wishes.come.true.

A ball bounces out into the street, bright orange and patterned with neon cartoony flowers. A little girl runs out after it, her dark curls flying. She isn’t paying attention to anything else with the unique tunnel vision that children have: all that matters is her ball, and that it’s gotten away from her.

Too late, though, she hears the sudden wail of tires. When she looks up, she sees a car skidding desperately to the left to avoid her. For a moment, as it screeches by, she sees a boy, about her age, staring through the window back at her. His mouth moves, but she can’t hear a word he says.

The car slams into a lamp post and the doors pop open. The boy goes flying in a neat arc over her head; she can only watch, hands pressed to her mouth, ball forgotten.

The sound he makes when he hits the ground is one she’ll remember for the rest of her life, even when she forgets.

+++

Watanuki hurts. His vision is hazed over in red, and if he tries to concentrate, everything goes even more blurry. Mama, he wants to say, Mama, where are you? Where have you gone? Mama–

There’s a girl sobbing. She’s saying things he can’t quite make out, because she’s sobbing too hard to make sense. The sound makes something in his stomach twist a little: another little added pain to everything else. He wants to tell her to stop, he’s fine, it doesn’t hurt that much (though it’s a lie)–please don’t cry, he hates it when anyone cries …

Sirens pick up in the distance. Watanuki closes his eyes.

+++

“I have a wish,” the girl says.

“And I,” Yuuko replies, “have the means to grant it.”

+++

Sometimes Himawari thinks her name must be a joke more than anything else. Sunflowers are bright things and attracted to bright things in turn, symbols of light and warmth and summer. Without the sun, they wither away and die. That’s their nature, inevitable and unchangeable. Her parents couldn’t have known, when she was born–but names have meanings, and she doesn’t think a family as superstitious as hers would have left something like that to chance.

It’s a joke. It has to be.

+++

“You’re asking for something very great indeed,” Yuuko says, exhaling thick, sweet-smelling white smoke. She reaches out and tips the girl’s chin up with one long finger. “The price will be equally steep. Are you prepared?”

“I am,” says the girl. “No matter what, I want this wish granted.”

+++

There were others, ones that she didn’t tell Watanuki about in that small dark room, with its paper walls and its heavy clouds of incense. The first boy who ever confessed to liking her, cute and smart and earnest enough to make her heart flutter had been hit by a car after she’d allowed him to kiss her for the first time. Years later, she still visits him in the hospital sometimes on the dull tired hope that he might someday wake up. A kitten she’d picked up and brought home out of the rain, who’d strangled itself on the ribbon she’d tied around its neck.

And there are others. There are so many she knows she could drown in them.

+++

“No matter how hard you run, you won’t be able to escape it entirely.” Yuuko brushed her thumb carefully over the girl’s cheekbone, almost gentle. “Those who summon misfortune always find that it will follow them. Anywhere. Everywhere. That, too, is inevitable.”

The girl trembles just a little. “I don’t mind,” she whispers. “I don’t care what happens to me, as long as that person is all right …”

“You might come to regret that, in time.” Yuuko lets go of her face and steps back. In the hazy moving shadows of the shop, she looks like a creature of stone and smoke and illusions. The girl blinks, but the impression never quite fades away. “However, if your heart is set … let’s begin.”

+++

“Do you believe in other worlds, Himawari-chan?” Watanuki asks her one afternoon. His eyes are fixed on the bento that is open in his lap, but they’re distant, like he’s lost in something far, far away.”

She pauses with the chopsticks half raised to her lips. Something cold unfurls just under her breastbone and a shiver furls through her, despite the heat of the sun overhead. “Watanuki-kun?”

“Ah, no, never mind!” He snaps back to the present suddenly, flapping a hand wildly. “I was just daydreaming, don’t worry about it!”

“You’re so strange,” she says with a laugh, but the cold in her gut never quite goes away.

+++

“He won’t thank you for this,” Yuuko says, as the magic circle flares to life under their feet. “No one will.”

The girl smiles and clasps her hands over her breast. She bows her head. “Even so, I’m fine.”

+++

Really, her name must be a joke. Sunflowers are so very bright, and Himawari lives in such a dark, dark place. There are more things that she’s forgotten than she cares to consider, but she can’t help but be grateful for it. Some things are better off forgotten. She knows this as truly as she knows her own name.

“Ah, Doumeki-kun!” she chirps. “I have to run to a piano lesson, but Watanuki-kun’s still back in the classroom. I think he’s a bit lonely, won’t you walk him home?”

Doumeki blinks at her slowly. Himawari’s fond of him in her own way–he’s a good man, in a way very few are in this day and age; there is a quality at the core of him that cannot be merely imitated or pretended. Something inside of her is uncomfortable to just be in the same room, and so, perversely, she seeks him out when she can: the angry thing that mutters at the back of her mind is nothing she loves. It will never leave her, but at least she can make it as miserable as it makes her.

As long as he’s there, she knows, nothing too horrible will ever happen. How could she be anything but grateful for that?

“Right,” he says. “I’ll go. Be careful.”

“Of course,” she says brightly. When he gives her an unreadable look, she waves at him and hurries off to be sick.

+++

“Yuuko,” Mokona says softly.

Yuuko leans back in her chair, turning the small jet-black pearl in her fingers slowly. Though all the lamps in the room are lit, nothing reflects through the stone, or off its dark surface: it seems to suck the light in, instead, insatiable as only the unliving can be.

“This too, was inevitable,” she says softly. “Kunogi Himawari has her own role in shaping Watanuki’s life. Whether or not she remembers what that is–” Her fingers close abruptly around the pearl, then open, revealing an open palm. “Unnecessary.”

Mokona hops up onto the couch next to her and snuggles into her hip. Yuuko holds her outstretched hand up, and studies the shadows it makes on the ceiling overhead.

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such are dreams

It’s all about instinct; Roxas is good at that. If an opponent shifts just so, the attack will come from the left. If his gaze flickers he’ll come from above. If her knees lock she means to stand her ground. He doesn’t have to think because it comes to him: instinct older than himself, and maybe older than the Other whose face he only half-remembers till they finally meet.

Sora’s brilliant and intensely real; Roxas flings himself against that until he’s blinded and then he thinks I see, I see why. There was a pressure like resentment in his chest, but it breaks apart under the rain of blows, until all that’s left is himself. It’s not so ugly after all.

+++

“I thought it’d be like dying,” Roxas says, studying the pictures on the walls of the White Room. He’s not sure when or where, but it’s him and NaminĂ© and she’s bent over her sketchbook as he wanders around. “Everyone else thought so, too.”

“Was it?” she asks. She looks up at him, her red crayon against her lips.

He stops in front of one of Axel and himself. To the left of it is a picture of Sora, asleep in his capsule.

“No,” he says. “More like falling into a dream.”

+++

He’s never unaware, is the thing. Maybe he spent too much time as an independant entity. It’s not an urgent thing, or even a very strange thing: it just is. He’s aware of Sora’s daily routine, of the letters that come in bottles and the constant parade of people in trouble and Heartless that continue to bubble up unending. His left arm aches and he knows Sora has broken it, hounded off a cliff and tucking into the fall an instant too late; his ears burn and he knows Kairi is yelling and Riku is upset and Sora’s just embarrassed about the whole thing.

Just as quickly, the impressions slide away; he spends most of his time just existing. He thinks that perhaps these are the moments when he’s most and truly integrated into Sora (like he should be), and they’re the single person they should have always been.

It never lasts, though. He keeps waking up.

+++

“I should be happy with this, right?” Roxas asks. “We’re — us. We’re together. You too, you’re in Kairi now, so why …”

“We are what we are,” NaminĂ© says quietly. “Isn’t that enough?”

+++

There is a world where Sora meets a man with a shock of red hair and bright green eyes. There’s nothing else that’s the same — there is no confidence, no arrogance, nothing but an ordinary man terrified by the Heartless that have taken over his workshop — but Roxas finds himself holding on fiercely to the sight-memory. He pushes, too, for the first time that he can remember, throwing himself forward against the invisible walls holding him in place and reaches out. It’s not the same and it’s nowhere near enough, but he strains out anyway. He’s been part of Sora for some time now: he can remember things like regret.

You were wrong, he wants to tell this man who’s not his best friend. There was no next life, even for me; there’s just the continuation of the old. You missed me, right? I’m sorry.

Sora stops by the man’s house before he leaves the world, just to say good-bye.

+++

There are new pictures on the walls of the White Room, vivid as any photograph. Disney Castle with Sora and Kairi and Riku all dressed up, the wedding of Aladdin and Jasmine, a blitzball tournament that Sora was roped into playing. Roxas follows the line of them to the end, his hands in his pockets.

“Will we wake up?” he asks. “Someday?” He turns to look at NaminĂ©, whose sketchbook is closed for once. Her small white hands and folded together atop the table. There is a flower in her hair that is white as her dress. It matches the one that Queen Minnie’s maids braided into Kairi’s.

“I don’t know,” she says. Her gaze drops for a moment before she smiles and looks at him again. “Do you mind waiting with me?”

Roxas turns away from the wall. He walks until he’s at the table and hooks a chair to drag it next to hers. Reaching over, he puts his hand on her sketchbook and looks at her. “You mind?”

She shakes her head, and smiles when he takes it.

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The King’s Burden

There is a story where a king disguised himself as a beggar for a day, to walk among the poor of his kingdom. He took with him a slave to guide his steps through the city, to whisper the right words that would get them into the darkest places and narrowest corners. For a day they walked together, shoulder to shoulder, and the slave guided his master’s steps without faltering. The king saw so many things that day: the dead, the dying, the hopeless — all the dirty crowded unhappy places that lay so thickly under the glittering golden rooftops of his city.

And when the day had ended, and the king had walked so long through the streets, he returned to the palace and ordered the slave’s execution.

“You have seen too much to bear,” he said, when the slave was brought before him one last time. “I will free you from this terrible world.”

The slave, kneeling on the hard marble between two silent guards, looked up at his king with sadness. “You do not free me from anything,” he said. “And you will not free yourself. You are simply binding yourself to what you fear. My death will not change that.”

But the king simply shook his head and wept, for he was a kind man, and when the executioner’s blade cleaved the servant’s head from his shoulders, the king turned his face to look upon his shining city — but all he could see was the dirty wounded underbelly, lying far below.

+++

“I’m sorry,” Tsuzuki says. His eyes are downcast, and he fiddles with the air itself between his fingers. He keeps his shoulders hunched, as though he’s just barely holding up under immense weight.

Knowing Tsuzuki, perhaps he is.

“I’m sorry,” he says agian, and then it all comes out in a babbled rush: “It was unkind of me to ask that of you, I know you’re bound to obey me, but you’re also supposed to protect me, it was unkind of me to ask. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I–”

Touda lifts a clawed hand. He curls his fingers just so, a hairsbreadth from Tsuzuki’s cheek. “It was what you wanted,” he says.

Tsuzuki sucks his lower lip into his mouth and chews on it. “I’m not — you shouldn’t–”

“You are my master,” Touda says. He ghosts his fingers up, still not quite touching, so that the tips of his claws just barely part the long strands of Tsuzuki’s hair. “That alone is enough.”

+++

There is a second, lesser-known part to the story.

It’s said that every night, at midnight, the slave would appear in the king’s quarters, standing by the windows that looked out upon the city. And though the king begged and wept and threatened, the slave said nothing: he would simply stare at his king with sad eyes, the blood dripping from a ring round his neck, silent and pale until the witching hour passed.

Finally, one year to the day when the slave had been killed by the king’s order, he appeared and the windows opened behin him. Over the mad wind that sprang up at the same time, he said the first words since his appearance: “My king, I am still bound. Is this what you wanted?” He spread his arms and there were tears on his face and blood on his mouth and the king could only stare in dumb grief. “I did this for love of you, and I would have done so had I not been your property; my love was given to you freely.” As he spoke, blood came from his mouth, and flowed in rivulets to the foot of the king’s bed. “See what I am giving you, and how I am bound.”

In the morning, when the servants came to tend to their king, they found all the glass of the windows shattered and the king dead upon the floor, his face wet with tears.

+++

Touda uses the tips of his claws alone to brush the hair from Tsuzuki’s eyes, and his touch is delicate as possible as he tucks it behind one ear. Tsuzuki’s eyes are shining, on the verge of tears again, and Touda thinks that he is very tired of all of this: of Tsuzuki’s unrelenting grief and guilt and all the other heavy things that time can’t undo. He could offer forgiveness like a benediction, for whatever it was worth, and he knows it would simply wash over Tsuzuki and then away, taking nothing with it.

“I’m sorry,” Tsuzuki says again. He catches Touda’s wrist suddenly, and Touda holds still as Tsuzuki presses into his palm, nuzzling. His master is warm and fragile and shaking, and Touda thinks it would take less than hellfire to destroy him. “Touda, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked–”

“Whatever you want,” Touda says, “it’s yours for the asking.” He shifts his hand just a little so that Tsuzuki tilts his face up.

This is no king, this is no Emperor on his golden throne, this is hardly even a man, all cobbled-together unhappiness and thin skin, and Touda sighs.

“You don’t even need to ask,” he says, and he leans down, his forehead to Tsuzuki’s, counting the breaths that come soft and fast against his cheek. “I will give it to you.”

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All In Fire

When he returned from Kyoto he found Suzaku waiting.

Perched on the edge of a rock that had not been there before he left, her scarlet robes fluttering in the breeze, she sat with hooded eyes and tense shoulders. Touda stopped in front of her and she did nothing but tilt her head up and stare with unblinking avian eyes. There was no sign of the others: even Tenkuu had withdrawn somewhere out of sight.

The air smelled of sulpher and ash.

Touda met her gaze evenly and cocked his head.

She tilted hers the opposite way. “Did you enjoy it?”

He said nothing.

Wind caught in Suzaku’s long hair, teasing it free of its pins and whipping it into a fluttering mess around her face, but she continued to stare without blinking. When Touda still didn’t respond, she finally moved, straightening up off the rock and bringing the sulpher smell with her. Gracefully, almost gently, she stretched her arms up, curving her hands in the air around his throat — hovering, but not quite touching.

“Did you enjoy it?” she asked again.

“… I did as I was asked,” he said.

“No,” she corrected, and this time actually settled her hands around his neck. “He was upset and grieving. He wasn’t in his right mind. He didn’t know what he was asking. And yet you still–”

He stared down at her. “We do as the master asks,” he said. “A shikigami’s first duty is his master’s commands.”

“A shikigami’s first duty is to protect his master,” she hissed. Her grip tightened and she leaned in close, her breath hot on his cheek. “And you–”

For a moment they remained locked in place. A heartbeat later they broke apart, Suzaku’s sword whistling from its sheath and just barely knicking the edge of Touda’s visor. He hit the ground hard enough to go sliding back a few paces, ripping up grass and mud as he did, and landed in a crouch. Opposite him, Suzaku pointed the weapon like an accusing finger, her eyes blazing. The air smelled like a bonfire, and under her feet the grass withered and crisped to ash.

“You tried to kill him,” she snarled. “He would have died because of you!”

Touda straightened in degrees, then dropped his arms from the defensive position. “He asked,” he said. “I obeyed.”

Suzaku bared her teeth in a snarl. “At a time like that, when he was vulnerable and not knowing what he was asking?!” she snapped. “That child–”

“Was tired,” Touda said. “He wanted to sleep. He wanted freedom. He–”

“Shut up,” she said, and he saw her body shift, tensing itself for a leap, too angry to realize how broadly she was projecting. “Shut up, shut up, shut up–!”

She charged. Even angry, he only had a heartbeat’s time to knock her blade aside before she crashed bodily into him, her shoulder into his chest, and they both went tumbling to the ground.

Through the filter of his visor he watched her rear up above him, his hips caught between her knees and her eyes glittering. They weren’t tears, not yet — she’d save those for when she was alone or with one of the others, but not for Touda the traitor, the hated, whose chains had been set by the Golden Emperor himself. It was still just rage in her expression as she stared down at him, then rocked back so she could press the edge of her sword to his exposed throat. He could feel her trembling minutely, and the faint bright sting as the blade cut in just enough to scratch.

“I want to hurt you,” she said, her voice thin and hard. “You — you …”

Without breaking eye-contact, Touda lifted a hand and carefully pushed her sword aside. After it was a safe distance from his neck, he deliberately pressed his own hands to the earth and took a deep breath and tasted ash deep in the back of his throat. By the time he finished settling himself her breathing had calmed, though her eyes were still wild and staring.

“Very well,” he said.

+++

Suzaku stripped with quick, efficient moments, discarding first the sheath strapped to her back, then her belts, then her outer robe. She left her shift in place and her hair pinned up, though when she leaned over him, enough of it tumbled down over her shoulders to veil his face. Touda kept his arms outstretched, the claws pressed into the dried earth. When she put her hands on his throat again, he tipped his head back.

For a moment they remained poised like that, staring at each other, and then Suzaku undid the belt fastened at his throat, laying it aside.

She leaned down, her mouth to his ear.

“Fight me,” she said.

Touda blinked and lifted his hand, plaing the palm to the flat of her shoulder and curling his fingers. She pressed against his weight and narrowed his eyes.

He shoved and she rolled, grabbing his arm as she did, and it sent them tumbling, rolling round and round like idiots in the grass, her teeth in his shoulder and his claws down her back, the pins in her hair coming loose.

It was the sort of tussling Byakko favored and not: she screamed when he caught and twisted her arm, he grunted when her knee slammed hard into his gut, and she said nothing else but the panting of her breath in his ear was not unlike the voices of the idiots who dashed themselves to pieces at the Emperor’s command, a hundred thousand fools who’d obeyed their leader without question and he among them, black hellfire consuming where Suzaku’s red fire would purify–

Ashes and ashes and nothing left for dust.

By the time they stopped he was pinned again, bruised and winded as she rose above him, her hair wild and a single thin line of blood winding its way down her cheek. The hem of her robes had ridden up high enough to expose a long pale strip of thigh and the flex of muscle underneath. Both her hands pressed to his chest, somewhere between a need for balance and a warning to keep him down.

“I hate you,” she said, rising to her knees over him, with her nails digging into his chest as she adjusted. “Do you understand that? You’re a traitor. You’re dangerous. You–”

Touda lifted a hand and pressed the tips of his claws to the base of her neck, where her pulse skipped fast and hard.

“I would not have,” he said, “unless he asked.”

Suzaku stared at him, breathing through clenched teeth. Touda did not blink the entire time, feeling how the muscles in her throat moved when she swallowed. She rose up onto her knees above him. The hands on his chest trembled, then went still.

“I know,” she said finally, and sank down again.

+++

Later he found bruises all along his arms and his hips, a pattern of fingerprints that looked like wildfire.

+++

A week later she bellowed at him and came down swinging; that was more her style, but still more careless than he would have expected. He deflected her blade and caught her eyes, and saw that they were clear and bright. She didn’t nod or pull back, but one corner of her mouth quirked up a little, a half-smile that showed, for just that moment, the tip of a fang.

Touda raised an eyebrow and sidestepped her next swing, and when Byakko cut in to break up the fight, Touda caught her eye again and nodded himself before backing away.

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work in progress

There are two hundred and six bones in the adult body, a thousand interlocking pieces that fit together simultaneously better and worse than any puzzle human can create. River can remember looking at the glossy pictures in her brother’s imager, can remember running her finger along the more detailed surface and always being vaguely disatisfied that the texture was so artificial. Back then she didn’t know what bone felt like, but certainly, she thought, it was nothing like plastic. Now she knows there’s a harder rougher edge to the feeling, like the presence of life — or at least its memory.

A standard Firefly has over three thousand individual pieces that fit together like a skeleton. Metal and plastic and ceramic and she could fold them all between her two hands and find that she’d created something new. She runs her palms across Serenity’s sides and listens to the song the ship sings — nine pieces of melody and an underlying harmony that ties them all together. It’s not meant for human voices, and not even entirely for human ears, but it’s for the people she shelters in her belly through the Black, and even if they’re not consciously aware, they know it.

Of course the loudest thread is the captain; River thinks that maybe someday instead of dying, he will be the one who truly melts into Serenity; he’ll lie down and let the ship draw him to her breast, and then his blood and bones will become fuel and parts, so that the two cannot be separated.

She puts her palm against the side of the ship and follows its lines and its songs, and there’s Kaylee, who is working on some part of the engine with her hair yanked back and her fingers black to the knuckles with grease. She smiles briefly at River and says something — hey, honey, you all right? — but goes back to her work when River does not answer: Kaylee likes voices but understands silence, which is more than many people. River climbs into the hammock stretched in the corner of the engine room and rocks gently, with her palms braced against the rust-streaked walls.

“That’s a pretty song, River,” Kaylee says, and River realizes she has been humming a poor adaption of Serenity’s song, in the closest that a human voice can approximate of its component parts. This is Kaylee’s theme, which is bright and bubbling with deeper grinding notes, because all of the ship knows Kaylee’s light touch, and all of the ship responds to her. “You make it up yourself?”

River tucks her bony knees to her chest. Here are sixty bones right here, in the curve from her hip to the ends of her toes, but they all come together to make two complete limbs. Tibula, fibula, femur, and they all move so smoothly under her skin. “Serenity made it up,” she says. “For you.”

“For me?” Kaylee looks around in surprise, like she expects a face for her to meet. She has never questioned, even before River, that there was soul to this machine beyond its component parts, not when she spends so much of her life here, in the depths of Serenity’s mechanical heart. “Well, that’s awful sweet of her. Think I can learn it?”

Surprised, River considers. She has never tried singing the new, fragile songs that Serenity has only recently begun to compose, the two that are for herself and for Simon. They are works in progress, and River herself is never quite sure if she’ll wake up as a girl or as a million pieces, so certainly Serenity cannot have put everything together just yet.

“It’s not the full song,” she says. “It’s too deep. The tonal harmonics alone are beyond the register of human hearing, let alone the capacity of the human voice. … I don’t think she’ll mind if you try, though.”

She puts her fingers together and breathes deeply and tilts her head just so, because you can’t directly listen to Serenity’s voice: you have to be just a little off, a little at an angle, for this to work, because she’s got more to her than rules and regulations and her several thousand component parts. “Listen.”

Kaylee puts down her wrench and imitates River’s position. She is a grease-spattered angel with messy brown hair, and Serenity sighs, whispering around them. After a moment, River hums again, her own pale imitation, and though her voice is strained and high she feels she can almost match the song for once, and Kaylee sits very still, breathing through a half-open mouth and listening.

River doesn’t know how long she sings, but when she stops her knees are numb from kneeling in seiza for so long and her neck feels stiff from the angle. Kaylee looks entranced, looks surprised, looks thoughtful.

“It might take me a while to learn somethin’ pretty as that,” she says. “Think she’ll mind me practicin’?”

“You don’t need to,” River says and rocks back, putting her palms flat against the walls. Serenity hums back, a visceral body vibration and it’s there in the pit of her stomach. Kaylee, Kaylee, the ship sighs, and maybe River’s thread isn’t the only one always changing. “Whatever you do, it’ll be right.”

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Winterbride

Sometimes, she thinks she was dreamed into existence, like the oni she used to create. Her parents left her no memories as their legacy; there has only been the sense of her destiny–the weight of a thousand Asakura brides settling on her shoulders like a wedding mantle.

The first time she saw him she was unimpressed: he was skinny and little and did not look strong at all. An oni could have chewed him through in seconds. Parts of her murmured at the sight of him, a thousand old voices that did not belong to her.

He is Asakura, they said. He is strong. He will become the Shaman King, and you will be his First Lady. You will be what we could not.

No, she said back to them, as she watched him, this will not happen. His eyes were autumn-colored, too warm to bear. Very quickly, she saw his youth, his clumsiness. Even as the voices of history whispered their approval of this match, she turned her face away.

He would not become Shaman King. He did not have the strength to master a single spirit, opened himself too freely to the currents of the world around him.

And he was not strong enough to break into the core of her. Therefore, he was worth nothing. One could not question the warmth of his smile, but she was winter-dreamed, and not even her edges melted.

But when he showed her his worth, his tears for the cat-spirit seemed to trickle into the very bottom of her. She pressed her hand to her breast and felt the way her heart shuddered into new life. For the first time in memory, the edge of the winter wind felt cold to her skin.

Love did not melt her, nor did it cause her to bloom into spring. She is of winter, and she does not have the time nor the patience for silly little flowers.

In her “heart,” the part of her mind that feels centered in her chest, she carries her emotions like snow-glass structures. Perhaps, in their own way, they are beautiful. It does not matter much to her, either way. They are simply a part of her, and she cannot cut them away any more than she could pull out her actual physical heart, to present on a platter of crystal and ice.

She knows better than to believe that is what he wants.

He loves differently than she does, warmth and acceptance before the cold necessity of guidance. General happiness is his goal in life, before even the dreams of eternal lazy summer days and his beloved music. No one creature can claim the entirety of him–not even herself, when she has committed entirely to his same path. When he opens his arms, he would embrace the entire span of the world.

It is not purity of heart, however, that inspires his generosity. Love has not blinded her into ignoring his faults.

He loves all because it takes less energy than hating them. Opening yourself with a smile takes less effort and thought than bitterness and suspicion. She knows: she still sleeps lightly, occasionally imagining she can hear the oni’s voice rumbling in her heart.

Within him is an encompassing whole that can swallow her emptiness and still have room for more. She keeps this knowledge safe within the tempered safe of her heart, as an ember that keeps the rest of her from freezing once more. Though his gaze may turn away, she knows to be patient, to wait for it to fall upon her again.

Autumn has come, and the nights are growing long and cold. She sits on the threshold of the door and waits for the sound of his footsteps.

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Who You Are

Because he does not like relating to people, Shido tends to think of those closest to him in terms of animals.

Raitei had been a wolf, lean and confident in his power, with his teeth bared to those who threatened the pack, but never anything but kind to those under his protection. And, always, with a sadness in his voice that could never be fully explained or soothed away. Ginji himself is more of a puppy, all bright eyes and good humor and unconditional affection, tripping over himself to please.

(Of course, that would probably mean the snake-bastard is his master. Shido does not like that admission, but there is little he can do to deny it. Ginji will roll over and show all the vulnerable parts of his belly to that snake without a second thought, and Shido only hopes that Ginji truly understands what he offers, every time he does, though he doubts it. Midou realizes, of course, but so far he has not taken up on that tacit, unknowing permission. Shido can pray to his ancestors that they will stay in that uncertain state of balance, but he is certain one day they will teeter and crash. He will, then, pray that Ginji is not irreversibly shattered by that.)

Emishi, too, is sort of puppyish in his loyalty and in the way he will shamelessly flaunt and boast for an audience. A kind word and a treat, if done right, can set off ecstasies of gratitude. He is fond enough of Emishi, but it exhausts him to be around the man for too long. He has unswerving devotion from his animals, without the need of human complications. It is only after being separated for a while that he begins appreciating Emishi more–though still not his sense of humor. Perhaps a hyena, in that, always laughing and skirting the sidelines, only fighting when called to.

Kazuki makes him think of a swan, long-bodied grace and unexpected ferocity. If there is any man who can be like a swan without seeming utterly ridiculous, it is Kazuki. He has the sort of beauty that can inspire idiots to works of poetry, but the reality of him is less kind, less nurturing, than reams of figurative language can ever fully mask.

And MakubeX is a fox-kit, adaptive and quick and sometimes too smart for his own good. When his body finally catches up with his mind, and he matures into his intelligence, Shido thinks he will be quite grateful to be one of the lonely boy’s few friends.

All of the people in his life have reminded Shido of one animal or another. The intermediary is a long-haired housecat, a self-confident queen in her own right; Lady Poison a young gazelle; Jackal is not an actual jackal, but some large hunting cat, soft-pawed and unquestionably deadly, chosing to toy with his prey before the final moment of death. Shido classifies these people quickly–within minutes, really, because he does not have that many long-term acquaintances, and sometimes survival can depend on how he adapts to react to someone’s personality type.

It’s how he survived the first encounter with Midou Ban, years ago. A mongoose is not always as fast as a snake, but it has enough tricks to be quite a threat. And Fudou, the man obsessed with killing Midou, who drank the stink of death like fine wine–without understanding how the man drew his power, Shido does not think he would have survived.

He lives by identifying people, and by changing himself to suit.

Madoka, however, defies all of that.

He has lived in her house for almost six months now. He sees her every day at least once, whether she shyly greets him over breakfast, or comes into the garden to play for him, or follows Mozart to his side after practice. He would call her a chameleon, but that is not right, either–though he cannot pin her nature down, there is nothing shifty or false about Madoka. She is always as her nature dictates, quiet and gentle and never pretentious.

Mozart tells the same story, full of the effusive and unquestionable love of a well-treated dog. It is easy for him, because she is beloved pack-leader, to be obeyed without question and adored for her simple presence. Dogs are more intelligent than many give them credit for, but within their own personal relations, there is little to complicate things.

She cannot be a dog in his eyes, even the lean, leggy ones that move with their own fluid grace, because she relies on no pack to define her role and character. She cannot be a cat, despite her poise even under fire, because she is willing to sometimes sacrifice her dignity for the sake of fun, wrestling with Mozart down on the floor.

Other times she reminds him of a sparrow, or some other delicate little bird–not flashy or bright in her plumage, but with her own grace of beauty, quick and full of song. There are exercises where Madoka needs to sing the runs before she plays them, and Shido hangs around somewhere behind the open doorway to listen. Her voice will never reach the level of her violin, but it still has a strange kind of power over him.

Now he sits outside her open window and listens to her practice–ordinary scale runs and etudes, designed to keep her fingers loose and nimble. He can see her clearly, long dark hair pulled back for once, and she sways even to these simple melodies, lost in her creation of a world of sound.

Countless animals in the world, a hundred in his own repertoire of imitations, and he cannot assign any of them to her to his own satisfaction.

Like a member of his own clan, he realizes with a start. Like one of the Fuyuki, these past six years dead.

The realization troubles him more than he would care to admit. Dangerous enough, that he has stepped out of the concealing protection of the Mugenjou and back into the outside world. Sooner or later, they will find him again, and now he must take her safety into consideration.

In battle, physical wounds to the body heal with time. But he does not want to think of what might happen, if that gentle girl who follows him with her sightless eyes is caught in the crossfire. Madoka is not entirely defenseless, but she has no training, no understanding of how to fight–and music may mean something to animals, but insects care for nothing but the drone of their fellows.

The thought leaves him cold, and more frightened than he wants to admit. He does not want the responsibility of her last rites, not if they come as a result of his own curse.

Madoka is not of the Mariwood, with all the animals of the world as her champion. She is only human, already robbed of one of her weak senses, and if the buzzing crickets are ever called back to report …

Her music stops. Shido has been looking at her without seeing, and she has come to the window during his distraction. The violin is cradled gently in her arms, like a newborn child. “Shido-san? Are you there?”

He’s not sure why she always asks. Her instinct of his presence is keener than any animal’s; it has surprised him from time to time. She smiles down at him, her blind eyes turned unerringly to the tree he and his friends have staked as “their own.”

“I’ll put on some tea,” she says. “Will you come inside?”

I want to pin you down, so I can understand you. I want you to always be safe.

I don’t want to see you cry. I don’t want to see what will happen to you if I stay. I don’t want–

He gets to his feet, hands in his pockets. “All right,” is all he says.

She smiles and disappears again from the window; he can hear the sounds of her putting the instrument up, with the same delicate care she applies to everything.

When he goes inside, the drone of summer insects is all that is left to fill the air.

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Whether or No

Liza met him on the battlefield, when he snapped his fingers and blew a sniper she just couldn’t reach to bloody pulp. He was barely three years older than her and already an officer, already a State Alchemist, and she thought he might expect her to be impressed by it.

Instead, she raised her gun and shot the man belly-crawling up from behind. To her surprise, he looked more sick than relieved, and he sat down hard beside her, uncaring of how the dust gathered on his legs, on the folds of his uniform. It was undignified, and she tilted her head at him and frowned.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and his smile was lopsided and tired. “It’s been a long day.”

She didn’t answer at first, and watched as his smile shifted, changed, became something almost rueful. Just when it looked as though it would drop, and he would turn away, she said, “Are you all right, sir?”

The question surprised him, she saw; his eyes widened for a moment, then relaxed. “I’m fine.” His gaze flickered to her coat, the pips on her shoulders, and he added, “Sergeant.”

She looked at him evenly, up and down — there was no blood on him, but his face was drawn, pale, with dark shadows under his eyes. “Sir. I was led to believe we wouldn’t be receiving backup from the State Alchemists in this area.”

He shrugged, leaning gingerly back against a broken-off section of wall. “Maybe you weren’t going to,” he said. The confession was here, and so were you.” His fingers rubbed together, and Liza saw a brief, bright spark between them, which was immediately snuffed out. “So was he.”

Neither of them looked at the blood-spattered cliff across from them, or the body behind them.

“We should go back,” he said, tilting his face up to the sky. “It’ll be dark soon, and we don’t want to be caught in the desert at night.”

“We don’t,” she agreed, but neither of them moved. Exhaustion seemed to weigh him down, gathered in dark rings under his eyes. He carried no gun, she saw, which struck her as peculiar, especially from a ranking Major — but perhaps, since his fingers were weapon enough, he didn’t need a gun.

“What’s your name, Sergeant?” he asked, still not looking down. She watched his fingers on his knees, rubbing slowly, but no more sparks came.

“Sir. Elizabeth Hawkeye, sir.”

“Hawkeye?” He sounded amused by that, and she saw his head tilt so he could give her an appraising look. “Fitting, for a sniper.”

She shrugged, and hiked her gun closer, keeping her own hands curled loosely around its trigger. “My ancestor was a gun maker, sir. The name stuck.”

“Ah, of course.” He sighed again, then rocked up, first to his heels, then rose to his feet. Up close, he didn’t look as tall or broad-shouldered as he did from a distance, framed by the fading sky and moving sands. “Come along, Sergeant. There’s no point in sticking around.” After a moment’s thought, he held out a hand to her. “Roy Mustang.”

She almost refused, looking at his hand and then at his face. Roy Mustang had a decent poker face, but it didn’t hide the tired lines that pressed the corners of his mouth. She looked at him, weighed him, then accepted his help.

“Thank you,” he said, quietly, and she pretended not to hear. They did not walk hand-in-hand together, and two more Ishbarite rebels died before they reached the camp, but Liza watched him walk away without a word, and thought that perhaps she would see him again soon.

Two weeks passed. The Amestris military slowly moved further into Ishbar’s capital city, and Liza took to sleeping with her gun by her side. If she paused to think, she found she was forgetting why she’d enlisted in the first place — the people of the city were frightened, barely able to use the weapons they had, and she watched an entire temple congregation flee, only to be intercepted and taken by front-line gunmen.

She watched as the State Alchemists were set lose upon an unsuspecting population, seeing enormous red flowers bloom against the dark sky, smoky red and imagined she could smell the destruction even from her post. In a single night, it seemed, huge chunks of the entire country lay devastated. Her squad marched through one, and she looked at how entire buildings had been shattered, lying in huge broken chunks, and felt ill.

And then one night, on sentry duty, she met Roy Mustang again.

He was less composed than before; she saw his uniform coat and part of the undershirt below it were unbuttoned, that his slick black hair was disheveled, and the closer he came, the stronger the reek of alcohol grew.

“You.” He squinted at her, swaying in place. “I know you.”

She saluted, because drunk or not, he was still a higher-ranked officer than her. “Sergeant Elizabeth Hawkeye, sir.”

“Ah.” He took a few tottering steps towards her, and she almost broke form to catch his arm when he stumbled, almost fell. “Yes. I remember you. The gun maker’s granddaughter.”

Liza pressed her lips together. “Did you want something, sir?”

He lifted his head, and she could see his eyes were bloodshot, red-rimmed from alcohol and other things, which she couldn’t make herself identify, for fear of making them real. “Fresh air, Sergeant,” he said, voice drawn thin and quiet. “I wanted … I can only make oxygen for fire, not for myself.”

Nonplussed, she said nothing, watching as he stumbled around her, moving to the very farthest edge of the lights cast by their campfires, staring hard into the darkness. Liza waited, trying to ignore the fact that she was lax in patrolling, half-expecting him to collapse where he stood.

“We’re fighting a losing war, Sergeant,” he said, without turning.

“Sir?”

“You could say we’re won,” Mustang said. His hands moved, and she glanced down to his hip, and was surprised to see a gun holstered there now, innocuous and almost hidden by the gaping folds of his jacket. “We’re did most of the killing, and in a day or two, there won’t be anything left, not with the ‘cleanup.'” He laughed, the sound sharp and sudden and loud. “Nothing at all.”

“Sir.” Liza shifted uneasily, glancing over her shoulder. “Sir, come away from there. You’re not well, you should –”

“I’m not well,” he echoed, dropping his head forward. “I’m tired.”

She stepped forward, then risked putting her hand on his shoulder. She could feel him shaking, and it surprised her enough that she almost pulled away. “… Sir?”

“I’m not well,” he sighed again, “but I’m alive. There are a number of people who aren’t even that.” He turned to her slightly, his smile faint, and wry. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I’m keeping you from your duty. I’ll go.”

But he didn’t move, and Liza didn’t release him. After a moment, he sighed again, and tugged a bit at his already-loose collar. “A few days,” he told her, without looking at her, “I made this entire city burn. I don’t know how many people died, but it’s more than I can count.”

“Sir, you’re drunk, you should –”

“They gave us … amplifiers, for lack of better word.” Mustang lifted his hand, and she saw a small, thin ring on his middle finger, set with a tiny chip of red stone. “By the order of Colonel Grahn, we weren’t to leave a single building standing.” He swayed again, and this time Liza was forced to catch him. He was lighter than he looked, but his shoulders were broad, and she staggered a little under him. “Not people, either …”

“Sir,” she said again, more quietly, and pulled one of his arms over her shoulders. “Let’s get you lying down.”

“Would you stay?” he asked, and something in his tone of voice made her stop, turn to look at him. She wasn’t even sure herself what was there on her face, but he flinched, and she felt him begin to withdraw. “No, I’m sorry, I –”

“I’ll stay,” she said softly, cutting him off, and then spoke again before he could think of another protest. “I won’t … keep you company, but I’ll be there. At least until you fall asleep.” She didn’t know quite why she promised that, but he looked at her with wide dark eyes, and the gratitude in his eyes made her breath catch.

“That’s fine,” he muttered, as they staggered to the officer’s tents, both of them swaying like drunks. “That’s more than fine, Sergeant, I –”

“You’re going to feel horrible tomorrow morning,” she told him before she could stop herself, and he laughed, the sound rough.

“Tomorrow will be a red day,” he said, then made a strange choked sound, which Liza expected was supposed to be a laugh. “No, it’s already red, and, ah …” He came to a sudden stop, lifting one of his hands, and the two of them looked at his glove. Once upon a time, Liza remembered, it had been surprisingly white for a man fighting in a desert — now it was grimy and dulled, with black marks on the fingers that seemed to resemble gun oil.

“Sir,” she murmured, and Mustang shook himself fiercely, turning another sickly smile to her. “One step at a time.”

“One, yes,” he said, shaking his head, and the two of them walked, step by slow, careful step. It seemed to take a small eternity to find his tent, and to wrestle the heavy flap open, and Liza was infinitely grateful to see it unoccupied.

“Here we are,” she murmured, and pushed gently on his shoulders. At first, it seemed his knees wouldn’t bend, still military-stiff despite the drunken sway and nod of him, but finally he let her press him down to sit on his bedroll. Like some oversized child, he blinked at her stupidly as she set to work on his boots.

“Leave those,” he said quietly, and when she looked up at him, he gave her a wry little lopsided smile. “I — I’ve slept in my uniform before. Gets it horribly wrinkled, but …”

Liza hesitated, then sat back on her heels. Without the excuse to touch him, her hands rested on her knees. “Sir. You should try getting some sleep.”

Mustang continued to smile at her, not quite broken, and Liza thought how it was strange that this full-grown soldier and alchemist could so strongly remind her of the war orphans, who’d clustered in the shadows of ruined buildings to watch the Amestris army march past. For a moment, she had the ridiculous urge to smooth his hair and to promise him all sorts of lies — things will be better in the morning, it won’t be so bad once you’ve gotten some sleep, we’ve done the right thing.

Instead, she told him, “Lie down and close your eyes.”

His smile strengthened fractionally. “Yessir,” he said, but the tone was self-mocking more than anything else. And even if his eyes reminded her of a child, he moved like an old man, slow and careful, like he expected his bones to shatter if he went too fast. Liza remained leaning back, watching him as he settled himself down, meeting his gaze when he turned it back to her.

“We’re living in interesting times, Sergeant,” he told her, wistful. “I used to think that was the best ideal. Now, I think I’d give anything just to see this blow over, so we can all retire in boredom.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to say he already had. Liza stopped herself with effort, but couldn’t help reaching down, pulling the blankets out from under his feet and pulling them up, leaving them halfway up his chest. Mustang watched her with heavy eyes, breathing deeply; she wasn’t sure if he even saw her, any more.

“They had a little girl,” he said suddenly, startling her. Liza leaned back again, blinking. His smile was completely gone, replaced by something blank and horrified. “I saw her. She had blood all over her face, but she was smiling.”

“Sir?”

“The doctors. They had a little girl. Her father was using it as an, an excuse — ‘we have a child, please don’t do this.'” Mustang’s eyes closed, and he took in a shuddering breath; this time, Liza didn’t stop herself when she reached out and touched his shoulder. “I –”

She squeezed gently. “You?”

“I couldn’t say no,” Mustang whispered, like a confession. “They had a child waiting for them, and even then, when Colonel Grahn gave me the gun, I couldn’t say no.”

He sounded lost because of it, like a little boy betrayed by his ideals. Liza pressed her lips together and leaned forward, onto her knees beside him. For long moments, neither of them spoke, and then Mustang said, “Alchemists don’t believe in God. But Hell exists, whether you believe or not.”

Liza tightened her fingers once more, against the temptation to brush hair from his eyes. It surprised her, how much this person’s rambling struck a chord in her. Mustang shifted towards her and opened his eyes, looking up at her with sudden, piercing clarity.

“We’re horrible things, State Alchemists,” he told her. Liza opened her mouth to say something, then cut herself off when Mustang sighed and closed his eyes again. Under her fingers, his shoulder didn’t quite relax, not completely, but there was a shift of tensions, and she thought he muttered a name, right as he slipped away.

Buildings had crumbled and cities crisped to dust by a simple snap of this man’s fingers, Liza thought, watching him. As an alchemist, the number of deaths on his head must indeed be almost countless. In sleep, he didn’t look “innocent” so much as “tired,” his fingers twitching under the blankets, as though even in his dreams, he was snapping flame into life.

For long minutes, Liza remained perched by his side, watching him sleep. And when he didn’t move the whole time, except for the shallow rise and fall of his chest, she quietly got up and left.

Nearly six months passed before he came to her again, this time in the afternoon, knocking at the door of her modest little apartment. She opened it and found him still looking haggard, but stronger than before — his eyes were brighter now, and he smelled more of dust and old books than any sort of drink.

“Lieutenant,” he said, and it didn’t surprise her that he’d heard about her promotion. “May I come in?”

Liza didn’t hesitate, stepping aside and nodding to him. Mustang walked slowly, and did not look around with improper curiosity. He was out of uniform, and the clothes he wore were wrinkled, faded into tired comfort — his back, however, was ramrod straight, shoulders squared.

“To what do I owe this honor, sir?” she asked. She did not offer him a place to sit down, or tea; she felt, on some peculiar instinct, that it would only make him uncomfortable. “And congratulations on your own promotion.”

Mustang smiled wryly, shrugging a little. Hollowness lingered in his eyes. “Thank you, Lieutenant.” He paused, as though gathering his thoughts, then tucked his hands behind his back. “I have something to ask you, which you’re free to refuse, now, or at any time.”

“Sir.” Liza found a sense of calm settling over her as she looked at him. It had been a week since she’d held the gun, down at the firing range, and she found herself almost worried that the lack of practice would be a problem.

“This country is falling apart,” he said quietly. “Ever since Fuhrer King Bradley has come to power, we’ve been in some conflict or other. We can’t –” she saw his fingers flex, and though he wore no gloves, she found herself almost surprised that there was no spark or heat, “– we can’t continue like this. We’ll destroy ourselves, otherwise.”

As he spoke, his gaze drifted away from her, to a point far over her right shoulder. He looked almost nervous, though the flame in his eyes remained strong; he was convicted, Liza thought, and the beginnings of what she’d seen months ago on the battlefield were coming to flower.

“It’s too large a task for one man alone,” he said, and now he sounded hesitant, his gaze flickering to meet hers for just a moment. “Or even with several, it could take several years — possibly even decades …”

She looked at him for a long time, weighing his words thoughtfully. If asked, she thought she preferred him now than he had that one night, when he’d looked at her with unseeing eyes and told her about a murdered doctor’s daughter.

He’d not outright said what he intended to do, and Liza thought that was better; the more often he said it out loud, the more likely it would be for someone else to overhear. And she’d heard her own superior muttering about “that damn Mustang,” for all that the man had supposedly holed himself up in his apartment for weeks after the war.

Very slowly, deliberately, Liza lifted her hand. The movement caught his eye, and she held his gaze as she saluted to him, and though she wasn’t in uniform either, her form was perfect.

“I’ll put in a request for my transfer tomorrow, sir,” she said, and watched as he sagged, as though in relief. It wasn’t obvious, no — but like when he’d fallen asleep beside her, there was a shift and change in the way he stood, and she thought he must have been expecting her to say no, especially to a man she’d only met twice before.

The smile he gave her might not have been one on anyone else: it turned the corners of his mouth just slightly, so that someone observing might believe they imagined it. Liza saw it clearly, and thought that perhaps he was relearning that expression, coming back into it by slow degrees. She resisted the urge to smile back.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Mustang said quietly. “Your support is … appreciated.”

And she nodded, still holding the salute as he matched it, the two of them solemn-faced and not quite awkward, facing each other.

“Sir,” she said quietly.

This person, I will protect.

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Where He Stays

His shoulder aches if he leans on it too long; when he moves, he can feel the cloth sticking to the rotten patches beneath. It makes him uncomfortable, so he sits very straight and tries not to touch anything. He’s heard people whispering about him since he came, and they call it proper posture and befitting a gentleman.

Dante knows better; she laughs and kisses that spot, stroking it with soft pale hands. He doesn’t like the way it feels, when she touches it, because the feeling reminds him of dying. He can hear the whispering from behind the Gate, and the jealous hunger of those many, many eyes and plucking fingers, and Dante only laughs and caresses it again.

Breathing the same air she does is like slow suffocation. When he leaves, he makes vague excuses — I need to get away; I need to see if I can find a way to reverse what’s happening to us — and Dante lets him leave, waving a handkerchief at him from the doorway. Envy is not around, and that is a relief; he does not need another round of yelling and accusations as his farewell.

Risenbul is a lucky find, he thinks: a tiny little village set near a thick heavy forest and a winding river, and sets himself up there, the village hermit. Of course, now the term is outdated, but he likes to think of himself as a wise man of sorts, the handyman alchemist. And if they notice he does not age over the years, and that his hair and beard remain free of gray, they are loyal enough not to comment.

The day a new family comes to the village — a farmer, come here to escape from the madness of East City’s explosive expansion, he is at the bar with Pinako Rockbell, drinking. And he’s an alchemist, and so he does not believe in God, but he knows something prompted him to look up at the exact moment a young girl walks into his line of vision, with a white dress that reaches to her ankles, and a wide-brimmed sunhat. She holds a suitcase in both hands, and at that moment he leans forward to get a better look, she glances up, sees him, and smiles.

Pinako later calls him an idiot for not saying anything, and then laughs at how he has finally found someone who leaves him unable to say his own name. When he comes to the Rockbell’s automail shop to give Pinako’s son and daughter-in-law lessons, he finds the girl in the kitchen, drinking tea. She looks up at his entrance, and her smile widens, and he thinks it’s strange, how she cannot be more than sixteen years old, and he is reaching his four hundredth year, and her smile makes his face hot.

He learns later she is actually seventeen, and that her name is Trisha, after her mother, Patricia. He learns that she likes to go down to the river and walk into the water barefoot, and that boat rides delight her. She tells him how, in her childhood, she used to have a swing set that she loved, and he offers to transmute her one on the spot. When she expresses dubious amusement, he rolls up his sleeves to his forearms and claps his hands, setting them against a tree, smiling at her shock when the swing grows from the branch itself.

Once that surprise passes, though, her smile is brilliant. She insists he try the swing, but he is too awkward, too heavy, and so they switch, and he watches as the wind catches in her hair, letting it flare out so that the sun catches in its length.

It’s so easy to forget, he thinks. He gives her a gentle push, and does his best to ignore the wet brush of cloth on his shoulder.

She is a farmer’s daughter, but she’s not stupid; he teaches her to read, and to write at least her name, and his. Trisha’s intelligence lies in her hands, which are slender and soft, but hide calluses on the fingers, strong for all their delicacy. He finds his shirts and coat mended quickly and efficiently, and his small larder is stocked with her cooking. He dreams of her, draped in shining silver, with a crown of wheat and cradling a bow and arrow in her hands, and wakes shaking.

At first, he keeps his shoulder hidden from Trisha, wearing long-sleeved shirts even in the hottest part of summer, when even a modest young lady like her wears her dresses cut both low and high. If she finds this strange, she says nothing, and continues to breaks his heart when she smiles. He thinks he could be happy staying by her side, but Dante is waiting, Envy is waiting, and he knows soon he will have to leave this place that has loved him so long.

Leaving Trisha is the harder thing, he thinks one night, and puts his hand over the mark.

He tells her on a summer evening, when the moon is a heavy sickle in the violet sky. I am old, and my flesh is already rotting. Trisha doesn’t believe at first, staring at him, and he finally unbuttons his shirt, sliding down one sleeve, so she can see the places where his skin blackens and curls. When she tries to reach out, he catches her wrist and pulls it roughly away.

“Don’t,” he says. She looks surprised, then hurt, and he steps back, takes a deep breath to calm himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, and isn’t sure for what, exactly — there are so many things, really, for her to be angry about, so many things to apologize for. He wants to hold her, wants to take back what he cannot help, and instead leaves her staring after him, pale in the growing dusk.

The next day she finds him as he is leaving. He dwarfs her, and she can barely close her fingers halfway around his wrist, but he stops at the sight of her, framed in his bedroom doorway, and stares at him.

“Ah,” he says, blankly. “Trisha, I –”

“I want to talk to you,” she says, and the sharpness in her voice is so uncharacteristic that it surprises him into silence. Outside, the sunlight is bright enough to make him squint, but he says nothing, following her meekly to the large oak tree that stands behind his small house.

There, she whirls on him, and jabs him hard in the chest with what finger. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asks, and he is taken aback.

“I,” he begins, then gives her a wry smile, the one that has always won a smile back — but not today, no, not with her eyes snapping and her pretty mouth turned into a near-scowl. “Away?”

“Without saying good bye?” She is hurt under her anger, a fragility to her that lures him in, even when he wants to stop, and turn away. Dante would destroy her, he thinks; Dante would see a rival and tear her to shreds without every changing expression. “How can you do that? I thought — I thought you –”

It’s not safe for her, he thinks again. She’s only human, and Envy is waiting, as well. She seems to have forgotten about his arm, the dark places where his soul and body have eroded. But she doesn’t falter; it costs her, he sees, but she only glares, defiant somehow, and anger makes her almost as lovely as happiness. Here, she is strong and steadfast; he looks at her and thinks that she will not falter or break, even if he walks away from her, and that is what roots him in place.

“I care,” he says finally. The confession is almost painful, and she knows better than to give in, glaring until he rubs the back of his head, trying not to wince as his shirt chafes his shoulder. “Trisha, it’s dangerous. I’m not — well. You –”

“I’m not afraid,” she says, a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “I’m not.” And now she softens a little, stepping forward to lay both of her hands upon his forearm, well away from his shoulder. “Stay. Please.”

No, he wants to tell her. No, you silly girl, I’m not —

“Fine,” he says, and sees her relax at last. Her smile makes his chest tighten, and he thinks bitterly that he is tying the last satin ribbon before he hands her to Dante on a platter. “But, Trisha, I’m not — I can’t stay forever.”

Her smile is knowing and old, and though she is only a fraction of Dante’s age, she seems so much the wiser. She curls her fingers around his wrist, holding loosely; all he has to do is give a single twist, and that would break her grasp. “You have to find out how to fix your arm,” she says gently. “When you find that out, you’ll come back.”

There is such absolute confidence in her voice, such conviction, that he thinks she may be right. When he draws her into his arms, and kisses her for the first time, she tilts her face to his, like she has been expecting this since their first meeting.

For a mad moment, he is tempted to have her here, in the open, under the tree — to take what she offers and take it with him, to remember her warmth when he finally returns to Dante — and then she sighs, and lifts her hands to his shoulders. Briefly, her fingers brush the edges of the mark on his shoulder and he freezes, waiting.

Nothing happens. Nothing happens.

She looks up at him quizzically, tilts her head to one side. “Hoenheim?”

He shakes his head, stunned by the sound of her voice, by the way that she is still touching his arm there, and nothing is happening. Elated, he kisses her again, sweeps her into his arms and spins her once, then sets her down as she laughs, leaning against him. Keeping one arm tight around her waist, he touches the back of her head with broad fingers and thinks, I will keep this one.

+++

The graveyard is larger than he remembers it, but still full of unearthly silence. He walks slowly among the graves, and feels like he can sense the eyes of the dead, watchful on him, as he searches.

The stone has no dates carved on it. He sits down slowly and takes a deep breath, reaching out to trace the name carved there, on the small elegy chipped in beneath it. She never remarried, he sees with relief and regret both; he kept her, he kept her until the end.

He closes his eyes and leans his head, briefly, against the stone.

“Trisha,” he says. “I didn’t find out how to fix my arm, but … I wanted to see you.”

Silence answers him, and he passes his hand across her name again. He sighs and leans back, smiling wryly at the headstone, and can almost imagine her arms around his shoulders, her cheek soft against his.

For a moment, he thinks of the house as it was, standing tall, of Edward and Alphonse playing together in the garden under her watchful eye (but they are too old for playing now, they must be too old for playing now), and he thinks of walking up, and seeing the surprise and the pleasure that lights the faces of his family, of a homecoming that tastes bittersweet.

“Well,” he says, his voice quiet in the graveyard, bright in his dreams. “I’m home.”

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What Remains

Contrary to popular belief, heroes do not always age gracefully.

Time is sometimes colder to them than the ordinary layman, and there is always a point where even the glamour of fame wears thin. Edward doesn’t walk quite as fast as he used to; he no longer vibrates with suppressed energy when standing still. In cold weather, he often rubs at his right elbow, as though he cannot help but imagine an ache there.

His mind is just as sharp as ever, though. And if he speaks more slowly, that’s indication of how much he’s grown. It will still be years yet before Alphonse can convince him to come back and stay.

Roy uses his automail hand to hold the walking stick, which is long and black, with a lion’s head of silver. It’s mostly for show, but he knows soon it will be necessary: the mornings have put aches in his joints that were not there the previous year. These are old memories of finished wars, and they are as much a part of him as the limbs which remain.

Central City has not changed much over the years; she is vast and set in her ways, down to the core of life that flows through her veins. Leaderships have changed, regimes toppled and governments rebuilt, but life continues as always. Time flows, and all men are carried forward with it.

And Central, beautiful and hovering somewhere between innocent and corrupt, takes them in and forgets them; her scars heal and she is whole again, as though no blood stained her streets, and no horrors wandered freely. Once the dust cleared and the earth settled, Central picked herself up and carried on without second thought.

Roy’s memory is longer. He remembers. Every time he passes the automail hand over anything, he remembers.

When the rain comes, late in the winter, washing away the remnants of snow, Roy dresses in full regalia, slicks back his silvering hair, and walks slowly down to the cemetery. Edward sometimes meets him there, or comes across him halfway, and they go together, memories that have not yet faded as time grinds them down.

It’s strange, to see the new young faces that are appearing in the military every day. The Ishbar War, the War of the Stone–these have both become grandfather-tales, legends in their own time, and there is not a single student who doesn’t look at either of them without hero worship. Roy tries to discourage it as much as he can. Sometimes it works, but it’s harder now, so much more than when Fullmetal was that age, and younger.

A new generation turns shining eyes to Roy Mustang, and all they see is the glitter and trappings of a war hero. Except for Edward, who has carved his own path, his own way, everyone underneath and below Roy has been obscured.

War alone does not always send a man to sleep, Roy thinks, as they walk. Time lays him equally low, and is, perhaps, the more insidious presence. You do not think of time until the long, silent moments when you are the only thing moving.

Or not moving, as the case may be. They stand together on a street corner and watch a few cars drive slowly past.

“Are you going to Alicia’s graduation?” Edward asks, without looking at him. Mist gathers in his golden hair, and his bangs hang low in his face. “Ms. Gracia wants to know.”

Roy looks at his hand, and the cane he holds there, and then at Edward again. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have a lot of work.”

“You always have a lot of work, sir,” Edward snorts, but there is no sting in his voice. It is too early in the morning for arguing, and Edward is not old, but he is no longer young. Roy climbed to the top to realize his own goals, but Edward, as always, has done as he pleased.

Farmer, colonel or head of the country, it matters little. The Fullmetal Alchemist respects those whom have proved his faith well-placed. And nothing, Roy thinks, will teach you the ways of a single man more than fighting with him.

“Perhaps,” he says at last. “It really does depend.”

Edward looks at him sharply for a moment, and then shrugs. “Fair enough,” he allows.

They walk forward when the light changes, down to the graveyard. A grand statue of King Bradley has been erected, the man noble and stern, one of his swords drawn and lifted in salute to anyone who walks past. At the base is a plaque with a list of names, those who have gone through the gateway and not returned. Roy helped oversee the project himself.

Some crimes cannot be redeemed. However, some sins are more easily forgiven than others.

Down the path, to the right and then straight: and there is where Maes Hughes sleeps, so many years abed. Roy’s footsteps slow as he approaches that place, but Edward walks faster, until it is almost the pace of a young man. His chin is lifted, like he’s defying ghosts to rise up and stop him as he walks.

Maes Hughes’ grave is neatly-kept as always; there are fresh flowers sitting upon its grass-covered mound. Roses, lilies, and a small framed photograph of Alicia and Gracia, identical smiles and bright eyes. In Alicia’s eyes are all the years that her father has never seen.

Gracia, Roy thinks, and feels a fleeting pang of sadness; of them all, she and Alicia have lost the most. Gracia smiles more these days, especially when her daughter is involved, but her sadness is lingering, underlying–she knows very well what was taken from her.

Edward stops in front of the grave, jams his hands deeply into his pockets. Just for a moment, Roy slows further, to give him a few split-seconds of privacy before he is there, and stands before the grave as well. A breeze makes the flowers nod towards them, as though in greeting.

Time has turned the dials down on Edward’s master volume control, but even with that, his voice is hushed in the graveyard. “Whadaya think he’d say, seeing us here?”

Edward asks this question every year. Roy shifts his weight against his stick, considers it thoughtfully, as he always does. This is important every time. “He would say that it’s about time,” he says. “Neither of us come often enough, I think.”

That is the way of things, and of life, he wants to add, but refrains. Edward already knows this; there is no point in beating a dead horse, a dead idea. Time gets away from every man, the trickiest lover to court. Neither of them can afford to be idle men, if ever they were before.

Shoulder to shoulder, they stand and say nothing, and the wind blows quietly through the heavy stones all around them. Hughes had always understood the value of silence, Roy thinks, though one would never guess, only knowing him for a short while.

“I keep thinking I should bring, I don’t know, flowers or something,” Edward says quietly, as though to the wind. “But it seems stupid until I get here. Flowers aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living.”

“And the living keep the dead alive in their memories, and so don’t truly die.” Roy smiles quietly, pulls off his hat with his automail fingers. “It’s the storytellers and historians that hold the true power in this society, Edward.”

Edward hums quietly in agreement; his golden eyes are narrow and thoughtful. “Alchemy has studied for thousands of years, and new life is still the one secret it can’t unravel,” he said. “Mothers, storytellers, the people who remember–they’re the ones who do everything we can’t.”

“There are some things,” Roy says, and does not look at Edward’s arm or leg as he does, “that mankind was never meant to understand on a scientific level.”

“That doesn’t stop us from trying,” Edward replies, and he does look at Roy’s hand when he says this. “Maybe we’re stupid that way.”

Roy moves his hand, places the flesh hand over the automail one. “Maybe we are.”

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wish for luck

The day of his thesis defense is a bright and sunny one. Morinaga wakes from a fitful sleep and dresses carefully as he can — a new suit that cost more than he really wants to think about, and his hair damply combed into a semblance of order. He keeps his notes tucked under an arm, reshuffling and straightening them compulsively as he makes his way to the office building. He almost passes the man who’s standing at the bottom of the stairs, then staggers when something smacks the back of his head, hard.

Morinaga turns and sees a (decently-sized, actually) rock wrapped with something. He bends and picks it up, unwrapping it carefully.

Written on it is the phrase, “For good fortune on this day.”

He looks up and meets a full-fledged scowl from his senpai — slightly redirected, but still absolutely familiar. In spite of himself he smiles as he trots over, still holding onto the charm. “Senpai!” he says. “Ah, did you come here to cheer me on? Ehehehe, that’s so–”

“Keh!” Tatsumi snorts. “Like I’d waste my time doing that.”

“But …” Morinaga blinks. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“I just happened to be walking by!” Tatsumi scowls. “It’s just coincidence that I’m here. Coincidence. Don’t get so excited.”

“Senpai … ” Morinaga blinks. He looks at the charm he’s holding, then holds it up. “This is–”

The glare Tatsumi levels at a nearby tree was almost enough to make it spontaneously combust; a cluster of girls passing by take one terrified look at skitter quickly out of his line of sight. “What does it LOOK like? Idiot.”

“A …” Morinaga turns it over slowly with his fingertips, half-afraid it’s going to fall apart. Actually, knowing his senpai, he thinks he should be more suspicious on whether there’s poison laced on the edges. “A good-luck charm?”

“OF COURSE IT’S A GOOD-LUCK CHARM, YOU BLIND FOOL.” Tatsumi puffs himself up the whole way, his expression thunderous. “WHAT DID YOU EXPECT, YOU–”

“You got this for me?” Morinaga doesn’t think his eyes could get any wider — they’re actually beginning to hurt a bit from staring. “Senpai …”

“OF COURSE NOT!” Tatsumi bellows. “WHY WOULD I BUY SOMETHING FOR AN IDIOT PERVERT HOMO–”

“Eh?” Morinaga squints at the charm. After a moment, he feels the absolute stillness of shock settle over him, which lets him look up at Tatsumi’s red face without actually exploding.

“Senpai … don’t tell me that you –”

A vein ticcs in Tatsumi’s forehead. The light pings off his glasses for a moment, rendering his eyes invisible. “What about it.

“–you … made this?” Morinaga holds up the small good-luck charm. “This is your handwriti–gggghk.”

Tatsumi keeps shaking him hard for a few moments, making sputtering furious noises that aren’t actually a denial. When he glances up, he apparently sees something in Morinaga’s expression that makes him shove back, hard, and his blush has moved all the way down his neck, disappearing into his shirt.

“You did,” Morinaga breathes. “Senpai, for me, you–”

It’s not like I’d do something like that for a pervert like you,” Tatsumi hisses. “Why’d I waste my time doing something like that! It’s just a fucking thesis defense! I’ve got more important things with my time than something pointless like that–”

Morinaga throws his arms around his senpai, squeezing hard as he can. There’s a long outraged string of muffled curses into his as Tatsumi immediately begins to squirm, clawing and shoving for freedom. He ignores it, pressing his nose into Tatsumi’s hair and breathing deep; all impending doom seems to have fallen away (though he knows that he’s probably going to get a beating as soon as he loosens his arms just a little). “Thank you,” he says, pretty sure that Tatsumi misses it in his struggling.

Or maybe not, because for a moment Tatsumi pauses, still with his face in Morinaga’s shoulder. It’s just a moment — less than ten seconds — but it’s there, it’s there and even though Tatsumi punctuates its end by twisting and yowling like an outraged cat, Morinaga knows it was there.

He goes into the defense with a fresh bruise red on his cheek, a smile he can’t stop, and a small handmade good-luck charm tucked into his jeans pocket.

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These Songs Still I Hear

There was a song his mother used to sing in her high lilting voice, a story about two children lost in the woods, who walked hand-in-hand until they came to rest in the shadow of an icefruit tree and lay down to die. The snow covered their bodies and transformed them into statues of ice, curled together like secrets, so that no one, by might or magic, could separate them. She sang this as she did her embroidery, her eyes unfocused and staring, and their father would smile at the sound of her voice (though something was always pained in his eyes, something in them always remained unhappy, remained cold, and none of the great fires could touch that) and sometimes he sang along as well, his voice lifting and bolstering hers, until the servants were peering in as well, admiration shining on their faces for their lovely lady and their handsome lord.

He remembers also the weight of his brother’s hand in his own. Even that young, his fingers had been strong. They had sat crouched by the hearth, and the firelight on his face had given it shadows that made him look older. When he saw that, he closed his eyes and pressed close to his brother’s side. They stayed close together, not quite huddling, until their father could guide their mother from the room, and the sound of her voice (thin and high and full of things as brittle and sad as their father’s eyes) echoed off the smoothed stones.

There was another song his mother had sung, about a pair of perfect dolls who moved and breathed and acted like real children, but who didn’t love and thus didn’t live. Such pretty smiles their red mouths had, but their eyes were cold as Queen Winter’s throne, oh little children without hearts of their own.

Their father never sang with that one. He would stare at her instead, with his smiling mouth and unhappy eyes, and he would say nothing as her voice warbled, high and pretty and not strong enough to stand alone. More often than not he turned away before the song ended; if he saw them, he never gave any indication. Their mother would sing and sing until her voice cracked and faded into whispers, but she always watches them, and their reflections in her fever-bright eyes are distorted and strange.

And then Fay’s hand would be in his, squeezing until it almost hurt, genuine where their parents were not. They’d escape — outside if they could, to escape prying eyes altogether, and to their own rooms if not. Fay would push his head down, so he could lie with his head in his twin’s lap, and he would sing too: and he was neither as sweet as their mother nor as steady as their father, but somewhere in between, a steady piping child’s voice that rambled through a whole glittering storybook of characters — giants and clever cats and the Winter Queen, her pale eyes flashing and her blue teeth curled in a smile. He’d closed his eyes and he’d picture those things that Fay sang of, and always there were two boys who ran through the stories, hand-in-hand, straight through the cold night and into the rose of oncoming day.

He never sang himself, though; he thought his voice might be weaker than his mother’s, if he tried.

+++

Princess Tomoyo has a lovely clear voice that rings with the same effortless beauty of birdsong. She sings one piece, which speaks admiringly of cherry trees in full bloom — and this obviously for Sakura, who is dressed in a white kimono embroidered with her namesake and smiles wanly at the praise.

And then Tomoyo turns to Kurogane, who balances a sake cup in his one hand. She holds out a hand to him. “Now you too,” she says. Her smile is lovely as her voice. “I bet your wonderful friends never knew you could sing.”

Syaoran sputters into his drink; Sakura puts her hands to her mouth and looks surprised; Mokona leaps at Kurogane, protesting that he’s mean, so mean, such a meanie! for keeping that secret.

Fay tilts his head. He says, “Ah, is that so?” He looks at Princess Tomoyo, who is looking right back at him and smiling. In spite of himself he smiles back; she’s a pretty girl, and he likes her quite a bit. “I’d like to hear.”

Tomoyo’s eyes gleam. “Did you hear that?” she says. “Kurogane, he–” and she turns, but Kurogane is actually already on his feet. He’s a little off-balance with the missing arm, but still walks with the same rolling ready gait, like he could take down an entire battalion of angry soldiers without batting a lash. The princess, for her part, only raises a single brow. She looks at Fay again and smiles, and gestures to the waiting musicians. They strike up a simple piece whose melody he actually recognizes. He almost drops his cup before he recovers and manages to hold it steady as Princess Tomoyo and Kurogane sing his mother’s song about two heartless dolls–

Only the story is different; a young man walks into the story at the beginning when there was none before, and falls in love with one of the dolls. When one is destroyed in a fire, the man offers his own blood to the remaining doll, and the jointed unloving creature looks upon him and finds itself moved to take his hand, and its smile was real — such a pretty smile on its red mouth, and its eyes reflected the light of Queen Summer’s fire — as they walked away.

Fay doesn’t quite know when he stopped looking, staring down at his own obscured reflection in the alcohol’s surface, but he knows when the music comes to a stop. He hears the surprised respectful clapping from Sakura and Syaoran both, and Mokona’s admiring cheers; it’s all drowned out by the sudden roar of blood in his ears.

When something brushes his arm he almost throws himself back, out of the way of all contact. In the split second before he does, Kurogane says, “Next time, you think you can do better, idiot mage, you do it.”

He looks up, through his loose hair. Kurogane is scowling, but it’s reflexive — his face is long-accustomed to the way it has to settle for the downward slash of his mouth. He pours himself more sake with surprising grace and looks askance at Fay. Fay stares back and tries to remember the sound of his mother’s high sad voice; instead, all he can hear is Princess Toyomo’s delicate soprano. He tries and tries, but even the memory of the original song is fading.

“I like yours better,” he says. He smiles and sees Kurogane’s eyes go wide for just a moment, and he thinks that it’s been a long time since he meant it. It feels good.

“So next time,” he goes on, “sing for me again, all right?”

Kurogane snorts at him, and mutters something about idiots and stupid demands, but he doesn’t actually say no.

Fay pours them both more to drink, and settles to listen as Tomoyo pulls Sakura up with her next, and thinks next time, maybe (just maybe) he’ll let himself be talked into singing as well.

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Heat

cowritten with Harukami

It was certainly a change of pace that had led Kantarou to tell Youko to not interrupt him as he worked — that was to say, unless it was to bring him fresh paper or refreshments. The blame could be placed squarely on the mistake that had put them this much in the hole for the month and with the article so overdue that Reiko was calling on him several times a day, it was really his only hope.

Which is why he was more than surprised when Youko entered without warning. He looked up, about to snap at her, and hesitated; her skin was pale and sheened with sweat, her pupils too-wide in her face, and her mouth was open a little as she panted.

“Youko-chan?! Is everything all right?! Youko-chan!”

She held up both hands as if to warn him off, and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “It’s fine,” she said, quickly. “It’s fine, Kan-chan, but I’m gonna have to ask for a few days off. Um. A week? Is a week good?”

He stopped and didn’t come any closer, not when she’d gone into such a defensive position, and tensed. “A week’s fine, we can take care of ourselves, but — what is it? Is there anything I can do for you, Youko-chan?”

“Ehehn.” She giggled nervously. “I’d rather you didn’t offer that, Kan-chan. It’s just. Um. My once-every-few-years-problem.”

He blinked at her for a long moment, then recoiled a bit, his hands flailing helplessly. “Ehhh? That? Um, Youko-chan –”

Youko smiled a bit weakly, rubbing at her arms. “Yeah,” she said, and straightened a little. “So, uh, I’ll be going and taking care of that — please don’t you and Haruka-chan destroy the house in my absence, okay?” She eyed him for a moment, then sighed. “I mean, don’t slack off, get your article finished, don’t fight –”

“Youko-chan, we’ll behave,” Kantarou said, as soothingly as he could. He didn’t dare cross the distance to where she stood, but he still smiled reassuringly at her. “I mean, I cooked for myself all the time before I met you, so I think I could definitely scrounge something up for me and Haruka …”

“Oh, good.” Youko rubbed her hands together, her smile gaining a bit of strength. “I’m really sorry about this, Kan-chan, I know it’s inconvenient with all the work you have to do, but –”

He waved his hands again, reassuringly, a soothing gesture. “No, really, Youko-chan! You go, ah, lay low or –” He’d rather not think of the alternatives, honestly; she was too much a part of his family. “At any rate, we’ll be just fine until you get back!”

She sighed slowly, and wiped sweat from her face with her sleeve, biting her lip. “…Good! I’ll hold you to that, Kan-chan! If I find that you’ve been slacking off by the time I get back, you’ll really get it!”

“Yes, yes, and I’ll probably deserve it, so–”

“Yes,” she repeated, and backed towards the door. “I’ll just be–”

She turned, and in the same moment, Haruka stepped through the door. She thumped heavily into his chest and stumbled back, gasping, hands coming up as if to ward him off. “Ha–Haruka-chan! Get out of the way please–

She shoved past him in a quick gesture and was down the hall, running faster than Kantarou had seen her do in a while.

Haruka’s nostrils flared. “What’s up with her?” he muttered. And then, “…do you smell something strange, Kantarou?”

“… Er.” Kantarou rubbed the back of his head. Different youkai species, from the small amount of research he’d done, appeared to have incompatible pheromones, but it probably still warranted some care, especially with how long Haruka and Youko had been living together. “No, I don’t? Um. I should get back to work –”

Haruka raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest. “About that,” he said. “Your editor is here again.”

“Ehhh?” Kantarou gaped, for a moment distracted from Youko’s predicament. “Again? She was here just an hour ago!”

“This is what happens when you don’t get your work done on time.” Haruka raised an eyebrow. “It’s your fault, spending all your money on the new haori when you didn’t really need one.”

“Well, my old one got ripped,” he protested, pouting. “Haruka, I can’t perform an exorcisms without the proper uniform, it’s just not right –”

“Sensei!” Reiko popped up from behind Haruka, frowning. “You’re slacking again, aren’t you? If you keep this up for too much longer, we’re going to look elsewhere for next month’s article.”

“No, no, I’m not slacking off!” Kantarou yelped, holding his hands up. “I’m almost done, Reiko-san! I promise! If I get some peace and quiet, I will have it done by this evening! I swear!” He calculated mentally. “If I have five hours uninterrupted!”

“Four, Sensei!”

“That’s absurd!” Kantarou said. “It’s already late enough that you wouldn’t get it on the presses until tomorrow anyway, five hours or four hours doesn’t make a difference!”

Reiko sighed. “Fine, then, five hours, Sensei, but I’ll sit behind you until you get it done! And no promises for any future publication!”

“I’ll get it done!” Kantarou sighed. This sort of pressure was the last thing he needed, especially with Youko out of commission. While he knew that technically it wasn’t her fault that she’d gone into heat and had to retire, and it wouldn’t be fair to blame her over something so embarrassing, her timing could really use work.

“You do that,” Reiko told him, and headed for the door with an over-loud sigh, brushing past Haruka as she went.

Haruka tensed faintly at that, a strange look crossing his face. He sniffed delicately at the air again and Kantarou tensed, waiting to see what kind of further reaction he’d have. After a long moment, though, Haruka just shook himself and slanted a wry look at Kantarou — work or else — then headed off down the hallway, ostensibly back outside and to the roof. With a sigh, Kantarou smiled at Reiko, who refused to return it.

“Sensei,” she said, her tone warning. “Work.”

“Ahh, right, right.” Kantarou rubbed the back of his head, and returned to his desk, sitting down and staring blankly at the half-filled sakubun page. Writing felt like the farthest thing from his mind, especially about the study of identifying ordinary household objects from similarly-shaped youkai, but the sooner he was done, at least, the sooner Reiko would be off his back, and maybe he could see to getting dinner started …

With a sigh, he scrubbed a hand through his hair and went back to work, hunching over his desk and scribbling furiously.

+++

Barely ten minutes later, Haruka was in there again. He didn’t say anything, and Kantarou did his best to ignore Haruka’s presence, still scribbling furiously, but Haruka was acting strange, pacing around, moving tensely.

A broken umbrella would–

“I’m certain I smell something,” Haruka said, sharply.

Kantarou stared down at the scribbled line at the end of his word. “…It’s your imagination, Haruka.”

Haruka shook his head shortly, then seemed to resettle himself. “…Some sort of youki,” he said. “That’s–”

“The bells aren’t ringing, Haruka,” Kantarou said, sticking his hand out pointedly. Haruka was silent a long moment, and he returned to his paper. A broken umbrella…

“Youki?” Reiko blinked. “Sensei, what –”

“Ah, never mind, Reiko-san.” Kantarou waved a hand dismissively, not lifting his head from his paper. “Haruka’s just sort of imagining things — he can sense the presence of a youkai as well as I can, that’s one of the reasons I employed him …” It was a weak excuse at best, but Reiko was thankfully used to his eccentricities, and let this go with a sigh and a small frown.

Half an hour later, Haruka returned again, his movements jerkier and sharper than before. “Kantarou,” he said flatly. “There’s –”

Haruka,” Kantarou said, through gritted teeth, “I’m busy. If you’ve got the free time, you could make me tea or something. Youko-chan’s taken the week off, so –”

“She has?” He could hear the frown in Haruka’s voice. “Why?”

“… Personal reasons.” Kantarou hunched deeper at his desk. “Tea, Haruka, so I can get this done so I can get paid and we can eat.”

“I don’t make–”

“Haruka, make tea.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Haruka’s nostrils flare in what he hoped was offense rather than another attempt to scent the air. Haruka turned on his heel and stalked out.

“A cup for me too, please,” Reiko called after, cheerful.

Rubbing his head, Kantarou stared at the blurring words on the page, and rubbed at his eyes, then bent over with determination.

Some ten minutes later, Reiko rose, jolting Kantarou out of his groove. “Excuse me, Sensei,” she whispered, gesturing. “The toilet–?”

“Ah, of course, feel free,” Kantarou said, gesturing vaguely in the bathroom’s direction.

She murmured her thanks, which Kantarou waved some distracted acknowledgement of, and slipped out. A moment later, the door opened again, and Haruka stalked in, holding a tea tray in both hands and looking oddly thoughtful. It surprised Kantarou somewhat to see; usually, even when directly ordered, Haruka gave into doing menial tasks with bad grace.

With a sigh, Kantarou allowed himself a pause to sit back and stretch, trying to work out some of the knots growing in his back. “Thank you, Haruka,” he said with some relief, and turned to take a cup from him.

Haruka stared at him the whole time, with a distinctly intent expression that made Kantarou feel suddenly small and exposed. “Kantarou,”he said, less sharply than before, but still insistent, “that smell –”

“It’s probably your imagination,” Kantarou said. “My other friends come and go all the time, and since Youko-chan’s gone, she hasn’t been around to do the cleaning. Don’t worry about it, it’ll probably pass over by tomorrow.”

“… ah.” Haruka narrowed his eyes, continuing to watch as Kantarou sipped at his tea.

Kantarou sighed with relief at the slightly bitter taste, clearing his palate from the nervous edge it had taken on. He licked his lips as he turned back to his paper.

“Stop that,” Haruka snapped.

Kantarou blinked. “…Haruka?”

“Stop flirting with me when you’re supposed to be working.”Haruka’s voice was harsh. “Don’t think I don’t know when you’re doing it.”

Kantarou gaped at him. “Haruka, what are you talking about?”

“That,” Haruka said, insistently. “What you’re doing. It’s annoying. Stop it. You’re supposed to be working.”

Kantarou continued to stare. “I am working,” he said. “I’ve been here all this time, Haruka; you’re the one who’s been in and out!”

“This isn’t the time or the place,” Haruka growled. “Your editor is probably going to be here until after dinner, so –”

“I know that,” Kantarou said, bewildered. “Haruka, what’s wrong with you?”

Haruka took a deep breath, and a small furrow appeared between his eyebrows, making him look somewhat uneasy. “… I’ve got a bit of a headache,” he said at last. “I feel strange.”

“Yes, well.” Kantarou started to pick up his cup again, then thought of it better, frowning. “Go rest on the roof or something, Haruka, I’m busy. Because even if you don’t think so, I am trying to work –”

The door opened, and Reiko blinked at the two of them before smiling. “Ah, Haruka-kun, thank you,” she said pleasantly, taking the other cup. Haruka scarcely seemed to notice, though Reiko certainly had leaned into his personal space in the process. “Sensei, the paper … ?”

Kantarou hurriedly turned back to the paper. “Ah, yes, yes,” he said quickly. “The paper, I’m working on it. It’s fine.”

Haruka didn’t move away, and Kantarou tried hard to ignore him; lover or not, Haruka had a lot of nerve trying to imply that Kantarou was flirting with him right now. He was far too stressed to even consider flirting, let alone with Reiko right there…

He found himself getting distracted, and shook his head quickly. He mustn’t let himself think such things; he had work to do. Several paragraphs later he realized he was running out of ideas, and raised his pen to his lips, chewing it nervously.

Haruka, crouched beside him still, made a low growling sound. Kantarou jumped with a yelp, clutching at his chest and his startled heart as he stared at Haruka.

Haruka,” he said, more sharply now than before. “What –”

“Stop that,” Haruka told him, in a voice that shook, just a little, at the edges. “Just stop that, Kantarou, you –”

“I’m not doing anything but trying to work!” Kantarou said, exasperated. “Reiko-san, you can see that, right?”

She nodded, looking a bit wide-eyed. “Haruka-kun,” she said. “Ichinomiya-sensei is working, so if you could –”

Haruka,” Kantarou said, stressing the name, meeting Haruka’s gaze with a glare of his own, “let me work in peace.

Haruka drew a sharp breath, pupils contracting and eyes seeming to pale slightly. And then he rose in one smooth motion and stalked out.

Kantarou exhaled slightly, and gave an apologetic smile to Reiko. “Sorry about that, Reiko-san.”

“Is he, er, all right?” She seemed unsettled by the growl.

“It’s just been a strange day,” he said, and turned back to the article. Maybe, he thought, he could draw it out with a slight digression into etymology…

He was a good page into it and secretly congratulating himself on the idea when the door slid open again and Haruka walked in.

“I went into Youko’s room,” he said into the silence. “To get you more pens and paper. And ink. To help you work.”

Surprised, Kantarou looked up, then smiled; it was as close to an apology as Haruka ever got. “Thank you,” he said, then pointed to the cleared space by his elbow. “You can leave them there.”

Haruka set his gathered supplies down next to Kantarou. His hand brushed Kantarou’s sleeve as he did, and Kantarou tensed a little, desperately refusing the desire to turn and say something. It would, he thought, only encourage Haruka’s strange conviction that he was flirting. To his surprise and some discomfort, Haruka didn’t move away, still crouched beside him.

“Kantarou,” he said, straight into Kantarou’s ear, “what do you want for dinner?”

“Dinner?” Kantarou kept his eyes resolutely on the sakubun. “I don’t know. We don’t have much right now, so we may have to be happy with fish and rice.”

“I can make that,” Haruka said, soft. “And check to see what else we can scrounge up. I can make something nice if we have anything. If not, we’ll manage.”

Kantarou blinked rapidly and forced himself to not turn and look, though it was harder by the moment. “…You cook, Haruka? I didn’t know that you–”

“Not for anybody,” Haruka said, soft, still leaning in. His lips were just barely brushing the rim of Kantarou’s ear, a teasing movement that made Kantarou shiver instinctively. “But I know how.”

Reiko cleared her throat, loudly. “Sensei?”

Ah!” Kantarou jumped back a bit, and turned quickly back to his paper, scribbling again furiously. “That’s right, Reiko-san, I’m working, I’m working! Haruka, shoo!” He put his free hand on Haruka’s chest and pushed a little, refusing to look up. Through the suit, Haruka’s skin felt oddly warm, fevered, but Kantarou refused to focus on that.

For a moment, Haruka just leaned against his hand, as though trying to push him, then finally stood up and walked away. Kantarou waited until he heard the door close, then rubbed fiercely at his tingling ear.

“Sensei,” Reiko said hesitantly after a moment, “you and Haruka-kun — I mean, I don’t want to pry, but –”

“It’s fine,” he said shortly. “We’re fine. He’s just being strange today, that’s all.”

“Ah,” Reiko agreed, brightly. “It’s none of my business, I understand, but you and he sometimes seem close–”

“Really, ah,” Kantarou said, and bent over his paper. “Sorry, Reiko-san; I really shouldn’t be discussing this when I need to be working…”

“Of course, Sensei,” Reiko said, in a tone that said that she knew something up if he was picking work over distraction. “Please continue.”

He’d utterly lost his train of thought, he found. He stared desperately at the page, closed the sentence a little abruptly, and started into a different angle on the etymology. He’d picked up his rhythm again when the door opened, and Haruka outright slunk into the room; there was a definite roll and sway to his steps that wasn’t normally present, even when he was drunk. In spite of himself, Kantarou looked up and found himself caught by Haruka’s stare.

“Dinner’s ready,” he said. “Are you coming?”

“Um.” His fingers felt suddenly nervous, and he clenched them around his pen to keep it from slipping. “I can’t, I’m almost done –”

A small frown twisted Haruka’s mouth. “Are you sure?” he said. “I made it specially for you …”

“That’s very kind of you, Haruka, but …” Kantarou swallowed. “I’m almost done; I just need one or two more pages to be done. I’ll be along in a bit. Reiko-san, would you like to stay for –”

Haruka strode over in two quick steps and leaned down, smiling at Kantarou, his lips pulling back to reveal teeth more than a little pointed. “I don’t make things for most people, you know,” he said.

Kantarou leaned back, suddenly aware of how doing so bared his throat. “I know that, Haruka, and I — I really appreciate it, and I’ll definitely… definitely eat all my share, everything you made for me, but ah, first, I need to finish these last couple of pages. It won’t be long,” he promised quickly, when Haruka’s lips pulled back farther. “Just, ah, give me ten, maybe twenty minutes. And then I’ll eat your food.”

“You shouldn’t keep teasing me like this,” Haruka chided, his voice vibrant, sensual. “I can only take so much, you know.”

“Ah, I’m not sure what you mean, Haruka,” Kantarou said, inching back further, a nervous smile spread across his own face. “Um… I need to get these pages to Reiko-san, so…”

Haruka leaned closer, and Kantarou was vaguely alarmed to see how pale his eyes had gone. “Hurry, then,” he said. “I’m hungry.”

Kantarou scooted back a little more, rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m working,” he said, and glanced aside at Reiko, who was red-faced and pointedly looking away. “Haruka, you’re crowding me –”

Abruptly, Haruka stood again, looking down at Kantarou with an unreadable expression, his eyes still pale. “Hurry, then,” he said, and stalked out with the same roll to his walk, not even glancing at Reiko as he passed. When the door closed, Kantarou let out an explosive sigh, and scooted back into place at his desk.

After a long moment, Reiko coughed into her hand and said, “Ichinomiya-sensei, are you sure everything’s all right?”

Kantarou turned quickly back to the article. “Just a little more,” he said. “I’m almost done, I swear.”

Her cheeks were still bright red. “You understand, I don’t want to interrupt,” she said. “But ah, the article does need to get written, and…”

“No, no, I understand,” he said, scribbling furiously, relying on his instincts to finish the article at this point. “I’ll get it done. Er. Quickly.”

Reiko made a faint noise, like she was trying to figure out how exactly to respond to that, and then was silent. Kantarou exhaled slowly in relief and tried, if he could, to write even faster.

He was just on the last paragraph when the door positively slammed open.

“Kantarou,” Haruka almost hissed. “The warm food is getting cold.”

“I’m almost done,” Kantarou said, through gritted teeth, and circled the last period and slammed his hand down, shoving the finished article at Reiko. “There. Finished. Reiko-san, I’m sorry for the delay, I –”

“No, no,” she said quickly, taking the article and tucking it into her bag without so much as a glance-over. “I’m sorry, Sensei, but it did need to get finished and just –” She stood, almost tripping over herself as she did. “I’m sure my boss will be happy it’s done. Um. Have a good night, then, Sensei, Haruka-kun. I can see myself out, so –”

Haruka said nothing, glaring at Kantarou as Reiko babbled her good-byes and shoved past him, hurrying down the hallway. Kantarou swallowed at the strange look in Haruka’s eyes and shifted back, just a little.

“Haruka,” he said weakly, “that was really rude, and Reiko-san was right, the article needed to get done, I don’t understand why you’re so upset –”

“Stop that, I told you,” Haruka hissed, advancing on Kantarou, his hands extended towards him. Kantarou saw with alarm that Haruka’s nails had sharpened into talons. “You don’t always need to flirt, Kantarou.”

“Haruka, look, I think — maybe you should get some fresh air,”Kantarou said quickly. “You know, in case you inhaled something that’s bad for you. I, ah–”

“You know,” Haruka said, fingers twining in the front of Kantarou’s gi hard enough that his knuckles went white and the nails threatened to tear the cloth. “You’re really unattractive when you’re being coy.”

Kantarou swallowed and tried to remember where he left his juzu. Not that he could actually fight Haruka, but he might be able to distract Haruka enough to run for it if Haruka were going to get violent with him. “C…coy, Haruka? I don’t know what you mean, I’m not being coy…”

“You are too,” Haruka growled, leaning so close that their foreheads touched. “You keep making all these gestures and pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about –”

“That’s because I don’t,” Kantarou said, exasperated. “Haruka, you’re beginning to worry me, what’s wrong?”

“You’re what’s wrong,” Haruka said sharply. “You keep doing things and you can’t tell me you don’t know exactly what you’re doing –”

“Yes I can,” Kantarou said, tugging a bit at Haruka’s grip on his gi. “Because I really don’t know. Come on, Haruka, what’s wrong?”

“You don’t need to play hard to get,” Haruka snapped at him, and tugged hard, opening Kantarou’s gi and shoving it back off his shoulders in one smooth gesture. “It’s annoying.”

“I’m not doing anything!” Kantarou protested, then yelped when Haruka leaned in, pinning him back to the writing desk. “Ah, but what about dinner — ?”

“I’ll eat you,” Haruka snarled at him.

The worst part was how Kantarou couldn’t figure out if it was a sexual innuendo or not. He squirmed under Haruka. “Haruka, the edge of the desk is in my back, it kind of hurts…”

Haruka’s answer was a low growl that raised the hairs on the back of Kantarou’s neck; he squirmed a bit and managed to get his hands on Haruka’s shoulders, pushing a bit to try and put some space between them. “Haruka –”

“Just shut up for a moment,” Haruka hissed, his voice low and thick. “You always talk so damn much, no wonder you’re surprised when these things happen –”

“Haruka,” Kantarou began, then yelped when Haruka’s teeth sank hard into his shoulder, sharp and unexpected. “Haruka! Stop!”

For a dizzying moment, he thought Haruka would push to fight against the command. And then, slowly, Haruka’s mouth left his neck and Haruka pulled back, a worried line drawn between his brows. He didn’t look appreciatably calmer, but at least he didn’t seem quite so upset.

“Kantarou,” Haruka said, and it was a relief to hear enough of Haruka’s normal tone of voice in it even through the fangs and wild eyes. “Kantarou, I want you.”

“Ha…Haruka,” Kantarou said, flustered for a moment. His arms came around Haruka out of instinct, and he yelped as Haruka leaned in again, pressing him back against the desk. “I, that’s fine, I just — the desk, it hurts–”

“Somewhere a little more comfortable,” Haruka said in a nearly drugged tone of realization. “That would be good, wouldn’t it?”

“Yes,” Kantarou said, shivering. “I — Haruka, though,you might be making a mistake–”

“You’re my lover, aren’t you? Don’t say stupid things,” Haruka said, and rose suddenly, slinging Kantarou over one shoulder.

“Wh– Haruka!” Kantarou squirmed on instinct, flailing a bit; Haruka’s arm was a solid band around his middle, and while he was securely held, Haruka’s shoulder was a hard point in the soft part of his stomach. “Wait a moment, hey, what are you –”

“Somewhere more comfortable,” Haruka said, and sounded almost like he was talking to himself. “Your room, it’s closer.”

“Put me down, come on, hey –”

“Be patient,” Haruka said, and tightened his hold when Kantarou tried to squirm out of his grip again. “In a moment.”

“Not ‘in a moment’! Now! Haruka, come on, this is embarrassing –”

“Don’t flail, I’ll drop you,” Haruka said flatly. “If you get hurt, this won’t be fun.”

Haruka’s other hand rose and tucked itself firmly against Kantarou’s rear. For something that was supposedly an attempt to balance Kantarou, his fingers were certainly shifting a lot. Kantarou’s cheeks went redder.

“Harukaaaa!”

“‘Haruka, Haruka’, that’s all you say,” Haruka hissed, and slid the door to Kantarou’s room open with his free shoulder. “You could at least stop protesting even in the middle of this–”

“I’ve been working all day,” Kantarou said, helplessly. “This is a little sudden, I just –”

“You’ve been driving me crazy all day,” Haruka said flatly. “With all those looks and gestures, biting your lip and everything else–”

Kantarou pushed himself up as best he could, twisting to glare at the top of Haruka’s head. “You call that flirting?” he asked, exasperated. “That was nothing of the sort, you’re just — wah!” He yelped as he was half-tossed, half-dropped onto his futon, blinking dazedly up at the moment before he sat up and scrambled back a little, staring at Haruka’s advance. “Haruka, this –”

“And you wouldn’t take the hint, either,” Haruka said, his voice somewhere between a hiss and a growl, and Kantarou swallowed hard. “Playing hard to get isn’t really your style, Kantarou.”

“Hard to — Haruka, I was working!” He glanced around helplessly, but he was too far away from anything that would be a suitable enough barricade to keep Haruka at bay, even for a little while. Maybe a pillow to the face, or something — “You know, the thing you and Youko-chan are always yelling at me about? Come on, be reasonable! I can only do so much at once!”

“You can,” Haruka agreed, tugging at his necktie. “We can test that now, in fact.”

“Harukaaa!” Kantarou wailed. “You made me dinner and everything!”

“It’s already cold,” Haruka said, and tossed his necktie over his shoulder, tugging against the buttons on his shirtfront to bare skin partway down his chest. “Eat it later.”

Really, Haruka did sort of have a point, but he blanched at the thought of how mad Haruka would be later, when he found out that probably he’d just scented Youko’s pheromones…

If he found out later…

Which Kantarou had no intention of letting him do. Really, the best way around it, he decided, would be to play along. He bit his lower lip and glanced up at Haruka. “Okay,” he said, “you caught me. I’m sorry I spent so long teasing you, Haruka…”

For a moment, Haruka paused, and then he snorted, opening his shirt the rest of the way and shrugging it off. “I thought so,” he half-drawled. “You keep coming up with more clever ways to get out of work, don’t you? I’m impressed you held out this long.”

“Well.” Kantarou tried to project as much wide-eyed innocence into his expression as he could; from the flare in Haruka’s eyes, he thought he’d probably succeeded. “I mean, Reiko-san was right there …”

“So you like an audience? You’re strange.” Haruka leaned forward and caught Kantarou’s wrists, holding them both out and to the side, so that they were pinned to the ground. “I’m not interested in sharing.”

Kantarou swallowed hard; this close, it was impossible to mistake the heat coming off Haruka in waves. Oddly, the one clear thought he had was that this would make for an interesting footnote in his idle research — the notes he jotted in the margins of other papers about life with youkai.

And then Haruka was kissing him, hard enough that Kantarou could feel fangs pressing into his lower lip, pushing him backwards down into the futon.

Kantarou whimpered into the kiss, arching up under Haruka. “Harukaaaa,” he groaned, squirming. “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again–”

“Too late for apologies,” Haruka whispered at him, and bit down on Kantarou’s lip.

Kantarou gasped; he could taste blood on the next kiss, and his hand tightened against Haruka’s back. “Haruuukaaaa, be gentle, I’m only human–”

“You can take a lot, though,” Haruka murmured at him. “You’re not fragile, and you’ve been teasing me. It’s only fair.”

“Isn’t,” Kantarou insisted, drawing in a sharp breath when Haruka’s teeth moved lower, nipping a hard trail down his jaw and his throat. “I just, I –”

Haruka’s hands slid up from his wrists, ghosting along his arms and drawing his sleeves up as he did, leaving his skin exposed to the room’s cooler air, and Kantarou shivered, kneading his fingers a bit at Haruka’s shoulders. The movements were sharp and hurried, and unlike the usual focused intensity Haruka usually had, just heat and pressure scattered everywhere.

“Haruka,” Kantarou managed, after a few moments of squirming under Haruka’s mouth on his neck, “Haruka, I said I was sorry, come on –”

“Shut up,” Haruka growled into his throat. “Just face the consequences of your actions for once.”

Haruka’s hips were pressing in shallow pulses against Kantarou’s side, through his pants, jerky and sudden. Kantarou groaned against it, arching. “Haruka, I–”

“You never shut up,” Haruka pointed out, and dragged his nails down Kantarou’s belly, hard enough to leave reddened marks behind. Kantarou gasped; it didn’t exactly hurt, as though he was already too stimulated to read the sting as pain. “Shut up, Kantarou.”

Kantarou opened his mouth to say Haruka’s name and ended up just gasping at the scrape of Haruka’s teeth against his chest, one fang lightly scoring his nipple.

“…better,” Haruka acknowledged after a moment, a nearly wild grin curling the corners of his lips.

Kantarou shivered at the look; it was dangerously close to the few times Haruka had let go of himself and come near to touching upon the buried memories of the Oni-Eating Tengu. He carded his fingers through Haruka’s hair and squirmed, whimpering faintly when Haruka’s lips closed around his nipple and sucked hard, so that he could still feel the outline of fangs.

After a moment, he was distantly aware of one of Haruka’s hands pawing at the knot to his hakama without much success, for once too clumsy to pull it free. It took a bit of concentrated effort to untangle his fingers from Haruka’s hair, but eventually he reached down and grabbed the end of the bow, tugging until it came undone.

Haruka made a sound of approval, and leaned up to bite at his neck again, hard enough that Kantarou knew, distantly, there would be a mark later, if not broken skin.

Kantarou whimpered in his throat, a noise that aimed towards a groan but didn’t quite get there. “Ha–”

Haruka bit harder at that, a sharp gesture that made Kantarou yelp, hand scrabbling against Haruka’s back. He almost thought he should be offended, and managed thickly, “I asked you to be gentle–”

Haruka’s hand dipped inside his hakama, talons scoring the flesh low on Kantarou’s belly and for a moment Kantarou’s eyes went wide in anticipated pain. But when Haruka’s hand closed around his cock, it wasn’t gentle, but at least his fingernails were kept out of the way.

Haruka smirked down at his wide-eyed expression. “When you’re like this, you almost look a little cute.”

“Cute?” he demanded, too breathless to sound irritated. “Cute is what you call little kids, Haruka, and I’m not –”

“Are you sure?” Haruka’s smirk didn’t change as his hand moved, hard and fast, so that Kantarou’s hips jerked up and his head turned to one side, his breath caught in sharp, whimpering moans. “After all, you utilize your looks completely, don’t you, so that no one suspects how devious you really are –”

Kantarou groaned, one of his hands coming up to clutch hard at Haruka’s shoulder, his other twisting hard in the sheets. His lips moved for a moment, still trying to shape the syllables of Haruka’s name, and only managing a faint, reedy moan. “Ah –”

“How many people have been tricked?” Haruka wondered aloud, and leaned to nip at Kantarou’s exposed ear, tugging it between sharp teeth. “How many people looked at you and thought that since you looked young and innocent, you were safe? Kantarou?”

“I don’t really, I…” Kantarou yelped as Haruka bit hard enough to draw a droplet of blood to the surface. “Haruka!”

“You can’t fool me, though,” Haruka muttered. He smirked at Kantarou, fang showing at the corners of his lips. “I know you.”

Kantarou wet his lips, gasping and shivering. “…you do, Haruka,” he admitted, and tucked his free hand into the band of Haruka’s pants, trying to regain some control. “So, ah…”

Haruka lifted his hand from Kantarou’s hakama, licked each of his fingers to the nail while Kantarou was watching, and slid his hand back inside, closing with a wet slickness. “You wanted this all day, didn’t you?”

“I,” he managed, then shuddered when Haruka’s hand moved faster, cutting off the breath he needed to speak. He squeezed his eyes shut, as though the image of Haruka leaning over him was too much. “I –”

“I’m surprised your editor didn’t notice,” Haruka murmured, then traced the line of Kantarou’s ear with the tip of his tongue. “You were broadcasting so hard that even a human should have been able to pick it up …”

Kantarou whimpered, arching helplessly into the pressure of Haruka’s hand. “I was,” he managed finally, breathy, “trying to work. I –”

“Are you still arguing?” Haruka’s hand came to a stop, holding still despite Kantarou’s whine of protest, and his restless shifting. “Kantarou –”

“I got the article done, didn’t I?” Kantarou didn’t open his eyes. “I was working.”

“You wanted me to interrupt you, didn’t you,” Haruka whispered at him, a strange sharp edge to his voice. “That’s why you were flirting all that time, you wanted me to get distracted enough to do that so you could be late on the article.”

“No, I –” Kantarou had to draw a deep breath and remember himself. “I, er, we needed food, but I didn’t want to have to do the article all at once–”

“I thought so,” Haruka said. “I wasn’t going to fall for that sort of stupid trick.” He leaned down, running his tongue over Kantarou’s throat, and Kantarou gasped at the sudden sting; it was clear Haruka had drawn blood at some point, for sure.

“Y, you showed me,” Kantarou agreed, shakily, and arched pointedly into Haruka’s grasp again.

Haruka purred in agreement, starting up a slow rhythm with his hand again. Kantarou hissed and arched again, encouragingly, and spread his legs wider to press his feet against the futon, his own hands lifting to wander restlessly up and down Haruka’s back, his arms, his chest. His nails were blunt, cut short, but they still left marks if he pressed deeply enough, and Haruka’s breath caught in a low rusty noise of approval.

“Your problem is that you’re too damn greedy,” Haruka murmured, scraping fangs down from Kantarou’s collarbone to his chest; if this was what he meant by “eating,” Kantarou thought there were certainly worse options. “You always want more than you have, more than you’ve earned, more, more, more –”

Kantarou moaned assent, and clawed harder at Haruka’s back. “More’s good,” he said breathlessly. “More’s good, more — Haruka –”

“More,” Haruka hissed at him, and his hands were on Kantarou’s shoulder and hip, turning him.

Kantarou gasped when he was turned onto his front, twisting his head to one side so he could breathe, his fingers knotting in the bedding. “Haruka,” he whispered, hardly daring to breathe; Haruka was nearly wild right now and he thought, distantly, that it would probably hurt.

He couldn’t quite form the words to order Haruka to be gentle, though.

Haruka bit at the nape of his neck, closing there just enough to hold Kantarou still, though he gasped and whimpered out Haruka’s name again. His other hand dragged red lines down Kantarou’s back, a fast, needy motion.

Kantarou whimpered at that, his fingers tightening as he arched into the sharp pressure, his breath ragged and loud in his own ears. Haruka was growling at him, low and fierce through the fold of skin caught between his fangs, and he was, Kantarou realized with a vague start, still wearing his pants. With effort, he turned to look over his shoulder, blinking.

“Haruka,” he rasped, his voice thick and shaking. “Your clothes –”

“Clothes,” Haruka snorted, and let go of Kantarou’s neck to press his mouth to Kantarou’s ear, his harsh breath hot and fast. “It’s because of your damn clothes we needed the money so badly anyway, you and your vanity –”

“Not vain,” he protested automatically. “Just — you need the proper clothes, Haruka, if you — if you — ah –”

Haruka had reached around and taken Kantarou’s erection in a hand again, his other fumbling with the front of his own pants. “Clothes are a nuisance,” he muttered.

“Yes,” Kantarou agreed, breathlessly. “Yes, they can be, but the point is, clothes mean something, and–”

“They mean they’re in the way.”

“Er… that too,” Kantarou said with a squeak as Haruka’s hand squeezed tight for a moment. “Though, ah, you look fetching in that outfit, you do–”

“Robes are easier.”

“Yes,” Kantarou murmured, letting his head drop forward to hang, “yes, but –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka growled, “shut up.” His hand tightened, and Kantarou whimpered, surprising himself by coming hard and fast over Haruka’s hand. This time, the growl in his ear was low, sated, pleased, and his hand trailed up, painting a sticky damp trail along Kantarou’s stomach as he shivered and groaned. When he sagged, it was into the support of Haruka’s other arm across his stomach.

“Ah,” Kantarou managed, when he could find the breath again. “Ah, oops, I didn’t mean –”

“That’s fine,” Haruka muttered into his ear.

“… it is?”

“The way you wanted it, it should be easy for you to go again.”

“Haruka, I’m not a teenager any more –”

“Doesn’t matter,” Haruka said, fingernails dragging patterns through the come smeared on Kantarou’s belly. “You’ll manage.”

“I don’t think I –” Kantarou’s words cut themselves off quickly; Haruka had apparently managed to get his pants undone, judging from the buckle pressing into the back of one thigh and the pressure against him. “Oh, um, I…”

Haruka leaned, a rattling hiss torn from his throat. “Kantarou. Hold still.”

Kantarou froze, eyes widening. “Haruka, aren’t you going to prepare–” The press of Haruka’s talons on his belly reminded him of the state of Haruka’s fingernails, and he winced inwardly. “No, it’s all right…”

“You’ll be fine,” Haruka muttered. “Relax.”

“I don’t think it works that way,” Kantarou said dubiously, then hissed when Haruka’s hips rolled against his, hard and insistent, but not quite penetrating yet. “Ah, that’s –”

“Humans,” Haruka muttered into his ear, sounding bizarrely affectionate for a moment. “Just relax.” His hand slid up, twisting at Kantarou’s nipples one after the other, and then down again, stroking across his stomach. Kantarou lifted his head a moment, twisting to blink over his shoulder at Haruka, and found his mouth caught in a hard fanged kiss, neatly cutting off his next forming protest.

Kantarou cried out a moment later, muffled into Haruka’s mouth, his eyes going wide enough to hurt as Haruka began to press in. His hands scrabbled at the sheets, trying to find something to hold onto as if that would help him weather the sudden stretching ache of it.

And then Haruka was in, and leaning over Kantarou, staying still for a long moment. Kantarou’s breath whimpered out; he could only be grateful that they did this often enough and had just that morning, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Haruka’s first slow thrust still burned, however, and Kantarou groaned. “Haruka, Haruka, hold on a minute,” he mumbled. “Come on–”

“Relax, I said,” Haruka said, his voice harsh. “You’re no good at following directions, are you?”

“Well,” he said, his own voice thick and rough and shaking. “Well, Haruka, it hurts, I can’t relax like this –” He dropped his head forward with a low groan, cutting himself off when Haruka moved against him, slowly. “Haruka, this, this is –”

Haruka bit the back of his neck hard, and Kantarou yelped, his hands clutching harder at the sheets. “Haruka!”

“Shut up,” Haruka muttered, and began to move slowly, subtly against him, mouthing against his neck. “Shut up, Kantarou, just shut up and let me –”

Kantarou pressed his face into the sheets and whimpered again against the roughness of it. “Harukaaaa –”

Trust me a little,” Haruka hissed, teeth still catching at Kantarou’s throat. The position, he thought feverishly, was like an animal mounting another. “You never trust anyone–”

“I trust you,” Kantarou protested. “It just h — Haruka!”

Haruka’s hand had closed around his cock, starting to stroke it again, urging it towards hardness. Haruka muttered something into the back of Kantarou’s neck that Kantarou couldn’t make out, but his thrusts were, at least, still shallow.

“Kantarou,” Haruka muttered in his ear, a darker and shaking note in his voice. “Kantarou, relax, relax –”

He closed his eyes and tried to catch his breath again, shivering with the effort as Haruka’s thrusts against him picked up speed and intensity, to match the movements of his hand. Kantarou rubbed his cheek against the sheets, mouth falling open.

“Haruka,” he whimpered, arching back instinctively. “Haruka –”

Haruka growled his name back at him, his hand tightening and moving with rough surety; Kantarou shuddered at the sound, scarcely recognizable as language. When he tried one more time to speak, it came out as a drawled noise of surrender.

At that sound, Haruka made a noise that might have been a laugh if it weren’t so utterly soaked in sex, thick and aroused and hoarse, almost seeming to scrape his throat on the way out. His free hand closed over one of Kantarou’s, still wound in the bed sheets, and stayed there.

Kantarou blinked at it through hazy eyes, pressing back against Haruka in short, jerky motions, every one of them sending jolts of pain and jolts of pleasure through him. He mouthed Haruka’s name silently, unable to find the breath for words any more.

Haruka leaned into it, teeth closing on Kantarou’s neck hard enough that Kantarou was sure he was bleeding again, and his hips gave a sudden hard pulse as he was coming, heat spreading sharply inside Kantarou.

Kantarou whimpered a moment later, managing to free one hand from the blankets and slide it up and back, closing his own shaking fingers around Haruka’s grip on his erection.

Haruka shuddered against him, sluggishly responding to the silent command, squeezing hard for a moment before picking up a steady stroking motion, until Kantarou threw his head back with a gasped cry and was coming again, hard, across Haruka’s hand and his own stomach. For a moment, he remained in place, his limbs locked stiff in place, and then he sagged, folding down into the sheets, dragging Haruka with him.

“… ah,” he murmured, his face buried in the sheets. “Ah.”

There was a slow, careful shifting movement against his back, as Haruka stretched and pressed him deeper into the mattress, luxurious as a contented cat. “Mmmrr?” he asked in response, nuzzling contentedly into Kantarou’s hair.

Kantarou turned his head slowly to one side, blinking his eyes open with effort. “Um,” he said, intelligently. “Uh. Dinner?”

Haruka made a quiet disgruntled noise. “You’re hungry?” he muttered.

Kantarou let out a soft, almost nervous laugh at that. “Well,”he said. “I did work most of the day, Haruka, and then you, um, we just spent a lot of energy… and you went to all that work to make it for me.”

With a sigh, Haruka sat up a little, frowning down at him. His pants were tangled about his thighs and he looked utterly disheveled. “Dinner, then,” he said. “And then we do this again.”

Kantarou’s eyes widened. “Haruka, I don’t think — I mean, ah, it was good, but you were a bit rough, I don’t know if I’ll be up to it, and I’m not that young any more–”

“You can top,” Haruka said, utterly off-hand. And then, when Kantarou stared, he added a flat, “I don’t mind.”

“Are you sure you’re feeling all right?” Kantarou demanded, pushing himself up a little on shaking arms. “I mean, Haruka, you usually fight for it –”

“I said I didn’t mind,” Haruka told him, with the same flatness as before. “You want dinner or not?”

“Dinner, ah –” Kantarou sat up, running a hand through his hair, trying to tug his own clothes back into some semblance of order. “Dinner’s good, that’s — you are sure you’re okay, right?”

Haruka stared, then reached down and caught Kantarou’s wrist, dragging him easily to his feet. “Dinner,” he said, firmly. “If you don’t want to, then I can again.”

“I didn’t say that, I just — ahhh, Haruka!”

Sure enough, both the soup and the rice had gone cold, but Kantarou dug into both of them and the fish like a starving man. Haruka had made himself some and ate idly; he stared at Kantarou the whole time.

“Haruka,” Kantarou said, hesitating before picking up the last fish. “Maybe, before we do anything else, we should take a walk outside?”

“I don’t think–”

“The fresh air,” Kantarou said. “Um. It might help clear your — er, my senses! You know, help revitalize me, make me more up to having fun–”

“Are you trying to tease me again?” Haruka demanded.

“No! No, nothing like that!” Kantarou held up both hands, leaning back; there was a renewed edge to Haruka’s voice, a new paleness in his eyes. “It’s just, it’s such a nice night, and I was looking outside as I was working, and I think it might be nice, if we just go for a walk — we haven’t done that for a long time –”

Haruka stared at him for a long moment, then nodded, though he still eyed Kantarou suspiciously — like he usually would, whenever he suspected Kantarou was trying to get out of work. “… Fine,” he said at last. “We’ll go for a walk.”

With a barely-concealed sigh of relief, Kantarou finished the rest of his dinner; it was surprisingly good, better than he would have expected, for all that Haruka never spent time in the kitchen.

“Thanks for the food,” he said automatically when he finished, putting the chopsticks down and watching Haruka from the corner of one eye. “So, about that walk –”

“Yes,” Haruka said, and then gave a weird sort of half-smile, showing a disturbing hint of fang. “…You might want to get dressed first.”

Flustered, Kantarou rose and tried to resist the urge to cover himself. “Well, you were the one who dragged me in here naked–”

“Yes,” Haruka said, with smug pride in his voice.

Kantarou flushed and headed back into the other room, picking up bits of clothing where they’d been tossed. He could feel Haruka watching him from the doorway and did his best to dress in the least provocative manner he could imagine. He wasn’t entirely sure how successful he was, when he turned and saw how narrow Haruka’s eyes had become, distinctly appreciative and pale. “Haruka,” he said quickly, “you may want to clean up a little, too, you look really –”

Haruka glanced down at himself, then shrugged, tugging his shirt straight and adjusting his necktie a little. “I’m fine,” he said. “And now you’re fine, so let’s go for a walk.” He held out one hand. Kantarou resisted the urge to bite his lower lip, and made himself take Haruka’s hand, which was warm and dry against his own.

Outside, the night air was sweet and cool, and Haruka took a long deep breath and let it out slowly; Kantarou could feel a subtle tension ease out of him with it. Relieved, he let himself lean a little closer than was entirely proper.

“It’s a nice night, isn’t it?” he asked, cheerful. “A walk may be just the thing we needed …”

“Nice,” Haruka agreed vaguely. He peered up at the moon, something Kantarou knew he was in the habit of doing, from times he’d glanced up at Haruka on the roof.

Seeing normal habits resurface was more of a relief, and he found himself grinning as they walked.

“…what’s with that face?” Haruka asked.

“I’m just in a good mood,” Kantarou told him dismissively. “Can’t I be in a good mood, now?”

“I don’t trust it when you are,” Haruka said, shortly.

Kantarou pouted at him, relief putting an extra bounce into his step. “Aw, Haruka, you’re being mean again,” he whined. “Come on, I got the article finished! I’m going to be paid! Can’t I be in a good mood about that?”

“Usually, your good moods mean something else is about to happen,” Haruka said. “What are you planning?”

“I’m not planning anything,” Kantarou protested. “I’m just happy! That’s all! Geeze, Haruka –”

“Whining isn’t attractive either,” Haruka said, steering them down a narrow side street. “Are you sure you’re an adult?”

Kantarou scowled at him. “Of course I’m sure, Haruka!” he said, exasperated. “And from the looks of things, you’re pretty sure too.”

“Mm,” Haruka said, noncommittally.

With a sigh, Kantarou nudged him. “Anyway, this is a nice night and I’m determined to enjoy it. That’s not a bad thing, is it?”

“I’m determined to enjoy it too,” Haruka said, with an odd, smug edge to his voice again.

“I think you already have,” Kantarou said dryly. “You probably traumatized poor Reiko-san, you know; I don’t know if she’s ever going to be able to look either of us in the eye again –”

“That’s fine,” Haruka said mildly. “This way, she’ll know not to look.”

Kantarou raised an eyebrow. “Haruka,” he said, “you do realize she’s still got her eye on you, not me? And besides, it’s not like I’d say yes if anyone asked, not unless they were you –”

“You’d better,” Haruka said, and put a hand on his back. “If you know what’s better for you.”

Kantarou twisted to look up at him as they walked, feeling Haruka’s hand a warm pressure on his back. “You’re hardly ever this possessive, Haruka! I feel touched.”

“You’re the one I want,” Haruka explained briefly, and shrugged.

“Aww, is that all?” Kantarou mock-pouted at him. “And here I thought you were about to make a confession, Haruka–”

“You’ve already had your confessions,” Haruka said, blandly. “You don’t need more.”

“It wasn’t really a confession,” Kantarou wheedled. “It was more of a, ah, me throwing myself at you until you got the hint –”

“And put you out of your misery?” Haruka smiled very faintly. “I suppose I’ve done that, at least …”

“You’re so mean,” Kantarou grumbled, still pouting. “Really, Haruka, we — Haruka? Um?”

Haruka didn’t look at him, his expression still bland. “Yes?”

“Your hand –”

“Yes?” Haruka asked mildly, his hand squeezing one of Kantarou’s ass cheeks firmly. “Was there something wrong?”

“I just, ah–” Kantarou cleared his throat. “I’d really rather you didn’t do that in public, Haruka.”

“This isn’t public,” Haruka pointed out. “We’re on a side street and it’s dark out.”

Kantarou shifted, and took a quick step forward to free himself from Haruka’s grip. “That’s… really not the point, Haruka! I, ah, see, enjoying the fresh air isn’t, I mean, I’d rather not do this outside the house…”

“You said that maybe the fresh air would help you,” Haruka said, speeding up to match Kantarou’s pace, stroking down his back again. “Was that another lie?”

Haruka,” Kantarou said weakly, then yelped and jumped. “We’re outside!”

“Yes,” Haruka agreed, and then slid his arm around Kantarou’s waist, pulling him flush against his side, so that Kantarou stumbled and almost lost his balance. “Is there something wrong?”

Kantarou put his hands on Haruka’s chest and shoved. “Haruka, not here,” he hissed. “We’re outside, and there might be people still walking around, so –”

“Sugino holds Moo-chan in public all the time,” Haruka pointed out flatly, his arm a steel band against Kantarou’s side.

Kantarou squirmed, his cheeks bright red. “Yes, well, those two are, ah, very different,” Kantarou said. “And not really with a reputation around here, and–”

“If you have a reputation, it should be as mine,” Haruka said. “So, I don’t see the problem with it.”

“Yes, well, there is a problem, and I’m asking nicely, so, Haruka, please…”

Haruka paused and looked down at him, and for just a moment, he looked — disappointed? — and let go, though he passed his hand across Kantarou’s back as a caress as he let go. “Fine,” he said shortly. “If you insist.”

Kantarou glanced up at him, at the set annoyed line of his jaw, then sighed and rubbed the back of his head, looking away. “I mean,”he said weakly, “it’s not because of you, it’s because, well, you don’t show this sort of thing in public, even if you were a girl –”

It didn’t really seem to help; Haruka’s expression was still stony. “It’s fine,” he said. “I’ll be good.”

Haruka,” Kantarou said helplessly, then sighed and stopped, catching his sleeve. When Haruka stopped, still staring ahead, Kantarou took hold of his necktie and tugged down, so he could press a lopsided kiss to the corner of Haruka’s mouth.

When he pulled back, Haruka’s expression was its usual bland self, though there was a line between his brows that Kantarou found hard to interpret.

“I like it, Haruka,” Kantarou said, softly. “I like it when you pay attention to me, no matter how much I complain about it at the time, or no matter how inappropriate it is, or even if it hurts. I like it that I’m the one you look at.”

Haruka’s head tilted slightly. “Then–”

“But there’s just some things you don’t do outside where other people can see,” Kantarou explained, and sighed. “Because it would shock them.”

After a moment, Haruka nodded, accepting that. “Fine,” he said. “Then let’s go back. And do things there.”

Kantarou blinked, then made a slight face. “On the other hand,”he said, “sex shouldn’t become a chore, Haruka. It should be fun, and we’ve already done it three times already today –”

“We’re not done yet,” Haruka said firmly, putting a hand on his shoulder to direct him in the direction of their home. “You said the walk might revitalize you. You’d better have meant that.”

“Ehh?” Kantarou went slightly pale. “Harukaaaaaa –”

“Prepare yourself.”

+++

A week later and obviously much refreshed, Youko slid the door open. “Kan-chaaan!” she warbled. “Haruka-chaaan! I’m back!”

The silence that met her was a surprise, and she frowned faintly. Had they gone out? “Kaaaaaan-chaaaaaaaaan!”

A moment later, he came hurtling around the corner, running rather awkwardly towards her. “Youko-chan!” he gasped. “Thank goodness you’re home!”

“Ehe,” she said, grinning. “Missed me?” Of course, that didn’t quite match the sort of desperation on his face, but…

He slammed into her, then scrambled to hide behind her, peering up at her with huge eyes. “Hide me,” he whined. “Haruka’s gone crazy, Youko-chan, oh my god, save me –”

“Eh? Eh?” She tried to turn to get a look at him, but he moved with her, trying to keep behind her the whole time. “Kan-chan? Kan-chan, what’s wrong with Haruka-chan? You –”

Kantarou leaned up and whispered in her ear furiously for a moment. Youko went pale, and then bright red. “EHHHH? Haruka-chan did?”

“I had to drug his tea to get away so I could sleep,” Kantarou whimpered. “It’s been awful.”

There was the sound of footsteps approaching. Youko shook out her sleeves to hide Kantarou further and tried to make it look natural, plastering a big smile on her face. “Haruka-chan! Guess what, I’m back!”

“Ah,Youko.” He sounded vaguely disinterested. “Have you seen Kantarou around anywhere?”

“I can’t say I have,” she said, brightly. “Why, did you need him for something?”

“He isn’t hiding behind you, perhaps?”

“…of course not,” she said, still brightly. “Why would Kan-chan do a silly thing like that? At any rate, Haruka, I’m sorry I was away for so long. Heat, you know.”

Haruka paused. His expression went vaguely thoughtful. “I thought I’d smelled something strange,” he said. “Anyway, are you sure you haven’t seen him?”

“Positive!” Youko said brightly. “But now that I’m home, Haruka-chan, have you two eaten yet? I mean, I could make something really special, to celebrate me coming home –”

“You do that,” Haruka agreed, narrowing his eyes at her. “But in the meantime –” His hand shot out, and Kantarou yelped as he was dragged out from behind her. “We’re going to be busy. Don’t bother us.”

Youko blinked rapidly. Kantarou was casting beseeching looks at her over his shoulder as Haruka dragged him down the hallway, back towards the bedroom. “Ah, Haruka-chan –”

“The article was finished,” Haruka said, not looking back. “The paycheck came yesterday. You should have enough to buy something nice at the market.”

She rubbed the back of her head, staring. “Haruka-chan,” she said, “the pheromones should have worn off days ago… I don’t understand!”

“EH?” Kantarou sounded disbelieving. “Haruka, you LIAR! Youko-chan, heeeeeelp!”

“I’m sorry, Kan-chan!” she called. “I want to, but I can’t get between a tengu and his belongings–!”

“Belongings?! Youko-chan!” And then, a more desolate wail, “Harukaaaaaa!”

Haruka paused before the door to their room, turning back to give Youko a smile with more than a hint of fang in it. “Good. Also, of course they have.”

Youko gave a helpless shrug and wave. “Just be finished in time for dinner, okay? If I’m making something special, I’ll be mad it if goes to waste!”

The bedroom door slammed decisively shut, without an answer. Youko sighed and put her hands on her hips, shaking her head. It was hard not to giggle, especially when usually, Kantarou was the one whining after Haruka for attention.

“Boys,” she said aloud, and headed to the kitchen to see the damage done in her absence.

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Tactics Noir: The Case of the Missing Moo-Chan

cowritten with Harukami

The ceiling fan spins out an uneasy pace, marking each passing second with a slow easy swirl that disperses the cigarette smoke throughout the room but does nothing to actually clear it up. I don’t mind; the smoke matches my mood: Dark, thick, and likely to end in death.

I pour myself another drink of sake with a hand that barely shakes and sink down lower in my seat, propping my tabi-clad feet up on the desk in front of me. I’ve barely had a chance to let the sake burn its way into my mouth when the door opens and lets in my super-perky secretary, Youko.

Youko’s kimono is a bright and sunny thing, at odd with my current feelings. She gives me a fond sigh as she comes over, opening the window to let some of the cigarette smoke out and some sunlight in. I nearly tell her to leave it, but she seems so pleased with herself that I just don’t have the heart.

“What’s up, doll?” I ask.

She gives me a perky smile. “You’ve got a customer, Kan-chan,” she says, brightly.

I’d say I wasn’t interested and to send the guy away, but the bills need to be paid and the landlord’s starting to make angry noises. I can delay him for a few more days, maybe, but I’ve got to cough up the money soon — I can’t say no. I’m not good at that.

“Send ’em in,” I say, and sit up. It doesn’t do any good for me to give any bad first appearances. Youko just beams at me again and ducks out of the room; I can hear her talking briefly with the customer. It sounds high-class, certainly; hopefully it’ll be someone who just wants a quick exorcism or purification — those don’t take much effort at all.

“Sugino-sama to see you,” Youko announces, and then the client walks in.

At first I think it’s a dame — the customer’s wearing a long dark kimono embroidered with gold dragons, and wearing one of those black western veil-hats that are becoming popular these days. The hair underneath is long and dark, tied up in pigtails, like some kind of little kid’s. But if it’s a dame, she’s an awful tall one with no figure to speak of. The bells on my wrist ring, and I think: well, shit.

You’re the folklorist?” the customer says, and the tone used — disgust and doubt — rankles, though I merely smile back. “You look too young to be doing this work.”

I tip my hat up with a finger and give Sugino a sharp grin. “But appearances can be deceiving, can’t they — Youkai-san?”

It’s hard to make out Sugino’s features behind the veil, but I think his lips tighten. “How rude,” he says, and the offended arrogance lets me place him —

A Tengu. Interesting; I’ve been looking for a particular Tengu for some time, and while they’re not a particularly close-knit bunch, there’s always a chance this one’s got contact with that one. I let my smile lighten and hope he doesn’t immediately clue into my sudden self-interested politeness.

“My apologies, Sugino-sama,” I say, and lean forward. “I shouldn’t be troubling you in a time like this — you must be going through something unpleasant, for a guy like you to come to a guy like me for help.”

Sugino just sneers down his long nose at me, crossing his arms in front of his chest. I’m now certain he’s a man; no lady I’ve ever seen has been that flat, even in the restrictive bindings of a kimono. “I’m looking for someone,” he says.

I press my fingertips together and smile up at him. He doesn’t look like he trusts the expression, but hell, his sort rarely trusts anyone but themselves. “Ah? Who, then?”

“My wife.” He reaches into his sleeve and produces a photograph, which he tosses at me. I catch it without breaking eye-contact; he looks grudgingly respectful of that, though he hides the expression quickly enough. Tengu are a touchy bunch; they don’t like to acknowledge when anyone’s done something good, and it’s no good to show off too much. “She’s been missing for about half a day, now.”

I raise an eyebrow. “That’s hardly a reason to get worried,” I point out. “Maybe she just went for a walk.”

He looks offended at the very thought. “Would I be wasting both your and my time if this were the case?” he snaps, his voice going shrill. “No, my Moo-chan is out there somewhere, far away from her beloved husband, and needs help.”

“Even in the case of humans,” I say, “the person has to be missing for longer than that before you can be sure they just didn’t get delayed somewhere. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but–” I glance at the picture of a small round youkai. “Any evidence you have that she’s missing would help me find her that much faster.”

Sugino hesitates a moment too long before answering. Aha, I think. He’s hiding something. “It’s a husband’s instinct,” he responds, aloof.

“You seem very worried,” I say, guessing wildly, but not letting my smirk waver. Better he think I’m confident; he might give away information that he wouldn’t otherwise. “Do you think there’s something out there that might be threatening her?”

He continues to stare at me like he thinks I’m crazy. “I don’t know,” he says. “Still, if she’s been missing for this long, something must have happened. Moo-chan never leaves without telling me, first.” He takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly, still scowling. “So are you going to help me or not?”

I smile and nod. “I never turn down a request for help,” I say. He’s a Tengu, and probably the god of some local shrine or forest, so he’s likely rich; if Youko and I play this right, we could score a decent amount of money from him — certainly enough for this month’s rent, maybe, and a new kimono for Youko. “Ichinomiya Kantarou, at your service.”

Sugino frowns at me like I’ve insulted him by saying my name. “You’d better find her,” he says. “If anything happens to Moo-chan, you’ll be the one who’ll pay for it.”

“Don’t worry, Sugino-sama,” I say, and snap my fan open. “I’ll find her, without fail.”

***

Tengu or not, he has a lousy idea of what a man needs to work on.

I’ve got nothing but her photo; in the end, he didn’t give any information on where she might be. He says she’s not on their mountain, and that’s something at least — though Japan is a big place, and so few people know about youkai that it’s not like I can show the photo around generally.

Except for one person.

Yumeyakko is an old friend — we go back a long way, and though I don’t always trust her, she knows about youkai and generally hears about missing girls before anyone else. I hate being farther in her debt, but there’s nothing to do, so I grit my teeth and head out through the dirty streets.

The street lamps barely succeed in lighting my path — if anything, they make the darkness between the pools of light seem even darker, as if they’ve sucked all illumination from the surrounding area into their tiny circles. It’s a dangerous night, and I keep on alert as I go; any thief messing with this folklorist is gonna find himself with more than he bargained for.

The red light district is the same as it’s always been, with men walking with their heads turned away and the red-paper lanterns hanging in the windows and the girls all decked out and calling with their coy high voices to anyone walking by. One of two of ’em even give me the call, though they know me by now — I’ve helped them out a few times in the past, as favors to Yumeyakko.

At her own house, the landlady greets me politely, but coldly; she’s not terribly fond of me. She thinks I bring bad luck, and who knows? After the fire that happened during the last exorcism I performed in this area, she probably has a good reason to believe that.

“Yumeyakko is busy with a customer right now, Ichinomiya-sensei,” she says. “Can this wait?”

“I’m kind of in a hurry,” I say. “I’m looking for a missing girl. Her husband’s very worried about her, so –”

If anything, the landlady turns more frigid — sometimes I think she makes up for her own girls by just getting colder and colder. “He’s quite a well-paying gentleman, Ichinomiya-sensei,” she says. “With troubles to get off his shoulders.”

“As is my customer,” I say, and give my most charming smile. “Still, will she be long?”

“I’m expecting another hour or so,” the landlady says. “You can wait.”

I don’t seem to have much choice, though I don’t like the feeling that I’m wasting time. I nod, gritting my teeth and smiling still, and take a seat. The chair is uncomfortable and hard, but it leaves me nowhere near as uncomfortable as I’ll end up being if I piss off a Tengu. And Yumeyakko is the only one who knows to keep an eye open for me; she’s got a little bit of spiritual sensitivity, so while she can’t see most youkai, she can usually tell if one’s around. Hopefully, Sugino isn’t the sort of client that likes to check up on my progress every half-hour; it’s nearly impossible to get work done when there’s someone hovering over your shoulder at all times.

An hour later, right on time, Yumeyakko comes down the stairs, escorting a man in a plain gray yukata. I take one look and consider how I must have done something truly horrible in my last life, for my luck to turn out this way.

“Ichinomiya,” says Hasumi, and pushes his glasses up his nose. He was my rival in school, and continues to oppose me whenever he can on the scholarly side of my profession; it’s always a pain to run into him. “Fancy seeing you in a place like this.”

I force a smile, though I can feel my eyebrow twitching. “The same goes for you,” I say. “I would think that an elite folklorist like you would have something better to do with his time, rather than frequent a house like this.”

Hasumi seems to puff up like an offended pigeon. “My pardon,”he says. “Some of us actually earn money doing hard work and need some relaxation. Speaking of which, what are you doing here, then? Though I suppose it isn’t surprising, as you’re anything but an elite folklorist…”

In retrospect, it wasn’t the best comeback I could have made. “I’m here to talk to Yumeyakko. If you’ll excuse me–”

Hasumi gives me a strange look — a look that sets me a little on edge. But then, Hasumi’s never liked me much. His loss. He doesn’t believe in youkai and he’ll never make it far in the business like that.

Yumeyakko’s expression is exasperated. “A place like this, hmm? You’d better talk fast, Kantarou; even a friend can only be expected to take so much.”

Uhoh. It’s never good to piss off a dame. I give her my most charming smile. “Ah, Yakko-chan…”

She doesn’t look appeased. “Kantarou,” she says. It’s the tone of voice she had when we were kids, which usually means she’s about to either say something really embarrassing about me, or hit me, one or the other. “What is it, then?”

I glance sideways at Hasumi, who’s still looming and projecting offended arrogance. I clear my throat and take Yumeyakko’s sleeve, pulling her away a little, then lean up to whisper in her ear, “I’ve got a client looking for someone. I was wondering if you’d seen –”

Yumeyakko sighs and pulls away, frowning at me. “Kantarou, this sort of thing again? Honestly, people would take you more seriously as a folklorist if you didn’t spend all your time chasing dreams –”

“It’s important, all right?” I hiss. Hasumi is eavesdropping, and not being subtle about it at all. His expression is growing progressively more offended; it’s like the presence of youkai are a personal insult to him. “Come on, Yakko-chan …”

“All right, all right,” she says. She gives Hasumi a coy smile. “A minute, Hasumi-san, before I can see you off?”

“I’m not sure why you’d bother to waste your valuable time on this sort of thing,” Hasumi says, not hiding the evil eye he’s giving me. “But I understand; it’s better to play along, isn’t it?”

I tip my hat at Hasumi. Showing how pissed off he makes me will just make him happier and the dame less likely to help. “Thanks for your understanding, Hasumi.”

Yumeyakko’s eyes roll delicately as she leads me to a side room. “All right,” she says, suddenly all business; it never fails to amaze me how women can be so changeable. “What do you need?”

I hand her the picture, and wait as she studies it. Her lips twist a little at the sight; Yumeyakko has been in this business since she was twelve and she prides herself on her aesthetic sense. “Kantarou,” she says, “are you sure this is a girl?”

“Her husband sure seems to think so,” I say. “Youkai don’t always have the same ideas of beauty that we do, Yakko-chan.”

She rolls her eyes at me and gives the picture back. “I haven’t noticed anything,” she says. “Honestly, Kantarou, not every youkai that disappears comes through here.”

“Maybe I just miss you, Yakko-chan,” I say brightly. “You are my childhood friend, after all.”

Yumeyakko just looks suspicious. “I would believe that of any other man but you,” she says. “Still. If this girl is missing, she hasn’t come by here.”

She probably isn’t on the run then, at least; most girls who find themselves suddenly homeless — youkai or human — end up passing through the red light district. Of course, with so little time since her disappearance, it’s hard to be sure. “Thank you, Yakko-chan. If you see her, can you give my office a ring?”

Yumeyakko gives a little shrug which seems deliberately designed to show off as much shoulder as possible. “If I see her,” she says. “It’s not likely, though; it’s not as if she’s, ah, the type who could pass for human. Now, if you’ll excuse me–”

“Busy work,” I agree, and take a step back. “Sorry, Yakko-chan, for interrupting–”

She heads for the door and turns back at the last moment, casting a sultry glance over her shoulder. “Oh, yes,” she says. “Are you still looking for the Oni-Eating Tengu? There was a customer I had earlier who mentioned something about it…”

“A customer?” I can’t help but lean forward, my curiosity and excitement welling in me. “Who was he? What did he see?”

“What was that name again…” She’s playing coy now; she’s too good at her job to forget a customer’s name. “Ah, yes, Minamoto Raikou.”

“Minamoto?” I blink, then frown a bit. I’ve heard the name before; the family’s pretty well-known in my professional circle, and I know my family’s had business with them in the past. “Interesting … did you give him my name?”

She looks insulted, though she hides her mouth behind one sleeve. “Kantarou, you’re the only one I break business protocol for,” she says. “Because we’re old friends. No, I didn’t, but you may want to keep an eye out for him.”

I smile at her. In spite of everything, she’s a good kid; she’s loyal, which is more than I can say for a lot of folks, human or youkai. “Thank you, Yakko-chan.”

She bows to me, then sweeps off to see Hasumi off. I watch her go and then leave myself, heading back out into the humid night. It’s warm enough that I almost regret Japanese propriety; my clothing sticks to me like a second skin. I’m back to square one, looking for Sugino’s wife, but now I know I’ve got competition looking for that Oni-Eating Tengu I’ve been searching for all these years …

It’s something, at least.

***

I go back to my office for now; it’s late at night, and I’ve got no clues. It’s one thing to be enthusiastic about your job, and another to work yourself into the ground over nothing — though sometimes I think everything comes down to nothing in the end.

I’m woken bright and early — much earlier than I’d like, and my head damn well hurts — by Youko shaking my shoulder. “It’s Sugino-sama,” she whispers at me, but somehow manages to sound perky despite it. Youko’s a morning person. “He’s back again.”

I rouse myself a moment before the Tengu himself stomps in; I don’t let myself show the weakness of how sleepy I’m definitely feeling. “Sugino-sama–”

“You! It’s been all night and you’ve been here sleeping?!”Sugino demands. “Don’t you understand the urgency? This is my wife I’m talking about, my wife!

Something about his suspicious behavior before clicks in and I make a wild guess, just to see his reaction. “I’m not sure I can go much further without information,” I say. “Have you heard of a Minamoto Raikou?”

Sugino recoils a moment, like the name’s distasteful to him. He recovers quickly, but not fast enough. “Never heard of him,” he snaps. “More importantly, Moo-chan’s been gone for a day now, a whole day, and you’ve been wasting the time like this –”

“It’s only to be expected,” Youko murmurs in the background, like she’s trying to be soothing. “Sugino-sama, he’s only human –”

“Ahhhh, this is why I hate humans!” Sugino points an accusing finger at me. “Moo-chan could be hurt or frightened somewhere, and you’re wasting your time just lazing around in bed! I don’t even know why I hired you, you good-or-nothing lazy –”

I pinch the bridge of my nose and pray for patience. “I went looking,” I say, a bit more sulkily than I probably should. “As it stands, the only name I’ve found is that of Minamoto Raikou, and Sugino-sama, you haven’t even told me where you last saw your wife, only that she disappeared yesterday –”

“I don’t need to tell you these things!” Sugino snaps. “You’re just a pathetic human with an obsession with the Oni-Eater! You should do your job without asking any sort of personal questions!”

Oho. I try not to let his slip stand out too obviously. “Still,” I say. “If you can’t find her, and you know all these things, how do you expect me to find her if I don’t?”

“Well, that’s–”

I press my point, not giving him a chance to rest and recover. “I see you knew something of my reputation before hiring me, if you know I’m looking for the Oni-Eating Tengu. Do you think your wife may have been involved with ogres?”

He looks horrified by the very idea. “You don’t know what you’re suggesting, human,” he growls. “My Moo-chan would never consort with ogres, how dare you –”

“Obviously, you had some faith in my abilities, if you asked around and heard about me, and still came to ask for my help.” I cross my arms over my chest and try to puff myself up; it’s hard to pull off dignified when a Tengu is yelling at you and you’re only wearing the clothes you sleep in — but I think I do a pretty good job. “Are you hiding anything, Sugino-sama? Please, tell me.”

Sugino growls. “I –”

“I can only work with what I’m given.” I spread my hands and try to look resigned. Behind Sugino, Youko is giving me horrified looks and gesturing for me to shut up before I make him any angrier. “You can tell me everything you know and I’ll give you my all … or you can keep silent still, and let me wander around in circles while your wife is still lost.”

He’s pulled out his fan and it’s trembling with his rage; I keep one hand under the covers but reach slowly for the juzu I keep hidden under my pillow.

After a moment, though, he sighs and his hand droops. “I… have also some interest in the Oni-Eater,” he says. “We knew each other, back before he was sealed — so I wasn’t surprised when a certain man came to visit me on the mountain.”

“Minamoto Raikou,” I say.

Sugino nods — it’s a relief; I hadn’t been sure, but my suspicions have been proven correct. “He came to see me, and asked me a lot of irritating questions. It was none of his business, and I told him so.”

“And your wife disappeared after he left?” I try to keep my voice gentle, and my hand under my pillow. I’m not really strong enough to take on a Tengu, but if I needed to, I could distract him enough to run away. It sounds like this might be a better lead than anything else I’ve found, especially for the trail of the Oni-Eating Tengu; maybe, if I can keep contact with Sugino after this is all over, I might be one step closer to finding him. “Sugino-sama?”

“Moo-chan is so trusting,” Sugino says miserably. “What if that damn Minamoto took her with him, to use as some kind of bargaining chip against me, so I’ll tell him where the Oni-eater is –”

“Do you know?” I blurt, before I can stop myself. “I mean –”

He looks at me, irritated. “I know he was sealed, and who did it,” he says. “I don’t know where, or how to break it. More importantly, Moo-chan is –”

It’s no more than I knew, and I feel my heart sink in my chest. No time to let myself worry, however; I’ve still got a potentially dangerous Tengu on my hands. And he’s got a strange glint in his eye — I suspect he might know, and is simply holding the information back. Maybe as a bargaining chip, maybe he just doesn’t like me.

“All right,” I say soothingly. “I’ve heard of Minamoto Raikou. If he’s got your wife with him, he’s sure to contact you to make his demands known.”

“He hasn’t yet,” Sugino says, and for the first time there’s doubt in his voice.

“Go to where he’d know to find you,” I say. “In the meantime, I’ll look into the matter myself.”

He frowns at me and gathers himself up; in the hallway, Youko yelps and dives for cover as he spreads his wings suddenly. They’re pure white, I see, and somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s a white Tengu, and not a normal one. “Kantarou,” he says, “I don’t know –”

“You should go back, just in case,” I stress. “Minamoto Raikou knows what you are, and if you try to attack him on his own territory — well, if he does have your wife, he may threaten her to get to you. Please go back and wait on your mountain. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.”

Sugino continues to scowl at me for long moments, then draws himself up and nods stiffly. “… Good luck,” he says, reluctantly, like it pains him to say the words. “I’ll come back tonight, if I haven’t heard from him.”

Before I can answer, he sweeps off. When he’s gone, I lean back on one hand and finally let go of the juzu, rubbing the back of my neck. Youko peers around the doorway at me. “Kan-chan,” she says. “You really do stupid things sometimes, don’t you?”

If it were anyone else, I’d take offense. As things are, all I can do is give Youko a small embarrassed laugh. “Well, he had me between a rock and a hard place,” I assert. “At least this way, if Minamoto does make demands, we’ll hear about it.”

“Are you actually going to his place?” Youko looks concerned. “His family is famous for youkai-hunting.”

I hadn’t known that much, but it doesn’t surprise me she’d know; youko know how to keep their tails out of trouble. “Are they, now? I wonder if that’s why they’re looking for the Oni-Eater–”

She gives me a horrified look. “Kan-chan! You’re not thinking of going because of that, are you?”

“He may have different information from what I have,” I say. “He may know the location but not how to unseal him, or something…”

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” She scoots into the doorway and continues to frown at me. “Kan-chan, the Oni-eater might not be happy at all with his imprisonment, and he may take it out on you –”

“I’ll be careful,” I say, waving at her to turn her back as I rise to get dressed. The full uniform, I think; Minamoto might not recognize Ichinomiya Kantarou by himself, but he’ll very likely at least know my family name and the tools of my trade. “I mean, after all this time searching, I can’t stop now, do I?”

She sighs and bows her head a little. “Kan-chan, come on,” she moans. “You’re going to get killed and I’ll be stuck with a boring name like ‘Youko’ for the rest of my life –”

“I promise I’ll be good,” I say. “Youko-chan, I do actually know how to take care of myself.”

She makes a face, forces herself to smile, though she’s barely the image of her usual perky self. It’s nice to know she’s still worried about me, even when I do quote-unquote stupid things. “Well, be careful at least,” she says.

I ruffle her hair lightly. “I always am.”

I leave her squawking behind me as she fumbles to get her hair back into place, and head off. It’s quite a long trip to the Minamoto residence, and the sun is high overhead by the time I arrive at the front gates. The place is huge; a mere folklorist like me has no chance of ever living in a place like that. I whistle under my breath.

In their time, the Minamoto clan was favored by nobility, and were nobility themselves; it’s reflected in their ancestral home. There are wards set up everywhere, and I think that this is probably more trouble than it might be worth. I’m not really good at physically fighting, so if it comes to that, I’m probably in trouble. And I’ve still got an angry Tengu with his eye on me, so one wrong step and I’m dead either way.

Days like this, I think, are the reason men sometimes shouldn’t get out of bed.

I turn to circle the gate, and see if there’s a place to sneak in, and trip over something that squishes under my foot. I go flying, and the bells on my wrist ring like crazy.

After the stars and swirling lights have faded, I feel something small and cool patting my cheek. “Muuu?”

I manage, dazed, to pry my eyes open. For a moment, I think I hit my head badly enough to leave me hallucinating.

The youkai facing me is instantly recognizable as the one from the photograph — small, green, with a strangely interested and perplexed expression. I stare at her for a long moment. “Er, Moo-chan?” I ask.

She seems absolutely delighted that I know her name. “Muuuu!”

This wasn’t, in a word, expected. “I, ah — was here to rescue you. Er. Were you, uh, …. rescuing yourself?” Very smooth, Ichinomiya.

She puffs up, and looks very proud of herself. “Muumuu!” she tells me. “Mu!”

“…Oh.” Don’t I feel stupid; she’s married to a Tengu, after all. Another half-hour, and she probably would have made it home herself. “Well. Your husband is quite worried about you, you know.”

Moo-chan nods and pats my cheek again; she seems oddly fascinated by touching human skin. “Muuu,” she says. “Muumumumuu, mumuu!”

I don’t know whether it disturbs me or not that I can understand her. She’s not like any dame I’ve ever met, or probably ever will, but I don’t think Sugino would be very happy if I followed them around, trying to study his wife — he strikes me as the jealous sort. “We should probably get you home, then.”

She tilts her head as she stares at me, and slowly her cheeks take on a red flush. “Muu,” she says, and latches onto my arm.

Oh, hell. This is why dames are nothing but trouble. “Because,” I say, “your husband,” I stress the word, “hired me to come find you…”

“Muumuu muuuuuuu,” she sighs, and I swear she’s actually nuzzling my hip at this point. “Muuu?”

…If that was an invitation, I don’t even want to know. “Come on,” I say. “Come on, let’s get going…”

“Muuu!” she protests, loudly enough that I flinch on instinct; a house like this, there are bound to be guards, and for such an important “guest” as Moo-chan, they’ve probably already noticed she’s gone.

“Miss, please,” I say. “Your husband’s a powerful youkai, and I’m not strong enough to face him –”

“Muumumuu,” she tells me, and pats my hip again. About the only thing worse than being propositioned by a married woman is her promising she’ll protect you from her husband. “Muuu.”

I push her away carefully and stand up. She immediately hops up at me, and I’ve got no choice but to catch her. She nuzzles against me and seems perfectly content to stay there, and I think that I’m in pretty deep trouble. “Moo-chan, we really shouldn’t –”

“Muuuuu.” She blinks at me, which I think is supposed to be her equivalent of batting her lashes. “Muu muuuu mu.”

I swallow; there seems to be no way out of this. “I’ve, ah, promised myself to someone,” I say quickly. “Another Tengu.”

Disappointment seems to flash over her features for a moment — at least, I think it’s disappointment — and then she dismisses my words out of hand, clinging tighter. “Muu,” she says, and one of her puff-ball hands traces a coy path down my front.

“Miss!” In my sudden panic, I know I get too loud, my voice cracking on the highest note.

I hear a call of “Intruders!” and look over; a man in an army uniform is running towards me.

Out of the frying pan, I think, and into the fire.

I’m reaching for the juzu looped around my neck — it’s harder to do any sort of senjutsu one-handed, but I really can’t just drop a mountain god’s wife like a piece of trash even if she won’t stop trying to get my gi open — when suddenly Moo-chan squirms in my arms and opens her mouth and takes a deep breath that keeps going.

The soldier stops in surprise, then tries to backtrack as a huge vacuum of air opens up before him, pulling at his clothes and the sword he holds. His hat goes flying off his head and into Moo-chan’s mouth; she doesn’t even pause to swallow. I wince at the thought.

And then, suddenly, she stops and looks up at me with huge eyes. “Muuu,” she says, very seriously.

“Right,” I say, and take her advice and run as fast as I can.

We book it out of there, and Moo-chan helps propel me along by exhaling the same breath of air she’d drawn in; I’m blown nearly off my feet and scrape my knees when we go tumbling around the corner, but I’m up and running again as soon as possible.

Combining our efforts, we make it back in about half the time it had taken me to get there in the first place, though I’m more tired than I had been before, my chest burning with the pain of running so fast.

She seems to realize something’s wrong, and pets my chest again — less as if she’s trying to cop a feel this time and more out of concern. “Muuu?”

I pretend to misunderstand her worries. If I accept her concern, she might take it as encouragement. “I think we lost them,” I say. And it’s true; I don’t hear any more pursuit. Though I’m pretty sure the soldier got a good look at me…

“Muuu,” she says, and her slash of a mouth turns into a frown. “Muu muumumu.”

“I’m fine,” I say, and push myself to my feet. “I –”

“MOO-CHAN!” It’s a wail that makes me jump, and I inadvertently toss Moo-chan, who goes “muu” once before she’s flying through the air, and conveniently into Sugino’s arms. “YOU’RE ALL RIGHT! I WAS SO WORRIED!”

So much for waiting for the evening. I suppose the bond between a married couple really isn’t something to mess with. I rub the back of my neck and say, “Congratulations, Sugino-sama, on a happy reunion. Now, about payment –”

Sugino pays me hardly any attention. “Oh, Moo-chan! I’m so glad you’re safe!” He squeezes her so hard she nearly squeaks. After a moment, he glances up at me, the expression thick with distain. “What are you talking about? I met that human’s demands and he gave Moo-chan back, didn’t he?”

I feel my stomach drop. “What? What did you say? No, I broke into there, and–”

Moo-chan is nodding furiously. “Muuuuu,” she says. “Muumuu MUUU!”

Sugino goes pale. “What? You mean — I told him about the Oni-Eater for nothing? He… that human tricked me?”

“Muumuu mu!” She waves at me, and ends up actually whapping Sugino on the nose. “Muuuuu!”

“Oh damnit –” Sugino turns, his wings spreading, then pauses to glare at me. “You, Kantarou,” he says. “Get on my back. We’re going.”

“Huh? What?” I stare at him. “Going where?”

“To where the Oni-Eater is, obviously! He’s going to do something stupid like unseal and kill him, and I’m not going to let that happen! I’ll deal with him; you deal with the human!”

It all makes perfect sense, if what Youko said is true — if his family is known for killing youkai, the Oni-Eater is one of the most famous, after all. I feel sick at heart, something within me already dreading the possible outcome — I’ve been chasing after the Oni-Eater since I was a child, and have wanted nothing but to meet him.

I’ve even had a name picked out: Haruka. Because he’s just that much stronger than anything else, and because the goal has always seemed so distant…

Well, damn straight I’m not sticking around here and just letting him get killed. I nod, and press myself to Sugino’s back.

Sugino shudders. “Hold tight,” he snaps, and his wings pump, lifting us into the air.

I’ve never flown before, and for a moment I hold on tighter, because it feels like I’m about to fall. Moo-chan’s head pops over Sugino’s shoulder, and she pats my arm comfortingly. “Muumu,” she says, and I close my eyes. She’s right, it’s a lot better if I don’t look down. We fly fast enough that the wind screams in my ears and tears at my hair, and then suddenly we’re going down, plummeting like a dropped rock.

“There!” Sugino says. “There, they’re already there!”

I can feel my heart in my throat and force myself to open my eyes. There’s a young man in a military uniform standing in front of a large rock covered in old, weathered wards; I’ve never seen him before, but I know it’s Minamoto Raikou — he exudes the sort of power and confidence one might expect, from a famous youkai buster once favored by the imperial family itself.

The rock is glowing yellow now, and I can hear the sounds of wards breaking. Raikou glances up at smiles toothily, unconcerned, and draws his sword. There are black feathers rising in the air in a cloud, and I know Raikou plans to cut the Oni-Eating Tengu down as soon as he emerges from his prison.

I can almost make out a figure through the feathers, tall and strong with cold, cold eyes. Raikou pulls his sword back; light glints off the blade. I can taste my heart in my throat, beating hard, as all those years of looking for the Oni-Eater flash to mind.

After all this time, I can’t let it end like this.

I cry out. “No! Haruka, no!”

Those blue eyes fix on me, and darken, and Raikou is turning, his expression changing from elation to disbelief — and changing fast to sheer rage.

“You named him,” Raikou says, his voice shaking.

Sugino stares at me as well. “What did you just call him?!”

“Er.” And suddenly everyone is staring at me, including Haruka, and I’m wondering if I can use a dispelling charm on myself, and just disappear. “Well, I, ah — I had this name picked out since I was very little, and –”

“You stupid human!” Sugino rants, and drops me. I land with a thump and yelp, because damn if it doesn’t hurt. “You just named him, and now you’ve put a seal on his true power — break it at once! Break the contract at once!”

Raikou points his sword at me. “You heard him,” he snaps. “Break the contract!”

I swallow hard and look up at Haruka, sitting on the rock. He doesn’t look anything like I imagined; I’d expected white Tengu to look like humans, but for a true Oni-Eating Tengu to look this human … was more than I expected. He just frowns at me, and says nothing. I wonder what his voice sounds like, or if he can even properly speak, after being sealed away for so many years.

Break it, I said!” Raikou is standing over me now, and the edge of his sword is at my throat. “Ichinomiya, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll break that damn contract right now –”

This is nothing I can fight off. If I don’t play my cards exactly right here, I’m dead meat. I look at Sugino — holding Moo-chan tightly enough that she can do nothing but gape — and the look of outrage on his face, and I look up at Raiko, whose blade is shaking in his hand.

He doesn’t dare kill me, I realize, because he wants the contract broken and if I’m dead, it’s stuck — no wonder he’s so furious; a youkai killer who kills youkai with limiters put on their power would lose his reputation and fast. I have a little time, I think.

I look over. “Haruka,” I say.

After a moment, the Oni-Eating Tengu opens his mouth. “Yes,” he says, and I feel something constrict in my chest — like he accepted the name, somehow.

It’s not enough to make me forget my predicament, though, and I squeak out, fast, “Help me”!

He eyes me for a moment, disdainful, and I can feel my stomach sinking — I wanted to be friends with him, but it looks like he might not even accept that — and then he nods, standing. In his hands, the shakujou sparks and its rings clash, and I want to roll over and run because I’m still a coward —

And then he, the Oni-Eating Tengu, Haruka, launches himself off the rock, and Raikou has to lift his sword to block the blow, the two of them locked together for a moment before they leap apart. I scramble to my feet and try to steady myself; this is really not how I pictured our first meeting going at all.

Haruka’s eyes are narrow and pale, and Raikou is definitely hesitating; to kill the Oni-Eating Tengu is one thing, to kill Haruka is another. Haruka, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any trouble with the idea and I grab his arm before he lifts the shakujou again, hanging off it with all my weight. He doesn’t seem terribly impressed.

“Don’t kill him,” I add quickly. “I don’t want you to kill him, just — help me –”

Haruka doesn’t seem to know what to do for a minute, and I feel a sort of deep sympathy well within me — after all, he’s a Tengu who’s had, from what I’ve heard, a very simple set of morals so far — that being ‘kill your enemies’.

Still, Haruka raises his shakujou and lightning flashes, crackling at Raikou’s feet and making him jump back. And the next thing I know, strong arms have wrapped around me and I’m being lifted into the air again.

Being carried in a Tengu’s arms is very different from riding piggyback — or maybe it’s just that it’s Haruka’s strength holding me, and Haruka’s warmth seeping into my skin.

“Um,” I say, and this is the strangest situation I’ve ever been in; usually, I’m the one sweeping people off and trying to be mysterious and seductive — though I don’t think Haruka’s doing it on purpose, it’s just sort of happening that way. “Haruka –”

“Where should we go?” Haruka’s voice is flat, but not as much as before; he sounds almost resigned, and that makes my stomach turn a little more. “It’s been a long time. I don’t know how the area’s changed.”

I swallow, and stop myself from leaning against him. “That way,” I say, and point in what I hope is the right direction. “My house is that way. Er. Youko-chan will be surprised to see us, I think …”

“Youko-chan?” He considers this, and frowns. “A youko, then. You’ve got a bad habit of naming youkai, don’t you.”

“Not that many,” I protest. “Youko-chan was an exception — found her in trouble, and she needed someone to take her in; I needed to call her something, after all–”

“Mm.” Haruka doesn’t sound impressed, and that’s a damn shame — I wanted to impress him. “And me?”

“You’re… different,” I say. “I’ve wanted to meet you, all this time–”

“…Mm.” There’s something a little dark and mysterious about him. “What did you need me for?”

“Need you f– nothing,” I say, and I sound like a stupid kid, blurting this. So much for the smooth and cool Ichinomiya Kantarou, who handles everything else so easily. “I just … wanted to meet you.”

“You’ve met me.” Haruka’s voice still gives away nothing; it’s kind of like talking to a wall. “Now what do you want?”

Everything else I’ve said has turned out badly so far, so it takes me a moment. I stare at the ground below us until it makes me dizzy, then close my eyes. “I wanted to meet you,” I say again. “I wanted … to be friends with you. I’ve admired you for a long time, Haruka.”

“Admired.” He sounds disbelieving. “With no other motives than that.”

“That’s it,” I say, helplessly. “For a long time, the youkai have been my only friends–” Oh, very nice, Ichinomiya. Can I sound any more pathetic? “And everyone had such a high opinion of you, I wanted to meet you to, get to know you–”

“For how long?”

It’s a strange question and I find myself hesitating, then pointing down towards my house as a stall tactic. Finally, I say, trying not to let the embarrassment seep into my voice — cool, Ichinomiya, be cool — “However long I can have.”

Haruka begins a circling descent, much gentler than the one Sugino had made. “Why?”

“Because …” I don’t know quite how to say this, how since the first time I’d heard of him, the only thing I wanted was to meet him. I hadn’t really thought much further than that. “Because you’re you, and I’ve always admired that strength.”

He lands easily; I can barely feel the thud of his feet touching the ground. “I’m not at my full strength now,” he says. “You saw to that.”

Maybe, I think, releasing the name contract and letting him kill me right now would be the better idea. This first meeting, my life’s dream, has been entirely ruined, and Youko, much as she likes me, probably won’t make things better. “I know. I’m sorry. Haruka –”

“Kan-chaaaan!” Youko pushes the screen door open, then freezes at the sight of Haruka. “Kan-chan, who –”

I wet my lips; this is gonna be an awkward introduction at best, I think, because I don’t know whether or not I should use the name I gave Haruka any more, whether or not he’d hate me for it. “I…”

Haruka gives me a strange look, then nods to her. “Haruka,” he introduces himself, briefly. “I’ll be living with you.”

As Youko gapes, I stare at Haruka and realize that maybe, just maybe, I’d been projecting my fears — maybe he didn’t care, like it looked like he didn’t. Maybe he’s fine with staying here, maybe he’s fine with having a name, maybe he was just trying to find out why.

Maybe…

“I think,” I tell Haruka, “this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship.”

“Kan-chan,” Youko gasps, and then louder, “Kan-chan! Kan-chan!”

I frown — the world’s gone hazy; I feel almost drugged.

“Wake up already, Kan-chan! I don’t care HOW drunk you got, if you sleep the day away you won’t make any money, and then how will we eat?!”

“Huuuuh?” Kantarou lifted his head and blinked rapidly. He had a pen in one hand and his neck hurt, like he’d been …

… sleeping sitting at his desk …

… nearly all day.

Oh.

He blinked at Youko, then tried a hesitant smile. “Youko-chan,” he said. “Um. This isn’t –”

“Ahh, I can’t believe you!” She shook her fist in his face. “I go and work hard AND take care of this house and you just get drunk and sleep! It’s not fair, Kan-chan, you’re supposed to be the primary worker of the house and all you do is play! Even Haruka-chan does more work than you do!”

Kantarou blinked around and found Haruka, leaning against one wall and looking right back. “Haruka,” he said.

“…What’s with that face?” Haruka looked slightly disgruntled.

Briefly, Kantarou thought about mentioning his dream, then decided against it; it was probably just as embarrassing, he thought, to confess something like that. “Nothing,” he said, lamely.

“It’s not nothing! Honestly!” Youko stomped a foot. “Do you even know what time it is? It’s after noon! What’s the matter with you, already? AND you were mumbling in your sleep!”

“Er. Did I say anything, um…”

“You were muttering in English.” Youko pointed at him accusingly. “Kan-chan, if you’re so damn smart that you can sleep talk in another language, make more money by doing some translations! It worked really well that one time –”

“Er.” He rubbed his face, feeling the creased lines on his cheek from where he’d slept, his head pillowed on his papers. “Youko-chan, that’s –”

“You drive me crazy!” she wailed, throwing her hands up into the air. “Augh, Kan-chan! If we don’t have money, we don’t eat, it’s that simple! If I starve to death, Kan-chan, I swear, I’ll become a ghost and haunt you –”

“Um.” He blinked away fragments of his dreams from his eyes; Haruka hadn’t worn the traditional Tengu robes since he’d first come to live in Kantarou’s house, and he was glaring now as though Kantarou had grown a second head, rather than look even remotely inviting. “I, uh, I guess I’ll get back to work, then, ahaha –”

“Good!” Youko crossed her arms and shook her head as she stomped out, sighing. “Honestly, Kan-chan…”

He groaned, leaning over his papers. “She’s meaaaan,” he sighed. “She is, isn’t she, Haruka?”

Haruka gave him an incredulous look, then let it go in favor of a shrug and another not-question. “….Kantarou. You were moaning my name in your sleep.”

He could feel himself flushing at that. “I, er…”

“I hope you don’t expect a good morning kiss.”

“Uh–”

Haruka’s frown deepened slightly. “…you stink of alcohol.”

“Er, well.” Kantarou continued to grin hopefully, but Haruka’s frown didn’t lessen at all. If anything, he seemed to be more irritated by that, and really, after so many months, it was only to be expected that he’d start learning the patterns of Kantarou’s evasions. “I, ah, got distracted while drinking?”

“You usually don’t drink until you’re drunk.” Haruka flicked a finger in the middle of Kantarou’s forehead. “What the hell were you dreaming about, anyway?”

“Wishful thinking?” he offered, as brightly as he could. Haruka looked distinctly unimpressed.

“Are you all right, then?” he asked, finally. “You looked sad, too.”

Sometimes, Kantarou thought, he could still be surprised whenever Haruka said something that showed he did actually pay attention, to Kantarou and other things around him. Relieved, Kantarou smiled. “I’m fine,” he said. “It was only a dream, after all.”

“All right,” Haruka said, accepting that. “Well. Get your work done.”

He sighed. “I will, Haruka…”

“And then wash your mouth out, and…”

He looked up hopefully. That implied some worth work incentive, especially if Haruka followed through with the offer with that same low tone of voice. “And?”

“…and I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

For a moment, Kantarou thought he was joking, but Haruka was utterly deadpan, staring at him. It was a bit suspicious, but…. he picked up his pen and grinned.

“Right!” he said, and got to work.

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Yearfall

Snow lies in a smooth layer across the backyard, glittering in the fading sun. Kantarou sits seiza-style and holds onto his teacup more for warmth than anything else, watching the steam plumes of his breath drift up and fade.

Behind him the door opens.

“Aren’t you cold?” Haruka says. He sounds irritated, but winter does that to him — tengu are used to mountains and cold year-round, but if they get acclimated to warmer places (like the flatlands), they don’t like to go back. “You’ll catch your death of cold, idiot master.”

“It’s not so bad,” says Kantarou. His tea has gone lukewarm, but he drinks it anyway. “It’s pretty.”

The porch creaks: Haruka’s weight, coming forward. Like Kantarou, he’s still dressed in nemaki, with an extra robe over that. His hair is sleep-tousled and his eyes are squinted against the sun.

“What’s so pretty about it?” he asks, deeply unimpressed. “It’s snow.”

“So it is,” Kantarou agrees. He watches as Haruka walks to the very edge of the porch, barefoot, and stands there scowling at the snow like it’s an insult. “Is there something wrong, Haruka?”

“It’s cold,” Haruka says, and gives him a look like he’s stupid.

Kantarou hides his smile and opens his eyes wide. “It is,” he agrees. “Is Haruka saying he wants to be warmed up?”

Haruka stares, and it’s funny, because he always looks so human when he gets propositioned by Kantarou (though he’d never admit it, and Kantarou would never say as much), wide-eyed and a little red in the cheeks.

“… It’s too cold outside,” he says finally. “You’ll catch a cold and die.”

–Which means yes, so Kantarou gets to his feet and goes inside, listening as Haruka follows him through the hallway and up the stairs.

Compared to outside, the bedroom isn’t that much warmer (“heating costs money!” Youko has fumed; “we can’t be warm if you don’t work!”), but Kantarou shrugs out of all his clothes easily enough, letting them fall to the floor by his feet. He turns when he hears the bedroom shouji slide closed and burrows into Haruka’s arms, pressing his cold palms to Haruka’s warm back.

“You are cold,” Haruka mutters. “I told you.”

Kantarou just laughs: “Harukaaaaaa,” he drawls. “Hey, Haruka–”

“Idiot,” Haruka says again, flatly, and lets Kantarou yank him down. It’s a little bit of a stagger to the futon, but then they go down and they’re rolling, and Haruka’s growling something — possibly about Kantarou’s cold toes — and they end with Kantarou sitting on top, beaming.

“Haruka,” he croons, and runs his cool fingers down Haruka’s chest. “Caught you.”

Haruka snorts and just raises an eyebrow.

Kantarou laughs again and leans to kiss him, which is nice even when Haruka makes an irritated noise and bites Kantarou’s lower lip hard enough he tastes blood. They roll again, this time so that Kantarou is trapped under Haruka’s greater weight and even when Haruka snaps at him to stop laughing, he still does, wrapping his arms around Haruka’s back and holding on.

“You are so irritating,” Haruka tells him. “I’ve never met a man as annoying as you.”

Kantarou hiccups a little, then bites Haruka’s chin. “Good,” he says. “Good, maybe I’ll last longer in your memory this way.”

“… Did you want this or not?” Haruka pauses, leaning over him and frowning, his brows drawn together.

Kantarou whines a little, then leans his head back, so that all his throat is exposed and maybe two, three inches from Haruka’s mouth. He doesn’t want to let go, since Haruka’s warm, but he makes his posture as inviting as possible, though he thinks he won with the throat thing because Haruka leans down and bites hard at the junction of neck and shoulder, pins his hands and moves down hard between Kantarou’s thighs.

“Ow,” he says mildly, just as a reminder — Haruka’s fangs are sharp, and there will be a bruise at least later — and then he laughs again, lower this time, moving first with Haruka and then against him as long elegant fingers work low between his legs, doesn’t bother to be quiet because Youko’s already awake and downstairs, it’s fine, it’s fine–

His hips get tugged up, Haruka growling his name low in his ear and he cries out as Haruka rocks into him, pins his shoulders down, and Kantarou can’t keep still (doesn’t want to stay still), claws at Haruka’s arms and yowls plaintively for more, more, Ha-ru-ka

(haruka)

Later, after, Haruka lies with his face pressed right up against Kantarou’s throat and says, muffled, “You’re so loud. What are you, a cat?”

He giggles — though he’d never admit the sound as much, he’s still a man! — and rubs his hand across Haruka’s sweat-damp back. Right now the bedroom is hot enough that lying with Haruka feels like being too close to the furnace, but Kantarou is too pleased to complain. “Maybe,” he says. “Ah, maybe! It’s better than being a dog.”

“… Dogs are nice …”

“I hate dogs,” Kantarou says. “They’re nasty smelly animals.”

“Dogs are–”

“Harukaaaaaa.”

Haruka snorts, but relaxes a little when Kantarou doesn’t finish the implied threat of name-command. “… idiot …”

“Nnnn?”

“Nothing.”

Kantarou makes a face at the ceiling and imagines it somehow getting reflected off to hit Haruka’s back. But at least Haruka sounds less grumpy than before, and he’s comfortable even if he’s heavy and hot, so Kantarou closes his eyes and goes to sleep.

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