Kou Reishin was a man of many virtues—superior intellect, elegant demeanor, and efficiency in the things he wanted done, when he was not too lazy to do them. Patience, however, was certainly an attribute that escaped him entirely.
Thus it wasn't exceptionally strange that Kou Reishin, the supreme sovereign of the Kou clan and the Senior Secretary of Civil Affairs, whom everyone viewed as the next candidate for the Prime Minister of State, was now pacing restlessly in the master study of the Kou manor in Kiyou. The moon was hanging far too high in the night time sky for his adopted son not to be home.
It was common knowledge that Kouyuu got lost occasionally, but Kouyuu was not known to wander at night. Reishin knew that with absolute certainty, just like he knew everything else about Kouyuu, including the fact that recently, someone else had been finding his son even faster than his spies were able to inform him that Kouyuu was lost.
On that thought, the hand that held his characteristic fan tightened with unnatural ferocity, and a wave of possessive jealousy that Reishin would never admit even to himself washed over him.
Shuuei did not have to turn to know that a certain sixteen year old was glaring daggers at his back. If it would not incense the boy further, he would verbalize his amusement, but as the situation stood, having Kouyuu berate him at the top of his ungodly loud voice for being a hopeless pervert while they were thronging through the tastefully decorated corridors of one of the top brothels in Kiyou was just a touch more embarrassment than Shuuei was willing to handle.
"Don't look so…irritated, Kouyuu." Shuuei consoled light-heartedly as he passed from the corridor into the room of his favorite courtesan of the month. "The Official Exam is over, don't be so tense. These could be our last moments of freedom before they ship us off to work at court."
Kouyuu continued to glare at his supposed friend, who was grinning rather infuriatingly back at him, and the anger in his eyes became a few degrees more glacial.
"Besides, brothels are excellent sources of information. One should always learn to use such things to one's advantage." Shuuei continued on smoothly, completely unfazed by the murderous glint in his friend's eyes. "You could think of it as an archive, except it's full of current, up-to-date information—"
"As an archive? An archive? ARE YOU INSANE?!" Kouyuu, seeming to think that he was free to unleash his rage once the door closed behind him, yelled angrily. "ONLY A HOPELESS, VULGAR, IMMORAL, SEX-ADDICTED PERVERT LIKE YOU COULD EVER COMPARE A PLACE LIKE THIS TO THE ARCHIVE! I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHY I CAME WITH YOU IN THE FIRST PLACE! IF REISHIN-SAMA EVER FINDS OUT ABOUT THIS HE WOULD—"
"Ah, quite right, if Reishin-sama ever finds out about this…" Shuuei smiled deviously.
Kouyuu's mouth closed abruptly at his words, and the flushed hue of his cheeks draining immediately to an ashy, porcelain white. "You wouldn't…"
Shuuei let the smile play pleasantly on his lips as he tapped his finger softly on his chin in an act of mock contemplation. "Hmm…would I?"
Kouyuu stood unmoving, the rage dancing in his eyes as though flames. He would murder Shuuei right on the spot, he was certain, if he had not Reishin-sama's good name to uphold…
Shuuei gazed at his friend's fuming figure, trying with all his years of military training to stop from laughing out loud. Having been raised in the core of political intrigue all his life, he knew that expressions, like words, were just another facet of the general lie that people created for their personal gains, like his three older brothers, who always looked pleasant but in actuality never were, and his younger brother, who rarely had any expression at all on his face. So seeing someone who displayed his emotions as openly and honestly as Kouyuu did now was a sight both rare and treasured.
He was beginning to understand the reason Reishin liked to keep Kouyuu around so much; with all the intrigue and mind games of the court, being with Kouyuu was like a breath of fresh air.
"I suppose there is a valid reason for you to yank me out of my house so impolitely at such a late hour?" Houju complained monotonously as he strode through the doorway of Reishin's study.
Reishin paused in his pacing and threw a listless glance at his guest.
"Kouyuu's missing." He declared, and resumed pacing.
"Ah." Houju acknowledged as he closed the door and took off his mask.
That certainly explained the agitation in Reishin's note, when the emotion, or any emotion at all, was so rarely associated with the Kou clan leader.
"I send Shadow away for a mere two days and that idiot of a boy goes missing!" Reishin hissed angrily. "If he wants to suddenly disappear then he should at least do so when I have someone trailing him!"
Houju opened his mouth, but decided midway that he was far too lazy to point out the logical fallacy in the statement Reishin just uttered. "I don't think Kouyuu has ever suspected that you keep him under constant vigilance with your spies, nor do I think the notion would ever occur to him." He said calmly.
"Of course not," Reishin, pausing in his listless steps yet again, retorted with an air of arrogant petulance. "I would never allow such a ridiculous thing."
Houju resisted the urge to roll his eyes. This whole obsession with keeping his paternal affection a secret was just one of many eccentricities of his friend to which Houju had long since resigned himself.
"But why is he not back yet? It's already dark. He always comes back when it's dark." Reishin resumed a moment later.
"Kouyuu is not a child any more. He doesn't have to come back when the sun sets." Houju replied lazily and poured himself a cup of tea.
"He's sixteen, Houju!" Reishin stopped in his tracks and exclaimed.
"Correct, he is sixteen, hardly a child."
"But hardly an adult, either." Reishin snapped back quickly.
"Stop worrying." Houju was starting to lose patience. The way Reishin was acting now…it was so…unlike Reishin. "He will be fine."
Perhaps he should tell Reishin now, to avoid further annoyances on both their parts…but on second thought…well, entertainments must come from somewhere…
"How do you know? For all I know he could be lying in a ditch somewhere right now…"
Houju cocked a brow at Reishin's diminishing tone. The expression on his friend's face now…it was as though the possibility of Kouyuu being in danger was somehow realized with its verbalization. His face was rather pale now, and the expression in his eyes sharpened with concentrated worry. Reishin was silent now, and nothing good ever happened when Reishin was silent.
Houju rose and walked toward Reishin, tilting the latter's chin until the honeyed eyes, in which worry was reflected as clearly as the flickering candle flames, were forced to gaze into his own.
"Trust me, Reishin, he's fine." He breathed calmly. "One of my spies is with him right now."
For a moment, the shock seemed to be sinking into Reishin, then—
"WHAT MADE YOU THINK YOU HAD THE RIGHT TO WITHOLD SUCH VITAL INFORMATION?!"
"Don't just sit there Kouyuu. Intimacy is best when reciprocated." Shuuei advised languidly as he yielded to another kiss bestowed by the courtesan currently sitting on his lap.
"Hmph!" Kouyuu huffed and took another indignant and almost antagonizing gulp of rice wine.
"Seriously, you should learn to enjoy the company of the fairer sex. It could open up a whole new world for you, if only you allow it."
Kouyuu swept a disdainful glance at Shuuei's languid form, noting with particular displeasure the amused smirk on his friend's face, and decided that he could contain his anger no longer. "WOULD YOU JUST GET ON WITH IT?! I WOULD LIKE TO GO HOME BEFORE SUNRISE!" Then turned to the woman sitting beside him, "And no, I don't want to kiss you, so stop trying!"
Shuuei peered curiously at the fuming boy, then stood up and took both girls to the antechamber, where their activities were obscured by the arched wall partition.
When he came back five minutes later, he found Kouyuu in the exact same position, albeit he had now advanced onto a new bottle of rice wine, and the clarity in his eyes dispersed just a little more.
At the sound of his steps, the drunken boy looked up. "Are you finally done?"
Shuuei stopped directly in front of Kouyuu and looked down, the light behind him making his expression hard to see. "I think your discomfort with being in a brothel stems from the fact that you dislike women in general."
"Non-nonsense!" Kouyuu stood up abruptly, swaying a little as he did so, and retorted with a slight slur. "Yu-Yuri-hi-hime-sama…"
"Is Reishin-sama's wife, your adoptive mother. She doesn't count." And since she's associated with Kou Reishin, you will almost require yourself to like her. Shuuei wanted to add, but thought better of it.
"If you don't like women…do you like men, then? It's not uncommon, after all."
"I'm going to kill that Ran Shuuei!" Reishin hissed through clenched teeth as he leaned against the window, peering studiously into a hole he had poked in the rice-paper window pane.
"Remind me again why I must partake in your…degrading act of espionage, on your own son, nonetheless." Houju complained flatly beside Reishin's crouching figure, without taking his eyes away from his own hole, which he had poked a foot away from Reishin's so that their synchronized perspectives might offer a more holistic view.
"Because he's your spy." Reishin snapped back irately. "That Ran Shuuei! The nerve he has to bring Kouyuu to a brothel!"
"He must learn the arts of a woman sometime, and I daresay he never will, if the matter was left with you." Houju murmured with a hint of cynicism. "And I give you full control of my spies for the night. Can I go home now?"
"Of course not," Reishin replied immediately without so much as a glance toward Houju's direction. "I need someone to bear witness with me so that when I have to justify Ran Shuuei's assassination later you can corroborate my claims."
Houju rolled his eyes. "You just need someone to drag down with you if you are caught engaging in such…disgraceful behavior."
"Think what you wi…AHH! THAT IMBECILE!"
Shuuei sighed and swept a glance at the toppling bottles on the table. The boy really could not hold his liquor; barely three bottles and Kouyuu had already passed out.
Carefully, Shuuei gathered the sleeping boy into his arms. Carrying Kouyuu was not difficult; he weighed nothing like a boy his age should, and Shuuei could only hope that it was due to their recently finished exam.
It was a strange feeling, carrying a body that he knew so well but was so foreign to him at the same time. It was different from a woman's body, which was soft and always complemented the hardness of his well-muscled torso so well. No, Kouyuu's body, slender and fragile as it was, possessed a rigidity that was distinctly male.
And Shuuei had always prided himself on his iron self-control, but all that became questionable when Kouyuu decided that having his buried in the older boy's robe was a position more desirable than the previous. As he snuggled closer to Shuuei, his nose brushed against the soft nipple beneath thin layers of silk, and instantly Shuuei's breath hitched.
"Idiot! Don't move!" Shuuei admonished huskily, now keenly aware of the stiffening twin protrusions on his chest and his heightened sensitivity to Kouyuu's languid form in his arms.
A sigh of mixed relief and something else unrecognizable passed Shuuei's lips when he finally dropped Kouyuu onto the bed. He sat down on the bed beside the sleeping boy, running a hand through his unfastened hair in an attempt to calm himself.
Kouyuu was actually not bad looking, Shuuei noted, now that he had a good look at the boy without the latter constantly shouting in his face. Actually, Kouyuu was quite good looking…
Almost involuntarily, he reached out and ran his finger softly along the contours of Kouyuu's cheek. Soft skin, pale like porcelain, but now flushed with wine—how many times had he seen that in a woman but had not been excited thus?
Just as Shuuei was leaning down toward Kouyuu, the remembrance that they were being watched came back to him.
Hmm…a chaste kiss, then, since they had an audience.
They were so close now Shuuei could feel the warmth of Kouyuu's wine-laden breath on his face…and the next thing he knew, he was holding an unidentified flying object that he had caught reflexively.
A fan? Wait…this is…
"You are a thousand years too early if you want to seduce my son, Ran Shuuei!" Reishin hissed heatedly.
"Hmm…not quite." Houju commented softly as he watched Shuuei lean close to Kouyuu a second time.
He deepened the kiss deliberately, penetrating his tongue fully into Kouyuu's mouth, hearing the boy's moaning softly in his ears, both from the wine and his kiss, and only pulled out when he felt that they were both about to suffocate.
Just for you, Kou Reishin, Shuuei thought silently as he gazed toward the window, where he now saw clearly were two almost imperceptible holes, to know that I shall one day take him from you.
For years after, that would be the only night on which Kouyuu conceded to going to a brothel with Shuuei, and the only night Shuuei spent in a brothel without bedding anyone.
"You are jealous." Houju pointed out plainly during the carriage ride back from the Red Light District.
"Of what?" Reishin snapped back irately.
"Don't play the fool."
"I have no idea what you are talking about." Reishin huffed peevishly, and then turned suddenly to Houju. "Why is it that your spy was following my son?"
Houju met Reishin's eyes, his glare holding only a mild edge of bored irritation. "Because I know what a nuisance you would become if anything happens to Kouyuu."
Three months later, Shuuei and Kouyuu officially started their one year shinshi period.
After serving out the required one year term as a shinshi, Ran Shuuei took the Official Exam again, this time as a military officer with the goal to enter the imperial guards, where the Department of Civil Affairs had no influence.
"Ran Shuuei would've made a competent official." Houju commented nonchalantly one afternoon while Reishin was visiting him in the Department of Finance. "You of course realize that you are quite petty."
Reishin redirected his gaze from the blossoming cherry trees outside and looked at Houju. "They are still friends, aren't they?"