AS: After Separation – meaning, after the kingdom had split into districts. It’s how they mark time.
~*~ Masara district’s governing fortress, AS 784 ~*~
Nanami watched as her granddad paced restlessly in the hallway. There was something happening, she realized. It had been more than half a year since Daddy had come home. Granddad said he had ‘passed on’, but the words didn’t click in her head. Like when she ‘passed on’ the ball to the other children while playing? Or was it how servants ‘passed on’ food at dinner? She missed Daddy.
And Mommy wasn’t very cuddly any more either. She was always so pale and she cried a lot. Nanami tried to hug and kiss her, and that helped sometimes, but sometimes it was like Mommy was away, far away, and she couldn’t hear her at all. And Nanami hadn’t been able to fit in Mommy’s lap very well any more, because her tummy had started getting bigger. It was really huge, the last time she’d seen it.
"Granddad?" At the sound of her voice, the aging scholar stopped pacing and looked down.
"Yes, Nanami?" he asked. His voice was very tired, and sad.
She grabbed hold of his thick fancy robes with both hands and gazed up at him imploringly. "Is Mommy OK? She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?"
He bent and picked her up, and she could now see that his face was as sad and tired as his voice had been. "I don’t know." There was a very big sadness in the words. "Mommy’s been sick, Nanami, and now she has to have a baby. But it might be too much."
Nanami thought about that. "Why is Mommy sick?"
Granddad sighed. "She misses your Daddy."
"Oh." This she understood. She missed Daddy too. "Am I going to have a baby sister?"
He smiled faintly. "Or a brother."
"Well, that’s good," she decided out loud. "Granddad, I think – "
The door swung open before she could speak. "My Lord!" The midwife stood in the doorway, holding a very small bundle of blankets. "You have a grandson," she announced simply, and held the tiny person out to him.
Nanami only caught a short look before Granddad let her slide back to the ground, and reached out to take the baby. She saw a very small face, almost like a doll’s face, round and pink and all scrunched up. "I have a baby brother," she realized out loud.
Granddad wasn’t looking at her. "How is…?"
His words stopped as the midwife shook her head silently, and he bowed his head. "Did she give him a name, at least?"
"Yes, my Lord." The midwife curtsied slightly. "She named him Shigeru."
"Shigeru." Nanami watched as he looked down at her baby brother. "You may not be the one to inherit these lands, as second-born," he whispered. "But I will make sure that your life is not meaningless."
Nanami watched silently, without talking any more.
~*~ At the take-over of Tokiwa district, three months later ~*~
"Rindou!" The nervous-looking woman set down her bundle and turned to meet her husband’s embrace. "I hadn’t thought you’d return so early! Aren’t you on duty at her Ladyship’s chambers?"
"Not any more, Iwakaze." Rindou shook her head and pulled away from his arms. "I’ve been relieved of those duties. I have a new job to attend to. Guardianship."
Her husband stepped back, confused. "What? Guardianship? But…"
"We’re leaving at once for Masara district," she announced briskly, once more gathering the bundle into her arms. She rocked it softly, gazing tenderly down at the contents. "We’ll have to pack up what we have and leave the rest behind."
"Leave? But Rindou!" He hurried to her side to see what she held. "What’s happened? Whose child is that?" His gaze turned worried. "Darling, please, tell me what’s going on! Has something gone wrong at his Lordship’s fortress?"
"His Lordship is dead." The finality with which she said those four words sent shivers down his spine. "It was murder. When it is announced, the fatality will be credited to a duel. Lord Sakaki plans to wed Lady Hanako immediately in order to lay claim to the lands of Tokiwa district."
He gaped at her for a moment. "But why are we…?" And then his gaze dropped to the drowsing child in her arms. "Rindou, that isn’t…?"
"Start packing," she cut him off. "He’s only two months old, so we’ll be able to blend right in when we reach Masara district. We can raise him there."
He lingered for just a moment more. "What’s his name?"
Rindou studied the small, blanket-wrapped form tenderly. "Satoshi."
~*~ Masara district, South-Side Orphanage, AS 794 ~*~
This is pointless. Shigeru walked through the grungy hallways beside his grandfather, watching children of all ages dart about. They cast nervous glances in the direction of such obvious nobles who invaded their territory, but didn’t stop to talk. Grandfather does this ever year; he knows these places are all right to live in. Why does he insist on coming back? And why, he added to himself, face darkening to a glare, does he have to take me along?
"This looks to be in good shape," Grandfather said quietly, peering into one of the rooms. "You do a very good job, I must say."
"Thank you, my Lord." The woman in charge of the orphanage curtsied low. "I’m glad that we have earned your approval and met your expectations."
Shigeru turned away. He wasn’t really interested in their conversation. Why couldn’t Nanami be the one to come with him? Just because she’s fourteen…His eyes caught on movement at the far end of the hallways, and he saw a blond-haired boy in the corner by a room, whispering something into an auburn-haired girl’s ear. They looked about his age. As he watched, they both burst out laughing, as if at some hilarious joke.
A touch of envy hit Shigeru then, and he wished all of a sudden to be normal like the two of them, lingering in corners telling jokes. He wondered what they’d do if he tried to join them. Would they run away or give him nervous looks? Shigeru decided not to bother trying; he wouldn’t be there for too much longer anyway.
"HEY!" At the sound of that outburst, the two that he’d been watching covered their mouths as if to try and keep the laughter in. Little snorts and half-snickers escaped anyway. "Hiroshiiiiiii!!!" the voice yelled, an almost overly plaintive note in it. Another boy burst out of what Shigeru had to presume was the washing quarters, face beet-red and with several flimsy towels clutched tight around him. "What’d you do with my clothes?" he demanded.
"Your clothes?" The blond boy – Hiroshi – tried a shrug, while still struggling not to burst out laughing. "Well, gee, I dunno, Satoshi, maybe you misplaced them somewhere." That did it for both him and the red-haired girl; they collapsed against each other, laughing uncontrollably.
"That’s not funny!" The other boy – Satoshi – protested. "Give them back right now!" Shigeru glanced back toward him, and his world turned abruptly upside-down.
He was pale-skinned and raven-haired, the contrast noticeable almost immediately. Like most of the others Shigeru had seen, this boy was thin – but he didn’t look undernourished. He might’ve been about half a head shorter than the young noble and probably about the same age as well. His eyes were large and a very soft brown shade, like rich garden soil, and they were full of so much spirit that it seemed too huge for Satoshi’s slight little body. Shigeru was entranced.
"Th-they’re still in the washing quarters!" Hiroshi managed to get out, between bursts of laughter. "Behind the towel box. I knew you wouldn’t actually think of looking for them."
Satoshi scowled for a moment then seemed to realize he was being watched. He turned his head, anger vanishing as quickly as it had come, and his eyes met Shigeru’s. He blinked. "Oh… hi." The amazingly vocal Satoshi now seemed stuck for words.
"Hi." Shigeru wanted to smack himself. Where was his great confidence now? It was almost like all they could do was look at each other.
"Shigeru!" That brought him back to reality. The young noble’s head swirled around automatically at his grandfather’s voice, breaking that spell of silence. "We’re leaving," the Lord of Masara district said abruptly. "Come on."
"Yes, grandfather." Without a glance back, Shigeru turned from the entrancing black-haired boy and hurried off down the hall. What was that? He shook his head. Nothing. It was nothing.
"Satoshi," he murmured softly. Nice name.
"Who’s that?" Grandfather asked, glancing down at him.
Shigeru frowned and looked away. "Nobody."
He was far too caught up in conflicting thoughts to notice his grandfather filing away the name ‘Satoshi’ – for future reference.
"Shigeru." Satoshi repeated the name out loud, experimentally. Not a bad name. The person holding it didn’t seem too bad either. The young orphan grinned, remembering the image of brilliant, fire-touched hair and stormy blue-grey eyes. Shigeru had been a bit taller than him, and kind of interesting…
"Earth to Satoshi." Hiroshi waved a hand in front of his face. "You’re still standing in the hall with only towels on; now might be a good time to go find your clothes. You think?"
Oh… right. "I know," he lied quickly. "I was just about to do that, Hiro. I was," he added defensively, frowning at Kasumi as she gave a little snort of disbelief. "I’ll show you… just a second!" He darted back into the bathing room.
His clothes were right where Hiroshi had said they would be. I can’t believe he did that! I’ll get him for that one… He dressed quickly and hurried back out to where his friends waited. Just you wait, Hiro. You’re going to pay for that… soon as I think of something good enough…
Hiroshi was the kind of best friend some people could only dream about. For one thing, he’d lived next door to Satoshi since they were both just babies, in a small corner of Masara. Growing up that close, they’d naturally become somewhat alike – the quick, infectious grin, for example, was a feature on both their faces. And countless hours of playing together outside had given them plenty of time to discover how similar their interests and personalities were. Satoshi lived with his mother, and Hiroshi with both his parents, and their antics drove all three adults nearly to distraction. One of the games that had done the best job of this, when they were caught, was sneaking out at night and not returning until neither of them could keep their eyes open any more. Going against the rules had a kind of excitement to it.
Satoshi shut his eyes briefly, remembering. It was on one of those nights that the fire started, in his own house, and for no real reason that anyone could tell him. At the time they didn’t know it, but disobeying the rules had actually saved their lives. It wasn’t too long before the fire had spread to Hiroshi’s house as well, and both had burned to the ground – with their parents inside. The only thing that he could remember of it now was coming back home and seeing those bright dancing flames devouring his house… Even at that age, he’d known that fire burned.
That was five years ago.
And he and Hiroshi still lived right next to each other.
"So who was that guy?" he asked, pushing his mind away from past events. "And how come he was just standing there watching us?"
Kasumi smiled sweetly at him. "Well, you were putting on a pretty nice little show there, Toshi."
He made a face at her. "That’s not funny! So who was the guy?"
Hiroshi shrugged. "A noble."
"I can figure that out for myself," Satoshi said flatly. "I’m not that dense!"
"That’s something that can be argued," Kasumi replied, almost immediately.
He stuck his tongue out. "Can not."
She shrugged. "If you say so." Her smile spoke volumes.
Kasumi had already been at the orphanage when Satoshi and Hiroshi were brought there, and the reasoning behind her almost instantaneous joining of their two-person group wasn’t really clear, even five years after it happened. Her sisters had dropped her at the place a few years before they arrived; apparently, after her mother died, their family had run out of money and her sisters were forced to marry in order to survive. Kasumi had been only two years old at the time, and the option wasn’t open for her. So off to the orphanage she went, and that was where she became friends with the boys that everyone now referred to as "the terrible two". Satoshi thought of her as a sister. Hiroshi’s view, he learned later on, was quite different.
Satoshi decided to ignore Kasumi for the moment. "So let’s go find out who he was."
"What for?" Hiroshi shrugged.
"Because… I want to know!" Satoshi frowned, annoyed at his friend’s lack of interest.
"Why? He’s just a noble." Hiroshi grinned at his irritation. "What does it matter?"
Satoshi’s frown deepened. Hiroshi’s right; what does it matter? "I guess it doesn’t," he agreed, shrugging. "Just forget about it."
There was something about the remembered sight of firy-red hair and mysterious stormy eyes, however, that told him he wouldn’t be forgetting it any time soon…