At nine years old, Nao Ishi was the youngest of the Sons of Rin. A genius akin to his older brother Mikio. Considered pragmatic for his age with a curious mind for all matters; never once leaving a question unasked.
Being the youngest didn’t have the benefits one might expect. Since his birth he had only been in the same place with his father twice and each time barely a word was spoken. There were days he hated being the smartest person in the room because it allowed him to see things for what they were.
“This does not look like studying to me,” The voice of his elder brother Kuro scolded.
If there was any Ishi that had it rough all the time it was the one charged with the duty to oversee his siblings. Truly there was a time that Nao thought Kuro was his father. It had elicited a laugh and an offhand remark about having heard that a few times before. Nao was never able to let go of that feeling even though Kuro had corrected him.
“Forgive me father,” He let the words hang there.
The sigh from his elder brother was noticeable, “Do not call me that.”
“Why not? You are more father to me than Rin has ever been.”
Nao glanced over his shoulder when Kuro refrained from speaking. He was leaning against the wall, running his fingers through his hair, a solemn expression upon his face. Any time Nao brought this up he had that look. Despite being of considerable intellect, he could not readily recognize it.
“There are many books about that are still unread. Do I have to sit here and watch you the entire time?”
“Why do you always change the topic like that? Does it bother you that much when I call you father?”
“He is proud of you Nao.”
“Don’t lie. I don’t even think he knows my name.”
“Naoto,” Kuro said sharply. “Our father is not very good at speaking from the heart. It may not seem like it, but you are valued.”
“I know the difference between being treasured by a parent and valued like property Kuro. Just tell me the truth. Why does he keep leaving? Why are there so many of us?”
“Why, why, why,” Kuro repeated in rapid succession. “Knowing the answer is not going to make you feel better. Ask me something I can answer.”
Nao gritted is teeth. Kuro was always like this. Sure he had plenty of brothers that were serious like Soti, Mikio, and Kin. None like Kuro though. Sometimes it felt like the burden of being Ishi was rested upon his shoulders. That he alone was responsible for instilling the traditions and values upon those born after him.
Even though he wanted to press the matter he knew enough to drop it. Kuro would not speak upon anything he did not wish to, it was simply how he was. “Why do you stay when he hates you so much?”
At first Nao didn’t think that Kuro was going to offer any sort of response. The darkness surrounding him was smothering. There was no joy in him at least none that the young Ishi boy could see. “She asked me to,” Kuro finally responded.
“The Goddess? Why would she want you…”
His older brother cut him off, “Sometimes a weak heart needs to suffer to grow stronger.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, I thought you were supposed to be some sort of genius,” Kuro teased with a chuckle. It was rare for his older brother to laugh, but when he did it made Nao’s burden feel a little lighter, despite the pout adorning his lips. He was only moments away from speaking when Kuro explained, “It is about living. She was trying to tell me that someday I would become like him; moved only by the thrill or hatred of something. No love or joy in me. That my heart would become weak and only through suffering could it grow. Then and only then could I learn to live.”
Nao wanted to offer his brother some comfort, but it was clear he was not looking for any. There was something though, lingering around Kuro. Nao really had not thought it was possible for the darkness to thicken, but the oppressive aura darkened his brother’s features. Boldly he found the courage to ask, “What happened after she said that to you?”
“I…well to answer that I have to tell you something else.” He paused a moment before continuing, “You asked me once to tell you the story of the cranes. I evaded your question back then and steered you toward your studies.”
The tension lingering off his older brother became clearer with each word spoken, “During those days it was just Tearra and I. She was pregnant with Soti and Mikio. Rin was always away from the house doing who knows what. I never really cared to ask; honestly, I really didn’t want to know. What they say about the goddess is true. Within her was all of the compassion of the King of the Gods; no creature big or small was neglected. She had this way of making you feel as though you were the most important person in the universe.”
“Were you in love with her?” Nao blurted out.
“Not in the way you are thinking,” Kuro stated simply. “With her was the only time in my life I felt important to someone. Anyway, I used to fold paper into all sorts of different things. One day she sat me down and taught me how to make them fly.”
“Tearra taught you how to make the cranes?”
“They were not cranes. They had long flowing tails made of red and gold paper. The very symbol of the goddess Tearra folded into being from a simple scrap of paper. After that, each and every one I made was about belonging. Then, one day she said what she did and it stung far deeply then any words spoken to me. So, in a moment of anger I pulled the tails from every single one.”
“Was she mad?”
“No,” Kuro said in a quieted voice. “She just smiled at me and said, how symbolic that the phoenix loses it tail for I will never rise again to the heavens.”
Nao felt the emotion in every word spoken. He had to turn away from his older brother when he realized he himself was moved. Bringing his hands up to cover his face. Repeatedly he told himself not to cry. That was when he realized that Kuro was standing behind him. Turning suddenly he got a poke to the forehead, “What is with that expression? Are you crying?”
It was clear that Kuro was taking the opportunity to tease him. “I am not,” Nao insisted as Kuro tapped his finger on the top of Nao’s head.
“Oh, didn’t you tell me once that only unreasonable people lacking in brains shed a tear over tales of fancy?” There were moments, though very rare ones when his older brother would tease him in this fashion. Nao often wondered if he had done the same with his twenty-eight older siblings. Whether he did or he didn’t, he kind of understood why Kuro was upset with Tearra.
It was moments like these that made Nao feel like he belonged. His older brother made him feel important and special; truly treasured. “Why…” Nao paused a moment before forcing the words out, “Why do you allow us to make the cranes for love? Why not teach us to make them into a phoenix for belonging? Isn’t feeling like you belong more important than something as fickle as love?”
Kuro grabbed Nao which forced the boy to release an unexpected scream as he struggled against his older brother. The two sitting upon the floor, “This isn’t fair.”
“Oh, why is that?” Kuro teased messing up the boy’s hair and tickling him slightly.
“One of these days I am going to bigger than you,” Nao insisted.
The amused chuckle of Kuro was sometimes just as infuriating as it was comforting, but Nao’s body stilled when Kuro said, “It is alright to call me father. I really don’t mind.”
“Then why do you always tell me not to call you it?”
“Rin’s ire is reserved for me. It is better if it remains my burden.” His older brother took a moment as he wrapped his arms around Nao, “I always thought belonging was more important than love, but some days I wonder if they are not the same thing. That people become so obsessed with the romance of it all that they forget that love is about a feeling of connecting with other people. Our father might be right though, I am too much like Hisoka. My head might simply be filled with these sorts of fanciful thoughts.”
“Someday you are going to be the Elder of the Ishi,” Nao stated boldly.
“None among our kin will ever give me such an honor.”
“There is no one that cares for the Ishi more than you. It would be a disservice to our clan to look past you.”
Nao was certain Kuro was humoring him, “Well if someday I become the elder I am going to need a second and I can think of no finer person for the position. What do you say want to rule the Ishi together?”
“I am going to hold you to it,” Nao stated.
“Oh, I would expect nothing less from you.”