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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a thread through spring

Humans are not difficult to understand: they have their desires and their demands, and where they lack the strength to see their wants through they make up for it in stubborn persistence.

Or at the very least, intense whining.

“Tell her I’m not here,” Kantarou begs, clinging to Youko’s sleeve. “I’m somewhere else! I’m sick! I’m not here, Youko-channn~”

“Take more responsibility,” Youko scolds. “You had plenty of time to finish that article, you just wasted it by playing around–”

“Ehhh, Youko-chan! Unkind, unkind!”

Haruka sticks his pinky finger into his ear and swivels it. The constant arguing took getting used to, especially when he’d grown accustomed to the unchanging silence of his stone prison, but he’d adapted, and learned to tune it out. Even when Kantarou wails Harukaaaa! and flings himself at Haruka like he expects to be caught, that’s easy to ignore.

It is Kantarou’s silences that are troublesome; the sheer lack of background babble rang louder than anything else. Kantarou being obnoxious and petty is irritating but tolerable — Kantarou withdrawn and silent stuck like hooks under Haruka’s skin, so that the harder he pulled, the more tenaciously they clung.

“Harukaaa,” Kantarou burbles, and tugs at Haruka’s arm; he’s wrapped himself around it, almost deadweight. “Haruka, you wouldn’t abandon your poor master in his time of need, right? You’ll save me from mean Youko-chan–”

“I’m mean!” Youko cried in exasperation, waving a wooden spoon. “Fine for you to say that, you irresponsible man! If not for me, we probably wouldn’t still be in this house!”

Kantarou glances over his shoulder and sticks his tongue out. “Behhhh,” he says. “Youko-chan’s mean! But Haruka’s on my side, right, Haruka?”

Haruka looks down at him with some bemusement. “I’m not interested in starving to death,” he says. “Youko’s got a good head on her shoulders, and at least she works hard for the house.”

“Ah!” Kantarou staggers back, clutching theatrically at his chest. “Betrayed! Haruka’s so mean~” He begins to stagger around the room, and — Haruka notices, with a wry lack of surprise — towards the door, away from the fuming Youko. “I don’t know if I’ll survive this betrayal, ahh, poor me~”

Youko stiffens, pointing her spoon at Kantarou like a warrior might brandish a sword. “AH!” she cries. “You’re trying to run away!”

Kantarou drops the act and flees, laughing, and Youko’s close behind, ranting top speed. They’re unusually energetic today, and it makes Haruka a little tired just watching them; he yawns and reclines back, eyes slitting shut against the warmth of the sun. The article’s not a huge priority yet; they’re still living off the payment from Kantarou’s last exorcism, and stretched with Youko’s salary, it’ll at least get them through the next month, and maybe the one after it if they’re careful. It’s more the principle of the thing, since Kantarou has been promising Youko he’d work this entire week without anything to show for it.

Even if he complains and procrastinates, Kantarou is good about pulling through — they’ve never actually gone hungry, though they’ve skimped on luxuries (tea, tobacco for Kantarou’s pipe, the glass pieces Haruka keeps in his room) several times. It’s irritating, but Haruka remembers surviving on much less: the sour taste of an oni’s blood, the mean and meager “heart,” and the cold wind in his wings when he slept. If it were just himself and Youko, he thinks they could live peacefully.

“AHHH! Youko-chan, my notebooks! Anything but those–”

“Use them to do your proper work instead of drawing in the margins! You careless master!”

“Youko-chan, give, give!”

Haruka snorts. But it’s Kantarou’s house in the end, his orders and his names and his petty demands for things to go his way, and Haruka’s life isn’t very peaceful at all, even though he hasn’t had a decent fight in months. When he’d rather just sleep and let the day pass comfortably, what he gets instead is an insistent whine in his ear, Haruka, Haruka, it’s past noon, why are you still asleep! Let’s go for a walk, come on, Harukaaaa!

It’s irritating. It’s worse, though, that he minds less than he should.

Once upon a time, he knows, he killed idiots for insults less than interrupting a nap. Once upon a time, he killed any oni that crossed his path, whether they were hostile or not, and lived solely upon their hearts and their black blood.

Haruka curls his fingers, flexing; they become talons easily enough. Kantarou’s orders only extend for so long; there would be nothing to keep him from killing the next youkai they counter, just–

“Haruka!” Kantarou says.

He looks up. “Weren’t you running for your life?”

“Eheheh.” Kantarou beams and sits down, uninvited, next to Haruka. “I talked her out of her murderous rage! I’m pretty good at convincing youkai to see my point of view.” He pulls his pipe from his sleeve and glances sidelong at Haruka as he lights it. “Don’t you think?”

Haruka snorts. “Don’t lump me in with the rest of those idiots,” he says. “I just listen to you because I have to.”

Kantarou laughs and says, “But Haruka still listens, doesn’t he?”

“I just told you to not include me–”

“I’m glad,” Kantarou interrupts. He exhales a thin white plume of smoke, which forms a faint wreath around his head, then dissipates. Something peculiar is in his smile: Haruka can almost feel it, like an extra weight on the chain that binds him to this place. “It means we’re friends, doesn’t it?”

Haruka looks at him and thinks: you call this friendship when in less than a century you’ll be moldering in your grave; you say these things like you expect any of your orders to last longer than it takes your last breath to fade. You act like you’ve the same sort of pride that makes a tengu, but only humans are that stupid.

Foolish little man (he wants to say), there’s not enough blood in your dust to make a difference.

He looks at his hand and realizes that the claws have receded; his talons are merely fingers again.

What he says instead is, “You’re always so damn loud.”

Unlike the last time he said this, Kantarou doesn’t immediately take offense; instead he laughs again. “I would think Haruka would like that,” he says. “A thousand years sealed away under a rock? I think I’d like a little noise and activity after that!”

“I’d rather sleep,” Haruka grumbles, but when Kantarou leans against him just a little, hip against his knee, he doesn’t move away. “Irritating, loud, obnoxious, selfish master–”

“Ehhhh, how mean, how mean,” Kantarou sighs. He puts a hand on Haruka’s leg. “Well, I’m glad for it, even if you’re not. I’m happy enough for the both of us!”

Haruka glances at him. Kantarou’s looking up at the sky, pipe to his lips and smiling like there’s something up there to smile back. His hand is warm on Haruka’s leg, warmer than the midday sun. And for a moment he feels that warmth all the way in the pit of his stomach, and rather than feel weighted, he feels anchored.

It passes quickly, but the warmth still remains.

Haruka snorts and closes his eyes. “Think what you want,” he says.

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The Shape in Dreams

“The story goes that there was no greater youkai-taijiya of the Heian Era than Minamoto-no-Raikou. The line of exterminators can really be said to start with him.

“With only a single retainer at his side, he defeated the oni Shuuten Douji and all his myriad servants; stricken and ill, he killed the Tsuchigumo when a hundred men before him had failed.

“That’s where everything began, really.” Raikou smirked, rubbing his chin with one hand. “The only youkai of any repute that didn’t fall to my family was the Oni-Eater.”

“So I’ve heard.” Kantarou didn’t back down. “What did you want, Minamoto?”

“The same thing you do, Sensei. The same thing we’ve always wanted.” Raikou reached out and tipped Kantarou’s chin up with a finger. “The Oni-Eater.”

+++

Kantarou comes home later than expected and paler than normal. When Youko frowns and leans to peer in his face, he gives her a weak smile and mutters excuses — he’s a bit tired, maybe getting a little sick, ah, maybe he shouldn’t have stayed up so late this past week, working!

And Youko makes a face, because Kantarou’s actually been out hunting a youkai — something related to fireflies, because it’s the season for them — and shoos him off to bed. There’s an article turned in and a bit of extra side money coming in from his last client; they’re all right for the moment.

+++

“This is a new tactic,” Kantarou said.

“Ibaragi suggested it,” Raikou said pleasantly. “Really, it was all her doing; she got you while you were in the bookstore. Tea?”

“I really shouldn’t,” Kantarou said politely. “I know the stories too, Minamoto.”

“Such as you’d expect, from a folklorist.” Raikou poured himself tea and sat back. “And from Ichinomiya-sensei himself, I’m not surprised he’d know stories from other countries.”

“It’s my duty to know everything I can,” Kantarou said, with false modesty. For a moment his fingers twitched towards his empty teacup, and then he stopped himself. “But what I’d like to know is why the high and powerful Minamoto-sama would want to do with a poor folklorist like me.”

“Sensei,” Raikou said, his tone reproachful. “Only cute girls can play innocent like that and get away with it.”

Kantarou leaned forward, elbow on his knee and chin in hand. “Eh, is that what you’re interested in,” he said. “I make a very pretty lady, Minamoto.”

Raikou raised an eyebrow. “Well,” he said. “You dress like a woman anyway.”

“They’re ordinary gi and hakama, I’ve told you that!” Kantarou sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. “I know you want Haruka. But that doesn’t explain the point of all this.” He gestured — the “room” vaguely resembled a study, with plush chairs for them both a low, ornate table. “Did you also want a captive audience for your bragging?”

“Cute, Sensei,” Raikou said. His smile had teeth in it, which flashed like the hint of fangs behind his lips. “Just be patient. You’ll see soon enough.”

+++

The next morning, even Haruka wakes before Kantarou, and finally Youko storms into his room to demand he take some responsibility and get his lazy self out of bed.

What she finds is Kantarou, white as his hair and lying still on his back. He doesn’t respond to her voice or her shaking, though she gets progressively higher and more distressed, until Haruka comes to check.

“Haruka-chan,” she says sharply. “Haruka-chan, Kan-chan isn’t, he’s not …”

Haruka kneels and puts his hand over Kantarou’s mouth. “He’s still breathing,” he says finally, and then grasps Kantarou’s shoulder instead.

“Hey,” he says. “Get up. You’re worrying Youko.”

Under paperthin eyelids, Kantarou’s eyes move. His lips part.

He does not wake.

“Oi,” Haruka says again. “Oi.”

“He couldn’t have been that sick,” Youko frets, wringing her hands. “Right? Kan-chan doesn’t get sick like that, he’s so healthy normally–”

Haruka takes both Kantarou’s shoulders in hand and gives him a harder shake. Kantarou’s head flops bonelessly.

“Hey,” he says, his voice now sharp and angry. “You idiotic man, you need to wake up.”

+++

Kantarou glanced up and around. In his hand, the white pawn dangled loosely.

“Is something wrong, Sensei?” Raikou gave him the same pleasant smile as before. He was still drinking tea — no matter how many times he refreshed his cup, the pot never seemed to empty. Kantarou’s own throat felt parched, but he staunchly ignored it.

“No,” he said finally. “I thought I heard something.”

“Perhaps you’re just imagining things,” Raikou said. “Are you sure you won’t have any tea?”

“I’m fine,” Kantarou repeated, and placed his pawn.

+++

“What should we do?” Youko whispers, wringing her hands. Her ears are out and pressed flat, and Haruka cannot find it in himself to point this out to her. “Kan-chan’s not waking up at all.”

Haruka looks down at their sleeping master. Kantarou does not appear younger or more innocent with his eyes closed: he looks merely like himself, though admittedly there is something missing without any energy behind Kantarou’s expression.

“Haruka-chan,” Youko mumbles, and catches his sleeve. She sounds almost on the verge of tears. “Haruka-chan …”

“There’s not much we can do,” he says, “till this guy decides to be responsible and wake up.”

+++

“I did some research on your family as well,” Raikou said, over his fourth cup of tea.

Kantarou raised an eyebrow. “That must have been disappointing, compared to your own vaunted history,” he said dryly. “The Ichinomiya family has always been poor.”

“Poor in the ways of the world,” Raikou said. He picked up a knight. “But still highly respected. They say Ichinomiya blood is what sealed the Oni-Eater all those years ago.”

“If you already know that much,” Kantarou said, “I don’t see any point in going over it again.”

“It’s just remarkable,” Raikou said. “An Ichinomiya seals the Oni-Eater, an Ichinomiya releases the Oni-Eater. What is it about you, anyway?”

Kantarou watched him place his knight. “I’m good at making friends with youkai.”

“Friends.” Something flickered in Raikou’s eyes, unpleasantly knowing. “I see.”

+++

It would be easier if Youko could just let it go, and pretend that Kantarou will wake on his own terms — but every morning she goes in and spends at least an hour pleading herself hoarse with their unresponsive master. The house feels almost unnaturally silent now, and the quiet eats at his concentration just as much as the noise ever did. Without Kantarou to ignore, Haruka finds his focus drifting.

Kantarou’s editor has been deterred with the mention of his illness, but it won’t be long before she comes back, determined not to take no for an answer. A handful of clients looking for exorcisms have also been turned aside; Youko frets that if the news of Kantarou’s “illness” gets out, it will reflect badly — who would want to hire an exorcist who couldn’t keep himself safe?

Ultimately, though, they’re complaints for the sake of noise; Haruka is actually a little grateful for them.

+++

“You’re pretty good, Sensei,” Raikou said. “Where did you learn to play chess?”

“I prefer shougi,” Kantarou told him. “Haruka always complains I cheat.”

“Do you?” Raikou put his chin on his hand. “How unfair, Sensei.”

“I use my advantages as I find them,” Kantarou said. His throat was so dry he had to pause a moment, swallowing, before he could go on: “I don’t expect kids like you to get it.”

+++

To the touch Kantarou’s skin is cool, with only the briefest hint of underlying warmth. Haruka can’t be certain if it’s not just his own body heat being reflected back when Kantarou’s hand seems to relax under his.

Beside him, Youko shifts and mutters something in restless sleep; there are books open all around them — “Kan-chan is horrible at organizing his notes, but he writes down everything, maybe there’ll be a clue!” — including Haruka’s own lap. He ignores it.

What he does instead is squeeze Kantarou’s hand, his thumb pressed to the bony top ridge of his master’s knuckles. Some part of him keeps expecting that irresponsible man to open his eyes and play innocent — what, were you two worried? how sweet! — and he’ll be awake and fine, and life will go back to normal,

“Hey,” he says softly. He keeps his voice gentle now, close to the tone he uses to charm women. “Can you hear me? Idiot master …”

Kantarou doesn’t respond. Somehow, Haruka feels worse for it.

+++

“Crackers?” Raikou offered politely. He held out a dish of them, and where they’d come from, Kantarou couldn’t say. The longer they sat together in this strange dreamcrafted room, the more solidly detailed it became. The buttons on Raikou’s uniform were so shiny he could see his own face reflected in them. “You’ve been asleep for a while, Sensei, but you haven’t taken anything to eat or drink. You shouldn’t push yourself, what if you need your strength?”

“I’m not hungry,” Kantarou said. They’d started a new chess game when the last one had ended in stalemate, and it was his opening move. “You’re not going to trick me that way.”

“Trick is an ugly word, Sensei,” Raikou said. He put the plate of crackers down. “When have I ever tried to trick you?”

Kantarou slid a pawn forward. “When have you not?”

+++

Youko finally, quietly brings her mending into Kantarou’s room, sitting beside him as she works. That more than anything confesses her worry; she says nothing, but Haruka watches her for a while, as she jumps at every small move Kantarou makes, then gives up and leaves for a walk.

The wind feels cold and clean through his hair and his feathers; the entire day is a sort of pale glowing gray, without strong sun or clouds. Below him Tokyo falls away until it’s little more than a gray mass amidst the patches of green and brown. At a high enough altitude, the changes of a thousand years become trivial: the landscape below looks no different than it once did.

Without looking back he flies towards the mountains.

+++

“Check,” said Raikou. He rested his chin on the heel of one hand. It seemed to be his favorite pose — it allowed him the illusion of casual lounging while still tense enough to fight.

If it went that far, and Kantarou was beginning to wonder.

“Sensei?”

Kantarou studied the board for a moment. He took his bishop and nudged it, sweeping up the rook that threatened his king. “I’m not that easy to catch,” he said, and grinned back at Raikou, his smile equally unpleasant.

“You’re not, are you,” Raikou agreed. His lids dropped to halfmast, considering. “That’s fine. I like the challenge.”

+++

He lands on the moment and has to take a few minutes to orient himself; even for someone looking — and sometimes especially for someone looking — this particular spirit could be difficult to find. Eventually, though, he starts to walk and soon finds himself at the foot of a god-tree, so old that its roots have long spread across the entire mountain. Bubbling in the cage of the roots is a small spring, which deepens into a deep and fast-flowing river.

Haruka crouches by the riverside and dips his hand in. After a moment his arm flashes out, and he catches hold of something moving through the current.

What he fishes out is an ugly twisting creature, whose face is somewhere between that of a man and a catfish, and who has tiny stubby arms and webbed fingers crowning both. Its skin is fishbelly white at the face, but this darkens to a mottled black-and-purple, like a bruise.

When it sees Haruka, it opens a mouthful of jagged, dirty yellow teeth. “Oni-Eater.”

Haruka’s lip curls. “I heard there was a school of you here,” he says.

The creature twists, but Haruka’s grip remains fast. Its bulging fish eyes roll this way and that, and certainly it’s trying to look fierce, but the stink of fear is heavy in the air.

“Stop that,” Haruka says. “You ningyo, you’ve got medicine, don’t you?”

For a moment the ningyo stops and looks at him, mouth hanging partly open. It cannot blink, but its eyes roll this way and that, as though in understanding.

“That’s what your sort is good at, isn’t it?” Haruka repeats. He gives it a brief hard shake. “Medicine.”

It twists again, and for a moment its entire body twists out of the water — a long scaled serpentine form ending in a powerful tail. Haruka does not even blink as the struggling throws water into his face.

“Don’t pretend you don’t understand,” Haruka says. “I’m not asking you. I’m telling you.”

The ningyo squeals. The stink of fear is very sharp in the air now, almost suffocating. As Haruka watches, beads of milky sweat form on its slick skin, trickling down to be lost in the water.

“I could kill you and take your meat back for him to eat,” he says, “but he’d yell at me, and I don’t need that headache on top of this one. Are you going to cooperate?”

And finally the ningyo goes limp. It points with a limp hand towards the source of the spring, bubbling up and over the roots of the god-tree. Still keeping a solid grip on the creature, Haruka walks over and kneels, thrusting his free hand into the niche.

He finds a small bottle of water-smoothed rock. The mouth is stoppered with mud and grass. At the sight of it the ningyo makes earnest noises and flips its tail, splashing Haruka again.

“This had better work,” Haruka says, but lets the ningyo go. It immediately dives below the surface, and he watches the dark shape of it swim quickly away, carried by the current.

With his new burden in hand, Haruka spreads his wings and makes his way home.

+++

“It’s been a lot of fun playing with you, Sensei,” Raikou said. “But all games have to come to an end eventually, don’t they?”

“I was wondering when you’d get to that.” Kantarou sat up straighter. He reached into his sleeve, and found his ofuda still there. “I’ve told you, Minamoto, even if you threaten my life, I won’t release Haruka’s name.”

“Of course, of course,” Raikou said. He chuckled. “And certainly your loyalty is to be commended. You play a tricky game, Sensei. I applaud you for holding onto it for so long.”

“Game?” Kantarou’s eyes narrowed.

“You play very well,” Raikou repeated. He stood and settled his hand on the sword on his hip. “It’s amazing, what you can learn from a man by watching how he handles himself and his closest friends.” Around him, the room began to dissolve, all the crisp details that had so slowly resolved blurring back to indistinction. Kantarou rose as well, ignoring the brief spinning moment of lightheadedness; whether Raikou had been telling the truth or not about days or weeks, it had been a very long time since he’d eaten.

“You hold your most precious cards close to your chest,” Raikou went on. He began to pace in a loose circle around Kantarou; his thumb pressed to the hilt of his sword, snicking out a few bare inches. “And you bluff and distract with all sorts of flashy methods so one notices as you sneak in for the final kill.”

“Not everyone has double meanings to everything they do, Minamoto.” Kantarou pulled two ofuda from his sleeve, spreading them between his fingers. “Not everyone’s got an ultimate goal.”

“That’s right,” Raikou said. “You already achieved yours, didn’t you? But how long will it be, Sensei, before the Oni-Eater gets tired of his false life and casts you off again? What happens when the long years go by and he finds himself still young and shackled to an aging, secretive master, what then?” In a single smooth motion he drew his sword, resting the tip of it in the hollow of Kantarou’s collarbone. “What do you think of that?”

“I think,” Kantarou said, “that you talk too much, you mouthy brat.”

“Ahh,” Raikou said, and pressed his sword enough to draw blood. “What a shame.”

+++

“Haruka-chan?” Youko looks up in surprise as Haruka opens the bedroom door and walks in. “What’s wrong? Haruka-chan?”

He holds up the bottle he retrieved earlier. “Ningyo,” he said. “They make medicine, don’t they?”

Youko’s nose wrinkles. “They do,” she says slowly. “Very effective, but that’s for youkai. It tends to be poisonous for humans. Ahh, you’re not planning on giving that stuff to Kan-chan, are you?”

Haruka kneels beside Kantarou’s bed. Kantarou’s face has changed just slightly — his brow is furrowed, and his eyes are moving rapidly under their lids.

“Nothing else has worked,” he says. “We’ll try it this way, then.”

“Haruka-chan–!”

Haruka grasps Kantarou’s chin in one hand and pinches to force Kantarou’s mouth open; he tips the bottle, and a single milky-opaque drop rolls out and into his mouth.

+++

Kantarou misstepped and staggered, clutching hard at his chest. Raikou, across from him, raised an eyebrow.

“My, Sensei,” he said. “You’re looking terribly pale. What on earth is wrong?”

He tried to speak and found his throat simply closing up; less like the localized stabbing pain of an oni’s presence, this felt like claws were ripping through him along the line of his stomach to his throat. When he tried to focus on Raikou’s smirk, he found the other man blurring and wavering, like a bad dream. He took a step forward and one leg buckled under his weight; he fell and curled tightly around himself, trying to breathe.

+++

“Kan-chan!” Youko cries shrilly when he begins to thrash; Haruka has to bodily hold him down to keep him from injuring himself in the frenzy. “Haruka-chan, how could you! We could have at least diluted it in tea or something–”

Haruka ignores her railing, staring down at Kantarou’s face. It’s beaded with sweat now, and there’s a flush where the skin had been bone white a moment ago. Kantarou’s breathing is loud and rasping, painful to listen to, and he fights Haruka’s grip with surprising strength of ferocity.

Youko grabs at his shoulder with both her small hands, pulling and crying, but he tunes that out as well, never taking his eyes from Kantarou’s face.

+++

Raikou was shouting something, Kantarou could hear that much — though what the insufferable bastard was trying to say he couldn’t make out. It sounded unhappy, though, and in that, Kantarou took a brief, crude satisfaction. Even if he died, he’d have one less regret if he caused trouble to Minamoto Raikou in the process.

His entire body felt like it was on fire now, and it felt like leaden weights had clamped down on his shoulders, holding him down in place. Something was lodged in his throat — he could feel it with each gasping breath he managed to take — but he couldn’t get the force to cough it up.

He couldn’t–

+++

“Youko,” Haruka says. “Move.”

“Eh? What?! Wah!” She tumbles back as Haruka shrugs her off, turning Kantarou over an arm; his master hangs limply, head towards the futon. “Haruka-chan!”

“Something’s struck,” Haruka tells her. “Hit his back. He needs to cough it up.”

“Cough what up? That stuff you gave him? I would think so, it’s not healthy for humans–”

Youko,” he snaps, and she cuts herself off, scrambling over to pound Kantarou’s thin back with one small fist.

There’s a wet sound in Kantarou’s breathing, and suddenly he’s coughing, loud tearing coughs and something is–

+++

It hurt to cough, but it felt good at the same time; Kantarou braced his weight on the ground with both hands and kept coughing. Raikou’s voice had long since faded away, and even in his pained dazed state, Kantarou did not terribly miss him. There was a sour taste in his mouth, bitter and sharp, rising with his gorge as he continued to cough, and–

Somewhere, he heard the sound of someone calling his name.

+++

Something fell out of Kantarou’s mouth.

“Youko,” Haruka says, “that’s enough.”

She stops immediately and leans over his shoulder. Her eyes and cheeks are wet. “What, what? What was it?”

Very carefully, Haruka turns Kantarou over in his arms again, this time cradling his unconscious master in his lap. Under Kantarou’s head, on the mattress, is a strange grayish lump, wet and slimy-looking. After a moment, it opens a multitude of slit yellow eyes. Youko gives a little shriek and falls back, staring in horror. “What — what –!”

With Kantarou resting in the crook of one arm, Haruka brings up his other hand in a fist and smashes down. The thing crunches under the weight of his fist like a bug being smashed. A small, black puff of smoke rises from the ruined corpse, then vanishes. Haruka flexes his hand a few times and, satisfied that the thing is completely dead, looks back at Kantarou.

“Kantarou,” he says. “Oi, Kantarou. You idiot, wake up.”

+++

And Kantarou opens his eyes.

He blinks at his two youkai, who over him and peer down, Youko looking tearfully overjoyed and Haruka looking — well, irritated, but maybe a little relieved, too. For a moment he just stares blankly at them, slow and tired; he remembers clearly the dreamscape and the endless chess games, the refused cups of tea and plates of crackers. And he should explain, he know he should, but he’s tired all over again, and though Haruka’s body is lean and hard with muscle, it’s almost more comfortable than the futon underneath.

“Kan-chan?” Youko’s voice is anxious and soft. “Kan-chan, how do you feel? Do you need anything? What happened?”

He licks his lips slowly; they taste bitter and sharp still. “…. ‘ko-chan,” he wheezes.

“Yes?” She perks up, ears out. “Kan-chan?”

“… tea …”

“Tea, yes!” she cries, and is on her feet in an instant. “I’ll get it, don’t worry, I’ll be right back–”

When she’s gone, Kantarou turns his eyes slowly to Haruka, blinking. “Ha … ruka …”

“Idiot,” Haruka mutters, and passes a hand over Kantarou’s brow, sweeping back his sweat-damp bangs. The touch is featherlight and wonderfully warm. “You stupid, careless, idiot master. What would you do if I weren’t there?”

In Haruka-speak it’s almost the same as admitting terrible worry; in spite of his exhaustion, Kantarou smiles slowly.

“Greedy man,” Haruka adds, which is way of asking if Kantarou needs anything from him, too.

So Kantarou blinks a few more times and dredges up enough voice to ask: “… no good-morning kiss?”

Haruka stares blankly at him; for a moment, Kantarou wonders if maybe he’s asked too much, and if he could laugh it off as the after-effects of Ibaragi Douji’s possession.

But then — “Kantarou,” Haruka says, and leans down.

If Haruka minds the sour taste that lingers, he gives no indication, and Kantarou is too pleased to care himself.

+++

“Almost, boy,” Ibaragi says, examing her nails. “You almost had him there.”

Raikou sighs. He selects a chocolate from his latest box and stares at it moodily. “So close,” he says. “A little longer, and his heart would have been ours.”

She drapes herself across his desk, leaning against his arm; her heavy breasts press into his shoulder. “But it’s not a complete loss, is it,” she says. “You did, after all, learn quite a bit.”

“… I did,” Raikou agrees. He glances up at her, his own expression turned coy. “And that should be enough to work with, next time. Ichinomiya-sensei isn’t good at hiding when he’s not consciously thinking about it.” He holds out the chocolate to her.

Delicately, she bites halfway through.

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an offering for the moon

“Put your arms like this.” Kantarou took Haruka’s wrists and pulled them forward, until they crossed around Kantarou’s chest. “See?”

Haruka snorted; the breath ruffled Kantarou’s hair and felt warm and damp against his scalp. “What’s the point?”

“Eh, the point?” Kantarou tipped his head back and to the side; he could only see part of Haruka’s profile, sharp and shadowed in the evening, but the moon was always kind to youkai: even the stubbiest, weakest creature looked mysterious or beautiful or terrible — and in Haruka’s case, all three. He almost reached out to touch, but tightened his grip on Haruka instead.

“The point,” Haruka said, and Kantarou almost jumped — too busy watching, he thought ruefully, then smiled until it made his face hurt.

“The point,” Kantarou said, and drew out each syllable, “is that it’s comfortable, and I like it.”

He’d been expecting Haruka’s snort, and when it came, he ducked his head to hide the more genuine smile it prompted. “You’re an idiot.”

Kantarou did laugh then, wriggling to get more comfortable. Against his back, Haruka’s chest was warm and solid, unmoving even when he squirmed. “Maybe,” he said lightly. “Eh, but I still have Haruka, so I’m all right with that.”

Haruka snorted again, but the following silence was comfortable, and Kantarou settled into it with pleasure. Below them stretched dark close-cropped forest, and beyond the line of trees, scattered lights of Tokyo were visible, like small bright stars pulled to earth. Wind rustled the tree branches around them and Haruka’s feathers, all dry whispering sounds. He drew a hand idly down the length of Haruka’s arm, from elbow to wrist, and then from wrist to the oddly delicate bones of Haruka’s hand and long fingers. They ended in blunt human nails, and from first glance no one would ever know how they could lengthen and sharpen, enough to rip a man’s throat out.

“Don’t play with that,” Haruka said flatly. “You said you wanted to do moon-watching. The moon’s up there.”

Through his lashes, Kantarou looked up, through the branches and into the misty sky. Clouds wreathed the moon, like the ripples of a lady’s veil. He looked at Haruka then, the stern familiar face with its arching high cheekbones and slanted eyes. With his free hand he reached up and touched Haruka’s jaw, drawing his fingers down its edge. Haruka’s brows furrowed, but he leaned into the touch rather than away. Under Kantarou’s other hand, his fingers flexed into hooked claws, then out.

“It is, isn’t it?” Kantarou said. “And it’s very pretty. But isn’t this fun too?”

Haruka raised an eyebrow, but his expression remained the same as Kantarou pressed fingers past his lips, feeling the sharp points of canines. “Nn.”

“Ehhh, Harukaaaaaa.” Kantarou twisted, wide-eyed and cute. “Come on, you like this too, right?”

Haruka gave a long-suffering sigh. “You …”

Wriggling, Kantarou stretched his arm out, over the curve of Haruka’s shoulder and down that, up the length of a wing and along glossy black feathers; Haruka made a low noise in his throat and shivered. He grinned and pressed his face into the curve of Haruka’s throat, petting his wings in slow soothing gestures. After a few passes of his hand, a low rumbling noise rose from the depths of Haruka’s throat. “What, Haruka doesn’t like this? He could say so, but I’d think he was lying.”

Against his thumb, he felt the edge of Haruka’s fang shift, growing longer until the point pressed against the pad and moved down. When he finally pulled it out, there was a thin line of blood running down his finger. He considered it, then held it up for consideration, still petting Haruka’s wing as he did; even in the dim light of the moon, he saw Haruka’s pupils dilate to pinpoints. Through his parted lips, the tips of his fangs were visible.

“Haruka?” he asked, smiling. “Ahh, you’re thinking of something naughty, aren’t you?” He pressed his index finger to the base of his cut until a new drop of blood oozed up from that. “You want this?”

Haruka made a low noise, his mouth opening wider. In the moonlight, his eyes were almost white, glowing of their own accord. “Kantarou–”

“Ah, my name!” Kantarou beamed and pressed his thumb to the part of Haruka’s mouth. “Something nice should get a reward, right~? Something tasty — ah, don’t bite too hard,” he added, when Haruka’s mouth closed around it, sucking at the faint well of blood. “I’ll make it command if I have to.”

There was a moment’s pause. Haruka’s eyes flicked up, ice-pale and gleaming. His wings flared up, away from Kantarou’s palm and shedding feathers, then curled closely around them. “Nnn.”

“Right,” Kantarou crooned, cupping Haruka’s cheek and running his other thumb over the cheekbone. “Just a little snack for Haruka, right? Not anything big, just a little … a little for you, just a little offering for the rabbit in the moon.” He leaned in before a hand curled at the back of his neck, claws prickling gently through his fine hair, pulling him in until they were pressed close and he could press his mouth to Haruka’s cheek and smile.

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Between One and the Other

There are things he was made for, but this was not one of them; even if he were not a priest, even if he were nothing but himself, he was not be made for this. Ririn looks up at his pale face afterwards, where his expression has gone impassive but his eyes are burning like he could skin her alive with his gaze alone. She wants to apologize but knows he wouldn’t accept it no matter how delicately-phrased, so she doesn’t bother.

It’s a pity — she genuinely likes him, he’s funny — but her mother’s guards are sniffing through every corner of the palace and she doesn’t know where his friends or hers have hidden themselves; it’s just them in this dark narrow place with his knees in her hips her elbows in his sides and they’re practically tangled together, at this point. And he was the one who tried to move, trying to shift away from touching her when there was nowhere else for him to go. He kept swearing at her, banging all his long limbs against the rocky walls and cursing at that and someone was bound to notice very soon–

So she’d wrapped herself around him — sort of forcibly, arms and legs both because any longer and he might have started backing her out of their hiding place — and she’d grabbed his skinny face in both her hands and bitten his mouth before he could cry out. She’d even tasted blood, more sour than she expected, tasting like dull metal and salt and old alcohol. The scent of cigarette smoke clung to him like a mist, sharp in her nose and trying to tempt her to sneeze.

Under and against her he’d gone stiff and abruptly silent, but she didn’t let go for long moments after, listening as the guards drew closer, then moved away, shouting to each other, their voices echoing in the hallways. And Ririn had let go slowly, sliding down to stand on her own two feet again. At least he was no longer trying to fight his way out, holding ramrod still, which was both relief and troublesome both.

She doesn’t entirely regret it, though. Though she has bruises on both her elbows now, and he’d probably shoot her as soon as he had the room (even Sanzou is not quite so trigger-happy that he’d shoot in a narrow place where bullets could ricochet), she doesn’t regret.

If she’s honest, she doesn’t think she ever will.

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S

Occasionally, Ban absolutely regretted getting into the repossessing business. While there was very little he wouldn’t do for two and a half million yen, dealing with fanatic protectors, HEVN’s outrageous middleman fees, and a bizarrely moody Ginji was almost not worth the effort.

Almost, of course, being the key word.

“Thanks for your business~!” Ban carefully did not snatch the envelope from their client’s hand, and it was hard not to grin like a maniac at the prospect of payment. After the disappointment of the IL retrieval, even a little fifty-thousand yen job helped. At least they hadn’t needed to stoop to trolling Natsumi’s school for prospective customers. In further deference, he did not cackle until they were outside of the building, on their way back to the car.

“We’re not rich,” he said to Ginji, “but at least we’re not poor any more!” He tucked their payment into his shirt pocket and started to launch into another self-congratulating spiel, when he paused and looked at Ginji’s downturned face. “Oi, Ginji. What’s wrong with you, anyway?”

“Eh? Me?” Ginji’s head snapped up, and he gave an embarrassed laugh that didn’t fool Ban at all. “Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine! I mean, we got paid, Ban-chan, isn’t that great?”

Ban came to a stop and caught Ginji’s shoulder as he passed. “It certainly is,” he said, “but you’ve been moping all day, and even now. I want to know what’s wrong.”

Ginji hunched his shoulders a bit and lowered his head again as he shuffled one heel against the asphalt. He looked like a schoolboy caught in the middle of a prank, never farther from the distant cold visage of the Raitei. “Well, that is … you see, Ban-chan, I was thinking, and, um …”

“Yes?” Ban prompted. He crossed his arms over his chest and tapped one foot. “We’re not going anywhere until you tell me, Ginji. We’re professionals in a dangerous business, so we have to trust each other above anything else. Unless you don’t–?”

It was a dirty trick, and not one Ban ever believed. However, occasionally Ginji would retreat into himself like this, and it took something extreme to pull him back out–whether it was Ban letting himself take the blow from Jackal’s sword, or a low blow like this. Those spells had come frequently in Ginji’s first year outside of the Mugenjou, but they’d faded over time, and Ban had hoped they were gone for good.

And as he expected, Ginji’s head snapped up again, brown eyes wide and shocked. “Ban-chan!” he gasped, sounding horrified. “It’s not that, no–I’d never–!”

“Idiot.” Ban drew out the word, shaking a finger at Ginji. “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.”

Ginji didn’t say anything; he appeared to be psyching himself up for something. Ban continued to tap one foot slowly, waiting.

Finally, Ginji moved, reaching into his vest and pulling out a small, flat object. “Here!” he said, a bit sharply, and shoved it at Ban before he turned sharply, his cheeks puffed out into a pout. To Ban’s surprise, the package was neatly wrapped in pale blue paper, and without an excess of tape to hold the edges together.

“Hoh,” he said as he took it, “Ginji, you did this yourself?”

“Un!” Ginji beamed, his nervousness temporarily forgotten. “Well, I had a little help from Natsumi-chan, because I’ve never wrapped a present before, but this is all me, Ban-chan!” Some of his exuberance softened when he smiled at Ban again. “Happy birthday.”

“It’s May,” Ban pointed out. “My birthday’s not the one that just passed.”

Ginji shrugged. “Not your birthday,” he said, then looked a bit embarrassed. “I’ll get you something better for that.” He rubbed the back of his head, looking at the sky, at his feet, and everywhere except Ban’s face. “I thought, well, you know … it’s kind of weird to call it an ‘anniversary,’ but … because you know, there’s only one GetBackers, so it has to have a birthday too, and …” He paused, then shrugged a little. “Um, I thought it’d be a good idea?”

Ban opened his mouth to say something, then cut himself off with a shake of his head. He almost smiled, then twisted it into an amused smirk instead. “You got me,” he said. “I didn’t even think about it. Sorry.”

“That’s okay, Ban-chan!” Now past the obstacle of his anxiety, Ginji recovered fast, regaining his usual cheerful mood even as Ban watched. He beamed, with all the barely-leashed exuberance of a puppy. “You can get me something next year! Maybe we could alternate, just in case we’re having money problems again …” He paused, counted something up on his fingers, then shrugged with an ear-to-ear grin. “It all works out. C’mon, Ban-chan, hurry and unwrap it!”

Ginji hopped from one foot to the next in his excitement, eyes shining as though Ban had given a present to him. And because Ban’s perverse sense of humor thought it was hilarious (and a little cute, though that was beside the point) how Ginji reacted to things, so the more excited he became, the slower Ban moved.

“Ban-chan!” Ginji whined. In another minute, he would turn huge shimmering eyes at Ban and paw at his arm. “Come on, hurry up, hurry up!”

“Shaddup.” Ban shook his hand off. “I want to take my time and enjoy this.”

“Eh? Ban-chan, that’s no way to have fun with presents! You gotta rip the paper off and make a mess! I’ll show you!”

“Oh, no.” Ban took a step back, holding the half-unwrapped box out of Ginji’s reach. “This is my present, right? Then I’ll unwrap it the way I want to.”

Ginji pouted. Ban ignored him, carefully smoothing away the last scrap of paper, taking care to get up, walk over to the trash can, throw everything away, and then walk back to where Ginji waited–all without ever looking at the unwrapped present he held. Ginji had flopped on the ground, staring at Ban mournfully.

“Ban-chan, you’re mean,” he said.

“I’m looking now, aren’t I?” Ban raised an eyebrow at him. “Why are you complaining?” He held it up. “A picture frame? What am I gonna do with one of these?”

“That’s not it!” Ginji popped up to his feet, his good mood restored. “It’s the picture, Ban-chan, look!”

He did. On a piece of heavy white paper, clumsily cut to fit the small frame, someone had used a calligraphy brush to draw the English “S” character. Two small, vaguely humanoid shapes decorated diagonal corners, one of whom Ban assumed to be himself, mainly because of the small round glasses perched on its nose. Probably, then, the other one was Ginji–certainly it looked like him, when he was in one of those moods that left him flopped and droopy and clingy.

“‘S’?”

Ginji grinned from ear to ear, like the little child who’d accomplished something truly grand. His happiness felt almost contagious. “It’s the ‘S’ from GetBackers,” he said. “Remember? We’re never alone as long as we have that.”

Ban said nothing, still staring. Some of Ginji’s blinding smile faded.

“I thought and thought and thought,” he said, glancing down at his feet. “Because I wanted to get something really great for our birthday. And I thought you were angry with me, because you’ve been so weird lately.”

“Weird, huh?” Ban sounded more like he was talking to himself. Ginji winced a little.

“And I thought–what if you thought that I–Ban-chan, I’m not going back!”

That got Ban’s attention. He looked up from the picture, blinking at Ginji. “Eh?”

“Well …” Ginji looked down again. “We had two years where it was really just the two of us, you and me, and whatever jobs we needed to do. We never had to work with anyone else, but we’re still the invincible GetBackers, right? But suddenly, Shido’s a repossessor too, and Kazu-chan comes to visit, and MakubeX has recreated the VOLTS …” He took a deep breath and looked straight up, into Ban’s eyes.

“They were all my precious friends,” he said. “They still are. But we’re the GetBackers, Ban-chan, and I’m happier here than anywhere else. If I had the choice, I’d always come back here, because no matter what, that ‘S’ means we’re not alone, and–”

Slowly, Ban reached out. Ginji stiffened his back and didn’t flinch.

A heavy hand descended on his head, then ruffled his hair. Ginji cracked one eye halfway open–he hadn’t been aware he’d closed them at the last minute and looked up slowly.

“Idiot,” Ban said. He smiled. “You worry about this sort of thing too much.”

“Ban-chan?” A faint crease appeared in Ginji’s forehead. He looked poised between nerves and hope.

“You’re stuck with me, got that?” Ban turned away suddenly, shifting his present to the cradle of one arm so he could pull out a cigarette and light it. He took a long drag, exhaled the thin plume of smoke, then glanced back over his shoulder at Ginji. A faint smirk twisted his mouth, and over his glasses, his gaze was knowing. “Those idiots are persistent, but they’ve got nothing on Midou Ban-sama.”

This time, Ginji’s smile came slowly, like the sun coming up. And though Ban only saw it for a moment before he turned back towards the car, his eyes felt as dazzled as though he’d looked at the real thing.

He kept the picture in his lap the entire drive back to the Honky Tonk.

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Running Out

cowritten with Harukami

Youko hung up the last bit of laundry and watched thoughtfully as Kantarou slowly entered the house again, giving her an absent-minded smile and wave as he went in. His knees were creaking audibly enough that she could hear it, and the wistful expression was almost permanently stuck on his face by now.

Honestly, she thought, something had to be done. Leave those two alone, and nothing ever changed, not for the worse and not for the better. She picked the laundry basket up and shaded her eyes, peering thoughtfully towards the roof. Haruka was a small dark speck there, stretched out and ostensibly sunning himself. He’d been up there nearly all day, after the (small! she was sure it was small!) fight he and Kantarou had had that morning, before Kantarou had headed off to deliver his manuscript.

Youko sighed and shook her head, hitching the basket up onto her hip. There was a constant low-grade tension in the house these days, and it was enough to leave her edgy, even when she wasn’t directly involved. If it continued for much longer, she was fairly sure she’d snap before either of them.

“Men,” she muttered to herself, as she stalked into the house.

“Did you say something, Youko-chan?”

She squeaked, jumping, and nearly dropped her basket. “Kan-chan! I thought you’d, ah, gone inside!”

He blinked at her. “…we are inside, Youko-chan.”

“Never mind, never mind,” she sighed, breezing past. She heard him groan a moment later as he settled onto a cushion and she frowned. “Kan-chan?”

“Mmmm?”

She put the basket down and came around, peering at him. “…How old are you?”

“Eh?” He blinked at her, nonplussed by the question. He still looked young, at least; other than a few new lines around his eyes and mouth, he still looked like the teenager that had first named her. “Youko-chan, that’s kind of rude to ask –”

“No, really, Kan-chan.” She leaned closer in; at this angle, she could see fine wrinkles branching out of the more prominent ones. “How old are you now?”

“I …” He glanced one way and the other, as though trying to figure out an escape route, then shrugged. “… thirty-six?”

“Thirty-six!” She was shocked. “Kan-chan!”

“What?” He sounded defensive now. “It’s not that old! I can still keep up in the business just as well as anyone! I’ve got Haruka, so it’s okay –”

“When did you turn thirty-six, anyway?!” She squeaked, hands waving in the air. “Last I remember, you were in your twenties–”

He sniffed. “Don’t you think I’m still young and handsome, Youko-chan?”

“Naturally, naturally,” she said, suddenly uncomfortably aware of how she hadn’t changed, could still wear the bright colors of a young girl. “But, but — Oh my goodness!”

“It’s not that big a deal,” he said brightly. “I’m still a young man at heart, right?”

“Y– yes, of course!” She laughed a bit nervously, taking a half-step back. “It’s just. Thirty-six! Wow.”

He pouted at her, and the clash was jarring, the young boy he still looked like, and the older man she was beginning to see. Because he was still young now, but in a few years, he’d be old, and … and …

“Youko-chan?” Kantarou blinked at her. “Is something wrong?”

“No! No!” She waved her hands again. “I, ah — I think I forgot something outside with the laundry, and I’ve still got to do shopping for today’s dinner, so I’ll go ahead and do that, and, ah, Kan-chan –”

“Yes?” His tone had taken on an edge of long-suffering patience, and that was strange, too. Just the other day, she thought, he would’ve whined back and protested that she was hiding something, threatening to use her name to get the secret out of her. Just the other day, he wasn’t thirty-six with new wrinkles appearing on his face.

“Work hard, okay?” She smiled. “We still need the money, you know!”

Kantarou groaned, flopping a bit to the side in his seat. “Youko-chan…”

“If we don’t have the money, we don’t eat!”

“Yes, yes…”

She picked up the basket in a hurry and scurried outside, not relaxing until she was out again under the fresh air, where she didn’t have to look at his young face with the wrinkles she could see forming. She drew a deep breath, steeling herself, and peered up again at the roof, then went to fetch a ladder.

Haruka was lying on his back with his arms crossed under his head, staring at the sky. He glanced up briefly when Youko climbed to the top of the ladder, then settled down again. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Haruka-chan,” Youko said grimly. “We have to talk.”

He didn’t say anything, but it was a very eloquent silence which told her, in no uncertain terms, that he wasn’t terribly interested. Youko gritted her teeth and scrambled fully onto the roof, crawling to sit beside him.

“Haruka-chan,” she said, “do you know how old Kan-chan is?”

Haruka shrugged. “He’s an adult,” he said. “So?”

“He’s thirty-six,” she said, grim.

Haruka shrugged again and watched the clouds pass by.

“Come on, listen!” she insisted. “Listen. That’s, you know, about halfway through a human’s life.”

“Mm.”

Somehow, she suspected hysterical declarations that he would die soon would be brushed off. Clearly, she needed to find another angle. Her eyes narrowed. “…do you really want to never say anything about it to him?”

Haruka went very still for a moment, then visibly forced himself to relax and shrug again. “No need to rush things,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of time.”

She growled and smacked his shoulder. “That’s the thing!” she said. “You don’t have a lot of time! Or you do, but –”

“Then what’s the problem?” Haruka rolled over to face away from her. Youko made faces at the back of his head. “Kantarou obviously isn’t ready for it yet. He’s too scared of the idea.”

She dragged her hands through her hair. “That’s why you have to do something!” she insisted. “Haruka-chan! You’re running out of time here! Do you know how long it’s been since you agreed to come back to him?”

Haruka said nothing.

“It’s been over a decade, Haruka-chan! What is wrong with the two of you?!”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Haruka said, flatly. “If he’s ready, he’s ready. It’s troublesome to push the point.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and drew a slow breath in. A slow idea formed in her mind; Tengu were like crows or magpies, after all — they tended to hoard.

“Oh,” she said. She kept her voice low, as though confiding a secret. “I only hope he doesn’t go through the same thing many men in the middle of their life go through…”

“Mm.”

“It would be awful,” she continued, staring hard at the back of Haruka’s head, “if he ran off with a younger youkai!”

There was a long pause. “… if he what?”

You know,” Youko stressed, still glaring. “He’s getting older, and beginning to feel that age, and he wants someone around that’s a bit younger, a bit more lively — a bit, you know, more receptive to him …”

Haruka began to push himself up into a seated position.

“And just think,” she plowed on, relentless, “what if one day Kan-chan got tired of always waiting around for you to make up your mind and found a younger pretty youkai to run off with?”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Haruka said, his eyes gone startlingly pale. “After all, he was waiting for me his entire life.”

“Oh, yes,” Youko agreed, both smug and a bit worried by seeing a hint of fang at the corners of Haruka’s lips. “But, well, he’s had you for a while now and you’ve hardly shown any signs of wanting to be there, beyond the name bond–”

“I agreed to come back, as you pointed out.”

“Over a decade ago! For a human, that’s a really long time!” Youko crossed her arms. “I bet he’s just about given up by now! And after a fight, like earlier, maybe he’s thinking that he should go off…”

“It wasn’t that bad a fight,” Haruka protested stiffly. “He was being stupid –”

“Haruka-chan, listen to you!” She shook a finger at him, though she still scooted back to keep some distance between them. “You keep saying things like that, and sooner or later even Kan-chan is going to say, ‘enough is enough, and I’ve had it.'”

Haruka was sitting up now, crouched in a tense hunch. “That’s –”

“I mean, today he was just going off to deliver papers, but what if he was going off to an exorcism by himself? What if he met some pretty youkai on the way that decided to take him home just because you wouldn’t?”

“He wouldn’t go off to an exorcism by himself,” Haruka snapped. “He whines all the time and says that his joints hurt too much to–”

Youko waited a few moments as Haruka cut himself off, seeming to war internally. “Exactly,” she said, finally.

Haruka’s wings snapped into being, and he was gliding down. He landed and shoved the screen door open at nearly the same time.

“Good luck, Haruka-chan!” Youko called down. “Don’t hurt him too much!”

And then she leaned back against the roof with a groan. “…I’m getting too old for this,” she muttered with a certain degree of wry humor.

***

Kantarou was at his desk when Haruka banged in. Startled, he dropped the pen he’d been fiddling with, and composed his face into a quick smile. “Haruka,” he said. “What wrong?”

Haruka stared at him for a long time without saying anything. After a moment, Kantarou’s smile faded a little, and his brow furrowed in confusion. “… Haruka?” he repeated, more tentatively this time. “Is there something wrong?”

“… No,” Haruka said flatly, and continued to stare.

“Is there something on my face?” Kantarou blinked at him. “I didn’t get ink on it, did I? That’d be awful, I’m supposed to meet a client tomorrow and this doesn’t wash off that easily –”

A finger, with the nail slightly long and sharpened, jabbed out to touch Kantarou’s cheek, beside the lips. “That,” Haruka said, still flat. “What’s that?”

“Er?” Kantarou made a strange face, trying to see down himself. “Um. Did I get ink on my face?”

“… a wrinkle,” Haruka muttered.

“What?! No! Honestly, what’s with you two today?” Kantarou snapped, then put a quick smile on his face, as if trying to make up for it. “Sorry, I’m a little on edge lately! Anyway, if this is about earlier, I’m sorry, I guess I got a bit carried away–”

“A wrinkle,” Haruka repeated again, his tone flat. “Kantarou –”

“It’s natural, come on!” Kantarou crossed his arms against his chest and leaned back against his desk, eyeing him. “I’m still me, aren’t I? A few wrinkles won’t change that — not that I’m getting any, but –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said again, cutting off the growing tirade. “When did this happen?”

“When did — how should I know? Honestly!” Kantarou’s cheeks puffed out in a pout, and he looked reassuringly young. “They just sort of appeared. I didn’t do anything to get them.”

Haruka frowned, leaning close, turning Kantarou’s face this way and that. “… Can you make them go away?”

Kantarou blinked with some alarm, holding his hands up as if he wanted to hold Haruka back, but not actually reaching out to push him away. “What? Look, even if I knew how, no. Humans get them, Haruka, eventually. And then they get lots. At least my hair won’t turn white, hmm?”

Haruka scowled fiercely at that. “…Kantarou.”

“W–what?” Kantarou made a face. “You’re crowding me, Haruka–!”

“…stop getting old.”

A strange look crossed over Kantarou’s face, and then he shrugged. “Sorry,” he said. “No matter how much I study youkai, or how many friends I make among them, I’m still human. When I’m old, I think I’ll sit on the porch and yell at the neighborhood children, don’t you think?”

Haruka’s hand tightened. “That’s a bad idea,” he said.

Kantarou winced. “Haruka, you’re hurting me –”

“It’s pointless, getting old,” he said tersely. “You’ve got no business doing that.”

“I don’t exactly have a choice, Haruka,” Kantarou said, and he’d made his voice gentle somewhat, the sound he often got when he was trying to talk ghosts into stopping their hauntings or youkai into avoiding misbehaviors. “All humans get old and die.”

“Don’t have to,” Haruka said.

Kantarou gave him a bright, if strangely sad, smile. “I don’t quite think I’m arrogant enough to become Tengu, Haruka. Though I sometimes come close, maybe.”

“I’m telling you not to get old anyway,” Haruka said flatly. “I never ask you for anything, so you owe me this.”

“Haruka.” Kantarou reached up and carefully pulled Haruka’s hand from his face. It took a bit of effort, but he finally managed to pry Haruka’s fingers off. “It’s not that bad. At least my life isn’t empty — that’s good, right?”

Haruka blinked at him, narrow-eyed. “Empty?”

“I have a steady job, even if it’s not the best-paying,”Kantarou said. “And Youko-chan is here to take care of us. And I got to meet you, Haruka, so really, I’ll have no regrets when my time comes –”

“You’re not listening,” Haruka snapped. “You –”

You’re not listening,” Kantarou told him. “It takes a different sort of man to defy nature like that.”

“But what about–” Haruka cut himself off and scowled at Kantarou, as if any indignity in the sound of his voice could be blamed entirely on him.

Kantarou blinked. “What about what? Haruka?”

Haruka gritted his teeth. “I’m going out,” he announced. “For a walk.”

“Wait,” Kantarou said. “Wait — Finish the sentence, Haruka!”

“Me,” Haruka said, his tone almost petulant, and spread his wings.

“You? What about you?” Kantarou sounded more confused than before. “Naturally when I die I’ll do my best to cancel the name-contract before, but –”

“That’s not what I meant,” Haruka growled, and took off. Kantarou scrambled to his feet and hurried to the door, peering out. Youko was coming down the hallway towards him, looking hopeful.

“Kan-chan!” she said. “Did you talk to Haruka-chan? Where is he now?”

“How should I know?” Kantarou sighed loudly and tucked his hands into his sleeves. “He comes in and starts talking about all sorts of strange things, and then he gets mad at me. I don’t know what I did, Youko-chan, unless he’s still upset about this morning, somehow …”

Youko groaned. “You’re both idiots, you know,” she told Kantarou.

Kantarou’s eyes widened. “Youko-chan?! What did I do to YOU now?”

“Both of you! Men,” she muttered. “It doesn’t matter what species you are, men are just… so…”

“Excuse me for being a man, then!” Kantarou scowled. “Look, did you put Haruka up to something, Youko-chan? Because, really…”

“I just wanted him to talk to you!” she flared at him, setting her hands on her hips. “Do you know how tiresome it is, living with the two of you day in and day out, and you two never saying anything?!”

“Eh? Youko-chan, we talk all the time –”

“That’s not what I meant!” She loomed over him. “I meant that you and Haruka-chan are taking way too much time before you talk about important things, and you’re going to get old and die before anything happens!”

Kantarou held up both hands to ward her off, wide-eyed still. “Y– Youko-chan –”

“You’re both so stupid!” she ranted, still looming. “How on earth do you two survive at all? Kan-chan!”

“Youko-chan! Hang on, please!” He took a step backwards, slipped, and landed on his rear, wincing. “Youko-chan!”

You’re too afraid to say anything before he says anything, and he’s too afraid to say anything before you say anything and neither of you do anything and at this rate you’re probably going to say something stupid on your deathbed like ‘I’m happy I got to meet you’ and he’ll say something stupid back like ‘Yeah’ and neither of you will ever confess anything even then!” Youko ranted.

Kantarou looked utterly overwhelmed. “I, er, don’t think those are stupid things, Youko-chan…”

“What about telling him the truth? It’s not that difficult! All you have to do is look at him with those big eyes of yours and just tell him, ‘Haruka, I love –‘”

Youko-chan!” Kantarou’s voice cracked a little. “I can’t –”

Oh yes you can!” She glared down at him, and he could see black waves of sheer intent pouring off of her. “Kan-chan, what’s the point of having your most precious person living in your house with you, and never telling him that?”

“I did tell him,” Kantarou protested weakly. “I told him –”

“And did you say anything to follow up on that? No! Instead, you guys keep getting into fights over stupid things like dirty rice bowls and semantics of orders and then the important things aren’t said!”She threw her hands up in the air and whirled on her heel. “I shouldn’t have to do everything!”

“Look, Youko-chan, it’s just–” Kantarou made vague placating gestures in the air after her. “Haruka isn’t the type of person to be interested in that sort of thing.”

Youko snorted. “Oh, yes he is!”

Kantarou shifted uneasily. “Er, I’m not entirely sure that he is, Youko-chan–”

“You are both driving me insane,” she informed him. “I don’t know how you expect me to be able to work in these conditions! Just tell him, see how he answers, and don’t… don’t be stupid as well as old!” She stomped off.

Kantarou stared after her. “… I’m not old!”

She didn’t answer; a moment later, he heard the front door slam. With a sigh, he relaxed a bit, rubbing the back of his neck. “And I really don’t think Haruka goes for that sort of thing,” he muttered again, for good measure, then heaved himself back to his feet. It was a little more difficult than it had been just a year ago, his lower back protesting the fall — but it didn’t mean he was getting old. It didn’t.

Still, Kantarou sat down carefully at his desk, and stared at the half-filled sheet of paper. Reiko, with big hopeful eyes, had suggested he try writing fiction for once, but the problem with that was, sometimes, he thought he could pass off his autobiography as such. It meant inspiration was scant, because everything mystical was real, as long as one had the ability to see.

Pensive, he opened the window and sat with his chin in his hands, watching the clouds move past.

***

“Well,” Sugino said with smug self-righteousness in his voice, “of course he’s getting old.”

Though Haruka did nothing but frown at him, he wasn’t discouraged. “It’s what humans do,” Sugino went on. “They live frantic desperate lives without ever touching on any greater meaning and die soon after.”

“…Mm.”

“It’s just as well,” Sugino said, and poured tea. “You’ll be released then, and able to live as you want, not under some human’s orders.”

Haruka eyed him, then just shrugged, leaning forward. “You were human once,” he said. “You changed. You –”

“You honestly think that guy could become a Tengu?” Sugino snorted. “He’s an arrogant bastard, Kantarou is, but he’s not the right kind of arrogant. It’s not going to happen. Think of it as a positive thing, oni-eater! You get another two or three decades, and then you’ll be able to be free –”

“Wait,” Haruka interrupted. “Two or three decades? Only?”

Sugino blinked. “The life expectancy is better than a few hundred years ago,” he said finally. “Back then, you might’ve had one decade. It’s a bit inconvenient, the longer wait, but –”

Haruka frowned. “Youko had said that he was about halfway through life,” he said. “Which would give him another forty years.”

“She’s awfully attached to him,” Sugino said dismissively. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s overestimating the length of time. Modern medicine isn’t that good. Men die.”

Moo-chan, who had been standing on the table and gaping up at them, chose that moment to speak up. “Moomoo,” she said.

“Going out?” Sugino scowled. “But, Moo-chan! I! Well… if you don’t go far…”

“Mooo moomoo,” she said, and hopped off the table, waddling out. Sugino watched her with a faint scowl.

“She’s probably going to Kantarou’s place,” he muttered. “I don’t know what it is, why she’d be so fascinated with a human who’s going to be gone in a short time anyway … Oni-eater?”

Haruka had stood, spreading his wings again. “Sugino,” he said. “Thanks for the advice.”

“Eh? Ah! Oni-eater, you’re going back?” Sugino scrambled to his feet. “I’m coming too, that’s where Moo-chan’s going, I know it –”

Haruka didn’t wait to see if Sugino would make good on his word and follow. He just took off, flying straight back.

Sure enough, Sugino caught up to him a few moments later, wings working hard before settling into a glide. “I don’t know what it is with people, always rushing out all at once,” Sugino said sulkily. “I’d just poured tea, too.”

Haruka didn’t bother answering.

***

By the time they arrived, Moo-chan was already there, cuddled in Kantarou’s arms and looking distinctly pleased with the world. Kantarou looked more pensive, and Haruka caught the tail end of him saying something like, “– and I don’t know what to do, and it’s driving me crazy –” before he looked up and saw them. “Haruka! Sugino-sama!”

“Kantarouuuuu,” Sugino growled. “What are you doing, being so familiar with my Moo-chan again? I thought I’d warned you –”

“Ah.” Kantarou blinked. “I didn’t do anything, I swear, she just came and latched on –”

“Stop trying to put the blame on her! Moo-chan, come here, come on, I’m here, you don’t need to be attached to that guy any more –”

“Moo,” Moo-chan said, and wrapped two thin arms around Kantarou’s arm, pudgy hands clinging tight.

Sugino looked utterly horrified. “What?! Moo-chan! You can’t mean that! I’m your husband, aren’t I? Fidelity is the most important thing! Now come here, before you catch his old age.”

Kantarou scowled. “Sugino-sama! I’m not–”

“He’s not old,” Haruka said flatly.

Kantarou blinked at him. “Haruka?”

“Moo-chan, you have to be more careful!” Sugino wrang his hands, looking like some kind of kicked puppy. “After all, you shouldn’t get so attached, he’ll be gone in a few years anyway –”

“Hey!” Kantarou protested. “What is wrong with everyone today? I’m not old, I’m just not young any more –”

“Moo-chan, come on,” Sugino wheedled. “It’s dangerous for youkai and human to get involved together, anyway, and I’ll always be here even when he’s not …”

“Moomoo,” said Moo-chan, and didn’t let go of Kantarou.

Sugino’s eyes went wide with shock. “You can’t mean that — you can’t… Moo-chan, you idiot!” he wailed, and flung himself out the doors, taking off.

Kantarou winced. “Moo-chan, I’m sorry,” he told her. “Look, I’ll have Youko-chan make some tea, and we can sit and wait for him to calm down a little, how’s that?”

“Moo…”

“No,” Haruka said.

Kantarou blinked in surprise, looking up at Haruka. In his arms, Moo-chan also blinked, tipping her head. “Haruka?”

Haruka bent down to look at Moo-chan eye to eye. “Go after him,” he said firmly. “This one isn’t yours, anyway.”

“… Mo?” Moo-chan tipped her head to one side. “Moo?”

Haruka pointed to the door, not breaking eye-contact with her. “Go on,” he said.

Moo-chan heaved a gigantic sigh, almost too large for her body, and let go of Kantarou with obvious reluctance, before she waddled to the door and outside. Kantarou blinked after her, and looked up at Haruka.

“Um,” he said, at a loss for words. “You never minded before.”

“I didn’t say anything before,” Haruka said blandly.

Kantarou blinked at him again; Haruka hadn’t added anything else and didn’t seem inclined to, so finally, he took a step back. “Well, then, um… fun as this has been, if I don’t get back to work I think Youko-chan might have me killed–”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said.

Kantarou tilted his head. “Er. Yes?”

“… You aren’t going to go off with any younger youkai.” It wasn’t a question.

“Um. No?” Kantarou blinked, brow furrowing. “I don’t know why you’re worried, though; you don’t look any older at all from when I first met you –”

“But you’re not going to.” It sounded almost like a command, and Haruka crossed his arms over his chest, looking straight at him.

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Kantarou said carefully. “I mean, I’m happy with you and Youko-chan, I don’t really need to run off with younger youkai. I wouldn’t mind making friends with some, but –”

Haruka continued to stare at him without saying a word. Kantarou could feel himself beginning to sweat. “Haruka, you’re kind of worrying me. What’s wrong, anyway?”

“Kantarou. How long do humans live?”

Kantarou blinked. “Er. That really depends, Haruka,” he said. “On… a number of things. Where they are in the world, the sort of living conditions they’re under, what’s available to them, how they eat… even if they’re male or female. Women live longer than men, generally. But…”

Haruka scowled at Kantarou.

“…er, in this place and age, probably into their eighties?”Kantarou shifted uncomfortably. “Not counting disease or disaster or, of course, the very healthy people who live longer, but…”

“Their eighties.” Haruka looked thoughtful. “So four decades. Maybe five.”

Kantarou sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “This is a really depressing topic of conversation,” he muttered. “Haruka, my family’s always been healthy enough, and I’m not terribly worried. I take care of myself when and where I can, and I think that’s about the only thing that can be asked, right?”

Haruka eyed him. It was too easy to see the lines that were gathered at the corners of his face. “You’ll live that long, right?”

“Well, I’ll do my best, certainly.” Kantarou’s voice took on a certain dry edge. “Is that all you wanted to know? Haruka, you could’ve asked without the big melodramatic display.”

Haruka frowned at him thoughtfully. “Not all,” he said. “How long have you been looking for me?”

“Well, I haven’t been looking for you since I found you–”

“Kantarou.”

Kantarou sighed, shifting a little. “Haruka, really, you know this already. Since I was a child. Before I was ten. I’m not entirely sure how long, now.”

Haruka’s expression had gone a little annoyed. “In other words, about twenty-five, thirty years of your life so far?”

Kantarou made a face at him. “When you put it like that, it sounds really bad,” he complained. “No, it was only about fifteen, sixteen years. We met quite a while ago, Haruka.”

Haruka continued to stare at him. “But …”

“Well, it was a long time for me,” Kantarou said, then shrugged. “It’s fine, though. You’ve been here all this time, so that helps make that long search worth it.”

“All this time,” Haruka repeated, thoughtfully, though there was a frown on his face. “But if you’d found me earlier…”

Kantarou groaned, moving over to a cushion and taking a seat. “Haaaaruka,” he sighed. “I didn’t find you earlier. I looked for you and when I found you, I found you.”

“But you could have had that much more time with me,” Haruka pointed out, flatly.

“What’s with you today?” Kantarou rubbed at his forehead with the heel of his hand. “I’ll have much more time with you. I’m just glad I found you at all.”

“And if you hadn’t?”

“If I hadn’t — I would’ve kept looking, of course.” Kantarou tipped his head, looking quizzically up at him. “What else should I have done? I wanted to meet you, more than anything else, so of course I would have kept looking until I found you.”

“Even if it took you thirty years? Forty?” Haruka’s expression had turned inward, as though considering something.

“We’re beginning to repeat ourselves again,” Kantarou complained. “Yes, Haruka. It’s what I did for years. It wasn’t a bad life, either. And you still haven’t told me what’s wrong yet.”

“Hm,” Haruka said, and began to turn.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Kantarou said, reaching out and catching hold of Haruka’s sleeve, fast. “Haruka, tell me what’s bothering you.”

The look that crossed Haruka’s face was both irritated and alarmed. “Kantarou–”

“Ha-ru-ka,” Kantarou repeated, flatly. “You and Youko have been going and coming and acting utterly bizarre today. I want to know why.”

Haruka stared at him for a long moment. He seemed to be weighing his options — Kantarou could see a host of excuses and explanations flicker through his eyes and get discarded, because Haruka was really not as deadpan as he initially seemed — and finally ended up frowning a bit at him. “You,” he said.

Kantarou waited patiently, but when Haruka said nothing else, Kantarou shook him as best he could. “I apologized for this morning, you know,” he said, testy. “Okay, so next time I won’t try to throw your rice bowl out the window! But that doesn’t explain why Youko-chan is upset with me, too!”

“It’s not about the fight,” Haruka said. “It’s about you.”

“But that goes back to the fight, doesn’t it?” Kantarou scowled. “You’ve got a problem with me, so–”

“No.” Haruka scowled down at him. “Not that.”

Kantarou threw his hands in the air. “Then what? It’s driving me insane, the way you two are acting!”

“…You’re human,” Haruka said, finally. “We’re not.”

Kantarou looked surprised at that for a moment, almost taken aback. “Well, yes,” he said. “That’s been pretty obvious from the start, hasn’t it? You knew I was human from the first moment we met.”

Haruka blinked, his expression opaque. “So, obviously, that’s the problem.” He reached out and touched the wrinkle at the corner of Kantarou’s mouth. “You’re still getting older, while we’re not.”

For a moment, Kantarou continued to gape at him. Then he took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as though trying to summon patience. It was strange for him, that he would stop and apparently think about what he was going to say. “I know I’m getting older,” he said, his voice carefully even. “I didn’t know that would be a problem for you, certainly not when you’re the legendary Oni-Eating Tengu whom everyone knows and fears and respects –”

Haruka stared at him. “I’ve gotten used to you,” he said finally. “It’d be a hassle if something happened.”

Kantarou made a face again, slowly letting his breath sigh out. “…Haruka…”

“Besides,” Haruka added, voice still flat. “Yes. I am the legendary Oni-Eating Tengu. But I’m also Haruka.”

Kantarou buried his face in his hand. “That aside, Haruka–”

“Kantarou.” Haruka was staring at him as if willing him to understand and not make Haruka go through the bother of saying it. “I don’t like this.”

Kantarou glanced up at him through his fingers, his expression a tired attempt at good humor. “I’m not looking forward to it terribly much myself,” he said. “But if there’s nothing to be done, then there’s nothing to be done.”

“You could try,” Haruka said. “If you could find me and break the seal, then you should be able to –”

“Didn’t we just have this conversation?” Kantarou shook his head. “I don’t want to become a ghost and carry my regrets around in this world, Haruka. So I’m trying to not let it bother me, all right?”

“It bothers me,” said Haruka. “Are you running away again?”

Kantarou stared at him for a long, long moment. “No, Haruka,” he said, finally. “Actually, I think I’m facing up to the ultimate fate of all humanity fairly well.”

Haruka grabbed hold of the collar of Kantarou’s gi with one hand, his knuckles lightly brushing Kantarou’s neck. “Well, stop it,” he said.

Kantarou leaned back a little, but Haruka’s grip was firm. “Haruka, I didn’t think you’d take it this badly; you knew all along I was human. Besides, I have plenty of years left–”

“For you, maybe,” Haruka said. “Not for me.”

Kantarou blinked, and tried a smile. “Well, I’m touched,” he said. “Haruka, all this time I thought you were annoyed and looking forward to being free –”

“Don’t even joke about that.” Haruka’s eyes narrowed. “Are you really this stupid, Kantarou?”

“That’s rude, calling me stupid when you’re the one who doesn’t even listen –”

Haruka glared at him. “You know what I’m talking about,” he said. “Stop pretending you don’t.”

Slowly, Kantarou sighed. “Haruka, I thought– well, it doesn’t matter.”

Deeply offended, Haruka leaned back. “Doesn’t matter?”

“Er, that’s to say, I imagine it does matter,” Kantarou corrected himself quickly. “Just, well, we’ve done this well this long, haven’t we? So–”

“Have we?”

Kantarou’s brow furrowed. “I … thought we were,” he offered hesitantly. “I mean, you never seemed particularly unhappy, staying with me all this time –” When Haruka continued to stare, he made a vague waving gesture with one hand. “Were you? I didn’t notice, I’m sorry, I –”

“Kantarou.” Haruka scowled at him.

“… Haruka?”

“Shut up.”

Haruka’s hand on his collar switched to his face, holding tight enough that Kantarou couldn’t turn his head or even jerk back when Haruka leaned in close, scowling at him fiercely. “Ha–”

The lips that pressed to his were cool and somewhat dry and tightly shut. Haruka’s hand hadn’t moved at all and Kantarou mmphed into the kiss, his own hands rising and hesitating in the air between them, as if he couldn’t decide whether to try to shove Haruka off — and risk losing some of his skin in the process — or to just grab on.

After a few moments, Haruka leaned back again and scowled at him.

Kantarou exhaled shakily. “Haruka…”

“I don’t want you to die,” Haruka said, still flat as before. “After all this time, I’m not letting you run away again.”

“It’s not really running away, though,” he said weakly, and swallowed when Haruka’s frown deepened. “It’s … just going to happen, someday. And I mean, I’m here now, aren’t I? That’s something, right?”

Haruka stared at him for a moment, still holding on tightly to his face. “Forty years is nothing,” he said flatly. “It –”

“Hey,” Kantarou said, mildly as he could, “that’s my entire life to date. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘nothing’.”

“Do you know how long I was sealed?” Haruka asked, voice level.

Kantarou knew, of course; he’d done all the research he could on the Oni-Eating Tengu, and that included how he was sealed and when. “Yes,” Kantarou said, finally.

“Forty years is nothing,” Haruka repeated again.

“It matters to me, at least,” Kantarou said. He pushed back a little, but couldn’t free himself from Haruka’s grip. “Haruka…”

“It’s nothing,” Haruka repeated again. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?”

Something akin to annoyance flashed over Kantarou’s face. “Considering how angry you got the last time I really tried to force something onto you,” he said, a bit snappish, “I thought it was probably better to wait it out and see if you wanted it.”

“I did,” Haruka said. “I –”

You could have said something, too.” Kantarou made a face at him, and tried to pull free again. “Honestly, Haruka, the one time I try to give you a little freedom, and you’re making it sound like it’s all my fault –”

Haruka’s nostrils flared in what looked like cold rage. He leaned forward, and the strength of his grip combined with his weight was all it took to throw Kantarou onto his back, Haruka landing on top of him, scowling.

For a moment, Kantarou could only gape blankly. “Haruka,” he wheezed, and then winced as his mind caught up with his body. “Ow ow ow ow ow, my back–”

“Kantarou–”

“It hurts–”

“Shut up,” Haruka told him again.

“Honestly,” Kantarou whined, squirming. “You could try being a little more gentle, you know; even when I was younger I didn’t really like getting tossed around –”

Haruka kissed him again, harder this time, biting at his mouth until Kantarou’s lips parted in a surprised sound. Kantarou stared at him the entire time, eyes wide, and after a moment, his hands settled on Haruka’s shoulders and pushed back.

“Um,” he said weakly. “Um. Haruka. That’s –”

“I waited for you,” Haruka snapped. “Now what are you complaining about?”

“You don’t, ah,” Kantarou said, and felt a little stupid as he said it, “you don’t have to feel obliged to do this for me, you know. Just because I’m human, and because I’ll die, and because you know I want you, I — you don’t have to do this.” His lips itched.

Haruka stared at him. “You think I feel obligated,” he repeated.

“Well, ah, you do have to stick with me until I release you, and, uh –”

“Were you always this stupid?”

Kantarou blinked at him. “I thought it was a legitimate question,” he mumbled. “You were never that enthusiastic about hanging out here anyway, so …” He licked his lips, but the tingle didn’t go away. “I mean. You never know. You could.”

“I’m obligated to no one,” Haruka said. “Not even you.”

“That was an option, too,” Kantarou admitted, glancing away. “But. You know. I was completely fine with things they way they were, so I don’t want you to feel like you have to do this, just because I’m your master and –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said, with exaggerated patience. “I’m the one sitting on you.”

“Er.” Kantarou cleared his throat, shifting under Haruka slightly uneasily. “Yes, ah, you do raise a valid point, but–”

“I came back to you,” Haruka pointed out, leaning down and biting lightly at Kantarou’s jaw. “I wasn’t obligated to do that either.”

Kantarou’s breath caught in his throat. “No, but — that was a long time ago, and I thought–”

“It wasn’t that long for me.”

Kantarou swallowed, shivering when Haruka’s teeth scraped past his pulse. “Well, it was a long time for me,” he muttered. “I thought I was being good, not pushing you into anything, and –”

“Kantarou,” Haruka muttered, “you’re allowed to, once in a while.”

“I know that,” Kantarou said, almost snide, then yelped when Haruka bit him. “But something like this is really important and even if I make you do everything else I didn’t want to push this and — Youko-chan!”

Surprised, Haruka lifted his head and blinked at Youko, who stood in the doorway with wide eyes and a tea tray in her hands. And since she and Kantarou were both apparently too shocked to say anything, he said, very blandly, “Sugino left. Moo-chan, as well.”

“Oh…” Youko-chan’s eyes flickered left, then right. “Did, er, did you want your tea?”

“I don’t,” Haruka said.

Kantarou squirmed slightly, but Haruka hadn’t let up, was still holding him down quite firmly. “Er, Youko-chan, this isn’t, that is–”

Youko cleared her throat. “I, ah, had been planning to clean this room soon? So, um, if it isn’t a bother…”

“We can go,” Haruka said and sat up, pulling Kantarou with him. “Excuse us.”

“Youko-chan,” Kantarou tried again. His face was in the process of doing a slow burn, blushing so hard it looked painful. “We’re sorry about that, the argument sort of got out of hand –”

“Argument.” Youko blinked at him. She coughed a bit, then, and didn’t turn away fast enough to hide her grin. “Right. Um. I’ll call you two for dinner?”

“You do that,” Haruka told her, and dragged Kantarou for the stairs.

Kantarou half-stumbled, trying to keep up; Haruka had a grip on his arm and wasn’t letting go. “Haruka–!”

Behind him, he heard an amused mutter of, “…and they thought that was appropriate to do here. Those boys–”

“Haruka, come on–”

“Mm.” Haruka didn’t respond, but Kantarou thought he saw a faint smirk on Haruka’s face. He took the stairs two at a time, not so much hurrying as simply striding. Kantarou half-skidded, managing to catch himself before he slipped on them.

“Haruka!” he half-whined. “If you go that fast, I’m going to die much younger!”

“You’ll be fine,” Haruka told him, and tugged at his wrist again. “You promised at least forty years, and you’d better keep that.”

“I didn’t promise anything,” Kantarou yelped, flailing and slamming his palm against the wall. “I just said maybe –”

“Good enough.” Haruka pulled him the rest of the way up the stairs, and then pushed his bedroom door open. “Kantarou.”

“Haruka?” Kantarou blinked at him, a little out of breath, still blushing.

“Now is the best time to say no.”

Kantarou pressed his free hand to his chest as if it would help free up more air for him. “…You don’t need to be in this much of a hurry, Haruka–”

“I do,” Haruka said, and began to hustle Kantarou through the door. “We’re running out of time.”

“Haruka, we’re not–”

“Besides,” Haruka said, and shut the door, “if I don’t rush you, you’ll do something stupid to delay us again.”

I‘ll do something stupid?” Kantarou sounded a bit insulted. “Haruka, I wasn’t the one who spent all this time sidestepping the matter –”

“You were too,” Haruka told him blandly. “You’re the one who didn’t say anything, when you really should have.”

“Harukaaaa, that’s –”

Haruka kissed him in lieu of telling him to shut up yet again. After a few more attempts to grumble at him, Kantarou sighed and gave up, throwing his arms around Haruka’s neck and hanging on. Haruka seemed to relax at that, strangely, the tension in his body abating a little, though not leaving entirely. “Better,” he muttered at Kantarou, one hand pressing to the center of Kantarou’s back and stroking in a vague pattern.

“Mph?” Kantarou twined his fingers into the bottom part of Haruka’s hair. “Mm..”

Haruka leaned back a little and looked down at him. Kantarou tried to catch his breath, feeling the heat in his cheeks and the tightness in his chest.

“You sound good like that,” Haruka said.

Kantarou blinked at him, then made a face, as though to hide the fact he was blushing again. “Who would’ve thought you were such a pervert?” he joked weakly. “Really, Haruka, it’s not a race against time –”

“It is too,” Haruka said, leaning back to study his face for a moment. “Or close enough.”

“Funny.” Kantarou’s expression turned whimsical. “I never knew you were one for impossible goals, Haruka.”

“Your fault,” Haruka said. “If you’d just do as I say and stop getting older, it’d be fine.”

“Impossible goals,” Kantarou repeated, then just sighed and wrapped his arms around Haruka again when Haruka leaned in.

He let Haruka push the gi from his shoulders and explore the flesh there with his mouth, the sharp prick of almost-fangs sending goosebumps along his skin. “Haruka, that tickles,” he complained.

“Bear with it.”

“Um.” Kantarou fiddled with the lacing of Haruka’s necktie as best he could, shivering when Haruka’s hands went to the knot of his hakama, pulling the bow loose. “Now’s a bad time to admit I have no real idea what I’m doing, right?”

“That’s fine,” Haruka said, lips against Kantarou’s pulse. “I figured as much anyway.”

“Hey –”

“So be quiet and pay attention, so you’ll know what to do next time. You’re the one who’s always researching, right?”

“Well,” Kantarou began, then let out a faint hiss when Haruka’s hand dipped inside his loosened hakama. “If I’m here as, er, a researcher, does, ah, does that mean you’ll call me ‘sensei’?”

The look of affront Haruka gave him was absolutely priceless. “…No.”

It was a relief, though, and Kantarou found himself laughing as Haruka stroked him, stripped him, laughed hard enough that his fingers fumbled with the buttons on Haruka’s own outfit.

“Useless,” Haruka sighed at him, and undressed himself.

Kantarou pouted at him through his grin, relaxed when Haruka settled beside him again. “You don’t have to say it like that,” he said. “I mean, that’s awfully mean, calling the man you dragged from his living room for sex ‘useless’ –”

“Didn’t I say to be quiet?” Haruka asked, with the same deadpan expression he used for discussing household chores. “If you really don’t know what you’re doing, be quiet and listen — I said that, right?”

“So maybe I should call you ‘sensei,'” Kantarou teased, then bit his lip when Haruka’s hand ghosted down again, curling around his erection loosely. “Ah, Haruka –”

“You’ve given me enough names already,” Haruka said shortly. “Don’t call me sensei. ‘Haruka”s fine.”

Kantarou’s lips turned upward into a shaky smile. “All right, then, Haruka–”

“Good,” Haruka said, and moved over him, one hand firm, the other one tracing out scars and lines, as if he were putting Kantarou into physical memory.

“Haruka, I–”

“But you don’t have to always say it,” Haruka added and leaned forward to press a kiss to the wrinkle he’d pointed out, beside Kantarou’s lips.

Kantarou whimpered, his breath starting to shorten into rough, harsh gasps. “I like saying Haruka’s name,” he muttered, reaching up to grab for Haruka’s shoulder, his palm sliding against the smooth skin there. “I had it picked out from the beginning, you know, from the first time I heard of you –”

Haruka just snorted and sped his hand up, so that the rest of the sentence trailed off in a surprised gasp, and Kantarou curled closer to him, threading shaky fingers into his hair. When Kantarou came, it was with a surprised sound, as if the whole thing were entirely unexpected. He went limp in Haruka’s arms, still moaning low with every breath he took.

“There,” said Haruka, careful not to sound too smug. “It’s better when you shut up, isn’t it?”

Kantarou drew a slow breath, as if he were trying to speak, and just whimpered it out. He wet his lips a moment later and stretched, tracing his hands down Haruka’s back. “Um?”

Haruka may not have sounded smug, but he certainly was looking it. “As I thought.”

Kantarou managed to speak this time. “Harukaaaaaa,” he groaned. “You, um, good.”

“I know,” Haruka said.

“But…” Kantarou’s hand slid down, slowly, stalling at Haruka’s hip. “You…?”

“Are you sure you’re up to it?” Haruka eyed him. “You look exhausted.”

Kantarou pouted at him, too languid to summon any true irritation. “Haruka,” he whined. “Stop making fun of my age.”

“Your fault –”

“Is not.” Kantarou took a deep breath and reached for Haruka, his expression set into one of determination. “Just needed a moment to recover, s’all. Let’s see if I learned anything –”

“It’s all right if you can’t do anything,” Haruka said with smug tolerance. “I’ve come to expect that of you.”

“Oh, now you’re in for it, Haruka–!”

Kantarou wasn’t quite strong enough to bowl Haruka over, but he did manage to shift them onto their sides, hand sliding down Haruka’s belly to take his erection in a firm grip.

“I’m in for it, am I?” Haruka asked through gritted teeth.

Kantarou nodded, nibbling on his lower lip as he concentrated, setting up a quick, unpracticed rhythm, bracing himself on one hand as he leaned against Haruka. “You’re in for it,” he repeated, though he shivered when Haruka turned and nuzzled into the crook of his neck. “I’ll show you –”

“If you say so,” Haruka muttered into his skin, then licked sweat from the hollow of his throat. “I think it might be too much for you.”

Kantarou tugged a bit at his hair, not quite hard enough to pull him away. “Then I’ll just have to show you,” he said. “Stop trying to distract me.”

Haruka snorted. “You’re doing that well enough on your own,” he said. “Kantarou –”

“No, you’re obviously plotting against me,” Kantarou declared, squeezing once, quickly but carefully; Haruka made a choking noise in his throat. “So stop it.”

“Mm.” Haruka considered, then bit at his neck, fangs denting the skin. “…no,” he added, muffled.

“Ah, you’re mean,” Kantarou murmured, twisting to try to get away and to get a better angle, both at once. “So mean, Haruka…”

Haruka took hold of Kantarou and rolled them, so Kantarou was straddling his hips, on top of him. “Mm,” he agreed.

Kantarou blinked at him, flushed a bit surprised at the sudden shift in position. “Haruka –?”

“Keep doing what you were,” Haruka said blandly, staring back up at him. “You had the right idea, at least.”

Kantarou licked his lips, and let his hand move faster, so intent on what he was doing that when Haruka jerked and growled incoherently at him his head jerked up again, surprised. “Haruka –”

Haruka’s teeth were bared, his face screwed up, fingers buried deep into the bedclothes beneath them. He didn’t say a word, just growled again in apparent impatience.

Cheeks flushed, Kantarou nodded. “Right. I understand, Haruka. I–”

Another growl.

Kantarou bent his head and focussed on what he was doing, hand moving fast, wrist twisting, and when Haruka actually cried out, low and harsh like a crow calling, Kantarou gasped at the sticky heat pressing through his fingers.

When it was over, Kantarou sat back on Haruka’s hips, blinking at his damp fingers, and at the sated, distant expression on Haruka’s face. He swallowed hard and leaned down, curling against his side. “Haruka,” he said, softly. “Haruka …”

After a moment, Haruka groaned, and a hand came down hard atop Kantarou’s head. “Kantarou,” Haruka rasped, “what did I say about shutting up?”

Relieved by that, Kantarou let himself smile, drying his sticky hand on a corner of the blankets that had been tossed aside. He scooted a hairsbreadth closer. “See,” he muttered into Haruka’s shoulder. “I showed you.”

Haruka sighed, though it sounded more amused, more relaxed than normal. “You never listen, do you,” he muttered. “Do you ever stop talking?”

“I stop talking sometimes,” Kantarou said, smiling down at him sweetly. “When I’m sleeping.”

“No,” Haruka said, and pushed Kantarou’s head down to pillow it on his shoulder. “…you talk in your sleep.”

“I do n– Haruka, you’ve listened to me sleep?”

Haruka shrugged. “Sometimes I look in on you, maybe,” he said. “To make sure you’re not out doing something stupid.”

“Really?” Kantarou sounded inordinately pleased by that. “Haruka …”

“Of course,” Haruka went on, “just because we’re like this now doesn’t mean you have license to run off and do crazy things. If we only have so much time left, you’re not to go around and tempt fate.”

“Aw, Haruka, are you worried about me? That’s so cute, you being shy like this –”

“Shut up,” Haruka said, with rough good humor. “I still intend to win this race.”

“Awww, Haruka,” Kantarou said, grinning. “I’m just human, so I don’t think I’ll lose, but…”

“But?” Haruka quirked an eyebrow, then fished around for the blankets.

“…but you’re welcome to try,” Kantarou said, and nuzzled into Haruka’s shoulder. “If anyone could win, it’d be you.”

“Glad you know it,” Haruka said, and dropped the blankets over them. “Now shut up and go to sleep.”

“Youko-chan will be annoyed if we miss dinner,” Kantarou pointed out, though he snuggled shamelessly, and Haruka could feel his smile, a little smug and a little shy, against his skin. “It’s not that late, after all.”

“But I’m tired,” Haruka said patiently. “And you are too. If Youko’s annoyed, she’ll have to deal.”

Kantarou laughed, low and pleased. “I’ll let you deal with her, then,” he said.

“Deal with your own problems yourself,” Haruka said, and closed his eyes.

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Rooftop Sweet

“Ha-ru-ka.”

Haruka leaned over and glanced down. Kantarou was holding something in his hands and smiling up at him. He’d learned to not really trust that smile, especially not when coupled with that tone of voice and projecting absolute innocence. “What?”

“Youko-chan’s made mochi,” Kantarou told him. “Don’t you want some?”

“I don’t like sweets,” Haruka said, and lay back again. After a moment, he heard Kantarou go back into the house and closed his eyes. The sun was pleasantly warm, and it made him drowsy, even if he couldn’t stretch his wings fully out here in plain sight.

Then the ladder to the roof clattered, and Haruka opened one eye to watch Kantarou climb up. “What do you want?”

“Ah, Haruka’s mean,” Kantarou sighed, leaning his elbows on the roof. When he sighed, it puffed bangs from his eyes, only to have them settle again. “Even when I bring mochi for him, he’s annoyed.”

“I told you,” Haruka grumbled. “I don’t like sweets.”

“Not even when they’re homemade?” Kantarou braced his weight with one hand, and lifted a cloth-wrapped bundle with the other. “Youko-chan made them especially for the house. You should appreciate her hard work, Haruka.”

Haruka eyed him, then shrugged. “You should be more careful,” he said, closing his eye again. “You could fall.”

“Then you’d be free, and Youko-chan too,” Kantarou said, with disturbing cheer. “Or maybe I’d have a grudge because you didn’t save me, and I’d haunt you.” He climbed up the rest of the way onto the roof, and crawled his way over to sit beside Haruka. “Then you’d never be rid of me.”

“Don’t even joke about that.” Haruka’s lips pressed to a thin line. “I think I’d go crazy, having you around forever.”

Kantarou just laughed. There was a soft rustling sound — cloth being unwrapped. Haruka could smell the sweet bean paste. “They look good,” Kantarou noted. “Are you sure you don’t want one?”

“I’m sure.” Haruka shrugged as best he could, lying down. “I’ll apologize later.”

“Suit yourself.” He heard Kantarou take a large bite, and then his contented sigh. “It’s a nice day, isn’t it? We’ve been having really nice weather for a while, now.”

Haruka shrugged again. “It’s been good,” he agreed shortly. Even Kantarou’s nattering wasn’t enough to dispel the comfort of the sun on his face. He stretched his legs a little further, and allowed himself one deep sigh.

Kantarou chuckled but thankfully said nothing. He continued to eat the mochi, and after a moment, he began to edge just a little closer. Haruka’s peripheral awareness of his master’s presence stirred briefly at this, then subsided again; as long as Kantarou was up here eating, he couldn’t be out making trouble.

Wet sounds punctuated the end of the mochi, and Haruka glanced over to see Kantarou licking his fingers. His tongue was small and pink and fast, and his expression was content. When he finished, he glanced over and smiled at Haruka.

“It was good,” he said. “There’s more in the kitchen, if you change your mind later.”

“I don’t like sweet things,” Haruka said again. It was tiresome to keep repeating himself, but he’d learned that sometimes, it was the only way to get through to Kantarou.

“Well,” said Kantarou. “That must mean you like me a lot. I’m not sweet at all.” He was grinning as he said that; Haruka could hear it, even if he didn’t open his eyes to see it. “You don’t have to be so roundabout, Haruka, it won’t embarrass me if you just say it.”

“Don’t be stupid.” Haruka resisted the urge to yawn, and twitched a little when Kantarou shifted closer, brushing his arm with one leg. “You assume far too much.”

“Awww.” Kantarou shifted, so that he was half-reclining on the roof next to Haruka. “You’re cruel, Haruka.”

“You’ll live.” Haruka cracked one eye open to glance at him. “I’m going to take a nap. Don’t fall.”

“Right, right.” Kantarou bundled the cloth between his hands and smiled at him. “I think I’d rather be human than a ghost, if I were staying with you.” He didn’t reach out to touch, though Haruka could feel he wanted to, a warm shift beside him. “It’d be no fun, to have a grudge against you.”

Haruka said nothing. Comfortable in the sunshine, with Kantarou by his side, he let himself drift to sleep, and dreamt of flying, with the smell of sweet bean paste on the wind.

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Perchance to Dream

In the Mugenjou, there was no such thing as a full night’s sleep. Even with the protection of your group, letting yourself fall too deeply and long into sleep was close to suicide. After two years, Ginji still usually just catnaps off and on and spends the rest of the time resting without sleep. He likes this, though, because here is only the soft quiet of waiting for morning. When he breathes, there’s only the smell of cigarettes and leather and Ban-chan, and none of the fear, pain, or unhappiness of that other place.

“Ban-chan?” Ginji whispers into the darkness. He receives no answer except the soft sound of Ban-chan’s breathing.

Sometimes Ban is partially awake, and he always sounds grumpy when he tells Ginji to go back to sleep. Other times, he’s all awake and touches Ginji’s head with a featherlight hand. “Go to sleep and let me think,” he says, during those times.

“What do you think about?” Ginji asked once.

“Lots of things,” Ban-chan had said. His silhouette leaned back and crossed its arms behind its head. “You should try it sometimes, too.” A shift of movement, and then a bright flash of blue–because if there’s even just a little light, Ginji can see the bright color of Ban-chan’s eyes exactly–and a sound halfway between a snort and a chuckle. “You’re not stupid, Ginji, but you never think.”

Ginji doesn’t think he’s stupid either, but he thinks Ban-chan is a lot smarter. That’s part of what makes the GetBackers so great–whatever he can’t do, Ban-chan makes up for. He knows, intimately as blood and breath, that even if he somehow falls short, he never needs to worry, because Ban-chan is there.

Sometimes, Ginji stops long enough to think about how peculiar their situation is. Repossessors rarely–if ever–work together in units; stealing and delivering and repossessing are all solitary, self-centered businesses. An ally for one job easily becomes an opponent when enough money is involved. Certainly sometimes Ban-chan acts very mercenary, but Ginji knows him too well to believe that’s all the truth.

Ban-chan doesn’t talk about himself much, though he lets more slip than he thinks, especially late at night, when they’re both half-asleep and the dusk makes his face hard to see. Ginji has pieced together enough to know that Ban-chan has only had two other real friends before him, and he lost both painfully. Even after making up with Himiko-chan, he still doesn’t quite trust her like he used to. But he doesn’t let it drag him down, though it pains him occasionally, like old scars in the rain. Whatever happens to Ban-chan in life, he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and goes forward with confidence.

That alone, Ginji thinks, whenever he wakes up at night and sees Ban-chan’s dozing face in the other car seat, could keep him by this person’s side.

He only remembers bits and pieces, really, of the first time he and Ban-chan met–the angry crowd, the cold-eyed stranger, the epiphany, and the first person who’d said his name with gentleness in years. Like the carrot, it beckoned him out of the darkness of the Mugenjou and into the blinding glow of the real world.

After a year, he realized not everyone understood Ban-chan’s kindness. What comes so instinctively to him passes others by, as though it doesn’t exist–they’re too busy being annoyed or afraid.

One or two have questioned Ginji, because they can’t add one and one to make two. Ginji says it’s because they both understand what the true treasure is, and have different ways of appreciating it. While Ginji’s style is to share it, and have his happiness reflected back in every smiling face, Ban-chan prefers to horde it, and only dole it out to people he deems worthy. Three people in this life have earned it, and only Ginji really knows what it looks like.

Usually, he’s not selfish. But there are always times where he’s secretly a little glad that not even Himiko-chan has ever seen this Ban-chan.

He looks over. Ban-chan has sunk low in his seat, and his head slumps forward. It gives him awful neck cramps, but it’s also the least vulnerable position. Ban-chan doesn’t like showing his throat to anyone, but the fact that he willingly sleeps with Ginji less than an arm’s length away says everything he needs to know.

“Ban-chan,” he whispers again into the darkness, “good night.”

Ginji traces an “S” into the shoulder of the car seat and closes his eyes.

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PATH

1. Red Ball

Toys are rare in the Mugenjou.

You salvage what you can from the junk heaps that have accumulated over the years. That’s just fine when you’re young, and imagination can turn trash to diamonds.

Amano Ginji’s prize possession is a red ball that Teshimine-san found for him, shortly after they started living together. It’s small and doesn’t bounce that well, but it’s an actual toy, which puts it many levels above anything he could play with.

Even early on, Ginji knows the value of the little things. He takes the ball everywhere with him, along with the old blanket he had when Teshimine-san found him.

Whenever Teshimine-san has to leave him for a while, Ginji sits and bounces the ball, up and down, up and down, and pretends that he’s got someone else to throw it back to him.

2. Sleeping

Teshimine-san is always awake. He says it’s an adult thing. Ginji wants to grow up fast, so he can go explore farther on his own, and so that he doesn’t have to be left behind. He has tried lots of times to stay up all night, but always between one blink and the next, he falls asleep. But he’s determined that one day, he’ll be able to wait and see how the world changes from night to day.

And when he sleeps, he never remembers his dreams.

3. Friends

Somewhere, out of nowhere, they appeared. It’s like he went to sleep one night, and the next morning–there they were.

At first they come in pairs, always when Teshimine-san is away. Then, gradually, more and more approach him, and one day Ginji stops to realize that he now has friends. He no longer waits until Teshimine-san leaves; if he sees these people, he goes running to them. Teshimine-san says things like “don’t go too far” and “be careful,” but he always smiles when he does. It has become more difficult to remember a time when they were not there.

Now, when Ginji throws his red ball, there really is someone there to catch it.

4. Food

He has learned to hoard when he must. It feels selfish.

Food is not as difficult to find in the Mugenjou as one might think. Enough people are originally from the outside world, and so have no problems in leaving to search for something to eat. But for Ginji, who cannot remember that other place–if, indeed, he has ever been out there–the numerous thresholds that lead outside frighten him. So, he relies upon his limited resources and saves what he can.

Teshimine-san usually brings back food, whenever he leaves. Ginji’s large overalls are a good place to store extra snacks, which he does out of habit now. At eight, he has grown so accustomed to hunger that a full stomach seems like an alien thing.

Today, one of his friends, a girl named Lon-Fa, came to him, sick and pale. Her brother hasn’t had any luck in finding food for days, she tells him. So instead of playing, she just wants to lie down and rest. Ginji looks at her bowed head and thinks.

He takes out a handful of crackers and nibbles briefly at one before he gives the rest away.

5. Friends II

Teshimine-san never seems to get tired of hearing about Ginji’s friends. At night, they sit together in some little nook or corner, and Ginji talks about what he’s done, the people he sees, and the places he’s explored. He says that an adult in the Mugenjou has no time to ever relax and play, so he likes hearing about what Ginji does. He says it helps him remember being a kid and playing as well. So Ginji tries extra hard to make his stories interesting.

“You’re really happy now,” Teshimine-san says one night. “I’m glad that you have friends.”

Ginji, already heavy-eyed and nodding, manages a brilliant grin. “Friends are nice.”

“They are,” says Teshimine-san. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Friends are the only thing that make life anywhere worthwhile.” He reaches out to ruffle Ginji’s dark hair. Ginji laughs and tries to pat his hands away.

“Am I your friend?” he asks.

He sees surprise at his question, but then Teshimine-san smiles. “Of course you are, Ginji,” he says. “One of my best.”

That makes him smile wider, and he snuggles against Teshimine-san’s side. Today, he thinks, he’d rather be a kid who can run around and play, than an adult who doesn’t need to sleep. “Good,” he says, and yawns. “You’re my best friend, too.”

6. Beltline

The stairs that lead the way into the Beltline are a place of whispered rumors and dark shadows. Adults keep their faces turn away, never quite running–but the alley that leads there is always abandoned. Older kids often dare each other to go up that twisting path to the higher levels. Younger ones cry and run away.

Ginji is frightened of that place, too. The only time he has ever gone there, he made it up three steps before freezing. At first, he thinks it’s a monster looking–but it’s just his own distorted reflection, in the broken pieces of mirrored glass that line the walls. Over the sound of his heartbeat, he hears laughter, shrill and echoing.

A few days later, he’s playing kickball with some friends when a gun goes off and someone screams. They look up and see two huge men advancing toward them with ugly smiles. Everyone scatters, but one by one, Ginji sees the others get picked off.

Suddenly the trash-smell is tainted. He is no stranger to blood, but it seems odd and alien now, flowing bright red from the stilling bodies of his friends.

And then, all of the men turn their hungry eyes towards him. Ginji runs, and prays that these monsters are just reflections, too.

7. Friends III

Lon-Fa huddles in on herself, a small tucked knot of flesh against the wall. Ginji almost misses seeing her, but once he does, he immediately goes back. She does not stir when he calls her name.

“Lon-Fa, what are you doing?” he snaps, from the mouth of the alley. “If we stay here, we’ll be killed!”

She just shakes her head and lowers her head further. In her eyes, all of their dead friends are reflected. Ginji’s heart beats sharp and fast in his chest; he can hear the Beltline people approaching. Instinct screams to run away, but he will not–cannot–leave her behind.

“Wherever we go, those people from above will kills us,” she says. The hopelessness in her voice pains him, and he wishes he could fix that as easily as he did her hunger, years before.

He takes a step towards her and thrusts out his hand. “It’s okay!” he snaps, and tries to project as much urgency into his voice as possible. “Teshimine and the others are fighting, we can’t get in the way!”

She hides her face in her crossed arms. “But …”

“It’s okay!” he says. “I’ll protect you.”

Lon-Fa’s head lifts slowly from the cradle of her arms. There’s a silent moment as she just blinks at him, but then she smiles and reaches out. Her hand feels small and very warm in his own.

8. Within

Lon-Fa smiles at him. Her face is wet, but she can’t be crying–she always laughs at Ginji and calls him a crybaby. She can’t be crying, not even here and now.

“If everyone were like you, Ginji-kun,” she says, with red glistening on her mouth, “no one else would ever be hurt.”

It’s the last thing she says. He stares at her slack face and whispers her name.

Dokun, dokun, goes his heartbeat in his ears. He knows the Beltline people are laughing, but somehow, he can’t hear them.

Something is building up up inside of him, gathering in his throat like the taste of rot.

Teshimine-san got angry sometimes–but this rage felt like it could burn the world to ashes.

Lon-Fa is too light in his arms. It’s like she weighs nothing.

Dokun. Dokun.

The last thing Ginji hears before the world whites out is Teshimine screaming his name.

9. Sleeping II

Closing his eyes does no good. Every time he’s on the verge of sleep, he remembers the sudden weight of Lon-Fa’s body against his, and how suddenly light she became in death. When he closes his hands, she’s there again.

“I wanted to protect her,” he tells Teshimine, as he lies with his back turned towards the world. In the darkness, he can barely see the wall. “I wanted to protect her, and she believed in that … but in the end, she still died for me.”

Teshimine is silent. Then, he says, “It’s because she believed in you that she died for you. Maybe you couldn’t protect her, but now you can live on to help others.”

For the first time in his memory, Teshimine’s words do not offer Ginji any measure of comfort.

He does not sleep at all that night.

10. Children

He never realized how young everyone is. All the friends that seemed so wise From Before he can only see as mortal children. They’re so fragile, he knows, and this frightens him.

He does not tell Teshimine about what he feels. Because Ginji knows he’s a child too–he’s too young to have realizations like this.

So he tries to continue as always, already grown too old for his years.

11. Junk Kids

When they first approached him, he didn’t understand.

These are the people that Teshimine goes with, the adults and those almost close enough to count. Ginji listens to them talk, and at first he doesn’t realize they are trying to recruit him.

It’s only later, when he mentions this to Teshimine, that he finds this out. Teshimine looks troubled by the news, and stares at his half-stale bread without even pretending to eat it.

“It’s because of what happened,” he says. “You’ve caught the attention of the junk kid gangs of Lower Town. Be careful, Ginji.”

Ginji gnaws on his own bread and stares at the small fire they have built. He does not want to join a junk kid gang; he does not like how they treat anyone outside of their close-knit circles. The idea of leaving to join one, and thus abandoning his friends, troubles him.

The next time they come to him, he just turns away.

12. Thunderstorm

Ever since Lon-Fa’s death, electricity seems to follow him everywhere. Static shocks no longer surprise him, because he senses their buildup long before they actually snap. Instead of stinging, it feels almost good, as though that little release of energy is flowing directly into him.

When Teshimine is not there, he practices. He can create a decent-sized charge now–he’s not sure how powerful it is, though it’s strong enough to make his hair stand on end if he holds it for too long.

One morning, he wakes up with the feeling of anticipation crawling in his skin. Teshimine is standing and looking at the overcast sky.

“We’ll have a storm today,” he said. “Ginji, don’t play too much in the puddles, okay?” He smiles, but it looks strained. Ginji has not jumped in puddles since the day Lon-Fa died.

It rained that day, too, Ginji thinks as he gets up. Thunder booms ominously in the distance. Teshimine says something about getting breakfast, and that is soon followed by the sound of his fading footsteps.

Ginji closes his eyes and waits for the rain to come wash him clean.

13. Touch

No one touches him any more. Teshimine no longer ruffles his hair affectionately, and none of his friends ever take his hand or hug him.

Ginji is a tactile person. But he worries that, with the electricity within him, that he may hurt someone. So he withdraws as well.

It’s become normal to be untouched now. Most of the time, Ginji himself forgets to miss it.

14. Volts

Ginji wakes up one morning, and Teshimine gives him a bundle. It feels too stiff and rough to be anything salvaged from a scrap heap. When Ginji unwraps it, he finds it is a jacket with the word “VOLTS” printed across the back, in big red English letters.

Ginji can read Japanese, because Teshimine insisted on teaching him. But he does not know this word until Teshimine pronounces it for him.

“Why?” he asks. A part of him is afraid to put it on. Another purrs in strange satisfaction, enjoying the sound of the word.

“Because they will never leave you alone,” Teshimine says. “So you might as well make the best of it you can.”

15. Junk Kids II

Now they do not come to recruit him, but to join him. It feels like they simply appeared out of the dark alleys, creeping towards his side. Ginji is constantly aware of them, and the sudden enormous responsibility they bring.

They have left behind their pretenses and false bravado, and now he sees them for the lonely people they are. His chest aches to see their hunger and their fear; now that he has somehow become their master, he is more determined than ever to protect them.

“I want to protect you,” he says to them at night, staring up at the sky. You can barely see it from the Lower Town, because all the tall buildings get in the way.

Ginji no longer sleeps through the night.

16. Shido

People in the Mugenjou can be no different from its animals.

Ginji first heard the rumors of a master of beasts from the youngest children. Jaded as most of them are, there is still a kind of wonder in their eyes as they speak, talking about dogs and cats and even a lion. Ginji smiles at them, and wonders about this man.

One day, they meet. Ginji watches the strange man feed the crows and says nothing. Their silence feels somehow comfortable.

“You’re the Raitei, aren’t you?” the man says. The sound of Ginji’s newly-acquired nickname is still peculiar to Ginji’s ears.

“I am,” he says. “Amano Ginji, leader of the VOLTS.”

“I see,” says the man. Then, he glances over just a little. His eyes are narrow and sharp, like an animal’s. “Fuyuki Shido.”

Ginji nods, respectful. Giving your name in the Mugenjou is a gamble for respect. He is relieved that Shido has offered it so easily.

“The crows sing your praises,” Shido says. “That’s rare. They don’t like any competition for food.” And he smiles a little. Ginji smiles back, because part of him realizes how rare it is for this man to offer that much to anyone.

“I’m glad,” he says. And he is, because now he knows that Shido has just promised to never fight him. Ginji is very tired of people looking for a challenge.

“The dogs say you’re kind,” Shido says. As though on cue, one of the mutts lying at his feet raises its head and looks at Ginji, scruffy ears cocked. “The rats say you respect even them.”

And for this Ginji just smiles, because even now, he is glad to make a new friend.

17. Growing

Teshimine’s eyes are always regretful, these days. He looks at Ginji and something lonely and sad lingers in his eyes.

Ginji understands why he is hurt, but there is nothing he can do. Neither of them can abandon the VOLTS, this new growing thing they have created. Too many rely upon them both.

At night, unable to sleep, Ginji stares at his hands and feels very, very old.

And all the while, the VOLTS continue to grow.

18. Kazuki

Beauty of a sort exists in the Mugenjou, but it is a dark, unpleasant sort–the beauty of fighting, dying, and the tremulous tenacity of life.

Elegance is an unobtainable idea. For a while, it existed within the Mugenjou–but then that, too, dissolved in the path of the VOLTS.

But Kazuki just smiles, when Ginji offers his regrets. He shakes his head, and the soft chime of his bells seems to hang in the air like whispering ghosts. In the half-light, he looks entirely too fragile and beautiful to be in such a place.

“I have made the choice to follow you, Ginji-san,” Kazuki says. He looks over to where Juubei is, and his smile is secret and maybe a little sad. The red thread between them is another beautiful thing that should not have to exist here–but still it persists, forever steadfast.

“And as long as I live,” Kazuki adds, looking back at Ginji, “the elegance of the Fuuchoin style will live on. Please don’t worry about it.”

Ginji wants to believe him. But he looks at Kazuki’s delicate grace and continues to mourn that something like this is trapped within the Mugenjou’s dark walls.

19. Children II

Ginji watches the children and wishes he still knew how to play.

He remembers what Teshimine told him once: that an adult has no time to play and have fun. Not here, living within the Mugenjou’s eternal shadow.

Whenever they see him, the children smile and call to him. Unlike their parents, they see him as someone kind–a savior in this horrible place.
Every time, it gets harder to smile back.

20. MAKUBEX

Ginji has always known this boy, in a distant sort of way. Both of them abandoned orphans of the eternal palace, they have a strange kinship. The boy with no name is surprisingly fond of Ginji, and often follows him with eager shining eyes.

“Look at this, Ginji-san!” he says, bubbly innocent excitement in his face. Ginji looks at him curiously, and is amazed when the boy’s fingers fly over the keyboard. It appears to come to the boy as easily as breathing, and within seconds, windows open across the computer screen

An entire map of the Mugenjou’s Lower Town spreads itself before his eyes, in surprisingly clean detail.

Ginji kneels beside the boy and can only stare. The boy beams at him, childishly proud. “Isn’t it wonderful?” he asks. “This way, we can keep better track of the hiding places in the Mugenjou, and if people from the Beltline ever come back, we could figure out places for everyone to hide, while you and the others fight!”

He looks so young, Ginji realizes, looking at that round face. Would he grow up into something cold and twisted by the life of the Mugenjou?

“It’s amazing,” he says, rather than voicing his doubts. He begins to reach out, but stops when electricity snaps a warning in his fingertips. “I’ve never used a computer before,” he admits.

“Really?” Shock rounds the boy’s mouth into a little “o.”

“Mm.” Ginji cocks his head. “Never really had the chance. And besides, I’m not used to them.” He flexes his fingers a bit, feeling the brief sting of nearby electricity. “I’d need to learn their exact electric signal to use one without shorting it out.”

The boy turns to face him completely, nervous anticipation in his expression.

“Ginji-san,” he says, “let me join the VOLTS.”

Nonplussed, Ginji draws back. “Why?”

“Because,” the boy says earnestly, “I can use computers–Gen-jii taught me everything. I could help you, Ginji-san! Between the two of us, and Shido-san, and Kazuki-san, we could protect everyone!”

He believes what he is saying, Ginji can tell. Faith and hope and determination shine like beacons in his eyes, and Ginji is ashamed to discover he’s nearly blinded.

He rocks back on his heels a bit, giving the boy a critical look. “How old are you?”

Embarrassment draws a red line across the boy’s cheeks. “Eleven,” he mumbles, then looks up, his expression fierce. “But I know what I’m doing! I’m better than even Granpa–there’s nowhere I can’t hack into! Ginji-san, please!”

No, he wants to say. Eleven is far too young–I was thirteen when Lon-Fa died, and that was still too young. No.

“I’ll think about it,” he says, instead. “You should be more careful, though. Talk to your grandfather first. Being a member of the VOLTS isn’t as safe as you might think, or as noble. It’s not like deciding to wear a different shirt or anything–this is true commitment.”

“Un!” The boy nods, so hard that the scarf he wears wrapped around his head begins to slip. He adjusts it quickly, closes his laptop, and stands. Before Ginji can move as well, he bows, so low that he is almost bent in half. “Thank you, Ginji-san! I promise you, you won’t regret this!”

“Hey, wait a minute–”

But the boy is already running off. Ginji leans back on his elbows and despite himself, smiles.

21. A Kind Of Happiness

Families in the Mugenjou are made through spilled blood and won battles. These people are far different from the friends of his childhood, when he was too weak to do anything but flee from battle.

Ginji loves them, in his way–they are as necessary to his existence as breath. He thinks that, if not for them, he might disappear forever.

So now, they are his precious family, the small core of people that makes up the true entirety of his world.

Happiness, like beauty, like elegance, cannot truly exist within the Mugenjou. But sometimes, Ginji thinks, he’s come close enough.

22. Volts II

Now they call him the Master of the Lower Town, the final barrier of protection against raids from the Beltline.

His true name is mostly forgotten in favor of his title, which is echoed in respectful whispers throughout the entire Mugenjou. Lightning falling is his rage, and few are bold enough to challenge his authority.

The VOLTS are now the biggest of the junk kid gangs within the Mugenjou; Ginji has heard that even people from the outside world know of them. He cannot quite understand this; sometimes, in spite of the stories he hears from Shido and Kazuki, he thinks that it’s nothing more than an elaborate myth.

Perhaps the outside world is a dream, he sometimes thinks, looking down at it. A wonderful, beautiful, unobtainable dream that must be the eternal goal.

MAKUBEX wants to see that outside world, more than anything else. He goes online and finds pictures and shows them to everyone else, smiling from ear-to-ear.

“Someday, let’s go together, Ginji-san!” he says. “Let’s go see that outside world with our own eyes!”

Ginji just smiles, but in the back of his mind, he does not think that will ever happen. Even they, the feared leaders of the VOLTS, are slaves to its power. And as it grows, they will have no choice but to stay and tend to its restless, voracious appetite.

As long as the VOLTS exist, the Raitei and his Four Kings must stay to protect it.

Still, he thinks, it’s a nice dream. He can hold it close and warm himself with it, on the coldest nights.

23. A Kind Of Sorrow

Once, Ginji accidentally stumbles upon Kazuki and Juubei in a private moment.

It is only because he knows Kazuki so well that he realizes the sanctity of what is going on, and shrinks back to the shadows. But he cannot look away.

Kazuki’s long, rich hair is unbound, and it flows down his slim back like a waterfall. He brushes it in slow, steady strokes, moving gently down the length of his hair. It takes Ginji a minute to realize he is humming, soft and gentle, under his breath.

Juubei sits at his feet, carving something out of a misshapen chunk of wood. Ginji does not think it is really meant to be anything–it is just there to keep his hands busy. Occasionally, his head inclines to the side, where it lightly touches Kazuki’s knee.

Whenever that happens, Kazuki always pauses briefly, and his smile hits Ginji like a punch to the gut.

No matter how much he puts his Kings first, he realizes, they will always have someone closer to them first. Kazuki and Juubei have their bond, which survived the transition from the outside world to the Mugenjou.

Shido has Emishi, who follows him as eagerly as one of his animals. Shido always says that Emishi’s jokes are bad, but many times, when Emishi can’t see, Shido smiles.

And Juubei’s own sister, Sakura, has created a strange sort of bond with MAKUBEX, the boy-king. Though she never says much, she is always there, within an arm’s reach of the boy, and the few times his cheerful armor cracks, he reaches for Sakura first.

As for the last one … Ginji rarely sees him, these days. He has no illusions there.

The realization sits in his stomach like a ball of cold lead. It does not quite taste of jealousy–but rather wistfulness, the longing to become first in someone’s eyes.

At night, he sometimes thinks he can hear a voice calling his name–but he knows better than to think it anything more than his imagination.

24. Dissonance

It tingles in sharply in his skin like the anticipation of a fight.

“The crows say it’ll rain today,” says Shido. “Emishi and I are going to make sure the kids have a dry place to stay.”

“We’ll go with you,” says Kazuki. Juubei is already on his feet. “Ginji-san, MAKUBEX-kun, take care.”

Ginji nods to them, from his place by the window. He is alternatingly lacing together and pulling apart his fingers, oddly fascinated by the small bursts of static electricity that move between them.

Something is coming, whispers his instincts. Something big.

Something that could change the Mugenjou, and everything Ginji knows about it.

He tries very hard not to squirm like an eager child. It will do him no good to lose his patience this early.

But he can feel it coming, drawing nearer with every heartbeat, every indrawn breath.

When MAKUBEX looks up and says, “Ginji-san,” in that odd tone halfway between grim and cold, Ginji is already moving. The doors swing open before he can touch them, and he walks outside into the cold rain.

Overhead, lightning snaps across the sky in a fierce tongue.

He sees the crowd before he sees the man himself. People look up at Ginji’s approach and melt away, and whispers of his name and title begin to rise, hissing in the air like the fall of rain. His pathway now stands clear.

In his way, there is a man. A single man, a little shorter than Ginji himself, who only turns his head slowly at Ginji’s approach. There is no fear in him when he sees the Raitei; if anything, disdain pours off him in waves.

The electricity gathering within the storm sparks in Ginji’s fingertips, in all his skin: this stranger’s mere presence means challenge.

He meets bright blue eyes and does not look away.

25. Unnatural

Shido says the Mugenjou is too cold for snakes. Ginji believes this is true.

Kazuki fusses over Ginji’s wounds, and because of his concern, Juubei takes over the bandaging and treatment. Most of the time, Ginji forgets that Juubei was training to become Kazuki’s doctor, in the outside world.

He’s usually very impressed by the fact; now, he’s just tired and grateful.

No one know the stranger’s name, not even MAKUBEX, who spends his free time searching. The computers that eagerly roll belly-up for him yield nothing.

Shido thinks the man is a snake. And unlike the usual kindness Shido treats animals with, his eyes are cold and harsh when he says this.

“However,” he says again, “the Mugenjou is too cold for snakes. He won’t be coming back.”

When everyone is with him, talking at once, Ginji cannot hear himself think.

But at night, when even the Mugenjou falls partially silent, he thinks he can hear the slow, insidious drip of a snakebite’s poison creeping towards his heart.

Better to be a snake and be free, it whispers, than to be an emperor trapped under the weight of his infinite palace.

26. Gateway

It comes in a moment of weakness, a time he believes he has snatched for himself.

“I hate it here.” He says it aloud, to test the words to himself. They burn, but they are catharsis: at least they have been finally said.

Ginji stands in a crater of his own making and listens to the approaching footsteps. Somehow, he is not surprised when the unknown man, the snake, appears.

“Then just leave,” he says. “If it’s so painful, get the hell out.”

He says it like it’s so, so simple. Ginji wants to believe–for a moment, he lets himself.

Then practicality takes over again, and he looks away. “You should be the one to go,” he says. “Shido will kill you if he finds you here.”

The other man snorts. “I’m not afraid of that asshole.” A cigarette lighter clinks softly. “If it bothers you so much,” he says again, “leave. You could come with me. I’m thinking of starting a repossessor business, and I could use a decent partner.”

Ginji looks up to see the man reach into his white shirt. He tenses automatically, but all that gets pulled out is a small slip of white paper. “Here. Let me know if you’re interested, lightning-brat.”

He tosses it to Ginji, then walks away. Smoke follows him in a long, wisping trail. When he is gone, Ginji looks at the card.

“Midou Ban” is all it says, and under that, “HONKY TONK.”

He closes his fist tightly around the paper. Freedom is a pipe dream; somehow, it has never seemed so distant, even with the means of it right in his hands.

But though he drops the paper and kicks dirt over it, though he tries to clear it from his mind, the last thing he thinks before finally falling asleep are Midou Ban’s words.

If it’s so painful, then get the hell out.

27. Labyrinth

Ginji picks a direction and begins walking, and soon he finds himself lost.

Around him, the buildings begin to thin out. There is a certain point where his legs simply freeze, and he realizes he has never been here before.

The vast sudden emptiness weighs on him, leaving him feeling small and too exposed.

Overhead, a bird lets out a gravelly croak. Ginji relaxes. Wherever he goes, Shido’s eyes and ears will follow him; he cannot stay lost forever.

He does not know how he ends up here, staring at the innocuous sign. He wonders if it’s only his imagination, if perhaps he’s still sleeping.

HONKY TONK. That is what the sign says, in big English letters.

Part of him did not believe this place existed until this moment. And he realizes that he must suddenly be outside, he has somehow crossed the unseen borderline between the Mugenjou and the real world–he has walked into freedom and did not even notice.

Disappointment wells inside him. He believes freedom is precious, and the fact that it did not set off some kind of explosion or spark inside him is like the death of a dream.

Ginji opens the door, flinches a little at the clink of a bell, and walks inside.

A man is polishing cups behind a counter. Ginji has never seen a place look so neat and well-kept. It almost frightens him, to see this much quiet evidence of money in one place.

Where before, his legs refused to move, they now cannot seem to stop; they carry him over to the counter, where he sits slowly and looks at his reflection in the countertop.

Porcelain clinks and he looks up. The man behind the counter slides a cup and saucer towards Ginji. He is smiling, and it strikes Ginji as strange. In the Mugenjou, you never smile at a stranger without the intent to kill.

The coffee smells good.

“Drink,” the man tells him. “It’ll warm you up.”

He frowns. “I’m not cold,” he says.

“Oh?” The man does not lean on the counter, or try any overly friendly pretenses; he just goes and puts more water into the coffeemaker. Ginji only recognizes it because he has seen a few boxes floating around in the Mugenjou’s dumps. “That might be so. But your eyes look like you’ve just been caught in a cold, hard rain.”

The words give Ginji pause. He looks at the coffee, at the man standing at the coffeemaker, and picks the cup up slowly. Its heat moves slowly through him, and he is surprised. It tingles, much more gently than his electricity.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, and drinks.

28. Decision

Kazuki will say nothing, but he knows the others will argue to the bitter end.

Ginji is prepared–or, rather, he is as much as he can ever be. This choice can’t be unmade.

MAKUBEX sits with a laptop open, but he does not even seem to notice the flickering blue screen. Shido and Kazuki stand in the doorway, and in the shadows, Ginji sees the last of their little group finally arrive.

The atmosphere feels heavy, as though he is swimming through a thick soup just to move. Ginji takes a deep breath, and the air seems to scorch his lungs.

“I am dissolving the VOLTS,” he says.

“I’m leaving the Mugenjou,” he says.

And that is that.

29. The Passing of an Era

Midou Ban is waiting outside. Ginji does not question how the man knew to be there; he simply accepts it as fact.

“You’re sure about this?” he asks around a cigarette. “They probably won’t let you back, if you decide later you’re not happy.”

Ginji finds himself wanting to smile. “I’m sure,” he says.

“Repossessing is a thankless job,” says Ban. He looks at the street, directly through the present and into memory. “If you’re not one-hundred percent sure, you’re probably better off saying no.”

He frowns slightly, feeling annoyed at the other man’s sudden attitude change. “I’ve decided,” he says. “And I always keep my word.”

Footsteps approach, slow and even and familiar. Ginji looks up, and sees Teshimine standing there.

His expression is completely unreadable. For the first time in years, Ginji remembers being the tiny boy who clung to Teshimine’s hand at every step, and cried for emotions too great for his tiny body.

“Ginji,” he says. “Your choices are your own, but they’re better made when you know everything.” Teshimine’s eyes, hard unforgiving gold, skip past Ginji to glare at Midou Ban, who simply exhales cigarette smoke.

Then Teshimine sighs, and it’s like all the fight drains out of him in that moment. “You’ve been looking for an answer, ever since you were a brat,” he says to Ginji. “Now, I think you’ve outgrown anything you can find here.”

“Teshimine?” His former guardian’s odd familiarity sets Ginji off-balance. The other man simply shrugs.

“Being a repossessor is like a jigsaw puzzle,” Teshimine says. “You need all the pieces in order to create a clear picture; only when you have the final piece will you get your answer. So finish any job you accept, and search for those pieces.” He bows his head a little, and continues walking past. “Good luck.”

It is the closest to a blessing Ginji knows he will ever receive. His smile feels like it’s pulling something in his chest tight.

Midou Ban tosses his cigarette to the dirty street and stands. He is, Ginji realizes, a little bit shorter than Ginji himself.

“Come on,” he says, and goes.

30. Just One Minute

Ginji stops at the threshold to the outside world, and shields his eyes with one arm. Suddenly, at this very last step, he feels very small and utterly terrified.

“What are you doing?” Ban looks back over his shoulder. He lights a fresh cigarette and smirks around it. “Come on.”

He holds out a hand.

Ginji stares at it. He has to step over the threshold to take it–so he does. Ban’s hand feels more warm and solid and real than anything has in his entire life, except maybe the second Teshimine first touched his head, years and years ago.

Maybe he’s dreaming–maybe he’s still caught in the one-minute dream of Ban’s evil eye.

But it feels as though he’s finally woken up.

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Bargaining

“Oh,” said Haruhi.

Tamaki, for his part, looked utterly stricken; his face was pale except for the hard high flush on his cheeks, and he was staring at her with something akin to horror. “H-Haruhi,” he stammered, trying to extract himself from Kyouya’s arms without much success, “I swear, I can explain, I –”

“Oh,” said Haruhi again.

“– I would never hurt you, it’s just, Daddy has needs too, and it’s –”

“That’s where the smell was coming from,” she said. “I thought it was the twins. Kyouya-senpai, I’m surprised.”

Kyouya sat up and adjusted his glasses, unruffled. “I hardly meant to,” he said. “However, Tamaki is a force to be reckoned with, when he puts his mind to it.”

“KYOUYA,” Tamaki squawked, then groped around, grabbing Kyouya’s shirt and flinging it at him; it ended up just sort of fluttering over his head. “Get dressed! Haruhi’s staring! What will she think, seeing Mommy in such a state?!”

Haruhi grimaced. “Senpai, that joke really is in bad taste.”

Kyouya just pulled the shirt from his head, calmly slipping into it and buttoning up. “You as well,” he said. “Won’t she be just as traumatized by her ‘father’ that way?”

“Kyouya-senpai too?” Haruhi sighed. “I can leave. I was just coming back to study–”

“Studying!” Tamaki lit up and vaulted — still shirtless — over the head of the couch. “Good, good! You must keep your studies up, Haruhi, that is Daddy’s greatest wish!” He struck a pose, one arm flung out and his other hand pressed over his heart. “Ah, the academic world! It sparkles like a fair jewel, and already my cute daughter is facing it bravely–”

“Who’s whose cute daughter?” she muttered.

“You’re free to use this room,” Kyouya said, adjusting his glasses. “I was careless this once, letting Tamaki get carried away. My apologies, Haruhi.”

Her eyes slowly slid off to the side — the light had pinged off his lenses just so, hiding his eyes, which she’d learned was rarely a good sign. “No,” she said. “I can always check the libraries again …”

“Haruhi!” Tamaki whirled on her, his best hurt-puppy face in effect. “Don’t you want to study with your father’s knowing guidance?”

“Not particularly.” Haruhi began to back up slowly, out the door. “If you two will excuse me –”

“Ahh, just a moment, Haruhi,” said Kyouya. He pushed his glasses up his nose again, and he’d managed to produce his ubiquitous notebook from somewhere. “You won’t tell anyone about what you saw here, right?”

“I’d rather just forget,” she said honestly. “It’s kind of pointless, isn’t it? We’re only in high school. There’s a lot of time for that later, if you’re that interested.”

Kyouya chuckled. “Indeed,” he said, ignoring Tamaki’s protesting wail of, This is the time of our youth! We must treasure it and this fleeting beauty as well as possible! and opening his notebook. “Because it would be terribly inconvenient if news of this got out.”

“I’m not sure why,” said Haruhi. “You’d probably get even more fans that way.”

“Well,” Kyouya said, “while some boy’s love is proven to be popular amongst our clients, there is a small but strong portion of our audience who are interested more in a man’s interest in a woman, rather than another man. We have to keep all avenues open.”

Haruhi glanced aside again. Though she was half-in the doorway already, escape had never seemed so far away. “Ahaaa …”

“And so.” Kyouya made a note of something. “We could slash your debt by thirty-three percent.”

“Done,” Haruhi said instantly. “Can I go now?”

“Go? Go?” Tamaki latched onto her, weeping. “Ahhh, what have I done! I’ve traumatized her so much she can’t bear the sight of us! Mother, what will we do?!”

“No, it’s not that,” Haruhi said, her voice muffled. “I have a test tomorrow and I need — Senpai, you’re strangling me –”

Kyouya sighed once, then strode forward, snagging Tamaki by the scruff of his neck and lifting him up off Haruhi. She gave a small gasp for breath, then quickly stepped out of range. “We’re in agreement, then?”

“I’m not interested in giving away secrets,” said Haruhi. “If no one asks me, there’s no reason to say.”

She thought perhaps Kyouya blinked — it was hard to tell, with his glasses doing that reflective-lens trick again. She could tell, though, from his expression, that he was certainly bemused. “Ah,” he said. “I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.”

“Haruhiiiiiiii,” Tamaki moaned. “Don’t go, I’ll help you studyyyyyyyy–”

“No thank you.” Haruhi backed up, out of reach of his grabbing arms. “I’m very sorry for intruding. I’ll be going now.”

“Haruhi,” said Kyouya. “One more thing.” He tucked the notebook away again, somewhere out of sight, and took her chin between thumb and forefinger.

“Eh?” She blinked up at him. “Kyouya-sen–”

He had very dry lips, actually — a little chapped, oddly enough for a rich man — and very warm. Haruhi made a vaguely stunned noise, and Tamaki for once was dead-silent. She remembered the beach house and wondered, belatedly, if she actually should have been worried. Kyouya, despite being methodical, was apparently harder to predict than she’d originally believed.

Her arms loosened and her books clattered from them, onto their feet, and even then Kyouya just leaned back calmly, as though he’d planned that, too.

“… Um,” said Haruhi, in the silence that followed. “K-Kyouya-senpai, that was …”

“An invitation, I suppose,” said Kyouya, and pushed his glasses up; just like that, his eyes were suddenly visible again. To her surprise, they were surprisingly warm — more accessible, really, than she’d ever seen. “Even though we’re only in high school.”

“Hahhh.” She blinked. “Kyouya-senpai …”

“K-k-k-KYOUYA!” Tamaki wailed. “HOW COULD YOU!”

Kyouya just shrugged, still looking at Haruhi. “How could I what?”

“HOW COULD YOU STEAL MY CUTE DAUGHTER’S LIPS LIKE THAT?! FATHER CAN’T FORGIVE THIS–!”

“She’s already had her first kiss,” Kyouya said, unfazed by Tamaki looming in his face, expression nearly demonic. “If she wants to say no, she’s welcome to.”

For a moment Tamaki seemed to breathe fire, glaring fiercely. Behind him, lightning split the air. “YOU–”

“Haruhi,” Kyouya said to her, “would you say there’s more merit in doing things this way?”

“Ah.” She blinked. “Kyouya-senpai, you’re not …”

“Nn?” He turned back to her again, carefully pushing Tamaki back as he continued to wail and gnash his teeth. “What’s that, Haruhi?”

“You’re not trying to … blackmail me, are you?” she asked carefully. “Because, Senpai, I’m not terribly interested in being forced that way.”

“Blackmail?” Kyouya blinked. “Is that what you’re worried about?”

“Hahhh …” Haruhi glanced aside. Really, it was the fact that he didn’t seem terribly offended by the suggestion that worried her. “It’s, well–”

“There isn’t any point in blackmailing a partner,” said Kyouya. “Or in alienating an ally.”

“Ally?” She blinked.

“Of course,” he said. Light pinged off the frames of his glasses, but she could still see them clearly, and he seemed … amused, somehow, by her reaction. “Our King isn’t exactly the most reasonable of people, you might have noticed.”

“It’s sort of hard not too.” Haruhi turned her head again as Tamaki turned huge shaking eyes at her — Haruhi, how could you say such cold things? When I work so hard to make this club a good place! — then slowly looked back at Kyouya. “Kyouya-senpai, you’re not actually saying that …”

“Well,” said Kyouya. “I wonder if I am.”

“Are you sure this is so wise?” Belatedly she went down onto one knee, gathering up her books. “Hiding this sort of thing with one person is probably difficult enough, when the entire school is watching you. With three, it’s even more troublesome, isn’t it?”

“Kyouya,” Tamaki whined. “Haruhi! What are you talking about? What’s troublesome about people watching us? That’s what we’re here for! We–”

“I trust you to be discreet,” Kyouya said. “You’ve done remarkably well thus far.”

Haruhi stood, holding her books to her chest. “It seems very roundabout,” she said. “If you two are together like that, shouldn’t you be able to handle each other without an ally?”

“Ah,” said Kyouya. “You misunderstand me.”

“–Eh?”

“By now, you should realize I don’t do things unless I want to.” He looked at her over his notebook, and his eyes were hidden again. “And Tamaki is remarkably simple-minded about the things that make him happy. Are you saying you’re not interested?”

“I’m saying I don’t get it,” Haruhi said. “Why is this so important to get settled now? I’m not getting away from you for a long time. I still have a debt to pay.”

Kyouya paused. Tamaki had dropped back to sulk in the corner over being ignored, and so the silence that suddenly followed was encompassing. Haruhi blinked back at him, unruffled. At this late point, she thought, she would just have to go back home to study.

Then Kyouya began to laugh — a low chuckle that was almost alien in his voice; it took her a moment to identify it as simple, genuine affection. In his corner, Tamaki had lifted his head, looking curiously over.

“So, ‘wait and see,’ is what you’re saying,” he said, and pushed his glasses up his nose. “Wait until high school is over.”

“At least,” said Haruhi. “Senpai, I don’t have time for things like that right now.”

“And later?”

“Later is later,” she said. “What I’m saying is not ‘I’m not interested,’ but ‘I need to focus on other things right now.'”

“Ah,” said Kyouya. “… Good.”

Like so many other things, it sort of worried her how he said that. Haruhi tilted her head. “Senpai?”

“Then we’ll discuss this again,” said Kyouya. “When you graduate.”

“Three years is a long time to have your mind made up about something,” she said. “Are you sure?”

Kyouya glanced at Tamaki, who was trying — without much success — to sidle over without being noticed. When he saw Kyouya looking, he froze, as though the daruma had actually fallen.

And Kyouya smiled, which Haruhi thought (though it was more of a passing impression than a conscious decision) was the sort of thing that his fan club would’ve given their considerable fortunes to see, the cool glasses-wearing Ootori Kyouya with such an honest expression on his face.

But when he said nothing, Haruhi glanced at Tamaki, then back at him, and said, “Then, Tamaki-senpai, Kyouya-senpai, I’ll be leaving now.”

“Ehhhh?” Tamaki straightened abruptly, pouting. “So soon? Haruhi, we never get to see youuuuuu–!”

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” she said. “Senpai, you know that.”

“Haruhiiiiii–”

“Tamaki,” said Kyouya, and put a hand on his shoulder. “Let her be. You wouldn’t want her to fail her test, would you?”

“Never!” Tamaki reeled back in horror, throwing his hands up as though he could ward off the bad luck. “Kyouya! You shouldn’t say such things! Ahh, Haruhi, just ignore him, he’s saying crazy things –”

“Then let her go study.” Kyouya smiled at her again, and this one she recognized — pleasant with an edge he was too savvy to unleash except when provoked. “Work hard, Haruhi. You want to graduate properly, don’t you?”

“Ah — yes,” she said hesitantly. She had the uneasy feeling she’d bargained for something over her head, though it had all seemed fairly straightforward to her at the time. “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

As she headed from the room, closing the door behind her, she heard Tamaki say, “What was all that about? Kyouya, your king wants answers!”

And she heard Kyouya laugh: “I’ll tell you later,” he said. “Maybe when you’re older.”

She left to the sound of Tamaki’s whined protest, and before they could hear her brief giggle as well.

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