“I promise,” Kantarou says, pale against his white bedding, his hand almost limp in Haruka’s, “I promise we’ll meet again.”
Haruka brushes the hair from his face, and lets his fingers hesitate. Past the wrinkles and the sunken skin, Kantarou’s eyes are still bright as they have ever been. Even as the rest of him changes, Haruka recognizes them. “Idiot,” he says, without heat. “Don’t worry about things like that.”
“Mmm.” Kantarou’s eyes close. He sighs. “Someday, somewhere in the future,” he says quietly. “We’ll meet again.”
“Stop wasting your breath,” Haruka says. “Go to sleep.”
Kantarou sighs, and says nothing more. His breathing is quiet for once, and Haruka counts each one until his own has synchronized, and he still does not let go of Kantarou’s hand the whole night.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Matsumoto came into the back room, looking bemused. “Hey,” he said to Haruka, who was unpacking boxes from the most recent shipment, “you know about all that weird occult stuff, right?”
Haruka straightened and blinked at him. Matsumoto waited for some further response, but when none came, he shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. He was a young, a teenager with bleached hair working on some special permit from his school; to Haruka’s eye, he looked raw and gangly, growing too fast for his own skin.
“There’s this girl out front who’s asking for stuff by some author I’ve never heard of,” Matsumoto told him. “She insists that he’s real, though he’s not in the computer system, so I told her I’d check in the back.” He glanced from side to side, and rubbed his neck again. “She said he was a folklorist from the early twentieth century, and she was interested in reading up on some of his books –”
“Is that so,” Haruka said. “If he’s not in the system, we don’t have those books.”
“That’s why I thought I’d ask you,” Matsumoto said, a little too quickly, and Haruka thought, with some distant amusement: ah, the girl must be pretty, and Matsumoto wants to impress her. “You know this kind of stuff, don’t you? All those out-of-print occult books and stuff — didn’t some kid interview you for one of her projects? You’ve got a reputation as an expert, so –”
“We don’t have him,” Haruka said again, and picked up another box. He wasn’t terribly interested in the intricacies of human courtship; as time went on, it seemed that the whole process became more complicated, and while humans were living longer, it didn’t seem worth the extra effort. “Whoever he is, we don’t –”
“Are you sure?” Matsumoto sounded a little pathetic, and Haruka almost felt sorry for him. “Absolutely sure? Nothing by Ichinomiya Kantarou–”
The box tumbled from Haruka’s fingers in a loud thud; Matsumoto jumped with a startled yowl.
“I don’t think I’ll be writing any more books after this one,” Kantarou says quietly, and when he smiles, the corners of his eyes and mouth disappear in a fine network of wrinkles. The manuscript in his hand has no title and is slimmer than most of his other books by half. “We’ll just have to hope I continue selling, so that we don’t starve.”
“Who?” Haruka repeated, staring at Matsumoto, who bent to retrieve the few books that had dropped from the box. “Who did you say?”
Matsumoto eyed him uneasily, as though expecting him to sprout wings and fangs (and truth be told, that was his first instinct upon hearing that name, just barely suppressed) and shrugged. “Uh. Ichinomiya Kantarou? Some folklorist from the early nineteen hundreds or something. Do we have anything by him?”
Haurka swallowed; on his wrist, though, the ring of bells remained silent until he lifted the hand to his face to rub at his forehead.
“… nothing in stock,” he said finally. “They have to be … special-ordered.”
“But you just said –”
“I’ve got my sources,” Haruka cut him off brusquely. “I’ll fill out the order form.”
“Eh?” For a moment, Matsumoto looked utterly dismayed, and Haruka thought that the girl must be very pretty indeed, or else the boy was that desperate. “Ah, all right, but — eh, that’s –”
Haruka strode past him, snatching up a special-order form from the back shelf before he stalked out into the front of the store. He disliked actually interacting with the customers as a rule, but there was nagging curiosity that drove him forward; Kantarou’s books were fifty years out of print, because Youko, to whom the control of his estates had ultimately come, had quietly let them phase out of memory. She had copies in her apartment — Haruka had seen them — but if others existed, it was difficult to say. He wanted to see the stranger who was trying to revive that name after so many years.
“Honored customer,” he said through gritted teeth, “I hear that you’re –”
On his wrists, the bells jangled, louder than the ones set over the entrance did, and he stopped short as the girl at the counter looked up from browsing the electronic dictionaries set on display there.
The first night Kantarou comes home from the hospital, Haruka sits up with him the whole time, and in the morning as the sun creeps through the windows, Kantarou opens his eyes and smiled, tired, with eyes that are too old even for his aging frame.
“Eh, Haruka, is something wrong with my face?” he whispers, his voice cracked. “You look like you think I’m a stranger.”
And maybe in some ways he is, this old man who’d crept in to replace the strong young master Haruka can still clearly remember — but he can’t say that, can only squeeze Kantarou’s hand tighter until those long fingers turn and lace together with his, clutching back with equal strength.
There was no way to easily discern how old she was — the top of her head barely came to the bottom of Haruka’s chin and she had a pair of thin wire-rim glasses that perched on the tip of a small nose. Her hair was pure white and twisted up in a bun on the back of her head, held in place by a butterfly clip, and when she smiled, it was like looking at a ghost.
“Hello?” she said, and at least she didn’t sound like a ghost — it was a normal woman’s voice, pitched high to be cute, and maybe a little uncertain. “I asked someone earlier about this author and he said he’d go check, but it’s been nearly twenty minutes, so I was wondering –”
“You’re looking for some very rare books, honored customer,” Haruka said, overriding her; she drew back a little, perhaps surprised by his coldness. It was something of a relief: most girls were drawn to his looks, even now, and he didn’t particularly want to deal with this one, who up close even smelled familiar — pipe smoke and tea over dusty pages and old incense. “They’ll take some special ordering, and they’ll be expensive.”
Her eyes widened, then narrowed a little before she pushed her glasses up her nose. “That’s fine,” she said. “I was kind of expecting that, but I was told Ichinomiya-sensei was one of the greatest experts on youkai, and I’m doing my dissertation on the impact of Japanese folklore on the cultural consciousness so –”
Haruka gritted his teeth; she didn’t sound like Kantarou, but she talked too much, just like he once had. “I’m not making promises,” he said roughly. “Do you know any specific titles you’re looking for?”
“Ah, well …” Here, the girl looked slightly embarrassed. “No, but I was hoping any and all you could find would be –”
“Name,” he interrupted.
Her brow furrowed and she began to frown slightly; Haruka could hear the “how rude” that passed through her eyes, unspoken. “Ichijou Kagura,” she said, and her tone had definitely cooled from friendly to a familiar haughtiness. “Ichi as ‘one,’ jou as ‘truth,’ ka as ‘god,’ music.'” She crossed her arms over her breasts, and he saw that her left wrist was naked, and that struck him as wrong, somehow.
Like a reminder, the bells on his own wrist shivered again, their sound almost plaintive. A fraction of the tension left the girl’s shoulders, and she looked curiously at Haruka, who avoided her eyes.
“Phone number,” he said.
She gave it to him, then her cell phone number, then her e-mail address, and told him that she would prefer a call to know if her books had arrived; Haruka pivoted on his heel and didn’t quite storm past Matsumoto, who’d emerged from the back room, suddenly all bright engaging smiles for the customer. Haruka paused for a moment to watch Matsumoto’s painfully young flirting, and stalked off when the girl laughed even so, the sound bright and clean.
“Ah, is Haruka jealous?” Kantarou laughs. “He shouldn’t worry! If anything, I should be the jealous one.”
Haruka scowls, pride stung. “She was all over you,” he says flatly. “You were encouraging her –”
“Oh, and Haruka hasn’t done the same thing?” Kantarou taps ash from his pipe and smirks. “Haruka uses his good looks all the time! But once in a while, I guess, women prefer a cute face instead of a cool one!” He reaches out and ruffled Haruka’s hair. “But Haruka shouldn’t worry. I’ve no interest in anyone else.”
“Who said I was jealous?” Haruka mutters. “You’re imagining things.”
And Kantarou laughs again, exhaling smoke in thin trails. “If you say so,” he said. “Ah, Haruka’s silly.”
He ripped up the special-order form to shreds and dropped the remains into a wastebasket before he returned to unpacking boxes.
For a week, and then two, he almost let himself forget about the girl with a ghost’s eyes and smile. More shipments came in and he busied himself with sorting those, so that work fell back into the same comfortably mind-numbing process it had always been.
And then on the third week, Matsumoto approached him again. “Hey,” he said. “That girl — Ichijou-san — she called.”
Haruka grunted. He didn’t point out that it was impolite to be on such familiar terms with a customer, especially one who was young and pretty. “So?”
“She wants to know if her books have come yet.” Matsumoto shuffled his weight a little. “It’s been a while, so –”
“She’ll have to wait,” Haruka said. The top box was full of JUMP volumes, and he stared very hard at the brightly-colored spines, trying to will the boy to shut up, take the hint, leave him alone. “The titles she wants are rare. They’ll take a while to find, let alone ship. She should have gone to a rare books store, not here.”
“Can you actually find them?” Matsumoto asked, sounding almost doubtful. “I looked up the guy’s name on the internet, you know, and there’s no mention of him –”
“You know, there’s this saying,” Kantarou murmurs, the stem of his pipe resting on his lower lip. “No one truly dies until they’re forgotten.”
Haruka eyes him. “Dead is dead,” he mutters. “Human arrogance can’t overcome death.”
“No,” says Kantarou, and smiles. “I hope this means you’re not planning on forgetting me, though.”
Haruka looked up at that, and whatever Matsumoto saw in his eyes made him quail.
“It doesn’t mean,” Haruka said flatly, “that he never existed.”
He hefted up the top box and walked off to shelf them.
A few days later she came after him in person.
Haruka noticed the moment the girl walked through the doors, dressed in a loose white shirt over a long red skirt, the bells on his wrist jangling insistently as he pushed two paperbacks into place on the shelves. And she must have caught sight of him, because instead of going to the desk she made a beeline for him, and he recognized the look on her face — irritation, veiled behind friendliness. She didn’t have her glasses, and that only made her expression that much more familiar.
“You,” she said. She tucked long hair behind one ear, and he studied the long bared line of her arm from wrist to elbow for a moment before shelving more books in the wrong order. The neckline of her shirt dipped more than a properly-fastened kimono would, and he wasn’t sure if that was relief or not. “You’re the one who took my order, right?”
He didn’t answer, picking up a few more books out of the box at his feet. She watched him intently, and the damn bells wouldn’t stop ringing, to the point where he was tempted to take them off and slide them into his pocket, just for a moment of peace.
“You are,” she said at last, her tone decisive a moment before it softened into bubbly friendliness. “Have you had any luck?”
Haruka shrugged. He recognized the technique — overt cheer in the attempt to soothe someone’s apparent bad temper and ingratiate oneself. Kantarou used it against anyone he thought was being standoffish or rude, and it was usually successful through sheer bloody force of will, since the bastard had never quite learned when to quit. It would be less successful in a busy store, though, he thought, and picked up the box, intending to move on.
Instead, the damned girl stepped in front of him. “You,” she began, then peered at his chest for a name tag, which he didn’t have. Her lips twisted, but she went on, “You, sir, I asked you a question.”
“They’re rare books,” he said. “You should be patient.”
To his surprise, the girl just grinned a little at that. “I’m very patient,” she said, and he had the uncomfortable feeling she was looking him over with speculation. “I just want to know if you’ve had any luck yet.”
“They’ve been out of print for years,” he said through gritted teeth. “Honored customer, please let me –”
“I’ve found two of them, at least,” she went on breezily. “The used bookstore two blocks down managed to find some for me, so you can knock off Household Mysteries and The Silenced Well from your list.” She pulled the bag from off her shoulder and tugged out two tattered books, just enough so he could see and recognize the titles. For a moment he was struck with a feeling of deja-vu, with Kantarou’s beaming face as he showed off the new books, and Youko scolding him for buying copies of his own work —
“And I must say, I’m rather disappointed,” she went on, dropping the books back out of sight and pushing the bag over her shoulder again. “I heard you guys were the best at this sort of thing, but it’s taken nearly two months and you haven’t found me a thing!” She lifted her chin, and there was outright challenge in her eyes that set his teeth on edge. Most humans were smart enough to back off before getting too close, but even when Haruka turned directly at her and scowled, she held her ground.
“Honored customer –”
“I have a name,” she pointed out. “Does it bother you that much to use it?”
“… honored customer –”
She sighed loudly, and he knew that sound as well: the concession of a lost argument for the moment, when Kantarou’s devious brain was already plotting ways to attack again — because he never did like feeling like he lost, even if he had to win through cheating —
But this was not Kantarou, Kantarou couldn’t plot when he was over half a century in his grave —
Death reduces people in an awful way — physically Kantarou is only slightly shorter than Haruka, though much slimmer, but in death he is tiny, fragile and cold. When Haruka presses his fingers to the rise of Kantarou’s cheekbones, the skin feels waxy and stiff to the touch. Disbelief makes him to continue stroking that still face, watching it until Youko comes to wrap the body in its graveclothes so it can be carried away for burial–
“Sir? Sir?” The girl’s voice had become more concerned than smug now, and she was right in his face, peering at him with a wide-eyed expression. “Ah, do you need to sit down? There was an empty chair down on the end of the row –”
She put a hand on his arm, and the bells clashed as Haruka’s fingers went numb.
And not just him — the girl yelped and jumped back, shaking her fingers before sticking the tips of three of them into her mouth, staring at him with something not quite accusation in her eyes. They held the tableau for a few long seconds, until tingling feeling came back to Haruka’s hand and he straightened, still holding onto his wrist, pressing the bells hard and flat to his skin. The girl remained silent this time, watching as he gathered what shreds of dignity he still had around himself, ignoring the spilled box at their feet.
“I could be romantic,” Kantarou says cheerfully. “What should I say? ‘I wish we would have more thunderstorms, because they smell the same as Haruka, and I think it’s nice to wrap myself up in it’? Maybe, ‘The world stops moving whenever Haruka smiles at me,’ that’s very romantic –“
Haruka glances at him over the newspaper with flat eyes, then goes back to reading without dignifying him with an answer.
“Honored customer,” he said flatly, “it will be a while yet.”
The girl said nothing, but stepped aside to let him walk past. He could feel her eyes following him his whole trek across the store to the back room.
That night he dreamed of watching a figure walk through a grove of cherry trees at the end of the season, when all the blossoms were falling; and he called and called until that person finally turned and looked at him with steady red eyes.
He woke with the taste of ash on his tongue and Kantarou’s bells ringing loudly in his ears.
“Haruka-chan!” Youko didn’t bother to try hiding her shock, but she moved aside anyway, shooing him into her apartment. She’d cut her hair again, and now she looked almost like the Youko he remembered, even in her baggy pink sweater and torn faded jeans. “This is a surprise! What’s wrong?”
He shrugged a little, his shoulders stiff. “Youko,” he muttered, looking slowly around the cramped living room to the open door of her bedroom; he could just barely see the edge of the tiny glass-faced cabinet that held Kantarou’s books. “I have … a favor to ask.”
“A favor?” She slipped past him, into her kitchenette; he could hear her bustling around to make tea. “Well, that’s the bigger surprise, Haruka-chan asking someone else for help! What can I do for you?”
“You won’t like it,” he said.
“I’ve done a lot of things I don’t like for my friends,” she said, with special emphasis on the word. “Go on, tell Youko-chan what’s wrong.”
“Kantarou’s books,” he said. “I … would like them.”
The activity in the kitchen stopped. “You want Kan-chan’s books,” Youko said quietly.
“You hate Kan-chan’s books.” Haruka glanced back and saw her silhouetted there, looking down at her half-assembled tea tray, but he didn’t have to see her to hear the tremor in her voice. “Especially the ones he wrote about you.”
“Why would you do something like that?”
Kantarou’s expression remains gentle, unafraid in the face of Haruka’s anger. “Because,” he says, “Haruka is the most important person in my entire life. I’m not very good at saying that aloud, so I thought I’d write it all down. Someday, I hope you’ll actually read them, Haruka, I have a lot of memories about you.”
“I told you that you wouldn’t like it.” Haruka watched her from the corner of one eye as she slowly began to move again, pouring hot water into the two cups and picking the tray up and coming over towards him. “That’s the favor I need.”
Youko put the tray down carefully on her small kotatsu and sat, looking up at him with wide, dark eyes. Haruka shifted uncomfortable in place for a few minutes before he finally sat across from her, folding his long legs with some care so that he could fit. When she continued to remain silent he reached out and took one of the cups of tea, balancing it between his fingers.
Finally, her voice small, Youko said, “Why?”
Haruka pressed his fingers against the sides of the teacup until the heat started to become painful. He shrugged. “Something’s come up,” he said. “Youko. Are you going to give them to me?”
She frowned at him, though her expression remained even, struggling for neutral. “Tell me why, first,” she said. “If there’s a reason, Haruka-chan –”
“There’s a reason.”
“Then tell me what it is.” Youko lifted the cup to her mouth but didn’t drink, staring at him. “Why should I, Haruka-chan? Why should I give you books I know you didn’t like, when they’re all I have left of one of the best friends I’ve had?”
Haruka tightened his fingers on the cup; almost idly, he considered how fragile it actually was — it would only take a little pressure to completely shatter it. Like humans, really, and it was a little ridiculous that Youko would be using that challenging tone of voice over a handful of old books. Youkai did not form alliances — friendships — easily, and it would be … unpleasant, to alienate her over this.
“I hope you’ll stay friends when I’m gone,” Kantarou says. “When I try to imagine living as long as Haruka and Youko-chan, all I can think is that I’d want familiar faces, so everything else seems less strange.”
“You would just want me around to take care of you,” Youko accuses without heat. “Kan-chan, you’re irresponsible!”
“Ehhh, Youko-chan, I didn’t mean it that way!” Kantarou sniffs. “I just hope you two are still friends, years and years from now! Besides, who else will drink to my memory?”
Youko frowns at that. “Kan-chan,” she says. “Don’t talk about such negative things.”
“It’s going to happen someday, Youko-chan,” Kantarou says, and his tone is surprisingly mild, his eyes unfazed. “I just hope you two are still friends after it’s over.”
And then Haruka thought about the girl in the bookstore and all those theories that Kantarou had settled into researching at the end, fate and karma and other things that youkai, with their eternal lives, could never really touch.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” he said finally. “If I told you.”
Youko was unfazed. “Try me,” she said.
He relaxed the pressure of his fingers on the cup. “I think,” he said finally, “Kantarou wants them back.”
“Eh?” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Haruka-chan, Kan-chan’s dead. What would he need with his books?”
“It …” Haruka shrugged his shoulders a little. “It’s complicated.”
“Haruka-chan.” A note of exasperation had entered Youko’s voice, and she tapped one finger against the side of her teacup. “You haven’t convinced me yet.”
“Youko.” Haruka found he couldn’t look her in the eye when he said it, so he dropped his gaze to the tea, watching his faint reflection in the pale liquid. “Kantarou doesn’t exist in this world.”
She drew in a sharp breath, and in her wide eyes he saw her shock and automatic denial. Hunching his shoulders, he went on, “Everything is connected now. If you can’t find it in one place, then there’s a dozen other places to look. But …” He heard porcelain crack faintly, and made himself push his cup away. “Kantarou isn’t part of that at all. He isn’t real. He’s no longer real, because there’s only three of us that can say he existed.”
“Haruka-chan,” Youko murmured. “I can’t believe that you would say something like that.”
“But,” said Haruka, “he never knew when to stop.”
Youko frowned. “Haruka-chan?”
Haruka shrugged again, and shifted his hands so that the bells clicked together with barely any sound, thinking of how loudly they’d gone off in the store. “Kantarou. He’s not someone who would take being forgotten well.”
“Will you remember me?”
“Ah.” Youko licked her lips, curling her small hands more securely around her own cup. “No, you’re right. Kan-chan would have thrown such a fit …” Her head snapped up suddenly, and she stared at Haruka with wide eyes. “Haruka-chan, you’re not saying that Kan-chan is –”
“It’s a woman,” Haruka said flatly. “She looks like him.”
“Eh?” Youko blinked, then giggled nervously. “Ehh, Haruka-chan, Kan-chan wasn’t really that girly –”
“I know that,” he snapped. “But this — human. She looks like him. She knows he existed. It’s not beyond what that irresponsible man would have done, if he could.”
She started to protest again, then stopped and looked at him for long, steady moments. “Is it really him?” she asked at last, something tired and quiet and almost — just almost — hopeful in her voice. “Kan-chan, I mean.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll have any choice but to find out.”
“Haruka, come see.” Kantarou beckons to him, smiling. “It’s spring again.”
Haruka glances up from the newspaper for a moment; through the opened windows, he can see a single pink blossom in the bleak white tangle of winter branches. “Ah,” he said. “So it is.”
“Eh, is that all Haruka has to say about it?” Kantarou comes back to the table, sits down to lean comfortably against Haruka’s side. Absently, because he has grown so accustomed to this weight, Haruka puts an arm around his shoulders to help him settle.
“I think spring is what I’ll miss the most,” Kantarou says, thoughtful. “It’s my favorite time of the year, after all.”
Haruka snorts. “You’re too stubborn to die,” he says, and ignores the cold that moves down his spine even as he says the words. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up like Sugino.”
Kantarou laughs. “I don’t have it in me to become a white tengu,” he says. “Ah, but I wouldn’t mind having more time to sit here like this with Haruka.” He closes his eyes and sighs, a strange smile bowing his lips. “This is comfortable.”
Haruka looks down at him, grown skinnier over the years but still larger than life in some undefinable way, still really the only thing centered in Haruka’s vision, and tightens his arm around Kantarou. “Ah,” he says. “It is.”
Haruka awoke with his face wet, and pretending it was the rain was a lot harder when one slept indoors.
Haruka stayed in the back when Ichijou Kagura came in to pick up the books; he could hear her exclaiming over them with what seemed like genuine pleasure, and was distantly annoyed to realize he was relieved by that. He heard Matsumoto talking to her as he rang up her purchases, and the way she calmly sidestepped an offer for a coffee date.
It was ridiculous — even if Kantarou was hiding somewhere inside the girl, for whatever reasons he justified it, that didn’t change that she was still human. If Kantarou was hoping for the same relationship as before, he would be disappointed; Haruka wasn’t interested in going through that hollow, empty-chested feeling for him ever again.
When she was finally gone, Haruka straightened and pulled his sleeve back from his wrists, exposing the string of bells.
They remained stubbornly silent. Even when he shook his arm, the most sound they produced was a brief, tinny rattle.
Part of him wanted to hope that it meant that whatever lingering part of Kantarou’s consciousness that rang the bells had been satisfied. His life had settled into a comfortable rhythm even in his modern age, completely surrounded by humans, and he was comfortable with these patterns. The potential of change didn’t frighten him — it had been a long time since he’d been frightened of anything — but he found it distasteful and almost unnecessary. Change was a human thing.
Change was what killed off older youkai when they could not adapt to a world that would not stay still for them, and Haruka was very old.
Matsumoto came into the back, looking wistful and rubbing the back of his neck. He caught sight of Haruka and wandered over, the expression on his face changing to one almost of envy. “Ichijou-san was happy with the books,” he said, stopping to watch Haruka cut another box open. “She wanted to give you her thanks.”
Haruka shrugged, flipping the box cutter shut. “This is my job,” he said. “It’s what I do.”
“She was really happy though,” Matsumoto stressed, and Haruka thought: ah, jealousy. Matsumoto was young enough to be threatened by Haruka’s looks and how they attracted women, though it was hardly his fault that Ichijou Kagura, of all their female clients, would be unfazed by his teenaged attempts at charm. “I bet if you asked her, she would give you whatever you wanted.”
“Then you underestimate her,” said Haruka. “Not everyone wants to find a date.”
“Ehh, I could still hope,” Matsumoto said. “But she was all about ‘the guy in the back, I want to talk to him,’ and I said you were busy, so she asked me to thank you. She might even come back, she said.”
“Ah,” said Haruka. “Is that so.”
Matsumoto rubbed the back of his neck again. “You know,” he said, “if you’re not interested, you should tell her. She seemed really fixed on you.” There was a slight self-deprecating note as he added, “Most women are, but it’s not really fair to them, is it? You don’t notice any of them.”
“Haruka,” Kantarou says, “you know, you’re really unfair to all those girls. A lot of them really like you.”
Haruka just shrugs, not looking away from his contemplation of the horizon. “It’s not my fault what they chose to think about me,” he said. “I’m not fickle.”
“I’m not saying you are.” Kantarou sits on the window ledge next to Haruka and rests a hand on Haruka’s knee for balance. “But a lot of them really like you, and you’re kind, so they think they might have a chance –”
“Who’s kind?” Haruka shrugs, but then covers Kantarou’s hand with his, comfortable and loose. “I’m not.”
“None of them have caught my eye,” said Haruka. “I’m just not interested.”
“It’s not fair, then,” Matsumoto sighed. “You don’t care and they’re all over you! I care, and I can’t get a single one to look at me twice.” He watched Haruka unpack more boxes, then said, “Really, if you don’t want to see Ichijou-san, tell her so I can have a chance.”
Haruka glanced up, eyeing him. Matsumoto was actually taller than he was when not slouching, broad-shouldered and square-faced. He played some sort of sports or other and other than sneaking readings of the weekly JUMP before they were shelved was almost completely grounded in the practical everyday world. He had just enough reiki to have occasional hunches — nothing more than a normal person off the street. Haruka could display his wings in their full glory, and Matsumoto would only think it was an elaborate cosplay.
“You wouldn’t have any chance,” Haruka said. “You’re not her type.”
“Eh, how would you know that?” Matsumoto frowned. “Ahh–! Don’t tell me you’re actually already going out with her?!”
“No,” said Haruka, and picked up a box to carry to the shelving cart.
“Then how would you–”
“I know,” said Haruka, and wheeled the cart out to the front, ignoring Matsumoto’s indignant sputtering behind him. The girl was long gone, but when he passed the registers he heard a faint bell chime.
After that, the day passed in a strange bubble of calm — Haruka could feel a peculiar anticipation gathering in his skin, like a physical weight between his shoulder blades. When he rubbed his hands together, small static sparks jumped between his fingers, but by the time he left work, he could see dark clouds gathering in the horizon with the deepening twilight.
She stood at the corner with her arms folded over her chest, clutching at her own elbows, wearing a thin coat that probably offered no real protection from the coming night’s chill. There was a smile on her face and a gleam in her eyes that, like so much else, was familiar. Haruka slipped his own hands into his pockets and met her gaze evenly.
“You,” he said, and stopped at that.
“Me,” Ichijou Kagura agreed, and folded her arms, grasping at her elbows. She wore white and red again, and in the flare of yellowed light from the streetlamps and passing cars she looked only half-real. “Haruka-san, right? Matsumoto-kun told me.”
Haruka tucked his hands into his pockets and shrugged.
“I wanted to ask you some things.” She lifted her chin a little, still smiling with that oddly knowing expression. “I don’t suppose you would like to get some coffee with me?”
“Why should I?”
“Because,” she said, “I’m pretty sure I have something you want.”
He might have argued, especially against the smugness she wasn’t quite hiding, or the mocking lift of one eyebrow. “I’m poor,” he said. “You’ll have to pay.”
“I’m poor too,” she said. “I’m a grad student. Money is a myth.” She stepped aside to give him the room to stand beside her, and her next smile was more tentative, almost soft. “Shall we?”
Haruka glanced sideways at her, and thought about Kantarou’s smile, the first time he had confessed. “Fine,” he said.
“When I was a little girl,” said Ichijou Kagura, “my grandmother used to tell me stories about youkai.”
Haruka eyed her over his untouched coffee. “Is that so,” he said.
She laced her fingers together and rested her chin atop them, watching him thoughtfully. “I heard about all of them,” she said. “Over and over, until I believed they were real. Sometimes I would go into the woods behind my house, and I know I saw them. But when I told my mother this, she scolded me for believing my grandmother too much.”
Haruka ripped open a packet of sugar, then carefully began to shred the top sliver of paper between thumbs and forefingers. The sugar grains glinted dully in the cafe’s articifial lighting. “Look,” he said. “If you’re going to tell me your life story, I’m not interested –”
“I’m getting there,” she said, a faint sharpness in her voice. “I’m just setting things up. You can’t tell a story properly without some backstory.”
“Get on with it, then,” Haruka told her. With practiced idleness he looked around the small cafe — most of the other patrons looked to be college age, clustered in groups of twos, threes, and fours, most bent over open notes and texts and talking amongst themselves. The back of his head ached in a slow steady throb, like there was something he almost remembered lingering just out of reach.
“Mm.” The girl sipped at her own coffee, then put it down, curling her fingers carefully around the hot paper cup. “When I was twelve, my grandmother told me about the Oni-Eating Tengu.”
Instinct made him freeze automatically, and even as he cursed that kneejerk reaction, he could see that she had noticed. With effort, he swallowed back the first things he wanted to demand and said, “Your grandmother knew a lot of things.”
“I thought so, too.” She leaned forward, and suddenly now that she was that much closer, he could smell pipe smoke hanging around her, subtly different from the acrid tang of modern cigarettes. “I was absolutely fascinated. I couldn’t stop asking her for more, even after her collection of stories ran out. I admired him the way most girls admire actors today.” Her smile was self-mocking, but her eyes bored into him with unwavering intensity. “How he was the strongest of all youkai, sealed and unsealed by members of the same family, but vanished almost a hundred years ago …”
“And what does that have to do with me?” Haruka kept his voice as even as possible. “Other than finding the books for you.”
“Now, see,” said the girl, leaning back again. “That’s where things get interesting. I ended up doing some research on my own, when I realized there wasn’t much else my grandmother would tell me. You’d be surprised at how much information there is available to someone who doesn’t know when to stop.”
He snorted faintly.
“So I tracked down the name of the one modern author who seemed to know anything about the Oni-Eater, supposedly the man who’d unsealed him,” she said. “That’s where I found Ichinomiya Kantarou’s name, along with this.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a sheet of paper, which she pushed across the table to Haruka. For a moment he couldn’t break eye-contact, and then he looked down.
It was a black-and-white photocopy of some image, one of grainy quality and clarity. It was clear enough, though, that Haruka looked and recognized the face of the man in the picture immediately.
“Of course,” said the girl, said Ichijou Kagura, “perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I still wonder.”
Haruka just stared. The picture had been snapped at some point before he’d met Kantarou, he thought distantly; he looked very young and wide-eyed, like he was barely out of school himself, and his hair was longer, slightly shaggier, than it had been at the end of his life. He didn’t smile for the camera, staring at some distant point over the viewer’s shoulder, stiff-backed in his formal clothes. Kantarou, who’d taken years to grow out of looking fifteen years too young, looked almost like a child in oversized clothes, trying too hard to play at adulthood.
“Haruka-san,” the girl said quietly, breaking into Haruka’s thoughts. “You must have cared for him very much.”
His head snapped up and he stared at her. She had both her hands folded on the table now, and there was something like pity in her eyes, which galled. “You — what, how do you –”
“My grandmother was a medium,” she said quietly. “A very powerful one. She taught me a lot, whenever I visited her.” She hesitated then, her eyes darting from side to side before she looked at Haruka again. “I know you’re not human, Haruka-san, and it’s not hard to guess what your connection to Ichinomiya-san was, if you look like you’ve been shot when his name gets mentioned, or when you look at me.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “You’re imagining things,” he said. “This sort of game isn’t funny for children to play –”
“Ah,” she said. Her pity burned. “You must have loved Ichinomiya-san very much, Haruka-san.”
“I –” The rest of the sentence strangled in Haruka’s throat. “I –”
“It’s selfish of me, but I love Haruka, I want Haruka here, Haruka –“
He swallowed hard. There was a ringing noise in his ears that had nothing to do with the bells on his wrist, and the pressure at the back of his head and between his shoulder blades seemed to increase until it seemed almost like a physical weight, pressing him down. He broke eye-contact with the girl to stare at the copy of Kantarou’s photograph, and for a moment even that face seemed strange to him. He swallowed again and tasted blood in the back of his throat.
“Haruka-san?” The girl’s voice had risen slightly with alarm and he had a moment of petty mean pleasure at that — let her worry, when she’d done this to him — before he realized she was reaching for him. “Haruka-san, are you all right –”
He smacked her hand away, loud enough that the sound echoed in the coffee shop; most of the patrons turned to look before whispering behind their hands. The girl herself looked startled but not surprised, rubbing at her abused fingers.
“–Ah,” he said finally. Roughly he shoved his chair back and stood; she tipped her head back to keep watching him. “I. I’m not …” He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then turned and stalked out of the coffee shop without looking back.
Fifteen minutes later, he heard footsteps on the sidewalk behind him and contemplated taking to flight — the streets were otherwise deserted enough that no one else would notice, and there would be no way for her to easily catch up. Even with the faint drizzle that had kicked up, it would be better than —
“Haruka-san,” the girl said again, as her hand closed around his sleeve and tugged.
Like a robot switched off, Haruka froze. Her fingers were almost painfully warm around his when she took his hand in both of hers, and even staring down at the sidewalk, he could see part of her as she moved to stand before him.
“Haruka-san,” she said again, softly. Wet, she still smelled like pipe smoke and of incense, which was familiar enough that his throat closed against it. If he reached out with his eyes closed and all other senses extended, he thought he could believe it was Kantarou standing in front of him, Kantarou who was years dead and gone, because even the signature of the girl’s reiki had the same shape and feel to it —
“Haruka-san,” said the girl once more, and Haruka made a low pained noise before he caught her face in his free hand and kissed her.
It isn’t magical or inspired or anything stupid, their first kiss, just teeth and harsh breathing and anger all tangled up with the want, until Kantarou pulls away to rest his forehead against Haruka’s shoulder and whispers, in a reedy voice, “Haruka, I think we’re in trouble –“
Her mouth remained soft under his when he bit down on her lower lip, suckling away the blood that welled up, but she made a small noise somewhere deep in her throat and realization of where they were crashed down through him.
Haruka tore back, ripping his hand from her grasp and shoving at her even as he stumbled himself, panting for breath. The girl stared at him with wide eyes, her mouth hanging open, and he watched as she lifted shaking fingers to touch her bruised lower lip.
“I think,” he rasped, “you should leave.”
The girl licked her own lips and drew herself up. “I don’t think I should,” she said, though her voice shook. “Haruka-san.”
“I could kill you,” he snapped, and didn’t bother to hide his fangs when he did, watching her eyes go wide at the sight. “It’d be easy, and you wouldn’t be able to stop me –”
“I’m not afraid,” she returned, and her voice was gaining strength as she took a step towards him, then another. “Haruka-san, I don’t think you have it in you to hurt me.”
“You’re an idiot, then,” he snapped. “I almost killed Kantarou, why do you think I won’t –”
“Because,” she said, and Haruka made a sound like a struck animal when she took his hand again — when had she gotten close enough to touch? — and pulled it up to press it against her face. “Maybe I’m not him, Haruka-san, but I’m close enough that you can’t risk it.”
His mouth worked for a few moments, trying to vocalize some sort of protest and coming up with nothing. The girl blinked at him quietly before she smiled at him, and he was reminded of a dream where a white-haired red-eyed person waved at him from across a far distance.
“… You,” he muttered, and let her draw him down once more.
Later, Haruka wasn’t certain how they managed to get back to his apartment — after the second kiss, everything passed in a tangled blur until he came back to himself with the girl pressed up against his living room wall, one of her legs hooked around his hips and her jacket hanging half off one shoulder. She fit easily into his arms, smaller and slimmer than he was used to, but comfortable regardless.
“This is stupid,” he muttered against her lips, rocking against her and closing his eyes when her hands wormed under his shirt, tracing patterns across his back and sides. “We shouldn’t –”
“Probably not,” she agreed, breathless. “But I want to anyway. Do you?”
He kissed her again, then tugged her head back with one hand in her hair, ducking to bite at her throat. Under his lips, her pulse fluttered rapidly, restlessly, like a trapped bird. She laughed deep in her throat, and that felt good too, so he drew his tongue along her throat, hoping to hear it again.
She didn’t laugh again, but she sighed and dragged her nails down his back as her hips moved restlessly against him. He dropped his head to her shoulder for a moment, growling low in his throat, then ducked to paw at her shirt until cloth slipped and he could clearly see the dark outline of her nipple through her thin shirt. This Haruka bent and closed his lips over, tracing its hard rise with his tongue through the rough cloth as she gasped and arched against him, her nails digging into his shoulders.
When he closed his teeth and tugged, she made a low hungry sound and groped down, fumbling to undo his pants as best she could without pulling back fully.
“You’re right, this is crazy,” she gasped, and Haruka had to lift his head to gasp for breath as her hand finally dipped down and her fingers wrapped around his cock. “This is crazy, this is insane –”
“Stop,” Haruka growled at her. “Stop, I –”
“I don’t want to,” she murmured breathlessly, and her eyes were wide and bright as she stroked him — a little clumsy, but still with odd confidence, like she was slowly remembering the familiarity of his skin. “I don’t want to, don’t make me –”
“I’ll eat you alive,” he muttered, and she laughed again, her hand moving with confidence now, and he had to curl his arms around her for support, pressing her harder against the wall. “I’ll rip you apart and eat you –”
“How romantic,” she teased breathlessly, then gasped when he bit her throat again, sucking until the pale skin was flushed bright red. “Ah –”
Blindly, without lifting his head, Haruka grabbed handfuls of her skirt, yanking it up to her hips before he reached under it, hooking his thumbs into her underwear and tugging until she dropped her leg, then shoved it down as far as he could reach. She was breathing in short, sharp gasps against his hair, wriggling desperately in his arms as he smoothed his hand up her inner thigh.
“I thought,” she whispered, her voice thin and shaking, “you wanted to stop.”
Haruka pressed two fingers between her legs, and she tensed with a high strangled gasp as he fumbled until he found heat and wet, stroking until her legs opened further for him. It took a moment of fumbling to find the nub of her clit, and she seemed to melt against him, still petting him with clumsy determination.
“Idiot,” he muttered into her skin, as she finally let go of him to struggle with his pants, her breathing high and sharp. “Idiot, we shouldn’t, you shouldn’t –”
“I do,” she mumbled back, clawing at his back as he shifted, pressed her harder against the wall. “I do, so it’s too late, you can’t take it back, you–”
He rocked hard against her, and didn’t quite whimper at the wet heat of her, though she keened in her throat and clung harder to him, her face pressed into his hair. After a bit of shifting he pressed firmly into her and held still for a moment, gasping in an attempt to try and catch his breath.
“You,” he muttered, gritting his teeth when she shifted minutely against him. Her face was flushed and her eyes wild, and for just a moment, she was the most beautiful thing in the world. “You’re –”
“Haruka–san,” she whispered, and slid shaking hands through her hair. “Please.”
He closed his eyes and moved. It was awkward at first, with her shoulders flat against the wall and her knees occasionally buckling as they rocked together — but more than that was the feel of her around him, her hands clenched in his hair, and the taste of sweat and human salt on his tongue as he worried carefully at her shoulder. She made tiny, mewling sounds of encouragement and he closed his arms more tightly around her, closing his eyes as they moved.
“Haruka, ah, Haruka, I love you — I love you –“
Haruka came with a rough, guttural sound, biting down onto her shoulder hard enough that he tasted blood. It almost hurt, like finally relaxing after years — years — of tension.
She was still whimpering under him as he sagged, pinning her harder against the wall. He shook his head carefully, and when it didn’t fall from his shoulders, he pressed his lips to her bloodied shoulder and pressed a clumsy hand between them, stroking her stomach until she grabbed his wrist and dragged it down to the proper place as she continued to rock, gasping for breath.
When she came, her fingers tightened in his hair so much it stung, a high breathless sound torn from her throat — and then it seemed the last of the support holding the two of them gave out, and they slid together down the wall until they touched down on the floor in a sweaty tangle of limbs and clothing. Haruka licked idly at her shoulder until he could no longer taste blood, just clean skin.
“Oh,” she sighed, her voice small. One small hand, tangled in the hair at the nape of Haruka’s neck, moved in a sluggish little caress. “Oh, that …”
Haruka muttered something incoherent back, his breathing slow and careful. Lying this way, his head slowly clearing, he became aware of a handful of other differences: she was soft where he remembered bony angles, subtle changes in the scent and taste on his tongue, and the long, tangled fall of silver hair that pressed against his face when he turned his head. She sighed, and the movement pressed her breasts more firmly against him and he thought: does this count as betrayal?
Kagura didn’t say anything else, just stroking his hair lightly, and despite the uncomfortable position they were twisted into, Haruka found himself relaxing into a vague doze, shifting until her heartbeat was right under his ear.
And Kantarou is mostly bone and scrawny limbs beneath Haruka, but he clings with a strength that seems like more than his slim body should have. His silence is thoughtful as he slides his fingers through Haruka’s hair over and over, a repetitive petting motion that is quietly, comfortably hypnotic.
“I’m jealous,” he says at last.
“Jealous?” Haruka doesn’t bother to open his eyes. “Of?”
“Whoever will come after me.” There is wistfulness in Kantarou’s voice, and a host of other things that Haruka is too sleepy to attempt to puzzle out. “But–”
Something sour turned over in his stomach. He felt strange, leaden and distant, more an observer than an active participant.
Very slowly, Haruka untangled himself from the girl’s arms and sat back, rubbing his face. She moved with equal care when his weight was removed, straightening against the wall. They stared at each other in a silence that grew progressively heavier with each passing heartbeat. She was looking for something in his expression, he knew, and so kept his face carefully neutral.
Finally, she sighed and began to tug her clothing back into some semblance of order, no longer meeting his gaze. “Hey,” she murmured. “Can I use your shower?”
Her voice sounded strange, but it didn’t grate as much as his own when he cleared his throat and said, “Yes.”
The girl showered quickly, at least, and when she emerged, squeezing her hair in one of his towels, Haruka had not moved from his position, still seated by the wall. From the corner of one eye he saw her hesitate before her face set into an almost grim expression and she approached him. When she knelt beside him, he was immediately aware that she still smelled partly of him, and when he risked a quick glance at her, he could see the red mark on her shoulder clearly through her white shirt.
“I’m not sorry,” she said.
Haruka’s gaze slid towards her, then away.
“I mean it,” she insisted, and for a sudden crazy moment he thought she would reach out and touch him, and wasn’t sure how really he would react to it. “I’m not sorry at all. I’m glad.”
Glad. He turned over the sound of the word and for a moment he didn’t know if he could understand it. I’m glad it happened, I wanted it to happen, I don’t regret at all.
“I do,” he said at last, his voice choked in his throat. “Regret.”
He thought, for some reason, that it would effect her. Instead, she just smiled again, and the look in her eyes was the same as when Kantarou had smiled at him for the last time. This time she did reach out and touch him, and he just barely avoided flinching when her fingers carded carefully through his hair.
“I know,” she said quietly. “I’m sorry for that, at least.”
He hunched his shoulders and turned his head away. She didn’t try to shift closer, still petting his hair quietly for a few more moments, then pulled back and stood.
“Thank you,” she said quietly. “For everything.”
Haruka heard her walk away, and the sound of his front door opening and closing. He didn’t move long after the sound of her footsteps disappeared down the hall.
While he didn’t mean to sleep, he still dreamed: the grove of cherry trees was unchanged, except it was possibly longer than before, so that even his wings wouldn’t be able to cross the distance.
And far away, the figure in white and red didn’t turn when he called, walking slowly until its outline was obscured by whirling flowers.
Six months passed. A long winter melted into a wet spring, and the weather was too cold for many of the flowering trees to blossom. Haruka found a single bunch of flowers on the sidewalk in front of his apartment, bruised from careless heels. He picked it up and for a moment just stood there, before he threw it into the bushes.
Summer brought uncomfortable humidity, and Haruka took to keeping his windows open and his wings out, occasionally using them to stir up the air of the apartment. It was temporary comfort, but better than none, and there was no one to catch him and possibly reveal his secret.
One night, though, as he sat beside the window and stared blankly out upon the city, someone knocked on his door. At first Haruka ignored it — sometimes guests of the neighbors would get confused trying to find the right apartment, and Youko had a key, though she understood to never use it.
It came again, though, louder than before. “Haruka-san!” said a male voice from the other side of the door. “Haruka-san, are you in?”
The sound of his name surprised him into reacting; he pulled his hand from his chin and turned to blink at his closed door. The knock repeated with the man calling his name louder than before, and Haruka finally unfolded himself from his position and sauntered over to the door and opened it.
His guest was a young man who looked flushed and nervous, as though he’d been running. Something like relief passed across his face at the sight of Haruka.
“Good, you’re home,” he said. “I was worried, because your neighbors said it was hard to tell if you were there or not so –”
Haruka raised an eyebrow. “What do you want?”
The young man looked surprised for a moment, then composed himself with a deep breath. “I’m Hasumi Hiroyu–”
“Hasumi?” Haruka raised an eyebrow. The boy didn’t look anything like Kantarou’s old rival other than the glasses and a slightly pinched expression. “So?”
“So I need to ask your help,” the young man said. “You know Ichijou Kagura, right?”
Haruka pressed his lips together and raised an eyebrow. The boy didn’t seem terribly phased by his silence, rubbing his own hands together and shifting his weight nervously. “She’s missing.”
“Missing?” Haruka frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean missing,” said the boy, matching Haruka’s scowl with a fairly impressive one of his own. “For about two months, now. Some of her notes mentioned you, so –”
“I haven’t seen her,” Haruka said flatly. “Ask someone else.” He started to close the door, then stopped when the boy jammed his foot into the doorway, forcing himself halfway into Haruka’s apartment. “You–”
“I didn’t want to come here,” said the boy, glaring up at Haruka. “I really didn’t, but Grandmother insisted you’d know where Kagura was, so –”
“She’s yours, then?” Haruka shifted his own weight, rocking up so that he was partly looming over the shorter man. “I have no interest in getting involved in a couple’s argument.”
“She–” Hasumi scowled. “She’s my cousin, and I’m worried about her! She’s family!”
Haruka blinked a few times, and the boy shoved his way further inside and when he yelled there were more traces of Hasumi in his voice and mannerisms. “She’s my stupid little cousin that I promised I would keep an eye on and she’s been missing for two months now! My aunt’s going crazy! The police haven’t been able to find anything, but for some reason Grandmother insists that you’d know something, so you’d better know something or — or I’ll –”
Haruka caught the fist that the boy launched at him, apparently more out of frustration than any desire to start a fight. “I don’t know her,” he said. “She’s no concern of mine.”
“Yes she is!” Hasumi snapped, yanking hard at his wrist; Haruka tightened his grip in warning, but the boy continued to struggle. “She spent years looking for you, ever since Grandmother started telling her those stories about you, she’s been waiting forever to meet you –”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Haruka narrowed his eyes. “She can’t –”
“You’re that stupid Oni-Eating Tengu, right?!” Hasumi half-shouted. “Then yes she has!”
Stunned silence has its own particular sound: blood and breathing mixing in a purely organic sort of white noise. Haruka gaped, and this time, when Hasumi wrenched at his arm, he managed to free himself, stumbling back a few steps.
“You,” Haruka managed after a few false tries. “You’re …”
“I don’t quite get what it is,” said Hasumi, adjusting his glasses and half-sneering at Haruka. “I really don’t. But I know Kagura’s been obsessed with finding you since the day Grandmother first started telling stories about you. And Grandmother, she always kept saying that ‘like calls to like,’ but Kagura’s human.” His expression crumbled suddenly, alarmingly. “She’s human, but she never stopped looking.”
“That’s –” None of my concern, Haruka wanted to tell the boy, and found himself saying instead, “Who is your grandmother?”
Hasumi lifted his chin, as though daring Haruka to comment. “She’s foreign,” he said finally. “She was born in England, but our great-grandfather was a famous folklorist, so she learned a lot, and she –”
“Rosalie,” Haruka said.
“She– how did you know?” Hasumi pushed his glasses up, frowning. “That’s –”
“I knew her,” Haruka said. “A long time ago.”
Hasumi blinked rapidly, then let out a slow breath. “So it’s true,” he said quietly. “Who you are.”
Haruka just shrugged. “I’m who I am,” he said. “But I remember your grandmother.”
“Ah.” Hasumi shifted his weight, and then began to pace, back and forth in the tight space of the entryway to Haruka’s apartment. “Ah, that’s … a start. Of sorts.” He glanced over his shoulder at Haruka, and his shoulders slumped a little.
“Would you help?” he asked quietly. “Can you even help?”
With a half-faked calm, Haruka shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I want to see your grandmother.”
There was tea waiting when they arrived at Rosalie’s apartment. She sat on the couch with a cup balanced in her hands — English-style porcelain, even after so many years in Japan — and she didn’t look at all surprised to see Haruka.
“Lucifer,” she said quietly. “It’s been a long time.”
He nodded, taking a seat across from her; behind him, her grandson shifted nervously, as though aware of the years of history of which he had no part.
She looked surprisingly familiar, still; age had dimmed her large eyes and put wrinkles all around the edges of her face, but her pale hair (white instead of gold) was still long and elegantly shaped into ringlets, and her clothing was ornate and edged in lace, with petticoats under the full skirt. When she smiled, it was still quiet and secretive.
“You came,” she said at last. “Because of Kagura.”
“I came because your grandson was making a fuss,” he said. “I didn’t think your family was so noisy.”
Hasumi bristled at the implied insult, but Rosalie just smiled. “You came for Kagura,” she said, with perfect confidence. “Because Kantarou is there, too.”
Haruka went very still, but the cup in his hand shook slightly. “Kantarou?”
“It was a surprise,” Rosalie murmured. “When I saw the baby. Babies don’t have red eyes when they’re born.”
Haruka said nothing, but closed his eyes.
“I thought maybe it was — coincidence? Sometimes that happens.” Rosalie sipped calmly at her tea. “But she liked the stories about youkai, and the ones about Lucifer the best.”
“That doesn’t mean –”
Rosalie lifted one eyebrow — not even that much, just a slight upward slant that spoke volumes. Haruka cut himself off and sank back, not quite sullen.
“Things change,” she said quietly. “And death changes us more than life.” She put her cup down and folded her hands in her lap. “Kagura is, but she isn’t. She wanted to meet you, but she’s not who she was.”
“I’ve already gone through this,” Haruka muttered. “I don’t need to do it twice, and if it’s not even really that person –”
“Your feelings were that weak, then?” Rosalie’s eyebrow remained lifted, her smooth expression almost mocking. “Kantarou’s emotions haven’t reached you after all this time?”
“That’s not –”
“You don’t know for certain,” she said. “Perhaps the changes will be too much. Sometimes that happens. But she still knows you, and she still remembers you. And …” Rosalie’s small nose wrinkled, as though smelling something a little overripe. “Lucifer, I think, remembers as well.”
Haruka stared at her for a moment, then flushed, just a little. “… Ah,” he said. “That’s –”
“It’s hard to say for certain,” she said. “But Rosa thinks … Rosa thinks that if Lucifer has the chance, he shouldn’t wait until it’s already gone.”
A thousand years ago — or even a hundred, or maybe even fifty — platitudes like that would have made him laugh, or would have washed over him without leaving a single impression. Now he remembered the thin weight of Kantarou’s hand in his own, and found himself rooted in place from across the years.
“These are what we still have of Kagura’s notes,” Hasumi said quietly, handing Haruka two spiral notebooks jammed with several dozen loose leaf sheets. “She was researching tengu still at the time of her disappearance.”
Haruka almost refused the notebooks, then made himself reach out and take them, opening one and paging idly through it. It was eerie, in a way — even the handwriting was the same. “Tengu, huh.”
“She joked about trying to understand their mating rituals,” Hasumi muttered, and he couldn’t quite look at Haruka as he said it, a faint flush across his cheeks. “I think she’d been looking for you so long, she just didn’t know when to stop. She was supposed to meet me for lunch, and just never showed up.”
“Mm,” Haruka said. “Do you know if she had a focus before she vanished?”
Hasumi rubbed the back of his neck. “She was looking up the hero Yoshitsune,” he said. “The one who was supposedly trained by tengu in the art of war.”
Haruka paused at a pencil sketch on one page, a figure with large black wings and shaggy black hair — it wasn’t terribly good, but there was still some vague likeness. “She went to Mount Kurama, then?”
“She’s already been once,” he said. “I think she was planning on going again, but she was rather vague –”
Haruka gave him the notebooks back. Outside, the sun was beginning to rise, staining the entire horizon golden-pink. Folded and hidden away, his wings ached. “I’ll go,” he said, tucking his hands into his pockets. “To where she is.”
“You don’t know she’ll be there,” Hasumi protested. “And it’ll take at least a day to get there by train, you –”
Haruka opened the window and let his wings unfurl; Hasumi cut himself off with a loud squawk. The dawn air was pleasantly cool on his face, promising the first break in the heat all summer. Beneath them, the city was still sluggish and mostly asleep; a few cars passed, and there were no walkers around.
“I’ll go,” he said again, set his foot on the windowsill and launched himself off. He beat his wings once, twice, and then was off, slicing upwards above the lower buildings and orienting himself towards the mountains that loomed in the distance. Even after so many years out of practice, he found himself relaxing again into the motions of flight. The air tasted sour and smoky, but the wind still felt mostly clean through his feathers, and as he broke away from the city he caught the updrafts to help carry him further along.
She is, but she isn’t, and Lucifer should take the chance while it’s available to him.
Though what sort of chance Rosalie even thought he had, Haruka wasn’t sure. He didn’t even know exactly what sort of chance he wanted to have, especially knowing that the girl — Kagura — was young, but still human and ultimately mortal. Loving and losing was very romantic for a human, who would only live a limited time after a lover lost, but for a youkai —
Ahead, the mountains loomed. Haruka shook his head in an attempt to clear it, then angled for them.
It was late afternoon when he finally landed, folding his wings and then tucking them out of sight. Despite the hint of cool from the early morning, the day had warmed considerably, and he paused to wipe sweat from his forehead with one sleeve, then walked forward into the dense tangle of forests that still covered the mountains. He could sense small woodland spirits flitting around them, whispering nervously amongst themselves — here comes the Oni-Eater, ah, the Oni-Eater is here — as he passed through.
Oni-Eater, there isn’t anything for you here, one small tree-youkai mumbled, peeking out from through the leaves of its home. There is nothing to eat, we are too small for you.
Haruka turned to look at it, and it retreated further, until only two wide eyes were visible. “You,” he said. “Did a human come by this way?”
Human, the youkai mumbled. Human, human, hu-ma-n … there have been no humans here.
He narrowed his eyes. “You’re lying,” he said. “She came this way, didn’t she.”
No humans, no humans, none —
Like a snake uncoiling, Haruka’s hand lashed out, pinning the youkai to the tree. Its small heart pounded furiously under his palm as it squirmed, staring up at him with pure terror.
“She was here,” Haruka snarled, and let his fangs show. “Don’t lie. She was here. Where did she go?”
The tiny youkai whimpered and scrabbled at him; its tiny claws weren’t even strong enough to draw blood from his hand. Mercy, mercy, Oni-Eater, mercy —
“Tell me where she went,” he snapped. “Quickly.”
Into the trees, she followed the oni-fire, the fox-fire, Oni-Eater, mercy —
“Oni-fire?” Haruka glanced into the thick grove of trees and narrowed his eyes. A moment later, he dropped the little youkai and sprinted off, ignoring the smaller branches that whipped into his face as he ran. There was a growing certainty in his gut of where he was going, and what he was looking for, and at the end of the road, Kantarou was waiting — Kagura was waiting —
Haruka stopped when he found the barrier, then reached out to see how close he could get before it rejected him. Bright red sparks jumped around his palm, and when he looked down, his fingers were faintly singed. He rubbed his fingers together, considering the faint sting, then pulled a feather from his wings to form his shakujou.
“I’m here,” he said, staring into the barrier; the forest that lay beyond didn’t look any different from the rest of the area, but the presence of the barrier made him wary. “You might as well show yourself.”
From somewhere on the other side of the barrier, a woman laughed. “How very old-fashioned,” she said. “Even after so many years, Koushingan’s Oni-Eating Tengu respects tradition!”
Haruka said nothing, waiting patiently as she stepped out from behind a tree, leaning her shoulder against it. As with most youkai, the years had been kind to Ibaragi Douji — other than a hooked scar at the corner of her right eye from Haruka’s talons years ago and the sleek black business suit, she was unchanged. She smiled at him, arms folded over her ample breasts.
“Welcome, Oni-Eater,” she said. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it.”
The rings of Haruka’s shakujou clattered loudly as he pointed it at her. “Kagura,” he said. “Where is she?”
“Kagura?” Ibaragi slid a hand through her hair, tossing it back over her shoulder. “Ah, the girl. She’s fine.” The smile on her lips curled further into a smirk. “She’s still wandering around these woods and prattling to any youkai that lets her get close enough.”
“She’s not part of this,” Haruka said. “Let her go.”
“On the contrary,” Ibaragi said, shrugging, “she’s key to this. You wouldn’t have come if not for her, right?”
He growled, baring his teeth at her. “She’s just human,” he said. “She’s of no interest to you –”
“Actually, she is.” Ibaragi smiled faintly. “Do you know how unusual the prospect of reincarnation is? Especially in the exact same kind of life as the previous — most humans can only manage to come back as animals. And yet, your Ichinomiya-sensei has managed almost exactly to come back to you as you remember.” She turned slightly away, and five small points of glowing blue flame sparked to life in a half-circle around her. Haruka could see Kagura reflected in the oni-fire, apparently engrossed in her studies, trapped in her own world.
“Don’t worry about her,” Ibaragi said sweetly, when he tensed and would have moved forward. “She thinks it’s only been a few hours since she’s arrived on the mountain. Humans are the easiest to trick into that sort of thing.
“And besides,” she went on, “there is some part of her that you’re still bound to, even if she’s not quite Ichinomiya Kantarou any more.” She tapped one manicured nail against her cheek, pondering. “Perhaps it has something to do with that ridiculous name you never really let go of. Regardless, it’s a phenomenon well worth looking into.”
Haruka gritted his teeth. “If you wanted to come after me, you could have done it directly, instead of getting a human involved –”
Ibaragi sniffed and tossed her hair back over one shoulder. “You were the one who got her involved, Oni-Eater,” she said. “I suppose it isn’t quite your fault, though. A named youkai can’t resist the call of his master, can he?”
“I’m not named any more,” Haruka said. “Kantarou released me — if I go by this name, it’s by my own choice –”
She waved dismissively and snapped her fingers. The flames winked out around her. “What the boy never understood,” she said, “is that once you’re named, some part of you is forever named. We’re not all so fortunate to have over a thousand years wiped from our memories, so we can have a fresh start.” She narrowed her eyes, and there was something close to pity in her eyes. “That girl could die right now without having officially made a contract with you, and you’d react as though Ichinomiya died again.”
“Just say what you want,” Haruka snapped. “I don’t have the patience to negotiate with oni.”
Ibaragi’s lips pressed into a thin line, not quite irritated. “Well, then,” she said. She slid her fingers through her hair again, then curled her hand into a fist, tugging. “I want you to kill me.”
For a moment, he thought he’d heard wrong. “What?”
“You heard me,” Ibaragi said mildly. “I want you to kill me.”
He frowned at her. “You,” he said. “Why?”
“Why?” Ibaragi’s smile was quick and humorless. “You’re actually asking why?”
“You’re oni,” said Haruka flatly, and though he let the point of his shakujou lower slightly, he didn’t relax his guard. “Your kind are the sort who survive at all costs, even if it means destroying others to have your way. Oni never just willingly give themselves up to die.”
“We don’t, normally,” Ibaragi agreed, crossing her arms. “I’d fight you, if I could. But I think, even this many years out of practice, the great Oni-Eating Tengu would be able to kill me without trouble.”
Haruka bared his teeth at her. “Then–”
Ibaragi stepped away from the tree she leaned against and began to walk towards him, and her expression went from mocking to suddenly, deadly serious. “How old do you think I am, Oni-Eater?”
He lifted the shakujou again, scowling. “That –”
“I can remember when the rumors of you being sealed away first began to circulate,” Ibaragi overrode him, her expression flat. “I can remember before that, from when there was nothing, and then suddenly all the youkai in the world whispered about how the Oni-Eating Tengu was the strongest of all youkai, the most dangerous and powerful, and one to never be crossed.” She stopped an arm’s length away from him. “And I remember every year in between.”
“So what?” Haruka lifted his shakujou and rested the point of it at her throat; Ibaragi didn’t even flinch. “I’m supposed to believe that after all this time, what you want is an elaborate plan for suicide?”
“Believe what you want,” said Ibaragi. “We’re part of a dying race, Oni-Eater. Youkai either adapt, or they die out, and every year, there are less of us who choose to keep up.”
“You seem to be doing well enough,” Haruka said. “This sort of modern world seems well-suited for you.”
“And it is,” Ibaragi agreed, smiling faintly. “I’m tired, though. It’s been a long time, Oni-Eater, and I want to rest.”
“There are less permanent ways than dying,” said Haruka. “I don’t believe you.”
“That’s your choice,” said Ibaragi. “I’m surprised you’re fighting so much against the chance to kill an oni. Have you been softened that much by your name?”
He pressed harder with the shakujou, until a small red point of blood welled up underneath. “Oni don’t wish for death so easily,” he said. “What’s the catch?”
Ibaragi’s eyes widened, and then she shook her head with a laugh. Gingerly, as though the touch of the metal burned her, she pushed the shakujou away from her throat, so that it rested on her shoulder instead. “You have changed,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s for the better or not.”
“Patience isn’t something to disdain,” Haruka said. “What’s the point?”
“The point?” Her full lips curled into a smirk. “What other point do I have in contacting you, Oni-Eater? I want to see your full strength revealed. There is someone who wants very much to see the true ‘you,’ not this named creature you’ve become.”
“Raikou is dead,” Haruka said. “What point do you have in fighting me?”
“Did you think the boy was the only reason I targeted you?” Ibaragi sneered at him. “Oh, he had his pride and his desires — he thought he could make you his own, if he killed you.”
“And you’re beyond that?”
“I,” said Ibaragi, “am much older than that boy ever was.” She snapped her fingers again, and Haruka had to jump back as oni-fire flared to life around her once more. Her smile was all exposed fang. “There are also certain — ah, let’s say ‘precautions’ — that I have taken.”
“Oni,” Haruka muttered. “I hate things like you.” He spread his wings.
“Then,” said Ibaragi, “I think we’re even.” From apparently nowhere, she pulled her shamisen, setting the instrument on her hip. “Shall we then?”
She struck a hard note, and around them the trees rustled. Haruka launched into the air a moment before roots tore themselves up from the ground, lashing for his ankles. A ball of oni-fire whistled past his elbow, which he didn’t quite dodge; it crisped off part of his sleeve as he thrust himself out of the way.
“Ah, not bad,” Ibaragi said. “As I would expect from the Oni-Eater.” She played another chord, and leaves whistled down from the trees, sharpened to hard edges. Haruka dodged some, and grit his teeth as others tore against his wings, ripping feathers free. He swung his shakujou up, slamming lightening down to earth; Ibaragi dodged this and set up a jangling series of notes.
“You’re not as out of practice as you tried to act,” Haruka said.
“How flattering.” Ibaragi finished her run with a single sharp twang that snapped a string, and Haruka turned in time to catch a tree branch in the stomach, which smashed him hard into another tree; he lost grip on his shakujou, which fell to earth and struck hard into the loam, quivering. “To be acknowledged by the Oni Eater this way.”
Haruka staggered in the air, rubbing at his cheek and then spitting blood. “You never answered my question,” he said. “About what you wanted.”
“And I don’t think I will,” said Ibaragi. “I think it’s obvious.”
Haruka dodged another tree branch, then cried out as twiggy fingers grabbed his wings and yanked him back hard, so that he was almost strapped into place against the trunk.
“Well, well,” Ibaragi murmured. “How’s that? Perhaps your reflexes aren’t as good as I thought–”
Ibaragi whipped around at Kagura’s cry; Haruka gritted his teeth and strained harder, even as more branches and braided leaves folded over him to keep him in place.
“You,” Ibaragi hissed. “You’re not supposed to be here yet, what do you think you’re doing?!”
Kagura stood at the edge of the clearing, a notebook dropped at her feet and her eyes wide as she stared up at Haruka.
“Haruka,” she said again, softer. “Why are you here?”
He managed to rip one arm free, ignoring how the wood tore his sleeve and the skin underneath. Shoving desperately, he lifted his head to stare down at her.
“Because,” he said. “You.”
Her eyes widened. “Haruka …”
“Shut up,” Ibaragi snapped, and slammed the pick across the shamisen’s strings. Under Kagura’s feet the ground heaved and she stumbled, grabbing onto a tree for balance as a pointed tree root pulled itself from the ground —
— and with inhuman accuracy —
— slammed itself through Kagura’s breast.
It was sort of like watching the world move in slow motion. He saw it all in excruciating detail, though it happened in a matter of seconds:
with wide blank eyes
and fluttering hands, like she could pull the damn thing out —
and his name on her lips, ha-ru-ka, before her eyes rolled up in her head and she fell in a swirl of white and red.
In his ears, the roar of his blood was deafening, but overlying that was pure, blanketing silence.
Haruka remained frozen for a few seconds, though his fingers twitched, briefly, in the thick bark of the tree holding him in place. Blood was beginning to pool out from Kagura’s injury, and even far away he could smell it, thick and red and cloying with its intensity.
“Ahh,” Ibaragi sighed; her voice sounded tinny and strange, as though filtered from a great distance. “That wasn’t supposed to happen.”
With great deliberation he grabbed onto the branch lashed across his chest and yanked. The wood splintered and cracked, and the stench of bruised greenery and sap was almost enough to drown out the smell of blood. He clawed at the tree until his other arm was freed, then pulled himself the rest of the way out of the tree’s tight embrace.
Ibaragi turned to him, wide-eyed. “Oni-Eater,” she said. “This wasn’t what we meant to do, we need the girl alive if she’s to completely release you — Oni-Eater–!”
Calmly he gathered himself against the tree and pushed off, slicing through the air. His wings flared open at the last second as he flew across the ground, snatching up his shakujou from where it had fallen. Ibaragi was shouting at him, fumbling in an attempt to play something else on her shamisen.
Haruka dodged the tree roots that came ripping out of the ground for him, the flying rocks that shrieked past, shifting the shakujou and aiming.
Ibaragi opened her mouth — possibly to plead, possibly to scream — and only managed a wet-sounding grunt as the staff of Haruka’s shakujou slammed through her and her shamisen both, and the momentum of his flight carried them forward, until she slammed into a tree, pinned in place by the staff between her breasts.
She touched it wonderingly, almost like a parody of how Kagura had reacted, then looked up at Haruka. Blood trickled from the side of her mouth, and when she coughed, wet red bubbles popped on her lips.
“Ah,” she whispered, her voice thin. “Oni-Eater, I didn’t mean …”
Haruka slammed a hand around her throat, squeezing until he could feel the edges of her windpipe; Ibaragi gurgled miserably. “Oni don’t die so easily,” he said coldly. “I don’t care what you meant.”
“Others … will come,” Ibaragi hissed, her voice barely audible even in the silence after their fight. “That person … has been waiting … to see you … for a long time …”
“‘That person’?” Haruka echoed, then narrowed his eyes. “That’s –”
“A long time,” Ibaragi repeated, her own hands closing around Haruka’s wrist, and even dying she was strong enough to scratch deep into his skin. “She’s … been waiting …”
Haruka met her eyes for a moment, then closed his fingers fully and ripped his hand back, tearing out her throat in the process. Ibaragi’s body jerked wildly, then went limp, her hands falling away from his arm.
Shaking his fingers in an attempt to get rid of the excess blood, Haruka turned and walked slowly to Kagura, almost limping as a thousand small aches and pains flared to life, now that adrenaline was wearing off. He dropped to his knees beside her and reached out with his clean hand to brush the bangs from her face.
At the touch, she moaned quietly.
Haruka started back, eyes wide. “… Kagura?”
She didn’t respond, but when he held his own breath, he could hear it, very faintly: soft, wet, rasping wheezes that struggled, but remained mostly even regardless.
“You’re …” Haruka swallowed, touching the root embedded in her flesh. A moment later he pulled a feather from his wings, resummoning his shakujou and swung it down. Surrounded by a fine net of lightning, it sheared through the magic-damaged root, leaving Kagura lying there with a piece of the tree still in her upper chest, but separated now, no longer tethered to the ground.
“Don’t die,” Haruka muttered at her, and bent to pick her up carefully — carefully, and even still she moaned faintly in pain. “Don’t you dare die, not again.”
She coughed once, weakly, and Haruka took off into the air again, cutting through the darkening sky and trying to ignore how faltering her breath was in his arms.
Haruka looked up into Rosalie’s face, then shook his head, making a vague gesture with his hands, the one bloody and the one mostly clean. “I,” he said, then shook his head. “She — they don’t know if she’ll –”
Rosalie looked at him steadily, and the rest of his words dried up in his throat. Helplessly, he stared up at her, and finally she reached out, putting a hand on his head and stroking downwards, across his cheek.
“You found her,” she said quietly. “That’s enough.”
Haruka just stared at her. No it’s not, he wanted to say, his voice strangled in his throat. It’s not, it’s not enough when she’s like this and Kantarou — she’s going to die again.
“Haruka-chan!” The waiting room doors banged open and Youko burst inside before throwing a hand against the wall for support, gasping for breath with one hand over her heart. “I heard, Rosalie-chan called me, is Kan-chan — is Kagura-chan okay? What happened?”
Blank, he stared at her. “Ah,” he said. “Youko.”
Youko straightened and stalked over to him; Rosalie stepped aside as she took his face in both hands. “Kagura-chan,” she pronounced, with great deliberation. “Is she okay?”
“Ah.” Haruka blinked, then looked down. “… I don’t know.”
Youko paused and nibbled briefly on her lower lip, looking troubled. “Haruka-chan …”
“She hadn’t bled to death when I got her here,” Haruka said, and he could hear the hollow tone in his voice quite clearly. “Other than that, I don’t know.”
She looked at him for a moment, hesitating, then sank into the chair beside him an wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Oh, Haruka-chan,” she said quietly. “She’ll be fine.”
He said nothing.
“Because,” Youko went on, her voice lowering, “somewhere deep inside, she’s also Kan-chan, right? Kan-chan wouldn’t leave you again this soon, not after all this time and he’s found you again.”
Haruka turned to look at her, blinking as though just suddenly realizing she was there. “Youko,” he said.
He swallowed against the lump in his throat and looked down; his hands, resting on his knees, were shaking slightly. “Youko. I. She’s. She’s –”
“She’ll be fine,” Youko soothed, and pulled Haruka’s head down to rest on her shoulder, rocking him gently. It was absurd, it was embarrassing, and it was oddly comforting. He closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. “You’ll see. She’ll be fine, and then Haruka-chan can talk to her, and figure things out, and it’ll be fine. Shhh, Haruka-chan.”
“No,” he said.
“Haruka-chan, Kagura-chan will be okay, I promise –”
“No,” he said again, and pulled back. “Youko. She’s human.”
Youko stared at him for a moment, then nodded slowly. “Yes, she is.”
“She’s human,” he repeated, ignoring the strange looks from several of the others in the waiting room. “Youko, doing this again is — I can’t do this.”
Surprise flashed over her face, and then her expression hardened. She drew herself up and scowled at him. “Then why are you here?”
“You’ve done your good deed,” Youko spoke over him, glaring. “You brought her in, you got her here safely — your obligation’s been satisfied, right? The good deed’s done, you can leave now. She’s human, so there’s no point in giving her the benefit of the doubt — just assume she’ll die and go on your way, because you’ve done what you can–”
Haruka grabbed her wrist, and Youko squeaked briefly in pain. “Don’t–”
She gritted her teeth, baring them at him. “Think about what you’re saying, Haruka-chan! Saying you can’t, you can’t, that’s giving up before you’ve even started! That’s no way to live.”
“I’m not –”
“Do you really regret meeting Kan-chan so much?” Youko met his stare evenly, her own hackles still half-raised. “Was it really that awful, the time the three of us had?”
“Ah.” He blinked. “That’s –”
“Be very careful of how you answer,” she said. “I might hit you.”
“There’s no point to it,” says Haruka, and he begins to pace. Anticipation and something that he refuses to acknowledge as fear itch in his skin, and he wants to spread his wings and take flight, to get far, far away from Kantarou’s knowing expression. “It’s hard to expect that of a youkai. They have to live with the loss forever, after the human’s gone.”
“That’s true,” says Kantarou, then unwraps himself slowly and stands, coming over to stand next to Haruka. “But I think that if the feelings are true, it’s better for the two to meet. We all suffer heartache in some way during our lives, but this way, at least there’s something happy in memory.” He opens the windows, and a passing breeze blows in cherry blossoms that catch in his hair and clothes. “Even if the parting is tragic, at least the meeting was wonderful.”
“Haruka-chan?” Youko’s voice had gone quiet. “You …”
He blinked rapidly and shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “Some of it … wasn’t bad. But other parts …”
Youko drew herself up for a moment, as though ready to rail at him again, then sighed and leaned her forehead against his shoulder. “I don’t regret, at least,” she murmured. “In the end, I’m glad I met Kan-chan, and Haruka-chan too. I don’t want to lose this second chance before I’ve really had it.”
“Second chance,” Haruka muttered, then lifted a stiff arm, putting it carefully around Youko’s shoulders. “That’s what this is.”
“A second chance,” Rosalie agreed suddenly, from where she stood off to the side, and Haruka lifted his head to look at her. Rosalie was smiling faintly, her hands folded in front of her, her gaze turned inward. “Like remembers like. Lucifer’s red thread isn’t easily cut.”
“Red thread,” Haruka echoed, then sighed, just faintly. “… that’s fine, then.” He closed his eyes. “I could never make that idiot listen to me, anyway.”
(“I don’t want you to cry,” Kantarou says one night, his hands still steady as they card through Haruka’s hair. “Ah, not that I think Haruka is weak enough that he would! But I don’t want you to cry.”
Haruka squinted up at him; there is enough light to see Kantarou’s quiet expression. “What are you talking about?”
“Because I think, with how I feel,” Kantarou continues, “there’s no way we wouldn’t meet again, someday in the future. So don’t cry, okay, Haruka?”
“Who’d cry for you?” Haruka mutters, and lays his head down over Kantarou’s heartbeat. It’s grown quieter over the years, but it remains steady, and the sound of it lulls him into a comfortable sleep.)
He dreamed of a grove of cherry trees, and this time, when he stretched out his hand, someone turned and caught it close.
In a torn wooded clearing, a small black cat stepped out of the bushes. It padded its way over to a figure slumped at the bottom of a large tree, neatly avoiding the damp patches of ground where blood had soaked in.
A single black feather fluttered across the cat’s path, and it paused to bat at it, before pinning it down to the earth, all claws extended.
For a moment it stared, toes flexing in the feather and watching it with bright, glowing green eyes. As bits of the feather shredded off, the cat folded itself down into a small ball over the feather and began to purr.
The door opened after his first knock. Kagura stared up at him with wide eyes, and he frowned a little at the raspy quality of her breathing.
“Ah,” he said. “Should you be out of bed?”
Kagura licked her lips and then shrugged. “Probably not,” she said. “I’m tired of just lying there on my back all the time, though. I was reading.”
That was almost certainly a lie; from the paleness of her face, there was no way she could have reached the door as quickly as she had otherwise. Haruka considered pointing this out, then decided against it when she moved, gesturing. “Would you like to come inside?”
With a strange sense of deja-vu, he stepped over the threshold and into the entryway of her apartment. Unlike his own, it looked quite spacious, with several large curtained windows opened to let in the sun. Above them hung two red masks with curved noses: the yamabushi-tengu and the karasu-tengu. Kagura followed his gaze to them, then gave a self-conscious little
“I’ve always liked tengu,” she said, and though she sounded embarrassed, she also wasn’t terribly apologetic. “Not just the ones that Grandmother told me about you, either. She always said the masks didn’t look right, but … I liked them, so …”
“That’s fine,” said Haruka, still looking at the masks. “It’s your home. You should decorate as you want.”
“Eh, then Haruka-san doesn’t mind …”
“It’s just that you have odd tastes,” Haruka finished.
She frowned at him, her cheeks puffing out in a small pout. “Ehh, that’s mean to say,” she said. “Haruka-san, honestly!”
“That’s fine, though,” Haruka said. He glanced at her sidelong. “He was the same way.”
“He?” Kagura blinked, then pressed her lips together. “You know, Haruka-san, I …”
“Is something wrong?” He turned to face her directly, and in the sunlight that slanted through the windows, her hair looked more golden than white. “After all this, have you changed your mind?”
“You know, this isn’t something that would stop or go away, even if I did ‘change my mind,'” Kagura said, with a wry edge to her voice. “It’s just that, ah. Haruka-san, I –”
“Don’t call me that,” Haruka said.
“Don’t call me ‘Haruka-san,'” said Haruka. “You never did before.”
Kagura’s expression dissolved into one of irritation. “He never did,” she said. “Ichinomiya Kantarou didn’t.”
“And that’s you, right?” Haruka raised an eyebrow at her. “You and Rosalie both went through a lot of trouble to convince me of that, so why are you getting upset now that I’ve acknowledged you? Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Well, yes, but –” Kagura shook her head. “Haruka-san, how much of Kantarou-san do you think is really in me?”
Haruka stopped and looked at her closely. She had her hair down today, and it fell in a loose tangle around her shoulders. Still pale from her injuries, the contrast of her skin with her red eyes was more stark than usual; they looked almost like doll eyes, or at least the marbles he still collected. Her reiki, while not as powerful as Kantarou’s had been, was undeniably familiar Standing beside her felt familiar, comfortable, like some final piece had finally slipped into its proper place.
“You …” His frown deepened as he considered. “Enough.”
“Enough?” Kagura crossed her arms over her breasts, scowling. “What do you mean, enough?”
“Just that.” Haruka tipped his head, looking her up and down slowly. Her gesture had clearly outlined her breasts, small but still prominent, and though it was rude, he found himself looking at them. “There’s enough of him in you to … make it strange.”
“Strange how?” She lifted her chin — she’d noticed him looking, and shifted her weight, thrusting her chest forward, not aggressive, but still emphasizing her breasts. “Why are you here, Haruka-san?”
“Because,” he said vaguely, and took a step towards her; she didn’t back down, though he heard her suck in a quick breath. “You’re here.”
For a moment, her eyes went wide, then narrowed again. “And–?”
“And,” Haruka said. “You’re a different person than he was, but you’re not. It’s strange.”
“I don’t know how you’re different,” he said, and he could see her posture softening a little; she was listening, even if she was still projecting annoyance. “I … would like to find out.”
Kagura seemed taken aback by that. “Ha– Haruka-san?”
“Kantarou was my master,” he said quietly. “He was also more than that. But he’s been dead for years, and he’s you. And you’re not him. And so I …” He shook his head. “If you’re here, and he’s here, I don’t want to let you get away.”
She flushed slightly. “So, that means …”
“I’m not the Oni-Eating Tengu,” Haruka said. “The oni was right, I haven’t been him for years. So if I can’t be that, at least I can be ‘Haruka’ for you.”
“… Oh.” She dropped her head a little, more shy than coy as she glanced up at him through her lashes and bangs. “You really–”
“I don’t mind taking the time to find out where you’re different from Kantarou,” Haruka said. He could see a whole whirlwind of emotions passing through her eyes, even though they remained half-veiled by her lashes. “If that’s what you want.”
Kagura took a step towards him, and finally dropped her arms, reaching out to take Haruka’s hands in her own. Her fingers were long and narrow, slimmer than Kantarou’s had been, and even less calloused, but their grip was comfortingly strong. “And Haruka-san won’t mind?” she said quietly. “That I’m still human, and I’ll die again, someday?”
“We’ll work on that,” Haruka said. “I’m very jealous. I don’t like letting go of anything that belongs to me.”
“Eh!” She flushed again, bright red. “Haruka-san, how forward.”
He tugged, and she half-stumbled into him, finally looking up into his face. “You’re mine,” he said mildly. “I’ll be yours. The rest will sort itself out.”
She blinked a few times, still flushed, then gave him the most brilliant smile — like the one he’d seen on Kantarou’s face when he’d first been unsealed, when they’d first become lovers, and still infinitely different.
“I’d like that,” she said, then leaned closer and wrapped her arms around him, her forehead against his chest. “I would like that very much.”
“Mm.” Haruka leaned against her. The sound of her heartbeat was strong in his ears, a little too fast, but a comforting rhythm regardless. “… Good.”
Kagura’s bedroom had white walls and smelled faintly of old blood overlaid with the metallic sooty tang of city air. A pair of windows, cracked halfway open, faced to the west and the setting sun. A small bookshelf stood beside a wide, scarred oak desk, and there was a western-style bed pushed up into one corner of the room, with the blankets mussed and a small mound of books spread across the foot. Kagura limped over and started to gather those up while Haruka stood in the doorway, watching.
“Ah, I’m sorry about this,” she said, leaning one knee onto the bed for balance as she gathered up books. “I was doing some reading before you arrived, I –”
Haruka walked up behind her, and took the books from her arms. Kagura paused and looked up, then flushed slightly. “–I, ah … Haruka-san.”
“Where should I put these?”
“Ah, those, those should go –” Kagura cast around for a moment, then pointed to the desk. “There, over there is fine.”
Kantarou’s books were in the pile, Haruka noted, as he carried them over; the top one had several bits of paper stuck amongst the pages. He put them down and then passed his had over the worn cover; it was the book Kantarou had written about him (though in a carefully oblique manner; Youko, who had read it, told Haruka — who still had not — that it was more of a confessional letter than anything else).
“Haruka-san?” Kagura’s voice was soft. “Are you all right?”
He traced the outline of the books’ title (Flowers Which Bloom Only In Spring), then turned away from it, looking at Kagura’s pale face. “Did you read this?”
“Mm.” Kagura crossed her arms, holding onto her elbows loosely. “I did. I wanted to know how Kantarou-san felt about you.”
Haruka turned and walked back to her; she tipped her head back to keep eye contact, her expression more calm than he might have expected. She didn’t even flush, though her breathing was still raspy and a little labored. “Did you find out, then?” he asked.
She smiled, then reached out and slid her hands up his arms — not holding on, just touching. “I did,” she said. “He loved you very much.”
“And you?” Haruka tugged carefully at a curl of hair that lay against her cheek. “Do you even know how you feel yet?”
“Not quite,” she allowed, and leaned her cheek into his palm. “But I think I have a headstart over most people in understanding it, I think.”
“… Good,” said Haruka, and leaned down to kiss her.
She made a small noise, her arms slipping up to slide around his shoulders. After a moment’s deliberation he put his other hand on her back, and he could feel the outline of bandages under her shirt. It made him pull back to look at her, and she blinked back, her expression one of mildly disappointed confusion.
“Should you be doing this?” he asked, stroking her back. “Humans are — fragile. You’re still injured, so …”
“So we’ll be careful,” said Kagura, and reached for him again, curling her fingers into his shirt and dragging him closer, strong enough to overcome his halfhearted reluctance before she leaned up onto her toes to kiss him again. He could feel her smile as she guided them backwards to her narrow bed. The mattress creaked alarmingly under Haruka’s weight, and he eyed her thoughtfully. Flushed, but still cheeky, she grinned back.
“I think my neighbors are out for the day,” she said. “We’ll be fine.”
“I wasn’t worried,” Haruka muttered, and reached for her again. Kagura half-cuddled into his arms, smoothing her hands up into his hair and kneading gently as they kissed again. Haruka tried to push her down, and stopped when her breath hitched with her resistance. “Kagura?”
“We,” Kagura said, bright-eyed and blushing, “are going to do this properly this time.”
“Properly?” Haruka stared at her. “There’s a proper way to do this?”
“At least we could get undressed,” she said, and reached to undo the buttons of his shirt with a look of set determination on her face. Bemused, Haruka watched her, and shrugged his shoulders when she pushed cloth down his arms. Her fingers were cool, but they left warm trails across his skin. “Ah, but you’ll have to stand so we can get your pants off.”
“Ah.” He touched her face, tracing across her cheekbone to the outline of her smile, before he trailed a finger down to her throat, following the line of her pulse. “What about you?”
“Me?” Kagura blinked, then chuckled, leaning back to pull her loose T-shirt up over her head before she dropped it over the side. Bandages were wrapped diagonally across her torso, between her breasts, with more tied around her waist. Her bra was plain white cotton, and Haruka examined it with some curiosity.
“This looks funny,” he said at last, running his finger along the top edge of the cup. Kagura sucked in a sharp breath, then grinned ruefully at him.
“Maybe,” she said. “But it’s more comfortable to wear one than not.” She shifted and reached behind herself, and there was a soft snapping sound before the article of clothing in question loosened abruptly around her. Meeting Haruka’s eyes square-on, she slipped the bra off as well and then crossed her arms under her breasts. “Well?”
Haruka pulled back to consider her. Kantarou had been a skinny man, with a prominent collarbone and ribs that had been halfway visible as shadows against his pale skin. He hadn’t been muscular, or even vaguely athletic, and the contrast, even with Kagura’s small breasts, was striking. With a careful hand, Haruka reached out and cupped one, brushing his thumb over the nipple. Kagura made a small noise and leaned into the contact, and so he did it again.
“I’m not saying,” she said abruptly, “that up against the wall and fast is — is a bad thing! I just, ah … Haruka –”
He kissed her again, shaping the weight of her breast in his palm thoughtfully. This time, when he leaned against her, she folded back towards the mattress, pulling him with her as she went until they were side-by-side atop her narrow bed. She nudged one leg between his, rounder and warmer than he remembered, her hands wandering aimlessly across his skin.
Haruka pulled with a hiss as her fingers skipped across his nipple, baring his teeth slightly. “You –”
Kagura smirked. “Ah,” she said. “Is that one of Haruka’s weak spots?”
“–shut up.” He kissed her again, harder this time, until he felt her lower lip split under his fangs and he tasted blood. She made a noise suspiciously close to laughter, which faded into a moan when he pressed his thumb over one small nipple again. He thought for a moment, then pulled his mouth from hers and bent his head, tracing along her throat with his tongue until he encountered collarbone, and then the swell of breast.
When he took a nipple into his mouth, she arched into him with a sound of eager encouragement. After a moment he trailed his mouth to the underside of her breast and stopped when his fingers brushed the edges of her bandages. He started to pull back, and Kagura sank her fingers into his hair and tightened her hold.
“It’s fine,” she murmured, her voice husky. “I don’t mind, don’t stop.”
He glanced up at her through his bangs. “… Kagura …”
“Don’t stop,” she repeated fiercely, and tugged him up for another kiss. Bemused, Haruka let her direct him, sliding one arm under her shoulders as she finally let him press her onto her back and bent her knees up to bracket his hips. And as he tried to shift to a more comfortable position, to keep from putting pressure on her injuries, she pressed both her hands down between them, one to fumble with the fastenings of his pants, and the other to palm between his legs.
“Ah,” he spat, his lips pulling back. She stared up at him, wide-eyed and flushed, apparently hypnotized by the sight of his fangs. “You –”
“Oh,” she murmured back, breathless. “Oh, I like this, I –”
He kissed her hard, reaching down with his free hand himself in a clumsy attempt to help her; it was more an awkward clash than anything, but after a few concentrated minutes they managed to get Haruka’s pants undone, and then he was worming his way out of them, refusing to release her mouth until he’d kicked them off.
“I want,” he managed, his voice tight, “I want –”
“It’s fine,” she mumbled back, breathless herself. “I don’t mind, I really don’t –”
“Your clothes,” he hissed. “You wanted. You said we’d do it ‘properly.’ So.”
“Oh, damnit, I did, I –” Kagura squirmed and hooked her fingers in the elastic waistband of her sweatpants and shoved down, pulling her underwear with it. She arched her hips briefly in the process, and Haruka made a strangled noise at the pressure of her body against his. “There, see, help me, I — ah!” Her eyes snapped open saucer-wide when Haruka pressed clumsy fingers between her legs, angling upwards, searching. “Haruka …”
“Mm,” he agreed vaguely, rolling his fingers through slick heat. Lying down the angle was different and maybe a little awkward, but Kagura spread her legs willingly, making small sweet noises in her throat as he touched her, separating soft folds and tracing light circles over her clit. Her own hands moved restlessly across his shoulders and back, as though trying to find his wings through blind touch alone.
It surprised him when her nails sank, suddenly deep, into his shoulders and her legs tightened around him, her voice lifting into a ringing cry. Haruka leaned back to blink down at her, pulling his hand back and rubbing his sticky fingers together.
“You,” he said. “Already?”
Kagura, her head turned to one side, panting for breath, managed a short, breathless laugh. “Ah,” she said. “I’m … kind of surprised too.” She opened her eyes to look back at him. Her mouth curled into a smile, and he didn’t need the memory of anyone to read the invitation in it. “Haruka …”
Haruka leaned down and kissed her again, hard and fast. After a moment her hands lifted and tangled in his hair, and when he smoothed a hand down her inner thigh, her legs fell bonelessly open at his touch. There was a hot uncomfortable urgency growing in the pit of his belly, urged on by the smell and taste and sound of her, moving sweetly against him.
“Haruka,” she whispered again, and he settled himself in place and rocked himself into her, listening to how her breath caught. Her entire body tensed around him for a moment, her fingers pulling painfully hard on his hair, and then she let out a sigh and relaxed, pulling his mouth to hers. When she opened her eyes again and looked at him, more than just merely being familiar, there was something so knowing in her gaze that he found himself stunned to stillness.
“I’m here,” she said quietly, and cupped his face in both hands. “Haruka …”
He closed his eyes and began to move, reaching for her hands and lacing his finger together with hers before pinning them down to the mattress. Through eyes slitted almost shut, he watched her toss her head, pillowed on the tangled mass of her white hair. Over the roar of blood in his ears, he could hear her raspy breathing and the broken syllables of his name, like some bizarre prayer, and each time she spoke — Haruka, Haruka, Ha-ru-ka — he could feel the old, broken pieces of the name-contract pull closer together.
And then she was suddenly struggling harder against him, her legs curling around his hips and her feet scrabbling against his legs, her mouth opening wider as she cried out, and Haruka had to close his eyes completely against the sight —
But maybe it was already too late; heat unfurled inside him, propelling him helplessly forward and he choked on a rough crows-call in his throat, and some tiny, tiny part of his brain was aware he was possibly squeezing her hands too tightly–
By then, he was already falling.
Awareness filtered back to him in degrees: he was aware of her under him, her chest moving slowly and deeply as she tried to catch her breath, still whimpering quietly now and then. He flexed his hands a little, and thought he must have drawn blood from her, because the skin under his fingertips was damp — though, when he relaxed his hold, she made no sound of protest.
With great effort, Haruka lifted his head to peer down at her. Kagura’s eyes were closed, but her smile made the center of his chest tighten.
He reached out to brush some hair from her face, and there were some bloodstains around his nails. She mumbled briefly at the contact, and opened her eyes.
The first time he’d slept with Kantarou, Haruka thought abruptly, he’d smiled this way, with a warmth in his eyes that had, at the time, been frightening to see.
“Haruka,” Kagura said softly.
I’m not sorry.
“Ah,” he said, and laid his head back down, this time on the pillow next to hers. She was still for a moment, then turned slowly, curling into his arms. It had been years since he’d slept with another person even within arm’s reach, but there were some things that it seemed a body never forgot. He pressed his nose into her hair and sighed as she relaxed against him.
“… welcome back,” he muttered, rough.
She hesitated, and then he felt her smile, against his neck. “I’m home.”