When all is said and done, it is Kenshiro who speaks first.
"You knew this would happen," he says. His voice betrays his own disbelief.
"Ryuuken-shifu was the one who confirmed it," Toki admits.
"But -- but if both of you knew -- " Why didn't you tell anyone?, his youngest brother demands without asking.
"Who would have listened?" Toki answers. He gives a self-deprecating laugh.
Having been brothers for the better half of their lives, Kenshiro understands immediately.
"That's why you didn't go," he starts, "After Shifu and Raoh and Jagi. Because you felt guilty."
Toki purses his lips then shakes his head. "Not guilty," he corrects, "Scared." He had been terrified -- no, he was still terrified. What good were fists and feet, what good was all their training, if the whole world could be blown away at the press of a button? More than that, however, Ryuuken-shifu predicted a collapse of civilization, a return to the Stone Ages. There would be no royalty, no emperor, no birthrights, in this new world. And without those things, with the structure which gave way to Hokuto, what place did the martial art have?
Kenshiro mulls over his older brother's words, furrowing his eyebrows and frowning.
"Scared?" he repeats, "What would you have to be scared of?" And then, before Toki can collect his thoughts, his youngest brother gives a great laugh -- one which echoes throughout the lead and steel chamber -- looping an arm over Toki's shoulder, "Well, whatever!" Kenshiro declares with all the certainty his youth will allow, "You've got me and Yuria here and Raoh and Jagi there even if they won't admit it, and we're certain those two are safe with Master Ryuuken! So relax, Toki, this isn't your weight to bear, y'hear?"
There's a muffled shout of 'shut up' from their fellow refugees. Toki hears a buzzing between his ears and then the tell-tale drip-drip-drop of tears. His own tears.
"Aw, c'mon," Kenshiro grumbles, unused to seeing his second brother cry. Still, he tightens his grip, holding Toki closer: "You're lucky Raoh isn't here, you know? He'd give you an earful for crying."
Eventually, Yuria wakes to see what the fuss is for. She glides on over, every bit a goddess, and through his tears, Toki sees her give him the most radiant smile.
How can you smile like that, he wants to ask, How can you smile when everything everyone has worked for for thousands of years... when all of that has been lost? But smile the Mother Star does, and she steps forward and reaches up to take Toki's wet face in her hands, standing on her tiptoes to kiss his forehead.
"What're you smiling about?" Kenshiro grouses while still holding onto the other. At his fiancée's urging, he helps his older brother sit down.
"I just..." Yuria starts, mouth splitting into another slow smile, "I just had the most wonderful dream."
"I dreamed that there wasn't enough room for all three of us in the shelter and that Toki sacrificed himself so we could live on. That the world was plunged into years of darkness and destruction and both Hokuto and Nanto schools were almost lost."
It is the way Yuria describes her dream, with her lilting voice and charming smile, that makes both brothers do a double-take.
"Yuria..." Toki starts, trying to be diplomatic.
Kenshiro has none of Toki's finesse; his grimace turns into a scowl.
"What do you mean wonderful dream?" he demands, "That sounds more like a nightmare!"
Yuria laughs kneeling down and taking both their hands.
"But don't you see?" she asks, eyes sparkling, "It wasn't true. We're all here and we're all safe, which means the rest of it isn't true either." She looks at Toki then, and Toki understands. Ryuuken-shifu had not reached his decision unilaterally; the Voice of Heaven had indeed warned Yuria about the oncoming catastrophe. But if that were the case, and if his own death had been foretold but then circumvented...
He slips his hand out of her grasp to wipe at his own tears, before returning her smile.
"I see," he affirms, "It's not certain then."
"What?" Kenshiro repeats.
"No," Yuria answers, shaking her head, "Nothing is."
It shouldn't be so reassuring, this uncertainty, but because it is Yuria who confirms it and because Kenshiro is correct -- Toki feels a warmth blossom at his core. It spreads and spreads, like the leaves of the gingko tree, until he can't feel the cold of the shelter. And for the first time, he feels relief: relief that the other members of the dojo survived, relief to have his burdens halved and then shared, relief to be alive. However alien the emotion is, it is not at all unpleasant.
Hope, and with it, ambition, makes the two weeks spent in the bomb shelter fly by in the blink of an eye. At the end of it, when the bombs have stopped falling for a week, the three of them clamber out and survey the ruins of their world.
Only the sturdiest buildings are still standing and even then, their roofs have caved in and their doors and windows have shattered. There are no bodies to bury aboveground, no corpses in sight really, and the scent of air is heavy, not with death, but dust.
Because they know nothing of chemistry, they take the time to ascertain the young and elderly are well-situated in the radiation-infested remnants of the city before hurrying off to the dojo. Neither Kenshiro nor Toki know this then, but out of their hundred-odd fellow refugees, only ten will survive after the first year. Those who did not succumb to illness were picked off like flies by the marauding gangsters.
The dojo's location meant that no bombs had been dropped nearby and its barren landscape remained untouched. Even the dojo itself seemed unchanged after the month. The reunion is a tearful yet happy one, Ryuuken-shifu embraces both sons and Jagi admits to having worried. Toki cannot ignore his older brother's absence however; Ryuuken-shifu gives him a meaningful look then, neither pitying nor disapproving, and he sprints away from the would-be celebration.
His older brother, the brightest star in the sky, had embarked on a month-long voyage to their childhood hideout. Only Raoh would have crossed the span of thirty days in a week and only Toki would have been able to follow.
Raoh is seated in his usual spot at the waterfall, though the water has long stopped falling and both the river and lake have dried. Toki leaps down from the cliff, taking his own seat, and the two brothers sit in contemplative silence for a while. The whistle of the wind is cut short by a tumble of rocks though neither of them have moved.
"The old fool would have appointed me," Raoh snorts.
"Were it not for your ambition," Toki starts, "You would have been appointed regardless."
Before the war, such words would have led to a brawl. But at the present, Raoh merely opens his eyes, visually confirming the man before him was indeed his younger brother, Toki, alive and well and no worse for the wear. He lets out a long breath, shoulders heaving, before reaching out to pat the other man's back.
"The succession can be yours," he says, the most of concession anyone has ever heard him make, "But the heavens -- they will be mine."
As if they were children again and Toki were promising anew to best his beloved older sibling, as if they had been apart for years rather than weeks, Toki stands up, leaps between the rocks, and throws his arms about Raoh. And Raoh, uninterested in companionship, affection, and any non-violent physical contact, remains still but does not rebuff the gesture.
"I missed you too," Toki whispers.
When the two brothers trudge back to the dojo, they are greeted by their father and master in full ceremonial attire. Kenshiro, Jagi, and Yuria too, are dressed fit for a parade, flowing silks and painted faces -- expressions equally somber for what should have been a joyous event.
Ryuuken-shifu passes over the remaining two robes and Toki exits the dressing room to see the whole dojo kneeling before the old man.
Despite the dress and the atmosphere, there is very little real ceremony, no prepared speech or incantation to mark the switch. Rather, Ryuuken-shifu touches both of Toki's shoulders, muttering: "Remember this, my son: bringing peace in times of chaos is part of your duty," and Toki nods his head, filled with thirst for a peace he can't remember ever having, and gives his solemn accord.
Then the man who taught all four of them clasps his two hands together until ribbons of blood flow between his fingers. Yuria gives a gasp of surprise, but the brothers kneel in continued silence.
It is only when Ryuuken-shifu coughs up blood that Toki realizes something is wrong. He leaps to his feet, along with Kenshiro and Jagi, but their master is already on his knees, clutching at his chest with bloodied fingers.
"Shifu," Toki pleads, "Shifu, I thought you said -- "
"So it is," the teacher admits, coughing, "And so it shall always be." He heaves a breath and rises to his feet a final time, leaning heavily on Toki's shoulder for support.
"My sons," Ryuuken addresses, "My one mistake was in adopting all of you. Although Toki is the most suitable to be successor, were you born in separate times, each of you could have -- no," he coughs, more blood, and Toki sees that even his elder brother has alarm in his eyes, "You should have carried on the name yourself. Such talent... to be wasted on so small an art -- "
"What are you saying," Kenshiro interrupts, standing so as to look his father in the eye, "The only reason we ended up like this was because you took us in! Because we were able to fight against one another, the best of the best, day in and day out! I don't regret coming here and I'm sure my older brothers feel the same!"
Ryuuken staggers to his knees yet again, left hand clenched about Toki's shoulder.
"You -- you are the successor now," he repeats, "I leave the dojo in your hands." Were it anyone but Toki, he would have added, be kind, but because it is Toki, he only smiles and cradles his son and heir's face.
"My son," he murmurs, "How you've grown."
The sudden shift from ceremony to funeral happens in the blink of an eye, Yuria rushes over, grabbing at the old man's lifeless hand and crying into it. Jagi and Kenshiro follow her lead. The three of them were the younger ones; they have the privilege of expressing grief. Toki and Raoh, on the other hand, stay in their formal positions for a time, gazes trained on the fallen figure of their father.
To an extent, Toki can't believe the man to have passed. Didn't think his master capable of death. This was the man who didn't even flinch when Raoh himself dealt a blow a full force, the same man whose footwork still managed to surpass his own. He's left with the dojo, the dojo's pupils and reputation, the succession to their martial art, his three brothers' fates... but more than that, he's left with an overwhelming feeling of emptiness.
Incompletion, that's what it is. The feeling that Ryuuken-shifu passed on too soon. The certainty that the old man still had so much more to teach.
More than lost opportunity, Toki cries over the loss of another parent. In fact, at the old man's pyre, Raoh is the only one with dry eyes and even he cannot outstare the fire.
After Ryuuken has descended into the heavens, Kenshiro takes Yuria back to the Nanto temple. The other three brothers convene at the main chamber, the training room of their youth and the same place Raoh and Kenshiro had stood down a full-grown tiger with touki alone. Seated in the seiza position between the two bodhisattva statues with his elder brother on his left and his younger brother on the right, Toki recalls yet again how much time the four of them had spent together. It is the room, then, he concludes, which makes them feel like children once more.
"Sorry for the wait," Kenshiro mutters, taking off his shoes and walking over to his own spot. Unlike their previous encounters, there is no playful jeering over his progress (or lack thereof) with Yuria.
No water falls from the chamber's ceiling but it might as well for all the conversation they could muster. The four of them sit in a hazed silence, one which Toki opens and closes his mouth five separate times. Could the others sense his hesitation? Was now a good time to renounce his title as successor? Had he picked between his three brothers?
It is Jagi, surprisingly, who cuts through the silence, clearing his throat before turning to Toki.
"It was," he starts, "Shit, I didn't even know it, but it was -- it was all I wanted to hear, you know?"
Toki, who had been blessed with both character and skill, does not fully understand. But he knows what Jagi is talking about and so, nods.
Jagi wipes at his face and then takes another breath.
"I don't think I wanted it," he adds, "So I don't feel bad about the succession." And then, he does something that surprises all three of them: he clasps his hands together, just as Ryuuken had done three days prior.
"Stop!" Toki commands, surging forward and grabbing both of Jagi's hands. "Jagi, what are you doing!"
His older younger brother looks at him, confused.
"But I thought..."
"Jagi's right," Kenshiro agrees, clasping his own hands as well, "Shifu would have wanted this -- "
"But I do not," Toki insists. He maintains his grip but swivels to look at Kenshiro. Thankfully, his youngest brother's hands have not yet come together.
"What?" both of his younger brothers chorus.
"You're too soft, Toki," Raoh criticizes, clicking his tongue, "If it were me -- "
"Would you?" Toki counters, whirling on his older brother and releasing Jagi momentarily. He bares his own hands, palms up, and looks Raoh in the eye, "If you were the successor, would you take my fists from me?"
More than a gamble, his question is the result of a sickening, festering curiosity. Raoh was overly ambitious; for years Toki had wondered if he considered the rest of them impediments in his own goals.
Raoh holds his gaze for the better part of a minute before reaching out to bat Toki's hands away.
"Grow up," he sneers, standing up, "And stop your foolish questions. You are the successor, not I, and I have not made your decisions for you in years." He walks off then, to brood or sleep, and leaves the three younger brothers in his self-assured wake.
Toki drops his hands and lets out the breath he'd been holding.
"For a second there..." Kenshiro starts.
"Yeah," Jagi agrees.
"I know," Toki admits, "I know."
They sit in noticeably more relaxed positions thereafter, before Jagi clears his throat.
"So," he starts anew, "What will you do?"
"About us," Kenshiro clarifies.
"You're my little brothers and I love you very much," Toki answers, taking pleasure as older siblings are wont to do at the rising flush in both their cheeks, "And I would sooner strike myself than harm either of you." He takes their hands, as Yuria did to himself in Kenshiro in the bomb shelter, and smiles.
"Tell me, Jagi, Kenshiro: what do you plan to do from here on out?"
Kenshiro swallows and tries very hard to look anywhere but there.
"I... I want to see the world outside. How bad it's become, I mean. Well," he stammers, "I mean, Yuria wants to make sure everyone in the Nanto School is alright and I want to go with her so..."
"I see," Toki murmurs, holding back from teasing, "And you, Jagi?"
Jagi, too, finds it very hard to maintain eye contact.
"Uh, well," he ambles, "Somewhere... not here? I don't know... I always thought I would be the successor, y'know!" Kenshiro shoots him a disbelieving look and he glares back before correcting himself, "I mean, you're my older brother and I think it's only fair if you or Raoh got the role but I didn't think either of you wanted it so -- so, I dunno know," he lamely concludes.
"I understand," Toki admits, smiling still. He turns back to Kenshiro and gives his hand a squeeze, "I wish you all the best in your travels, little brother, but do know we all expect an invitation to the wedding."
"I know, I know!" Kenshiro retorts, red around the ears still -- and Jagi hasn't even started teasing him yet!
Later, when the two of them are sending Yuria and Kenshiro off and Raoh is nowhere to be found (indeed, they hadn't seen him since that fateful night), Toki turns to his older younger brother and asks:
"Would you mind staying in the temple?"
Jagi blanches, flusters, and stares him up and down.
"Here?" he repeats, "With you?"
"No," Toki shakes his head, "Not with me."
"So then -- "
"There are things I must do. Father wanted me to be the successor and I plan to honor his wishes, but like Raoh, I have my own ambitions -- "
"You want me to babysit the dojo...!" Jagi almost not quite shrieks.
"Do you want to be successor?"
"N-No! I mean, not more than you! I mean, I'm not more suited than you, like Shifu said. I mean -- " he bites his tongue and hangs his head, but Toki only laughs and pats his shoulder.
"Out of the four of us," Toki murmurs, "I know you loved this place the most. The only reason I started fighting outside was because I saw how careful you were, to keep the statues inside intact."
Jagi looks as if he'd been caught red-handed.
"Father would have wanted it," Toki insists, "The dojo is your home as much as it is mine."
The thing is, the four of them had already broke the most important rule, so who was to say they couldn't pick and choose through the rest? Jagi falters, of course, torn between propriety, pride, and his own sense of responsibility. Finally, he shrugs Toki's hand off with the same brashness from his adolescent years and looks his second brother in the eye.
"Fine," he says, "But you have to come back and visit, okay? I'm not telling any of these punks that I'm the successor!"
"And you?" Toki asks, when he feels Raoh's gaze upon him. Jagi has reluctantly sent him off and he is making his way down the carved steps of the dojo.
"What?" Raoh retorts, gruff as ever. There's a competitive streak in him yet as he pools energy in his lower legs to take one inhumanly long leap in order to overtake Toki.
"What are your plans, brother?" Toki presses.
"Haven't I already said?" Raoh snorts, "Enough power to conquer the heavens." He points to the perpetually-overcast sky filled with soot and dust and Toki's gaze follows his fingers. Raoh crosses the handful of meters in less than a breath; the punch he threw would have leveled any other man. Toki ducks down and raises his arm in a guarding stance. The two eldest stare at one another with Raoh daring his younger brother to go on the offensive.
Instead, Toki cranes his head upwards, and notes:
"It'll be hard to see the seven stars of Hokuto with the sky like that." The sky had been hidden ever since the falling of the bombs and it would continue to be hidden for years and years afterwards.
Raoh laughs, withdrawing his fist to muss up Toki's hair.
"Don't get too full of yourself Toki," he adds, "You've no reason to look for the eighth star if you don't lose your head."
Toki returns the smile and bats Raoh's hand away and the two of them trade curt nods before Raoh puts two fingers into his mouth and whistles. Hoofbeats resound through the valley, each step a miniature earthquake, and the most magnificent black stallion -- taller at full height that Raoh himself -- appears from the crags. Raoh swings himself atop the horse with ease, hands lazily gripped against the reins, and leaves without further ado.
There is some poetry to be found in his older brother's simplistic view of the world, Toki thinks. Then he readjusts his own traveling bags and turns back to the dojo where, if he squints, he thinks he can make out Jagi's form, watching him from one of the windows. He raises his hand to wave and calls out 'see you later' instead of 'goodbye'.
The world they had lived in is completely altered; Toki realizes this after his first step into the city. It is a fact made more certain with each subsequent expedition.
In a land free of an governing body, the laws had come undone. Like Ryuuken-shifu had predicted, the vast majority of people had reverted to Stone Age-esque existences. Well, that was hardly accurate; the vast majority of people had died. Those who hadn't been killed with the rest were left to eke out meagre existences as citizens without a country or take and take as much as they could only to discover more powerful looters in the immediate vicinity.
Like Kenshiro, Toki thinks that killing off the most powerful derelict would send a message of fear. But that is never the case; the gangsters are more like ants than flies: every time was one killed, five more would take its place and even the queen itself was replaceable to every extent.
In addition to his many attempts are creating order, the responsibility of fighting any claimants to his title as Hokuto no Ken's successor is his alone to bear. Back in the dojo, Ryuuken-shifu had made their art seem like such a small and insignificant school -- one of many similar arts designed to protect a now-defunct position. The truth is the Hokuto school was the most sought-after and artist after artist challenged him.
Some wished to claim the title for themselves. Some wanted to learn the art from him. Others believed the art was wasted on him, someone who spent his time ambling from village to village instead of furthering his own ability. Others still were outraged that the four of them -- brothers and geniuses though they might be -- had decided to ignore the single succession line. Those challengers were always the most difficult; former masters in the lost art themselves.
Time and again, he is told: Ryuuken was a fool to choose you. And time and again, after he has beaten them and spared their lives: I have never seen so beautiful a fighting style.
He meets with Kenshiro and Yuria again for the first time in two years when he has been at the end of his rope for months. Toki has spent most of his time and most of his energy healing the sick and needy only to watch the same villages burnt to the ground within the same month. Resources -- everyone was desperately fighting for the most basic of needs: food and water and shelter. Who was he to play God, to say this village deserved to live more than the one over the hills?
It pains him to admit it, but he is starting to see some sense in the marauders' philosophy of might makes right.
In fact, Toki is so disillusioned at that point, he is fully prepared to throw the next match. Unbeknownst to him then, he had already defeated the most serious challengers, subsequently scaring off the rest.
And so it is that he stumbles into the village Kenshiro and Yuria had made their home, looking like death itself.
"Geez," Kenshiro exclaims after Toki has been hauled onto his feet, into the showers, out of the showers, into clean clothes, and then onto a reasonably clean cot, "You look like hell warmed over!"
"You're looking in good spirits Kenshiro," Toki replies, looking around at the hustle and bustle throughout. Yuria dashes in seconds later, sinking to her knees and clasping both hands about Toki's wrist. She brings it to her face in silent prayer, then lets him go and smiles.
"Toki," she murmurs, "It's been so long."
"As charming as ever, Lady Yuria," he answers, reminding himself that this was his brother's fiancée.
"We worried for you," she simply says.
"Jagi's been sending messengers out every couple months, asking for news of you," Kenshiro adds. "I mean, I think we would have felt it if you had died, but... I mean," he scratches the back of his neck, "We heard stories."
It's been two years and then some since the dropping of the bombs and the end of the earth. Two years of solitude unimaginable. And after two hours in Kenshiro and Yuria's city, Toki feels more at ease than he has since Ryuuken-shifu's death. He closes his eyes and gives a great sigh.
"Were they true?" Kenshiro presses, "That other people challenged you?"
For a moment, Toki is tempted to tell the full truth, if only so someone who would care, would care. That he feared for his life a dozen times, that he had won from his opponents' careless errors rather than his own skill. That his faith in his own right to succeed had been thoroughly shook; that he was tempted to pass the succession onto Jagi.
But he is the elder and Kenshiro, the youngest, so he sits up and smiles, shaking his head.
"Stories of my death were greatly exaggerated," he dryly notes. Kenshiro chuckles and smacks him on the back and even Yuria gives a small giggle.
"Well that's that," Kenshiro declares, as if everything were well, "We'll leave you to get some sleep and after you're rested, how about a tour of the city?"
"I'd like that," Toki smiles.
"Rest up," Yuria adds, touching the back of his hand. The two lovebirds make their way out, leaving Toki to lean back against the sheets. How long had it been since he could sleep? How much time had he spent without blankets, much less pillows? Rather than calculate the lost time, his mind eventually wanders itself into slumber and he sleeps with more peace that he's remembered being able to feel.
More than beautiful, the city of Southern Cross is functional with its own series of battlements (complete with salvaged machine guns and rocket-powered grenade launchers!), three well-maintained wells, and five separate patches of farmland, all within the fortress-like walls.
Toki feels like a child again, in awe at the potential of ordinary people. It was because of Kenshiro's might and Yuria's compassion that they were able to band together as such. Apparently the city had been under one of the other Nanto generals, but Yuria's plea for humanity had moved his heart and he too had joined the ranks of the city's now-sizable defense force.
In the streets, he sees the beginnings of society: children playing, vendors haggling, parents scolding -- people living. How foolish he had been, he thinks, to choose breadth over depth. And then Kenshiro and Yuria lead him into the heart of the city, where an glistening clean yet woefully understaffed hospital had sprung up in months, and so Toki finally returns to his element.
For someone like himself, for someone who was a pacifist in his heart of hearts, the act of healing is a balm for his soul. Bones are set, wounds are stitched, pain is either displaced or taken away entirely, and by the end of the day, he's seen three dozen patients and enlisted the help of the resident doctors. The difference in infrastructure here was immense: not only was there clean running water, but the city seemed to have an endless supply of gauze and wrappings.
Kenshiro and Yuria have long since left him, neither of them having the stomach for medical procedures, but the two head doctors at the hospital profusely thank him for his help.
"That was amazing," Sara murmurs, breathless, "Toki-san, you're amazing."
"A godsend, that's what you are," Ramos nods in agreement, finishing the records of the day.
"No," Toki starts, looking at the space around him. The hospital was well-stocked, yes, but it was also absurdly clean for a facility with only two staff members. He thinks of adjusting and readjusting the instruments, of wiping the edges and corners, of reassuring patient after patient that everything possible would be done... and he shakes his head, "I've been here for a day. The reason I was able to help anyone at all was because the two of you were here, before." He lowers himself then, formal as ever, and adds: "Please, teach me more about your art. There is still so much I don't know." And so many more people to save, it goes without saying.
Ramos picks at his ear, averting his gaze, and Sara mumbles something or another.
"We'd love to have you, Toki-san," she quietly answers, "But don't you -- don't you have other commitments?"
Toki is confused for all of a moment, and then his face falls in comprehension.
"Yes," he answers, dipping his head in shame, "Yes, I do. But -- but when I've settled those commitments, may I come back here?"
Despite having known him for less than a day, Sara throws her arms about him with the familiarity of shared soldiers in arms.
"Of course," she says, and her smile is as lovely as Yuria's.
"Don't keep us waiting," Ramos adds, "Or the patients."
Filled with a renewed sense of energy, Toki stays one night at the hospital, chatting with his future compatriots about the medical profession... or rather, what remained of it after the apocalypse. Needless to say, there were not enough doctors and they were often kidnapped and killed or tortured in a vain attempt at warlords to capitalize on life and death. Of course, these same warlords would often seek the services of medical professions only to find there were none left and so the cycle would continue.
He falls asleep more certain of his future -- and of his own ambitions -- than ever before, and wakes at the crack of dawn. After thanking Doctors Ramos and Sara for their guidance, he leaves the hospital and goes to the city-center where Kenshiro and Yuria were. Kenshiro is helping with the construction of a second battlement and Yuria is playing with the children. The old Toki might've waited for his youngest brother to finish. Might've even helped out. But there is a selfish eagerness in his new self and he pulls Kenshiro aside and asks for an early morning spar.
Kenshiros' brow furrows.
"Outside the village is fine too," Toki shrugs, "I'm just curious how you've advanced."
Kenshiro pieces things together quickly and his face falls.
"Then -- then you're leaving?"
"Not for long," Toki promises, "But there are other things I must do. I'm very jealous of you, Kenshiro, never doubt that." For winning Yuria's heart of course, but also for helping rebuild, well, civilization itself in the most barren part of the country.
Kenshiro's expression softens and he turns to excuse himself from the workers and Yuria. He leads his older brother to the training grounds within the village, where boys and men were both being trained in rudimentary self-defense, and clears half the field for the two of them.
"Pardon the interruption," Toki murmurs, bowing low.
"Don't listen to him," Kenshiro snorts, "We're gonna put on a real show."
It's nothing too fancy; they don't want to submerge the city in their spar after all, but it's more fists and footwork than most of the civilians have ever seen and there is a series of sparks -- jump, skip, tap-tap-tap -- which have their spectators ooh'ing and aah'ing.
As expected, Kenshiro has gotten better. Not good enough to best Toki, but good enough to defend Southern Cross against any potential raiders. More than being a bastion, Toki expects the city will set an example. The whole world couldn't possibly live in one place, but certain standards might be universal. Order would return one day, and it was important to establish it then.
"You're insane," Kenshiro curses, flat on his back and clutching at his chest. "With that kind of ability -- what can you not have?"
Toki crouches down to pinch at his youngest brother's nose.
"I'll see you later," he says, slinging his bag on before standing up and waving goodbye.
It is a long way back to the dojo, and he walks and walks for a little bit longer than a month.
Jagi sees his second brother making his way up the cliff and nearly sends both of them hurtling to their deaths with the force of his hugs.
"You idiot!" he growls, "You stupid fucking pacifist idiot!"
"I'm sorry," Toki murmurs, returning the embrace, "I'm sorry to have left you in charge, for so long."
Jagi calls him a couple more names after that and dirties his face by rubbing it against Toki's shoulder, but he treats his brother to a hero's welcome, introducing the new recruits as well as the new training standards. He has not formally adopted anyone yet, though the dojo is lively with the sounds practice matches between the boys.
The two brothers sip at tea and sake in their master's old chamber.
"I've never been in here before," Toki admits, craning his head to look at the intricately-carved temple in the corner. Of course Jagi would have set up a shrine to their late father; a shrine where incense still burned.
"Because you left in such a hurry," Jagi grumbles, refilling and then clinking their cups. "Idiot."
Toki downs his drink and wipes the alcohol from his mouth. It was good to come back to the dojo, he thinks, even though the place felt less and less like his own.
"Jagi," he says, after he's beaten his older younger brother into the ground, "I hereby renounce the successorship and name you the new heir to the Hokuto school of martial arts."
Jagi is on his feet in seconds, bleeding from the nose and mouth from his own exertion, and he lunges at Toki, tackling him to the ground.
"You...!" he snarls, and Toki lets him get a couple punches in.
"You're a complete idiot, Toki, you know that?" Jagi says at the end of it, when he's sitting a stones throw away, nursing his bruised and bleeding knuckles.
"Didn't you say younger brothers should respect their elders?" Toki teases from his place on the floor. The other members of the dojo are gathering at the corners, whispering and murmuring at the commotion. Toki remembers when he and his brothers were those very same youths, when the dojo had been their whole world.
"What the fuck do you expect me to say," Toki spits, glaring hard.
"Fuck you!" And then: "Yes."
His older brother is the last challenge. He accordingly hears of the change in succession last. Toki hears the hoofbeats of his great horse a whole night before the arrival of the man himself. Raoh dresses like the kings now, with a cape and helmet, with a chest plate and shoulder guards. He's heard of his older brother's exploits in the south of course; how he had taken on the name Ken-oh and was amassing the world's largest army.
Although Raoh has come to see him as one man, Toki has no trouble imagining a thousand troops behind him. Would his brother have asked them to wait at the riverbend? Or would he have journeyed the whole distance alone? Either way, Toki rises to his feet.
"Brother," he greets, dipping his head.
"You're a fool," Raoh sneers, "A damn fool. Our master gives you the succession and what do you do, pass it off to the weakest of the litter?"
"Like you," Toki carefully starts, "I've discovered my own ambitions."
Like usual, Raoh throws the first punch. Unlike with Jagi and Kenshiro, there is a ferocity in his older brother's gaze whcih catches Toki off-guard. He's hit at full-force and sent flying. He's vaguely aware of his blood splattering underneath him.
"Get up," Raoh commands.
"You were -- you were never one to mince words, huh?" Toki asks. He's kicked in the stomach for his insolence.
Why had Raoh sought him out? Did he seek fulfillment of their childhood promise? Was he angry that Toki had not asked him to take the helm of successorship? Or had he simply decided he'd had his share of brotherhood?
The decade-old inferiority complex springs forth as if he were ten years old all over again and he returns his brother's attacks with a barrage of his own.
"Nothing I did was ever good enough for you!" he finds himself shouting at the top of his lungs.
"Only because you never thought about yourself!" Raoh retorts, guarding perfectly before pummeling in the reverse.
Years and years of unsaid frustrations emerge in their attacks, but when the dust has settled, Raoh is furious to find he is the one rendered immobile.
"You're a fool," he says again, unable even to crane his neck. "If it were me..."
I would have finished you off like this, Toki hears.
"Jagi will be the successor," Toki declares. Well, gasps out, really. He's at a loss for breath himself.
"Ridiculous," Raoh snorts, "I'll take it from him."
"Then I'll stop you."
"Have at you, then."
The words which signalled the start of their sparring sessions in childhood, Raoh shoots one more glare before redirecting his bloodflow, ignoring the temporary paralysis to hoist himself up on Kokuo.
"Don't lose your head," he warns before leaving.
Left alone in the desert with the unmistakable feeling of victory and (most importantly) with no one to see him: Toki raises his hands and gives a great and unheard cheer.
He did it. He won. Just once, but once was enough. He had surpassed Raoh.
Kenshiro and Yuria are finally married in the fully-functional city of Southern Cross four years after the end of the world. While still splendid, Southern Cross is no longer a unique entity -- there are a half-dozen other cities, some of them led by completely ordinary civilians! Of course Raoh would have a city to himself; Toki and Kenshiro suspect their elder brother could have claimed the continent had he put his mind to it. He comes to the ceremony of course, as do Jagi and Shin and all the other Nanto generals. Jyuza throws a fit and swears he won't, but he changes his mind at the last minute and ends up tearfully walking Yuria down the chapel.
With the help of Ramos and Sara, Toki has earned the title 'Doctor' for himself. After getting permission from Jagi (who was, after all, the official sole heir of the Hokuto school of arts -- on paper), Toki starts up a separate branch, concentrating on using pressure points to heal. A bit of massage and acupuncture and some 'mumbo-jumbo magic', as Ramos described it, though Toki caught the older man perusing his journals. Although he still takes the time to work with individual patients, the increased stability, resources, and infrastructure means Toki has the time to train fellow practitioners as well as write a couple manuals of his own.
"Still working?" Sara asks him after the electricity has been turned off for the night. The hospital had the opportunity to reroute connections into the staff rooms but Toki had declined the offer. He therefore works by candlelight.
"Of course," he answers, though he puts his pen down to smile at her.
"Anything I can help with?" she touches his shoulder, peering over at the myriad files, and he thinks of Yuria's vision -- and how wrong it was. And he smiles, as she had smiled, and touches Sara's hand in turn.
"Always. We've got the whole world to work on, don't we?"
She laughs and sits herself down. Ramos joins them soon enough and the three of them work through another midnight.
And this, Toki thinks, is all he's ever wanted.