by Wind Chijmes
He trailed his fingers over the strings, his touch delicate yet steely at the same time. Note after note was coaxed from the instrument, melding together in a piece of music at once resonant and vibrant as though it would come alive around the player, at other moments, soft, wistful, reminiscent.
"That reminds me of the tune you played as a childso lonely."
Those words, coming from his companion, brought a self-conscious smile to his lips. For all of Kakei Juubei's lack of eloquence, he had a remarkable knack of nailing the right choice of words each time.
His fingers halted just before the finishing note. Lonely, indeed. He remembered himself then as a child, bound in a kimono, looking more like a slender wisp of a girl than anything else. He saw himself knelt before the koto, hands poised in practice. He had heard footsteps – rapid, unguarded footsteps that sounded jarringly loud to his sensitive ears. What hapless fool was it, he had wondered, as the approaching steps turned even clumsier as they pattered across the wood of the arching bridge that joined the bamboo grove with his hall.
"You looked like a girlI thought you were one." Juubei sounded wry beneath his deep baritone. "The fiercest little girl I had ever met."
At this, Fuuchoin Kazuki couldn't help a chuckle. There was no blaming a young Juubei for thinking that way. Without warning and *with* startling impetuousness, an even younger Kazuki had struck, sending a koto string whipping through the air and straight towards Juubei. Only the youthful lack of skill and Juubei's own defensive block with one of his long needles had saved the unsuspecting boy from a nasty lash on the cheek.
That was the first time they had raised their weapons against each otherand it wasn't the last. Then, and tragically ironic, they had faced each other as what they were born to be. Kazuki of the Strings versus Juubei of the Flying Needles.
"I don't mind being blind, Kazuki. You know that. You don't have to do this for me."
Kazuki sighed deeply, not bothering to hide his exasperation from Juubei. He knew he was unable to hide it anyway. Even sightless as he was now, Juubei had always been able to read it him like a book.
"And you also know what my reply would be." Kazuki said amiably. If Juubei could read him now, then he would be able to sense the finality in his tone.
True to nature, Juubei did look as though he wanted to object, but in the end, bowed his head in acceptance. "In this case, I would have to work harder at recovering. You cannot protect me forever."
Kazuki was careful to restrain his pity as he watched his best friend stood up carefully from his lotus position, unconsciously reaching up a hand to the thick bandage around his eyes. Kazuki understood the pain in that gesture.
The Kakei clan was a dynasty of the finest physicians and medical practitioners in the country, their mastery of the needles remained unrivalled even till today. The Kakeis had also served as healers to the Fuuchoin clan for as long as he remembered. They were both born into this arrangement. Juubei the protector, and Kazuki the protected.
It was not meant to be any other way.
//But I would change that.// Kazuki vowed silently as he rested his fingers across the koto strings. //With my stringsand myself.//
He plucked off a bell-spool from the thick band around his hair, cinching it delicately between his middle and forefingers. "Ready, Juubei?" he said quietly as he slowly curled his wrist inward.
There was a crisp hiss as six long needles lanced up from Juubei's knuckle-guards. They glinted in the afternoon sunlight. "When you are, Kazuki," he said, holding up his hands, crossing his wrists to form three interlaced Xs with his weapons.
The string-wielder moved, snapping out his wrist. In that instant, double filaments arced through the air, snaking towards their target. His eyes followed, seeing Juubei's head cocked to catch the hiss of string before swiftly thrusting out his own needles, slicing off the ends of the strings as he parried.
Kazuki was barely aware of himself smiling before he was already folding his fingers, bringing his strings looping and spinning back towards Juubei's back. The needle-wielder wheeled around, barely in time to block.
"Don't hesitate, Kazuki!"
The cry tore through the practice ground.
Gritting his teeth, Kazuki send out even more threads from the spools in both hands. He crossed them and the strings obeyed, weaving together in a near-invisible net.
Juubei knew what was coming, dropping back and bracing himself as he make two wide slashes with his needles, shredding enough string to create an opening. The edges of the string net just skimmed his arms, whispering sharply across his skin.
Shutting out the sounds of ragged breathing from Juubei, Kazuki relaxed his grip on the threads, feeling their vibrations thrum beneath his palms. He guided these vibrations, tightening around their edges, pushing them into one core of lethal malleability.
The string net spun free, whipping out into two straight razor-sharp bands, aiming at both Juubei's torso. The sightless man raised his weapons in a move that looked both like a desperate block and an attacking thrust. The strings were relentless, catching and coiling around his needles and up his arms.
Uttering a low cry, Juubei stumbled, landing awkwardly on his knees and imprisoned arms.
Retracting his strings, Kazuki was already dashing towards his fallen companion. He dropped onto his knees before the crouched man, worry choking his voice. "Did I hurt you? Let me – let me see!"
Juubei was almost hunched in on himself, clutching his arms tightly to his body. His head was bowed so low all Kazuki could see was a sweat-dampened mop of dark brown hair. He was quaking, Kazuki realised with growing dismay.
"Juubei," Kazuki said softly as he laid his hands gently on those shaking shoulders. "Please, let me – "
The older man recoiled so abruptly Kazuki found himself left holding empty air.
"That was one of your basic moves, wasn't it," it came out sounding more like a painful comment, rather than a question. "And I failed."
It was useless saying anything otherwise to protest against Juubei's self-judgement. Kazuki dropped his hands, making no move to stop Juubei as he staggered unsteadily to his feet, before turning and taking slow, heavy steps out of the room.
The patter of drops was a sharp accompaniment to Juubei's footfalls.
Kazuki raised his troubled gaze to the trail of bright red droplets that followed Juubei out.
This quaint little hideaway was perfect. It was away from the city and lay surrounded by slender bamboo groves and willows. A stream ran one side, slipping around and between heavy waterside rocks to form a small pool some way down. A tiny, cobbled path led from the hut to that spring. The hut itself was spartan, containing only the bare necessities to sustain them for the week. They needed nothing extravagant for this stay, since their companionship more than made up for the surrounding solitude.
Kazuki allowed Juubei to hide for the rest of the day, doing nothing to disturb his best friend's recuperation. The physical injuries were minor. Kazuki knew his own skills enough to know his strings, while having drawn blood, had not caused any significant damage. It was Juubei's mind that needed to heal.
Resolutely, he picked up the basket with its contents, clutching it to his chest. Dusk had long faded into night, leaving the sky a velvet-black canopy of a crescent moon and her trails of glittering stars. He had given Juubei enough time to reflect and obsess over the morning's failed practice.
He made sure his footfalls were as silent as the surroundings as he approached the waters.
The pool gleamed like a sparkling disc as the waters caught the moonshine in their ripples. Right in the centre of that disc was Juubei. His back was to Kazuki; the waters licking around his waist, his figure caught in an unearthly silver outline by the moonbeams.
Kazuki took a moment to appreciate the display of male beauty presented to him. Juubei's body was so different from his. For all of his life, Kazuki never managed to grow out of his boyishly slender, whip-like form. He remembered Juubei had once plucked a leaf from a bamboo tree, held the emerald-green blade up to compare it to him. Juubei was every inch a man, his form taut with rippling musculature, yet remaining sleek as would a wielder of the Kakei needles with the necessary lightning reflexes.
Sheepishly, he laid down the basket. "Your sense of hearing has improved much, Juubei."
With no further word from the other man, Kazuki picked up the cloth from the basket. His free hand tugged on the sash on his robe. The robe loosened and he slipped out of it, letting the silken material slide to the ground.
The night chill prickled his bare skin, and the waters were even colder. He shivered as he waded deeper and deeper. Pausing when he was just a foot behind Juubei, Kazuki stood stock-still. From here, he could hear the soft breathing from Juubei, the faintest thrill of crickets and nightlife around them. He could feel the warmth permeating from Juubei's body; the waters did seem less cold now.
"I'm – "
"Shh," Kazuki shushed the other man. "I won't hear a word of it."
"That was the fifth practice," Juubei said quietly. "I have yet to progress. It is no wonder then that I had failed to protect first, youthen Makubex."
Kazuki shook his head. Juubei still blamed himself for Makubex's descent into darkness up till now. "I did say I refuse to hear another word of that!" he said fiercely. And inside, he begged for Juubei to stop.
"I even" Juubei continued, his voice so deep and commanding in the past, now sounded hollow. "I even struck you from the backand turned on Makubex. What kind of a man have I become?"
Pained, Kazuki squeezed his eyes shut, but it wasn't enough to stop the tidal wave of memories crashing through his mind. He remembered the white-hot pain that had pierced into him from behind and even in agony, he had been afraid to turn around to see the truth for himself, that the enemy that had attacked him with such cold callousness was his childhood companion.
Then, as swiftly as these images had appeared, they dissipated, only to be replaced by an overwhelming sense of loss. And now Kazuki remembered a crumpled Juubei in his arms, eyes glazed from the severity of his self-inflicted wounds, yet bloodless lips still moving, putting voice to his own regret.
"It is hard to forget, is it not, Kazuki?"
The string-wielder slowly opened his eyes. He found himself gazing up at Juubei. The blinded man had turned around so they faced each other. Never had Kazuki seen his friend so defeated, head lowered, eyes tightly shut so his sightlessness could be hidden away.
"It *is* hard to forget, Juubei," Kazuki said a little unsteadily, but he steeled himself and spoke again with the conviction he felt. "It's hard to forget someone who was healer, bodyguard and friend all rolled into one."
Juubei's head rose sharply, the bewildered expression on his face so apparent it almost made Kazuki laugh. Instead, Kazuki dipped the cloth into the waters and raised it dripping wet. "I still remember you used to help wash me," Kazuki said wistfully. "Shall I return the favour now?"
Without waiting for Juubei to reply, Kazuki set to work. He pressed the cloth onto the long column of Juubei's neck, sweeping the material over the collarbones towards a tensed, muscled shoulder. Juubei allowed it, seeming too confused and too tired to protest. Kazuki slid the cloth back towards the chest, over hard planes of pectorals and brown nipples to the sternum. He tracked the dip downwards, watching as the material traced the grooves of muscles of waist and abdomen. His finger, covered by cloth, dipped into the navel, and he smiled as he felt the little flutter in the taut belly.
It was at this moment when Kazuki felt it – the little step forward their friendship had taken. A little step into the unknown; an exciting, yet daunting realm which he and Juubei both knew existed, and hadn't dared to explore.
Kazuki released the cloth from his fingers and let it slip into the waters, replacing the material with his hands on Juubei's torso. He splayed his fingers, circling the waist so his touch lingered on the small of Juubei's back. Taking a deep breath, he slowly slid his hands up the expanse of smooth back. The water eased his exploration, yet did nothing to hide the marks his hands found. His heart aching, he caressed shoulder blades and warm skin, his fingers counting the number of puncture scars, all painful reminders of Juubei's self-inflicted wounds
He looked up, eyes stinging at the sight of the open vulnerability on Juubei's face. Oh, if the world would look at Kakei Juubei now. For years he had reigned in the Infinite Castle as the infallible and strongest pillar of support to only Kazuki. How the unwavering Juubei of before could be reduced to this fragile shell of a man was beyond anyone.
Kazuki hoped that he, at least, understood a little. Just a little. He wrapped his arms around Juubei's frozen form, drawing the larger man as much as he could into himself. His hands drew random patterns, caressing every inch of quivering skin he could find. He wasn't sure how long he did this, only knowing he would do as much as he could to thaw the stubborn self-destruction that still raged within Juubei.
It was not until he felt the long, shuddering intake of breath from the man in his arms that he knew that finally, Juubei had allowed himself to let go. That soft whispery breath would sound like a sigh to the world's ears, but to Kazuki, it sounded like weeping from a man who couldn't cry.
He had refused outright to use any guiding tool. He would rely on his ears and his touch. If he were to fall, then so be it. There would be no stick propping him up.
There was Kazuki however. Kazuki, with his gentle voice and melodic laughter, who knew exactly when to leave him, and when to come to him. Kazuki with the loveliness of a woman, and the steely strength of a man. Kazuki with the neverending fall of soft, warm hair, and even warmer body.
Startled at how his thoughts had run astray, Juubei turned over onto his side, tucking his head into his arm. There was a slow burn on his cheeks, and even unseeing as he was, he was sure there was an embarrassing blush on his face. He was confused, and he had been confused since the night before. He had always thought of Kazuki as his best friend to be protected, up till the Makubex uprising in the Infinite Castle, when he had for the first time in his life, thought of Kazuki as the enemy. And after that, he had thought of Kazuki as a saviour of sorts, who reached out for him at his darkest and bleakest moment.
He had never thought of Kazuki asas *Kazuki*. Not until last night when he had sought comfort in that warm, intoxicating presence. Even now, he still felt the lingering feel of Kazuki's skin against his own.
Suddenly mortified, Juubei sat up. When he had been lying there resting, he had been listening to the soothing tunes from the koto. The music had stopped, which could only mean that
"You look deep in thought, Juubei."
"Hn," Juubei acknowledged with a non-committal grunt. He willed with all his might that the telltale flush on his face had disappeared by now.
"Is the sunlight so hot?" Kazuki continued lightly. "Your face is all red."
"Red?" Juubei parroted blankly. "Ah, red. Iyes, the sunlight is hot." That would have to be counted as the first real lie he had ever told in his life.
His breath froze in his throat as Juubei felt his face being cradled by hands. Kazuki's hands; he could recognise the callused palms from years of handling koto strings. And of course, it could only be Kazuki since there was no one else there but him! Feeling distinctly more and more foolish by the second, Juubei endured as Kazuki turned his face this way and that to check his eyes.
Even in the darkness that shrouded his vision, Kazuki was close Juubei imagined he could see the outline of the younger man's delicate features imprinted against that darkness.
Then he felt it. A flitting brush of something soft yet firm across his eyelids, first the right, then the left. Before he could register what it was, it was gone. He felt Kazuki move away with a small chuckle.
"If the sun is so hot, Juubei, you'd have to come back under the roof."
It took several heartbeats before Juubei could recover his composure and give a tight nod in reply.
The silver filaments spun through the air, seemingly random until a tiny tinkle rung out. The strings lanced out, each in a different direction, forming a wide web.
Juubei stood unmoving, features drawn tight in concentration. Then his figure blurred as he sprung into action, evading the web, sending his own needles flying through the strings.
Clutching a handful of his strings, Kazuki whipped them before him, blocking the needles. The sharp staccato of metal striking wood told them the needles had been deflected off into a wooden column.
The practice session was over, and Kazuki smiled. There was a fire in Juubei's moves that hadn't been there before.
"I'm practising a little longer. You can leave me be, Kazuki."
The smile on Kazuki's lips faded a little, but his spirits were barely dampened. For the past two days, Juubei had been exceedingly careful to avoid any unnecessary contact between them. It was just like his best friend to counter confusion with evasion. Yet, part of the fault lay directly with Kazuki, naturally. He still felt a little guilty for testing their friendship with such little warning to Juubei.
"Tomorrow morning, we shall fight seriously," Kazuki called out to Juubei's back. "What do you think?"
Juubei appeared to think it over for several seconds. He nodded at length. "I will be ready."
He knew he had managed to bring back the unyielding fighter in Juubei. By and by, Juubei was starting to look more and more like the master wielder of the Flying Needles of before. Even unseeing as he was, Juubei moved with confidence and instinctive precision.
Sprinting quickly over the ground as the lethal rain of needles lanced down, Kazuki flung an arm up at the same time, forming a canopy of laced strings. The protective string shield caught some of the needles, and let slipped others. These Kazuki either struck away, or dodged. Not to be outdone, he half-twisted around, hurling out his strings in a wave formation.
Reading and hearing the move, Juubei leapt, evading the attack. Suspended, he raised his hand.
Kazuki barely caught a glimpse of glinting metal before he saw the pinpoints of lethality heading straight for him. He fell back, drawing his arms around him, strings following his moves to fence him. Even then, he felt the hiss just by his sleeve.
Dropping to one knee, Kazuki glanced down at his arm. His sleeve was torn.
Juubei was rushing over, obviously worried, yet unseeing as he was, had to stop awkwardly several feet away, as if trying to determine the exact location of Kazuki.
"I'm fine, Juubei."
The needle-wielder looked relieved as he covered the last bit of distance, kneeling down before Kazuki. "Did it hit you?" he held out his hands, feeling for Kazuki's arm.
Kazuki let his arm be taken and fussed over. Juubei's large hands checked him, examining the torn sleeve, making sure there was just a scratch on the skin and nothing more. Smiling to himself as Kazuki watched the almost matronly concern on his childhood friend's flushed, sweat-dampened face, he'd be lying if he said he didn't feel that little pool of warmth in his insides.
"You've made much progress, Juubei, since we came here," Kazuki said softly, for the moment resisting the urge to brush one damp, chocolate-coloured lock away from Juubei's brow.
"Progress?" Juubei suddenly seemed to be aware of what he was doing. He released Kazuki's arm abruptly. "Ah, progress. Much of the credit would go to you, Kazuki," he said, getting to his feet. "And for that, I would always be grateful."
"You know the most important thing to me now is our relationship," Kazuki chided gently.
"Relationship?" Juubei said slowly. "You mean our friendship. You're absolutely right. I know I would have to work harder at gaining your trust again."
Kazuki got to his feet as well, rolling his eyes all the way. Before he could correct his best friend however, the older man was already walking away, seemingly satisfied with the outcome of the practice. Kazuki stared helplessly for two seconds. Just two seconds. He never needed to agonise too long over his decisions, because he always decided quick and decided firm.
He struck, flinging out his strings.
In every way attuned to Kazuki, the strings complied, looping around their victim so quickly he was already completely trussed up by the time he had realised what was happening.
"Kazuki?" Juubei said uncomprehendingly as his footing slipped and he stumbled.
Kazuki caught his best friend before he hit the ground, and steadied the disoriented man.
Juubei was still bewildered, and adorably so. "What move was that, Kazuki? I don't recall you using that."
The string-wielder sighed, yet couldn't stop himself from smiling. "Oh yes, it's a new move," he skimmed his fingers over the strings that were wound around Juubei. "It's called Threading the Needle'."
"Threading the Needle'," Juubei repeated slowly, letting the words sink in. "It's a good move."
Kazuki didn't realise that Juubei was teasing him until he saw the tiny twitch on Juubei's lips. Shyly raising his face, Kazuki very gently placed a kiss on those lips. They were unresponsive at first, then he felt it – the light sucking in return.
They remained in the embrace for several moments, just soaking in the tenderness of the shared kiss.
When the need to breathe drew them apart, Kazuki sighed and rested his head against Juubei's neck. He felt completed, that this just-found sense of security was what had been missing from his life. And for that moment, he felt like he did as a child, that youthful delight in having Juubei there every time he wanted him to.
"I will protect you forever," Juubei murmured against his temple.
Kazuki laughed like he hardly did in a long time. A laugh of genuine mirth and completely free from burden. "You *really* are so old-fashioned, Juubei!"
"But I mean it."
"I know, Juubei. I know you mean it."
"When are you going to release me?"
"Release you? Oh! Well"
"Youyou don't plan to keep me here forever, do you?"
"Oh no, not forever"
"I cannot help but feel suspicious of the sound of that."
"I heard the hot spring is beneficial to the eyes."
~*~ fin ~*~
Author's note : All my yaoi senses were ringing after watching GB, LOL. And ringing particularly for Kazuki and Juubei. They're most definitely my favourite GB pairing so far, though Ban x Ginji comes close.