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✱ FUTO ✱
FUTO SLID DOWN the temple’s hallways at glorious speed.
The best of it was, no sorcery required. No Winding her feet’s slipperiness; no Damping the wooden floor’s resistance until it felt like waxed. All Futo had to do was take off her clogs, and she could glide along on her socks forever.
It wasn’t without a check. Turning. Turning was a problem. Belike since it wasn’t part of the Way. When the Sage Laozi had first climbed the mountain above Chengzhou, Futo doubted much he’d stopped for every blade of grass in his path. Futo had to stop. If not for she would have dashed her nose on twenty different walls otherwise, then because her sliding had a definite destination.
Futo skidded right past it. She hopped out of her overshot slide, span around, and tiptoed back to the door she wanted.
No plaque. None needed; the Crown Prince’s home was intimate to those wised to it. Any new cadet would learn it soon or late. Futo cracked the door three hand-spans, then slipped inside. Thank the wicked Seiga for this compact body. She pushed the door back shut with nary a hap of sound.
An archive. This was what the room had been, once; it was long and narrow, with a ubiquitous bookcase running one, entire wall and little else of contrast. When the Crown Prince had recreated His home through arcane, hermit means, following His resurrection, the archive had been grafted a new purpose. It would be where those students of the Way inclined to knowledge in its more flammable form would bring, and store, their findings. Some called it a library. Futo called it a broom closet. It had as good been one; there was dust enough here to complete the illusion.
At the rear of the closet, an old scribe’s desk had been emplaced – with a chair underneath and a glass-window lamp atop – as though to hinder Futo’s choice of term. The lamp threw a long, bulky shadow half down the stretch of the room. Incumbency of the bare-headed man stooped in the chair.
Futo sidled on forward, depositing her clogs on an overturned book in the shelf as she went.
From behind, the man seemed he could be anyone. Futo, of course, knew wiser; the shaven stern of his impressive skull had, after all, been her own achievement. Her pupil, titled Handai – “without base” – at his ascent to greens, cut a fine chunk out of the closet’s musty air. A simple yardman back in his non-native Gensokyo, he’d had scarce care or time to exert for his outward looks. The mane of scruffy, flaxen hair he had carried into Toyosatomimi Miko’s secret realm had been a fair distinguisher in his redsleeve weeks. Once, however, the Crown Prince had turned him over, now as Handai, unto Futo’s undivided charge, it had proven something of an eyeful.
An eyeful of hair.
Futo would wait her pupil to attain his yellows, ahead she’d moved to have that bother solved. Scissors in hand, she had sat her pupil down on a stool in the temple’s modest washroom, and rid him of the mangy thing as best she could. It had been her own, personal elevation of Handai Mu: from a man merely close in rank, to one she was unafraid to call “brother.”
… Might be, to hang an eye on, too. Now, especially, that Futo had fallen into ownership of a proper razor. Overnight, Mu had become a sight more akin to Futo’s ideal of the less fair sex. In the years preceding her shikai, that image had always been filled by the paragon, the Crown Prince. An unspoken part of Futo had oft viewed the shrewd, elegant ruler with a less than moral eye. Now He was conspicuously not a man anymore, it had become easier to ignore that – niggling – facet of her attraction to her liege.
The tumults of her arrival in the modern era, as well, had diverted her something intense. The revival of the Crown Prince, reuniting with Toziko, the rite of combat with Gensokyo’s shaman priestess, the re-emergence of the lost masks, the hunt for the disastrous Occult Orbs… All they had eclipsed the day-to-day function of Lord Taishi’s court. All they had drawn Futo away from what for her sense of aesthetics had been lacking.
No sooner had she held the mirror for the freshly-shaved Mu, than she had remembered what it was.
Which might have had everything… or nothing… to do with what she did now. Futo pulled up at her brother’s undefended back. Then, smartly, she slapped one hand over his eyes, while her other strapped his chest.
Mu tensed – but of course he did. To boot, Futo sensed him Wind some attribute of his body… albeit she couldn’t sense which. He didn’t scream or squeal his surprise, though – which was more than could be said for some in the temple.
Futo smiled a pleased smile. “Guess you who?”
Her brother recomposed himself. It was a brisk process because Mu had an aptitude for breaking things up – unless they ducked under the table. “… Tojiko?” he said. “Weren’t ghosts supposed to be… um, softer? I’m disenchanted.”
“Again,” Futo ordered.
“Lady Miko? We just spoke… Two hours ago. This is unseemly affection.”
“One more, Mu.”
Her brother chewed it over. A likely third name must have been tougher to find.
“… Seki?” he said at last.
“I do not any ‘Seki’ know,” Futo informed him. “And you out of chances are.”
Ahead Mu may wiggle himself a more unassailable position, Futo squeezed the arm she wasn’t using for his eyes around her brother’s neck. Then gave it a wrick. Not too hard. No Winding her strength; no actual injury. But a twist of pain, yes. Tooth for tooth.
Mu didn’t fight back. He didn’t because he couldn’t; and only half of it was for Futo had him in a choke-hold. The remaining one… Well, she was almost certain he would have a different answer than her own. He did, though, give her an obligatory wheeze. A dutiful chokee, her brother.
Futo softened her grip, until it was merely a strong embrace.
“Awful pert,” she accused him. “For someone purported to after my company pine. Aren’t you so, Mu?”
“Lady Miko’s suggestion,” Mu griped back. “I didn’t pine… out loud.”
“Lord Taishi all hears, all knows,” Futo argued. “And He nay mis-hears.”
Mu scoffed. “Her ears are scarily big, yes.”
Futo grinned, even if their conversations on the Crown Prince always felt a little… seesawing.
At an early leg of Mu’s training, he and she had simply agreed to disagree on their Master’s gender. For Futo, who had lived beside Shotoku Taishi the emperor, it perplexed her now to think Him anything but so… except less attractive. For Mu, who had first seen Toyosatomimi Miko in vastly feminine splendour, the reverse almost had to hold true.
It vexed Futo to condone such thoughts. But, the Crown Prince did, in honesty, make a splendid display of His new femininity. Not but the visual side; not even the penchant for gold and finery. Those had ever been with the Crown Prince; He merely wore them better now. But His mannerisms, even His tiny foibles, were all at once more womanly: softer, daintier. Almost it drove Futo to question whether she had ever known Shotoku Taishi as good as she’d believed. Almost it made her wonder if He also preferred male companionship now.
Might it be He had always?
But, no. His betrothal to Toziko and its products were incontrovertible. Nor were Futo’s… other memories attesting to such a case. And, even if His desires leant at a rougher angle now, He had still declined to tutor Mu by Himself – as He would have other promising cadets. Instead, He had given that one to Futo. But if so, why? What had He seen that she had not?
Intrigue. Even in this era: petty, upper-crust intrigue. Some habits lived through death. Futo rubbed her cheek on Mu’s smooth pate. Her brother was a worthy man. He could trade repartee with ease, and had an evident passion about him. Yet, he was not domineering. He was keen and purposeful, but even-handed to a fault. He did not deserve the tail of courtly knavery she and the Crown Prince were dragging behind.
Well… He hadn’t. Futo pinched his face.
“What, then,” she asked him sweetly, “of on your lovely tutor ratting?”
“You werf confufing fe ftudenf,” Mu groaned. Futo eased up on her punishment. “… I could listen to you thee-thou all day,” resumed her brother, “but I’ve listened to you do just that. All day – for days. Gensokyo taught me to pick up tongue on the go. The students? I doubt.”
“I can speak this new, mongrel mode of the language,” Futo said, without a hitch of trouble. “Maugre it, I nay to do so choose. What you crass ‘thee-thou’ hightst, style hath. Cadence. Class. Why, pray, would I nay in it delight?”
“You can. With me, with Lord Taishi. But spare the poor redsleeves, please.”
“Fie—” Futo snorted. “No. If you would the young cadets of this joy reave, then nowise shall you yourself it fully feel. I will my silvern tongue from now on clip.”
“No more ‘heyday’s for me?” Mu lamented.
“No. It all lackadays from here on is.”
“Shame,” replied her brother.
Then, not at all shamefully, he gave an overt sigh of relief.
Futo tweaked his ears. A rational and reasonable way to fight pedestrianism. Mu didn’t sound educated once she’d finished; mostly, he sounded in mild discomfit. But of course he did. Her brother was a handsome, erudite man; but, he had a lump of wet lint for a sense of art.
It made no matter. Futo dropped from Mu’s back, and moved to wedge herself between him and the book on the desk. This, a few shoves and jiggles later, placed her comfortably astride her brother’s lap.
Mu stiffened. His mouth quirked with uncertainty. A few heartbeats in the pass, though, and he mended his expression. Then, he secured Futo in place by her hips.
He always did that. Not the hips thing. That was on occasion her butt or her shoulders. But the hesitation. Something about Futo’s closeness chipped her brother’s confidence every time. Months of nigh-familial intimacy hadn’t stripped it away. Truthfully, Futo felt a little chuffed. It was gratifying to see an easy man such as Mu in unease. It was even more gratifying to know the unease was caused by her.
Mu minced that, too – as well he did most things which stumped him. Then, when the bits were small enough, he stored them in a drawer of his mind whence he may pull them out for study later. Although, Futo rather suspected he wouldn’t.
“… On another boat,” her brother said, as if recalling. “Tell me, sister. Have you done anything… rash, recently?”
Futo cocked her head. Her hat tipped, but stayed attached by the clip sewn to its inside. “How rash?”
“Are we talking degree, or kind?” Mu wanted to clarify.
“Why not the cause whereof to ask?”
“Right. Well, see,” he told her, “I fear me the Crown Prince has been giving thought to selling you off. Maybe even into marriage, if you read the fine print.”
Futo chuckled. “I well past my edibility am,” she said. “Who-ever would a crone alike me buy?”
Her brother rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Well, you’ve heard the rumours…”
A crumb of the unease must have not stored properly; for there it was, tinting Mu’s face. Futo rolled her eyes with him. She had heard the rumours, of course she had; there were whisperers in Lord Taishi’s palace temple whose voices thundered even when they whispered.
“Candidly,” said Mu, “I see where they derive.”
“Whence might that be?”
Her brother considered her closely. “… Futo,” he said, “let’s not pad it. You are nothing if not forward. I like that about you; I love that about you. But it spawns rumours like earthworms in the rain. I am also nothing if not easily forwarded myself,” he added with false modesty, “which like only made it rain harder. I hadn’t before, but now I’ve mused it over, I see through.”
“Yes,” Futo admitted. “It why I after respect in front of cadets asked was.”
“And I had too much fun pulling your legs to stop and think. Sorry.”
“Fie.” Futo made a derisive sound. “It idiocy is, withal. I your sister am. I haven’t aught with you done which I would not have with my blood brother.”
Mu raised a brow. “Pelted him with fire-balls?”
“Pff. Nay!” Futo smacked him. “Tother stuff!”
“Hung off of him like a high bar?”
She nodded. “When-ever no one looked.”
“Let him pick you up and kiss you?”
“To an annoying point.”
“… Took baths together?”
“Right ‘till I flowered. Afterwise… sometimes when he visited.”
Mu had the look of someone with additional questions, but ones he held back. “… Any way you tear it,” he said instead, “the Crown Prince wants us close. I’m not fooled. I think either she foretells I will do something rash, or you.”
Futo smiled. “I haven’t aught such planned,” she lied. “Have you?”
Her brother shrugged. “Not beyond what I’ve been doing already.”
“Same,” Futo agreed.
Mu gave her a stare which came as near shaking its head as it could without one. Then, in the same breath, he slid a hand up from her waist to scratch the hair behind one of her ears. He mirrored her smile. The reflection brimmed with cheerful conspiracy.
Heed, my Lord Taishi, Futo exulted inside. Heed, what you in independent thought fosterest. The man Handai, who had never made stealth of his fascination with the Crown Prince, now foiled his liege’s own advice. Had the Lord Taishi predicted this when He’d thrust cadet Mu under Futo’s wing? Had He believed her own investiture would naturally extend to her adopted brother? Mu was loyal. No mistake about it. No one would dispute the adoration in his eyes whenever he gazed upon the Sen-kai’s beautiful master. But he was loyal on his own accord. He hadn’t been conditioned to love the Crown Prince through proximity and exposure, as some of His servants were. Mu loved Him – or Her – for no fealty, training, or obligation.
He did, because he wanted to.
And that was the soul of what it meant to follow the Way. That was the hidden path. That was what Futo’s blood brother had preached – a millennium in the past.
The trouble for the Crown Prince was, such genuine love as Handai Mu’s knew its freedoms. The grander of which was to be shared with someone else. Happily, that someone was her. Futo calmed her racing enthusiasm. Then daubed on a sober face.
“Think you, then—” she poked a finger at Mu’s chest, “—we should that watch-each-other order have belayed?”
Mu gripped her hip. “Absolutely not. I don’t much relish the sensation of being paired off,” he admitted; “but, if it gives me an excuse to piggyback you around the temple, then I hallow the Crown Prince’s name for it. Whatever the term she sticks to it.”
“And your inquest?” Futo questioned. “Shall you it too chase, as promised?”
“I would have, Futo,” said Mu. “It is… a thing of pride, I think. I may have just wanted a second opinion. Yours.”
“Now you it have.”
“Now I do,” Mu agreed. “And even a plan to go with tonight. Thank you, Futo.”
Futo patted his cheek. “Naught less for my brother. When you victorious return, we may about satisfying the Crown Prince’s request go. Small steps. We may bathe and talk… Mayhaps a common tale match, in case something rash does one day happen. Hmm?”
“Sounds swift,” said Mu. He seemed pleased, somehow, at the turn of phrase. He began to stand up.
Futo slid out of her brother’s lap.
In passing, she cast over a shoulder at the book her brother had been perusing. The contents were nothing of moment: a guide to Gensokyo by some amateur pen with no appreciation for finer verbiage. What a love for brevity these modern Japanese had. The confines of paper must have shrunk the language as decades passed.
Futo wasn’t ignorant of the function which books served; she was, after all, lettered. It did not mean she was fond of letters. A speech from a noble mouth might accomplish what not a thousand books might… unless burned in a strategic place. One had but to consider what hers had done for Mu earlier in the day. The margins of the book on the desk may be scratched with Mu’s simplistic script, which no one understood in the temple but he. Still he had needed words from Futo’s mouth to regain his Way. What good was a book?
Futo gave that one a fiery glare for giving her brother false hope.
Mu put his hand to the lantern on the desk, and smothered the flame with a quick Wind of the air. He could have blown it instead; but Mu wasn’t above an excess of effort when it very well amused him. Futo wondered whom he was taking that after. He had used to be so stoic before his greens.
But that Mu would never have done what current Mu did now. He would never have crouched with his back to Futo, and beckoned her to latch on. He would not have said, “Hop on, and hold on to your hat. And mine, while you’re at it,” with a twinkle in his eyes. Now he did.
Futo grinned, happy all over.
There had been some tough dances to dance along the way, but she finally had a brother again.