Title: The Costs of Royalty
Chapter: 1/4
Pairings: Completely random, actually. They'll be all over the place, if you choose to look for them! For this particular chapter, nothing much more than vague references to JuubeiKazuki and KazukiSakura.
Notes: Written while sitting at the hospital with my girlfriend, and I had none of my other writing files on hand, so I started up this. Expect it to be rather disjointed; it was meant to be that way, hence the numerals seperating each part. This first section will revolve around Kazuki's pre-Mugenjou days, when he was living at home with his parents and learning his fighting techniques from the Fuuchouin school. For those wondering, the title comes from the common reference to Kazuki as a Prince throughout the manga and anime.


I.


He understood at an early age his role in life, in his family, in the world. Never did he resent it, nor did he ever cry and wail about how it wasn't fair and that he wanted to run away and live his own life. Quite the contrary; Kazuki strived to mold himself into the future family head that his parents told him he would become. His studies - both academic and his fighting techniques - came no easier to him than to anyone else, but with practice comes perfection, and there wasn't a person in the entire Fuuchouin family that didn't know the boy would one day make a wonderful leader.

He also understood at an early age the importance of his parents' roles. His mother was most often at the Fuuchouin school, teaching, while his father tended to the family finances and other things that men so typically took care of. Kazuki was well on his way to learning both sides of these responsibilities, and seemed prepared to take them all on himself someday despite his mother's insistence that he would have a wife to help him. Kazuki merely wrinkled up his nose; the prospect of marriage and children seeming terribly burdensome and boring to a child of his age.

Kaede Fuuchouin, the soft-spoken but firm, elegant lady of the Fuuchouin household, spent one lesson alone with her son and explaining that a woman's grace was something one could learn even if they were male. Kazuki himself wore kimono and and played the koto and did other 'womanly' things for this reason. Thankfully, Kazuki showed promise of his mother's delicate, slender figure despite having his father's dark brown hair and eyes. She went on to explain that a woman's center of balance was different from a man's and -- many other things that Kazuki only half-heard with the attention span of a boy that wanted nothing more than to run around and play rather than be cooped up inside on a summer day.

The lesson ended with Kaede-sama stifling a laugh as her son asked, "So if I have to dress and act like a girl to fight well... does that mean I can be the wife and take a husband?"

II.

Those at the Fuuchouin school were polite and nice enough to his face, but he knew the things they whispered behind his back were less than kind: "What makes him so special?" "It's because he's the head-master's son." "He's already guaranteed to be next in line for the head of the family; it's not like he has to work hard like the rest of us do." "Oh - here he comes! We'd better act nice so he doesn't tell Kaede-sama on us!"

Perhaps they thought he was stupid because he never did anything but smile and try to be polite to them. Or perhaps they thought he never heard what they said. None of them realized that Kazuki had perfected the art of eavesdropping using his threads long before his mother even brought it up in class.

Ostracized at school and receiving little interaction with children his own age otherwise, Juubei was his first friend. It was convenient, at that, as their friendship made Juubei more eager to accompany his father on the occasional physical checkups on the Fuuchouin family. Eventually, he was told, you will tend to Kazuki-sama on your own while your mother and I concentrate on Kaede-sama and Ryusuke-sama. Such a thing was still years in the future as Juubei was still learning his trade, but the thought of not wanting to let Kazuki down as a doctor and a friend drove him to spending every free bit of time at home studying and practicing.

Kazuki never noticed the way Juubei would stare at him while the Kakei siblings' father did his examinations, nor the way his best friend seemed to get a little flustered at the mention of said future where it would be his duty to 'play doctor' as it were with Kazuki without his parents' aid. It made the younger Kakei child uncomfortable, but not in an entirely unpleasant way.

III.

The two didn't "discover" girls so much as suddenly took interest in one in particular. Kazuki cared little for the girls at school; most of them were polite only because they'd been taught to be so towards him. Their lack of sincerity resulted in Kazuki's lack of interest in them.

As for Juubei... there were the few younger servant girls at his own compound and those at the Fuuchouin compound, and sometimes he watched them interact and flitter about... But their constant gabbing when they thought no one was looking and the way some of them giggled and coo'd over some of the other, older boys and men wandering around made his interest in them drop rapidly. Who wanted such a giggly thing as a wife? Suddenly, the prospect of marriage seemed a rather poor one indeed.

In fact, the only girl either of them took any notice of in a positive light was, fortunately, one readily accessible for "studying".

"Are you sure we should be doing this...?"

"Sssh! She'll hear us. Keep your voice down."

Juubei whimpered, but kept close to his friend's side. Settling as silent as possible outside of one of the sliding doors in the hallway, Kazuki made careful work of nudging the door open soundlessly so that they could both peek in.

They were met with a smooth slope of bare shoulders at first and they both froze as the kimono the girl was wearing slid farther down her arms, showing the long spanse of soft flesh and back. Kazuki curled his fingers against Juubei's arm, and both watched on in a sort of awkward fascination. So... that's what a girl looked like underneath all that padding and fabric...

It wasn't until she turned a little that her developing curves became a bit more apparent. She was still a growing girl, but already her waist sloped nicely out to her hips, and her breasts were small but looked so terribly soft and well shaped. Besides, it wasn't like either boy had anything else to compare to, and so the body they were looking at could have very well been the most beautiful body in the world. Juubei clamped a hand over his own face but peeked between his fingers, and Kazuki's mouth opened and he made a tiny little squeak, and that was all the noise it took to draw her attention and cause her to spin around to look at them.

For a long moment afterward, everything remained dead silent; Sakura stared at the two little faces staring wide-eyed at her half-naked form through the ajar door, and the two little faces gaped at her with the look of deer caught in the headlights.

They both started running like bats out of Hell just before Sakura could get dressed and tear after them.

Once caught and cornered by the flustered Kakei girl, both children swore up and down that she'd never catch them peeping again - they promised! Still angry and embarrassed but seemingly satisfied, Sakura returned to her room.

From there on after, they were much more careful to not be caught.

IV.

Juubei stretched out on his stomach, gazing down the hill at the Kakei compound below. Behind him, he could hear Kazuki still murmuring to himself, still practicing with his threads against a tree in smooth, even strokes. And he could hear the occasional slip-up where the threads got tangled or he missed a movement, and he couldn't help but smile when Kazuki got tangled up himself in the threads and landed on the ground with a yelp and a resounding thwump!.

Once free from his self-made confines, Kazuki crawled over to his friend and stretched out beside him. For once, he was free of fancy kimono and wore the same clothes as Juubei, quite the reprieve from the normal awkwardness of girl's clothing.

"What're you looking at?"

"Mm? Oh..." Juubei pointed lazily a ways down the hill, where one of the Kakei compound servants was speaking with one of the male cooks. She had her head lowered, peering up at him shyly through thick lashes and blushing ever so faintly at whatever it was he was saying to her. "Those two," Juubei explained, "they sneak away sometimes when they think hahaue and chichiue won't notice and spend time together. I think he likes her."

Kazuki blinked once, twice, three times as the man's head leaned down and his lips brushed against the girl's. They stayed that way for a long time, and only pulled back by the sound of the dinner bell from the compound's kitchen, at which point they hurried off. Juubei wrinkled up his nose, shifted, sat up. "They always do that."

"What, kiss?"

"Uh-huh."

"You sound so disgusted by it, Juubei." Kazuki remained on his stomach, smiling and kicking his feet slowly. "I think it's sweet."

"It looks gross," Juubei argued. "I mean, isn't it gross when your family kisses your cheek or forehead? I bet kissing like that is even grosser."

"Mm. Maybe." The younger boy rested his chin in the palm of his hands, tilted his head ever so slightly, and smiled wider. "Want to try it?"

Juubei almost facefalted right into the ground and his cheeks turned all sorts of interesting shades of red. "K-kissing!"

"Why not? You're supposed to kiss people you like, right?"

"Well - yes..."

"And I like you. And you like me, don't you?"

"Of course! We're best friends, but--"

"Sooo... Why not?" Kazuki rolled over onto his back, grinning up at his companion. With his face framed in that chocolate hair and his thickly-lashed eyes, he looked awfully pretty against the grass. Juubei's face darkened. Slowly, he scooted over.

"...Well, okay... But if this is gross, I'm going to remind you that this was your idea," Juubei whined plaintively, leaning over Kazuki and placing his hands in the green on either side of the other boy's head. Kazuki said nothing, simply kept that pleasant little smile that spoke of his smugness that he'd won, yet again, and waited patiently while Juubei took his time getting the courage to wet his lips and lean down to kiss him.

It was nothing more than an awkward touching of lips pressed against lips, though Kazuki slid a hand up into Juubei's hair like he'd seen the girl earlier do to the boy. They sat there for a minute or more before drawing back, cheeks pink and staring at one another thoughtfully.

"That was..." Juubei started slowly.

"...Not gross?" Kazuki finished, and then grinned again.

"Y...Yeah..."

Down below, the dinner bell rang again, more insistently, and the boys scrambled up out of the grass and down the hill, laughing and giggling.

It was their first kiss, but it wouldn't be their last.

V.

It was rare that he spent alone-time with Sakura. In this case, it was Juubei who was the sick one, and so Sakura accompanied her father to the Fuuchouin compound to keep Kazuki company in her brother's stead. Granted, there was no wrestling around in the grass, or swimming in the creek or awkward kisses on the hillside, but Kazuki took her hand and led her around the entire compound with such excitement in his voice that it was obvious he was enjoying himself.

She listened to him play koto, watched him practice for awhile, sat quietly while he talked and babbled away about everything from the color of the sky and grass to why elephants couldn't jump. They were seated on a fallen tree near the river when he finally grew tired of talking. He stared at her pretty face long and hard, blinked, and said matter-of-factly, "You're prettier than all the other girls."

The quiet little smile on her face faltered, her cheeks reddened and she blinked repeatedly. Before she could think of anything to respond, Kazuki got up.

"Just thought you should know!"

With that, he grinned over his shoulder at her and toddled off back towards home, leaving her trailing after him in stunned silence.

Later that evening at dinner, Kazuki announced out of the blue that he wanted to marry a girl just like Sakura, or a boy just like Juubei... and that he wanted someone so like them that it might as well just be one of them.

Kaede dropped her chopsticks and Ryusuke choked on his food and had to be smacked sharply on the back a few times by his wife before whatever-it-was dislodged. They were so flustered that they didn't even explain to Kazuki why he was being sent to his room without finishing supper.

VI.

It was probably by no coincidence that his father had a talk with him some time later; (the two parents had drawn straws, with the intention that whoever drew the shorter one would be the one to have The Talk with their son. When Kaede drew the shorter straw, her husband made the mistake of laughing and as punishment, he ended up with the task anyway) it was The talk... about the birds and the bees. Naturally, he managed to weasel in mention of the Kakei siblings in there, and made sure to explain to Kazuki that it was against tradition for the Kakei and the Fuuchouin families to marry into one another.

And, naturally, Kazuki looked up at him with a frown and asked, "Why?"

Ryusuke opened his mouth to say something, closed it again and gave a frown that mimicked his son's. His wife truly was the smarter of the two and far better with these sorts of things... Sending him to Kazuki with such an important talk to be had was a fatal mistake on her part. "Because... If the two families became one, then... the Fuuchouin wouldn't have doctors because the doctors would be part of the family instead of separate and..." he trailed off there, stuttered a moment, and went silent again. After a moment he crossed his arms and just nodded, a look that meant what he'd just said should make all the sense in the world.

Kazuki didn't look convinced. "But what's wrong with that? We could learn to be our own doctors."

"It-" his father again searched for words. Think before speaking, yes, that was what Kaede always told him. "It doesn't work that way."

"Why not?"

"...Because we're your parents and the head of the family and we say so." Ooh, Kaede would have his head later for pulling that card... Especially since Kazuki was all-out pouting now.

"Well," he said then, brightening, "then when I'm head of the house, I'll change that."

Ryusuke gave up after that and retreated to his wife with his metaphorical tail between his legs.

VII.

Kazuki was a young boy with but two friends, and frankly, he seemed okay with that (well, there was that Toofuin boy, Saizou. But Kazuki saw him rarely - usually only at large family events and holidays). Kaede was certain once he got older, there would be a line of girls a mile long waiting for even a sliver of his time. Unfortunately, her son didn't seem interested in such a prospect and she chalked it up to his age and hoped it would someday change.

Kazuki'd been thinking of his mother telling him that, in fact, when the attack happened. One moment his face was pressed into his blanket as he tried to find the urge to get undressed for the night, and the next he had screams and alarms jolting him upright and scrambling around to get up. Out in the main courtyard of the compound, servants were running in all directions to get away. Kazuki numbly remembered the face of one of the corpses lying in the center of the yard as belonging to the lady that did the laundry. He suddenly felt bad for not remembering her name off the top of his head.

His eyes lifted a little, focused on the few figures in the center yard standing, unconcerned, unafraid. Kazuki was afraid. He didn't recognize their faces nor their black threads, and he whirled to flee back inside in search of his parents.

Ryusuke he found near the kitchen, slumped down in a corner with his eyes sewn shut with black threads, attempting to get them open again. His attacker seemed to be taking great glee in this, as he stood there laughing, even as he turned to look at the boy standing in the doorway. Kazuki stood still and as tall as he could make himself, like the brave leader he was supposed to be. The slight peal of the bell in his fingers betrayed him, however, as his hands trembled in fear.

He could have run away right then, but the sound of his father's grunts and growls of pain as he struggled with his eyes kept him there. He would - could not - abandon his father as long as he was alive.

The black thread-user remedied that soon enough. Kazuki watched the blood hit the floor, followed shortly after by his father's body. The last thing he could make out from his lips was incoherent, but Kazuki was certain it started with a "Ka". Perhaps it was his name, or his mother's... perhaps both. It wasn't something he would reflect on until later, and without a thought he spun and took off again, bare feet nearly tangling in the hem of his kimono. The entire house was a blur of flames and smoke and unfamiliar faces and familiar dead faces, so much so that he grew disoriented. All he could think was to get away from the smoke - and from the black thread users. One or two of them had a vague sense of familiarity about them - but so vague that he couldn't place when or where he'd ever seen them.

The room he finally stumbled out into, he realized, wasn't all that far from where he'd left his father. It was near the back of the compound, backed by the forest and river. The smoke wasn't as thick there, and Kazuki blinked his eyes repeatedly to try and clear his vision.

At first, he thought he was alone save for the few corpses in the room. It was quiet and dark save for the occasional flickering of flames through the large door leading outside on the walls. So it was there he tried to catch his breath and gather his bearings.

He'd thought he was alone. Until he heard a second set of breaths. He stopped breathing all together. The other breath did not stop. His eyes slowly lifted, met the eyes of a stranger standing not ten feet away. His hands started to tremble again, still in fear, but accompanied by a newfound anger bubbling up in his chest. He straightened, squared his small shoulders and tried again to look as big as he could.

"What are you doing here?" Kazuki demanded.

The man gave a toothy grin that made Kazuki want to punch him. "My, my. Where are you manners, boy? Introduce yourself."

Kazuki's hands shook more. He fought to steady them. At first giving his name didn't seem like a good idea, then he realized that no matter what, he was dead anyway. "Fuuchouin Kazuki. I demand to know why you're here!" To his credit, his voice came out steadier than he thought it would. He thought he heard the corpse at his feet groan a little.

"Eeh, so you're the little boy-prince. Your head'll look good on the chief's wall," the man took a slow step forward. Kazuki refused to step back.

"If you want it, you'll have to fight me for it," he growled in a voice that was none too intimidating. And as the black threads came towards him, he could only think of one thing.

'I'm going to die.'

VIII.

His lungs burned. Someone may as well have struck a match and tossed it down his throat, because that was what it felt like. He was still choking on the taste of smoke (death), the smell of burning wood (corpses). He kept looking back over his shoulder towards the angry flames over the tops of the trees. Once or twice (maybe three times, he couldn't remember), he tripped, and Juubei helped him back up and urged him to keep running.

The Kakei compound was an awfully long run from home. Even after the Fuuchouin buildings were out of sight, the sky still glowed orange above the forest. The last hour or so seemed a blur - hell, maybe it hadn't really been an hour. Maybe it'd been more. Even still, he wanted to go back for his mother. He'd not wanted to leave her behind, especially not after she stepped in and saved him. Not even after she told him he needed to go, to run away. Where did she expect him to go with no family left?

'Mugenjou.'

How was he supposed to even know how to get there?

And then Juubei's arms had been there, pulling him out of the building and away, forcing him to run or be dragged along. The survival instinct in Kazuki kicked in, and he ran.

And ran. And ran some more. They ran until they collapsed near the river in exhaustion, straining their ears to listen for any sounds of the black thread users coming after them. Neither heard a thing, so they settled to catch their breaths. Juubei scooted over to his friend, voice shaky. "Are you injured?"

Kazuki snuffled quietly, lay there on his side with his hair and cheek in the dirt and eyes half-lidded and glassy. He managed a tiny shake of his head.

"Then we need to get going."

"..."

"Kazuki, please. I promise - I'll keep you safe! But we have to get out of here."

Kazuki wanted to snap at him to not make promises he couldn't keep. Instead, he nodded and slowly drug himself to his feet. This time they walked between short sprints, but Juubei never released his hand. Kazuki was able to get a better look at his friend this time; at the frightened look on his face, at the guilt he saw in the other's eyes.

Kazuki realized that it was the first time he'd ever seen Juubei cry.

IX.

Sakura gripped his cold, clammy hand in her own dry, warm one. The steadiness with which she did so calmed his frazzled nerves, and he looked up at her tearily. Somehow, she was still managing to smile.

"Our service... our friendship, our love is to you, Kazuki-sama," she told him in a hushed tone. "Tell us where to take you, and we will do so."

Juubei, relieved that at least his older sister had her wits about her, kept tight hold of Kazuki's other hand and nodded firmly in agreement.

The youngest of the trio looked from one sibling to another, and without really thinking he replied, "Mugenjou." Juubei looked confused, Sakura concerned, but neither questioned him.

"Then we should be going; they will be here soon."

Sakura left them briefly, long enough to gather some food into a sack and get some shoes for Kazuki.

Kazuki nodded his head when Juubei asked, yet again, if he was alright, but the nausea threatening to bring him to his knees was only getting worse. Somehow, he'd managed to keep it at bay thus far. But there, standing still with nothing to divert his attention, it was becoming increasingly difficult to do so.

When they left, Kazuki noted that neither sibling looked back to their home where they were leaving their own parents behind. The betrayal of the elder Kakeis was a deep wound in Kazuki's heart, and he imagined it was worse for his friends. But neither said a word, merely kept their hold on Kazuki's hands and led him along.

He didn't ask where they were going. He trusted them.

X.

For three children who'd grown up in the comfort of large, financially well-off homes, sleeping in the dirty streets of Tokyo was quite the experience. They took turns staying awake, huddled together under the warmth of Sakura's shawl.

Kazuki didn't sleep. Not really. He dozed here and there. But despite his exhaustion, nightmares jolted him awake at every possible opportunity, and after awhile he gave up even trying to close his eyes. Instead he tried to lose himself in the feel of the two on either side of him. His heart felt torn to pieces but... with them there, it was a weak patchwork over the wound. They'd left behind everything of their own free will for his sake and with smiles on their faces. At present, Juubei was squeezing his hand almost uncomfortably tight but Kazuki couldn't bear to tell him to stop. Sakura was running her soft, smooth hands through and over his hair as his head rested on her shoulder.

Sometime during the next few hours, it began to rain. Thankfully the small awning overhead kept them mostly dry.

The night was cold, and Kazuki realized he was shivering. He wondered if he would ever sleep again.

XI.

Even Kazuki thought his friends were a little too overly cautious at times. They'd made it to Tokyo well enough, but finding Mugenjou from there was going to take some work. The easiest solution, Kazuki thought, was to ask someone for directions. Juubei and Sakura didn't seem to like that idea much. Or rather, they wanted to do it, while Kazuki stayed behind where it was 'safe'.

While they weren't paying attention, he spotted a trio across the quiet street and made his way over, and it wasn't until he said "Hello" that he realized what a sight he must have looked... all tattered kimono, messy hair, dirty face... They were likely to shoo him away thinking he was a beggar.

Instead, the three stopped talking, looked down at the boy curiously. One was leaning against the door of their tiny car, another out of the sunroof, and the third against the hood with his hands in his pockets. It was the last one that grinned down at Kazuki, cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. "Lose somethin', kid?" The question seemed odd, considering he'd not said what he wanted yet. And he could think of a million answers... Instead, the man continued, "We're retrieval specialists. We'll get back anything, y'know." When one of the others muttered something about how it looked like Kazuki had no money to pay anyway, the man on the hood ignored him.

Kazuki curled his small hands into fists. "I have," he replied. "But it's nothing you can get back." 'Unless you're capable of raising entire families from the dead.' "Can you tell me how to get to Mugenjou from here, please?"

The man's grin softened into a small smile. "What're cute kids like you doin' heading to a place like that, hm?"

"I was told to go." Kazuki felt the tears stinging his eyes again. He blinked them back. At some point, he realized, Juubei and Sakura had stepped up behind him protectively, but remained respectfully quiet.

"Well, if you're all fired up to get there," he said slowly, scratching his chin and plucking the cigarette from his lips before turning to point. "Head straight down this street, hang a right at the light. Keep walking, and watch the horizon. Once you get through some of the taller buildings, you'll see Mugenjou in the distance; can't miss it. You should be able to handle it from there."

Kazuki and the siblings thanked the man - as well as his two friends - and they were off again, with barely a glance back at the trio lounging about their tiny subaru. He wondered if he'd ever see them again.

XII.

They approached Mugenjou with a sense of apprehension and relief. This would be their new home, they knew. As afraid as Kazuki was, he had to have faith in his mother who'd told him to come here... Faith that she knew what she was doing, and hadn't simply sent them all off to their deaths.

The fortress loomed over them, over all the neighboring buildings in the slum. The three children tilted their heads back as far as they could, and still couldn't quite see the top at their current position.

The first thing they noticed when they entered through the South Block entrance was the constant hum and static all around them. It was white noise, really, that they would grow accustomed to within a matter of hours, but it was a blaring difference from the infinite quiet of their homes.

...No, no. This was their home now. They had no other homes to return to. Kazuki's was burned to the ground, and Juubei and Sakura's... was now in service to those that'd destroyed Kazuki's family. Kazuki couldn't quite get that bitter taste out of his mouth.

They still hadn't released his hands as they walked inside, through the dark city streets where everything looked as dead as it felt. They continued walking until their feet were bleeding and sore and Kazuki finally chose an abandoned building for them to take refuge in for the night. They'd been traveling for days upon days to get there; they were exhausted, sore, and had long since run out of the food rations Sakura had brought.

Tomorrow brought a million horrors and trials for them to face. Food, money, lodging, clothing... All things they were going to need while trying to stay alive in this place that people back home had called 'The Human Deathtrap'. People came in, but nobody came out the same... if they came out at all.

As the Kakei siblings slept on either side of him that night, Kazuki stared out the fifth floor window of the building up at the sky overhead, and tried to tell himself that things would get better.

Tomorrow was a new day.

-end part I.-