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i could not ask for a sweeter downfall

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"Seiichi's arriving tonight," Renji says at lunch; he's known the date for weeks, but he had received a text with the exact time only the night before. Genichirou makes a noise of acknowledgement, and Renji continues. "Will you be meeting her at the station?"

"I can't," Genichirou replies. "I'm needed tonight at the dojo."

"She'll be disappointed," Renji replies. Genichirou does not respond.

*

"Renji!" Seiichi shouts, and her smile is bright in the warm September night.

"Seiichi," Renji says, smiling back, and she hugs him. Renji closes his eyes, turns his face into her hair, breathes in. He smells pomegranate and tea – she must have run out of shampoo while abroad and had to resort to some foreign product instead.

"Genichirou couldn't make it, I'm guessing," she says.

"No," Renji confirms. Out of the corner of his eyes, he notices people here and there stopping to look at them, and some of them raise their phones, no doubt snapping a picture. Even though Seiichi's got a pair of glasses on (purely for show, Renji knows), and she's wearing the brands she wore before going pro instead of the expensive ones she advertises for these days, she still cuts a distinctive figure, an enigmatic blend of strength, beauty, and charisma. Renji vaguely wonders whether any of the pictures will end up on some celebrity gossip site—both he and Genichirou have been linked to Seiichi before, their names and details tracked down by determined fans, and people still speculate about the existence of a love triangle between them, despite (or perhaps because of) Seiichi's insistence that the three of them are only friends.

"Will you help me with a bag?" she asks. Renji readily assents, and after he takes her suitcase, they make their way to the subway station quickly so that no-one gets a chance to stop them and ask for an autograph or a picture or both. When Seiichi had first become famous, Renji had offered to drive her in his father's car when he could, but she had refused, saying she wanted to live normally if she could. Renji is surprised it's lasted this long, though he shouldn't be, because he is long past being surprised by the force of Seiichi's will.

They fall back into the same easy rhythms like they always do, Seiichi's brilliant smile, her honey-sweet voice, the length of her arm pressed against his as they sit together a familiar warm presence. Renji feels selfish for being glad that Genichirou isn't with them, but they've both loved Seiichi since the days they were all at junior high together, and he still can't tell whether Seiichi feels something beyond friendship for either of them.

Renji will take what he can get.

*

Seiichi joins them for lunch the next day. What they do the day after Seiichi comes back has become tradition, something for which all three of them clear their schedules. She arrives last, and Genichirou stands to hug her. Renji watches them, catalogues the way Genichirou's arms wrap around Seiichi, as if she is everything precious to him, the way Seiichi smiles softly into the hug, assured and satisfied. Renji does not know if he should feel jealous, has never known.

Renji and Genichirou both have afternoon classes, so they agree to meet at the school tennis courts at 15:00. Seiichi is already waiting when they arrive, sitting on a bench outside the courts with her racket bag resting against it. She's wearing her old high school uniform, that familiar shade of mustard yellow and white, because who would think to look for Yukimura Seiichi in these ugly school colours? she had said, laughing, the first time. It's certainly not uncommon for high schoolers to reserve time on the university courts; they had done so themselves back then.

They always play a set together when Seiichi's back, for old times' sake, though Seiichi is now far beyond either of them. Genichirou had left tennis club in the middle of second year, with growing responsibilities at the dojo, while Renji had left at the end, because he had to begin preparations for applying to Toudai's grad school, and playing tennis by himself has never been worthwhile. He and Genichirou still play casual games on weekends, but they aren't as sharp as they were under the constant edge of regular practice and competition, and they have become severely lacking when compared to Seiichi, who has been honed by playing against the world's best.

They enjoy it anyway, because tennis is what first brought them together, the string that still binds them to each other once the layers and years of friendship are peeled back. People walking by give them a glance or two (because it's always a bit odd to see a man and a woman play against each other, though the three of them are long used to this), but the only photo taken is near the end, when Seiichi is sitting to the side, watching Renji and Genichirou play against each other. A guy walks by, vaguely glances at them, then resumes walking, only to do a sudden double-take and stop. He watches them for a bit, but when he realises that Seiichi isn't going to play anytime soon, he gets a cameraphone photo of Seiichi watching the two of them and leaves.

Renji mentions this to Seiichi when his game with Genichirou finishes (Genichirou wins, of course, 7-5), and Seiichi just shrugs. She's used to this, Renji knows, but that doesn't mean he has to like it. When he gets home and logs in to his e-mail, he finds a message from Sadaharu. It contains a link to a celebrity gossip site, and Renji is unsurprised to find the image from the afternoon already there. The caption says, Yukimura Seichii spotted with her two boytoys! Is this a duel for her heart? It's cheesy as hell, but Renji knows that this is the sort of gossip that people love, the same sort of gossip that had followed them through junior high and high school.

Seiichi is asked about the picture when she appears on a talk show the next day. She laughs with her usual grace, says, "No, we just like to play a game together when I'm back. It's how I met them, you know—they were the strongest male players at Rikkai junior high, I was the strongest female player, and I wanted to see how good they were."

Seiichi's desire to be the best is well-known, and her answer could have been good enough, but it's not in the world of celebrity gossip. "I don't think there's a need for them to play against each other, though. Surely they can play against each other any time," the female host says. Renji knows why she says this, and he's 90% sure Seiichi does as well.

Seiichi just shrugs. "It's custom for us each to play a game against the other two. It's not like I get to watch any games they usually play together." She is using her quietly dismissive tone, the one that Renji knows means she's finished with the topic, but the host asks one last question.

"Will you at least let your admirers know if they've got a chance against those two friends of yours?" she says, smiling widely.

The smile Seiichi gives is the one that tends to appear on her face when she's facing someone she finds particularly unworthy. "Anyone who's interested, why don't you ask them yourselves? You've already dug up their contact information." It's a typical challenge from Seiichi, though Renji is a bit displeased at being officially dragged into all of this by Seiichi.

He gets three hundred thirty-six e-mails to this effect over five hours. It's better than what he had anticipated. Renji deletes them all without reading them, then texts Seiichi, Because of what you said on the talk show today, I received 336 e-mails over five hours from people who want to know their chances with you.

Renji receives a reply from Seiichi fifteen minutes later. It's sooner than he expects, because he knows from the schedule Seiichi e-mailed them that she is filming for a variety show right now. Sorry, I didn't realise I would be causing trouble for you and Genichirou when I said that. Let's go see a movie on Saturday. I'll pay~ As if the cost of three movie tickets means anything to Seiichi these days, but Renji recognises Seiichi's offer for the apology it is.

He agrees, and spends the rest of the week deleting hundreds of e-mails every day.

*

Genichirou can't make it, as he so often can't these days. Sorry, I have family business already planned for Saturday, he texts them. Seiichi replies with You're always busy now. We've barely been able to hang out the last few times I've been back >_>, and Renji can see a slight feeling of rejection in Seiichi's words, the subtle blend of indignation and hurt. Genichirou texts back, Things have been very busy for me lately. I'm sorry. And then, a minute later, We seem to both be free Sunday afternoon. I'm happy to do what you want to do. Are you free as well, Renji?

They decide to see a movie together on Sunday instead, with Seiichi paying, and Renji agrees to go shopping with Seiichi on Saturday. They had often gone shopping together during junior high and high school; most of Seiichi's other friends didn't dress in her style, most of Renji's other friends didn't much care about fashion, and so Renji had readily offered to go shopping with Seiichi when she had complained, after a set against each other, about having to shop alone again that coming weekend. It had continued after that because they always had a good time together.

Of course, the celebrity sites don't know that shared past, so speculation about his being Seiichi's boyfriend always increases when pictures of them shopping together are posted. But then, going anywhere with Seiichi carries that risk, these days. Renji never gives it any consideration, however, because it can never be more than just a minor annoyance. He and Genichirou had gone to visit Seiichi at least every other day during her long months in the hospital their third year of junior high; next to that, this is nothing.

*

They meet at the station for the line to Tokyo. Seiichi's wearing her Dolce&Gabbana shades, the ones she got in Italy, and Renji's pretty sure her shoes are from the French company she advertised for last year, but those are the only signs that Seiichi is a celebrity now, someone far beyond the reach of most people. He feels lucky that he met her so long ago, that he has memories of her from a time of her life that people now obsessively search the internet for information about.

Seiichi goes to more high-end boutiques now, but it is the same otherwise. She insists on buying a scarf for Renji at one of them, one he would not buy for himself because of the price (It looks really good on you, Renji, Seiichi says, smiling, as she wraps the scarf around his neck, fingers brushing against his throat, and Renji lets his eyes flutter shut for a single moment. The throat is one of the most vulnerable spots on a human body, but he would bare it for Seiichi, always.). He lets her buy the scarf, a physical reminder of that sense-memory, and he lets her put it on him after she pays for it, though it's still too warm to wear even a light scarf like this at this time of the year. Seiichi's fingers linger, a little, and Renji wishes he could read Seiichi as easily as he reads everyone else. He wants to wrap his fingers around hers, which still rest against the edges of the scarf, wants to know whether her lips would form into an o of surprise if he did, or if she would simply close her eyes, waiting. Or, if she would slip her hand out of his, turn away in a silent rejection. Renji isn't brave enough to find out.

They pass by a Starbucks in the afternoon. Renji is about to ask Seiichi if she wants to go in and grab a coffee when she stops in front of the windows abruptly. Renji follows the line of her gaze and—oh. Genichirou is sitting at one of the tables, a young woman sitting across from him. He's not smiling, but Renji can tell that he's not having a bad time.

"Family business, huh," Seiichi says in a low voice, and Renji doesn't need to see her reflection to know that she's got a nasty expression on her face, the one that he hates the most because it creates a mockery of her prettiness. She goes in, of course, heads straight for them, and Renji is unsurprised, because Seiichi is at her most combative and confrontational when she's in this mood.

Renji follows. Seiichi takes off her shades halfway there, stashes it in a bag with careless viciousness. By the time she makes it to their table, she's got a sickly sweet expression on her face, the one that often appears before she crushes someone. She's dangerous right now, and Renji doesn't know how to alleviate what is to come, much less prevent it.

"Genichirou," she says sweetly when she's at their table, and Renji sees Genichirou start, sees the way he forces himself to face Seiichi's attack. The young woman looks at Seiichi in wordless surprise, though a soft, polite smile is on her lips; up close, Renji can see that she is quite pretty, pretty enough for a man walking by to give her a second glance, but hers is a soft, sweet prettiness, one that evokes the beauty of petals falling on a spring day in a pool of perfect colour, while Seiichi's prettiness is sharp and piercing, the beauty of a finely crafted katana, cloaked promises sheathed in unbending will.

Renji knows which one Genichirou prefers. He knows which one he should prefer, yet does not.

"I didn't think I would see you here today," Seiichi continues. "I remember you told us you had some family business to attend to. I'm guessing that you've dealt with it already?"

"Seiichi," Genichirou begins, but the young woman with him cuts in gently but firmly.

"Sanada-san, I didn't realise you are friends with Yukimura Seiichi-san. You shouldn't have cancelled your plans with her for our date."

Date, and Renji can see Seiichi stiffen a little. They both suspected, of course, but to have it confirmed is another matter.

Renji can see signs of distress in Genichirou's body language, even as he says, "I didn't cancel any plans, Suzuki-san. When we set up our meeting for today, I had nothing scheduled. It wouldn't have been right to cancel something we agreed upon two weeks ago for an invitation that came only earlier this week."

Suzuki-san replies, "I imagine you do not get to spend much time with Yukimura-san. You needn't have cut down what little of that time you have for me. Since we agreed to a second meeting at the omiai, I trust that you would have still met with me had you cancelled today."

Omiai, and suddenly, everything falls into place. Family business, indeed. Renji had known that Genichirou's family had pressured him into miai, but Genichirou hadn't told him that he had already gone to one. Seiichi is absolutely rigid beside him, face carefully blank.

"I could not break my obligation to you in such a way, Suzuki-san," Genichirou says. Suzuki-san smiles softly, ducks her head for a moment, and Renji knows, without a doubt, that she will express her willingness to marry Genichirou at their next meeting.

He catches a glimpse of a phone aimed in their direction, and of course this entire spectacle would get caught by someone. It'll be uploaded before the end of the night, possibly even before he gets back home. Suzuki-san seems to be aware of the situation as well, because she stands at that moment and bows deeply to Seiichi. "My sincerest apologies for being the cause of the current discontent between you and Sanada-san, Yukimura-san. Had Sanada-san informed me of the situation, I would have been happy to rearrange our date. I am also very sorry for the situation becoming a public scene, which may prove troublesome for you." And then, she turns and bows to Genichirou. "I am honoured that you agreed to a second meeting, Sanada-san. I will contact Kobayashi-san to set up a third meeting."

Genichirou stands as well and returns the bow, of course, says, "I am sorry that our meeting has been cut short. I shall be in touch with Kobayashi-san as well." She bows to Renji as well, and Renji automatically returns it. Suzuki-san then walks away in a measured gait, no doubt the result of years of walking in a kimono; Renji follows the long line of her back as she leaves, and he thinks, A Yamato Nadeshiko. Then, a moment later, How does this become increasingly more absurd?

He and Genichirou watch Suzuki-san leave while Seiichi stands resolutely, refusing to look back. They turn back once she's left, and after a moment of silence, Seiichi says flatly, "You met her at a miai."

Genichirou pauses before saying yes.

Seiichi looks furious, and then she turns around and strides out. Renji wants to go after her, but he knows she does not want anyone's company at the moment, so he does not. But he is helpless to look away from her, drawn to her even when the lines of her body are stark with inexpressible anger.

When he turns back, Genichirou is looking at him. "Renji—" he begins, and Renji knows Genichirou wants the sort of advice he usually gives, the type that fixes a situation gone wrong. But Renji already has little enough to give when the situation concerns Seiichi, and he certainly has none to give for a situation like this, so he settles for saying, "We should probably leave, Genichirou."

Genichirou nods, and once they are outside, Renji sighs. "Why didn't you tell Seiichi about your family pressuring you into miai? Why didn't you at least tell me you've been to one?"

The expression on Genichirou's face is the one that appears when he doesn't know what to say. Renji can guess at Genichirou's reasons, thinks he probably has a good 95% at being correct, too, but none of that matters. Any conversation they have about this will not matter, as long as Seiichi is not here.

"You should think about what you are going to tell Seiichi. She'll probably confront you about this tomorrow."

"How certain are you?" Genichirou asks.

"Ninety-eight percent," Renji answers, and Genichirou nods.

"I expect I'll see you as well, then."

Renji exhales. "Yes. This is a conversation we should have had a long time ago."

*

They had agreed to meet at 14:30, so Renji is almost certain that Seiichi will arrive at Genichirou's house at 13:00. He arrives a few minutes before and just makes it into Genichirou's room when he hears the doorbell ring.

Seiichi enters the room a few moments later. She does not seems surprised to find Renji sitting with Genichirou at the low table in the centre of the room, and she takes a seat opposite them.

Renji does not expect Seiichi to begin with "Are you going to marry her?"

Genichirou looks taken aback, but after a moment, he says, "Yes."

"Why?" Seiichi asks, and Renji knows that she's not only asking Genichirou why he intends to marry Suzuki-san.

"My father told me that I would not be able to find an acceptable wife within my circle of friends. He suggested I find one through omiai instead."

"No, I suppose you wouldn't be able to find a Yamato Nadeshiko through your circle of friends," Seiichi says dryly. "I must congratulate you, then—you've made a perfect match, by all accounts."

Genichirou flinches.

"Seiichi—" Renji begins, but Genichirou cuts him off.

"No, I would prefer a Hangaku Gozen to a Yamato Nadeshiko," he says, and Renji recognises it for the admission it is: Hangaku Gozen, exceedingly beautiful and exceedingly strong, like Seiichi.

Seiichi smiles thinly. "Really."

"But I'm willing to marry Suzuki-san because I trust Renji with you," Genichirou finishes, and Seiichi's expression hardens.

"I don't belong to either of you, Genichirou. You say you would prefer to marry a Hangaku Gozen; a woman like her would certainly have never let herself be given away in the way you've just said. Don't assume that I would settle with Renji just because you have another woman."

Genichirou sputters wordlessly, while Renji looks at Seiichi, eyes open. Seiichi's words—Renji knows that they are not a rejection of him, because Seiichi has always met him on the lines he's been brave enough to blur, but then, he can only interpret them in one way, and. Renji chuckles softly. Of course Seiichi would want it all. How could he have ever thought otherwise?

"I decided long ago that I would have either both of you, or I would be with neither of you. If I am in a relationship with only one of you, it would destroy the perfect balance we've achieved, and I refuse to have that. Even if it means that we all win only by virtue of no one winning."

"I accept," Renji says, and the smile Seiichi gives him in response, Renji wishes he could capture it and keep it for eternity.

Genichirou makes a frustrated sound, and Seiichi just waits for his response. Finally, he says, "I've never considered adultery as a possibility before."

Seiichi laughs, a wild, glorious sound, sure like autumn wind. "No one goes into miai expecting a love marriage. Plenty of respectable men throughout history had mistresses. They may have married for honour and alliance, but that didn't stop them from loving others and showing it." Genichirou looks hesitant, and Seiichi continues. "If Suzuki-san is really the Yamato Nadeshiko that she appears to be, then she will not stand in the way of something that makes her husband happy. Her marriage to you can never change the fact that even if I am not yours, you will still always belong to me."

And there. Seiichi's ruthlessly laid the truth open, and now they can never go back. That's why she's done it. Gracefully executed, the way Seiichi always makes her finishing move, and Renji feels the truth of what she's said flowing deep within him as well. Genichirou does not respond, but Renji can see the turmoil within him.

"I am yours as well, if you would have me," she says softly. It is a challenge dressed as an offer, because the offer does not need to be made. All three of them know this.

Genichirou takes a small breath, and then he quietly says, "Yes." Renji has a very good idea what that answer must have cost Genichirou, but he would have been surprised had Genichirou answered any other way.

Seiichi smiles, and then, she laughs a little, says softly, "I'll be your Youkihi, won't I."

Renji blanches inwardly at the comparison. "Youkihi was bequeathed death, Seiichi," he says, a hint of the incredulity he feels in his voice.

Seiichi smiles, sharp-edged and merciless. "But Genichirou doesn't have that power over me." She continues softly, "I, though, have the power of leading him to ruin, because of his love for me." Renji can only exhale because it is true. He would follow her to his ruin as well.

"But I'm not her, and I would never," Seiichi finishes fiercely.

"I trust you," Genichirou says simply, and it is the only answer that matters.

"I trust you as well," Renji says, and he looks at Seiichi. She looks faintly surprised at what's being so readily given to her, but then she smiles, and it's like that first ray of sunshine when spring finally begins, the one that heralds the end of winter and promises that beauty and colour are to come. Renji knows he would do everything in his power to make sure Seiichi never loses that smile.

"Come with me," she says, rising, and Renji and Genichirou stand as well. They would follow her, always. Even to ruin, as long as it's Seiichi leading the way, fearless and certain and undeterred by anything they may face.

11.01.08