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Big Brother Shigure

Chapter Text

One of the more pleasant things about being ensnared in the middle of a power struggle against a peace-loving faction turned legion of honor-driven warmongers are the occasional moments of relief from that bloodshed.

In other words, the infrequent day-off to keep everyone from losing their sanity. And despite the grizzly implications, it worked for what it was.

A young man of many talents, Shigure was never one without something to do when it came to these infrequent vacations. Be it training, singing, painting, caring for his pegasus, or simply conversing with any woodland critter willing to listen, there was never a dull moment for him.

Some would go as far to as to claim that he lacked any flaws at all, a perfect boy melded by disputably perfect parents, with the proof being that only one of those aforementioned skills was inherited.

"Come on, come on! Hurry up!"

They would be wrong to make that assumption.

"I'm right behind you, same as always."

"How come you're so slow?! Your legs are longer than mine!"

"I don't particularly see the need for rushing.."

He wasn't the best when it came to familial relations.

Kana huffed impatiently, an unmistakable pout on her face. "Hmph.. Big brother's already too old to keep up with me, at this rate he'll be an old man by sundown!"

"Excuse me?" asked Shigure, stopping just behind her. "Could you repeat that?"

"E-Eeh!" the girl exclaimed with a squeak, breaking off into another sprint. "N-Nothing! I didn't say anything!"

"Or so you claim.."

A sigh escaped Shigure as he continued to follow his little sister through the wood, on hot pursuit of something she deemed of high importance. Although Kana's intentions were always pure (a fact that his father reminded him of quite often), she had the habit of getting caught up in the moment, treating every little episode as a big mission and getting teary-eyed if things failed to go in her favor.

"I don't suppose we can take a break.."

"What? No way! We're almost there! It's just up ahead! Just up ahead!"

His mother always told him to set an example, but that was easier said than done. Kana wasn't one for his calm and diligent mannerisms, and certainly wasn't going to start adapting to it any time soon. Her mindset was more akin to that of a wild card, and it showed.

"Okay here, right here! Big brother!" Kana called, turning around only to find him still lagging behind. Unable to wait any longer, she ran back to grab his hand, tugging him the rest of the way. "Look! There!"

"K-Kana, please, if you could let—Oh?"

He paused, taken aback by the mesmerizing sight before him. Kana had brought him to a river running through the forest, one virtually undisturbed by either of the hostile factions, left to prosper in the hands of the enriching environment.

As a man of nature and its gifts, it brought an uncanny sense of peace to him, one that reminded him of his mother and the bond that they shared. For that brief moment, it felt as if the trials and hardships of war didn't exist. He was reminded of what they were all fighting for, and why they fought for it.

Humbled, he turned to Kana, a smile gracing his face. "Kana.. Did you want me to see this?"

She looked up at him, humming as she did so, "Huh? 'Course I did!"

"I see.. In which case, thank you. I don't believe I've ever seen anything as beautiful as thi—"

"Now go get my scarf for me!"

"..E-Eh?"

"Over there! See?"

Kana tugged at his sleeve and pointed at the cloth in question, stranded in the middle of the river, conveniently caught by a rock. "I was playing here earlier and I wanted to use my scarf to collect all the smooth and shiny stones at the bottom of the river, I took it off, but then it slipped out of my hands and fell in the water!... Can you get it for me?"

Shigure couldn't help but furrow his brow, disheartened thanks to his misinterpretation, and also wondering if his presence was really that much of a necessity. He took a brief glimpse into the water, checking its depth and making some guesstimates.

It wasn't that deep.

He turned back to Kana, who had just about the sweetest smile on her face, but for all the wrong reasons. Shigure was beginning to feel as if he was on the losing end of their little game. "Er.. Kana."

She was rocking on the balls of her feet, hands behind her back. "Yup?"

"Forgive me for asking, but.. are you not able to retrieve it yourself?"

Kana entertained the thought, a hand grasping her chin. "Hm.. I could—but I want you to do it!"

"And why would that be?"

"I don't want to get wet!"

He closed his eyes, another sigh escaping from him. "..I see. And so I was the next viable candidate?"

"Well, yeah!" she beamed, leaning closer to him. "I didn't think you were busy.. Plus! If I can't do it, I know my big brother can!"

He didn't have the heart to lecture her, or even tell her that he still had an easel waiting for him in his tent, she was too naive for her own good (or perhaps too clever, given what he was about to do). Shigure reluctantly agreed to fetch it for her. Reluctantly. "I suppose. If it makes you feel better."

"Yay!" she cheered with euphoria (and just a bit of triumph), throwing herself at him and hugging his leg. "Thank you, thank you, thank you! And don't worry about me, I'll be safely watching you from here!" she looked up at him, then gave him a salute with a smirk. "I'll be your sister support!"

"I feel more worried than comforted by that, to be honest.."

Shaking her off, Shigure removed his boots and rolled up the legs of his pants, preferring not to get any of his clothes soaked. With that, he took a step in, just to test the temperature. Finding it to his liking, he took another step, and soon was well on his way to recovering the cloth.

About halfway across, he looked back, just to see if Kana kept her word.

"Hi!"

She did and she made that readily apparent, gesture and all.

Getting the scarf back was just as easy as he had hoped. It was a bit soggy, but a few hours of drying would see to that. "Whoa!" Kana smiled. "You got it, big brother! Yeah! I knew you could do it!"

Just about anyone could have, but that was aside the point. Shigure would be lying if he said he didn't feel some satisfaction from hearing her say that.

With the handkerchief in hand, he spun on his heel to head back, but made a fatal misstep in the process. "G-Gaah!" he yelped and before he knew it, that sibling reverence was gone, bungled and botched in the blink of a bumbling eye.

Kana watched with baited breath, gasping as she saw her brother hit the water with a sizable splash. For a moment she seemed worried, but those fears were put to rest when she saw that he had landed on his bottom, and that the scarf had slipped out of his grasp in the process, flowing freely through the air until it reached her.

"Oh hey! My scarf!" she chirped, blissfully seizing and adorning herself with it. "Ehehe, mission accomplished!" she declared, toothy grin and all. The expedition's sole casualty didn't seem to bother her as much as it did him.

"Hmph!" a fit was quick to replace her joy however, and she huffed in Shigure's direction. "Shame on you, big brother! You almost scared me! Now come on, we gotta hurry back, you still promised to play with me! The faster we get back the more time we have!"

'T-This doesn't count as playing..?'

"Un...Ungh.." Shigure rubbed his head with a groan, feeling a tad discombobulated by the whole ordeal (and a little butthurt). He was well-aware of the frog on his head but was in no state to politely ask him to hop along on his merry way.

"C-Coming.."

Chapter Text

"Birds of a feather"

"All migrating together"

"Where are they going?"

Most of the army knew her as the the reclusive daughter of Azama, the local sharp-tongued mountain priest. Though others—particularly the other children—knew her as the odd girl who spoke in verse, slept constantly, and rarely ventured outside, even going so far as to making obtuse excuses for staying within the comfort of indoors.

There was but one person who thought otherwise, but he kept such reservations to himself.

"Ahem."

Shigure stood at his post with the attempted disposition of a young man with absolutely nothing to hide. What he failed to account for however, was his inability to act as well as he drew. An artist confined in a playwright's domain, the look on his face gave it away, much as he tried to hide it.

His job was simple. He was to patrol the castle perimeter once or twice, note anything out of the ordinary, and report back if necessary. And while it was true that he was on the lookout, it was clear his mind was doddering elsewhere.

"A morning's embrace"

"Enabling flowers to bloom"

"I prefer my room"

There had been a reason Shigure requested the post, and although he tried to convince himself it wasn't so that he could admire her from afar with infrequent glances here and there, the fact of the matter was—that's exactly what it was and he was terrible at hiding it.

The blush on his face burned brighter and he shut his eyes to escape from it. Temptation jabbed him though, and he tried to peep one open to get another quick peek.

"What're you doing, big brother?"

"Gaaah!"

Shigure jumped with a startled yelp and dropped his lance, a thousand shivers running up his spine. In his haste he had forgotten that he wasn't working alone this time. He did everything in his power to avert his wandering eyes, hoping that his questionable actions weren't being read into.

They kind of were.

"A-Ah! O-Oh, ah, K-Kana! I..Is something wrong?" he asked while recovering his spear.

She found that to be an understatement but decided to leave her thoughts unsung. She cocked her head to the side. "Funny, I was gonna ask you the same thing!" she chirped with a grin. "You've been acting silly all morning!"

"Writing this early,"

"Drawing a massive fatigue"

"I'm very sleepy"

Trying his best to refrain from attracting skepticism, Shigure laughed it off with a smile, his gaze shifting left and right. "O-Oh, er.. Is that so?" he asked. "I hadn't noticed."

Though he had regained some composure, Kana still felt that something was off. The regular calm, gentle grace her sibling displayed seemed forced, tense even. She tugged at his sleeve. "Um, big brother? Papa said we had to patrol today, right?"

Thankful for what seemed like a change of subject, he peacefully indulged her. "Quite so. Why do you ask? Did it slip your mind?"

"Well no, it's just.. um.." she mumbled, rubbing her cheek with her free hand. "Why are we standing here then? Shouldn't we be checking the rest of the castle too?"

"Th-That.." Shigure paused to produce an excuse, his facade crumbling. "That won't be necessary," he explained. "Father has assured me that our patrol will be just as effective by staying in one place."

Fibbing was a far cry from any of his specialties, something backed up by years and years of being raised to do the exact opposite. "Hm.. I don't really get it, but if that's what papa said then I guess it's okay!"

He was fortunate that Kana was a little easy to fool.

"A frog at the pond"

"With a captivating need"

"For a little swim"

Captivating was a good word to describe it. His gaze instinctively returned to the writer, and he let a smile slip as he did. It wasn't just her written word that did it, or even her starry eyes. There was something else alluring about her, something he couldn't quite put into words.

"What're you looking at? Huh? Huh? Huh?"

Kana prodded him again not a minute later, still persistent in spite of her blissful obliviousness. Shigure hastily broke eye contact once more, but he wasn't as fast or subtle this time, his gestures were caught in the act, and brought them back to square one.

"N-Nothing," he nervously claimed. "Just something in my eye."

A distinct pause followed, briefly leaving the siblings in a stalemate. Kana wasn't exactly the brightest child around, but even she could tell his words weren't correlating to his motions. Her suspicions returned, and if she wasn't dubious before, she certainly was now.

"Morning, noon, or night"

"Even a dragon can tell"

"When it is lied to"

"Hmm.." Kana huffed and crossed her arms, doubts on the rise. She stared at him, reading deep into his inner psych like an open book. Shigure attempted to remain earnest throughout the analysis, but the evaluating look in her eye was a threatening wave of uneasiness.

"K-Kana..?" he asked with hesitance. "Is something the matt—"

"I'm onto you!"

"E-Excuse me?"

"Don't play dumb! I know your little secret!"

"Y-You do!?"

"Uh-huh!" she declared sharply, snapping a finger straight at him. "You think I'm just a little kid! Your little sister who can't handle big secrets!" she exclaimed, pout and all. "Well you're wrong, big brother! You're wrong! Papa said so himself! He said the other day that I was really, really, really ma.. mat.. ma-something!"

"Mature." Shigure corrected, pronouncing it slowly enough for her to comprehend.

"Yeah, that! He said that, and he meant it too!"

Shigure was slightly comforted that his cover hadn't been entirely blown, though he was well aware he was treading on incredibly thin ice. "Perhaps, but Father.. says a lot of things," he professed with a bit of straining. "He may have been overestimating your abilities, or he was merely doting."

"E-Eh?! And what's that mean?!"

"You're still rather young. It's a fact." he firmly asserted, though she refused to believe it.

"Am not!" Kana gave him a petulant little moue and tried to stay sulky, but her fit was easily subdued with a soft pat on the head.

"Father seems to think otherwise. He wouldn't cherish you like a little princess if you were anything but," Shigure paused for a moment, gaze fixed on her. With a gentle smile, he added. "I wouldn't either."

"Hmmph.." her voice dropped to a murmur as she squirmed under her brother's palm. "Just don't tell Midori, I want her to think I'm cool and grown-up.."

"Hm," he brought his hand from her head to his chin, simulating a pensive stance. "With all due respect, you're already half of those things, so it's not a complete fabrication."

That did it. A small grin was drawn out from Kana, which grew into a smile from ear to ear. She really did have a thing for doting, try as she might to conceal it.

The two reveled in their bonding moment but to Shigure's dismay, it wasn't to last. Kana wasn't one to forget things or let them go, and had returned to prodding him moments later.

She nudged him once or twice, just to get his attention, and then cheekily said.

"Big brother?"

He turned to her, and nearly shuddered at the way she was staring at him. "Er.. Yes?"

"Mitama's really pretty, isn't she?"

"I-I.. I haven't a clue what you're talking about!"

"Flying to the north"

"The poet lagging behind"

"I'm still so sleepy.."

Chapter Text

"Ahh! It's so cute and fluffy!"

"Most tend to be, yes."

Kana had been infatuated as soon as she laid her eyes upon it. Hastier people would call it love at first sight, but Shigure would sooner call it her way of passing time on a day of respite. Either way, she was fine as long as she wasn't in any 'immediate danger', harmless really.

Or so that's what their father claimed. He was a little soft on her, and it wasn't hard to see why. Admittedly speaking though, Shigure was the same way (he had to wonder at times if it was inherited, just how far did the apple fall from the tree?). Be it learned or instinct, he was quite mindful of her, regularly keeping an eye on her antics, and always on her trail whenever she devised a particularly hazardous design. Any scrapes or bruises picked up along the way were usually patched up by his gentle hand before anyone could find out, and in that time he gathered that he rather liked the idea of being a role model to her. Kana was far from the perfect muse, but she didn't need to be. He was an artist—some would say the best in the army—and he knew he would mold her into something great one day.

"So it followed you back, big brother?" she asked mid-pet, finally taking her bright, mesmerized eyes away from it to look up at him.

"It would seem so," he answered with a cool shrug, only to shift his gaze aside and add a disclaimer. "Not that I intended on it. I tried to send it on its way, but it's kind of.."

Its ears jerked.

Shigure came to a stop at that, breath hitched. The word was on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn't quite articulate it in a way she wouldn't misconstrue to his dismay. As far as he was aware, their parents had yet to teach her about it.

Kana tilted her head, curious and a little eager at a chance to hear more of his sagely wisdom. "Kinda..?"

"Erm.. 'Imprinted'.." he stressed, uncertain if that was even the right word for it. "Which is to say that it grew an, ahem.. 'sentimental attachment' to-"

"It thinks you're its mama!"

. . .

The young man placed his hands on his knees and exhaled deeply (she could be a handful at times).

"And where did you learn that from?" he asked calmly.

She was quick to answer, and with a little hop no less. "Midori! She knows a lot about caring for others!"

"I figured that was the case.."

"Yeah! She even told me she was a cert.. certif.. certifried expert! Big brother is a mother now, just like mother! Big brother is a big mother!"

"Mm. I'm going to pretend I hadn't heard that.." Shigure mumbled with a shudder. He was by no means one to offend others, but herb-dealing tykes weren't exactly reputable sources, especially ones he had to bend over to meet at eye level. His eyes darted from Kana to the small hare, and he noted how it seemed to be in a hurry to slip away from her now that she was distracted. In no time at all, it was back by his side, nuzzling his leg fondly. It had a preference, and that preference lied with him.

He couldn't fault the poor thing for having good taste, at least.

Regrettably, the breather wasn't by any means permanent. Kana returned focus to the mammal before long and reveled in adoration as she stroked its puffy, fluffy fur. "Ahh! So if it doesn't wanna leave big brother, then that means it gets to stay with me!" she grinned from ear to ear, whereas the hare trembled in comic fear.

Another thing Shigure came to learn about himself was that he was growing increasingly lenient towards her risky behavior as of late, with only light reprimanding where necessary. In truth, it kind of worried him, and he came to the logical conclusion that Kana was contagious, though with what, he couldn't say.

"Er, Kana—"

In that moment, Shigure resolved to treat himself of his sibling-induced malady. He had a mind to chide her (it was an innate compulsion honestly) and was seconds away from doing so, but found himself stopped by an unconscious restraint. He caught sight of that unmistakable look in her eye, the way it gleamed as she cuddled with her unwilling soulmate, the sheer giddiness radiating from her person. It was evident that she had already developed an attachment to the bunny, and he wasn't sure if he had the heart to sever that sort of bond.

Not directly, anyhow.

Having heard his concern, Kana froze in an instant (much to the bunny's relief), there was a catchan obstacle in the way. The joy and glee were all but drained from her face and replaced with worry. Words alone couldn't emphasize how much she hated those contraries, the 'buts', the 'yets', the 'howevers'. Every time her brother would utter any one of them it seemed to serve only to rain on her fun parade. He'd always tell her it was for the greater good, but she lived for the 'now' and according to the now it was anything but good.

Kana's smile lingered for only a little longer before vanishing, replaced with a frown hesitant to press him on. "Big brother.. W-We can keep it, right?"

Shigure gulped. He hadn't a clue how she was capable of successfully guilt-tripping him like that every time, it was an enigma, and if there was a competition for it she would surely take gold. As he racked his mind for a way to break the news to her, he became drawn to the rabbit. Its twitched its whiskers and stared at him too, still preferring him over the girl that was keeping him hostage. "Well, there isn't anything physically stopping us.." he mumbled.

She beamed very slightly, and he almost regretted telling her that because of the false hope it would give her. Personally speaking, he didn't completely object to the idea, the opportunity was there and truth be told he shared much of her aspiration for taking care of a pint-sized critter. It was no secret to the army that Shigure was very fond of wildlife (he owns a flying horse for gods' sake), and this affinity stretched to the point that he would venture from the castle to a small clearing whenever on break and actually talk to them, and often consider altering his own thoughts and viewpoints based on what they told him. To him, this talent was a gift, and their responses were informative, intelligent, and sometimes even deeply philosophical.

To everyone else, he looked like a dandy young man holding pointless discussions with any squeaky little diseased rodent he could hope to get his mitts on, and Kana frequently found herself trying to assure the gossiping militia that the heir to the Vallite throne was almost certainly not delirious.

The fact of the matter remained though, Shigure enjoyed their company as much as they enjoyed his, and under any other circumstance would he fondly jump at the chance to look after one of them.

"But,"

Therein lied the problem, which he illustrated to her in a soft tone after she stopped visibly cringing. "You have to remember that our campaign comes first, and I'd rather not subject our friend to warfare. All this conflict, the hostility and violence.. It's done nothing to deserve it, and I believe you can agree with that."

She could, she very well could, but that didn't make it an easy task. Kana sulked and looked at her woolly companion, squeezing it a little closer. "Hmph..."

"I know how you feel, believe me, I'd have a zoo if I could. But we fight for a reason, the world we're working towards is one of peace, one where we don't have to raise our weapons against anyone. I'm aware it feels like an unending struggle at times, but I also know that we're able to handle its effects. I can't in good conscience take it along with us, knowing that it would have to suffer the same process."

Kana nodded, understanding but dejected nonetheless. It was another one of those greater good scenarios, set-up exactly the way she feared it would be. She sighed, accepting the fact that she would have to say goodbye to her new friend sooner rather than never.

"However—"

"Ughh!" she opted to groan loudly this time instead of sigh, he wasn't finished. That was two contraries in a row, a rare occurrence in of itself (as if one wasn't already bad enough). Kana was close to waterworks, feeling like a girl ridden with despair, and she wondered if she had done something wrong to deserve this.

"Ahem.." Shigure cleared his throat, a little moody that he had been so rudely interrupted. "As I was saying," he continued, roping her back into reality and away from melodrama. "The day isn't over and.. It's not as if anything is going on right now.. It may not be able to accompany us, but if you'd like I suppose we can-"

"Really?!"

All that exaggerated melancholy and sorrow seemed to wash away in a snap as Kana made a triumphant return back to life, setting the hare down and nearly pouncing Shigure in all her excitement (though she settled for a hug). "Big brother! You mean it?! You mean it!?"

Taken aback by her bubbly spirit, he held up his hands and stuttered out. "Y-Yes, yes! And please, n-not so tight! It's a hug, not a squeeze—we've been over this!"

"I'll hug you forever and ever if I have to! The best big brothers deserve the bestest and longest hugs!"

"B-Bestest is not a word!"


Once her enthusiasm petered to acceptable levels, the two settled near a bank and bestowed the bunny with the grand, majestic privilege of having the free reign to do whatever its fuzzy little heart desired. Strangely enough, it decided to use that leeway to hop atop Shigure's head. It wasn't the first animal to do it and as long as he upheld his appreciation of wildlife it wouldn't be the last.

He hardly minded though, and even took the time to speak to it and ask how it was doing (common courtesy was the least he could offer after all the cuddling it had to endure). Their banter went on for a while, leaving Kana stuck playing the designated odd woman out throughout, frequently asking her bilingual brother in-between for up-to-date translations. Her comprehension of the animal tongue was still as shallow as could be and intentionally so. Shigure had made an effort on countless occasions to lecture her the way of his self-crafted jargon, only to be met with countless, hasty—usually thought-of-on-the-spot excuses as to why she regrettably could not partake.

Kana had yet to become the dignified lady she was expected to mature into—she was silly as well, there was no denying that, it's just that her brother's tomfoolery was of a whole different breed, a crate of worms that she'd be better off not opening (no matter how many times Shigure insisted it was a genuine dialect).

"What's it saying now, big brother?" she asked, marveling at the hare like a deity of sorts.

"It's making a quip about your hair bun." he answered candidly. "A witty one, too."

"Wh-What?! Tell me, tell me!"

"Sorry, I'm afraid it doesn't translate well," he smiled. "You wouldn't understand it anyway. It's kind of an inside joke."

"Hmph!" she huffed and gave him a pout, prompting him to drop the act before she could get really steamed. "Ah, alright!" he relented, apparently unable to have fun at her expense. "It's actually speaking of our earlier discussion," he said, this time genuine. "As it were, we were right, our little friend's breed isn't exactly one suited for the battleground. More of a spectator variety, as a matter of fact, a lounger type. "

What Kana was supposed to take from that revelation was that her fuzzy acquaintance wouldn't be performing any fantastic tricks or stunts any time soon, so much as lying idly by and pitching the latest in abstract, metaphysical woo (deep, deep stuff).

Instead, she drew to a decidedly more outrageous conclusion.

"Wait! So there are bunnies out there that can fight?!" she exclaimed.

"Eh—!?"

It was certainly one way to look at it.

"And and," she continued, eyes glimmering with a renewed sense of hope. "If we find one of those super bunnies, we can keep it for real! Big brother can be its big mother, and um, I can be its coach! I'll teach it to defend itself!"

"H-Hold on!—" he protested, quite flustered.

"Hey big brother! Do you think if I let a super bunny borrow my Dragonstone, it can turn into a super bunny dragon? Papa's mortal enemies would never stand a chance!"

"You can scarce control your dragon form without the stone and you wonder if giving it away would be a good idea?"

"Then I'll get the super bunny its own special stone then!" declared Kana, who then brought a hand to her chin and began concocting her impractical scheme. "Now we just need to find one.. It could take weeks, months, or even two days and a half! Hmm.. Are there any super bunny sanctuaries you know of, big brother?"

Shigure exhaled for the second time that day (as did the rabbit). He could have danced around the question, perhaps even play along with her, but this time he opted for taking the high road.

"None that are located in this world."

And he was correct, to some extent.

Chapter Text

"Hey, big brother! Why do you wear shoes when me, mama, and papa don't?"

"They're required of a Sky Knight."

"Why are you a Sky Knight?"

"I feel it offers one a closer connection to nature. I take solace in that. The breeze in the air can be nice."

"How come you can't turn into a dragon like me and papa?"

"I can, I simply choose not to."

"Woah! Really!? Are you a cool dragon?!"

"Hm. I couldn't tell you. I've only tried it once.

"What's the bestest piece of art you've ever, ever seen?"

"Taste is subjective. I believe that beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

"What does that mean?"

"It means that taste is subjective."

"What does sub... subject.. what-you-said mean?"

"Relevance to the subject in question."

"Who's the prettiest girl in the camp?"

They had been walking together for a while. Shigure was returning from a trip to the lottery house on the rather ill-advised suggestion of their father (the results of which were less than fortunate). Kana on the other hand had been skittering around aimlessly like an imp, imagining herself as an all-mighty half-human half-dragon princess leading a valiant army, a vanquisher of malevolent evils both visible and not. She was swatting her practice sword at thin air, interlocked in a grandiose battle of fictitious proportions with a Faceless ogre when she caught sight of him.

In an instant, she had put all thoughts of her make-believe aside and scrambled to catch up to him, clumsily tripping twice on the way there (a new record by her account).

A cold shiver was sent up Shigure's spine as he construed the full meaning of what he was just asked. He came to a complete stop, eyes wide open, rear clenched, practically speechless. Stupefied, his thoughts were led astray and drifted to a particular young woman who fit the description, only to be flushed out by a clean shake of the head and a clear regaining of conscious.

"Oof!"

Unaware that he stopped pacing, Kana bumped right into him and brought herself to the ground (record broken). "Hey! Big brother! You made Kana fall!"

Shigure turned to her, face slightly heated. "You've been asking a lot of questions lately," he mentioned. "Not that I mind, but Kana.. What is your aim, exactly?"

To say that was an understatement (though as a man of rationale, Shigure knew better than to exaggerate), the girl had been quizzing him on everything from his favorite animal to the basics of singing to what he ate for breakfast that morning—despite the fact that they ate together—all for the better half of their stroll. Kana fired them point blank, one after the other, never missing a single opportunity to ask him for his likes, dislikes, beliefs and motivations, why he did this—why he didn't do that—and made sure to follow each of his responses with further merciless questions about them.

It was odd pastime for his muse, he thought, but nevertheless Shigure reacted to each of her inquiries as truthfully as he could, entertaining them while keeping a steady pace. That is, until their rising levels of intimacy brought need to question her ambitions (prior experience would say she was quite sneaky in that regard).

Still on the ground, Kana beamed at him with a cheeky smile, hands clutching at her curled toes. "Heehee! No reason, I just wanna know more about my big brother!"

"So you say.." Shigure mumbled, sensing a double motive in her gestures (had she not been so endearing, he likely would have stopped the charade). "I can't imagine what would pique your curiosity," he admitted, rubbing the back of his neck. Kana caught the modest motion and found herself focusing on his head. "I may be your sibling, but I'm afraid there isn't much to me that you'll find intrigui—"

"Your hair!"

"E-Eh—Huh!?"

She shouted so suddenly that it almost didn't register with him at first. When it did, he moved to gently brush his fingertips against his seemingly endless cyan bangs, the ones responsible for masking half of his face. "My.. My hair?"

Coincidentally, that actually was a matter of interest.

"Yup! Big brother's hair! Heehee!" Kana cheered with a giggle. "I was looking at big brother's face, thinking that I had asked everything I could think of, and then I remembered your hair! So tell me! Tell Kana why you wear your hair like that! I have to know!"

It was a simple question at heart, one with dozens of disposable responses he could have given her. 'I just prefer the style', 'No reason in particular', 'I never thought to change it', 'It's my favorite hairdo' (that one wasn't too far from the truth). None of them however could truly convey how he felt. What was merely a matter of preference to other children was the root of an ordeal to him, one that clung to the back of his mind, never to be forgotten.

For a moment he debated what to say to her, deliberating his options while fiddling his locks. Few people knew the story, and he wasn't certain if he wanted Kana to be one of them.

In the end, honesty prevailed, and he recounted the events of that era.

Shigure approached her, getting on one knee and dropping his tone. Kana's smile faded slightly as she looked to him, she recognized that expression. "It wasn't always like this, actually.." he began.

"Really?" she asked, leaning in with wide eyes.

"Really. Do you recall the Deeprealms?"

"Uh-huh! I didn't like it though, those servants were so boring.."

"Oh?" Shigure cocked a brow, that was news to him (though granted, she never did like the thought of being too far away from father). "I'm sorry to hear that. My caretakers were a little more admirable in that respect. They were the ones responsible for this hairstyle."

"How come? What was big brother's hair like before?"

A distinct, yet fond set of memories came to mind from that inquiry. For a second, Shigure saw a reflection of his younger self within Kana, and with it, a humble wave of nostalgia. "Would you believe me if I told you it was short?"

"Hmm.." at his unspoken request, Kana craned her head and tried picturing him with a more trimmed appearance, but her attempts at visualizing ended up looking more ridiculous than realistic. Fortunately, none of them came close to the actual style.

"It's kinda hard to imagine.."

A small grin snuck up on him. "I can see why you would think that. I've had it this way for so long and never once considered altering it, it's hard to believe it was once different. But it was. And to tell you the truth, I once preferred it that way."

"Wha?!" Kana gasped. "No way!"

"Yes way," he mimicked. "Short, cut, neat and tidy, I loved the feeling of it. Sadly, it wasn't one to last.." Shigure closed his eyes as he began to reminisce. "I was told one day that it had become a distraction. That the style of my hair was involuntarily attracting unwanted attention. I was still young at the time, around your age, so for my own safety, I was instructed to let it grow."

"And that's how it.."

"Became like this, yes," he nodded. "Frankly, I didn't like it very much. I still had a longing for short hair and my bangs were always in the way, at times I couldn't even see where I was going, I.. er.. walked into more things than I care to remember."

Shigure made an effort to ignore his sister's giggling.

"I objected to it at first, but my caretakers told me they loved it, that it suited me and that it would only be for a while. I was rather stubborn, but over time, I became convinced and adjusted to the look. I even grew to favor it, but I would never forget its origin."

"Wow! So that's how big brother became a cyclops!"

"Kana."

"Aah! S-Sorry!"

With that rebuke, he continued. "As I grew older and learned to defend myself, I was no longer required to keep my hair this way. Though I still loved the look, it had lost its main purpose, and I was also becoming sentimental to the idea of having short hair again. Thus, we decided to trim it so I could relive a feeling or two from my youth."

"Huh?" Kana cocked a brow. She found a fault in his words, something that didn't add up, something that couldn't be ignored. "But big brother, I don't get it.. If they were going to cut your hair, why is it still long..?"

Shigure kept silent, grave and stoic.

"B-Big...brother?"

That was the one question that couldn't evoke a response from him. Kana was left to connect the dots for herself, and when she did, he only confirmed her fears.

"That was the day mother and father came for me, the day I joined their cause."

"The day my Deeprealm was attacked."

Silence followed for a brief moment as the impact settled in. Shigure remained calm, having made peace with his loss some time ago. Kana however was on the verge of tears. Despite being in an army, she was still young, and the concept of death and loneliness genuinely frightened her. She couldn't bear the idea of losing anyone she knew, and just hearing about it happening to someone else—especially someone so close to her—left her with an unrivaled sorrow.

With misty eyes, she barreled into him and cried as loud as she could. "B-Big brother! I'm sorry! Again! I-I made you think a-about—about th-that—t-that... Waaah! I-I didn't mean to! I just wanted to ask a-about your—Waaah! I-I didn't know! I asked t-too much! I-I'm sorry, really! This is my fault! Pl-Please—Please forgive me!"

Shigure, far from prepared for a mood shift, nearly toppled over from her stampede. "A-Aah! K-Kana! Th-This—this is a bit much!" he exclaimed, flinching from her fists pounding on his chest. "Pl-Please, it isn't your fault. Honest!"

It was no secret that Kana was something of a crybaby at heart, and though her fits were so common that they could almost be considered ritual, it still moved Shigure to see her driven to tears. He disliked seeing her in such a disheartening state.

"R-Really..?" Kana sniffled with relief, the last of her tears dampening his long-wet clothes. "I-It.. It's not my fault?"

"Of course not," he reassured her as she shuffled off him. "It happened before you were even recruited. There was no way you could have possibly known beforehand. You were simply curious, and as siblings, I felt you had a right to know."

"Bu-But.. big brother's not sad..?" she whimpered.

"Don't let this face deceive you," he solemnly said. "I may have.. come to terms with what happened that day, but even so.. I'm always thinking about them. In fact, I believe this hairdo envelops those feelings, in a way. A living memento of my caretakers—the style they gave me, the style they loved, and the style I've stuck with since then."

Kana nodded, regaining a little bit of her smile. For the sake of her composure, he continued. "I'm rather glad we had this talk, actually. And I feel grateful to know that you care this much about the circumstances of my past, and well, myself in general."

Then, he cleared his throat and lowered his voice.

"It.. means a lot to me."

"Hey.. big brother?"

"Yes?"

"... Your face looks really silly right now."

"Kana."

"Aah! I'm just kidding!"


"You know, there's another reason for this hairstyle."

They were back to walking when Shigure chose to break the ice. "Really? I-Is it another sad one?"

"Not at all. It's actually more of a coincidence, really. See, mother has long hair just as I do. Ergo, this way we match. I admit it's a small thing to note, but it's the little things that help me feel closer to her. I'm certain you're more than accustomed with the same feeling."

"Yup!" Kana agreed with a chirpy beam, up until her mind had actually processed his subtlety. "Hey! What's that supposed to mean?!"

Shigure spoke no words. Instead, he took a hold of her ridiculous hair bun, and in one swift motion, removed the sole ribbon keeping the wildly unstable ensemble together. "H-Hey! W-Wait, no, don't!"

Kana squirmed and wriggled but to no avail. The moment the ribbon slipped away, her bun came apart in a burst of voluminous hair that obscured her face and pooled around her on the ground, hair styled similarly to their mother's—on a bad hair day.

"Waaah! Bully!" she yelped. "You did that on purpose! Now Kana can't see!"

"Hehe, I suppose I'm guilty." Shigure chuckled. "The opportunity looked ripe for it, my apologies." he got down to her level and did his best to at least clear her face for her.

"I must confess that I'm no Forrest when it comes to coiffuring. I'm likely not even at mother's level, but let's see if I can fix this."


"Big brother?" Kana called, her bun more loose and erratic than ever before. "There's still something I don't get.."

"Mm? And what could this be?" Shigure asked, his eyes kept forward so he wouldn't have to cringe at his handiwork.

"Well.. um..." Kana fidgeted with her hands, unsure if she was intruding on some kind of border. "Um... those nice servants... You said.. um.. You said they thought big brother's short hair was a distraction..?"

"Yes, indeed I did. I grew it out as a way to circumvent that. What of it?"

"Well.. ah... How come?"

Shigure shook his head. "I was never given an official reason, but now that I look back upon it, I think the cause is quite plain to see. That invisible infantry.. You might say they were interested in me long before they ever attacked. Do you know why?"

Kana pondered heavily about it, but could think of no logical answer. "No, not really.."

"They were riding on a hunch. A notion that I held a special link to someone very dear to us, and they aimed to exploit it. In hindsight, their conjectures were true, more so than anyone could have known."

"But.. But how did they guess that?"

Shigure bent over, eye to eye with his sibling. "Kana. If you could, please—pull away my bangs for a moment and tell me. What do you see?"

And so she did. Lock by lock, Kana gathered handfuls of Shigure's bangs and swept them aside, slowly uncovering a rarely-seen side to her brother's face. By the time she was done, there was but one thing for her to look at.

A beautiful, piercing red eye staring right back at her.

Chapter Text

"Tada!"

"Er.. What is this?"

The rope was abruptly shoved in his face without so much as a warning. Kana had made the dreadful discovery earlier that day that her brother's schedule consisted of nothing but routine duties, unappealing chores, and aimless loitering, so she made it a mission of hers to reel him out of his stuffy tent at all costs. It was a challenge through and through, and it took her playing the teary-eyed tantrum card in order to finally convince him to follow her outside. Thus, her plan was in progress, and Shigure was none the wiser.

But if all that trouble was just to show him a raggedy old cord, he had to wonder if her priorities were in order.

"I-It's a rope, silly!" Kana beamed, signs of a faint struggle on her face. Shigure could see she was fidgeting as she stood on the tip of her bare toes to present it to him. "Ah.. Kana, I'm quite aware of that," he clarified as he steadied her with a pat on the head. "I meant to say what you wanted me to do with i—"

"Take it!" Kana blurted—and interrupted—back. When he hesitated, she pleaded to him. "Please! You promised we'd do what I want today!"

Shigure rose his hands and stepped back, a little apprehensive, but ultimately relented and accepted the rope after seeing her playful expression sour. It was a telltale sign that the waterworks were close, and the last thing he wanted was to be lectured by their mother for not being a more considerate sibling.

Not to mention that she had a point. He wasn't one to go back on his word. He sighed and smiled to lighten the mood (her mood, to be precise). "I did, I did, my apologies. What did you have in mind, Kana?"

'Ah.. That painting is never gong to be finished at this rate..'

Kana's pout vanished far quicker than it had appeared, and before Shigure could lament his personal woes further, she spoke. "I want you to skip with it, see if you can break my record!"

Shigure politely returned the rope not even a second later.

"Thank you for the offer, but I think not." he bluntly declined and turned away, stolid as can be.

"Huh?! B-But how come?!" she asked, upset (again). Apparently she had crossed a boundary she didn't even know existed.

Shigure cocked a brow, surprised that she was unable to put the pieces together right away. Then again, her knowledge of social norms could at times rival their father's (was it passed down?). Though granted, he had the excuse of having a half-hearted childhood comprised of being locked in a tower for gods knows how long, leading to a life of lurking in the unknown toward more-than-a-few customs. Their mother found it cute—endearing was the word she used—everyone else in the army used it as a gateway to tease him.

Whereas their father was a good sport to the many jokes at his expense, usually laughing heartily along with them, Shigure usually found himself miring in a pool of what he would later come to know as 'second-hand embarrassment'. He shivered just thinking about it. Never mind the awkward 'father jokes' or his wholly unconditional love. The man would often refer to becoming a parent as the 'single greatest accomplishment of his young life', and did so with a grin.

Apparently leading Valla and its inhabitants into an age of restructure was something of a second priority.

Shigure returned his focus to Kana, concluding that she was likely the majority beneficiary of their father's absentminded fruits. "I have my reservations." he answered coolly. "You see, I'm afraid I'm too old for such things."

Though his words were by all means genuine—if not slightly yearning for exemption—Kana took them as a petty excuse. "Hmph! Big brother is boring! Boring!" she cried in retaliation.

"Eh?!"

It was hardly the reaction he had expected—though close enough in retrospect—Shigure snapped out of his poise and immediately sought to offer a bandage-worthy compromise. "H-Hold on! W-We can play something else if you want!" he proposed with a palm held up, still holding desire to commit to his word.

His suggestions fell on deaf ears however. Rope in hand, Kana plopped flat on the ground and crossed her arms. "I wanted to see big brother skip rope.. " she muttered lowly. "Big brother's so cool.. He rides a pegasus and paints pretty pictures and sings sweet songs and has cool hair and makes friends with every animal he meets.."

"Why are you speaking as if I'm no longer present..?"

Marinating in a deep—if not childish—melancholy, Kana heaved a heavy sigh and resumed her melodramatic monologue. "He's so cool.. I thought he could do anything.. so I wanted to see if he could break my super special skip rope record.. but he woke up today deciding he wanted to be really, really, really boring.."

"Expressive of self-imposed limitations, more like." he calmly corrected.

Kana stared him down with pursed lips, right before submitting him to unwavering scrutiny. "I don't get it.. How can you be too old for something?" she asked, no doubt curious.

It was as if a light bulb went off in his head.

Realizing that this could likely double as her lecture for the day, Shigure thought carefully, and decided to convey a response to his muse in the form of an example—one acquired through prior experience.

"The same way you can be too young for something, I'd imagine." he answered. "You're familiar with what that entails, aren't you?"

That certainly struck a nerve. Kana loosened her arms gradually as she came to reflect upon the many times in which her small stature and generation denied her of just about anything that may have held her fancy. "Hmph.. Mama and papa say it all the time.."

'Kana. I'm afraid we're understocked on tents, so you'll have to share with your brother. Perhaps you can have your own when you're older.'

'Gah! Kana, p-put that down! That drink's not age-appropriate!'

'Kana, you're far too young to participate in the lottery. Its grief is a monumental burden that you're simply too young to handle.'

'Take this flute Kana, if a boy comes near you, blow it and I'll come to your rescue for at least the next thirty years!'

'Kana, this pendant... No.. Maybe when you're older.'

"But what does that have to do with you not wanting to skip rope, huh?!"

"More than you would suspect, actually. Just as there are things that you are too young for," Shigure continued, digit raised and all. "There are things that I am too old for. Certain brands of child's play, for example."

That in and of itself sounded alright enough to act as a justification, that is until Kana hit a blockade in his logic. "Hey! But you play with me all the time!" she spat.

"And you alone, and only if it's on my own accord. You on the other hand.." he paused, eyes rolling for a bit of an effect. "I believe you play with just about everyone in the army."

"Wha?! Do not! Big brother's spreading lies again!" Kana immediately countered back without a second thought. In truth, Shigure had been prepared for a comeback like this, and had preemptively prepared an arsenal of incriminating evidence to fire back at her.

"Mm. You play with mother, for one."

"Oh! Of course I do!" unaware of his tactics, she readily upheld his accusations. "I love mama a ton! We pick pretty flowers every day and she reads me stories before bed too! Heehee! Who doesn't play with their mama?"

"I don't." he retorted, unabashedly at that. "At least, not any longer."

"Waah! I'm gonna tell her you said that!"

Her juvenile threats did little to worry him, and he promptly proceeded with the rest of his exhibits. "Let's see.. You play with father often, there's no questioning that. You also engage in hide and seek with his younger sisters, not to mention giving his servants the runaround. I'd say you're very energetic, and that deserves another strike f—"

"Hey! That's not fair!" Kana cried, cutting him off to call a sudden foul. "I saw papa rustling your hair the other day! That should count! Cheater! Big brother deserves a strike too! A hundred strikes!"

Shigure held back a shudder, distinctly recalling that particular memory with nothing short of a flushed face. He was hoping she wouldn't remember that. "Er.. Well, y-yes.. " he mumbled, entangled in an awkward struggle. "..I suppose father is known to have a rather.. eccentric outlook on things.. and it is true that he can be very.. spoiling at times.."

'Hey! Shiiigure! Have I ever told you that you're the best son I've ever had?'

'Er.. FatherI'm the only son you've ever had.'

'Exactly! That's how I know you're the best, you're second-to-none! And don't forget it!'

'F-Father, my hair, you're touslin!'

'One daywhen this war is overwe're gonna go bear hunting, I promise! Just you and me, man to man alone in the wilderness with nothing but the bonds of familial passion by our side! Gods, I'm weeping just thinking about it!'

'B-But father! Bears are our friends!'

'Hm? They can be dinner too! It's called pulling double duty!'

"Father has some... difficulty accepting that I've matured." Shigure abruptly assessed, face still ablaze. There was no way to determine for sure where the trouble had originated from, but it likely stemmed from a combination of the man's sheltered youth, the halcyon days they spent together in the Deeprealms, and his profound desires to pass the childhood he never had unto his offspring.

The results were middling at best and wrought with gawkiness (points for effort though).

"That said, I never instigate his antics, so it doesn't count." he argued, though it came across as another paltry excuse. "Therefore, I have nothing against me. The same can't be said for you."

"Says who!?"

"Says I, and now that we've taken the time to establish that, you can understand why I refuse to swing this rope aroun—"

"Ahhh!" Kana promptly interrupted his grand speech with a precious yawn, stretching her arms out as far as they could go. "Nope!" she obliviously chimed. "I already forgot everything you said—big brother talks too much!"

"Th-That quickly?!"

"Yup!" she chimed again, smiling wide at the dumbfounded look on his face. "Big brother should have just sucked it up and skipped rope right from the get go! If I knew you were going to drag this out, I would have left you inside!"

Hearing that, the young man muttered aside. "I honestly think I would have preferred that.."

That easel was simply dying to be painted on.

Kana, as cheerful, pure, benevolent and blessed her heart may be, was still a stubborn child at the core and infamous for being hard to please (as if that really needed to be spelled out). Shigure had tried, he had given it his all, he had cut corners, offered middlegrounds, even presented an entire thesis about how she was so clearly in the wrong, but alas, it still was not enough to thwart her. The sheer fortification of his little sister's starry-eyed ambitions were too eternal to be dulled by mere compromise. There was no way out of it, he was chained by his word and his honesty.

Really, she was simply too powerful for her own good (was it the dragon blood?).

It was around that moment that Shigure came to acknowledge that his muse's one-way highway was for lack of better word, absolute, and he would have to sacrifice his dignity in order to remain in her good graces. Having dubbed himself a madman, Shigure glanced to the left and to the right before approaching Kana at eye-level. "That record you spoke of.." he murmured, all hush-hush like. "Er.. What was it, exactly?"

His whispers were enough to kindle a dreadfully fervent spark within her. Kana let out a lingering gasp, her mouth hanging open until it was fully agape. Her palms were clutching at her cheeks and there was an unmistakable twinkle in her eyes. Shigure had seen the look before, and grew accustomed to the fact that it almost always meant something really, really, really bad (for him).


"..You're requesting that I do six?"

"Yup!"

"Only six?"

"Only six!"

"Only six, no strings attached? That's all?"

"Uh-huh!"

"Only six, and as soon I accomplish that, I can be on my way?"

"That's right! Though I think it'd be better if big brother kept playing with me for the whole day! Heehee!"

It was safe to say Shigure's biggest mistake that day was assuming that her high score was actually anywhere near as impressive as her grandeur theatrics made it out to be (in her defense, six was likely a big number by her scale). Needless to say, Shigure felt a little foolish, and even briefly contested thwacking himself over it.

"Ah.. Well, we'll see about that," having given her no guarantees, he gave his surroundings a once-over, if only to ensure nobody was present to watch this travesty unfold (most especially a nondescript, non-specific poet).

How fortunate was he to discover that the rest of the army had far better things to do than watch him botch a child's pastime.

Shigure took a hold of the rope, firmly gripping both ends, getting a feel for its controlreminding himself that the worst must surely be overand was about to begin when he was met with an unexpectedly loud dissent. "Wait! Big brother, don't start yet! I forgot, I forgot!"

Perhaps there may have been a string or two after all.

He left his first jump on hold and met his muse halfway with a patient sigh. "And what might that be?"

Kana brought a hand to her chin, pausing to mull it over with her memory, foot tapping on the ground. "Um... You have to.." she began. "You have to.. ah.. say.. say.. somethingOh! I got it!"

Struck with sudden recollection like a brick to the head, Kana pointed excitedly at her brother and shared the quote unquote good news. "Big brother has to rhyme about vegetables while he jumps—or else it doesn't count!"

"E-Eh?" Shigure pulled a stumbling double-take, blinking twice. By the looks of it, he was well on his way to smashing a world record of his very own: just how many times this bun-toting tot could baffle him in a day.

"R-Rhyme?!" he stammered. "But you said!"

"And the rhymes have to be unique!" she asserted. "Big brother can't reuse vegetables either, every one he says has to be new!"

"Is that so..?" he honestly wanted to refute her but couldn't find the words (or endurance) to do so. "Forgive me, I wasn't expecting the criteria to be so strict.."

Especially since said criteria didn't exist until about five seconds ago.

Sensing his ever-humble modesty in effect, Kana offered support in the form of a cheery little fist pumping high in the air. "Don't worry big brother, I believe in you! I do, I do! You can do it!"

To that, he couldn't help but smile (she really was a handful). "Hehe, honestly Kana.." he shook his head and readied himself with the rope. "I take it you'll be keeping score then?"

"Uh-huh!" she grinned. "But um.. just one more thing before big brother starts!"

"Hm?" he craned his head at her, wondering how she could possibly lengthen this routine any further.

"Can you sing each rhyme? I like it when big brother sings!"


"Lettuce, potatoes, carrots and peas, mother would love it if you ate all of these!"

"Whoa, so cool! Keep going, keep going!"

"Squash, beans, peppers and yams, may I have some? Thank you ma'am!"

"Radishes, turnips, onions and beets, all of these are pretty neat!"

"Spinach, tomatoes, garlic and leeks, these all really make my week! "

"Hey, wait a minute! Tomatoes aren't vegetables, big brother! Uncle Leo said so!"

"E-Eh? They're not?!"

Chapter Text

"Kana, you're shaking again."

"Wha?! No I'm not!"

"You are. Please, for my sake, remain still."

The young artist drew his dripping brush from the easel, glancing at his progress before comparing it to his jittery muse. The disparities were nil, few and far between. To the naked eye, it was a near-perfect artistic interpretation, a solid piece brought to life by a truly gifted hand.

Hm..

A trained eye would argue otherwise, and Shigure's was well-within that scope. His perception adept to a T, no amount of blemishes could escape his scrutiny unnoticed, and very few of those could escape unscathed.

The glimpse was brief but it hardly mattered, whatever subdued contrast present was enough to draw a ragged sigh from his lips. With shades of relent, Shigure laid the brush down and looked across to his fidgeting model.

Something wasn't right.

"Big brother.." she tiredly whined, fighting the urge to break her fine-tuned posture (her smile would be the death of her). "A-Are you almost done?" she forced through the slits of her teeth. "I-I don't think I can sit still much longer.."

Far from it, honestly..

The artist brought a clammy palm to his face, rubbing his cheek with the other resting on his knee. "Actually.." he began, tone treading on an subtle degree of weariness. "On second thought.. perhaps it would be best if we start over."

It took the brunt of Kana's innermost self-restraint to not jump up right then and there (she settled for curling her toes as far as they would go). "Wh-What?! Start over!? But why?! D-Did big brother paint too rough and make a hole in the canvas, or mix his colors wrong, o-or make Kana's bun too big on accident?!"

A light smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as she tallied off her worries. "Hehe. No, no, nothing that extravagant, but if you were to ask me, a large bun would be quite accurate for you."

"Hey! Bully!"

His grin lingered for another moment, but trailed off as his thoughts returned to the painting.

"On a more serious note—Kana, I don't mean to come across as inconsiderate, but.. you don't exactly fit the mold for an ideal model—"

"Ahh!" to which he was abruptly cut off by the sound of Kana surrendering her endurance—and proving his point in doing so. She eased her muscles and practically sank into her chair with sweet relief, relief that instantly died upon registering his words. "..Wait, huh?!" her eyes snapped to chilling reality."N-Not ideal..? Why not..? I-Is it because I'm not cute enough?"

"Eh? No, it's nothing to do with your outward appeal, it's just.." Shigure hit a roadblock, and when he spoke again, it was with a decidedly calmer tone."How shall I put this.. You have a tendency to squirm around.. It's natural and difficult to suppress, I understand, but too much of it can affect the quality of the portrait."

"Oh.." Kana mouthed, her bundled bun seemingly drooping in despair along with her. "I didn't know... Kana can't keep still.. so big brother has a hard time painting.."

"That's right," he nodded, only to immediately double back after catching wind of her low spirits. "Er, not that you should feel ashamed!" he shook his head (rather hastily at that). "I-It is true that a good portrait demands an artist capable of envisioning detail, and a still muse works wonders for that, but even so.. it's quite a tall order to expect someone to stay in one position for so long, isn't it?.. I understand if you lack that endurance."

Her pointed ears perked at that, twitching with a faint need of assurance. "S-So.. it's okay if Kana's not as stiff as a statue?"

"But of course," he answered without hesitation. "After all, a sister sounds preferable to a statue, don't you think?"

Her ears perked again, this time in delight, and if they could perk any further they'd surely be jabbing holes in his tent. "Of course! Ehehe! No statue in the world could ever be as cute as me!" she haughtily declared. "Heehee, okay! We can start over big brother, I'll just make sure to keep really, really still this time!"

"Heheh.. Right, starting over.. About that.."

As if on cue, his eyes drifted back to the notorious painting, and as his gaze woefully reflected on the almost-refined-but-not-quite canvas, he held back an inward curse. Words alone could not convey its shortcomings, its faults, the little things that made him say 'this is good, but it could be better'.

To everyone else, it held the trademark zeal of his former works, but to Shigure, it was apparent that there was something amiss within his sister's illustrated form, something beyond mere surface aesthetics. What it was, he couldn't say, all he could discern was that its essence left a hollow, almost sterile feeling within him. Where it excelled in heart, it lacked in soul—

'Or.. does it excel in soul but lack the heart?'

'Or does it have neither..?'

If there was one thing he did know in that moment, it was that analyzing art—gods forbid his own—was a taxing ordeal.

'Art is subjective, I know thatI even told her as suchbut surely there must be some standards to live by.. ideally not any extremes, but at least something that would constitute a fair judgment..'

'Would starting over even fix anything?'

'Should I simply give up?'

Regardless of the precise issue, it still led him to the same verdict: if the muse wasn't at fault, then the artist was, and if that was the case, then he couldn't possibly condone a portrait of this caliber to epitomize his one and only sibling.

'Agh.. artistry is a cruel mistress..'

Truly, an artist has no greater critic in the world than himself (and people who are just genuinely bitter, but that goes without saying).

A brief pause followed, lasting until an impulse prompted the artist to act.

"Kana," Shigure began, facing away from the scathing easel. "Forgive me for asking.. but what exactly is this for?"

A solid and understandable inquiry, given the fact that for all the exasperating trouble Shigure had gone to for her in the past hour, Kana had not once elaborated to him the specifics of her unprecedented desire for a portrait.

A desire that, if recollection serves, was delivered unto him in a manner no quirkier than this:

"Hey, hey! Big brother! Can I ask a favor?"

"Oh! Kana, you startled me. What can I do f"

"Can you paint a picture of me?! Please, please, please!"

"Can Ipardon?"

"Ahh! So you will?!"

"Eh? So I will.. what? What will I be doi"

"Thank you, thank you, thank you! You're the bestest big brother ever! I'll meet you after Papa and I finish our 'Pretty Stone Collection Show-and-Tell'! Okay?"

"Okay..? Wait, stone collectio—?!"

"See you in twenty minutes!"

"K-Kana, wait!.. Agh.. Father.. your ideas of recreation are rather odd.."

The tent had been bereft of any bells, but it certainly sounded like one had just gone off.

Dumbstruck aside, what little context he could gather from that amounted to nothing more than a heightened awareness of his father's devout devotion toward inexplicably emasculating side-hobbies (not that it was surprising, the man was always a paragon for oddly-alluring naivete and did little—if anything—to hide it).

Having invested more than an hour into this commission, Shigure couldn't help but wonder if some of that had rubbed off on him.

"Duhh, what's this for?" Kana mimicked in a low voice, stifling a few giggles in-between (she was somehow convinced that her impression was the pinnacle of acting). "No reason!" she chimed. "None at all! Why? Does Kana need one to want a pretty picture from big brother?"

Shigure faltered, unable to argue such broad logic. "I.. well, not necessarily, I suppose," he gripped his chin, a fleeting doubt on the tip of his tongue that petered into a sigh. "Honestly.. I could never turn down an opportunity to lend a hand if you need something. You're my little sister, wishing to put a smile on your face and going to whatever ends to meet that goal is.. just something that comes naturally. Familial intuition, if you will."

"Familiar inter-witching?" Kana echoed to her best endeavor. From that, her lips twisted until they held a decidedly smug look, as if to suggest that his brotherly aptitude was fated to be met with all the cheeky, conniving wit that was to be expected from a diminutive, half-dragon misfit.

"Ehehe, big brother is like a servant! My servant!"

In her defense, he had most certainly met his goalpost.

"Call it as you please, I don't mind," he waved her off, a shred of spice to his speech.

'Though I doubt you'll be seeing me in a suit anytime soon.'

As if it mattered whether he buttled for her in a formal suit or a birthday suit, Kana had been so engrossed in the gushing giddiness of indentured sibling servitude that she hadn't noticed him getting out of his seat, much less halfway out the tent flap.

Shigure motioned for her to follow, and Kana noted that he seemed a little too eager to get away from the mess they had started.

"We've done enough painting for now. I think we deserve a break. We can return to this later, once we've freshened our minds."

Chapter Text


"And this one is quartz, it's my favorite! I found it in a spring by the mess hall, and see, see, big brother, look! It looks like a teardrop! A rock must've bawled it out when no one was looking!"

"That's quite the find you have there. I've only ever seen these in books myself. Usually they come in deep shades of violet, yet this one is transparent through and through. I hadn't realized there could exist variants this unique."

"Yup, yup! Papa says they come in all kinds of colors like, um. . . oh! This one over here! Opal! Look! Instead of just one color, it's like Mama Nature took all the colors that ever existed and mashed them together into one little stone! It's my other favorite!"

"Haha, I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but I see what you mean—and also see that father wasn't kidding. Goodness, it's like a rainbow!"

"Heehee! A rainbow inside of a tiny little pebble!"

"Indeed, I'm almost tempted to sketch it."

Ahem. Almost.

"And then there's this other one over here papa told me about.. um, what was it... oh—morganite! Check it out! Only one color, but it's pink and I really like pink so that makes it okay! One color or a ton of colors, it doesn't matter to me, I love them all equally!"

"Equally enough to dub each of them your favorite, I take it."

"Of course they're all my favorite—they're all so smooth and shiny and so, so pretty! I can't pick just one! Plus, if there was ever a stone I didn't like—and there wouldn't thank you very super-dee-duper much—it wouldn't be in my collection anyways! It's like I always say—a bad stone brings down all the good stones around it, and a good stone makes all the other good stones around it even goodlier! That's one-hundred percent certi-fried Kana Smarts for you!"

"Kana, the thing about catchphrases is that they tend to come, you know, naturally."

"K-Kana Smarts is a real thing! It is! And if it isn't, it will be in a little bit!"

"For all the wrong reasons, I imagine."

"Hmph, bully.. I bet you won't be so high and mighty after I sic my Dragonstone—my other-other favorite—on you! It lets me turn into a dragon and go rawrggh at bullies, bandits, and bandit bullies!"

"Yes, I'm about as acquainted with these as you are, though I like to believe my roaring is a little more refined, more mature."

"Mature? Ha ha! Everyone knows icky teenagers can't be mature, and you're still one of those, so case closed!"

"I-I'll have you know I'm not that much younger than fath—!"

"Ooh! I almost forgot about this one! Look, look! This one's azurite!"

"Ah.. If I must. Azurite, you called it? Oh, er, I'm afraid it's a little garish for my taste. I suppose there comes a time when even I'm surprised at how blue something can possibly be."

"Garish...? Hmph, I don't even know what that means and I still think it's rude! You're lucky mama's so nice and forgiving, she would be so hurt to hear you say that!"

"Er, pardon? I must have missed something—at what moment did our mother turn to stone?"

"When papa told me looking at it reminded him of her, of course! I think it's 'cause it's pretty, like she is. That's why I take very special care of it and why you can't say mean things about it!"

"Oh, is that so? Excuse my misgivings then, I wasn't aware it held such significance to you."

"It's okay! Hehe, you should have seen him, papa was acting so sweet and lovey-dovey! His face was all-red and he talked like he was reading a poem. He told me just holding it to his heart put him at ease, like mama was right there, hugging him close and soothing all of his troubles away. Of all my stones, it's my favorite-one-that-reminds-me-of-mama! But it's nothing compared to—"

"Oh? Kana, I hate to interrupt, but what can you tell me about this one?"

It wasn't enough that Shigure was being offered an exclusive firsthand look at the most coveted collection of precious minerals, gemstones, and shiny things this side of the Astral Realm—for free no less, he also had to bog the tour down with his own burning inquisitions (evidently, he was that kind of tourist).

Kana found it hard to blame him though, considering it was she who insisted on showboating her stones in the first place—a proposition that Shigure only gave in to due to her unyielding persistence and the self-delusion that nothing could possibly be better for an artist lacking in inspiration than to have a gander at the kind of naturalistic beauties he could only dream of encapsulating in imagery.

The art world was still a decidedly merciless mistress, one in no shortage of savagery for its devotees.

As for what exactly caught the artist's eye, Kana followed his enchanted gaze to the discreet, yet humble gem lodged ever so subtly in the corner of her treasury. It, like many of the riches to be found in her mini mobile emporium were distinct, no two rocks alike in shape, size, or color. Such values amounted to a logical explanation for the vibes emanating from the collection's most recent addition.

"You mean this one?" Kana hummed, plucking the mineral from its pocket. "Heehee, you've got good eyes, big brother, even if one of them's all covered up! This one is super special, I traded papa for it earlier today. It's a—"

But Shigure's curiosity was far greater than she (and he) anticipated, and he unintentionally jumped the gun on her.

"Is that.. Is that pure crystal?!"

But it was well-justified.

Kana reeled from the unexpected outburst but rallied her marbles quickly enough to shut him down with another crash course in gemology. "Hm, I take it back—big brother is as blind as a bat! A bat! This isn't crystal! It's um.. uh.. papa told me the name.. er—I forget, so we'll call it Fool's Crystal! 'Cause only fools think it's real!"

"Fool's Crystal..?" Shigure mouthed, deliberately ignoring her little aside.

Lucky was he that she was more than delighted to enlighten him.

"It's a pretty gem that only looks like real crystal!" she explained, trademark Kana Smarts in action. "Papa says it's not worth any money, but it still looks just as nice! And I bet you could play some fun tricks on your friends with it! Heehee, Midori's gonna think I'm the richest person ever!"

Kana seemed more than content with boasting of being at the envy of her diminutive peers, a childish ruse so tantalizing it had been replaying itself in her head ad nauseam from the moment the false crystal fell in her hands. She was rather crafty for her age and could get away with most anything—the rascal—so long as those things were relatively within the realm of juvenile innocuousnessFew people sought to stop and think about where the blurred line between misadventure and misbehavior began, though.

"Hm, I see. So you wouldn't consider it a 'bad stone' then?"

The girl was still fantasizing over the tricks she'd pull when her brother reeled her back to reality. "Huh?" she turned to him. "Of course not! Why would it be bad?"

The artist shrugged. "It was simply a thought of mine. I'm afraid I can't explain it in vivid detail—I'm not the revered gemologist here—but it's still puzzling all the same. Didn't you claim it was worthless just a moment ago, a shameless impostor of the real thing?"

"Uh-huh.." Kana slowly nodded, not quite sure of where he was headed (but more than sure she wouldn't like it).

"Then it stands to reason that an imitation would have no room to stand alongside the likes of any genuine treasure. Even the name you've given it suggests that only a fool could find worth in i—"

"Woah!" Kana yelped, her blue bun bouncing as she unconsciously slipped into her best impression of Felicia. "Woah, woah, woah! No more, no more! Not another word!" she cried. "That's enough of that crude teenager-talk of yours!"

Any offense Shigure could have taken to that was mitigated as he found himself bringing two fingers to his lips.

Pat pat, pat pat.

"Hm," he hummed. "Doesn't feel very crude to me—"

"T.. That's not the point!" Kana huffed, free hand waving frantically. "Just cause it's not worth anything doesn't mean it's worthless!"

An optimist way of looking at things, to be sure.

"'Things that are objectively worthless... aren't actually worthless,'" Shigure smirked, bluntly spinning her own words back at her. He chuckled and placed his hands on his knees to meet her at eye-level. "Did father teach you that as well?"

"Oh, uh-huh!" she smiled. "How'd ya know?"

"A-Ah well," the artist paused, hand at the back of his neck as memories of Kana's most recent birthday came to mind. "Let's just say father has a... unique understanding of wealth, so to speak—m-mostly due to Aunt Lilith's generosity."

"Oh! You mean how auntie showers papa with gold all the time? Gold she sorta pulls outta nowhere?"

It was certainly one way of putting it.

"Er, y-yesthat. I think it's emboldened father, to be frank. He doesn't view anything as worthless because he can afford just about anything, and if something has no monetary value, there's always the possible sentimental attachment it could bring that gives it some sense of worth. And if it lacks even that muchhe simply gives it one."

"So.. my crystal.. you don't think"

"You said it looked nice, didn't you?"

Kana nodded, gaze locked on her treasure.

"Then that's all the reason you need," he said, standing up. "It's no different than your azurite. One reminds of you someone we both hold dear, and the other is among the prettiest in your collection—both are strong sentiments that are worthy in their own right, whether or not they have a price can't take that away. "

"So when you tried to call it a bad stone.."

"I was testing those Kana Smarts of yours—or at least, I was trying to, I didn't realize father had beat me to the punch on this one. You two must be really into this little hobby, I take it."

"You bet!" said Kana as she placed the crystal back in its respective pocket, all the while marveling at the rest of her treasury. "Heehee, spending time with papa is so much fun! We trade stones, tell stories, and sometimes we dance too! I mean, I know papa's very busy all the time, mama too. They can't always make time for me, and sometimes that makes me feel lonely."

"Kana.."

"B-But that's okay! Because then it makes all the times we do get to spend together really special! And that's what makes my stones all the more"

"—valuable?" Shigure suggested.

Kana's mouth fell open in revelation, then closed in contemplation, then open again in refutation, then closed once more in toleration. She had half a mind to contest him on instinct alone, but whatever thoughts she could draw now petered out into nothing, so she simply went with his flow.

"Yeah, that's it!" she said with a bounce. "Ehehe, it's as valuable to me as your portrait's gonna be!"

Her gaze went starry-eyed and it was Shigure's turn to drop his jaw. "E-Eh, my portrait?" he asked, bemused at the shift in subject. "What of it?"

"You painted mama and papa for that big art show a while back, but you didn't put me in it! Now I get to have a pretty, priceless portrait of my own, and we're gonna put it next to mama and papa's, and I'm gonna love it, and it's gonna look great!"

"Hold on, I thought you said you didn't need a reason to want your portrait done."

The fanatical fireworks in her eyes fizzled as she sheepishly rubbed the back of her bun. "Oh, that! Ehehe, well, papa told me big brother was super stressed making the deadline for the art show. I wanted a picture just like mama and papa's, but I didn't want you going cuckoo and keeping yourself up all night over it like you always-always-always do, so I thought I'd tell you it was no big deal!"

"Something tells me you didn't think this through enough," Shigure discreetly mumbled.

"What was that?"

"O-Oh! Nothing, nothing, sister. I'm just feeling relieved is all. You might even say a little cathartic. Ahaha.."

"Big brother, no way, you didn't..."

"Obsess over artistic imperfections and irregularities while internally debating over subjectivity versus objectivity and whether or not I was losing my soul—why yes, yes I did. What did you think the break was for?"

"Shuh-guhhh-ray!" Kana frowned, employing a rare—albeit deliberately butchered—use of his name. "I can't believe you! Dummy! I told you it wasn't for anything important so you wouldn't get so worked up about it—and then you went and got worked up anyways! No wonder you wanted to start all over, you probably messed one little thing up and thought the whole picture was ruined!"

"K-Kana," Shigure began with shaky laughter, seeing her pursed lips and balled fists. "You have to understand, I-I tend to take my craft very seriously, regardless of how serious a commission i—"

She lightly pounded on his chest with a barrage of punches. "You make mountains out of molehills! Mooooolehills!"

"O-Only because I believe you and everyone else deserve my very best!" he explained, doing his best to get a word in over the savage slew of 'dummies' he was receiving. "I simply wouldn't feel right if I gave you a portrait I know I didn't give my all!"

Kana refrained from a response and simply continued battering him.

"Er, Kana..?"

The artist didn't feel bruised so much as bewildered.

"Kana, how long are you going t—?"

"What difference does that make!?" Kana exclaimed out of nowhere, tilting her head up to meet him. "Big brother's very best shouldn't leave him strained and losing sleep! How d'ya even know what your best is, anyway? How d'ya scale that? If you're painting so hard that it stops being fun, is that really your best? You'd be painting just to paint!"

"I-I, erm, well—"

She has a point.

At last, her fists came to a stop. "You're my big brother, I don't care if there's a few little mistakes that only you can see—I'm gonna like it anyways 'cause it came from you! That's what counts!"

That's what counts..

Oh.

Shigure's jaw was still hung open in disbelief, so Kana took the liberty of closing it for him.

"Ah.. thank you, sister. I suppose I needed that."

"Save your thanks for when I tell you how great the finished portrait looks! I mean, really! What kinda dopey teenager tries to teach his cute little sister about worth while also thinking his paintings have to be super-dee-duperperfect or else it's ugly and soulless and nobody will like it even though they all look pretty and oh woe is me?"

"I do not sound like that."

"Yes you do! You do! All the time! Here, undo my hair tie for me and I can look like you too!"

"That's it, break time is over. Kana—go back to being a statue."

Chapter Text

Yet the waters ever change.

Flowing like time.

The path is yours to climb.

Kana sniffled, her eyes watery and cheeks flushed. Her hot tears had finally run dry—a pent-up geyser of emotions that erupted late into the night. With nothing to stop her, the princess' walls gave way, and she cried into any soft thing she could get her mitts on—including the boy at her bedside.

Shigure passed Kana her handkerchief, his clothes stained with sorrow. Were it not for his calming voice, she would still be alone, weeping in the darkness of her quarters. He considered himself lucky to have been awake, ailed by his own overnight musings.

"Kana," Shigure gently said. "Are you well?"

It was a simple question—an icebreaker to temper the storm. Shigure knew the answer well before the words had even left his lips, but he wanted to ease himself into the situation.

Though her brother's song had soothed her, Kana was left with a hollow longing inside. The little dragon blew her nose, rubbed her eyes, and opened her mouth to speak, only to hiccup. A second hiccup followed thereafter, and so she settled on dipping her head and shaking it in shame.

"Did you have a nightmare?"

Her answer came to him in a mumble, and when he pressed her for clarity, she reluctantly spoke.

"...Mama... Papa..."

Shigure's heart fell, and he thought himself foolish for not realizing it sooner.

Kana hiccuped, grip tightening on the cloth in her hands.

"W-We.. We only.. j-just got them back... a-and then this.."

Reunited after what feels like an eternity in an alternate realm, only to be swept away into a different one—into a different conflict—soon after. Kana was young, the epitome of youth and purity. This was simply too much to take in.

Kana reached for her Dragonstone, her sole other keepsake, and held it to her heart.

"What if.. W-What if w-we never—"

Shigure quelled her fears with an embrace, one she did not hesitate to return.

"We'll find them," he said.

"B-But.."

"We will."

He paused, debating whether to tell her of Askr's impending arrival to the Temple of Frost, and the rumors he had heard of a prince and songstress among their ranks.

Askr. The enemy kingdom, the one his contractors wished to see seared into the earth.

"Everything will be alright," he whispered with regret, aware that the tides of battle would eventually betray such a vow. "I'll protect you, sister, both on the frontlines and off, until we find them again. I'll be your shield, just as mama and papa would."

"Y-You promise?" Kana looked to him.

Shigure started. "I promise."

If she noticed the slip in his voice, she didn't question it.

"Big brother," she pleaded. "D.. Don't go. Stay with me, please, at least until I fall asleep.."

She hiccuped, tears stinging the corners of her eyes.

"I don't want to be alone again."

He awoke the next morning, still by her side.

Chapter Text


"Do dee do da da dee-la! Tum te dum de bum boo-ba!"

"Kana?" came an inquiring voice from within the dressing booth. "Is that you?"

The girl ceased her ditty and planted her feet, stopping just short of the scarlet curtain between them.

"Yup! Sorry I'm late, I got a little sidetracked... and a little lost! But I'm fine now!"

"Thank goodness. You had me worried for a moment. Were you able to recover my score?"

Kana nodded, her blue bun bobbing as she briskly waved the sheet over her head. "Uh-huh! Ta-da! I found it under a pile of dusty old books in your tent! Ehehe, I can't believe you didn't think to look there!"

"Those books are more than just 'old', Kana. They're historical texts from hundreds of years ag—eh?" the voice started. "Wait, did I not check under there earlier? How odd, I could have sworn I—"

"Hehe, you were right, Kana," Kiragi butted in with a cheeky, boyish grin. "He really is blind!"

"Told you!" Kana beamed toward the boy with a bright smile of her own. "Heehee, blind as a bat!" she giggled, which brought him to giggle, which brought the both of them to giggle.

"Ah, oh well," the voice sighed, ignoring either comment. "It no longer matters now, I suppose. You have my gratitude."

"No biggie!" Kana chimed with a salute that went woefully unseen. "Does this mean you can come out now?"

"N-No! Ah, er, I mean, not yet, w-which is to say, I, uh, require more time to get ready—to be fully prepared and all."

Kana's expression fell. "Aww, c'mon!" the little dragon whined. "You've been in there for so long! So, so long! You can't play hide-and-seek forever! You can't! You've gotta set sail sooner or later! You just gotta! What if you get hungry? Or thirsty? Or hungry and thirsty?!"

Beyond some indecisive, indecipherable mumbling, the girl received no response, much to her dismay. The silence was not only deafening, it was rude.

"Hmmph!" Kana huffed, her cheeks puffing. "This calls for drastic measures! Drastic!"

She clasped her hands together.

"Please! Pretty please! We're all waiting for you! We wanna see! We wanna see!"

At first, there was no response. Kana was moments from adding a cherry on the top of her plea before the voice spoke once more.

"If I must.."

She beamed.

The kids reveled in their success as the curtains shuffled awkwardly, parting aside to unveil the teen of the hour.

"Well then," Shigure gestured to himself, as deadpan as his voice would allow. "How is it?"

In hindsight, Kana and Kiragi desperately trying to smother their laughter was something he should have anticipated.

"W-Wait—heehee—big brother—hehehe—no—hahaha—it's not what it looks like!" Kana babbled. "Th-This is from Kiragi's joke earlier—ehehe—honest! I'm not—heehee—laughing at it! R-Really!"

"I think it looks lovely," Forrest added, far quieter than the children beside him. "The style, the texture, the colors. It suits you."

"Truly?" Shigure's eyes widened. "You think so?"

"I do," Forrest nodded with a gentle smile. "There's a certain nostalgic air to it that I can't help but admire. I almost feel as though I've seen it somewhere before.. ah, but there's no way I could have. I'd surely remember seeing something so beautiful, so divine!"

"Divine?" Kiragi craned his head, confused. "He's only got one sleeve!"

"No, that's okay," said Kana, a clear expert on the subject. "My mama's missing a sleeve too. I'm more worried about the skirt! It doesn't even go all the way around!"

"Oh, you two," Forrest sighed, a hand cradling his cheek. "Still clouded by the unfortunate miasma of youth. You'll learn to appreciate the true essence of fashion when you grow older, or better yet, I could teach you both! My tent is always open for new pupils!"

"Not if get-ups like that are what you have in mind, friend-o!"

"Yeah! Siegbert gives me enough trouble with math as is!"

Shigure blinked, feeling as though things had gotten off-track somewhere. "I was beginning to think this outfit was a little too somber for me, but if someone of your cultured renown likes it, Forrest, then perhaps I should reconsider."

"That's the spirit!" Forrest cheered. "It's as I always say: to be loved by others, you must first love yourself! To let doubt and uncertainty consume you is to say 'I see no value in myself, so why should you?'. Embrace yourself and let the rest come naturally!"

Shigure chuckled, inspired by the troubadour's spirit. "Haha! I must admit, my concerns weren't that damning, but I appreciate your words nonetheless. I'm feeling more confident already."

"You're very welcome! You really do look great, you know. Why, I'm almost jealous. I may be fashionable to a fault, but even I doubt I could match this level of expertise."

"That's the thing," Shigure said. "The design is said to have come from my homeland. I presume that's why my mother wished to see me take the stage in it. I had been conducting research on it with what few remaining texts I could gather. However, even when pooled together, their information was largely vague. Intentionally so, I suspect."

"And yet you were still able to put something together! A tale for the ages, if I do say so myself."

"Haha, I have Oboro to thank for that. I supplied her with my notes and requested that she do what she can to fill in the blanks. That, paired with her tailoring expertise and my mother as inspiration, and this was the end result."

Kiragi nearly choked at the mention of the fierce-faced spear wielder, all manner of merriment draining from his face. "A-Ah! M-My mom made that!?"

"Why yes," Shigure grinned. "She did. As a matter of fact, I was just about to go and express my gratitude to her for all she's done. Won't you come with me? I'm sure she'd love to see you, as well."

Having caught the wiliness in his friend's voice, Forrest could not help but play along. He placed a hand on Kiragi's shoulder, equal parts blissful and sadistic. "I agree! What a splendid idea! I'm sure she would be most delighted to hear what her beloved child thinks of her craftsmanship!"

Kiragi's neck hairs stood on end. He could not immediately recall if he had ever felt a sharper shiver crawl up his spine.

"I still have some time before I'm needed onstage," said Shigure. "Why don't we visit her right now?"

"A-Ack! C-Come on, guys! T-This isn't funny! K-Kana, help me out here!"

"Huh? But she's your mama, not mine!"

"Actually, Kana," Shigure began, clutching the girl's shoulder as well. "Now that I think about it, we should pay our respects to mother as well. This was largely her idea, after all. She deserves to know our feedback, wouldn't you agree?"

"Uwaaaaaaaah!"

Chapter Text

"HmmMy help? Whatever for?"

Shigure blinked, equal parts flushed and confused. His face was much like a canvas—smooth, white, and just waiting to be dashed with color. Yet for as fitting as that was for a boy of his craft, it carried with it the lingering side effect of an easily readable heart on his sleeve. He hoped she wouldn't notice and even turned his head slightly to obscure her view and combat the odds, yet a sneaking suspicion in the back of his mind told him she had already caught it.

"A girl grows weary"

"Of her endless drudgery "

"She'd much rather sleep."

Mitama held a piece of paper to her lips to as she yawned, a gentle sound that carried as much rhythm as the verses that preceded it, while lacking the acerbic thorns of the rose that followed. "My father is an abhorrent cretin."

"Oh?" Shigure mouthed, so strangely taken with her wit. "How so—if I may ask?"

"He knows I hold slumber above all else—barring poetry—yet insists I shoulder the burden of these monotonous midday patrols," she lamented. "A darker fate, there is not. He wishes for an active daughter, yet there's nothing more draining than being roused three hours before dawn every day. Even my daytime naps are a thing of the past now."

"Goodness, that does sound taxing," Shigure frowned. "You're so accustomed to your sleep cycle. I can see how jarring this must be for you. Ah, but where do I fit into this?"

"A paragon prince"

"Heeds the sleeping maiden's call"

"Guard me as I nap"

"P-Paragon?" Shigure hiccuped, his face heating as he focused more on her syllable-friendly choice of words than her actual request. "I meanguard, yes, of course! So you intend to sneak a few naps in behind your father's back while having someone as lookout, I see. But why me, exactly?"

"Your darling sister"

"A shimmering cannonball"

"Who can't keep quiet"

"Kana?" Shigure mused, picturing a messy cyan bun. On one hand, it seemed completely and utterly out of the blue. On the other, it would explain why a certain little dragon and overactive archer were very blatantly hiding in the bushes nearby—meddlesome matchmakers without a touch of subtlety.

"I've been helping with her penmanship," Mitama explained, another yawn escaping her. "Her letters are splotchy, but her admiration is clear. When her letters aren't about 'papa' or 'mama', they weave a miles-long tale of the bestest big brother ever."

As if by instinct, Shigure sought to correct the record only for Mitama to beat him to the punch.

"Yes, I told her that 'bestest' is not a word."

Shigure clutched the flab of flesh that held his beating heart, attempting to still it to no avail.

"I thought I'd see for myself," the poet continued. "If even half the tales she spun are true. We can start with your impeccable patrolling prowess, the rest—whenever I'm caught up on my naps."

Channeling her inner automaton, she succumbed to slumber without another word, and would have collapsed were it not for Shigure's steady hold. Moved to act only by his own noble inclinations, he did not realize how close they were until her snoring broke the ice between them. Abashed, he quickly settled her against the castle wall and remained a watchful eye until he too, was lulled into joining her.

Kana giggled, more devil than cherub.

Chapter Text

Kana was a simple child, if something piqued her curiosity, she would poke and prod at it until she either understood it, bored herself of it, or became distracted by something else entirely. As a bubbly, bright-eyed youth, Kana brimmed with boundless childlike wonder, and nothing enabled that fanatical fascination more than a foreign world a few thousand scattered outrealms or so away from home. Under the regal mystique of the Askran banner, everyone and everything was a point of interest, and Kana found herself more than a little excited for the change in scenery. The kingdom was infamous for its siphoning of all manner of might from any outrealm the local Summoner could lock his dilapidated eyes on, meaning every day brought someone new for Kana to sink her inquisitive little fangs into.

"Mamaaaaa!"

"Mama...?"

Someone new—or someone familiar.

"See, see? I told you, big brother! I told you!" Kana huffed with pride, breathlessly scurrying back the way she came to tug Shigure along. "It's mama! Tiny mama! Just like I said! Come on, come on! You're always so slow! Turtles are faster than you!"

"Settle down Kana, you've been told countless times not to run in the halls. This isn't a race."

"Well it should be! There's an itty-bitty little mama just around the corner and you're giving snails a run for their money! Are you even the teeniest bit excited or what?"

"No more than usual, I'm afraid."

This wasn't the first time the little dragon dragged her brother out from his makeshift den of unfinished artistry to welcome a new hero, nor would it be the last. Shigure could only sigh, for it seemed even an alternate world could not keep his sister from showing him every little thing that garnered her easily attained attention. Their trips were unpredictable if anything, from meeting amicable heroes of legend to cackling sorcerers whose greetings were not kind so much as mad rantings with a side of death and despair. They would even stumble across people from their own world on occasion, be it one of their many aunts and uncles, the retainers who served them, or on rarer occasions, one of the other children from the Deeprealms. Nina was the most recent in that regard and had Kana grinning from ear to ear as she was summoned, though the archer herself was far more happy to see Shigure, her nostrils billowing with steam and a rivulet of blood as she pressed the artist for the whereabouts of his male confidants and whether he would be regaling with them in any barrel-heavy rooms anytime soon. To her miasmic dismay, the samurai and fashionista necessary for such a boy-laden jamboree were nowhere to be found.

But that was then and this was now, and Shigure was all but certain that his sister's eyes were playing tricks on her.

"Are you sure you aren't simply mistaking this girl for someone else, Kana? Honestly now, a 'tiny mother'? Whoever she is, I wager she must still be in disarray from her summoning. The last thing she needs right now is someone like you adding further confusion into the mix—"

"Um.. Are you talking about me?"

It was near instantaneous. As soon as he saw her, Shigure froze dead in his tracks, his eyes wide open and lips slightly ajar as his geyser of conviction desiccated in record time. He was—in a word—dumbstruck and looked as if he had seen a ghost, and he may as well have considering the girl addressing him bore so many of his mother's key characteristics it was borderline uncanny to an almost supernatural degree. His cognizance bowed out for only a moment before returning to him in the form of a shocking interjection that would sound ridiculous were it uttered in any other context.

"M-Mother..." he called in disbelief, visibly shaken. "You've shrunk!"

"And so has my grail hoard," the Summoner bemoaned from the sidelines, his interest less than microscopic. "What a waste. Alright, see you losers. Play nice—or don't. I don't care."

"Thank you Mister Summoner!" Kana waved as Shigure diligently rubbed his eyes to reassure himself that he wasn't dreaming. "See, big brother? I told you tiny mama was real! So real, so tiny, and so cute! Just like me, heehee!"

The summoned girl fidgeted in place but otherwise remained quiet. Such attention and praise was as new to her as the ground beneath her feet, and she wasn't sure if she liked it.

Although Kana was more than willing to accept their little dash of serendipity with a big toothy grin, Shigure was still in the coping phase. It was as though he was staring into a mirror—or rather, a living portrait from a bygone era. Her hair, her eyes, her reservation, her hauntingly familiar pendant—everything about the girl struck a chord within him that resonated with the image of the woman who welcomed him into the world. Even her clothes seemed like a more child-fitting approach to his mother's usual attire, and if that didn't give her identity away, then her lack of footwear certainly did.

"Goodness..." the artist breathed. "The Summoner's truly outdone himself this time, hasn't he?"

His stupor waning and sense returning, Shigure knelt down to meet the girl, who naturally shied away from the stranger's advances. "My sincere apologies for the outburst, that was rude of me. I'm sure you have as many questions for us as we have for you."

Shigure was met not with a response but with a tome, a dour lexicon with which the shy girl hid behind with an uncertain squeak.

"Eh?" Kana tilted her head. "That's not a very good hiding spot, you know! I can still see you!"

"Ha, there's no need to be afraid," the artist chuckled with a shake of his head. "I promise you're in good company, trust me. My name is Shigure, and this bundle of energy is my younger sister, Kana. It's a pleasure to meet you, ah..."

Shigure trailed off, an intentional strategy on his part.

"... Azura," the girl muttered reservedly, hugging her tome to her chest. "I'm a princess of Nohr..."

"Azura?" Shigure's eyes widened, though he opted to keep the conversation going rather than risk scaring her with emotional baggage she was less than ready to be faced with. "What a lovely name, and you're also a princes—?"

"Ahhhhh! A princess?! That's so cool!"

"Augh! K-Kana, please!"

Shigure grunted as Kana clamped her hands on his shoulders, bounding over him in a single hyperactive leap that sent him tumbling.

"I'm a princess too! Really, I am! That means we can be princess friends, mama!" Kana boasted excitedly, clasping Azura's hands with all the awe in the world glistening in her eyes. "And Nohr! Nohr! I know where that is! I do! It's a little dingy and gloomy and sad but I've been there before! That's even more reason we should be princess friends! Uwaah! I wish we were there right now! Auntie Elise showed me this store one time we were out shopping—they have the prettiest little flowers in the world! You'd love it! Your frown would turn upside-down in a jiff if you saw it!"

Shigure groaned as he picked himself off the ground, clutching his temples as he observed the two girls interacting. 'Gods, it's as mystifying from a distance as it is up close.' he thought to himself. 'But even so, how in the world did this... She called herself Azura and cited Nohr, didn't she? There can be no doubt about it then... If the Summoner's power is to draw people from other worlds, who's to say that he cannot pull from worlds steeped in different periods of time? A version of our world—wherein the past we've already endured is her unfolding present. Mother...'

"Flowers?"

"Yup! Auntie Elise even showed me how to make necklaces with them! I can show you too if you want, mama!"

'Is this really what you looked like in your youth?'

"Mama," Azura mumbled, the small inkling of a smile on her face petering as she uttered the word. "You keep calling me that, but I'm not old enough to be anyone's mama... We've never even met before today..."

"Ehehehe," Kana giggled. "Mama is still mama, no matter how big or small she is—simple as that! I can't sing as good as you do, but the color of my hair should be enough proof! Oh, no wait, even better! Mama just got back from today's raid, didn't she big brother? I could take you to her myself! Then you'll see!"

"Ah, Kana," Shigure interrupted. "Perhaps it would be wise to explain everything else to her first—such as where she is, for starters. Please, quite literally anything else before things like that."

"I'm gonna! Hold your horses, big brother!" Kana puffed her cheeks. "Okay mama, listen loud and clear. So we're all very, very, very far away from Nohr, and basically this is a magic place where anything can happen, anyone from anywhere can appear at any time, and your wildest dreams can come true!"

Shigure nearly hit the ground again.

"A place... where dreams can come true?" Azura spoke in disbelief, her eyes filled with just a little bit of the same hopeful spark that had taken Kana. "It's a little strange, but I understand... Yes, I'll be your princess friend then, um, if that's okay... Are the people here nice?"

"Yup! Everyone's friendly! I'll show you around! I was a little scared myself at first, but you'll get used to it quick! We can meet mama, papa, all of the others! I've got friends who'd love to meet you too! There's Fae, Myrrh, Nowi, Tiki! They're all dragons and—oh! That's another thing! I'm a dragon too! Rawr!"

"D-Dragon..!?" Azura gasped.

"Please Kana," Shigure pleaded. "You're going to make her head spin at this rate..."

Alas, Kana was already well on her way back to the barracks, holding Azura's hand and guiding her along the way. "Who do you want to see first?" she asked. "We have to meet my mama no matter what, but papa's cool too! Um, ummmm, oh! There's a new dragon—I think her name is Idunn—that was summoned a few days ago! She's a little quiet, but maybe if I ask real nicely she can be my big sister! What could happen? It can't go as bad as the time I asked Mister Grima to be my friend! Heehee! He was so mad!"

Shigure sighed for the second time that day, ignored with his head hanging low as though the final spotlight had shut off on the stage, leaving him in total darkness.

"I suppose now I can get Nina's portrait done..." he said to no one in particular. "Though I'll definitely have to talk to her about the 'modeling' I promised in return..."