Ookanehira's flying red kite was still below the one with a fox face. He was going to reach the highest height somehow.
"You're doing very well, Kogitsunemaru," Mikazuki said to his fellow Sanjou sword. "And you didn't practice beforehand."
Ookanehira tsked. The only reason he was participating in this kite festival celebrating the sakura blooms was because the Tenka Goken made and flew their own contraptions. Otherwise, he'd never join in this juvenile pastime. He unwound string from his reel, but his kite merely swayed to the left, decreasing its height.
"Tea snacks are here," Uguisumaru and Imanotsurugi set trays down on the engawa. "Do you want some, Ookanehira?"
"No, I'm busy."
"What a lovely sight," Juzumaru walked with Nikkari on to the courtyard, both holding parts of the Aoe kite.
Ookanehira stiffened at the sound of Juzumaru's voice. He knew Juzumaru was going to be here, so why was he tensing up? Why was it so hard to even look at him, despite all the things they had done together?
"Morning, Juzumaru-dono, Nikkari," Mikazuki said to the duo. "Oh, what's that in your hair?"
"A lotus hair clip," Juzumaru wore it near his ear. The clip's petals glinted under the sunlight. "Ookanehira-dono gave this to me."
"My my, Ookanehira has impressive taste," the two Tenka Goken continued to chat about the hair decoration.
Mikazuki's eyes were on Ookanehira's back; he could feel the weight of those crescent irises, the underhandedness. His ears were burning. Mikazuki was trying to humiliate Ookanehira in the worst way possible. And yet, the redhead couldn't say a thing. All he could do was stare up at that damned kite of his. One day, Mikazuki would pay for this. Ookanehira would get stronger and show who was the strongest, most beautiful sword around here.
"Ookanehira-dono, how are you?" Juzumaru stood beside the other tachi.
Ookanehira's jerked up, straightening his back. He couldn't utter a sound. Worst of all, Juzumaru was wearing that hair decoration. Everyone would know about that one moment of weakness when Ookanehira admired girly jewelry that reminded him of Juzumaru. Ookanehira bought that hair clip on a whim because it was pretty. When did Juzumaru decide that accessory was worthy to wear in public amongst his tresses? Regardless, it would be rude to ignore him. "I-I'm fine. How're you?"
"Very well, thank you for asking," Juzumaru and Nikkari lifted and released their kite into the air. A blooming lotus on a purple background flew up and mingled with a dozen other kites.
Ookanehira should have decorated his plain kite; others had colourful tails or sparkled with glitter. He wouldn't be overlooked, as he had been when he was a sword; if he wanted to be outstanding, he would cast the highest kite in the entire citadel! He unrolled even more string. This time, the kite swerved and rose above all the others.
"Look how long and high he's risen," Nikkari said.
Shut up, pervert, sometimes, Ookanehira didn't understand how foul Nikkari and pure Juzumaru were related.
A gust of wind rushed by the courtyard, setting off sakura petals swirling everywhere. Some kites were knocked out of the air. Ookanehira pulled on his string to keep a handle on his kite's place, but it was no use. It struck the Aoe kite and they both dived into a nearby tree.
"This is unfortunate...," Juzumaru said.
"Should we have some tea and snacks?" Nikkari shrugged.
Ookanehira, on the other hand, was frozen. How could something so terrible have happened? He could blame the wind, but he still felt at fault. He had gone and ruined Juzumaru's time at the festival. There was only one thing he could do.
"I'll get it back!" Ookanehira ran towards the tree without waiting for a response. Juzumaru raised his hand up halfway, but Ookanehira never saw it. He didn't have to go so far to help them.
Ookanehira, when he reached the tree, jumped and grabbed onto the trunk. His arms and legs propelled him upwards into the branches. A petals rained down on his face. Ookanehira cursed and swatted the pinkness away from him. He was on a mission of redemption. He stood atop a thick branch and scanned the tree. Amongst the sakura bloom was a tangled lotus kite resting with a red one. It was hanging just a few feet above him; he had jumped greater lengths on the front lines.
"Ookanehira-san?" Imanotsurugi was at the base of the tree, staring up at the tachi.
"I'll be down in a minute," blanketed by these sakura, no one else in the citadel could see him. He jumped up, clutched the kites, dragged them down, and landed back on the branch. He brushed the petals and twigs off the kites. The least Ookanehira could do was make them presentable again. Juzumaru had put in a whole week's worth of time crafting this. Here Ookanehira was, turning what was supposed to be a fun experience for everyone into another competition. He had managed to reach the highest point in the flying competition, but what did that prove to anyone?
He discarded the red kite onto the ground and then he descended down to the ground.
"Are you alright, Ookanehira-dono?" Juzumaru and Nikkari reached the tree. His lips were pressed together in worry.
Ookanehira stared at the ground. He had caused too much trouble today. He raised up the kite to Juzumaru. "...take this."
Juzumaru put his hands on the kite, paused for a moment, and then took it out of Ookanehira's grasp. Questions wanted to be asked, but the words couldn't be formulated here, not with this many swords around.
"I have to go," Ookanehira headed back into the citadel. Juzumaru would probably enjoy this festival better without the other man. Juzumaru didn't bother to protest; when Ookanehira was in a mood like that, he couldn't be changed.
"He'll be fine," Nikkari patted Juzumaru's shoulder.
"There is much on his mind," ever since their first counter, Ookanehira was uneasy around the other. Juzumaru could recommend meditation to clear Ookanehira's thoughts.
"Obviously," Imanotsurugi giggled. He remembered that time Ookanehira put his coat over Juzumaru on the front lines and all the effort the redhead put into making lotus origami. "Especially when Ookanehira-san's around you."
Juzumaru frowned. He knew the other tachi got nervous around him, but never understood the reason. Ookanehira was never flustered around Oodenta or Mikazuki, so why was he so different with Juzumaru?
"Brother, have you ever considered what happens when one's infatuated?" Nikkari's red and yellow eyes were brimming with amusement.
Juzumaru had suspected that there was something amiss in Ookanehira's heart, but was it really attraction? How did Juzumaru himself feel about this whole predicament? These human emotions were distractions from important spiritual matters and destructive at worst, but Ookanehira having feelings for Juzumaru didn't seem so sinful. Would that much change if Ookanehira acknowledged his feelings? Juzumaru also needed to consider what to do with this new information.
"Anyways, let's go back to raising our kites," Nikkari said. "I can explain all of this to you later. Ookanehira just has a hard time processing these things."
The saniwa's study was open when Ookanehira stood at the front entrance. Rinko was reading something on her computer. Shokudaikiri had left a tray of confectioneries by her desk.
"Master, can I speak to you?" Ookanehira said. His heart was thumping from his running.
"Of course," she smiled and set her laptop aside.
He inhaled, marched like a soldier going off to war, and sat seiza across from her. He stared in stoic seriousness at her. Rinko chewed on a plum flavoured sweet.
"So, what is the matter?"
Ookanehira gripped his thighs, fingernails dug into his pant legs. He stared down and grimaced. "You've been human for the longest here, so I wanted to ask you...."
"Yes?" Rinko ate a red bean treat.
Ookanehira clutched his chest now. That damned heart of his was beating too quickly. Whenever he heard or thought of Juzumaru, his body would always react like this. No one else could unnerve him like this, not even on the battlefield. Why were so many things in conflict? The desire to outdo the Tenka Goken was supposed to be a straightforward goal. "Why...does Juzumaru...have this hold on me?"
"What do you mean?" Rinko already knew the answer and heard of the rumours, but Ookanehira needed to contemplate his feelings first.
Juzumaru and Ookanehira continued to exchange origami. He had a large enough collection to make a miniature paper garden in his room. He could use blue paper to create a pond and green to make cutout lily pads. He could have an excuse to invite Juzumaru to his room. Ookanehira wanted to go back to the jewelry store to find more fashionable hair clips. Next time, he would be on the lookout for rose shaped ones. Just thinking about all of this made him want to punch himself. He didn't know what he was going to do with himself.
He unclutched his shirt and put his hands on his lap in defeat. This body was supposed to help him strive to be the best warrior. This form required much effort to maintain than a blade and adding in emotions complicated things further. It seemed there were more things to life than being the strongest man around.
"Is this 'hold' Juzumaru has on you a bad thing?" Rinko said.
"...no," now that he thought about it, Ookanehira was always learning new things, like origami. In the crafts room, Juzumaru sometimes spoke about Buddhist philosophy; he had such a thoughtful understanding of the world. Ookanehira was tempted to read some scripture to comprehend what monks had contemplated over the centuries. While seeing Juzumaru walk towards him made Ookanehira flutter inside without failure, it was an excitement that sparked his reaction. Nothing else made Ookanehira feel such a stirring of warmth or motivate him to do the right thing.
"Then, what you have is good," Rinko was saying this simply, as if she was speaking to a child. "But what are you going to do with yourself? Juzumaru is not the problem."
Should Ookanehira articulate to Juzumaru what he felt? Could either of them understand? If Ookanehira was rejected, he would become the laughing stock of the whole Ashina Citadel. Mikazuki and Oodenta would never live it down, that was certain. Ookanehira was stuck in this vortex of feelings; there was nothing to free him. He had to accept that he felt something special for Juzumaru, and it was ultimately a positive sensation.
Ookanehira wished he had never come to Rinko's study; she was going to tell Nikkari, at the very least, about their conversation. Either way, the emotions he had were brimming and they needed to be addressed between him and Juzumaru one day. He could only hope that whatever the outcome, it would be dealt with little humiliation. At this point, Ookanehira didn't know what he was hoping for at the end of all this. He still had one last thing to do today.
"My, my, you've returned," Mikazuki said.
Ookanehira walked on the engawa towards the rest of the swords for the sakura night viewing.
Mikazuki, Oodenta, and Juzumaru were all sitting on the engawa, sharing a tray of snacks. Ookanehira was tempted to tell Mikazuki and Oodenta to get lost, but that would be a rude thing for Juzumaru to witness. Besides, tonight was alight by lanterns and their warm colours. The sakura petals on the ground and trees reflected the light and looked even pinker.
"Are you alright, Ookanehira-dono?" Juzumaru said. Ookanehira had left so suddenly in the morning.
"I-I'm fine," Ookanehira cleared his throat. He was grateful that it was still dark enough to hide his blushing face. "Juzumaru...do you want to walk around t-the garden?"
Oodenta side-eyed Ookanehira, but said nothing. Mikazuki merely chuckled as usual.
"I'm honoured to accompany you, thank you for the invitation," Juzumaru excused himself from the engawa and both he and Ookanehira made their way to the garden. Juzumaru followed behind Ookanehira. Unlike Mikazuki's stare, Juzumaru's gaze felt gentler on Ookanehira. Still, his heart was beating quickly again; there was nothing to suppress it.
"The sakura are lovely tonight," Juzumaru said. "Do you agree, Ookanehira-dono?"
"...yeah," this was just the beginning of the blooming. In a week, the citadel residents were going to go to a park to see even more trees at their peak.
"Do you remember this pond?"
Ookanehira stopped in his tracks. The pond nearby didn't look particularly special. A few carps were swimming up to the surface, splashing, and waiting for crumbs.
"This is where we first met," that morning was golden and the lotuses rose above the water. Ookanehira had ignored the wonderment of nature and fixed his sight on Juzumaru.
Ookanehira was beginning to sweat. Why was Juzumaru bringing this up all of a sudden? At the very least, he would force out what he needed to say. He turned to Juzumaru and bowed down at the waist. "I'm sorry about today!"
The kite entanglement incident was hardly worth Ookanehira being this impassioned. His behavior made a little more sense now, since Nikkari explained things to Juzumaru. Regardless, he would acknowledge this apology.
"I have already forgiven you," Juzumaru bowed in return. His lotus hair clip also leaned forward a little. "I'm grateful that you retrieved my kite."
Why did Juzumaru have to be so kind? If only he was as cold as Oodenta or snide as Mikazuki, Ookanehira could dash these feelings away.
"T-the fish are hungry. Do you want to feed them now?"
"I'll retrieve the crumbs from the shed, please wait for my return," spending any extra time together had to be progress for their relationship.
"Did something happen?" Oodenta said, when he and Mikazuki were left alone on the engawa. Ookanehira and Juzumaru dropped carp feeding into a pond. Ookanehira's blushing was clear from this distance. Who would have thought that loud and boisterous opponent in sparring matches could be so subdued? Oodenta didn't understand it.
"In the morning, Ookanehira was very kind to Juzumaru-dono," Mikazuki sipped on some tea; this was perfect for the weather and viewing.
"Even kinder than when he gave Juzumaru his coat?" Oodenta didn't believe that event, if it weren't for Uguisumaru, Imanotsurugi, and Nikkari verifying Mikazuki's account.
"And more generous than exchanging origami," Mikazuki started chuckling. There was surely more fun to come as Ookanehira and Juzumaru sorted things out.