In Cups of Tea

Late one Sunday afternoon, an oni walks into the teahouse.

Youko doesn’t even notice at first until she hears some of the other girls — Shoukiku, Shoukiku! they whisper to each other behind their hands, wide-eyed and a little bit in awe. She peeks around the corner as the master of the house rushes over, hurrying to the table where the pale-haired woman who wears a kimono that has poppies on the sleeves. And as he bows, wringing his hands and thanking her profusely for visiting their humble establishment, offering her tea, cakes, whatever her heart desired.

And Shoukiku Dayuu chuckles, her voice low, and thanks him for his kindness and asks for tea.

Immediately the master claps his hands and the girls scatter as he calls out orders; Youko shrinks further back out of the way, her heart beating fast. The oni is sitting at a table for one, which is only as comforting as — well. Not being comforting at all, because Minamoto could be frightening with his sword, but it wasn’t something he could wave around in public, even if he was rich enough to pay people off. The oni, though, could easily snare someone with nothing more than a glance and a smile, and never seem out of place.

Unfortunately as soon as she moves, the master catches sight of her. “Youko!” he shouts. “Youko, bring Shoukiku her tea!”

Behind him, the oni leans out enough to catch her eye and smirks. Her eyes are half-hooded and her red mouth purses into a knowing smile. Youko resists the urge to bare her teeth and tuck her disguised tail between her legs. It takes her a moment before she recovers enough to flee to the kitchen, where there’s already a tray made up. One of the other girls makes a wistful comment, because it must be an honor, indeed, to serve the famous Ayanokouji Shoukiku Dayuu, and wouldn’t Kantarou-san be so jealous too?

… actually, Youko thinks sourly, he probably would be. He’s been known to wail about the sheer unfairness of this — why oh why did Shoukiku of all people have to be an oni! wasn’t it unfair, Youko-chan, Haruka, wasn’t his life just so awful! — ever since finding this out. If he found out the oni was visiting the teahouse … well. It made her shudder to think, because when Kantarou was determined, there was very little that could deter him.

“Well,” says a low voice, sweetly amused, “are you going to serve my tea, or just stand there?”

Youko starts guiltily, and while she’s been moving on autopilot to the table, she’s not sure how long she’s been standing there, holding the tray. The oni is watching with a smile that purses her red mouth into a coy little bow. Her half-hooded eyes glitter knowingly, like she can clearly see the ears and tail Youko hides, and is toying with the idea of outing her to the entire house. After all, wasn’t Shoukiku well-versed in the stories of the supernatural and the occult? If she said her waitress was a fox, the master would lap it up and fire half the staff to appease her.

It takes more effort than Youko wants to admit, to ignore that. She puts the tray down and pours tea for the oni, and curses silently at how her hands shake. The fact that she avoids spilling any seems almost miraculous.

“How cute,” the oni said at last. “Do you play dress-up with Ichinomiya-sensei as well?”

Youko jerks back. “What?!”

“Perhaps that’s why he keeps you around.” The oni picked up her cup but did not drink from it, smiling at Youko through the steam. “You’re hardly anywhere near the Oni-Eater’s level, after all.”

She can’t help but bristle a little at that. “We can’t all be Haruka-chan, after all,” she hisses, glancing around as she does. Some of the closer patrons are staring, but they seem more preoccupied with Shoukiku than the conversation itself. “Excuse me for just being what I am!”

“Ah,” said the oni, her eyes slitting, catlike. “There’s no need to get so defensive. You’re right, there is only one Oni-Eater.” She drinks, or at least pretends to, and doesn’t break eye contact the whole time. “But that begs the question about what Ichinomiya-sensei likes about you.”

Youko bites down on her cheek to keep back the noise of indignation; she tastes blood. She lowers her head a little and hisses, “Kan-chan’s not like that.”

“Oh?” The oni puts her cup down and leans forward. Youko can smell her perfume, lightly floral and probably worth more money than their entire household comes up with in a month. “He’s not? You have to admit, his fascination for the Oni-Eater is …”

“Minamoto’s like that too!” Youko hisses. “Kan-chan just wants to be friends with youkai! He’s good at it!”

“Friends,” the oni repeats, drawling the word, rolling it in her mouth like she’s tasting every syllable. She leans closer, and Youko can feel soft breath on her cheek. “And yet, he has an unmarried girl living in his house, one that is not related to him in the slightest — and a fox to boot.” Her gaze sweeps down for a moment, and Youko is acutely aware of how much of her throat is actually bared in the waitress uniform. “And he is a folklorist, surely he knows all the stories about your sort. They say a fox was powerful enough to seduce the emperor, even when all his guards and his advisors warned him otherwise. Is your Ichinomiya-sensei made of tougher stuff?”

“He–” Youko swallows. “Kan-chan’s not like that, he doesn’t like me that way–”

“No?” The oni feigns wide-eyed surprise. “A pretty girl like you? Ah, then perhaps you, for him–?”

“Of course not!” Youko hisses fiercely. She feels her cheek flush and tries to fight it down. “He’s my friend too!”

The oni laughs. Her voice is low and throaty, almost intimate as a physical touch. “Ah,” she says. “My apologies, then. I hardly meant to offend.”

Youko pulls back at last, redfaced; her hands are shaking as she grips the tea tray. “You–”

With deliberate slowness, staring directly into Youko’s eyes still, the oni reaches up and rests her fingers on the back of Youko’s hand. Her skin is cool to the touch, even as they slide up to rest lightly at Youko’s wrist, her thumb to the pulsepoint. Before Youko can think to pull back, the oni leans up, her lips against Youko’s human ear. “… Shall we try to get Ichinomiya-sensei to release your tiresome name as well?”

She squeaks and yanks out of range, clapping a hand to her ear. Her heart is beating fast enough to hurt. “I,” she gets out, feeling her throat beginning to close. “I–!”

“Well,” says the oni, and resettles, unruffled, without a single hair out of place from her elaborate bun. “That loyalty is something to be admired.” She picks up her cup and winks briefly. Her soft mouth stretches into a wide smile, and there are fangs peeking over, pressing into her lower lip. “Say hello to the Oni-Eater for me, won’t you? And Ichinomiya-sensei as well.”

And then she turns away to the window, sipping her tea. Youko stares at her a moment longer, half-hearing the curious whispers from around her — and then the master is coming towards them, his expression anxious, so she bows low and quickly makes her escape.

+++

Later, Kantarou brings her tea without prompting and doesn’t ask what’s bothering her. He sits a polite distance away with his pipe, and Youko tilts her head back to watch the smoke float away.

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