So last week my friend Sami asked for some fanfic to put in a book she has to design and bind, and I said cool, give me a prompt. And she said okay, do something whimsical and AU-ish, and it can be a modern somethingorother OR MAYBE HISTORICAL JAPAN! I promptly envisioned Sora in hakama and geta eating dango on a stick and Riku working at a woodblock print shop and promptly afterwards died a blissful Edo-fangirl death.
Then I revived and wrote this.
Warning for boys kissing, references to sex, a veritable sea of terminology.
Kairi had a way of tilting her chin so that the wisps of hair that weren't quite held tight in the pinned bundle on the back of her head curled down around her ears and against her neck. She only held herself like that when she was doing calligraphy, teeth chewing on her lower lip, brush carefully forming the delicate characters on a fresh sheet of parchment, tiny black brush strokes marching downwards in a feathery column. She was penning a bit of poetry today, giving illumination and beauty to the handful of chickenscratch a waxen, lovelorn youth handed over on a scrap of rice paper-yet another contract her father turned away and Kairi negotiated in the dusty alley between her family's storefront and Sora's family's restaurant next door.
It wasn't necessarily a brisk business, and she certainly wasn't pocketing as much yen as a professional calligrapher, or even as much as her father's apprentice would have-but that was her brother, the first son and therefore inheritor of the family business, although his own characters were blocky and uninspired. Sora wasn't sure what Kairi was trying to do with her back-alley calligraphy contracts-he almost spat out his tea at that ridiculously shady mental image-and he certainly had no idea what she did with the money, since he never saw her with any new baubles or trinkets or kimonos or anything other than the old shell pin she'd used in her hair since they were children. In his most thoughtful moments, Sora thought she might be planning to coerce her brother into splitting the business with her when their father died. She was clever like that, Kairi was.
When the brush had lifted safely from the paper, Sora poked her in the cheek.
Kairi's left hand quickly smacked his away, almost automatically, and she gave him a cool sideways glare, setting the brush aside and taking up the inkstick. "Did you need something, or are you just bored?"
Sora opted to respond by thrusting his arm out across the table, holding his empty teacup under her nose. Kairi reared back at the sudden intrusion, hand pausing over the inkstone. After her initial surprise, she frowned. "The pot's right in front of you." And she leaned back down and resumed grinding.
"It's a woman's job to pour the tea, isn't it?"
"Oh, don't you start, too!" Kairi's head jerked up, teeth bared in a furious grimace until Sora gave her a soft smile. She sighed, setting the inkstick down and sitting back on her heels.
Sora poured a fresh cup and handed it to her; Kairi flashed her inky hands and nodded to her left. "Just set it there."
He did, and took a slow sip, watching Kairi and the way she seemed to be losing more hair from her knot than usual. He shifted to sit crosslegged instead, tatami giving way under his weight, so he could scoot closer to the table, knees folded beneath it. "Rough day?"
Kairi shook her head, anger draining out of her in a way that left her tired and limp, chin tilted down as she regarded the unfinished rows of characters before her. "Could you get the handkerchief out of my obi?"
Sora leaned over, in a stunning move of impropriety, and pulled the small red square of fabric out from where it peeked up over the edge of her obi, directly under her left breast. He had a flash of intuition, somewhere in the middle of the act, that he should have been more interested in that, and in his proximity to her-but it was just Kairi. That was all he could think.
He folded the fabric and wrapped it around her teacup, lifting it and placing it between her hands, holding his own over them for a long moment until she looked him in the eye. "What's wrong?"
Kairi's breath was shaky as she pulled her hands away from his. "Father is going to meet with your father and the matchmaker tonight after the restaurant closes."
Sora's hands hovered in place in the air for a long moment until he realized he hadn't moved, and abruptly tried to straighten up as gracefully as possible, stomach churning and mind whirling around Kairi's sentence. "What, really? I thought-"
"It was you or Riku, and you're a first son and Riku is a third, so it was no contest, really." Kairi took a slow sip of tea, regarding the swirl of leaves at the bottom of the cup as she lowered it. "At least father isn't trying to pass me off to a complete stranger."
"Well, yeah, but..." Sora dragged his fingers across the polished wood surface of the table, tracing one around the base of his own teacup. "Do you really want to marry me?"
"THIS ISN'T ABOUT WHAT I WANT!" Kairi exploded with the force of a thunderstorm, tears suddenly streaming down her cheeks, the cup in her hands trembling precariously. Sora stopped her when she went to swipe them away, taking the cup from her before it spilled all over her hard work. "Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life pouring your tea and frying gyoza?"
"Don't, you'll get ink all over yourself." He tried to laugh at the mental image of Kairi with an ink-smudged face, but it was a weak, unconvincing sound. He put the handkerchief in her hands instead, helping to dab the tears away from her eyes. "It doesn't have to be that bad, does it? I mean, we're best friends, so it's not like we wouldn't get along just as well as we do now. We'll just be living in the same house, right? And you know I'll make sure you have all the time you need for calligraphy. You have a reputation now, people will come looking for you."
"It's just like you to always look on the bright side of things." She choked on a laugh, low and derisive. "Unfailing as the sun, Sora." She quieted for a moment, breath hitching one last time before she seemed to calm, lowering her hands to her lap, still twisted in the red fabric. "Have you thought about what our parents will do when we don't have any children?"
Sora blinked, considering that in a slow and logical fashion, once, and then twice, but each time his mind stuttered and screeched to a halt over the idea of having sex with Kairi, face twisting into and uncomfortable frown. He wanted to reassure her, wanted to convince her as much as himself that they could make the best of this, but there was only so far his optimism was able to go.
Kairi made a soft humming noise, as if to say that's what I thought without having to voice her own subtle suspicions out loud. Sora sat back from the table, interest in his tea forgotten, unfolding his legs from beneath himself so he could hug them against his chest instead, feeling suddenly childlike and uncertain. "Does Riku know yet?"
"No." Kairi sniffed, a dainty, ladylike noise despite everything, and tried to shake her hair out of her face, inky hands still clutching the handkerchief. "You should go talk to him. It's almost time for practice anyway, isn't it?"
Sora nodded a little, chin brushing against his knees, considering the edge to her voice and whether she was trying to get him to leave. He wondered, briefly, if this was some sort of test, and if so, what he was supposed to do to pass it. He thought this for a moment, but when he looked up Kairi was staring at him across the table, and the look in her eyes was so sincere that Sora climbed back onto his knees and lunged across the table, hugging her tight.
"Are you going to be okay?"
"I don't have a choice, do I?" Kairi sniffed against his shoulder, pulling back enough to look up at him. She seemed strangely calm, though still teary, and nodded her head towards the sliding door. "Go on. You'll be late."
Sora let her go with a soft peck on the forehead, crossing the tatami in a few quick steps. He paused once he'd shuffled out of the room on his knees, one hand up on the shoji and hovered, the entryway framing Kairi knelt at the low table, red handkerchief set aside as she continued grinding the ink, refocused now on her parchment. "It's going to be okay," he said, gathering a bit more confidence that maybe his words were right. "We'll figure something out."
"I know." When she looked up, she smiled, just the slightest bit, like the curve of a flower petal. He didn't think it was fair, how incredibly beautiful she was and how he only ever thought of that beauty as perfectly aesthetic, like an elegant painting or finely scripted kanji.
He pushed the door closed, so all he could see was rice paper and the tatami under his knees.
He was definitely late, but that didn't stop him from pausing at a street vendor's bamboo hut for a skewer of dango. The afternoon was waning, but it was still early enough that the streets were alive with economy, the steady pulse of the merchant quarter vibrating under the raised soles of his geta, hurrying along just fast enough to be hurrying but not fast enough to not enjoy his dango as he hurried. The population of Edo breezed past him in a swarm of color and sound; flashy merchants in silk yukatas, more subdued samurai with katanas strapped to their hips; women of leisure with brightly colored parasols and working women with elegant smiles passing barbecued eel or steaming bowls of udon across their counters. The air was rich with the mingled smell of food and the bark of haggling customers, sizzling hibachi and murmured conversations, and the snap of a child's voice laughing or crying. A man on a corner with a booming voice sold tickets to kabuki; a woman seated on a veranda played a shamisen while passerby dropped her coins.
Sora held the dango between his teeth as he negotiated a particularly crowded area of the district, ducking and wriggling between bodies until he broke free in front of the printers, then promptly slipped around the side of the building to the staff entrance.
The back doors of the print shop were open wide to let in the most natural light possible and the warmth of the spring afternoon, and as soon as he passed through them the sounds and smells of the city disappeared, leaving him ensconced in the scent of ink and the brush of bristles against wood. Riku was knelt over a print block, yukata sleeves tied back around his shoulders and hair in a messy tail trailing down the back of his neck, brushing deep blue ink across its carved surface. "You're late," he muttered without looking up, and promptly turned to lift a sheet of paper, carefully settling it into place against the edge of the block before lowering it face-down on the inked surface. "And since you were late, sensei gave me an extra stack to print, so now you have to wait."
Sora smirked at the admonishing tone, and the way Riku couldn't keep the corners of his mouth from turning up as he said it, and tiptoed around Riku's workspace, cautious of the pots of ink and stacks of paper. He dropped to sit directly behind him, back to back, leaning back until their shoulders were touching. He could feel every movement as Riku continued working, rubbing the wood paddle over the paper to press it down.
For a while, Sora pulled the dango off the skewer one at a time, chewing them slowly and thinking about telling Riku what Kairi had said. He wondered if he ought to just blurt it out, and immediately decided against it. He didn't want to break Riku's focus, and he was clearly in the zone-muscles relaxed, working in almost a rhythmic pattern of brushing ink, setting paper, pressing it down, pulling it away. If he messed up, the print master would be furious, and if Sora made him mess up, then Riku would be furious, too.
No, he'd tell him later. When they went back to Riku's place to practice. That would be the time.
"I can hear you thinking," Riku murmured, the sound vibrating through his body and into Sora's.
Sora remained silent for a moment, trying to find anything else to talk about and really unable to think of anything at all other than Kairi and the way she looked at him before he left and the warmth of Riku's back against his. "I was just thinking about when we were kids, and all the plans we made, all the things we said we were going to do when we grew up."
"You mean how we were going to be samurai?" The tone was disbelieving but Sora could hear the smile in Riku's voice, the warmth carried with that memory. "And how we worked Tezuka-sensei half to death teaching us to handle swords without killing ourselves?"
"I think he probably succeeded. We're still alive, after all." Sora closed his eyes, chuckling a little, careful not to jostle Riku with the action. "I think he encouraged us too much, though, with all the old stories about Sekigahara and Amakusa Shirou."
"Don't forget Hakata Bay." Riku shifted to reach for another paper. "That was his favorite."
"Are you kidding? I can still hear him in my dreams." Sora affected an ancient, wheezing voice. "Your ancestors and the kami who protect this land didn't fight off the Mongol barbarians at Hakata Bay-TWICE-so that you could complain about drills! Now count!" He chuckled again and felt Riku laughing, jostling his back. "You know what," Sora rolled his head to the side, although it was impossible to see Riku from this angle, "Mom told me once that she tried to pay him for teaching me. She figured he needed it, since the dojo was so run down. But he wouldn't take her money. That's why she always sent food over with us."
"I guess that doesn't surprise me." Riku laughed softly, just for a moment, then was silent for a few long minutes, paper shuffling under his hands. "I miss him."
Riku leaned to the side as he swapped the blue wood block for one stained pink, setting it in front of him and starting on his stack of papers all over again. For a while the only sound in the print shop was the scrape of bristles and the crinkle of paper, the swish of the wood paddle and the occasional chirp of a bird from outside, rustling around in the bushes. When Riku spoke again it was very soft, almost like he wasn't sure he wanted Sora to hear what he was saying. "You remember what we were going to do, right?"
"After we became samurai, however that was supposed to happen?" Sora grinned at the memory, head dropping back a little until it was resting on Riku's shoulder. "We were going to take the Tokaido road to Kyoto. We'd hire ourselves out to travelers and fight off bandits. I think we decided we were going to live in a castle at some point, too."
Riku made a low humming sound, not quite a laugh. "Yeah. It seems so easy when you're a kid, doesn't it?"
"Mm." With his eyes closed, Sora could pick out the memories with ease. He remembered the smell of plum blossoms the day he and Riku were trying to swordfight with sticks, running around so much they didn't realize how far they'd strayed from the shrine until an old man on his veranda, pipe jabbing towards them, growled that his feet were too close together and that Riku needed to hold his sword with both hands. He remembered spending so long at the dojo that his mother would come and find him, frowning the way she did when he was due for a good swat, and drag him back to the restaurant to help with the dinner crowd. He remembered standing in front of this print shop with Riku, summer sun hot on his shoulders and sweating where their fingers were tangled together, staring at the dazzling display of brocade prints, exclaiming in awe over the colorful depictions of the Tokaido road, fanciful images of the imperial capital, stylized portrayals of stately and beautiful samurai. Once, they pooled enough leftover coins from festivals to buy a print of Yoshiwara station, which was still on display in Riku's room, never completely forgotten.
"I'm done." Riku's voice and a swish of paper brought him back to reality.
Sora sat up eagerly, crawling onto his knees. "Can I see?" Riku smirked a little, which was his way of hiding embarrassment, and handed over one of the sheets.
Sora would never get tired of looking at the intricacy of brocade prints and being in awe of how Riku could line up each block so that the pink petals of a flower or the marbled blue of a kimono would match up exactly inside of its black outlines. He didn't realize his breath had caught until he murmured, "It's beautiful."
"Don't be like that. I didn't draw it, I'm just the printer." Riku took the paper back and returned it to the pile, carefully moving them from his workspace to the tables where other finished prints were drying.
"Yeah, well, you're amazing at it. I bet master Ikeda gives you your signature stamp by the end of the month."
"You said that last month, too. I'm going to start making you put your money where your mouth is."
"Okay, fine. I bet you a plate of gyoza."
"Ha ha." Riku set to work cleaning up his area, stacking the wood blocks and storing the inks. "Make yourself useful and go tell sensei that I'm done so he can check the prints."
"He'll do it," Sora assured him one last time, slipping through the door from the work area into the shop. "Just wait."
The sunlight was just beginning to darken to orange when they stepped outside. The streets had only cleared slightly, everyone realizing the time and focusing on whatever business needed finishing by nightfall. Riku and Sora turned up a quiet side street, one of many connecting the merchant quarter with the temple district, ambling silently alongside simple residences and quieter workshops of craftsmen. A pair of girls in flowery kimonos passed them going in the opposite direction, the two of them huddling close together, whispering and giggling as they eyed the two boys. Sora smiled politely and waved, and Riku elbowed him so he nearly toppled over on top of them both. He ended up bowing profusely and apologizing while they continued giggling almost derisively, and running to catch up with Riku, who hadn't even broken stride. His smirk extended from ear to ear.
Sora scowled. "Why do you always do that?"
"Because you're easy to embarrass and it's entertaining," Riku stated flatly, followed by a muffled "Ow," when Sora punched his shoulder.
"Well, it's easier than trying to talk our way out of being their dinner company, isn't it?"
"I suppose." Sora kicked at a rock, looked back at the retreating girls for just a moment before they made the next turn.
Riku's parents and eldest brother were the caretakers of a small shrine attached to a Buddhist compound, primarily accommodating Uzume, along with a few other nature kami and a sacred rock formation in the north corner. Sora's memory was filled with the shrine's courtyard, of white paper omikuji fluttering from tree branches and Riku's mother feeding them fresh mochi and Riku teaching him, with great solemnity, how to properly ring the bell in front of the honden and offer prayers to the kami. Once he was old enough to help at the restaurant, his visits to the shrine became more and more sparse, and even now he wondered at how much smaller it seemed than the shrine in his memory.
Today they only paused at the entrance, hovering outside the torii while Riku talked to his brother, broom poised to sweep his way down the steps that lead up to the red-painted gate. Sora didn't pay attention to what they were saying, too focused now on the past, and stared past him instead to the sloping roof of the honden, golden in the setting sun, and the blooming cherry trees rustling on either side. He almost stumbled when Riku caught his elbow, steering them back onto the road to walk the half a block to Riku's house.
"I can hear you thinking again," Riku murmured once the sound of a broom whisking across stone was behind them.
"You know how?" Riku's smirk addressed him sideways, eyes sparkling. "It sounds like silence."
Sora laughed, but not as much as it seemed like he should have. He should be talking to Riku about what Kairi said rather than goofing off with him, but he couldn't find the words to begin and didn't want to break the spell of contentment and memory hanging over him. "You make me sound like a blabbermouth."
"Its a specific kind of silence," Riku amended, elbowing him again, but not hard enough to send him toppling. "Fine with me, though. If you're distracted then you'll be easy to beat."
Sora shoved him back.
Riku's house was small and squat, but had a large, fenced yard in back, veranda spilling onto soft grass, a plum tree in each corner, pink blossoms sweetening the air. After Tezuka-sensei died, and his only son sold the run-down dojo to a merchant who tore it down to build an inn, the two moved their practice sessions here. Sora came to associate swords with the feel of skin-warmed wood under his fingers, and the smell of plum blossoms, and the sound of Riku's sharp, soft laugh.
He experienced all of these things just before Riku said, "Pay attention!" and he barely moved in time to stop Riku's boken from colliding with him.
Although it hadn't always been the case, over the years Sora had discovered that he and Riku were fairly evenly matched. Not surprising, considering they were trained by the same swordmaster, and practiced with the same level of devotion and enthusiasm. Riku had grown up a little faster, gaining the strength of an adult long before Sora caught up-but catch up he did. Now, he could watch as he and Riku circled each other in the courtyard and know that Riku's arrogant stance was a ploy to draw in his opponent. He could deflect Riku's sword and know by the weight of it which direction the next swing would come from.
At some point it had become less like fighting and more like dancing. Something intimate, a deep understanding of each other's movements and intentions. With the lateness of the day, both of them vied for the coveted position of standing with his back to the sun, shadows stretching long across the veranda in the rose-tinted light. Riku faked to the left and brought them both against the fence and out of the sun, unexpectedly evening the playing field until he lunged back in to slash at Sora until he was back in the sunlight, unable to look directly at his opponent and barely blocking his attacks until Riku backed him to the wall of the house, literally in a corner where the veranda jutted out farther than the room next to it. The spot was cool and out of the sunlight, blocked by the eaves and the fence that almost boxed them in. Sora tried valiantly to regain the upper hand now that he could see again, but with so little room to move, he could only parry one last hit before he was flat against the wall, the tip of Riku's boken aimed at his throat.
"I win," Riku murmured, low voice almost a purr.
Sora nodded, lowering his own boken and trying to catch his breath. "You win."
And then Riku's boken disappeared and it was Riku's body, instead, pinning him against the wall. Riku's breath panting and Riku's lips crushing against his and Sora met it as naturally as he met any of Riku's other attacks.
He knew that Riku's hair had fallen out of its tail sometime during the fight, and his fingers moved up to tangle in it without giving it further thought, reveling in the silky texture. He knew Riku's hands grasping at his waist and sliding up his back meant that his next move would be to tangle their legs together, pressing as close as possible, heat building slowly between them. He knew that their boken were lying dejected in the grass and needed to be put away properly and respectfully, and in a few minutes Riku would acknowledge that as well, break the kiss and murmur breathlessly into his mouth, "Let's go inside."
He knew how warm and soft Riku's futon was on a spring evening, with the sunset glowing red and gold through the shoji. And he thought, momentarily, with his fingers in Riku's hair, that if they were samurai, then this relationship would be perfectly acceptable.
They had never learned to make love in what Sora's father would later call the "proper and appropriate fashion," standing uncomfortably stiff with his thumbs braced in the belt of his hakama, instructing his son on the intimacies of life nine solid months after the first time he learned them hands-on with Riku. For them, it was the same as a swordfight; the initial, constant struggle for the advantage of strength or speed or terrain, reading each other's moves and intentions and seeking out the opening that would allow one to overwhelm the other into submission, the sweet instant of surrender that was more powerful than victory.
They already knew each other perfectly, the result of a lifetime spent together, so this was no great leap, Sora thought and continued to think, months giving way to years as their youth stretched to its limits. In the evenings, Riku in the dim light and afterglow with one arm behind his head, hair in disarray, eyes half-closed, the bare cut of his body against a white futon, was moving and breathing art; his own lovingly detailed spring picture, a one of a kind print in the richness of living color.
Riku had lit a lantern at some point, set on the writing desk just a bit above their heads, close enough that he barely had to move from under the covers while lighting it, only away for a moment before returning to his warm spot against Sora's back, arms twining around him, lips traveling over his bare shoulder. Sora had closed his eyes so the light glowed softly red through the lids, completely relaxed for the first time since he'd talked to Kairi earlier.
Almost in response to that thought, Riku murmured against his skin, "Now." He paused, mouth moving up to Sora's neck, planting a soft kiss behind his ear. "Why don't you tell me what you've been thinking about so hard all afternoon."
He wished, for one fleeting moment, that he hadn't listened something like an hour or some other indeterminate amount of time before, when he'd started to slip out of the futon and Riku stopped him by wrapping himself firmly around him until he seemed to have as many limbs as an octopus. Sweet-hot breath whispering in his ear, you don't have to leave yet, my parents will be at the shrine till late... He should have returned to the restaurant by now, anyway. Should already have had this conversation rather than putting it off, and off, and off.
With his eyes closed, Sora breathed in the clean-silk scent of the pillow under his head and the feel of Riku tangled together with him, and let the air out slowly. "Kairi's father and mine are meeting tonight to arrange our marriage."
For a moment, it was so silent that Sora imagined he could hear the flame inside the lantern flicker. So still that they might have become a static image, frozen in this position forever. Sora thought he could accept that fate, eagerly and willingly, over living on to experience the next second.
In the next second, Riku's body disappeared, arms snaking away from him silently, leaving behind a chill that had nothing to do with temperature. A clench of sensation traveled from his throat down to the pit of his stomach, weighing there in a sickening mass. Predicting Riku's every move, the way his fingers pushed his hair back, the bitterness in his voice.
"So what was this, one last fling?"
"No, Riku," Sora groaned internally at how right he was, pushing himself up to sit, the lanternlight at his back throwing everything in front of him into shadow. "It's not like that. We knew it would end up being one of us."
"It didn't have to be."
"You act like this was my idea." Sora cast a look sideways, finally; Riku was still on his back, one arm across his eyes. "It's not like I wanted it to happen like this. It's not like Kairi did, either."
"So what," Riku spat, arm lowering to turn a cold gaze at him, teeth showing between his lips. "What do you propose the three of us do, Sora? Do I sneak in the back door by moonlight while you play house with Kairi?"
"That's not fair."
"No! It isn't!" Riku surged up on his elbows, grabbed a pile of cloth pooled on the tatami on his side of the futon and flung it across the bed, missing Sora completely although he could easily have hit. "I'm not going to be your mistress."
Sora let out another breath, feeling himself deflate, slowly, one hand in the pile of his own discarded clothing, deep blues mingling together into nothing in the dim light. "What do you want me to do?"
Next to him, Riku had rolled onto his side, back turned, blanket up to his shoulder, not far enough to cover the arch of his neck. "Say no."
It was the obvious solution, and the only one not open to him. Sora pushed back the covers, starting the finalizing process of putting his clothes back on. "I can't do that."
"You have the right to say no."
"No, Riku, you have the right to say no, and I'm sure that's why they picked me instead."
Riku was looking up at him, eyes drawn together in confusion and denial by the time he shrugged into his yukata, pulling it closed as neatly as he could on his knees and tying it securely around his waist. Sora made a face back in childish mockery, jerking at the strings. "You're the one who has the whole world laid out at his feet. You could have done anything, Riku, you could have learned pottery instead of printing, or become a priest, or an herbalist, or a fisherman. You could have joined a kabuki troupe and become famous, and if you had gone to work in a teahouse in Yoshiwara no one would have batted an eye. No one would care now if they knew that you're having an illicit love affair with another man. You're not the one responsible for securing a wife and children and carrying on the family line."
Sora paused just long enough to stand up and pull his hakama the rest of the way on, fumbling to wrap the straps properly around his waist, fingers shaking. He heard Riku hiss in the background and knew they were both changing the dread and pain in the pit of his stomach into anger because it was that much easier to bear. "I, however," he continued, tying off the belt with a jerk, "have been obligated from the moment I was born to get married and take over the restaurant. I don't have a choice. I've never had a choice. So don't sit there and tell me I can just say no."
"You could if you really wanted to."
"And what then? Next time it'll be a stranger. And the time after that it'll be another one, and the time after that it'll be someone with so much rank and connections over Dad that he'll probably strangle me if I say no, and then I'll be stuck with some princess who thinks that my world revolves around her. At least Kairi understands. At least the three of us have the chance to come up with some kind of solution together." He jerked the tabi onto his feet last, hopping ungracefully for a moment before padding around the futon toward the door.
Riku's hand connected with his before he could reach out for the handle, fingers curling around his wrist in a firm but shaking grip, sitting up now but looking down at the stitched pattern of the blanket covering his knees. Just enough pressure to suggest trying to pull Sora down, but silent-either too strong or not strong enough to ask if he was coming back.
Sora sank down onto his knees, trying to breathe out the sick anger in his chest. After a moment Riku's chin settled on his shoulder, head resting against his. "It's not so great the other way around, you know," he murmured, just close enough that Sora could feel the sound against his arm. "You're cast out into the wind with no inheritance and no help from any side, and if you can't make it then you're stranded in the cold. I got lucky." His arm snaked around Sora's waist, tight and possessive. "Up until now, I was just lucky."
"We'll figure something out," Sora murmured back, breath puffing out a few strands of Riku's hair. "I told Kairi we would."
Riku's chin dug into his shoulder when he spoke. "What's your plan?"
"I don't know. I need you to help me think of one."
Riku was never quite willing to let him go. He held on until Sora kissed him, long and slow, Riku's fingers curling in the back of his yukata, and kept holding on until Sora breathed, "I'll see you tomorrow," against his mouth, and then finally, reluctantly, dropped his arms.
The evening was cool and dim but the streets were anything but dark and empty. Restaurants and street vendors spilled golden lights out over the dust, strings of lanterns guided potential patrons towards gambling and other pleasurable opportunities, and bodies warmed with alcohol traveled gaily up and down, examining the varieties of potential evening entertainment the city had to offer. Sora pushed his hands into his sleeves, the air just cool enough to leave a chill in his fingers, and trudged home at an unwilling pace, a childish thought in his head that maybe if he moved as slow as possible time would slow as well, delaying the inevitable end of this particular night.
When he arrived at the restaurant it was packed with diners, and his mother squawked instantly at his appearance, materializing out of nowhere to grab him by the collar and pull him the rest of the way inside. "Where have you been? It's been dinner rush for an hour now! Get in the kitchen!"
"Yes ma'am!" Sora agreed quickly, hurrying through the dining room and into the back and within seconds was holding a strap with his teeth while he tied up his sleeves, almost glad for the long, hard night ahead. He drowned his thoughts in meat and vegetables and the zen-like state of cooking, a kind of meditation he secretly wished would shed some light on his predicament. But when the shift ended, and his mother closed the doors and awnings, he found himself sitting just inside the kitchen door, resting ajar. Knees under his arms and chin, he listened to his father laugh and pour another round of his best sake for his two very important guests, toasting marriage and grandchildren and the successful future of both of their families.
In the kitchen, surrounded by the smell of stale oil and cabbage, Sora buried his face in his sleeves, wondered who he had to pray to for a miracle, and pretended not to cry.
In the morning, Kairi was gone.
She hadn't left a note, or a message, but she had taken all of her belongings, her kimonos and hairpin, a comb and mirror, her calligraphy tools and some extra paper from her father's shop, and a vial of her mother's perfume. She left her poetry commission completed on the counter, rolled into a neat scroll, with an address for the lovelorn youth who ordered it. She also left one of the tatami in her room askew, revealing the small, secret nook where she'd been hiding the profits of years worth of cheap side contracts her father had rejected.
Her father himself, a broad-statured man with green kataginu-winged shoulders was seated at the back table of the restaurant just an hour after sunrise, weeping as quietly and sincerely as a child, only pausing to sob, "My flower, my flower, where could she have gone?" His wife sat diagonally from him, a cup of tea idle in her hands, face ashen white and staring out the window without seeing.
Her brother had been out in town since first light, talking to the local watch, the gate guards, searching the docks, scouring the city for signs of his sister. By the time Sora woke, bleary from a poor night's sleep, the drama was already hours old and his mother chastised him in a soft voice, more weary than angry, and sent him to make breakfast.
Riku and his parents arrived shortly after that, the shrinekeepers joining the table while Riku hovered outside the kitchen, exchanging looks with Sora through the counter window. The adults tried to console Kairi's parents, and Riku nodded politely as Kairi's brother returned, weary, with little news of where his sister might have disappeared to. Riku helped bring bowls of rice and miso, plates of grilled fish and smaller bowls of yeast-scented natto to arrange across the table, although Kairi's father only sighed and her mother continued clinging to her teacup, and only her brother dug into the spread of food, famished after his long trek through the city.
"This was supposed to be a happy day," her father said, voice rough with tears, eyes staring at Sora, pleading for nothing. "We were going to have breakfast together, all of us, and announce it. Your betrothal. It was supposed to be a happy day. Why would she leave?"
"I don't know," Sora lied, tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, and stepped back, bowing politely to the food and the people behind it, and rushed out through the back door.
Riku was close behind him, careful to slide the doors closed and assure no one was just inside to listen in on them. For a moment he was silent, while Sora paced and dug his fingers into his hair, and then he asked simply, "Was this your plan?"
"No!" Sora whirled, first to face Riku and then to face the sky, arms raising up and then flopping back down. "I had no idea! I don't know what she was thinking! She's out there somewhere now by herself with all that money on her and I can't even think about the kind of trouble-"
"How much?" Riku interrupted, arms folded thoughtfully. "It's been about three years, and she never spent a single yen on anything. How much do you figure she saved up?"
Sora paused finally, breath evening as he tried to calculate, based on the handful of payments he knew by amount. "Probably... if she really didn't spend any of it, I'd guess enough to start her own shop." He stared at Riku, eyes slowly widening at his own realization. "You don't think-"
"It's what she's always wanted, isn't it?"
"But if she was going to set up her own shop in Edo, why run away from home?"
Riku's eyes flickered, something curious and fiery in his expression that usually only appeared when they were fighting. "She left town."
Sora started pacing again. The morning air was crisp and his fingers hurt with the chill; he pressed them cold against his face to warm them up and wake up his nerves at the same time, eventually throwing up his hands once again. "Well, what do we do? It's not like we can just-"
He froze and hovered right there, on the verge of the most incredible and stupid idea of his life. Teetering on the edge of whether to take it, at risk of his existence, everything he had and all he'd ever known. And right there, at the most critical point of decision that would dictate the rest of his life, all that came to follow, Riku murmured his name, softly, in a question, and his stomach gave a sickening lurch of anxious excitement because as soon as the sound entered his ears, he knew he was going to do it.
"I have an idea," Sora breathed out, moment of epiphany hoarse in his throat. He lifted his hand in silent platitude towards Riku, without explanation, and then in a rush turned to race through the back door once again. "Come on."
The inside of the restaurant had been temperate a moment ago, but now it felt stuffy and uncomfortably warm, and compounded with the way his heart was pounding into his ears, Sora thought he might pass out at any moment. He managed to stand in front of Kairi's father and the circle of all their parents around him with a measure of confidence regardless, and with a deep breath, he began his insane proposal. "Sir, Riku and Kairi and I have been friends since we were children."
"Yes." He nodded sadly, bowl of miso between his enormous fingers, otherwise untouched. "You three were always together, always playing games..." He trailed off awkwardly, then a light of hope streaked across his face and he straightened, attention ricocheting from Sora to Riku and back. "You were so close. Surely you must know where she went? You must have some idea? Anything at all? Please, you must remember something. Anything."
"We think," Sora began a bit loudly to override the desperation, "that she might have left for Kyoto."
The man's face fell, head shaking as it drooped down towards his bowl. "Oh, my flower. She'll be robbed, she'll be vandalized! Why would she travel such a road on her own?"
"Sir!" Sora exclaimed again, before he could lose himself to his sorrow.
Kairi's father looked at him in silence, eyes piercing and imploring and wholly miserable, mouth in a heartrending frown. Sora took a breath, and another step forward, and bowed as deeply as he was able.
"Sir, please let me go find her!"
The table erupted into noise. First was Kairi's brother, rejecting the idea on the grounds that his sister was his own responsibility, but his father forced him back to his seat. "Sora and Kairi were officially betrothed last night, she's his bride now, and it's his right and duty to find her and bring her home."
Sora's mother was next to object. "How is it any safer for my boy to go out on the Tokaido road alone? Hire some of the local ronin to go and find her! They could use something to do with themselves, anyway."
"I'll be fine, Mom-Riku will go with me!" Sora continued, and Riku's parents practically jumped from their seats. Riku's eyes widened, at first, staring at Sora for several long seconds. Then, as though the realization was slow to come, like flower petals opening, he smiled.
"You're both barely more than children!" Riku's mother pleaded. "You can't really mean to do this."
"We've been learning the sword since we could walk." Sora turned a pleading look to each of the adults in turn, imploring them to understand. "We can defend ourselves. I know we can find her."
"Sora's right." Riku joined his cause right on schedule, perfectly in tandem, stepping forward to stand shoulder to shoulder with him. "We can do it."
The adults around the table murmured, muttered weak objections, but eventually grew quiet and sat back in their chairs, resigned to the idea. Sora let out a breath, feeling it tremble across his teeth, and wondered if he'd just made the biggest mistake of his life.
Then Riku's knuckles brushed against his, and he knew he hadn't.
"We'll need some money," he said finally, soft and assured. "And permission from the shogunate to travel."
Kairi's mom was the first to respond, one small hand reaching up to curl around Sora's. She gave him a wan smile, some color returning to her face. "We can give you some of our savings." She looked over to her husband, who nodded in agreement. "It would have been for her wedding, but we can't have a wedding if she's not here, can we?"
Riku's father spoke next, chair creaking. "I can get you travel papers through the temple. We can say you're going to Ryoanji; they should clear quickly."
Sora's mother finally stood, taking her son by the shoulders and looking him over, pressing his face between her hands. Sora looked back at her solemnly, wishing she would see a man standing before her and still comforted by knowing she would always see a little boy. "We can give you a little money," she murmured, straightening his collar and smoothing her palms over his shoulders. "I'll pack you some food, and sew some hidden pockets into your yukata."
He nodded, and her smile wrinkled at the edges before she let him go.
They decided to leave at daybreak from the bridge of Japan, as Riku thought it was fitting and Sora thought he was probably right. Riku had carefully rolled and packed his old print of Yoshiwara station, along with a farewell gift from Master Ikeda, a copy of Arriving at the Capital. Sora brought a pack loaded with his mother's food, carefully boxed, just enough to be eaten before it spoiled. They both brought the real katanas that Riku kept stored at his house with their practice swords, fine blades that Tezuka-sensei gave them in secret before he passed away and they, too, were lost to the estate inherited by his son.
Sora stood at the apex of the bridge, drawing in a breath of morning air and looking out over the city, sloping rooftops and curls of smoke, the long pointing masts of boats from the dock and in the distance, the blue peaks of the shogun's castle.
"We're not coming back, are we," Riku murmured at his side, not really a question so much as an affirmation.
"No. Not for a long time, anyway." Sora turned on his heel, shifting his attention from the city to the road that lead out of it.
Riku followed his gaze just long enough to take in the sight, then turned his stare back to Sora, critical just for a moment. "Are you sure she went to Kyoto?"
"If she wanted us to go with her, then yes, definitely. If she didn't then she probably went somewhere else."
"What are we going to do when we find her?"
Sora gave him a nervous laugh. "I'm not really sure, but I'll tell you one thing for certain."
"I'm not marrying her."
Riku laughed, brightly and with his whole body, almost bent over from the force of it. He tried to remember when he'd last heard Riku laugh like that and couldn't quite pinpoint it. He grinned at Sora when he straightened, and pulled a small pouch out of his yukata, dangling it in front of Sora for a moment before opening it and dumping a small piece of wood onto his palm. "Maybe this will help us out."
Sora examined the object, a small carved stamp, a tangle of two characters not yet stained with ink. The surge of excitement and pride in his throat kept him from finishing his sentences. "It's-!"
"My signature stamp." Riku smirked, which meant he was incredibly happy and didn't want to admit it.
"That means you can-!"
"Do printwork on my own. Yeah."
Sora flapped both arms in the air for a moment, then gave in and gave Riku a quick hug, laughing against his chest. "It also means you owe me a plate of gyoza!" He let go just as suddenly and raced away, feet echoing across the bridge, arms spread wide at his sides. Today of all days, he could probably fly.
Riku caught up to him in a few quick strides, keeping pace until Sora slowed down and they set off shoulder to shoulder, counting the strides until they reached the city limits. "So. Are we going to say we're ronin or pilgrims?"
"Well, our papers say we're pilgrims, but ronin sounds more fun. So..." Sora trailed off, hands behind his head, mulling over his new identity. "I guess we'll decide that on a case by case basis."
The rising sun warmed the road quickly, staining the hills green and the sea blue, wind rustling through flowers and whisking their scent along beside them. Riku was a self-contained animated bit of light and sound at his side, humming brightly and plucking a plum blossom to twirl between his fingers, and as they left Edo behind and took the first few steps along the Tokaido road, Sora saw something he'd never seen before in his life.
The entire world, laid out at his feet.
I've done my best to use unfamiliar terminology in a way that it should be easy to work out what it is in context, but if you're madly confused about something, the notes below should help. Also, please note that since I was on a time limit writing this fic, I didn't look up as many things as I should have and relied primarily on my memory for historical details, so please don't take this as completely historically accurate. If you noticed any glaring errors please let me know.
Nihonbashi, Yoshiwara (station) and Arriving at the Capital are all part of The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road by Hiroshige, a series of woodblock prints depicting travel from Edo to Kyoto. Nihonbashi (the bridge of Japan) was the first print in the series, which is why Riku and Sora leave from there.
First Sons vs. Third Sons: Traditionally, a family's inheritance is given entirely to the first son, and it is the obligation of the first son to continue his family line and work the family farm or business. Their younger brothers tend to have more social mobility and less personal restriction as a result. You see this dynamic come up frequently in manga and anime, with the honor-bound and obligated older brother and the irresponsible younger brother.
Samurai: The interesting thing to note here is that the position of samurai at this point in time was usually inherited, and that samurai didn't have a whole lot to do with themselves during the peaceful Edo period. I'm trying to remember if the story of the 47 Ronin would have been going around at the time this fic is set, which gave Edo samurai a shot in the arm and a sense of purpose again (that wouldn't really be fulfilled until the Meiji Restoration, which would be their last stand. Sadness.) Basically, Sora and Riku are dreaming of being something that is neither attainable or even really desirable within the little social microcosm this fic represents, kind of like little kids in the modern US playing at being knights.
Hakata Bay: The Mongol empire, under Kublai Khan, ambitious dude that he was, tried to invade Japan via Hakata Bay, not once, but twice. The first time they had the advantage, but were ultimately defeated by a typhoon. The second time the Japanese had the advantage, having learned a lot from fighting the Mongols the first time, but they were still at a stalemate until the Mongols were defeated... again, by a typhoon. Good old Kublai was going to go for a third try, but the empire collapsed before he got the chance (turns out the Chinese and Koreans were royally pissed about being conquered, who'd of thunk). The Japanese (and, presumably, their typhoons) didn't get the memo and kept a standing guard waiting for him at Hakata Bay for decades.
Shinto shrines: Prior to the Meiji Restoration, Shinto and Buddhism were all mixed up together, so most shrines were part of a larger Buddhist compound with temples and housing for the priests and probably other shrines as well. The honden is usually the largest and most prominent building of a shrine, as the worship hall, and generally has an offering box and a bell in front of it. Omikuji are paper fortunes that you can buy at a shrine and tie to tree branches to either make them come true or ward off bad fortune. The torii gate is the bird-perch shaped gate at the entrance to any Shinto shrine, often painted red.
Homosexuality: From what I've gleaned from a mixture of studies and hearsay, it seems that Japan only became concerned at all with homosexuality after coming in contact with the West (and, in my opinion, are still not very concerned about it). The only real conflict with homosexuality went along with the obligation for certain men (such as first sons) to get married, not that this necessarily meant they would never sleep with anyone else again. It was particularly acceptable, however, for samurai to take male lovers and reject marriage. I'm not completely positive that this was still the case by the Edo period, but I'm willing to roll with it.
Spring pictures: Although they tend to be at least a little artistic, or at least considered artistic-pornography.
Working at a teahouse in Yoshiwara: Prostitution. Which might have been insulting if courtesans weren't so highly regarded in Edo society.
Travel papers: The shogunate restricted travel during the Edo period, requiring anyone who wished to travel to petition the court for approval. One of the preferred reasons for travel was pilgrimage, and many people took advantage of this lenience to go sightseeing. Ryoanji was (and still is) a temple in Kyoto known for its treasures and world-famous rock garden, so it would have been easy for Riku's father to get them permission to visit.
And just in case anyone doesn't know: Edo became the city of Tokyo after Emperor Meiji relocated the imperial court there in 1869.