Reishin had noticed something very odd about the boy. Kouyuu seemed to get exceptionally tense (hostile) whenever someone tried to linger while he dressed or bathed, and needless to say, absolutely no one, not even Reishin, was permitted to help him do either of those two tasks.
"Why do you think that is, Houju?" Reishin, tapping the tip of his fan absently against his chin, asked the unmasked Senior Secretary of Finance sitting across from him.
Houju shrugged, and continued to sip his tea. By now, he was familiar with Reishin's new-found habit of analyzing each and every one of the nitty-gritty details of his recently adopted son's behavior, and was no longer shocked by his friend's unusual (twisted) display of paternal tenderness. "Perhaps he's shy."
Reishin threw him a brief glance before refuting. "He's been here for six months."
"Perhaps he's embarrassed. Boys do reach an age where nudity can no longer be viewed with absolute nonchalance." He suggested again as he set down the tea cup.
"Hmm…." Reishin sighed contemplatively as he sipped his tea. "Perhaps…"
They were thronging between fat, old geezers dressed in elaborate and expensive robes at the biannual palace banquet—one of those social functions his rank necessitated him to attend. The boy was just a few steps behind him. Reishin could hear his feet shuffling beneath the snow white robe adorned with pale, fluttering cherry blossoms.
He looked back, the warmth that had seeped into his eyes upon remembrance of the boy immediately masked by taunting mockery. "Keep up. I will not take the trouble to find you if you get lost."
Fear crossed the boy's eyes for just a moment, but was stashed away quickly, leaving no trace in its wake. Kouyuu scurried a few steps closer to Reishin, head obediently bowed in a stance of semi-apology.
"Kou Shousho! It's been ages since I've seen—oh! Who is this?" A man, whom Reishin vaguely remembered as belonging to the Department of Imperial Labor, greeted.
Reishin tried hard to suppress the desire to sneer; he had always suspected that self-restraint was not his forte. "This is my adopted son, Li Kouyuu—"
A very…odd…sight greeted him when Reishin turned back to beckon Kouyuu. The boy was standing two steps behind him (and the space seemed to increase with each passing moment, although the reason for which Reishin could not possibly fathom), with lips slightly parted, and a strange expression of terror dominating his features. Breathing seemed a function the boy apparently decided to give up, Reishin noted with fascination, as Kouyuu's chest remained unnaturally motionless during the whole five seconds he was being scrutinized by his adoptive father. The knuckles of his hands, which clutched at his pretty robes with such savage ferocity that Reishin was sure no amount of ironing would ever smooth out the damage, were white.
Reishin cocked a brow in curiosity. He didn't think the man was that unpleasant to look at…
Reishin's eyes narrowed. Kouyuu was not looking at what's-his-name from the Department of Imperial Labor.
Following the boy's transfixed gaze, Reishin's eyes locked on a tall, thin figure standing thirty feet to their left, who was currently engaged in what looked like an exceptionally polite conversation with the Senior Secretary of Protocol. Presently, the man bowed lightly and turned to leave, and Reishin saw in the periphery of his vision that his adopted son flinched with each movement.
Then, in a flurry of white, much to Reishin's utter disbelief, Kouyuu bolted and disappeared into the crowd.
He would've gaped, if gaping wasn't so crude and unbecoming.
When Reishin recovered from the shock of seeing Kouyuu actually run in the middle of an imperial banquet, he found that the man, whose name utterly escaped him, was still standing there, waiting for something or the other with an awkward smile on his face.
"He's not quite so fond of strangers." Reishin explained with an air of pompous nonchalance, and walked away.
An hour and half later, Reishin found Kouyuu sitting, in between two rosebushes in the West Wing garden, with his head cradled firmly in the crook of his interlaced arms.
"I'm not amused at having to play hide-and-seek at such inappropriate hours." He hissed sternly. After having looked for an hour and still not catching even a glimpse of Kouyuu's shadow, he had begun to worry that the boy had tripped and fallen into a pond somewhere, and now, looking at Kouyuu's huddled form, his initial relief was fast turning into bottled annoyance.
The boy gasped and sprang up abruptly from the ground, but relaxed visibly a moment later when he realized the identity of the person who had found him.
"Reishin-sama…" Kouyuu's voice shook, if only slightly.
Reishin frowned. The fear he saw in the silver orbs of his son's eyes was unmistakable, if only he could divine the cause…
"Come, I'll listen to your excuse later. It's almost time to leave." He commanded after a moment's pause, then added sarcastically, "Unless of course if you would prefer to sprint home; seeing from your spectacular display of athletic genius earlier, the trip should be a breeze for you."
Kouyuu lowered his head, the silky strands of sea-salt hair falling pitifully onto his cheeks, and murmured, "I'm very sorry, Reishin-sama."
"Hn!" Reishin huffed, snapped open his fan, and walked away, mindful of the light, childish steps trailing behind him.
"He actually ran!" Reishin said petulantly, the fan he always carried with him waving in a swift motion to the side to indicate his exasperation. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone run while attending an imperial banquet!"
And you are far too tolerant of that act to be normal! Houju thought as he glared at his friend across the tea table.
"Did he give a reason for this…improper behavior?" He asked nonchalantly.
Reishin rolled his eyes. "The room was stuffy. I just wanted to get some fresh air." He regurgitated with an imitation of Kouyuu's stuttering tone. "In the middle of my introduction of him?! Honestly! His ability to find an excuse is absolutely dreadful!"
"At least now you know he's not a practiced liar." Houju commented absently before taking a sip from the porcelain cup. The aroma of the subdued, faintly sweet freshness of green tea filled his mouth.
"You think I would take him in if he was?" Reishin scoffed. "Anyway, did you find out who was talking with Sai during the banquet?"
"Wang Ryuusen, prominent merchant from the White Province with backgrounds in the textile and iron ore refinery industry."
"Not a noble, then?"
"Apparently not. I suppose he has some connections with one of the officials, to be able to attend the imperial banquet and all."
Hmm…merchant from the White Province…what could he possibly have to do with Kouyuu? Reishin pondered the entire afternoon, as he sat drinking tea with his friend.
Reishin frowned when Kouyuu sat down at the breakfast table the next morning. The boy looked tired, and dark circles, which the day before had not seemed so blatant, adorned his dull, unfocused eyes.
"Your countenance is quite unpleasant to behold this morning." Reishin commented smoothly. "May I ask the reason for your sudden decision to imitate the living dead?"
Kouyuu winced inwardly at the harsh remarks, but managed to refrain from a visible grimace. "I'm sorry, Reishin-sama. I…just haven't been sleeping well."
Reishin's eyes narrowed. The boy really was a horrible liar! People don't get panda eyes by not sleeping well; people get panda eyes by not sleeping at all.
Actually, Kouyuu hadn't slept for two days, not since he had seen him at the banquet; he was too afraid to close his eyes.
"Well, do try to at least look like a living person. It'll be troublesome if your tutor runs screaming in the opposite direction from mistaking you for a zombie."
"He's not sleeping. That IDIOT of a boy isn't sleeping!" Reishin remarked heatedly in Houju's office during their usual tea time that afternoon. "Why in heaven's name isn't he sleeping?"
Houju took one look at his exasperated friend, and decided the budding cherry blossoms outside his office window were a sight far more attractive.
The Kou Shousho that everyone thought so cold and unfathomable was actually not a hard person to understand, and certainly a very easy person to predict, that is, if one didn't die before getting close enough to begin that process. Reishin's conception of the world was childishly simple—there were those he cared about, and those he didn't. Period.
Well, he supposed there was a subcategory. For those he cared about, there were the ones he cared about because he loved them, and the ones he cared about because they were on the top of his hit list.
Like he mentioned earlier, a very simple construction of the world with clear separation between black and white.
And one could always tell who fell into which category; Reishin always talked obsessively about those he loved, like Shouka, or Shuurei, or, as in the present moment, Kouyuu, plotted obsessively about those he hated, like Shou Taishi, and ignored obsessively those about whom he didn't give a flying shit.
"Are you even listening to me?"
The highly irritated tone of his friend snapped Houju out of his musings. He turned, and focused his gaze on Reishin.
"No." He answered flatly, his heart bathing in satisfaction when he saw a purple vein pop on Reishin's forehead.
There was a knock. Reishin looked up from the manuscript. The sight of Kouyuu standing in the doorway greeted him.
"E-Excuse me, Reishin-sama. I-I was wondering…if…if I could borrow some books." The boy faltered, and Reishin noted with great displeasure that the black circles under his eyes seemed to have gotten darker since yesterday morning.
"Do as you like, just be quiet." He replied curtly and returned to his work.
Kouyuu bowed in gratitude, and walked as quietly as possible toward the wall-length bookshelf across from Reishin's desk. He browsed through the books slowly, stalling for as long as possible. Only when he was in Reishin's presence could he reclaim some of the serenity of mind that he had lost upon seeing him, only when he was in Reishin's presence could he keep the thrashing sense of panic at bay.
Reishin watched Kouyu's movements out of the corner of his eye. He tracked the boyish form all the while as it drifted slowly across the width of the bookshelf, his eyes narrowing a bit when the boy sat down on the floor with the book he had chosen. So it wasn't as though he wasn't aware of Kouyuu's unnatural behavior of not leaving after having obtained the book he wanted, because he was quite aware of it (so aware, in fact, that he was unable to concentrate on the task he really should be concentrating on), he was just curious to see the real motivation of the boy's visit.
When the sound of slow, even breathing filled the study, Reishin rose from his desk, and came toward Kouyuu. The boy was lying, huddled into a ball, on the floor, with the open book underneath his head like a pillow.
Reishin frowned. The Kouyuu had gotten skinnier, now that Reishin took a closer look at him, so that the leanness of his physique now gave him a fragile edge, and his skin, which was pale to begin with, was so white now that it gave him an overall appearance of gauntness that agitated Reishin in more ways than one.
He had to figure out the cause of Kouyuu's sudden insomnia, and he had to do it soon; the boy was wasting away right before his eyes!
Reishin sighed; it was spring, and the floor was cold. Kouyuu would get sick this way.
Silently, he grabbed the red, fur-lined cloak that he always kept as a spare, and laid it gently across his son's huddled form.
Never mind why Kouyuu was sleeping on the floor of his study, just as long as he was sleeping, Reishin thought with resignation as he returned to his work.
When Kouyuu opened his eyes, the sky outside was already dark. He threw back the cover and sat up, turning guiltily toward Reishin.
A set of candles burned brightly on the ebony desk, illuminating his adoptive father's elegant form behind a sheet of upheld parchment.
He rose, his hips slightly sore from having reclined on the floor for so long, and folded the dark red cloak carefully before placing it on a nearby chair. When he looked up, Reishin's eyes were trained sharply on him.
Kouyuu braced himself for the reproach he was sure Reishin would launch about him falling asleep in the study.
None came, instead, Reishin simply stated, "Dinner's ready."
Kouyuu nodded obediently, a little shocked by the fact that Reishin wasn't angry with him.
Only when he was on the way to the dining room did the thought occur to him—where did that cloak come from?!
"So he's been sleeping in your study for the past five days?" Houju asked lazily as he gazed out the window of his tea lounge.
"Comes in two hours before dusk, everyday, and sleeps until dinner time." Reishin affirmed. "I suspect it's the only sleep he gets."
Houju turned his gaze away from the blossoming cherry flowers and looked at Reishin, whose tone had taken on a worried edge that he rarely ever heard.
"I overheard the maids talking the other day, they said Kouyuu hasn't been eating properly either, and has lost nearly two pounds already as a result." Reishin supplied while tapping his fan contemplatively on his chin.
Houju rolled his eyes. "You have degraded yourself to eavesdropping on the servants now?"
Reishin whipped his eyes his colleague sharply and glared, "I was merely overhearing a conversation that happened to be between two servants!" He corrected indignantly.
"Given your habit of suddenly becoming a cicada in the presence of Shouka-dono and his family, I highly doubt that fact." Houju retorted unhurriedly, watching with sinful satisfaction as Reishing readied himself to explode at the remark.
Unexpectedly, the childish anger in Reishin's eyes flared and died, leaving him calm and collected in its wake. It was then that Houju knew Reishin was really worried, not just curious, but actually, worried, because when his friend was really serious about something, no amount of jest could distract him.
Houju cleared his throat. "I pulled a background check on Wang Ryuusen; there were a few shady business dealings, but nothing that would connect him with Kouyuu."
"I had the Kou Honke check all his records too, nothing too blatant, although the spies I dispatched haven't returned yet." Reishin concurred, his fan tapping gently in the palm of his hand.
Houju raised a brow. He figured Reishin would send out his spies sooner or later; he just didn't expect it to happen this soon. Well, sometimes Reishin could be rather hard to predict, especially when the situation involved the wellbeing of his precious son.
At two hours till dusk, as expected, Kouyuu came in through the doors of his study.
Kouyuu bowed before him as a gesture of greeting. Reishin looked up from his paperwork, taking stock of the worsening pallor of Kouyuu's countenance. Sleeping only four hours a day was starting to have major tolls on the boy, and the butler told him that recently Kouyuu was beginning to throw up what little food he did eat. The fine, silk robe, which was fitted exactly to Kouyuu's body, was now visibly hanging on his thinning frame.
Perhaps it would be appropriate now to summon a physician…
Reishin sighed, a slight nod of his head serving as acknowledgement of his son's presence, and buried his head amongst his paperwork again.
Within moments, Kouyuu's head was on the desk, preparing to go to sleep.
When he was sure that Kouyuu would not be waking up any time soon, Reishin carefully rose from his seat, checking that the blanket was tight enough around the boy for the last time, before going quietly out the door to meet his guest.
Kouyuu opened his eyes, and almost immediately, he knew something was amiss in the room. His heart was pounding too fast in his chest, and the scarce sense of security that always enshrouded him in Reishin's study was nowhere to be found. He glanced hurriedly toward the great oak desk of his father. The chair was empty. Reishin was gone.
He sprang up from his seat, the red, fur-lined cloak falling with a soft thud to the floor with the panicked swiftness of the gesture. The sky was still light when Kouyuu stepped out of the master study; it was probably around one hour till dusk. Where would Reishin-sama go at such an hour? Kouyuu wondered to himself as he paced impatiently and aimlessly down the corridor. The bathroom, perhaps? He halted slightly on that thought. Well, it was reasonable…
Kouyuu's brisk pace slowed; he would've turned around to go back to the master study, save for the faint sound of Reishin's voice drifting into his ears from the inner reception hall, the place Reishin usually received his guests.
Curious to see who was brave enough to make a house call on Kou Reishin, Kouyuu made quietly for the back entrance of the reception hall.
From his position behind one of the pillars, Kouyuu could just see the side of the person's face, but that incomplete, momentary glance was more than enough for him to recognize the man's identity. The familiar cascade of his long, silky hair, the way a few strands poised on his slender yet muscular shoulder just so without spilling over, the smooth skin and finely chiseled features that held a veiled sharpness that few ever detected, and the cruel, playful scorn of his eyes…all those things were etched into Kouyuu's memory as though by the thorns of roses.
Reishin caught the whirl of aquamarine just as it disappeared through the back entrance. Instinctively, Reishin knew something had gone wrong.
Damn it! The boy wasn't supposed to be awake for another three hours! He thought with an inward groan.
With a few meaningless excuses, Reishin cut the interview short and headed back to the inner compound of the Kou manor, directly toward Kouyuu's bedroom.
Two maids were standing outside his son's room, taking turns in knocking the door. Reishin's eyes narrowed.
"What's going on?" He demanded.
The maids' faces blanched upon seeing him, which Reishin promptly ignored, and, bowing, they hurriedly stuttered a reply in unison. "W-We were cleaning Kouyuu-sama's room when Kouyuu-sama suddenly burst in. Kouyuu-sama told us to get out and then locked the door behind us. He looked rather pale, so we thought…we thought…"
Reishin reached out and tried the door—locked. A slight frown blossomed on his countenance; he knocked on the wooden frame.
"Kouyuu, open the door!" He commanded harshly.
The knocks became irritated bangs. "Open the door this instant, Kouyuu!"
Still, the door remained unmoving.
He'd better not be doing anything stupid in there…Reishin thought with just a touch of panic as he issued the order, "Bring me a sword."
Inserting the blade expertly into the cracks between the doors, Reishin tilted the sword forcefully upward. The wooden lock inside was severed cleanly in half.
"You two are dismissed. Go about your normal tasks. Do not alarm anyone." He commanded before entering the room.
Once inside, it took him a moment to find Kouyuu's huddled form in a corner of the inner chamber. The boy was looking fearfully at him, and Reishin, who was quite accustomed to being on the receiving end of that emotion, couldn't say he was pleased at all when it was Kouyuu who looked at him like that.
Sighing, he seated himself at the round tea table, and beckoned the boy with a voice kept carefully neutral. "Come here."
Kouyuu hesitated for a moment, the expression in his eyes still apprehensive and guarded, then rose and ambled toward him slowly.
"I do not appreciate having my…request," He refrained from using 'command', as Kouyuu was not one of his servants to be ordered around. "of having your door unlocked, ignored." He paused and leveled his gaze at his son. "And I especially do not appreciate it when I have to cut the lock in two with a sword in order to gain access to your room."
Kouyuu's head was bowed low, so low that his chin almost touched his chest. Softly, like the cries of a newborn kitten, he murmured, "I'm sorry, Reishin-sama."
"I trust you'll be prudent enough not to repeat the same mistake twice?" Reishin's voice was still kept painstakingly neutral, with that slight edge of mocking nonchalance that was so characteristic of his tone, and strangely, his antics seemed to be working; Kouyuu seemed to be calming down.
"Yes, Reishin-sama." When Kouyuu answered, the tense, uncertain edge of his voice was almost entirely gone.
For weeks afterwards, Reishin would remember, quite painfully, the next sentence that came out of his mouth as the most imprudent misjudgment of situation he had ever had the misfortune of making in his entire existence as a human being.
"What is Wang Ryuusen to you?"
The first sign of disaster came when Kouyuu took two steps back immediately upon hearing his question, or more precisely, the name.
"W-What?" The boy gasped, his breath hitching at the throat and his eyes widening in an expression characteristic of a deer that had just seen the ambush of lions.
Reishin had the inkling that he should just drop the topic right there, but somehow, the words just kept on spilling out of his mouth. "What, or rather, who is Wang Ryuusen to you?" He repeated, with emphasis on the name.
Kouyuu opened his mouth, but for a long time no sound issued forth. Unconsciously, he backed away from his guardian, all the while trying to fight the sense of panic that exploded in his head and was descending fast down his spine.
"No one, he's no one." He lied, his voice hoarse. "I don't…I don't know any Wang Ryuusen…"
The scars on his back…they were burning as though bleeding anew…
"He's no one...I don't know Wang Ryuusen…he's no one…"
Reishin listened to Kouyuu's incoherent babble calmly, noting with curiosity that Kouyuu had not met, had not been able to meet, his eyes since he asked the question, and his eyes narrowed when Kouyuu wrapped both arms around himself in a self-imposed hug. Then, upon closer inspection, he realized Kouyuu wasn't hugging himself, he was clutching his clothes, the act instinctively thoughtless, as though afraid they might suddenly fall off, as though hiding something…
He rose from his seat, the act causing Kouyuu to gasp and recoil, and asked, louder this time, "How do you know Wang Ryuusen? Do not lie to me, Kouyuu! I know you know who he is!"
You've been a very bad boy…bad boys have to be punished…
That voice…the voice Kouyuu had forgotten for years…the voice that had so dominated him as a boy…
Kouyuu covered his ears with his hands and squeezed his eyes tightly shut, and screamed, his body doubling over with the effort, "I don't know any Wang Ryuusen! I don't know any Wang Ryuusen! He's no one to me! He's no one…I don't know him, he's no one to me…I don't…"
Endlessly, Kouyuu repeated those phrases, as though chanting a mantra without the usual serenity of mind associated with it. Reishin wondered who Kouyuu was trying to convince.
"Wang Ryuusen is no one…he's no one…I don't know him…"
You know what to do. Hands against the table…
…bad boys have to be punished…
Pitifully, he watched as his son shook his head wildly from side to side, chanting that silly phrase as though in fervent prayer, and decided his timing of the question was rather misfortunate. Slowly, he advanced toward Kouyuu's shaking figure.
"Never mind. Calm yourself. There's no need to be agitated over such a trivial topic." He said evenly.
But at that moment, inexplicably, Kouyuu's eyes snapped open and stared fearfully at Reishin. "Please, Aniue, I'm sorry! I promise I'll never do it again…" He pleaded, simultaneously backing away from Reishin's looming figure.
Reishin's brows knitted. "Kouyuu?"
"I promise! Aniue, please! I'll never do it again!" Tears were coursing down Kouyuu's cheeks, and, what was the culmination of terror, saturated his eyes. The sight unnerved Reishin.
"Kouyuu, snap out of it!" He commanded, too harshly, he realized with regret a moment later when Kouyuu started trembling like autumn leaves in the wind.
"Please don't, Aniue. I'll be good! I promise! I promise! Aniue, please!" Kouyuu had backed against the wall; there was no room left for him to go, and when he became aware of that fact, his voice took on a new edge of desperation that left the bitter taste of bile in Reishin's mouth. "Aniue, please! Please! I won't do it again! Please, Aniue…NO!"
Reishin almost jumped. The sound Kouyuu made when Reishin's hands closed on his shoulder was unearthly. Wildly, he thrashed in Reishin's grasp, flailing his arms in all directions like a freshly trapped animal while screaming hysterically, "NO! PLEASE DON'T! NOO! PLEASE! DON'T! ANIUE! PLEASE!" like a dying prey convulsing in a last attempt to escape.
Then, abruptly, his son's body went limp.
Panic gripped Reishin.
"Kouyuu? Kouyuu?" He called worriedly, but the boy in his arms didn't respond. "SUMMON DR. TOU, NOW!"