He wasn't going to be forgiving against his former kinsmen, yet he was not entirely devoted to his grudges as to decide to wage a likely suicidal war against them (in fact, his plan had been more along the lines to steal their business out from under them until they were in ruins, occasionally dealing with whomever they decided should try to take him out, but he wasn't about to tell them that).

He was a practical man, a realist, first and foremost, so when they came to him with a unique proposal to dissuade him from continuing his assault, he decided it might be of interest to hear them out.

They didn't want to make any such concessions to him, yet, all the same, after he had some brutally crushed his own father, their most powerful warrior, concessions had to be made, lest their clan be, if not utterly obliterated, then whittled down until nothing but ashes remained.

Ayano did not want to be that concession. But all the same, when she was told that it was either this or her beloved clan's certain destruction, she made a choice that was selflessly above her sixteen years of life.

And so it was that a mere week after Kazuma had returned to Japan, fully intent on paying back the Kannagi every last miserable day he spent being an oucast, that he found himself saddled with a bride.

--

She arrived on his doorstep in the wake of a heartbreaking ceremony, shuffling quietly, blushing furiously, and avidly avoiding his eyes. Her only heralds were a troupe of suitcases, her life packed up in leather to be moved to someplace completely alien.

He said nothing to her as he opened the door, nor as he helped her carry in her luggage, placing it inside the doorway with minimal grunts, as though wasting sound was abhorrent to him. The first words her new husband spoke to her were "Your room is over there". And with that and a jerk of his head to indicate where, he strode down the hallway and into his own room, shutting the door quietly, firmly.

Ayano stood in the hallway of her new home, at the edge of her new life, holding court with the troupe of suitcases and a heavy silence. Befitting this, she unpacked whisper silent in her new room, barely even noting the tasteful yet innocuous drawers and mirror, folding clothes and placing them within said drawers mechanically.

She even brushes her teeth and changes in complete silence, turning off the lights as lifelessly as one tends to do an excessively mundane chore with.

It's only when she's lying in bed, completely without thoughts, that she starts to cry.

And even then, she makes sure it's quiet.

--

Ayano wakes up in the morning and finds him still asleep, door closed firmly, an impassable barrier. She's almost glad for it. Hesitantly, she heads to the kitchen, deciding somewhere along the way that he wouldn't be too angry with his wife (the word causes her to flinch and clench her fists and try not to cry) for making something to eat, as long as she left something out for him.

To her surprise, there's a store bought bento and a can of melon soda on the tabletop, sitting pointedly atop her school bag.

Ayano doesn't know whether to feel grateful or not. She takes the offering, unsure of its meaning, and runs out the door, half afraid if she stays any longer she'll start to think about her new life.

She gets to school ten minutes late, due to the difficulty of finding her school starting out from a new place. Yukari and Nanase fuss over her still red eyes and clearly disturbed appearance, but she says nothing and tries her best to avoid mentioning her change of address. Thankfully her last name hasn't changed (it is Kazuma marrying into her household, after all), because if her teacher called her as 'Yagami Ayano' she might start to cry in class and that would bring up a whole bunch of problems she didn't need.

Somehow, she gets through the school day, dodging every question from every person who realizes something is deeply disturbing her (which is a surprising amount), and starts on her way home with Yukari and Nanase, walking along that familiar road and feeling like everything might be okay-

Only to be halfway down that road and realize she was heading to the Kannagi compound, and that just wasn't Home anymore.

And then she finally starts to cry again.

Confused and concerned, Yukari and Nanase first attempt to pull her along the road further, but after some quiet sobs, they decide instead to take her over to Nanase's house, the closest one.

--

Nanase takes it well enough, though she seems to be unhealthily clenching her fists a lot and asking to come home with Ayano and "meet" her husband (she can't help the fresh bout of tears at that word).

Yukari, on the other hand, is raving, literally needing to be held down and not even asking to meet Kazuma but instead already promising death sentences and brutal torture.

Their violent protectiveness is just what she needs, as she leans into the arms of her friends and finally cries as loud as she can, screaming protests and violently pounding her fists against the willing flesh of her friends.

Nanase knows her parents will be concerned. Yukari knows she'll have bruises tomorrow.

Neither particularly care.

--

It takes a lot for Ayano to leave Nanase's house- not just to convince herself, but to convince Yukari and Nanase too, and to keep them from following her back to Kazuma's apartment.

For reasons unknown, she feels like a thief, sneaking into his apartment rather than just walking in, steps hesitant, eyes darting at shadows-

"How was school?" Kazuma is dressed in a wrinkled and rumpled black shirt that looks like its been through years of wear and jeans that are just as battered, sipping a cup of what looks like lukewarm coffee. His expression is distinctly uncomfortable, as though asking about her classes makes him feel like some lecherous old man.

Maybe it does.

After all, he's what? Twenty two, six years her senior, already old enough to drink legally in every country. What has he experienced in those four years he was away? Has he had women before?

Most likely. Even through her fear Ayano knows Kazuma is strikingly handsome, and his arrogant confidence was alluring as much as it was annoying.

Why did he choose her then? For acceptance into the clan that had denied him? Payback for defeating him in the succession rites? Some other reason she could not fathom?

"Ayano."

His voice, smooth and not so much concerned as it was bemused, cut through her thoughts.

"Oh- sorry!" out of some reflex, she bowed deeply, voice as demure and apologetic as possible. "My apologies. I was being absent minded."

"Don't do that," Kazuma muttered, setting his cup down and rubbing his eyes tiredly. "Look, I don't know what you think I expect of you, but trust me- you don't have to do anything like that 'traditional Japanese wife' crap."

"Oh... um... okay," Ayano mumbles, still uncertain.

"And speak up," he added, rolling his eyes as he ran a finger against the rim of the cup. "If I remember, you were always a lively girl."

Ayano opened her mouth once, twice, unsure of how to respond. Before she could figure it out, Kazuma stood up abruptly, chair scraping at the wood.

"I have work tonight," he stated flatly and snatched up his jacket from a chair. As he put his arms through the sleeves, he added, "Don't wait up."

And with that, Ayano's new husband breezed out the door.

For some reason, she felt like the apartment had just gotten lonelier.

--

Kazuma doesn't come back till nearly midnight, looking annoyed and a little exhausted but otherwise unharmed. Ayano doesn't know why she's still up when he returns, only knowing that laying in bed for the past two hours hadn't managed to accomplish anything other than frustrating her.

"Easy job?" she asks hesitantly, leaning against her bedroom doorframe.

"Annoying, but easy," he agrees, opening the fridge up and snatching a beer. With a hiss, it popped open, and he gave her a querying look. "I thought I said not to stay up. Were you worried?"

"Wh-wh-what?" Ayano stammers out, feeling heat rushing to her cheeks. "No... I just... couldn't sleep, that's all."

Kazuma made 'hmph' noise, and smirks at her, saying nothing.

Feeling flustered, Ayano turns away. "W-w-well, good night," she manages, shutting the door as quickly as possible without betraying herself.

Behind it, she could have sworn she heard Kazuma laugh.

--

"He didn't try anything, did he?" Yukari questioned. To their right, Nanase pretends to be interested in her bento, but her fists are clenched a little too tightly to be holding chopsticks.

"No," Ayano replied, feeling only slightly embarrassed at the question. She pokes at her convenience store food and wonders if Kazuma would mind her using the kitchen to cook for once. "We don't even sleep in the same room."

"Oh." Yukari blinks, and then pointedly looks away. Nanase sighs and relaxes her chokehold on the chopsticks.

"What?" she asks, suspicious.

"Well..." Yukari glances over at Nanase, who returns the gaze hesitantly. Together, they both glance at her.

"Why hasn't he?" Nanase blurts out.

"W-what?" Ayano stammers, nearly dropping her lunch onto the grass. She manages to save it, though just barely.

"Well, you are his wife, and the legal age in Japan is sixteen..." Yukari begins slowly, trailing off as her point is left unspoken but very clearly made.

Ayano swallows and does her best not to think of the implications.

--

Ayano manages to muster up her courage and ask him about it at dinner. Instead of the surprised reaction she expected, all he does is smirk at her, eyes twinkling.

"Would you like me to?" he asks huskily, brushing his rough fingertips against the pale skin of her knuckles, leaving ghost whispers of warmth. Ayano flushes and stammers and pulls her chair back as far as she can.

Kazuma laughs.

And despite the urge to wither up and die in her chair, Ayano likes how it sounds.

--

A week goes by without Kazuma having to work. It's not as uncomfortable, but still quiet. Kazuma, she comes to understand, is not one to mince words unless he's feeling playful. It becomes routine for her to come home after a few hours with Nanase and Yukari, to find Kazuma in the living room, leftovers on the kitchen table. After eating whatever takeout she supposes Kazuma left for her, she does her homework in there, and eventually goes to bed. Few words, if any, are exchanged.

Tonight is different, because tonight Ren finally managed to sneak off from the Kannagi compound to visit them. His warm smile and cheery nature are a welcome light, as he chatters on about life at the Kannagi (which Ayano finds she doesn't miss quite as much as she thought she would), and about his friends at school who sometimes fight for the oddest reasons (odd to him, though Ayano meets Kazuma's eyes during the story and they both share a private laugh at how naive he is to not see how much two people love him).

Kazuma is different around him, Ayano finds. Where the Kazuma she initially met was arrogant and cold, and the Kazuma she had lived with for a week or so had been switching between playful and taciturn, around Ren Kazuma is warm, smiling easily, as if he were not a near all powerful wind mage but just any other big brother in the world.

I could like this side of him, she thinks idly, fiddling with the straw of her soda as she watches Kazuma pull Ren's cheeks, I really could.

The thought causes her to spill the soda, and Ren and Kazuma to make fun of her for a good ten minutes afterward.

--

After Ren leaves after getting a warning call on his cellphone, Kazuma cleans up after him, muttering good natured complaints about how messy his little brother is. Ayano helps, but tries her best to make sure she doesn't get in his way.

As he bundles up the trash and Ayano shuffles the last of the dishes into the sink, she finally finds the words she's needed since she arrived at his doorstep.

"I don't like the convenience store food."

Kazuma blinks, honestly perplexed as he turns towards her, garbage still in hand.

Ayano pointedly stares forward, closing her eyes frustratedly as she scrubs at a particularly stubborn plate. "I'll be cooking for us from now on, okay?" while it ended questioningly, there was no doubt this was an ultimatum.

He snorts ever so slightly and smirks at her. "Just don't burn down the kitchen," he says teasingly, stepping forward.

"I won't," she grumbles, rinsing the plate out, preparing to put it back when Kazuma's hand came into view, picking the plate gingerly out of her hands.

"I prefer them on the lower shelf," he says calmly, in lieu of an explanation.

Ayano's mouth forms on 'oh' as she watches him place the plate just the way he liked it. As he shut the cabinet door, without turning around, Kazuma spoke again.

"I know you didn't ask for this," he began slowly, levelly, "And I don't blame you if you carry a grudge against me. But..." his voice wavered for a brief moment, uncertain.

It goes unsaid, only resonating in his heart- I will protect you.

Ayano steps in, tugging on his jacket. He turns his head, eyes not quite so cold anymore. Maybe, in time, they'll be warm.

"It's not so bad," she murmurs. Then, on an impulse, she grins at him, feeling mischievous. "Though you're not exactly choice husband material."

Kazuma's lips might be smiling. "Right back at you," he said, eyes dancing with bemusement. "But I suppose I can work with what I've been given. And now that you're here, I guess I have to look after you."

Ayano stares into his eyes and understands he's only half seeing her, and half seeing someone else, someone lost to him forever, looking at her like an exile looking at his home country for the first time in years.

She understands that she might be his second chance.

She wonders if he understands that too.

"So," she begins, a smile tugging the corners of her lips, "How do you like your eggs?"