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[GetBackers] Grace (part 1 of 2)
For jmtorres, who requested: "Give young Kazuki a sister who wants to dress like a boy. How does the family react?" I said I'd do my best, but that I'd have to wind up killing her off. Which I meant to do in a paragraph or two. Somehow it grew to a large scene. Oh well.

Not my best work, but it worked out.

Part 2 will be about Kazuki's daughter - it's a bit of a compare-and-contrast, which is tricky considering nobody even mentions Akira existed.


*

At first Kazuki thought the distant figure was Juubei, but when he began to wind his way between the flowers, eager for a meeting, he saw - hair too long, tucked haphazardly behind the ears; body too short, shoulders too small. He tried to run over possibilites in his mind, but came up blank. There was no other boy his age who lived nearby. He fished inside his sash and fingered the bell he kept hidden there, ready, if necessary, to defend himself. A brief mental image of valiantly defeating an intruder who had snuck onto the grounds to steal something immensely valuable - maybe the gold coins Mother kept under the floorboard in her room, or the porcelain - flashed across his mind.

But the vision was spoiled when the figure looked up and grinned at him. "Hi, niisan," said Akira. "I brought you something." She held out a crysanthemum. "You can put it in your hair."

"Akira." Kazuki looked her up and down again, just to be sure he wasn't imagining things. He wasn't. "Where did you get those clothes?"

"Out of your boyfriend's bureau."

Determinedly ignoring his blush, Kazuki sighed. "And why did you steal Juubei's second-best shirt?"

"Because I wanted to wear it."

Akira had the infuriating logic only ten-year-old sisters can inflict on responsible thirteen-year-old brothers. Kazuki told himself firmly that putting her in a headlock until she answered his questions would only get him bitten, and lectured if Mother found out. "Does Juubei know you've taken his clothes?"

"Of course not."

"And what do you think will happen when he finds out?"

"He'll assume he lost them in the wash," Akira said, seeming quite unrepentant. "Surely he can spare me one outfit."

Kazuki crouched next to her, looking across the flowerbeds. "Why do you want one of his outfits?" he said, deciding to fight logic with logic. "You have plenty of your own."

"I have lots of girl's clothes." Akira reached out a hand and wiggled it in the dirt, absentmindedly. "I don't like them. They're no good to run in. And I'm not going to inherit the Fuuchoin School, and whenever I try to play the koto it sounds like a cat in heat, and I havn't gotten past the twelfth book, and I'll never be as good as you anyway so what's the point?" The words came rushing out - the result, Kazuki realized uncomfortably, of months of frustration.

Still, reasoned argument deserved a chance. "You have your gi. That's not hard to move around in, certainly."

"I'd feel stupid going hiking in it," Akira said. "And it might rip. It's only good for getting sweaty in the dojo in."

"I wear girl's clothes all the time," Kazuki offered, deciding to try another tactic. "They're not uncomfortable."

Akira bit her lip. "Maybe not for you, but I never got the hang of them. Look, you won't tell Mother, right?" She had drawn the character for 'trust' in the dirt with her forefinger.

"Of course not," Kazuki answered automatically. Some things were sacrosanct, and trust between siblings was definately on that list.

Akira patted the ground where she had been doodling flat again. "Good. I'm saving these for when she's not around. Maybe she won't notice."

*

It was, in fact, several weeks before their mother noticed. That it took so long was a testament to Akira's ability to be subtle; Lady Fuuchoin was a very observant woman.

She was waiting for them when they returned from a walk, unexpectedly, and Akira caught her eye before she could flee back into the woods. Lady Fuuchoin made no comment, only narrowed her lips and said to both of them, "Come with me, please."

They were sitting down with tea before she said what was on her mind: "Akira, I don't believe those are your own clothes."

"No," said Akira, who never lied. "I borrowed them from Juubei."

"And does Juubei-san know that you borrowed his clothes?"

Akira shook her head and bit her lip. Kazuki quietly reached out and patted her hand; he was prepared to stand up for her, if it came to that.

Lady Fuuchoin looked at Akira sternly, but not without sympathy. "Why did you borrow them? You have clothes of your own. Is there some sort of problem with them?"

"Yes," Akira burst out. "They're all girl's clothes. I don't like girl's clothes."

"But you are, in fact, a girl."

"So? Kazuki's not. He wears girl's clothes. Why can't I wear boy's clothes?"

Lady Fuuchoin sipped her tea for a long moment. Kazuki found himself cclutching at the fabric of his kimono, nervously. He forced his hands still. Finally their motehr spoke again. "Kazuki. Tell me why you dress as you do."

He answered automatically, echoing the words he had heard from her. "The Fuuchoin style depends on grace and equilibrium. To master it, one must be able to control one's movements, be able to move in the correct fashion, and know when not to move at all. Strength is the natural result of grace. We dress as women do, when we are learning, to encourage correct motion, and to teach grace foremost, instead of strength."

"Exactly," said Lady Fuuchoin gently. "Akira, it's simply part of the training."

Akira was silent for a long moment. Finally she said, "But I know how to be graceful. I don't know how to be strong."

Their mother folded her hands in her lap and regarded her children. "What do you mean?"

"Just that! I know all about grace! I have grace! But it's not enough! You said strength was the natural result of grace. Except it didn't work! I know the techniques! I know how to move! But I'm just not strong enough to be any good! I'll never be as good as Kazuki!" Her voice, still childishly high, began to crack with emotion. "And Juubei's the strongest person I know so I thought maybe if I tried to act more like him I'd be strong too."

Lady Fuuchoin reached out and took Akira's hands in her own. "Akira. Do you know how many women have mastered the techniques of the Fuuchoin School?"

Akira shook her head.

"In the past century, only four can be truly said to have achieved mastery. I am one of them. I know." Her voice was firm and calm. "And while you have not, yet, you show great promise. I have no doubt, daughter, in ten years you will be called a master. You say you are weak; I say you are young, and still growing. There is no shame in that. You are absolutely correct; your movements are near flawless. Give it time, and practice."

Akira stared at the floor. "Does that mean I have to stop wearing these?"

Nobody spoke. Finally Kazuki broke in. "I don't see what the matter is, really - she's learning just fine, and if she doesn't want to dress like a girl all the time - it doesn't have to be all the time, does it?" He shrank, painfully aware that he had spoken out of turn.

Finally Lady Fuuchoin nodded. "Akira, as long as you are willing to dress properly while in company, you may do as you please outside. I see no great harm in it. You have natural grace. Perhaps it is not necessary to hone it so finely, yet. There is time enough for you to learn." She smiled and released Akira's hands. "Perhaps it will even help you grow stronger."

Kazuki couldn't hold back a smile of his own. He knew little enough about teaching, but it seemed harmless to him, and it made Akira happy.

"But I will find you some clothes of your own. Give those back to Juubei, and apologize."

Akira beamed through her gathering tears. "Of course, Mother."

*

Juubei was quite surprised when Akira returned his clothes, but after Kazuki explained the situation, he sighed in resignation. "I suppose I should have guessed," he said. "She does exactly as she pleases, doesn't she?"

Kazuki laughed. "No, not really. She just wants to be strong. Like Mother is. It's not a bad ambition."

"Well, I guess not." Juubei nodded. "Do I count as company, then?"

"Of course not!" Kazuki touched Juubei's cheek. "You're family. And besides, half the reason Akira stole your clothes in the first place was to go walking in. Don't you want to come with us, once in a while?"

Juubei grinned. "Of course. As long as - " He blushed. "As long as we go alone, too. I mean. Akira's nice, but you - "

But Kazuki understood him too well, by now. He blushed too, recalling Akira's habitual "boyfriend" jokes (and those were something else she hid so well from Mother). "As much as we can," he promised.

*

So it was, barely a year later, that Akira returned from an evening walk in the wood alone, still dressed in a boy's clothing (the outgrown cast-offs of the son of a household servant) and with her hair loose about her shoulders, to find a battle in progress, and the garden already licked by hungry flames.

She paused only long enough to assess the situation, knowing she would not be noticed as long as she remained in the shadow of the trees, and then she sprand forward like a log tossed on a spring flood. The sound of her bells joined the chorus. She saw her mother, some distance off, hair flying about her as she held off three men at once.

Akira knew how to move, and that strength was the natural result of grace, and she knew in the back of her throat what was coming. She looked all over, when she could spare a glance from the man whose black threads spun in like buzzing wasps toward her body and had to be blown away, for her brother. At last she spotted him, and with a final twist of her hands dispatched her opponent - he was too cocky, too cocky, spending too much effort on offense and not enough on defense. There were openings all over. It was easy, so easy.

Kazuki was screaming. He was backed into a corner - a half-circle of flame held him close to the house, and a woman with a cruel smile casually blocked his escape route. Toying with him, Akira thought coldly. She headed toward them, concentrating all her energy on getting there, evading the brushes of flames that had once been familiar flowerbeds, barely sparing a glance at the threads that threatened to cut her body. It would not be long. She could see who was winning.

The woman with the cruel smile was not not looking behind her. It was too easy the second time, too. She fell with a dull thud. Easy. Too easy.

"Akira!" Kazuki's voice was hoarse - it must be the smoke. He lept forward, away from the wall of the house, which was already catching. It would not be long before the entire house was in flames. "Run! Get away! They have no mercy!"

"No," she said. The cold certainty taking hold of her now was something entirely new. If it was lasting she would have found it unpleasant, but part of the certaintly was the knowledge that it would not last. A pity, really. She was eleven. She would have liked to be twenty. Mother had said she'd be a master in ten years. But being a giften novice would have to suffice. "I'm not leaving you here."

"If you run, you might live." They had, without the intervention of concious thought, aligned themselves side-by-side, ready for defense. It a few seconds they miht be noticed. There was something harsh in Kazuki's voice that the smoke had not put there. "I don't want you to die," he said.

"I love you, niisan," Akira said. It was very important that she say it now. The sky was dark above. When had it gotten so dark? She looked about. Juubei was nowhere to be seen. Now that she was looking, she realized, none of the Kakei family were there. Where were they? Why had they left the Fuuchoin here to fight alone?

But she had no time to think about it.

They had been seen. A man with long hair and spectacles - how absurd they looked, here and now - had sprung toward them, and already their hands had moved to defend them. This man was no fool, for all that he smiled so happily in the middle of battle. It would take all their strength. There was no room in their minds for anything but the fight.

Two against one - but they were children. Just children. It went on for a very long time, and it was the hardest fight either of them had ever had.

So it was that, ten minutes later as they were beginning to tire, she saw their opponent's hands move suddenly, and stepped forward, knowing there was no defense. The strings slid through her throat very quickly, and she was glad she had nothing more to say. Kazuki screamed as she went down, but their opponent, sure now of his victory, had stepped forward, not bothering with a feint, and there was an opening, and Kazuki took it even as a sob rocked his body, and Akira knew she had won. Grace and equilibrium.

There was a movement on the edge of the garden that caught her eye - for a moment the flames flickered apart, and she could swear she saw Juubei and his sister. Kazuki did not. He screamed her name again, and then he screamed for their mother and turned and ran into the blazing house. Save yourself, she wanted to say, but when she tried only blood touched her lips. She couldn't see the stars through the smoke.

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