One Flame, Two Flame  
 
The Thousand Cranes 

Bottou-chan

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Note- This is based on the anime version, where Saicho has a problem because of the Thousand Men, and not because of a heart disease..
This is a bit lengthy… but I had to give her enough time to finish the job, ne? If you like Saicho-kun (paper-boy) and Misora-chan (Kukai's daughter), you have a good chance of making it all the way through… but if you gasp and fall over with glazed eyes before the end, I understand and won't be offended. ;o)

***
The girl's fingers flew nimbly over the paper, folding it into the semblance of a crane.

One.

Misora placed it gently to the side and took the next sheet of paper into her hands. A stack of origami paper was to her left. The one, lone origami crane was to her right. ::It won't be alone for long,:: she thought. It would soon be joined by many, many others.

::It won't be alone for long…:: She frowned as her fingers flew swiftly, surely. Unlike her. It wouldn't be long until her father would leave. When _he_ would leave, too. Saicho-kun… the one who had taught her how to fold these little paper cranes in the first place.

They were going off to that horrible tournament. She had heard them talking about it-her father, Saicho-kun, Daikoku-san, Fujimaru-san, and the others. This would be the third Urabutousatsujin. People had died at the first and second ones… surely people would die at this one, too.

And if people died, that meant other people would kill.

She didn't want her father to kill anyone. She shuddered as she remembered what had happened when the Japanese mafia had kidnapped her. They had made the mistake of punching her father… once, twice, three times. He had been wearing that madougu at the time… he had transformed into the hideous Oni, a monster who would not leave until he had killed his opponent. Who wouldn't give her father back to her until he had killed his tormentors…

Her fingers continued to fold papers.

Thirty-nine.

She didn't want Saicho-kun to kill anyone, either. She hated it when he fought. ::But if  he didn't fight, I wouldn't have met him in the first place…:: Funny how that worked. Saicho-kun was her father's second-in-command at the dojo. But she still disliked seeing  him in danger. When her father had been placed in jail, even though the manslaughter had been committed in self-defense, it had been Saicho-kun who had kept the dojo running.

She and he had been laughing and talking when they had entered the dojo that day. It had been like any other day, almost-things were always so pleasant with him! They had discovered a small heap of their students lying on the practicing floor. Unconscious… dead…? She couldn't tell at the time. A larger group of their students were grinning menacingly. They had suggested that Saicho-kun join them… become hit-men. It made money.

Saicho-kun had stood steadfastly by his principles. They had attacked him en masse, and he had been doing a reasonably good job defending himself against them, with his paper sword. There was a reason _why _ he was her father's second-in-command.

But she had been too scared to admire his battle presence… she had been too stunned to be grateful for his madougu which had saved him from certain death. All she could see was her beloved Saicho-kun in danger against a mob of unruly students… she had cried out in protest for him to stop.

He had hesitated… he had turned to look at her… his opponent had taken advantage of that moment to plunge the knife in deep.

It had been her fault.

Misora sniffled a bit, wiping her eyes on her shoulder, but not stopping her work. Her hands were still industriously folding the paper cranes.

One hundred and five.

That little scuffle with his students had left two marks on him. For one, he was dubbed "The Killer of a Thousand Men", and somehow, his reputation was spread throughout the underworld, spoken with admiration and respect. The story grew bigger and bigger with each retelling.

The second mark was much more damaging. Because of the wound, his endurance was seriously limited. Saicho-kun would only be able to fight for limited amounts of time from now on. Ten minutes was his maximum… ten minutes.

Would he be able to win his fight in the Urabutousatsujin in only ten minutes?

Misora wasn't sure.

He could've easily won his fight, no matter what the time frame, if he hadn't been wounded. Funny, he had never blamed her for it. He had only blamed himself.

"It's okay," he had consoled her when she had come to visit him in the hospital. She had been crying, and he had held her and kissed her hair to reassure her. "I was taught better than that… your father told me never to turn away from an opponent. I should have remembered my training better."

Even in the hospital, recuperating, he had been so much… himself. Kind. Caring. Loving. Sweet. Gentle.

And he was expected to kill or be killed?

She was uncomfortable with having that facet of his personality exposed. She preferred to think that he had the capability of doing such a thing, if necessary, but disliked the idea of him ever having to apply his training in a real-life situation.

Misora's fingers flew faster as she grew more perturbed.

One hundred and sixty-two.

She could imagine Saicho-kun's gentle, smiling face in front of her. It was impossible to imagine that face contorted into that of a killer in the process of slaughtering his opposition. But it was equally impossible to imagine that face contorted into that of a victim, murdered during a violent bloodsport. One of many who had entertained the crowd with their death, only to be forgotten the next day.

Saicho-kun had wanted to marry her. Her father approved of the idea… Misora looked forward to it. She had secretly bought up bridal magazines, paging through them, mentally planning the ceremony and the reception. It would be outdoors… there would be a trellis with vines and white roses… there would be white candles in tall brass candelabras. There would be a long red carpet down the aisle, and rows of white chairs on either side for her guests to sit upon. Somehow, they'd find a way for the organist to play the wedding march outside. Misora knew exactly which dress she wanted… which one would look good on her. She wanted to get dark blue dresses for her bridesmaids, and she knew which of her friends she wanted to ask. She could imagine them processing in, slowly, holding little boquets with pink rosebuds. And then everyone would stand up when it was her turn to march down the aisle… they would smile and nod in admiration. A few might dab away happy tears.

Misora had tears in her eyes now, thinking about it. A sad smile fluttered over her lips.

Two hundred and six.

But what if it didn't happen? What if, instead of white roses, there were red carnations arranged in a funeral wreath? Instead of the white bridal dress, something plain and black and mournful? Instead of the cheerful, smiling, blue-clad bridesmaids, they had black-suited pallbearers? Instead of tears of happiness, there were tears of sadness that goodnatured Saicho-kun had been slain?

Misora glowered at the cranes. ::These will protect him, even though I can't:: she thought, kissing the two hundred and seventy-fourth crane as she set him with his brothers. She was putting her love into these… Saicho-kun could carry them into his battle and be inspired by them. Even though she couldn't bear to watch his fight from the audience, even if she had been invited-she would manage to be with him somehow.

::Think happy thoughts:: she reminded herself firmly, as she created the two hundred and seventy-fifth crane.

They had planned on going to one of the nearby resorts for their honeymoon, and then take a real one later, when they could better afford it. Imagine, being able to curl up with Saicho at nighttime, and wake up being held in his arms… Misora smiled at the thought. How lovely. He was always so nice and warm to snuggle up with… it would be wonderful to be able to wake up at night, feeling his closeness and inhaling his familiar scent, and then go back to sleep, wrapped in the safety of his arms. Feeling his warm breath tickling against the back of her neck… perhaps he might wake up, too, and give her soft, lazy, sleepy kisses for a while. Saicho never looked very strong… rather, he looked delicate. Especially when contrasted against her father or Daikoku. But it was all an illusion. If he was not strong, how could he have become her father's second-in-command? But Misora had always found herself intrigued by the contrast of his strength and his gentleness… She had a warm, pleasant, tingly feeling at the thought of finally being able to experience a different aspect of his strength and gentleness.

Misora found herself blushing furiously, and she laughed out loud. She wondered if anyone would ever feel that way about Fujimaru-san.

Three hundred and twelve.

"Saicho-kun, Saicho-kun, Saicho-kun! What will I _do _ with you? You're going to drive me crazy!" she complained aloud to no one in particular. Everyone was out at the dojo, practicing, getting last-minute instructions for the upcoming tournament.

They had promised they would keep in touch with her. Her father would call her every night from their hotel, and tell her about the day. Saicho-kun would telephone, too. She had grown so used to seeing him around the dojo, it would feel empty without him. One of the other students would be running things for the week things were gone.

After the fiasco concerning the "Thousand Men", attendance at the dojo had swiftly declined. Some stopped going because of the sullied reputation. They didn't wish to train in a dojo which produced hit men, who used their skills for money, rather than protecting themselves and the ones they loved. Others feared the instructors. Her father had singlehandedly killed many members of the Japanese mafia, barehandedly, during his rage when she had been kidnapped. Saicho-kun had supposedly killed a thousand men. Who wanted to entrust their sons, their daughters-or themselves?-so such violent people?

"But they're not violent," Misora said sullenly, through gritted teeth.

Three hundred and ninety-nine.

When her father had received this invitation to participate in the Urabutousatsujin, he had been quite pleased. "This is our chance to redeem ourselves," he had said proudly. "We shall show the world that we are not killers-we shall show that we can fight honorably."

The dojo had been in their family for generations. The incidents during her father's control of it had been the first ones to ever mar its reputation. He felt badly about it, Misora knew. He had been searching for a way to redeem himself in his ancestors' eyes… looking for a way to redeem the dojo in the public's eye… looking, maybe, even, for a way to redeem himself in Misora's eyes, even though his daughter didn't hold the mishap against him. She was proud of her father.

The dojo would fall to her and Saicho-kun's control when Kukai would no longer be able to control it. He would not want to entrust them with sullied goods… he wanted to give them a dojo with a good reputation, a good name. He took personal responsibility for the fact that a handful of his students had turned… that he had not been there to stop it. He should have seen it coming…

Four hundred and forty.

::That's a lot of paper cranes:: she thought to herself, looking in amazement at the growing stack. And yet she was not even half done yet.

She had been mildly interested in origami before she had met Saicho-kun. She could do simple things… butterflies, flowers. She had always amused her classmates by making fortune-tellers. It had been fun making up fortunes for those… they had begged her to teach them, and for several months, fortune-tellers were 'the' fad at school.

Saicho-kun had been waiting in the house for her father one day, and had noticed the origami paper sitting on a shelf. He has asked her if he could borrow a piece, and she had given him five. His hands were amazingly fast… with incredible speed, he had folded her a paper crane.

She had expressed her admiration.

"It's nothing," he had said, modest and humble as always. "Origami is something I've been doing for ages…" And he had folded her a more complex origami creature after that, with equal speed and surity.

"Show me how you do it," Misora had requested eagerly. She was always inspired by people who could do things well. She always wanted to emulate them, whether it was dancing, or painting, or singing, or writing. But somehow, her attempts never turned out as well as theirs did, and she had grown discouraged.

But not with Saicho-kun.

He had taught her until her speed and surity nearly matched his. She was not quite as good at the more complex creatures, but he had reassured her that all it took was time, and that she had made remarkable progress already.

"Be proud of yourself," he had advised her, after an unsuccessful slew of her mutated attempts at origami goldfish had been crumpled in a fit of rage. "Look at what you can do, and have done. Be proud of what skills you have. Don't be content to not continue to grow… but don't underestimate your current abilities."

Misora had taken that to heart, and eventually, she had been able to master the difficult origami goldfish. Saicho-kun was a good teacher. Whether it was martial arts, or origami, or haiku…

Five hundred and sixteen.

Haiku. Saicho-kun had the heart of a poet. "It helps me concentrate," he explained to her once, when she had happened to see him practicing in the dojo one day. His eyes had been shut, and he had been murmuring poetry. "It allows me to focus my aura to fight better."

"Do you make up your own?" she had asked. When he had nodded yes, she had asked in admiration, "How do you come up with your ideas?"

"The words just come to me," he said. "Sometimes, at night, I sit on the floor and stare at a candle, meditating. The words themselves appear from nowhere, and I order them into the proper form. Other times, I can be practicing against someone, and even though my whole attention is focussed upon my opponent, the lines suddenly come to me."

"Write a poem about me," Misora had suggested, smiling and holding his arm. This had been just before she had recognized her feelings for him. She had sensed something about him… but she hadn't been sure what.

He had, unexpectedly, produced the desired haiku the next day. "You're a remarkably good subject to compose haiku about," he had told her. "You're so… poetic."

"Me? Poetic?" She hadn't ever thought of herself as such. She was just plain… ordinary… Misora. Misora who wasn't as good at origami, or writing, or painting, or dancing, or singing, as others were. Misora who wasn't anyone in particular. Misora who was just… there.

But Saicho-kun had thought otherwise.

"You have this… gracefulness. The way you move. The way you speak. Your smile," he had told her earnestly. He wasn't flattering her; he was stating his opinion, his observations. "And see-even the way you're blushing right now, it has this indefinable quality to it. Ethereal isn't the right word for it… you've got substance. But it's somehow poetry. Being lived. Being incorporated into your life, into your being. It's quite inspiring. The hard part is trying to keep it the proper number of syllables. One could get quite distracted, attempting to compose something. Because there's so much one could write about… it's difficult to focus on one aspect without addressing the others."

Seven hundred and twenty.

What he had said had made her begin to think. Misora had never expected he had ever thought such things about her. And while Saicho-kun was the type of person who could find something nice to say about nearly anyone-even Fujimaru-she couldn't help but wonder if his words implied something deeper.

Nahhh… it couldn't.

But somehow, she not only began viewing herself in a new light… but she had begun to see Saicho-kun with new eyes, too.

She began to notice how much she enjoyed his presence. How much she looked forward to seeing him around the grounds. How much fun she had, folding origami animals with him during his lunch break. How pleasurable it was to just sit and hear him speak, the feeling of his words washing over her. Such a pleasant voice! Misora began to notice his physical appearance and wonder… his eyes, for instance. Almost always smiling and cheerful, yet perfectly capable of being serious, like when he was fighting. But what would it be like to gaze into them freely, unabashedly, not having to worry about what he would think if he caught her staring? To have him gazing back at her, softly, admiringly, -lovingly, even? His hair, too. So nice and mousy-brown and soft-looking… what would it feel like to run her fingers through it? What did it look like in the morning, rumpled and disheveled and sticking up every which way before he had a chance to comb it, when he woke up with pillow-creases on his face? His hands… so sure and swift and strong when they were gripping a sword or manipulating any of the numerous weapons around the dojo. And yet they were so sure and swift and gentle when he was folding little paper shapes. What would it feel like to be caressed by such hands? To have her features traced by the soft fingers, to have him memorize every inch of her body by touch and by sight. Misora had found herself a bit startled by this sudden onslaught of wonderings… she had never viewed Saicho-kun as a potential love-interest before. As a friend, yes. As her father's dependable second, yes. But as a love interest?

And the worry had set in. What if Saicho-kun found out? What if Saicho-kun politely dismissed her feelings when she admitted them to him? For he was always polite. He wouldn't tell anyone, but an uncomfortable cloud would hang over the dojo if that happened. What if? What if? What if?

And so she had kept her ponderings to herself.

Eight hundred and thirteen.

It had been a few days before her kidnapping, Misora remembered. Saicho-kun and Fujimaru-san had been putting up the storm windows, in anticipation of the upcoming tsunami season. Fujimaru-san had smashed Saicho-kun's fingers with the hammer, and she had caught him rummaging through the first-aid kit.

Misora had offered to help him; Saicho-kun had said it was all right. Just a minor thing… nothing for her to bother about.

"You're dripping blood," she had told him sternly, and had made him sit in a chair so she could investigate the wound. He had meekly complied, and she had knelt before him and tended to the injury.

As she cleaned and washed the injured fingers, she found herself thoroughly enjoying being able to touch him. Even if it was only his hand. His skin felt so nice, so soft, so warm… but she shouldn't take too long about it. He might get suspicious. But she couldn't help herself. When she had finished, Misora had playfully planted a kiss on his fingertips and said, "All better!" But when she had looked up at his face-he had looked so strange. So solemn. Pained, almost. And not from Fujimaru-san's clumsiness.

Like there was something bothering him. Something he wanted to say, but couldn't.

Nine hundred and two.

Misora was still holding his bandaged hand, kneeling on the floor in front of his chair, gazing at him. They had stared at each other in silence for several moments… several  moments that had felt like an eternity… several moments that she wouldn't mind turning into an eternity. And a sudden thought had struck her… what if… what if?

She found a certain degree of boldness from somewhere. Misora was never quite sure where from, but it didn't matter. She took his injured hand and placed it against her cheek, kissing the palm quite gently. She rubbed her face softly against it, and the hand, which at first had been so stiff, began caressing her in return.

"Saicho-kun," she had murmured, her lips brushing against his palm, enjoying his response. Feeling relieved, somehow. Unburdened… "You don't mind, do you?" She knew he didn't.

"I didn't know," he had responded, the words almost caught in his throat. "I didn't think you… you would be interested in me. As more than a friend…" He bent down so that their eyes could meet levelly. "I find you so intriguing… everything about you is so perfect… I can't tell you how… how fortunate I felt, being able to come to the dojo and see you there. Always so full of energy. Of grace. Of life. You always had a smile and kind words for me. But I was afraid that I was just another of your father's students to you… after all, you had a smile and kind words for everyone. And why should I have hoped to have been different?"

Misora had only half-paid attention to what he was saying. Rather, she was concentrating on how he looked as he said those words… his face was so close…his eyes were so solemn and bright. She slipped her arms around his neck and slid one hand through his hair. Yes, it _did _ feel as mousy-soft and light as she had thought.

They had kissed, then, and murmured sweet nothings for quite a while. Misora had bared her soul and had admitted her hesitation, her feelings, that had led up to this. All too soon, Fujimaru-san had come stumbling into the house, calling out that he had finished and where was Saicho-san? That had been the annoyingly abrupt end to their peacful, silly, loverly murmurings, and Saicho-kun had called out that he would be there in a minute.

Misora had replayed that scenario over and over again in her mind, countless times.

It never failed to elicit that warm, comfortable, happy feeling. Achy, almost… but such a lovely ache.

Nine hundred and eighty-five.

These cranes… origami cranes were the symbols of peace. Misora gazed thoughtfully at the nine hundred and eighty-sixth as it miraculously appeared from what had once been a flat, plain, white sheet of paper.

There would be no peace at the Urabutousatsujin. But perhaps there was something else. Her father and Saicho-kun would not go out rashly and join in such a bloodsport. Neither of them enjoyed violence. Rather, their skills were meant to prevent violence. So they had accepted for a reason.

The other participants in the match would have lovers or daughters or friends, too, who would be worried for their safety. Not everyone would come home in one piece. Not everyone would come home at all.

Nine hundred and ninety-seven.

But these cranes… these cranes were her contribution to Team Ku. Her contribution to assist Saicho-kun with his fight.

Nine hundred and ninety-eight.

He would be able to use them. He could control the Shiki Gami. He would use it to make the cranes do something interesting. Perhaps they could save his life.

Nine hundred and ninety-nine.

Misora desperately hoped he wouldn't have to. Only as a last resort, she wished. But these cranes… they would bring him peace. Funny, how he would be able to find peace at such a violent tournament. But she had no doubt that if he looked hard enough, he would find it. And she would support him any way she could.

One thousand paper cranes.