Title : DepartureWord count : 6 466 words
Status : One-shot, complete.
Rating : G.
Genre : General/Angst/Drama
Characters : Kou Reishin, Li Kouyuu, Ran Shuuei, Kou Kurou, Kou Shouka, Shi Ryuuki, bits and pieces of Ro Kanri, Kou Kijin, Sou Taifu
Warnings : Technically none, but...Shuuei/Kouyuu. Non-yaoi, just..very good friendship. ; Some spoilers for the drama CDs.
Summary : Kou Reishin escapes yet another assassination attempt, but this time the perpetrator has struck too close to home.

Disclaimer: Standard disclaimers apply.


"Who is it from?"

"I do not have the barest clue. It was there when I came in this morning. The new boy must have brought it in along with the other gifts."

"Ah. Is it that time of the year already? I did not realize." Kouyuu winced inwardly. Over the years he had collected enough marriage proposals the archive at the Kou Residence was starting to look more and more like a brothel catalogue. Of nobles. It was bad enough his close acquaintances teased him relentlessly about it day in day out, sometimes he wished Reishin-sama would just say something about it so as to put a stop to all the nonsense.

Or maybe not, he shuddered. But still, the gift-giver certainly had an exceptionally high taste; the ware box was roughly double the size of his palm, had no drawers, only a lid; top and sides overlaid with striking gold leaf patterns, with a delicate hand-painting of two falcons in a deep, gorgeous scarlet, finished in a rich, clear lacquer. It was clearly of very high quality, the person who gave it must be wanting the promotion pretty bad.

Reishin snorted. "I wish there was a way to tell all those who want to give me gifts that urushiol lacquer gives me the rashes. And they wonder why they never get a promotion."

"It is beautiful," Kouyuu said wistfully.

Reishin said nothing. He watched his son run a finger lightly on the delicate finishing. "Maa…I guess there is no harm in keeping it here. I'll just have to remember not to touch it."

Kouyuu was still admiring the exquisitely-lacquered gift box. "You have nothing to worry about Reishin-sama. This is a different lacquer; it's mixed with cinnabar powder, which gives it its brilliant crimson shine…you will be alright. And besides I hear shellfish is good for rashes."

Reishin glared at his adopted son. "Really Kouyuu. Thank you for the enlightenment. I am happy to know you are up-to-date on your knowledge about all the different ways to coat a box. And rashes. Are you sure you have nothing more important to do in your free time?"

Kouyuu turned bright red. "Sorry."

Reishin sighed, and gave him a dismissive wave. "Open it if you want. I would actually like very much to see how it looks like on the inside myself."

Kouyuu's forehead creased slightly. "You haven't opened it?"

Reishin tapped his fan against his desk in exasperation. "I like my skin. I don't touch things unnecessarily if I think they would give me rashes, do I?"

It was Kouyuu's turn to sigh. Nothing he ever said sat right with his adoptive father, whose crankiness this morning was only heightened by the fact that their assigned Shinshi was late with his afternoon tea. Kouyuu pitied the poor boy; he was definitely going to get it later from Reishin-sama.

Hmm? What's this? He had just noticed the two small burr-holes on each side of the golden latch at the front. Holes in a safe box? What strange and interesting design.

Reishin was dictating his latest instructions to the department on a scroll when his son suddenly let a cry, dropping the box like a piece of hot coal. His painful wince as the precious box hit the floor with a loud, resounding clunk belied the monotonic dryness of his words. "It is not to your liking I take it, Kouyuu?"

Then he heard the hiss.

Sibilant. Deadly.

He shot out of his seat just in time to catch a glimpse of something slither across the room, only to disappear through the slit of the door.

Oh dear God-

Reishin scrambled away from the desk and grabbed his son's wrist. Two neat pucture wounds flanked the base of Kouyuu's left thumb, and small streams of black blood were already making their way down his arm, staining his white sleeve a dark red.

He only had to take one look at his son's ashen face to know the venom was now fast flowing in his veins.

With lightning speed, Reishin roughly tore at Kouyuu's tunic, ripping it from the sleeve hem all the way up to the shoulder. He then unclasped the sash belt from around his waist and once it was free, he wound it around Kouyuu's forearm about an inch below the elbow and tied it as tightly as possible to slow the venom and yet still allow some blood flow.

"Bend your elbow, and keep holding your arm against your chest," Reishin snapped. "Kouyuu!"

The poison was taking its effect faster than Reishin could imagine. Kouyuu could no longer speak; he could feel the it spreading, trickling up his arm like liquid fire, scorching the inside of his chest, now running up his neck, his head...and collecting in his bowels, to finally erupt in a bright explosion of the most severe of pain, and he found himself collapsing forward.

"Kouyuu!" He was aware of someone's hands forcing him to stay upright, aware of someone calling his name over and over-

He wished he could answer, but his vision grew dim, and then there was nothing.


The Imperial Palace was in an uproar. Many court officials had been dismissed for the day and safety alerts raised; guards were searching the palace grounds for any signs of the poisonous animal or suspicious persons.

The Emperor was far from pleased. "To have something like this happen within the palace grounds, it is absolutely unacceptable."

"Kouyuu will be treated here in the palace; he will undoubtedly be in the best of care under Tou Roushi. Everything the good doctor needs, make sure he gets it." Shuuei recognized the man as the doctor who had saved Kou Shuurei's life two years ago after the poisoning incident. He found himself breathing easier, but only slightly. He was the first to respond to Kou Reishin's agitated cry for help, and Kouyuu did not look good.

The country's top physician gave a humble bow. "With all due respect Your Majesty, it would be best if we could identify the type of snake that had bitten Vice-Secretary Li lest we waste precious time in finding the right cure-"

"Kou Shousho!" Shuuei turned to the shaken man. "Do you remember what kind of snake it was? Or how it looked like?"

"It happened so quickly-" Reishin closed his eyes and tried to breathe in calmly, struggling to recall the last few seconds before the attack-something other than Kouyuu's sharp cry of pain-or the sight of him slumping to the floor-

"Green." Reishin only saw it for a split second but there was no doubt about it. "It was green."

"What sort of green? And do you remember its size?"

"Is this the one?" Sou Taifu's voice boomed throughout the chamber, announcing his timely arrival, but what he held in his hand was what caught everyone's attention. A viper no more than a metre in length, dangled in the air, dripping blood from its crushed head onto the floor, its skin a glistening, lustrous dark green, its yellow-ringed facial lips reared back in an angry snarl. Even in death, it looked gruesome, Shuuei noted in revolted fascination.

"It was hiding in the trees, started to attack when the men got close."

"Sou Taifu!" The Emperor's eyes shone in gratitude. "Is this what you saw, Kou Shousho?"

If looks could kill, the snake would be even deader. "Yes."

The Emperor nodded his head in satisfaction. "Good work, Sou Taifu. We are eternally grateful. But this is nothing to be relieved about. Now that we know what bit Kouyuu we have to find the antidote. We can only hope it isn't already too late. What's wrong, Doctor?"

"The bite of a green tree pit viper is very difficult to treat. We must hurry."


"Try to swallow…" The doctor held a spoonful of medicinal broth to Kouyuu's lips, and when he started to choke, admonished him gently, "Slowly…slowly…"

The poison was causing his muscles to go into spasms; his throat was barely opening up enough to let him breathe, much less swallow.

Shuuei watched the doctor's forehead crinkle into a thousand fine creases. "What is it?"

"He is not swallowing." Doctor Tou tried again, with half a spoonful this time, supporting the back of Kouyuu's neck as he fought to keep the fluid down. "We need to get the medicine in him to detoxify his blood. The poison has been in his body long enough, we need to get it out."

Shuuei did not need to be told twice. He climbed into bed and positioned himself by Kouyuu's side. With the utmost care, he circled an arm around and underneath Kouyuu's torso, anchoring his elbow against the bed as he lifted Kouyuu carefully off his pillow, eliciting a barely stifled moan of pain from the ailing man.

"Sorry," he mouthed an apology, which Kouyuu only acknowledged with an almost imperceptible nod. Even the slightest movement could bring on fresh onslaughts of the most painful cramps, something they found out the hard way.

"We're trying to get you to drink more," Shuuei whispered in his friend's ear. "I know it tastes like ash, but it'll make you feel better, I promise."

"Don't-feed me-" Kouyuu gasped. "-promises…S-Shuuei." He moaned as a cramp rippled across his belly.

"No talking," Doctor Tou chastised gently. "You need your strength."

Now that he was sitting up…Kouyuu's feverish eyes searched the room for a certain someone, someone he badly wanted to see…

But that someone was not there.

His heart clenched in pain, and Kouyuu fought to hold the sobs threatening to erupt from within his burning chest.

Then came the dreadful broth again.


Reishin had never liked being in an apothecary's shop. The miasma of smells, the thousands of herbs the names of which escaped him, or were never available to him to begin with-it was a different world altogether, full of things he did not understand-

And things he could not understand terrified him. Secretly, of course.

The apothecary frowned at him from behind the counter. "Sir, is there anything else you need?" He eyed the carriage outside, and the two guards pacing outside his shop. This man was no regular customer, that was obvious.

"Hmm?" Reishin's throat was dry. With difficulty, he cleared it audibly. The slight shake in his voice belied his authoritative manner, however. "Is this everything?"

"Snakebites, right? There is no specific cure for tree viper venom, so I have given you a bit of everything…fennel…pearl powder…essence of dandelion." The shopkeeper frowned. "You did not ask for anything else, Sir."

The noble man stared at him for a moment. "Alright." He started to fluster with his purse.

"How much do I owe you?"

"Okyaku-sama…you have already paid me." Not two minutes ago, the shopkeeper almost added if he wasn't too busy staring. Now he knew the customer was not…right. "Sir, are you alright?"

The man's eyes blinked and snapped back into focus. Without a word, he grabbed the package of medicine and strode out of the shop.


"Bring this to Tou Roushi immediately." He did not even look at the official to whom he'd handed the packet containing the precious medicine. He could only imagine the look on the Shinshi's face; the entire palace would have heard of the incident by now, and Reishin could not deal with people right now. And by people, he meant people.

Kou Kijin had never minded small talks with his friend, but today he decided to cut to the chase. "What are you doing, hiding in the Finance Department like this?"

"I am not hiding." Reishin hid his face behind his fan. "I'm busy."

"Doing what? You knew people were looking for you. You knew you could have just sent someone to get the medicine and yet you used your precious time doing the unnecessary by going into town yourself. We have an assassin on the loose, which I'm sure you know, and yet here you are, hiding."

"And now I'm busy, alright?" Reishin lost his cool.

"That I can see." Kou Kijin's brand of sarcasm was legendary. Why?"

"I need to find the bastard who did this. He tried once, he might try again." Reishin leaned forward. "I need your help, Houju. I need your help to figure out who."

"It could be anyone. You have more enemies than you have friends, Reishin," his old friend replied, stating the obvious. "And besides the investigation is already going underway, with or without your presence. Why?"

"Why what?" Reishin's voice shrilled, finally rapping his fan on the table.

"Why are you hiding from your son?"

"I'm not-" Reishin's face lost all colour. "I'm not…hiding…"

He could not see his friend's eyes behind the mask, but Reishin could feel it; he could feel the stare-

"Stop that."

Kijin remained silent.

In his agitation, Reishin chose to take his friend's brusque demeanor the wrong way, and slammed his fan shut. "If you won't help me, I shall do it myself then."

Kou Kijin lifted his brush and resumed what he was doing previously. "I hope you come to your senses soon. I do not wish to see you cry over spilt milk. It just will not be pretty."


"Why isn't it working, Tou Roushi?" Shuuei demanded. It had been hours and outside, night had fallen, yet Kouyuu was still not showing any signs of improving. If anything, he was getting worse. The pain was no longer coming in intermittent waves, it was now continuous, and causing his friend nothing but agony. The squeeze he felt in his hand was feeble, at best.

"It's alright, Shuuei," Kouyuu whispered hoarsely; he could feel his vocal cords grate against each other like sand paper.

"The medicine Kou Shousho brought is very potent, and potentially dangerous in excess. I cannot give Li-dono any more than his body could handle, his condition does not permit it."

"But there must be something we can do!" Shuuei's voice teetered on the brink of desperation.

The elderly man felt Kouyuu's limp wrist for his pulse. "Patience, Ran Shogun. The medicine might just be taking its time to work. There is still hope."

"Shuuei…" The general looked down. The pale, bluish lips worked to form words, but no sound emanated from Kouyuu's mouth. But he could read them anyway.

"Yes, Kouyuu. It is alright," he conceded, yet his heart was twisting with pain. In a bold gesture of affection, Shuuei swept back damp strands of hair that had long since lost its luster from his friend's forehead which was beaded with perspiration. "It's going to be alright…"

"Allow me to take my leave for a while, Ran Shogun. I need to run an urgent errand-" The doctor held his breath. "There is one final remedy we can try."

Shuuei's eyes brightened slightly, and without hesitation gave his permission.

"Shuuei." Kouyuu called his name softly some time after the doctor left.

"Yes, Kouyuu?"

"I hurt," he almost wept. The pain was unbearable. Every few seconds, shards of agony would stab into his eyes, and he had been forced to keep them shut for the past hour. There was not one part of his body that did not ache, not a single movement he could execute without wanting to scream out-

But there was another hurt he could not suppress no matter how hard he tried.

Shuuei's face grew grim. He flung his long legs down the side of the bed and stood-

Kouyuu gasped at the sudden disappearance of warmth by his side; his eyes flew open-

"Where-?"

"To get Reishin-dono. He has not come to see you once." Shuuei's voice was curt, and unmistakably angry.

Stupid Shuuei. Mentioning that name…now everything hurt a thousand times worse.

"That's not-necessary. Reishin-sama…does not like to be disturbed."

"Then I'll get the doctor!"

"No! He's…done...enough."

"Kouyuu!"

"Just-" A breath hitched painfully. "-stay. Can you stay?"

It took Shuuei all his willpower to sit back down.

"Of course." Shuuei once again found himself leaning over his friend, pulling gently to release a stray tuft of hair trapped underneath Kouyuu's neck. "Anything."

He watched a rivulet of sweat trace a path down the rigid groove of his best friend's throat, only to pool in his jugular notch like a glistening lotus leaf bathed in dew. A practiced palm to the forehead confirmed his fears. Not only had it not subsided, the fever had risen.

"No more talking, alright? Just rest." He brought the blanket higher up to cover Kouyuu's waist, trying to make his friend as comfortable as possible. But the solitude was brief.

"Don't let me sleep, Shuuei." Shuuei froze in the middle of wiping his friend's chest dry.

Kouyuu opened his eyes, but in his throes of pain, they had lost all life, appearing vacant and unseeing. "I may not come back."

Shuuei's jaw clenched so hard his teeth ached. "I'm going to get whoever did this. That's a promise."

Kouyuu shook his head vehemently although he knew it would hurt. "No! That's not important-"

Shuuei had to strain to listen. He brought his face closer to Kouyuu's.

"Protect…Reishin-sama--" Without any warning, Kouyuu suddenly bucked violently in the bed, and gouts of thick red blood spewed out of his mouth, pouring down his face and chest. A shuddering cough sent more spatters of blood, speckling his clothes and staining the bedding.

Some sprayed on Shuuei, but he kept his stomach down and held onto Kouyuu through his fit, all the while keeping Kouyuu upright so he would not choke on his own blood.

And outside in the darkness of the hallway, someone stood in the shadows, watching, waiting.


It could be that junior officer whom he fired last month for having too many romping nights out while still on duty, or the one he fired before him…or it could be one of the many senior officers whose daughters' hands were offered in marriage to his adopted son, only to have them turned down over and over-

Kou Kijin was right. The more he pored over the registry documents the more enemies he found. He was not getting anywhere, which was no surprise. His head was filled with so many turbulent thoughts he could barely think straight.

Kou Reishin looked up from his desk at the sound of someone so rudely walking into his room without asking for permission.

"Kurou. I didn't know you were in the capital city."

"Someone attempted to assassinate the heir to the Kou clan, of course I had to come." Reishin did not particularly like the insinuation but he chose to let it go this time. It remained a matter for future discussion however.

"It wasn't Kouyuu they were targeting. It was me."

"Both invaluable and indispensable members of the family. Neither of you we could afford to lose, so it makes no difference."

Reishin felt his blood chill. It made every damn bit of difference to him. If Kurou thought that remark was going to make him warm up to his visit, he was sorely mistaken. In fact he wanted him out. But before he could ask his brother to leave-

Kurou plopped a basket on his desk.

"What is this?"

"Steamed buns."

"Take them away."

"They are not for you, although you are free to have a taste, since you seemed to like them so much when you thought they were made by Shou-Aniue. They are for my nephew, for when he is-" A pregnant pause. "-better."

For reasons unbeknownst to Reishin, Kurou's eyes clouded over, and he did not like it. "I doubt your buns have any significant medical value for his condition, Kurou."

"Like I said, when he is better. I believe Kouyuu has never tried them before, since you got him to throw out the ones I made the last time."

Reishin only snorted derisively.

"I see you've done a lot of work here." Kurou eyed the mess of scrolls and documents strewn all across the table.

"What are you doing here, Kurou?"

"Lending a hand. Help you find the bastard."

After a few seconds of silence, Reishin slowly let out a breath and leaned back in his chair. "What exactly have you found out?"

"Enough." Kurou's eyes were steady. "Leave everything to me. All the provinces under our control have ceased all activities and will resume when and only when someone comes forward with information. I've already summoned our best warriors to track down the perpetrator-"

"So you know who it is?" Reishin's eyes narrowed dangerously.

Kurou locked gazes with his brother and said nothing for a long time. "We might have an idea."

"Tell me who it is."

"Rei-Aniue…"

"Tell. Me." The only thing restraining Reishin from lunging across the table to shake the information out of his younger brother was the sudden uncontrolled trembling of his body.

"No. I'm not going to tell you." Kurou's gaze was unwavering. His elder brother was a formidable man, and if it were any other day, Kurou would rather brave a thousand hurts than go head-to-head with Reishin.

"I am not going to detract you from what is most important. Not on the basis of a hunch."

Reishin's hand balled into a fist around his fan. "I'm sure you have an explanation for your…impudence."

Kurou was unfazed. "Before I came to see you, I spoke to Doctor Tou to ask for the latest update on Kouyuu's condition. And…"

"And...what?" Reishin pressed. He did not like the way Kurou suddenly dropped his gaze, to now fixate the basket of steamed buns.

"Since all the previous treatments failed, he'd been trying to come up with a new cure. He has found one…but he made it very clear to me that this is the last resort."

"The last…resort?"

Kurou took a deep breath, immensely disliking what he was about to say. "Kouyuu's body is weak. If this new cure doesn't work…there is a chance he may not make it past dawn."

Kurou watched as his brother's face drained of all colour.

There. My job is done.

He rose to leave. "Don't forget to give those buns to Kouyuu." He started to walk out, but stopped in his tracks just a few feet away from the door.

"Rei-Aniue-sama."

There was no answer. Fortunately Kurou had his back to him; that made what he was about to express all the more...palatable to say.

"You are frighteningly clear on who you hate. It is a shame your perspicaciousness fails to recognize those you love just as readily."


"He said your name." A voice startled him from the shadows. Clearly someone had been there before him.

"Aniue."

"Before he lost consciousness. Said you needed to be protected, that you were in danger." Kou Shouka stepped into the light. "His greatest fear was not for himself. It was for you."

Reishin was thankful he was in the dark however; he would not want his brother to see his expression now. "Foolish boy."

"Then he must take after his father," Shouka chided.

Reishin took a deep breath. "Kurou knows who it is but refuses to tell me."

"I had a feeling he would show up," Shouka sighed. "Where there is trouble, there is always Kurou."

Silence.

"The threat has been eliminated. You do not need to worry about it anymore."

Reishin turned toward his brother slowly. "Aniue…?" A cold shiver traced an icy path down his spine, but he knew not what to attribute it to. Fear, trepidation or perhaps-

Shouka beat him to it.

"I understand your anger. I took away your one chance to kill the man who did this with your own hands. But I simply cannot let your anger blind you any further." Reishin shook his head, failing to follow.

Shouka gestured toward the door. "There is someone else who gravely needs your undivided attention."

"I can't…I can't face him, Aniue."

"Why, Reishin?" Shouka's eyes opened wider, a sign he was greatly disturbed. "Why turn yourself away in your child's greatest time of need?"

Reishin's lower lip shook. "Because this is all my fault," he whispered at last.

Shouka shook his head. "I don't understand. Which part of all that has happened is your fault?"

"Everything," Reishin said dully. "I was there. It was meant for me. Not him."

"You had no way of knowing-"

"Yes, but why him?" Reishin whipped his head around, and for the first time Shouka took a long good look at his younger brother. Reishin's face was pale, and his eyes were wild and crazed; a stark change from the usually composed yet irascible man he was more known for being.

"Why did he have to get in the way…" His voice finally cracked.

"Don't you think he would be as sad as you are right now if it had been you? Or perhaps even sadder?"

Reishin closed his mouth abruptly.

"And here we are, watching him from the shadows as he fights to stay alive, with Ran Shogun by his side. And we both know there is someone else, someone more deserving than that man of such a place in Kouyuu-dono's heart."

"Ran Shogun is a nuisance."

Shouka laughed quietly before lapsing into silence again.

"Let me tell you a story, Reishin."

Reishin watched unblinkingly as Shuuei cleaned the sides of Kouyuu's mouth.

"Quite some time ago, Kouyuu-dono paid me a visit. He was in a state of unrest, greatly troubled-something was bothering him, and his friends thought he needed to come speak to me, that I would be the only person who could give him some advice-"

He had Reishin's undivided attention now.

"Kouyuu-dono confided in me his fears, his doubts, his pain-all of which revolved around you, Reishin." Shouka gazed at him lovingly. "He was under the impression that you adopted him on a whim. That you did not love him. That to you, he meant nothing more than a stand-in, a substitute."

"A substitute?" Now Reishin was genuinely confused. "Whoever for?"

Shouka ignored his brother's question. "And I told him that that was not true. The Reishin I know and love would not take it upon himself to adopt a young, impressionable child without thinking of the consequences. No matter how much he adores his older brother and wishes to emulate his every action."

"If you had, you would have treated him the exact same way I have Prince Seien. But you raised him the way you wanted to, the way you thought was best."

Reishin shivered from a sudden chill. Shouka saw, and smiled.

"You wanted to be a father just as much as he had needed a parent."

It took quite some time but as the true meaning of Shouka's words sank in, Reishin's vision blurred.

He blinked to clear the dust away and his vision returned just in time to see Shuuei rub some salve on his son's bare chest; Kouyuu could hardly breathe, even from where he was he could see the difficulty with which his ribcage heaved upwards with every breath.

Consequences. Is this one of them?

The lump in his throat was suddenly too big to swallow.

"I have been a fool." Reishin's face looked ashen in the dark.

"He did not need my name to get hurt. He just needed to be my son."

"If you have learnt the one thing I wanted you to learn Reishin, foolish you certainly are not." A warm hand reached up to rest on the back of Reishin's neck and squeezed gently. "He did not need to get hurt to be your son."

It took him forever, but Reishin finally found the strength to nod. "I know that now."

"Good. Now get Ran Shogun out of the room and tell your boy that." He turned around to walk away but Reishin was quick to snatch his hand.

"Thank you, Aniue. For everything."

Kou Shouka threw his brother one last smile and gave the hand a strong, warm squeeze before walking off soundlessly into the darkness of the shadows.


"Is this true Ro Kanri?"

Official Ro bowed his head in deep shame. "I am afraid so, Your Majesty. One of the newly appointed officials is a direct descendant of Sai Shousho."

At the mention of the name, Shuuei who had just walked into the Emperor's chamber froze. The Senior Secretary of the Department of Protocol who was made redundant two years ago? The one who suffered great humiliation at the hands of Kou Reishin after the latter made a laughingstock out of him in front of the Royal Court?

"And we unknowingly assigned him to the Department of Civil Affairs…" Ryuuki's face had gone pale as it all began to dawn on him. "We have made a grave mistake…"

Official Ro vehemently shook his head. "Your Majesty is not at fault. It was a very big oversight on my part…he registered under a false name and somehow managed to elude the attention of my officers. He would not have been allowed to sit for the preliminary examinations if this had not slipped my knowledge. Please, your humble servant begs for forgiveness."

Shuuei shook his head in utter disbelief. "But Shujou, neither Sai Shousho nor the Sai clan has power over the city anymore. Surely they would not dare go against the Kou clan again, after what happened the last time? How was he able to-?"

"Our guess is this young official took matters into his hands, in order to clear the family name. Or perhaps it was done simply out of the desire for revenge. It is remarkable the things people do when they have nothing to lose." A grey cloud passed over the Emperor's face, his eyes turbulent with deep regret. "None of us could see this coming. The damage has been done. Raise your head, Ro Kanri."

"Who is with Kouyuu now?"

At the mention of Kouyuu's name, Shuuei barely managed to maintain a passive façade. One look at his crest-fallen face, and Ryuuki instantly rose from his seat. "Shuuei?"

"Reishin-dono is with him at the moment."

Ryuuki slumped back in his seat and buried his head in his hands. He let out an agonized moan. "Kou Shousho is not going to take this news well at all, we just know it…"

"Kouyuu does not have much time. Shujou." The thin line of his lips was the only giveaway to Shuuei's true feelings.

"Shuuei! This official, Sai Isshin-take as many men as you need, find him, and bring him to-"

"It's too late." A new voice spoke from the chamber entrance. A tall, imposing figure dressed in crimson stood at the door, flanked by two warriors easily recognizable from the armor they wore. The Kou clan.

"Kou Kurou is my name. Please pardon my intrusion, Your Majesty."

"We have heard of you." Ryuuki narrowed his eyes. It did not surprise him in the least; the proxy head of the Kou clan would certainly find a way to get involved. He beckoned the man in. "Do enter."

Kou Kurou did not bother to beat around the bush. "Sai Isshin is dead."

The unceremonious announcement cowed everyone into a deadly silence.

"Our investigation was delayed and led astray by unforeseen circumstances. By the time my men got rid of the distraction and discovered his hiding place, he was already gone. Someone got to him before we did."

If Ryuuki had not detected the barely-concealed frustration and anger in the man's voice, he would have asked if the Kou clan had anything to do with the sudden demise of the currently most wanted man in the country.

"Whoever it was made sure Sai Isshin died a quick, yet very painful death. I'd rather not go into the details."

"No antidote?"

"None found. We still have to ascertain the origin of the viper; it is not native to this part of the country. But he had definitely been keeping it for quite some time in his home, that was evident."

"How did the Kou clan get wind of the perpetrator's true identity?" Official Ro demanded, virtually seconds away from having a heart attack. Was he the only person in the world who did not know?

"We have our methods." Kou's steely gaze did not waver. "I understand the Ran clan has also made its move. You did not somehow exact your own brand of justice on our dear friend?"

Shuuei did not cower before his accusatory glare. "I only learnt of him mere seconds before you arrived, Kou Kurou-dono. Although it would have been a very tempting proposition."

Ryuuki once again had his head in his hands. "What a mess! Wait till Kou Shousho hears about this!" He fearfully asked the question that was lingering in everyone's mind.

"You didn't tell him, did you?" Ryuuki asked in a small voice. "Does he know?"

"No, Your Majesty. I did not. Rei-Aniue has not been told." Kurou blinked a few times, wondering what to make of this. The Emperor should be worrying about more important things, like tightening the security around the place or something.

"Will all due respect Your Majesty, Sai Isshin's death does not account to anything if there were to be more attacks of this nature. I must emphasize on the seriousness of this matter, as the Kou clan will definitely not tolerate any more attempts on Rei-Aniue, or anybody else's life for that matter."

"We are very aware of that. This disorderliness will be brought to an end. There is enough chaos happening beyond the castle walls already, we do not need any of it here." Ryuuki sat up straighter. "Thank you, Kou Kurou, for coming to see us and bringing us the news."

"I was the one who rudely asked for an audience with the Emperor so suddenly, hence the pleasure is all mine."

Shuuei glanced at Official Ro who was avoiding everyone's eyes; obviously he was one of those hit worst by the news. Not only had one of his officials attempted to assassinate one of the highest-ranking officers in the country, who was also a friend, the attempt had yet to be deemed unsuccessful, and to make matters worse, the one fighting for his life was the son of the said friend…and now not only had the perpetrator been found, he was also dead.

He sighed, before asking, "What will we do now, Shujou?"

"We will reconvene later after everyone has settled down to talk over new security measures and of course-" The Emperor looked pointedly at Official Ro. "-to discuss new protocols regarding novice officials. Ro Kanri."

"Your Majesty?"

"We look forward to hearing your ideas concerning the issue," Ryuuki said, his smile gentle, yet his eyes serious.

"Yes, Your Majesty."


Reishin dipped the cloth into the bowl of water to wet it, and carefully, gently, dabbed at the underside of Kouyuu's jaw, cleaning away the smear of blood from when he bit his tongue in his fit. That Ran Shuuei, he must have overlooked it.

Kouyuu had not stirred. Not since Tou Roushi came and gave him the last dose of medicine he had specially concocted in the effort to rid his son's body of the toxin once and for all. The doctor's last warning still rang in his ear; if Kouyuu did not wake up by morning…he may not wake up at all.

What nonsense.

Kouyuu may be weak physically, but to Reishin, his true strength had always lain elsewhere. A strength only a few select people had ever managed to catch a glimpse of, and appreciate.

"Lesson learnt, Kouyuu. Never touch other people's things without checking," He said out loud, but there was no malice in it at all. Only sadness. An emotion so foreign to him it almost did not dawn on him that it was perfectly normal to experience this-this pang of pain, in his heart as he watched Kouyuu let out one shuddering breath after another.

Though Kouyuu was lost in deep unconsciousness, not knowing if he was also free of pain was driving Reishin insane.

"My brother…your uncle, Kurou-" he almost spat the name, "-brought something for you."

His gaze fell on Kouyuu's bandaged hand, the bluish discoloration of his nails where the poison had caused his blood to clot…Reishin closed his eyes.

He did not know how to do this.

Kouyuu's grinning face flashed through his mind, the way his eyes disappeared behind his happy smile-

Kouyuu hiding behind his robes the first time he brought him to see Kurou and Shou-Aniue.

How Kouyuu would not help himself to another manjuu at teatime unless Reishin forced him too.

Oh how his son had loved those sweet red bean paste buns.

He did not know how to do this.

His eyes flew open as he realized with a start that he'd be damned if he stopped now.

And as Reishin finally took his son's cold hand in his…he tried to remember.

He had simply gone for a stroll in the town center, with the intention to stop by one of the sweet shops to buy some pasties for his older brother, whom he had not seen in a while and was missing dearly-and then he saw him.

Reishin had never actually asked what the boy's name was.

When he picked the lottery that beautiful day in spring fifteen years ago, the plum blossoms were not the winning prize. They did not even come close.

I picked you. Kouyuu. The actual prize was you.

"So you come home now," Reishin's voice finally broke. He was aware of a strange sensation in his eyes, a kind of stinging hotness, but he paid it no heed. "I want you to come home."

But Kouyuu remained motionless, the light from the candle dancing across his sleeping face, casting dark triangles across the high arc of his nose, the sloping ridge of his cheekbones.

It's too late.

Kouyuu's arms lay still, unmoving by his side.

It's too late.

Reishin's lashes dewed.

Then he felt a movement. The fingers in his hand were curling around his own, like the unmistakable grasp reflex of a newborn baby. He could not help but hold his breath in awe.

"Reishin-sama..." At the sound of his name, Reishin tore his gaze away from his hand and looked up.

That was a mistake.

He dabbed his eyes with the heel of his other hand, but the giant treacherous droplets kept on welling up. Kouyuu's tired eyes widened in horror, his pallid face stricken with alarm.

"Reishin…sama?"

Reishin shook his head vehemently, spraying his tears of joy everywhere. Now if only he could find his breath, maybe he could be capable once more of words.

He had never once tired of making right Kouyuu's mistakes, teaching him the lessons of life in his own inimitable, delightful way, all through the fifteen years they had been together…and Reishin cherished every single one of them.

Kouyuu was his only son after all.

"Father," he corrected.

"Call me father."

THE END

Glossary:

Okyaku-sama : Mr Customer.

Ro Kanri : Official Ro

Shousho : Senior Secretary

Shujou : Emperor

Aniue-sama : The most, super-duper respectful honorific (refers to older brother figure)

AN: Aungh. winces Sap Attack.

Just a few clarifications: In my world, Ro Kanri is still an officer with the Department of Protocol in charge of the new officials. ; And I know next to nothing of poisonous things + Chinese medicine + medieval politics, and I did not even watch the series properly towards the end...so please pardon any factual errors, OOC-ness and uncanon-ness i.e. any oversight is totally unintentional. If you've reached so far as this line then I know you've been reading, thank you, and I hope you've enjoyed the story even if just a bit.