The sound of rain is loud on the roof. It comes down in torrents off the eaves, louder still: shaa, shaa, shaa.
His tea has grown cold. Even the refinement of his bowl doesn’t help the bitter taste on his tongue.
Night has fallen, and there is no moon.
The first sign came in blood: the oni didn’t come anywhere near them, but the scars on Knatarou’s chest opened, bleeding slowly. Haruka had not noticed until he smelled it, until it spotted in a bright red trail down his front.
Kantarou laughs it off weakly. “My fault,” he says. “I was rubbing it too much.”
The humidity weighs down in all of him. He can feel the feathers of his wings stick together, rubbing with every small movement. Rain forms puddles on their porch, where the old wood is soaked through.
Idly he runs his tongue over the sharp points of his teeth until he tastes blood.
The second sign came in dreams: in the middle of the night Haruka starts violently awake, unable to breathe. It feels like there are hands around his throat, thin, cold, and strong. He sits up and hears the distant sound of bells chiming, and maybe sees a flash of white moving away from the corner of his doorframe.
Kantarou does not come to breakfast; Youko says that he isn’t feeling well, and was listless enough that she actually believed him.
Lightning cracks across the sky, a flash that sets the world into bright relief. Through the veil of rain, everything looks distorted, soft edges despite the harsh light.
One beat, two beats, three …
Thunder booms, the sound unfurling from some distant point until it echoes everywhere.
And finally the proof comes from Kantarou’s lips, cold acknowledgement as he stands in a whipping breeze and looks far, far away.
“When my mother died, she was protecting me from an oni,” he says.
“Or maybe she had already become an oni herself, and died rather than harm me.
“I bear her grudge.” He turns and a rock slices past his cheek, leaving a thin trail of blood that oozes slowly down white skin. “You know what that means, right, Haruka?”
Quietly, Haruka says, “You’re still yourself, like you’ve always been.”
“Ah,” Kantarou says as he puts his hand to Haruka’s cheek. “But the ‘me’ that I’ve always been …”
A nail presses against Haruka’s cheekbone, sharp for a human’s hand. It moves sharply, and leaves a bleeding trail.
“… might be already an oni.”
He doesn’t sleep but morning eventually comes, a creeping pale grayness that lightens the sky without slowing the rain. He stirs and stretches his wings and a single black feather drifts down. He picks it up.
The door slides open a crack. Youko peers in with a breakfast tray in her hands.
“Haruka-chan,” she says. “Haruka-chan, breakfast.”
He does not look at her, slowly rolling the feather between his fingers. It is barely damp to the touch, heavy with the moisture in the air.
“Haruka-chan,” Youko whispers again. She puts the tray down and backs out slowly, but doesn’t say a word.
He closes his hand into a fist and crushes the feather.
“If I do become an oni, I want Haruka to be the one who kills me …”
“Idiot master,” Haruka says. His voice is rougher than the thunder, which at least as echo-smoothed edges.
He opens his hand and lets the mangled bits of feather fall. Fragments stick to his palm.
He turns to face the storm and opens the doors. Immediately there’s a gust of rain-cooled wind in his face, which slicks his hair, his clothes, his wings.
The distant howling sounds like souls who’ve lost their way.
Haruka takes flight.
The temple is rundown and dirty; it has obviously been unattended for years. But the moment his feet touch down he can feel the power in this place: it is old, it is watchful, its roots run deep.
He walks up the ruined path and the lamps flare as he passes. Their light is bright blue that flickers and dances, unhampered by the rain.
The doors stand wide open; one has long since been pulled from its hinges. It shivers just faintly in the wind. Haruka puts one hand on it and pushes.
As he steps over the threshold, thunder booms.
Oni-fire capers on the altar, casting strange green shadows across the room. Somewhere unseen, a child is singing: kagome kagome, the bird in the cage, when, o when will it leave? and a rubber ball bounces across Haruka’s path.
A ghost drifts from the shadows, still singing. It has short white hair and its eyes are black empty holes. It looks up at Haruka and smiles when he picks up the ball: mister, do you want to play?
Haruka strikes it with his shakujou. It fades with a sound similar to a giggle. The eyes go last, and they lock with his before they blink shut and are gone.
“You’re here, aren’t you,” he says. “Kantarou.”
Kagome, the wind sings again, and a breeze brushes past his cheek. Haruka stops. Water drips from the ends of his hair and off his wings, slow arrhythmic noises: tap, tap, tap. He does not release his shakujou, watching as a small door behind the altar opens.
Kantarou steps down, through the oni fire. He is still wearing the haori he had when they parted: butterflies and spider lilies that gleam black in the green-shadowed darkness — but his eyes are still bright blood red. His horns are the same milk-yellow color as his skin.
“Haruka,” he sighs. “Haruka, you came.” He smiles with narrow sharp fangs and reaches out with pale hands, placing the palms flat to Haruka’s chest. Up close he smells vaguely of wet heat and rot. “You’re here.”
Haruka says nothing.
There is blood everywhere — blood on the floors, the walls, the ceiling, Kantarou’s clothes.
He huddles on the ground in a tight ball, doubled over his chest and gasping wetly for breath. It’s a strained noise that whistles a little on the inhalation. The ofuda he held lies on the ground, wet with blood and smoking faintly.
“Hahhh,” he gasps. He reaches out. “Hahh–ruh–”
Haruka stands frozen and watches him fall.
“You’re here,” Kantarou says again, and presses himself against Haruka, cheek to shoulder. Through their clothes he’s corpse-cold. Against his cheeks, the shadows of his eyelashes look like bruises. “Haruka.”
Haruka looks down at him and says nothing.
“Did you miss me?” Kantarou runs his hands slowly up Haruka’s arms, to his shoulders, down again. His lashes tremble, like they might rise in a moment. “I missed you …”
Kantarou draws in a sharp breath and pulls back. His smile is almost obscene, stretching the whole width of his face. “You did,” he said. “I’m glad.”
Being this close makes Haruka’s fangs itch. The exposed part of Kantarou’s throat looks very soft, and even under the layers of clothing his body is very narrow. It would not be difficult to find his “heart.”
In fact, he is a little surprised it doesn’t already protrude from Kantarou’s thin skin, ready to tear free at a wrong movement. The thought makes the itch worse.
“Haruka,” Kantarou breathes. He stretches up onto his toes and puts cool palms to Haruka’s face.
The kiss is almost chaste. Kantarou’s mouth is colder than the wind outside.
“Come inside,” Kantarou says, almost coaxing. “It’s warmer inside. I’ve got tea. Stay with me, Haruka.” His hands flutter across the lapels of Haruka’s shirt. A single button comes undone. Kantarou presses his lips to that exposed bit of flesh.
“Ah,” Haruka says. His voice is strained in his ears. “You–”
The being who lifts its head smells like Kantarou but isn’t, human flesh and oni meat all one and the same. It opens its mouth and it says, in Kantarou’s voice, “Haruka.”
“–are not Kantarou,” says Haruka.
The oni blinks. It puts both hands to its chest. “I am,” he says. “It’s my name.”
Haruka holds out his hand. The shakujou snaps into existence and the weight of it is comforting. The oni flinches at the sound of the heavy rings, eyes wide, pupils dilated.
“You’re not,” Haruka says. “That idiot at least had some decency and restraint.”
The oni backs up further, shoulders hunching. It looks like a trapped animal. It looks betrayed. “Haruka,” it says. It shows its fangs when it speaks.
Haruka lifts up his shakujou. Outside thunder booms again, solemn and echoing, and lightning twines itself around the metal rings and Haruka can *see* the aradama now, nestled in the oni’s chest over where its gyoku is, and it is twisted and writhing and angry blood-red as the oni huddles on itself, like it could hide itself away–
he’s so hungry
–and Haruka brings the lightning crashing down.
The oni does not fall so much as collapse slowly upon itself. It folds down with a sound like a sigh. Haruka watches it with narrow eyes. Smoke rises slowly from its clothes.
It lifts its head, and Haruka recognizes those eyes.
“Haruka,” it says.
“Ah,” Haruka agrees. He lowers his arm and walks over. The oni smells more of ozone and ash than meat now, and it smiles tremulously. He does not pick it up, but he takes its hand, which is thin and shaking a little. “Go to sleep, idiot.”
The oni makes a brief sound. It might be a laugh. “Ah,” it says. “It’ll be easier that way, won’t it?”
“It won’t hurt as much,” says Haruka.
“That would be nice,” says the oni. “I don’t like pain very much.”
Haruka puts his other hand over the oni’s eyes and feels them close. The lashes flutter briefly against his palm, like a butterfly’s kiss. “Go to sleep,” he says.
When the oni is still, Haruka reaches into its chest and pulls out its gyoku.
Youko does not weep when he comes back. They eat dinner in awkward silence, and she kisses his cheek before she goes to bed.
The next morning she is gone. Haruka is not terribly surprised.
He looks around the house and wonders how it could have ever felt crowded, or noisy. Walking down the hallway causes echoes. He puts his hand into his pocket and rolls one of the marbles there against his palm.
Haruka, the silence breathes. Haruka.
He opens the porch door and looks out at the forever-distant sky.
With a sigh he spreads his wings and takes flight.
the bird in the cage
when o when will it fly free
at the time of dawn
a turtle and a crane slipped
who is the one standing behind you?