I knew it. I knew that as soon as I was supposed to be doing homework and writing drabbles, I'd suddenly become obsessed with Heir's Choice again. WTF. I do not understand the inner workings of my mind AT ALL.
Title: Heir's Choice
Pairing: InuKai, other minor pairings
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 Eight~
Kaoru did not leave a single thing out of his tale. He paused when he came to what he had seen and heard of Captain Kunimitsu and Syuusuke’s conversation, and hesitated for longer when it came to telling of his own feelings, and of the words and the kiss he and Sadaharu had shared. But he held nothing back, because he could not bear to lie. It had pained him to know that others had not spoken the whole truth, and he was determined never to be that way if he had a choice.
“Dammit, boy,” Lady Sumire said, once he had finished. She sighed deeply and held her head as though it ached. “The one time not paying mind to you, this is what happens.”
Kaoru unconsciously recoiled just a bit, withdrawing into himself. His posture and attitude became defensive. It had cost him much effort to tell her all of that, and if Sumire disapproved, it would all be for naught.
Sadaharu noticed the change, and rested his hand lightly on Kaoru’s fingers. “Kaoru-” he began, at the same time that Sumire said, “I don’t mean to-” They both stopped and looked at each other, and Sumire’s eyes, at least, were appraising. “Please, continue,” Sadaharu told her with a slight nod.
“Huh,” Sumire said, glancing down at their touching hands and then looking to Kaoru. “I should have known that you’d choose well. I just never thought-” she broke off, shaking her head. “Damn. If your father finds out, there’ll be hell to pay, that’s sure.”
“What would he do?” Kaoru asked. He did not want to know, but he was certain that he needed to know. He did not wish to be kept in ignorance about something important ever again. What he’d heard so far, what he’d heard Shibuki himself say, had seemed ominous, but surely his father wouldn’t do anything so terrible as all that. Perhaps he did not approve of Syuusuke and Kunimitsu’s relationship, but both were still working as guards despite that.
“I hate to be the one to say this,” Sumire said darkly. “He’d disinherit you.” She saw Kaoru’s incredulous look and continued, “Probably wouldn’t let you within a hundred paces of Hazue, or your cousins either.” She laughed humorlessly. “Wouldn’t want you ‘corrupting’ them, would he?”
Kaoru felt an idiot, knowing his question undoubtedly had an obvious answer, but he needed to ask. “Can I cause others to be...to be like me?”
“No you cannot.” This time it was Sadaharu’s voice that gave the low but fierce reply. He took Kaoru’s hand firmly in his own and met Kaoru’s eyes over the rims of his lenses. “That is not possible, no matter who tells you differently.”
“He’s right,” Sumire said with a nod, before Kaoru could even look for her confirmation. “But you just try telling that to your father! The man’s convinced,” she stated angrily, “that Syuusuke’s infected Kunimitsu with some disease to make him this way. Tch!”
Kaoru found it uncomfortable to think that his father held such an untrue belief. But looking from Sumire to Sadaharu, he was sure that Shibuki’s belief was untrue. If what he’d been told was true, it had likely been his father’s orders that he be kept away from knowledge of this subject. But...he’d always admired his father, always held his word to be law and truth. It was odd, and not entirely pleasant, to discover otherwise. To keep his mind away from this, he downed the tincture of Meadow Queen he still held, and grimaced at the taste.
“It’s hard enough keeping that Syuusuke out of trouble,” Sumire grumbled. “And now you two...”
There was another rap on the door, and Renji reentered the wagon, closing the door after himself. “Ah, good,” Sumire said, sounding more satisfied than she had even a moment before. “Renji, I’d like your opinion too. I assume you know what’s going on?”
“I do not know everything,” he replied flatly. “But what I have not been told, I can guess for myself.” He shot a look at Sadaharu, and Kaoru could both feel and see the other flinch.
“I have thought it through, and it seems the problem will resolve itself shortly,” Renji told them, “if, as I assume, Sadaharu will be leaving with us when we break camp.” He raised an eyebrow, questioning, but Sadaharu remained silent, his eyes cast down.
Kaoru felt a sudden chill; how could he have forgotten this detail? Sadaharu was not a Traveler, but he was journeying with them for his studies. The Travelers, if they stayed as long as was usual, would be leaving within the fortnight. Kaoru found himself unable to say anything, but glanced quickly from Sadaharu to Renji to Sadaharu again, a quick, pleading look, then back down, resolutely, at the wooden floor.
“That will not resolve the problem,” Sumire said sharply. “Maybe it will, at your end, but not here. Kaoru will be expected to marry a woman, dammit, and-”
“It will not be the first marriage of convenience made among the nobility,” Renji cut in. “Once he is lord of the manor he may do as he pleases, and none will speak a word against him.”
“That is not acceptable,” Sumire shot back. “I won’t have him trapped like that!”
Kaoru felt helpless as words flew back and forth. This argument was about him, about his future, about his life, and he was powerless to stop it or to change its direction. He hadn’t thought that far ahead, but now that he considered it, he was stricken with horror. So Sadaharu would leave, and then his course would be fixed.
He had not realized that he was tightening his grip on Sadaharu’s hand, but now he noted that his knuckles had whitened. He loosened his hand immediately, but Sadaharu tightened his own grasp in reply.
“Renji.” Sadaharu spoke, his tone colder than Kaoru had ever heard it. “Perhaps we do need your help...but if you are not prepared to give it, then leave.”
Renji looked startled, and Kaoru felt himself feeling that way too. Renji spread his hands in a gesture of appeal, but Sadaharu did not turn away or back down; instead he glared at the other. After several seconds, Renji sighed, and his expression turned to one of sorrow. “So. You are determined in this, then...despite all sensible evidence telling you otherwise?”
“Yes.” Sadaharu’s answer was quiet. “Perhaps you find no sensible evidence to support my actions, but it is perfectly reasonable in my mind. I admit, I am not objective in this case, but I must do this.” He turned to Kaoru and said, “If you wish me to leave, then I will. But if you wish me to stay...then I will also do that.”
Kaoru did want him to stay, he knew enough of his own feelings to be aware of that. “But...your book,” he said, thinking it through. “You need to finish it.”
“Ah!” Sadaharu seemed surprised. “But for the moment, I have as much as I need. All I require at this point is somewhere quiet to write my notes into a coherent whole. And...” he smiled. “And I can always travel again sometime in the future.”
“Well...” Kaoru looked down at their hands, which were still entwined, and blushed. “I do wish you to stay, then.”
“Hm.” Renji clearly did not approve of either of their choices. “I don’t know how Lord Shibuki could be convinced to let him stay.” Throwing a quick look at Sadaharu, he said, “He has talents that could be considered useful...but I’m certain that most positions at the keep are already filled.”
“True,” Sadaharu agreed. “And Shibuki’s no court lord, to hire a scholar just for appearances’ sake.”
“That’s sure,” Sumire put in, looking disgusted. “He hardly holds with book learning at all, and hates all those court pretensions.”
But those statements put Kaoru in mind of something else. His father would not hire a scholar, that was certain, but in some ways Lady Sumire was but a noble scholar. “Why can’t he be as you are, lady?” he asked tentatively. “A tutor? There are so many children, perhaps you could use the help?”
Lady Sumire greeted that suggestion with a grin. “That’s not a bad idea! You,” she shot at Sadaharu. “Think you can impress a lord into hiring you?”
“I have done so before, lady,” Sadaharu replied, smiling in response and bowing as best he could while seated. “And will try my best to succeed this time, I assure you.”
They all jumped, this time, at the light tapping on the door. “Come in,” Renji called, with a warning glance back at them. Sadaharu released Kaoru’s hand with an apologetic and regretful look.
Seiichi was the one to open the door this time, with Genichirou at his shoulder. “There’s a boy from the castle here for milord and milady. Your brother, milord,” he added to Kaoru.
Kaoru felt a surge of relief that it wasn’t Takeshi who had been sent. Fortunately, Hazue almost invariably volunteered whenever there was someone or something to be fetched. The lord and lady almost invariably allowed him to do this, as well; it gave him a way to run off his excessive energy. “Let him in,” Renji said mildly, after looking to Kaoru to see if this was acceptable.
Hazue stepped warily into the wagon, glancing wide-eyed at the strange dried plants along every wall, and at the rows of tiny glass bottles that contained odd-colored tinctures and ointments. Kaoru came very close to smiling at this. He remembered a time when he had been just as intimidated by the relatively dark and crowded insides of the Travelers’ wagons. “Hazue,” he said, to draw his brother’s attention to himself.
“Kaoru!” Hazue returned instantly to his state of perpetual happiness. “And Lady Sumire! You’re wanted for breakfast! Someone saw you walking down here and... What happened to your leg?” he asked curiously, suddenly catching a glimpse of Kaoru’s bandage. “Does it hurt?”
“It’s all right,” Kaoru assured the younger boy. “I only twisted my ankle, and Renji fixed it for me.”
“Oh, all right then!” Hazue said. “Thank you for fixing Kaoru’s leg Renji sir,” he said very quickly but politely nevertheless. Then, before Renji could do more than smile, Hazue continued, “But breakfast! Come on, Kaoru, else Takeshi will eat it all!” He dashed as best he could back to the door while still taking care near the fragile bottles, then turned to see if the others were following.
Kaoru stood, disguising a grimace as he put weight on his injured leg. He had definitely stressed it past the point that he should have earlier. Sadaharu immediately put out a hand to support him, but Kaoru shook his head and aimed a pointed glance at Hazue. He hoped that the other would understand; Hazue would not mean to cause trouble, but would tell anything he saw to anyone willing to listen. Perhaps such a helpful gesture would not be construed wrongly, but at the least would earn him further mocking from his cousins.
Sadaharu did not look pleased, but thankfully was willing to obey Kaoru’s negation. “Take care as you walk with that leg,” he said instead.
“I will,” Kaoru promised him.
Hazue looked back again and tilted his head to the side. “Who’s that?” he asked, watching Sadaharu. “Are those his eyes?”
“Hazue!” Kaoru exclaimed. “They’re just sight lenses, remember the ones the Captain has? Be polite!”
“But they’re not the same as the Captain’s,” Hazue insisted.
Kaoru looked thoroughly embarrassed and horrified.. Lady Sumire and Renji each stifled a chuckle, and Sadaharu laughed. “I fashioned these myself. Undoubtedly they are different from any you’ve seen,” he explained to Hazue.
“You made them?” Hazue queried, looking intrigued and delighted. “Will you make me some?”
“Hazue-” Kaoru began again, but Sadaharu interrupted, smiling first at him and then at the younger boy. “It’s all right. Yes, I will make you a pair, if you’d like them. It will take me several days, however.”
“Thank you!” Hazue said, jumping gleefully on the spot. Renji looked alarmed for his remedies, but Hazue managed not to upset anything. “You should come and have breakfast with us, and Renji too, because he fixed Kaoru’s leg, and Seiichi and Genichirou because I like them!” he finished, his expression hopeful.
“I’m afraid I must decline,” Renji said, with only a hint of his concealed amusement showing through. Seiichi laughed lightly and told Hazue, “I’m afraid Genichirou and I must decline as well. We have to water the horses.” Of course, the Travelers would never accept such an invitation, but that didn’t mean that Hazue ever gave up and stopped asking.
But Sadaharu glanced from Lady Sumire to Kaoru, silently inquiring. Kaoru paused, then nodded. After all, if Sadaharu was to seek a tutor’s position, then it could not hurt for him to meet the lord and lady and the children as soon as possible. And it would be simple and easily believed if they could say that Hazue had asked him. Hazue tended to invite anyone and everyone to meals, from the Travelers to his own grey pony.
“Hm...I would very much like to join you for breakfast, milord,” Sadaharu accepted Hazue’s invitation with a nod. Hazue laughed. “I’m a ‘milord,’ Kaoru, just like you and Father, did you hear?”
“Yes, I heard,” Kaoru agreed, giving in with an affectionate sigh. It was a good thing that Hazue liked Sadaharu. Kaoru knew that when Hazue spoke for someone, his parents were more likely to give that person a chance, if only to indulge their youngest son.
As they all said farewells to Renji and the others, Kaoru began to worry, however. He was certain that Sadaharu wouldn’t be greeted with hostility, so that wasn’t what bothered him. It was his own reactions to his father that troubled him the most. He hadn’t seen his father since the earlier, disastrous sword lesson, and he wasn’t sure that he could conceal what he was thinking and what he was wondering.
At least all the nervous butterflies in Kaoru’s stomach took his mind off of the dull pain in his ankle as they set off for the keep.
“Hm.” Lord Shibuki’s expression was unreadable as Sumire introduced him to Sadaharu, with Hazue interrupting every once in a while to add something not entirely relevant. “So. You wish this man’s help in tutoring the children?”
“Yes,” Sumire nodded. “If you don’t object, anyway, milord.”
Kaoru tried to eat his food normally, but he was uneasy and nervous. He hoped his father wouldn’t notice that Lady Sumire was being too polite, far more so than she normally ever was. And especially after that scene earlier...Kaoru was sure his father would suspect something.
Shibuki directed a question to Sadaharu. “What sorts of things do you know? What would you be teaching?”
With a bow, Sadaharu replied, “I specialize in studies of war and weaponry, and am well-versed in the battle customs of many different cultures. I believe a knowledge of such things is important for all young men?”
Kaoru started and coughed, then took a sip of the weak mulled wine served with breakfast today. “I apologize, Father,” he said, and looked away from his father’s glance. Sadaharu’s statement had not been exactly true, although it was the area of study most likely to gain him Shibuki’s approval.
“Hm,” Shibuki said again. He took a bite of toasted bread and chewed thoughtfully. He wasn’t being rude, Kaoru knew, by making Sadaharu wait. Some nobles did employ that as a strategy to show that they were above the common people, but Shibuki merely thought everything out as thoroughly as he could before agreeing to it.
“I would rather those things be taught to the boys by a man,” Shibuki stated, and again Kaoru had to cough. This could be a disaster, as things like that tended to cause Lady Sumire to begin shouting at the manor lord. But he needn’t have worried, he realized a moment later. Sumire was as fine as the troupe of players who occasionally visited the manor; she wore the same demure expression that Lady Hozumi often wore when her husband was speaking.
“All right then,” Shibuki acquiesced shortly. “You may stay, if Sumire is willing to show you around and introduce you to your students.”
“And sleeping arrangements, milord?” Sumire asked. Kaoru decided he would never cease to be amazed at her ability to playact when she wished to do so.
“The empty quarters in the east corridor,” Shibuki responded. “They’re small, but they should be sufficient. I trust he will be using your study for lessons?”
“Yes, milord,” Sumire nodded. “If that’s all right with you.”
“It’s fine,” said Shibuki, and apparently that matter was closed. Sumire sat, and gestured for Sadaharu to take the empty seat to her other side. Kaoru kept his eyes carefully averted from everyone. He knew that his playacting would not be near as flawless as Sumire’s, or even as good as Sadaharu’s. He certainly did not trust himself to do so much as glance at Sadaharu, and any look at his father would reveal his uneasiness.
He finished breakfast as quickly as he could, and could not bear to eat as much as was his usual. He was worried that their deception (as it was, although what they’d told had been at least partly truth) would be discovered, and at the same time felt intensely guilty for hiding something of such importance from his parents. He chanced a look at his mother, who smiled when she caught his eyes.
After that, Kaoru couldn’t eat another bite. He knew the hiding of certain facts was unavoidable and necessary, if he wished certain freedoms, but surely his mother, in particular, did not deserve this. She would be very much saddened if she found that her son had been deceiving her.
Fortunately, after the meal Kaoru’s mind was taken away from such things. As ever, he left the Hall within a mob of cousins, all of whom seemed quite intent on discovering more about the new tutor. Kaoru, being not yet an adult and therefore the most accessible of those who had accompanied Sadaharu into the keep, was pestered for answers at once. Hazue was quite keen on giving answers of his own, but he wasn’t always a reliable source of information, as all of the cousins knew.
“He’s the one who was with the Travelers, wasn’t he?” asked Eiji, jogging a step to keep up with Kaoru’s fast walk. Kaoru nodded reluctantly. “Yes.”
“Then he’s a Traveler?” Arai asked. This time Kaoru shook his head. “No, I think...I think he was just with them. He’s friends with Renji...”
“And with Lady Sumire?” a female cousin, Sakuno, inquired timidly. “Is he nice?”
“I heard you got in trouble,” Takeshi sang from behind them before Kaoru could answer. “Heard from a guard that your father came out to yell at you in the middle of your lesson! That true, snake?”
“None of your business,” Kaoru snapped, with a final glance back at the high table, where Sadaharu seemed to be conversing quietly with Lady Hozumi. Shibuki appeared to be listening as well, which was something of a surprise, especially when the man added a few words of his own. Kaoru hoped that it was going well.
“Well, I heard it’s true,” Takeshi laughed. “Wish I had been there to see that!”
“I wish you had been too,” Kaoru muttered. “Then it would have been you in trouble, for being an idiot...”
“You’re the idiot,” Takeshi proclaimed. “What’d you do, anyway? You’d better tell, or I’ll find it out for myself!”
“He’s not an idiot,” Hazue defended his brother, glaring at Takeshi as he walked out into the gardens beside Kaoru. “Stop calling him that! His leg is hurt, so you shouldn’t be mean, Takeshi!”
Kaoru groaned inwardly. Hazue meant well, but Kaoru hadn’t intended to tell anyone of his twisted ankle. Indeed, Takeshi asked with interest, “Your leg’s hurt, snake? How’d that happen?”
“Oh, keep quiet,” Kaoru hissed. There was no way that Takeshi would actually obey, but he could try.
“Bet it happened during your fight,” Takeshi decided, with satisfaction apparent in his tone and expression. “Just like you to win a fight but get hurt, too. What’s the good in that?”
“I could still beat you,” Kaoru informed him, glaring. “Even with my leg hurt.”
“Ha!” Takeshi snorted. “You wouldn’t dare try! I’d end up killing you!”
“You’ve got that the wrong way round,” Kaoru said fiercely. “You know I could beat you, even now, and I’m sure you don’t want to be so humiliated by losing to someone injured.”
“If you’re so brave, then let’s make sure to fight each other at practice!” Takeshi declared loudly.
“You promised to fight me!” Eiji reminded him with a laugh. “Sounds like you’re the one who’s afraid!”
“I am not!” Takeshi told him. “Kaoru’s a better fighter than you, at any rate!”
“Mm-hm,” Eiji said with another laugh.
“So anyway, what do you say, snake?” Takeshi demanded. “Will you fight me, or are you a coward?”
As Kaoru gave another scathing reply, and Hazue again protested this treatment of his brother, Kaoru wondered at the fact that this fight with Takeshi had actually helped his state of mind. He’d never thought he’d be thankful for his cousin’s stupidity, but this time he definitely was. It was so blissfully normal, with Takeshi acting just as he always had and Kaoru doing the same. It was in direct contrast to all the other things that had happened within the past few days, and it was just what Kaoru needed at the moment.
“So you’ve been journeying?” Lady Hozumi asked in a soft, polite voice. Sadaharu could tell, however, that her interest was genuine, just as Kaoru’s was.
“I have,” he said, with a nod that doubled as a bow. “Most recently with the Travelers, but before that, I was living with one of the nomad tribes of the desert.”
“Oh my!” Hozumi exclaimed, but quietly. “Are they as fierce as I have heard them to be?”
“Of course they are,” Shibuki put in. “Always warring among each other, so I hear from the capital.”
“Indeed,” Sadaharu agreed. “It was a highly perilous situation at all times. I was forced to learn some of their weapons techniques, if I wished to keep myself alive.”
“Interesting,” Shibuki replied, finishing his breakfast and setting down his knife. “You ought to speak with some of my guardsmen, if you want to practice weapons work.”
“I may do that,” Sadaharu said, pleased with how the conversation was going. He’d assumed that Shibuki would be most interested in subjects concerning battles and fighting, and apparently he had been correct. Luckily, the nomads were at war much of the time, and he could speak the truth on that particular culture. He would omit the fact, of course, that he’d originally gone to the desert to study their religious festivals.
He glanced up to see Kaoru leaving the Hall with the rest of the keep’s younger inhabitants, and hoped fervently that this arrangement would in reality be the best course of action for all of them. So far, it seemed that Renji’s doubts had been unfounded. He’d acquired a job at the keep with very little effort.
Thinking of Renji, Sadaharu had to suppress a sigh. He’d known the other would not be pleased with his decision, and he’d been correct. It had been difficult for both of them, because so many factors that defied logic were involved. Renji, though, as he’d also known, had put his personal feelings on the matter aside eventually, although Sadaharu had not missed his friend’s look of sorrow.
He resolved that he would find time to speak with Renji sometime before the Travelers departed, hopefully later that night. He wanted to apologize, and to explain, sometime when they were alone together.
And in the meantime, he would do his best to ensure that he endeared himself to the lord and lady. It had been surprisingly easy, as far as he’d gone thus far. Kaoru’s mother seemed to have something of Kaoru’s personality behind the face of a perfect lady. Sadaharu suspected that she was a good woman, if even more obedient and polite than even Kaoru.
Shibuki seemed much like every other lord that Sadaharu had encountered, although less full of pretension and not obsessed with the political games of the court. But the man obviously held many misconceptions as truth, and Sadaharu knew he would have to tread very carefully when it came to the lord of the manor, for both his own and for Kaoru’s sake.