It was nothing Kaoru had ever mentioned to anyone, even in passing. Lady Sumire had come closest to being his confidant in this, but only because she had guessed herself that Kaoru did not always like to obey every command of Lord Shibuki’s. He never complained to her or asked her to do more than use his gold to buy him the occasional book. It had never been like this, for he did not wish to say anything against his father. Renji and the others, of course, had been told of Kaoru’s problems by Sumire, and had figured the rest, shrewdly, on their own. So it was with great hesitation that Kaoru said softly, “Yes...that is the truth.”
“Ah,” Sadaharu said quietly, resting a gentle, sympathetic hand on Kaoru’s shoulder. “I am sorry. I know that... that it is difficult. My parents did not...they did not approve of the choices I made. They did not appreciate my decision to be a scholar.”
“But why?” Kaoru asked, puzzled. Scholars were usually well-paid by those who employed them or bought their writings, and could earn great fame and prestige. Although it was not acceptable for a noble heir to become a scholar, it was widely considered one of the best professions available to those who were not nobility.
“My father had no other children,” Sadaharu explained with a small grimace. “I was the only one available to continue the family’s work, that of smithing. When I spent all of my free time learning, observing, and reading the few books in my family’s possession, my father became very angry. It was not as though I did not work; I aided him whenever he asked it of me, and did well. But he knew then, I think, that my wish would not be to continue as a smith. I am afraid that with my departure, the smithy will likely be passed to an apprentice, not to a son.” Sadaharu studied Kaoru from behind his lenses. “I am still fond of my family, but I do not believe I would be welcome to return to them. At least not for longer than the short time I spend at my village with the Travelers.”
Sadaharu kept his eyes fixed on Kaoru, and asked after only a short pause, “If you would not be averse to telling me...I would like to know more about you and your life up to this point.”
Kaoru did not know what to say. So Sadaharu had gone against his parents’ wishes to become a scholar? It was wrong to disobey one’s parents in such a thing, but...but surely Sadaharu was a better scholar than a blacksmith. Kaoru knew that he enjoyed his work, and was very good and thorough in his writings and notes. But then...was it still wrong that he had not done as his father wanted? Kaoru did not even wish to compare his own situation and Sadaharu’s. It was different, he was sure, but the words were familiar as his own thoughts. And that thought was disturbing, but in a way...comforting. There was someone else, now, who could and would share what Kaoru felt.
So Kaoru began to speak.
Sadaharu had been understandably surprised when Kaoru appeared. The very subject of his thoughts and musings had followed him to this spot, which definitely would not be conducive to objective contemplation. But all that was forgotten when Kaoru exclaimed and fell, stumbling into a rabbit hole that Sadaharu had been careful to avoid.
His first feeling, of course, had been one of guilt as he hurriedly got up to assist Kaoru. It had been his fault, for not speaking up sooner, that Kaoru had fallen. And the next feeling, which had caused even more guilt to well up within him, was a pleased one. It was unlikely, he knew, that Kaoru had only just happened to take the same route that he had. This place was out of the way, not on the direct path to the keep. The only logical explanation was that Kaoru had followed him here.
Then Sadaharu cursed himself and the emotions that were making it all-too-difficult to keep this relationship completely platonic. Even as he supported Kaoru, attempting to keep him off of his injured leg while the other resisted and tried to stand on his own, Sadaharu was consciously aware of every point of contact. His arm and his shoulder hummed pleasantly as he kept Kaoru from falling all the way to the ground. His mind kept flashing back to that moment when their eyes met after the fight.
As he’d been staring out at the horizon in the direction of the setting sun, he’d concluded that it would be a simple matter for their newfound friendship to remain just that. It would be easier and better for both of them, and when the Travelers departed, Sadaharu would go with them possessing a clear conscience as far as Kaoru was concerned.
But when he was actually near the young heir, circumstances were far different. It was as though all of Sadaharu’s logic was put on hold, although it still gnawed at the back of his mind. It was impossible to ignore the sensations that had control of him. All he wanted to do was to be near Kaoru and to stay there as long as possible.
It was made even more difficult when it became apparent that Kaoru did not object to speaking with him, even on more personal issues rather than scholarly ones. Granted, Sadaharu reminded himself, Kaoru was probably more or less incapable of walking properly at the moment. But he was listening and speaking as though he honestly enjoyed Sadaharu’s company. Sadaharu found it very difficult not to tell him the other details of his departure from the family home...not to tell him of the fight he’d had with his father over not only the work he’d chosen, but over his attraction to other males.
And then Kaoru began telling his own story, or parts of it at the least, and Sadaharu became even more taken with him. In a tentative but truthful way Kaoru described how his lessons with his father had been, how his lessons with Lady Sumire had been, how his time with his mother had been. He told of his Shibuki’s encouragement of his sword lessons, and his disapproval of Kaoru’s reading habits.
At Sadaharu’s gentle urging and questioning, he told of his real thoughts on the matter, but in a way that was obviously hiding some things. As Renji had told him, Kaoru certainly had a fierce loyalty to his father and to his position as heir. Not necessarily, as Sadaharu saw it, that Kaoru wanted to be the heir, but that he felt a duty to accept the position and to do it as well as he could. Sadaharu’s heart ached at what Kaoru told him, and even more at what was not said but only implied.
Their situations were remarkably similar, despite the difference in upbringing, and Sadaharu wondered if Kaoru saw that. Kaoru was perceptive enough, and did not seem to have any of the prejudice that some nobles had against “common folk.” Sadaharu would not point it out, however, if Kaoru said nothing. He would only observe further...and try to stop himself from doing anything he would later regret.
It was more than a half stroke later when Kaoru glanced up during a break in their conversation. How, he wondered to himself, had it become so late? The stars sparkled in the dark of the sky, glistening against their backdrop of deep blue. He could barely see Sadaharu’s features, the light had faded so completely.
He realized with a jolt of shock that this time, there had been almost no talk of scholarly things, of papers and of studies. This conversation had been...had been a personal one. They had exchanged stories of their lives, had spoken of their feelings about certain things that had happened to them. It was nothing Kaoru had ever done before, not with Lady Sumire, not with Lady Hozumi. It was so different from everything he’d ever experienced.
“We...we had best get back,” Kaoru said, as reluctant now as he had been earlier when they had parted. “We will both be missed, otherwise, and...”
“I agree,” Sadaharu replied with a nod and a sigh. “I suppose that you are correct, although...I do not like to admit it.”
Was that regret that Kaoru heard in Sadaharu’s tone? His heart gave an odd, small leap, finding that Sadaharu felt the same way he did about leaving one another. “We will be able to talk again?” Kaoru tried his best not to sound too eager, but didn’t manage it.
“If I must fight my way into the keep, I will see you again,” Sadaharu responded lightly, but there was an undercurrent of something serious in his voice. “If you wish it, that is.”
“I-I do,” Kaoru confessed. “I enjoy your company, and...I would very much like to see you again soon.” He went to stand up, and Sadaharu’s exclamation of warning came just an instant too late. He’d forgotten about his hurt ankle, and when he put his weight on it, the leg would not hold him. He stumbled and would have truly fallen this time if Sadaharu had not been there to catch him.
Kaoru bit his lip to keep from cursing aloud. Sadaharu’s arms were strangely comfortable around him, but he hated feeling as though he needed this aid. “Please...let me try again, I’m just...”
“No,” Sadaharu stated, in a tone that invited no argument.
“I’m fine-” Kaoru began, starting to struggle his way out of the other’s grip. But Sadaharu would have none of it, and only offered him more support.
“Perhaps you will be fine after a time, but you are not at the moment,” Sadaharu informed him. “If you do not want to be seen this way by your cousins, then you may attempt to walk the last few paces to the camp, but you will not walk the entire way across this meadow.” Kaoru tried to break free again, only to be lifted from the ground completely, his world tilting on an angle.
He let out a startled cry and looked up at Sadaharu. He hadn’t really thought on it, but apparently the other was strong enough to lift him, despite the fact that he was a scholar. “You...you can’t! I-I can walk on my own, you need not do this!”
“If you will not lean on me, then this is the only other option,” Sadaharu said firmly. “Perhaps a wiser option, at that. It is not at all wise to put weight on a new injury.”
That was true, Kaoru had to admit. In all the texts he’d ever read, it was written that walking on an injury such as this one would make it worse, if anything. If it was only a twisted ankle, as he suspected, then it would feel somewhat better even by the next day. He had only to get some sleep and let it rest and heal, and then he would be up and around again.
So Kaoru resigned himself to this as Sadaharu began to walk across the meadow, Kaoru cradled carefully in his arms. But, he told himself mentally, he was never going to forget the presence of those rabbit holes again if he could possibly help it.