The Long Road

There are no oceans in Takamagahara.

There are rivers that feed into deep still lakes, there are babbling brooks and dainty ponds, so clear that someone looking down could see straight to the bottom. Some have fishes, some have dragons, and some have nothing but strange flowing plants growing along the bottom — but all of it is clean and sweet, purified by Nuregami’s steady brush.

Conversely: there is nothing but oceans on the moon when there is water to be found; people are forever dreaming up new techniques for water purification, both arcane and scientific. The cold air always stinks of salt. (And he can remember the awe on the princess’ face, when she first set foot on the heavenly plain and drew in a breath scented only of flowers.)

Strangely, he finds this is something he misses: the salty and the bitter, the life that was unendingly harsh, but with depth. There’d been meaning there, rather than endless idyllic days without hurt or want or darkness.

He resents his exile in a land of plenty. He wants to go home.

He did not understand.

+++

“I believe,” she’d said, standing unbowed before her council, her children, her voice clear and loud over their protests. She’d been dressed for war, all scarlet and gold brilliance against the white of her hair and her skin. There’d been a sword in one hand and a mirror in the other and beads of ice round her neck, and she’d stood there, magnificent and unbending, and she’d said again: “I believe.”

+++

He watched her fall.

(“Only the Chosen One can destroy Orochi. It’s not yet time.”)

He watched her die.

(“Then we will buy what time we need until he comes.”)

+++

It’s said that after the noble white wolf Shiranui died, a sea of flowers sprang up where her blood had been spilled, only to wilt away immediately after. As the villagers debated on what to do, the ground itself opened — not as a yawning fierce chasm, but in a gentle roll, the earth folding around her body like an embrace, drawing it away and leaving only a gentle mound to indicate where she had lain. Over this, eventually, a statue is erected.

It’s said that for weeks after, you could hear a single lonely flute playing in the woods, and in that song was the story of the famous battle that destroyed monstrous Orochi. In the long careful weeks of rebuilding that followed, Kamiki’s lullabies were those of death and sacrifice, and a life too vivid to be contained by the mortal world.

It’s said the sun itself dimmed on that great and terrible day, and has never been as bright since.

+++

And then there comes the morning where the sun dawns brighter and fiercer and more brilliant than has been seen in a hundred years. High above Sei-An City, he watches as the skies catch fire and the flush of color that spreads across the land. In one hand he holds his flute; in the other he holds his sword. Darkness is still coming; he can see the pestilence that lurks at the horizon, waiting to descend.

But even so, there is still hope.

With his breath held in his lungs, he watches the sun rise.

+++

He meets her: in the forest, by the ocean, in the icy lands of the far north, and finally within the bowels of the Ark. She still doesn’t remember him, but she still moves when he calls to her. She doesn’t remember, but she knows, and that is just as good.

It’s enough to gamble on, when the darkness would strike her down. It suddenly doesn’t seem so long ago when their positions were reversed, on the edge of Takamagahara with the wide unknown of the mortal world stretching below them. The last time, the blow had come for him while she guarded; she’d fallen to earth and taken the sun with her.

Ushiwaka smiles as the blow connects, smiles as his body hits the ground and bounces once, smiles as he falls and falls and falls.

It is, he thinks, a worthy way to die.

+++

And yet he’s not dead.

They rise to Takamagahara, his small ship and the Ark chuffing along after, like some huge docile herd beast being shephered back at last. Below them, the mortal plane drops away, first to miniature detail, and then to nothing but large patches of color. He finds himself watching the ocean when he can no longer see the spires and roofs of Sei-An City. It surprises him to feel regret about leaving the world behind — they will find no priestess sufficiently powerful enough to succeed Himiko, and so the Emperor will come to power.

Ushiwaka walks the corridors of the Ark and wonders at the quality of darkness. It no longer lives and breathes, and the only noise comes from the echo of his feet. He traces his own path from years ago, the mad dash to urge his passengers to the center of the ship, because if they could only mobilize and unite, they could surely win–

Instead they’d clung and cowered, a hundred tiny trembling gods devoured in an instant.

He doesn’t weep: he hasn’t wept in all those years, not even for …

Her footsteps make no sound, but he knows she stands behind him. They closer they draw to Takamagahara, the more she changes. Like a snake’s skin, the trappings of her mortal self are being shed — or perhaps they are simply mending, all those broken loose parts drawing in and reknitting. He cannot turn to look.

And she says: “It’s all right.”

Within the Ark’s great hall her voice echoes. If you knew how to listen, you might be able to pick out thirteen distinct notes. Ushiwaka draws in a breath and holds it.

“It’s all right, Ushiwaka.” He knows she’s walking towards him and holds himself still. The hand on his shoulder is slim and elegant in shape, and yet heavy with calluses across the fingers and the palm. He can feel them even through layers of cloth.

He turns and looks upon Amaterasu-oomikami’s face. Today she is a wanderer, not a warrior, but her face is exactly the same as it was before, when she stood and said I believe. The thought crosses his mind that, if he touched her, what he would feel would not be flesh, but a steel that is harder and sharper than the blade she used to cut down the Emperor of Darkness.

So he reaches out to test; the skin of her arm is resilient and soft and is strong enough to carry the world. He looks up at her face again and sees her smiling now, and it feels like she’s reached out and put her arms around him in an embrace.

“You’re no fool,” she tells him. “You just needed the distance to see.”

He kneels and closes his eyes; she touches his head with her fingers sliding through his hair.

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That Little Warmth

“Kuro-pippi~”

To Fay, irritation is a novel feeling: it’s all about the moment and reaction, all heat and immediate driving purpose.

He knows rage as a cold hard certainty in his gut, and he knows anger as a tense pulsing headache that gathers in his temples, and both of these he as things he must control at all costs. Fury he’s also well-acquainted with as the ice in the king’s eyes when news of the crown prince’s death reached the castle, and as the stomach-churning prickle of ice down his spine when faced with the murderers.

Anger and he are polite acquaintences at the least, all in degrees of descending cold.

“Kuro-puu~”

Irritation, though, redfaced and bellowing and waving a sword, is delightfully new. Even the breeze of the blade’s edge right past his cheek is warmer than most anything he can remember from Celes, and the novelty is enough to make him forget the danger. It feels good, and he’s pretty sure he could get himself addicted fast.

But any one stimulus, used for too long, begins to lose its effectiveness — this he also knows, though how and why, he’d rather not say — which means he has to be creative. The passion behind that irritation draws him again and again, and at the very least, he can be grateful that they’re not *really* fire and ice: that’d be terribly cliche, and he’s not really interested in melting away, just … warming himself a little. That’s all.

He can stop at any time, he tells himself, but while he has this, there’s nothing wrong in enjoying himself.

“Kuro-ko~? Heyyy, Kuro-daddy, shouldn’t you listen when Mommy calls you? Ahh, what sort of example do you think you’re setting for the children, ignoring Mommy like this?”

And finally the thread of Kurogane’s temper snaps: he draws Souhi in a whistling rush, and Fay takes off, laughing the whole time.

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RESET

i.

The thing is, he’s spent his entire life hearing the stories about the great god Amaterasu, of her beauty and nobility and purity of heart. There is not a one among their tribe who hasn’t, and even Princess Kaguya bows her head in respect of Amaterasu’s name.

In all honesty, he may have been a little in love with her for all his life, only he’d never admit as much; how ridiculous is it (how expected is it!), anyway, for one of the moon-tribe to love the sun-god? It’s the sort of thing poets write reams of metered verse about, even though everyone falls asleep halfway through the first act and everyone dies at the end.

All this, and no one is quite sure what she truly looks like: she patrols the heavenly plain as a sleek white wolf, but her silhouette behind the screen, when she has audiences, is a woman. There are a thousand paintings and statues in her likeness, and none of them are the same: in one she is heavy-breasted and full-hipped, her pregnant belly round as the moon; in another she is barely more than a child, stick-thin and small, and her eyes are dark and wild. In another she’s a fair maiden whose face is hidden by the edge of her lace fan, dressed richly as any queen; in yet another, she is a warrior that even the wind-god cannot outrun.

And in his true-dreams, the ones from which he spins his prophecies, he walks alongside her with all the familiarity of a comrade and intimate, but when he turns to speak to her, all he sees is a blood-colored shadow that seethes at him, leaving a trail of dried dead grass in its wake.

ii.

As a sign of goodwill, Princess Kaguya herself is to head the diplomatic envoy to Takamagahara; as her oracle and guardian, of course he comes as well.

At the doorway to the inner sanctum, a giant wolf sits to block their way — for a moment Ushiwaka’s heart feels like it might split in two from sheer excitement — but its pelt is the dark inky blue of midnight, and the markings along its powerful shoulders and across its forehead are silver. Kaguya bows low.

“Tsukuyomi-no-mikoto,” she says. “We beg audience with your honored sister.”

The wolf says nothing, but his yellow eyes are keenly intelligent; there is kinship between him and their people, the legends say — that they alone did not spring from Amaterasu’s blood, but from that of her brother.

Without a word he moves aside to let Kaguya pass, but when Ushiwaka tries to follow, he is blocked. What he sees beyond the door, before it closes, is a room with no roof, so the sun shines in freely, and a screened box set up, and the elegant shape of a woman seated inside.

iii.

Though he prides himself on his skills of observation, he doesn’t actually hear her approach. The first thing he hears is a woman’s voice, and what she says is, “Do you play often?”

He almost drops his flute. He wants to turn, but shock freezes him in place and makes his stomach knot in uneasy anticipation. Now that she has made her presence known, he can’t ignore it — she fills the entire area, the sheer joyous presence of her enough to stun, just like one might expect from the sun. “Often enough,” he says. “The princess says it soothes her to hear.”

There is no answer at first, and he’s afraid he may have offended her, before he can even see — but then she says, closer now, “I would like to hear.”

His palms are sweating, and his fingers feel leaden and thick. “Ah,” he says. “Amaterasu-ookami …”

“I would like to hear,” she says, and from the corner of his eye he sees — something, a faint white shadow, and the goddess smells like sun-warmed grass, like clean water cutting across smooth stone.

“Play something for me,” she says. It’s not a question, but neither is it a command, and Ushiwaka reacts instinctively, almost helplessly, straightening his back and putting the pipe to his lips.

She never comes any closer to him than that, a faint outline at the edge of his vision, but he keeps as much of it as he can in his peripheral vision as he plays lullabies and folk songs and half-finished pieces of his own composition under the gentle eye of her sun.

“You’re quite talented, aren’t you?” she says when he finally stops. Her voice is warm with approval. “Such as I would expect from the moon-tribe’s oracle.”

Her praise makes his stomach feel light and his cheeks feel hot. It’s a very strange feeling — one he has always known intellectually, though not personally; he has courted but never been courted in turn. “Amaterasu-ookami …”

“I would like it very much,” she says, her voice growing fainter in the wind, “if you would play again for me, sometime.”

He turns quickly, but she’s already gone.

iv.

When they return to the moon and their own people, Ushiwaka does not quite so much spend his days brooding as he does thinking, watching the golden shadow of the sun in the far distance. The petty lords and ladies of Kaguya’s small court titter behind their hands: O Ushiwaka, you have fallen in love, finally! And with a goddess from Takamagahara, how shameful, O!

Kaguya calls him into her audience chamber and they drink tea together, quietly.

“There are wiser choices,” she tells him when he leaves her presence. “But that means little to the heart.”

Ushiwaka looks at her, his princess and ward, and he bows low to her. “It does,” he says, which is the most he comes to admitting it.

When she appoints him as the next emissary to Takamagahara, he knows better than to be open about his gratitude. As he leaves, though, he catches her eye once and knows she already understands.

v.

The gods are not as solemn as those of the moon-tribe. The longer Ushiwaka lives among them, the more he comes to appreciate this. Secure in the protection of their sun-god, they frolic in the wide fields and streams, and even Amaterasu herself joins them, a long lithe wolf that glows in the sunlight, utterly carefree. There is no shadow, only cooling shade that makes for a pleasant spot to nap.

They alternately charm and infuriate Ushiwaka with their naivety. Other than the thirteen brush-gods of Amaterasu’s inner court, not a single one of them has any knowledge of warfare, or fighting beyond wrestling with the goddess-mother in the long soft grass. He offers to teach them, with the approval and aid of the honored Tachigami, but the lesser gods grow bored quickly, drifting away from their lessons.

“Do not be discouraged,” Tachigami tells him, as they watch the last god wander away. “As long as Amaterasu-ookami watches over them, there’s no need for them to learn.”

Ushiwaka leans on his practice sword, thoughtful. “But what if she cannot be there?” he asks. “They leave for the mortal world, sometimes, and there are monsters who roam in the darkness. What will they do then?”

“Pray,” says Tachigami, and he swings his long sword up over his thin shoulders with careless ease. “Pray, and hope that her divine mercy will save them.”

Ushiwaka frowns at this. “That’s a poor way of handling things,” he says. “They need to be taught properly–”

“And would they believe it?” Tachigami’s voice is wry. “After all, we live here in the garden of Amaterasu. There is nothing here to be afraid of.”

Ushiwaka tries rolling the thought around in his head, nothing to be afraid of. It’s as alien to him as the serene fields and the careless laughter of the gods. The moon is a dark and cold place where monsters live just beyond the border of every small village and town; children are to properly fight as soon as they are able to hold a weapon.

But of the the god-tribe, it seems that only Amaterasu and her inner court have any skill as fighters.

“Don’t trouble yourself with it,” says Tachigami, breaking into his thoughts. The mouse-god’s eyes are wry, and his small hand is very strong when he clasps Ushiwaka’s shoulder. “Mother Amaterasu watches over us all.”

He walks away, the sword settled over his small shoulders. Ushiwaka watches him and the practice blade in his hands feels brittle and thin, like it might snap under any pressure.

When he looks up, the sun has begun to sink low in the sky, blood-red with the coming evening.

vi.

Seasons do not pass in Takamagahara the way they do anywhere else; here, it is perpetually spring-on-summer’s-cusp, where the breezes are sweet-scented and gently warm. Flowers nod under the spreading canopy of fruit-laden tree branches. Takamagahara is exactly the sort of paradise Ushiwaka has spent all his life hearing about, and despite that, he finds himself unsatisfied.

He had expected more, especially of the tribe that made this place their home. For those who bragged direct lineage with Amaterasu, they were a childish, flighty race. He’s not sure why he expected otherwise.

He watches the sky change from afternoon to evening, as day-blooming flowers shut and night-blossoms open, and in the distance he sees the moon rising.

vii.

“You’re troubled,” she says. As before, as always, she comes without any indication of her presence — though now he’s noticed her, ah, there’s the smell of warm summer hanging in the air. This time, when he glances to the side he happens to see a woman’s white foot against the dark green grass. “What is it you want?”

“It’s hardly anything,” he says, then he corrects himself: “It’s nothing at all.”

He hears the rustle of cloth, and the foot vanishes as a knee leans into his vision. He imagines: she is crouched beside him, faceless and slim, watching his back.

“You lie,” she says. “Are all the people of the moon-tribe so oblique?”

He laughs once, shortly. “Perhaps it’s just me. I’m difficult to please.”

For a moment she says nothing; then, “Perhaps if you knew better what pleased you, happiness would come easier.”

He goes still. “Ah,” he says. “You think I don’t know what I want?”

“You are not the first who came here with expectations,” she says, almost kindly. “Nor would you be the first to leave not understanding what you found.”

“Then I’m not the only fool?” He turns his head — not enough to actually see her, but he can see the sun glowing off her white hair, which flows and eddies around her in some unfelt breeze like mist. “O Amaterasu, mother of us all?”

She doesn’t answer right away. He expects this, but when he turns away, he hears (and her voice is so sad, with a heaviness he regrets at once), “You are not the first.”

Ushiwaka turns, quick as he can, but sees nothing but faint curl of fog left behind.

viii.

A great river cuts through Takamagahara, beginning as a bubbling swirling spring and ending in a cascading waterfall, which occasionally mingles with the rain that falls to the mortal realm. It is two day’s journey to go from one end to the other, and it is a route Ushiwaka knows well. He travels it often, undisturbed by god or animal alike.

Today he reaches the spring in time to see a goddess rise from the waters, her long pale-blue hair rippling down her back. From both sides of her head sprout long delicate fins that are rainbow-translucent in the air, and her long fingers are webbed in-between. She turns to him, unashamed of her nudity, her strange eyes unblinking.

“You are far from your usual fields, child of the moon,” she says. Her voice is all the rush of water: rainfall, ocean wave, babbling brook. “You are far from Mother Amaterasu’s court.”

“I am,” says Ushiwaka. “I am allowed to leave, aren’t I?”

“Mother Amaterasu holds none against their will,” Nuregami says. “But that does not mean someone’s heart binds them when nothing else might.”

Ushiwaka looks at her. He could run away; Nuregami is not the swiftest of gods on land.

“My heart is a very poor thing,” he says. “Oracles are rarely suited for the marriage-bed.”

“Ah,” says Nuregami. Water winds its way down her cheek like a ribbon of tears. “So are gods.”

ix.

And one day he walks up to the great palace where Amaterasu holds court. The dark wolf is there again, standing guard outside the doors. Its silver eyes regard him with cool disdain.

“I want to speak with your sister,” Ushiwaka says; it’s not the gentle formal language Kaguya had used, so long ago, but he is not his princess, nor will he ever be of her level. “Let me through.”

The wolf growls softly, and its fangs are very sharp. Ushiwaka does not back down. He meets the wolf’s eyes straight on and does not back down. In one hand, he grips his flute like a sword.

And then slowly, still growling, the wolf rises to its feet and steps aside — not far, but just enough that, should the doors behind it open, a man could slip by without contact. Without a word, Ushiwaka strides past and into the sunlit audience chamber.

He sees now that there are actually thirteen seats, all arranged in a circle around the room; directly opposite of the door, a tier higher than the rest, is a white screen printed with the emblem of the sun. Behind it kneels a woman, her outline backlit by light. He does not break stride until he reaches the center of the room, where he goes down onto one knee and bows his head.

“Amaterasu,” he says. “Origin of all that is good and mother to us all.”

“Are we so formal, then?” she asks; in the room her voice echoes and sings. “O child of the moon, it is far too late for that.”

“Not so formal,” he says, without lifting his head. “I haven’t seen your face yet, after all.”

A low murmur goes through the chamber; the other gods must be in attendance, then, though he cannot see them at all.

But Amaterasu says nothing until all the voices have stopped. Into the new silence, she says, “And what would a child of the moon want with the sight of the sun-god’s face?”

He almost lies: there are quick and charming things he could say, glib and rolling off the tongue. He has charmed men and women alike with his words, effortlessly bright. But he puts his hand over his heart and he keeps his head low and he says, “Merely to see it.”

There is another murmur from the others. He can recognize individual voices now; he has only spoken directly with a handful of the brush gods, but their voices fit their forms, high and deep and bright and dark. He waits, unmoving.

“You ask for a great thing, child of the moon,” Amaterasu says. “Would you forsake your own people for this gift?”

He considers. He swallows.

He says, “They will always be my people, but I would gladly call this place my home.”

“I see,” says Amaterasu. Behind her screen her shadow moves. Ushiwaka expects more protests, but the other gods are silent as her white hand comes and pulls aside her veil.

And the face of the Amaterasu, the origin of all that is good and mother of all, is no more grand or special than the face of any other god but for the red brushstrokes on her face, which are more elaborate and spiderwebbing across her white skin. Ushiwaka looks at her and sees a lovely face, a noble face, but still no more lovely or noble than any of her inner court.

And yet in his throat there is a sudden pressure that makes it hard to breathe, a tightness in his chest that is physically painful. The longer he looks at her the harder it becomes, and yet he knows if he turns away everything will end; the sun cannot be one man’s alone. This is an unexpected sort of gift, one he knows that few even of the tribe of gods has ever been given. It is trust, and it could bring him to his knees easily.

He wants to weep, but his eyes remain dry.

Amaterasu-oomikami smiles down upon him, and the sun is radiant off the pure-white of her hair. To his surprise she stands and she descends, down the long stairs to stand before him. Her bare feet are grass-stained. The toes are long, and the nails slightly curved into points.

“Here I am,” she says. “I’ve always been here.”

And Ushiwaka bows until his forehead is pressed to the hem of her juu-ni hitoe, and cries at last.

x.

He writes reams of poetry, all of it very pretty and painstaking, and still can’t capture the exact cascading flow of her sleeve down her arm.

He writes scores of poems and burns each page as soon as he’s finished.

xi.

To his surprise, she seeks him out.

He sits on the banks of the River of Heaven, his bare feet dipped into the water, playing the melodies of his homeland. It seems very distant and strange to him now, the cold dark wary places where he was born, like something out of a nightmare. And yet he knows that’s not so: because the memory of cold and the leering faces of youkai are lumped in his belly, low and hard and icy to the touch.

The melodies were all in minor keys. Here, whenever someone sings — and some of the gods are whimsical enough to do so regularly — everything is major and bright.

He plays lullabies and doesn’t pay attention to anything in particular until she says, behind him, “Ushiwaka.”

And despite that he is not stunned into jumping; his breath dries in his throat and he lowers his flute. He breathes twice and says, “Amaterasu-oomikami.”

“Are we so formal now?” she asks. She steps now completely into his line of vision; with a start, he realizes that she is fully human in shape now, white-haired and barefoot and close enough to touch. “Before, you called me as the other gods do. Now, you refer to me as a stranger.”

She sounds amused. He swallows.

“I apologize for my rudeness,” he says.

“It’s hardly rude,” she says, amused. “Ah, the formalities are Tsukuyomi’s domain, less of mine.”

“Tsukuyomi-no-mikoto is very devoted to you,” Ushiwaka mumbles, looking at the water. “He always stands guard outside your chambers, protecting you–”

“Ah,” she says. “And sometimes, I change his fur so that it is white, and leave him in my place so I can go play.”

In shock he turns. She is looking straight at him and smiling; her maiden’s smile is not coy, but it is still playful. “He always protests,” she says, “but he still does it. That is part of his devotion, I guess.”

There is something seductive in the easy way she talks: she is polite, but her speech is casual, flowing as easily as the water around Ushiwaka’s ankles. He swallows and instinctively leans back when she lists towards him.

“Are all men of the moon so stiff and formal?” she asks. “Have you all taken so much after my brother? Ah! I’m not sure I want any more of that.”

“Amaterasu-oomikami–”

“Surely,” she says, her voice and face suddenly serious — though she puts no more distance between them — “surely you already know how silly that is.” From the corner of one eye he sees her lift one white hand, and her long fingers trace something in the air a scant hairsbreadth from his cheek. “You already know, don’t you?”

Ushiwaka takes a deep breath. He lets it out. With a shaking hand he leans forward into her hand.

He sees:

a long road that stretches thin and winding, starting at his feet and ending at hers
blood soaking the hem of her haori, a red pattern of cherry blossoms across the white cloth
her smile and her dimming eyes — if one must die, spring is a good time for it —
and the solemn unchanging essence of stone.

With a gasp he pulled back. It takes a few moments for her face to swim back into focus, and her expression is solemn. “Ah,” he gasps, and realizes that he is gripping her arms, so tightly that his own fingers hurt. “Ah, Amaterasu–”

Spring will come with no sun, he wants to say, though his throat closes on the words. There is darkness coming.

Her fingers move across his face. Her nails are sharp and trace the curve of his cheek. She leans forward and puts her forehead to his, and her hair slides forward, down her shoulder. It smells of musk and sun-warmed fur, of flowers and ripened summer fruit; it follows the gentle curve of her breast. The eyes of the sun-god are brilliant gold, and he feels like he might fall in and burn away. It’s utterly, painfully trite, but he cannot make himself blink.

“I believe,” she whispers to him, her breath against his face. “Don’t forget that.”

Ushiwaka finally releases her arm. He presses his hand over hers, so that it is trapped against his face. Her palm is hot and dry. He thinks suddenly, absurdly, of how they must look: the exile from the moon, standing with the sun-god, intimate as lovers. She smiles at him now, and he sees a single fang peeking over her lip: it’s a canine grin, brilliant and guileless and he finds himself smiling helplessly back.

He doesn’t say her name, and he doesn’t dare put his arms around her, but when she tilts her head towards his, he closes his eyes and leans to meet her halfway.

xii.

The Day of Darkness brings with it a shadow from behind the stars. The beast Orochi rips through Takamagahara like paper, uprooting ancient trees and leaves scorched poisoned gouges in the once-fertile earth. Gods fall before its onslaught: they cannot fight, and so they die.

In his life Ushiwaka has seen many great and terrible things, and on this day he sees the last face of Mother Amaterasu, which is both: the snarling beast, the divine protector, she whose blade was swift and deadly, whose claws tore and teeth ripped, who bore down with the ferocity of the divine wind and scoured the earth clean as she passed. The other small gods can do nothing but flee, but Ushiwaka stands beside her and follows her charge.

Together they drive the beast back to the edge of the heavenly plain, but though they strike it and again, though it bleeds black from a thousand terrible injuries and several of its heads hang almost severed from its thick scaled necks, it does not fall. Against the inevitable spread of the Day of Darkness, with the prayers of mankind grown silent, they can do nothing but hold fast. Ushiwaka stares up into those eight hideous faces and sees instead a glade under the clean light of the moon, and the single tiny human that lifts his trembling hands in a final attack.

He sees this and he thinks: this is not that place.

This is not that time.

Ushiwaka draws his sword, and into Amaterasu’s ear he whispers the name Izanagi.

She glances at him once with her flashing eyes, and then she leaps, her white fur shining in the darkness, and strikes Orochi. For a moment they are poised on the edge, suspended for that heartbeat of time.

And then they fall, writhing together, down with the trumpet of Orochi’s roar, down with Amaterasu’s mane streaming, down, down, down to the mortal plane, and though Ushiwaka rushes to the edge and looks as hard as he can, he cannot see her light any more.

xiii.

The statue is such a crude thing, made of rough stone and awkward craftsmanship; it hardly looks like anything recognizable, and yet there is still something within that makes his throat tighten. Ushiwaka runs his hands over the snarl of the beast, the arch of its back and the suggestion of claws, and presses his forehead to that of the stone wolf.

There will come a time, he knows, when she will walk again: she is Amaterasu, she is the sun-god and even when her mortal body fails and fades, she rises to travel through the sky every day. Her injuries will heal, and there will come a time when her children will cry out and she will answer.

It will come, but it is still a long time that he kneels at the statue’s base, first in silence, and then playing the flute-melodies she’d asked for so long ago.

“When Konohana blooms again,” he says to himself, as day once more fades to night, “we’ll meet again.” He turns and places his hand on the stone wolf’s breast, where the heart should be. He looks into the blank eyes and imagines that, for just a moment, he sees them flash. He smiles.

“I believe,” he says softly. “I believe, and I won’t forget.”

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15 Things About Seiryuu

1. He was not Seimei’s first shikigami, nor his first Shinshou — but he was the first that Seimei named; it bothers him still that Seimei would name others, and that Seimei has to consciously remember to call him “Shouran” when he calls Touda “Guren” so easily.

2. He had not liked Wakana, but he had not disliked her, either. She’d made Seimei happy, and that’s the only reason he forgave her for breaking Seimei’s heart later. Continue reading

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Her Mercies She Keeps

Butterflies do not have long lives, and Mitsumushi is already old.

+++

She finds Seimei in his room, writing poetry. There is a woman now, a soft-spoken polite creature that always keeps her eyes downturned — but she does not blush around Seimei, and she takes his mood swings and changes in stride. Where the Lord Hiromasa would be confused and stumble clumsily for the joke, the Lady Wakana only waits patiently until Seimei’s humor changes, and occasionally rewards his words with a faint smile. Continue reading

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Places Where the World Ends

Rinali dreams:

In the same shattered landscape under the black crescent moon, she hears the sound of water dripping. She follows it.

Her boots make a solid noise each time she leaps from one broken building to another, but they do not echo in the ruins. She passes under crumbled arches and over fallen pillars, past a tattered flag with a familiar cross screened in faded colors. For a moment she lingers, stopping to pull at a loose thread until it unravels more; she ties this around her pinky and then continues following the sound of water.

At the end of the trail is a single building that is weathered, but not broken. There are no windows, and only a single door. Rinali takes the doorknob and hears a clicking sound, like gears shifting, like a lock being turned.

Under her hand the door opens. She walks inside.

What she finds appears to be a single small room, wallpapered in pale blue, with clouds painted along the top of the walls. There’s a canopied bed with a ridiculous amount of lacy ruffles, set with a small mountain of stuffed animals. A little girl’s room, ridiculously bright and cheerful, and Rinali turns to glance over her shoulder, seeing the gray sky and broken landscape she left behind, still looming just beyond the doorway. When she goes back to peer outside, everything beyond seems so much darker than it was before, with a chill that sinks into her bones and seems to hold her immobile. For a moment she thinks *I can see the entire world.*

“Grim, isn’t it?”

Rinali turns and looks at the girl sitting on the bed.

Amidst the pink and frills, the black pleats of Rhode Camelot’s skirts are stark contrast. She sits with her hands folded in her lap and her ankles crossed; her feet are bare. She blinks slowly at Rinali, then tilts her head to one side. “What are you doing here?”

“I …” Rinali looks back to the world. The black crescent moon has sunk almost low enough to touch the waterline. “I don’t know.”

“Ah.” There’s a brief rustle of skirts, but when she looks back, Rhode has just rearranged herself, spreading her skirts around herself. In the pinkness of the room, the ring of scars on her forehead look pink and fresh, as though they could start bleeding at any moment. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Yes,” Rinali agrees quietly. A breeze eddies in from outside, smelling of salt and decay. “But here I am.”

Rhode looks up as she’s fluffing out her skirt again. “Here you are,” she says. “You can’t stay, either.”

“There’s no one else left out there, right?” She wraps her arms around herself, trying to remember: faces in the water, bodies lying across the wreckage of buildings, and a resounding silence that felt like it could deafen her. “My brother, Allen, Ravi … they’re all gone, aren’t they.”

“Only in a matter of speaking.” Rhode uncrosses and recrosses her ankles. Her dark eyes are opaque in her dusky face, flat and reflecting nothing, not even the light. “But you know that already.”

“Is this what will happen?” Rinali asks, hugging herself tighter. “If we fail? If you and the other Noah win?”

Rhode says nothing. The air outside, against Rinali’s back, grows steadily colder, and she thinks she might be freezing along with it.

When she makes herself look again, Rhode Camelot has not moved, watching her still. Something in the line of her mouth and the arch of her brows suggests pity, but there is nothing like that in her unblinking eyes. Rinali straightens and makes herself move, one foot before the other, shivering as warmth begins to seep back into her. Rhode tugs on her skirts to make room as Rinali sinks to sit on the bed beside her, two pretty little dolls in a row, dressed in matching black.

“This isn’t my world, either,” Rhode says abruptly. She does not look at Rinali as she goes on: “This isn’t anyone’s world, really, there’s no one left for it. Not even us.” Her fingers bunch in her skirts, knuckles slowly turning white. “Even though we’re both right here, it’s not.” Now she turns with tears on her cheeks, and she looks terribly young, though her eyes are old as the ruined stone buildings just outside. “It’s *not*, that’s the problem. This, this is the way the world ends, not even with a whimper — just silence.”

“Oh,” Rinali says. She looks down for a moment at their feet, and the only thing she can say is: “Your family is gone too, then.”

A hand covers hers, small and bony and very warm.

“Yes,” says Rhode Camelot. “They are.”

+++

Rinali dreams: and she knows it’s a dream, but still does nothing as she sits, holding hands with an enemy in a strange little room after the end of the world. Try though she might, she can’t remember where she might wake up, and so she finds herself not particularly eager to rush back. Through the still-open door, she can see that the black moon has sunk completely out of sight, and all that’s left is the bleak horizon, with its jagged teeth of broken buildings. She can see waves of increasing size building upon the water’s surface, but the winds blowing make no sound; all she can hear is the sound of their own breathing.

And then, from very far away, the sound of water dripping: plink – plink – plink. Rinali lifts her head, starts to stand.

Rhode’s hand tightens on hers. She says nothing, though when she looks up, her mouth is a flat line and there is tightness at the corners of her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Rinali says, and means it. “Like you said — I shouldn’t be here, and neither should you. This isn’t a place for us.”

Still Rhode does not let go, and Rinali doesn’t try to pull away. “You’ll find your way back as well,” she said. “There must be someone else waiting for you, where things are still real, all you need to do is–”

Rhode slips off the edge of the bed and rises onto her toes and kisses Rinali’s mouth. Up close she smells like cinnamon and salt, and her lips are thin and hard, like the hand still tightly clasping Rinali’s own.

Rinali makes a startled noise. She can still hear the sound of water dripping, and around her pinky finger comes a brief, subtle tug.

And then Rhode bites down on her lower lip, hard enough that she tastes blood and startled tears come to her eyes, and pulls away. There is a faint wry smile on the Noah’s face; it makes her look much older — a woman’s face and a woman’s mind and a girl-child’s body. With her free hand she touches Rinali’s cut lip, and her fingers come away wet with blood and spittle, and she uses these to line her own mouth.

“Good bye,” she said. “Exorcist.”

“Eh?” Rinali starts to reach out, and the distance between them has stretched somehow, so even as she stumbles forward, and draws in the breath to say–

+++

“–wait–”

Rinali opens her eyes. Water from the showerhead drips steadily on her forehead; water from her hair drips to the ground. Around her the ship creaks and groans faintly; the air smells of salt and old wood and tar. Her lip hurts, and when she touches her tongue to the ache, it stings and tastes faintly of blood.

With a sigh, she turns away to dry herself, and dresses in her new uniform for the first time.

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The Familiar Anew

I.

The first time Guren slept with Masahiro had been more an accident than anything else: he’d been dozing under a tree, his back to the trunk, and woken some hours later with a tiny infant curled determinedly in his lap and Kouchin laughing at him. He’d stayed still as possible to keep from disturbing the child until his mother came for him, and Masahiro had woken when moved and begun to fuss, reaching back out and struggling until Tsuyuki, apologetic, had given him back.

The second time they’d slept together came after that, with Masahiro clinging with determination to the black ridges of his collar and Guren dozing more than anything else, keeping an ear open in case the boy started to fuss again. Continue reading

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The Adaption of Fear

What do you fear? the wind sang, its voice high and keening. What do you fear, what do you fear?

Guren scowled as he scanned the area, one fist still wreathed in flame and ready. The spirit in question had showed itself briefly in the shape of a young woman before it vanished into the night, but her voice still carried on the breeze, accompanied by the sharp scattered notes of a shamisen.

Rumor placed the ghost as a favored concubine of some high-ranked nobleman, one who’d died under mysterious circumstances shortly after the empress’ pregnancy had been announced. Nightly she appeared in the garden she’d frequented in life, playing her instrument and singing songs of misfortune: aaah, the winter will be hard, the crops will fail, the emperor’s son will sicken and die before he comes of age. Others had tried to exorcise her and met with bad luck: the first onmyouji had fallen in pursuit of her and broken a leg; another had been attacked by bandits when returning home unsuccessful; a third had fallen ill and still wasn’t recovered, weeks later. Continue reading

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Five Truths About The Oni-Eater

1. On a certain day every year, during the full moon, he returns to a specific mountain, to the base of a specific tree, and spends the night there; he will raise his cup to the youkai who pass him, and they nod politely to him in turn; only here does nothing live in awe or fear of him.

The secret is: he actually likes that quite a bit.

2. It’s not so much that he disdains humans as he worries, in a vague way, about how fragile they are. An oni can be tossed from a cliff and not worry too much about the fall; they’re made of tougher stuff than most youkai, even. To kill a human, it takes only a little pressure, a fast enough fall, a drop of poison — a hundred thousand things that youkai can shrug off with relative ease. Continue reading

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The Size of the World

The biggest problem is not any number of things that Riku thought it would be.

It wasn’t the issue of the horrible things he’d done — the people he’d hurt, the darkness he’d taken into himself, the shadow that still whispered somewhere in the recesses of his mind.

It wasn’t his arrogance and his insecurity, which had, in a dozen ways, been the start of it all. Continue reading

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Winter’s Night

Gods do not feel heat and cold the same way humans do: they exist only temporarily in that brief world, and so pass through the changes of the seasons without much incident. One’s elemental alignment can also be counted in the balance — the summer heat feels like another part of Guren’s own self, while the winter cold is hardly enough to touch him.

On the other hand, humans are fragile and feel the changes of the seasons acutely. Seimei complains with good cheer about the ache in his bones as the cold begins to set in, and remarks about how difficult it will be to make his rounds once snow falls and ice forms on the streets. It’s only partly a lie — Guren has never seen Seimei stumble gracelessly before, though his old master has definitely slowed with the onset of winter in his age. Continue reading

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Ravenson

Once upon a time:

A son was born to a good king and his noble queen, and the entire country rang with the sounds of rejoicing. Strong as his father and fair as his mother, he brought joy to the hearts of all who saw him. Noblemen came to pledge their sons to his service and their daughters to his hand, and the king his father listened carefully to all their petitions and after consideration and competition, two young men were selected from the many: one to be the prince’s right hand, the other to be his left. The right hand was the son of the king’s own advisor, Raven the Wise; the other was the son of a knight who had served long and faithfully in the king’s service. It was a good match, nearly everyone agreed; the lives of the sons would echo the lives of the fathers, and the kingdom would continue to prosper.

But at this declaration the queen turned her face away from the celebrations and stroked the hair of her son the prince as he slept in his cradle. And as the people raised their cups in celebration, a toast to the prince and his new companions, she wept over her son.

“Why do you weep, O wife?” said the king. “This is a joyous time. Your grief is unseemly for this day.”

She did not lift her head when she answered: “A shadow has fallen upon this day, which shall not lift for many years,” she said. “I will tell you this, my king: our son shall be betrayed by those he loves best.”

And the king was solemn, for the queen was witch-born, and had moments of true sight, and her words carried a grim weight to them. “These are bleak tidings of which you speak,” he said. “I would not have our son incapable of love.”

“He shall not be incapable,” said the queen, “but therein will lie his doom, for his heart will not cleave to one until it has been broken to a hundred pieces and put back together.”

And this further troubled the king, but then spoke Raven the Wise: “My king, put aside your sorrows for this day. Your son will love all, and our sons shall watch over him, and be glad of his growth. They will lay down their lives for him, that he may never know grief.”

And perhaps it was a foolish thing, for the king knew in his heart that the queen spoke truly, but he let himself be coaxed away from dark thoughts, and return to the celebrations. But the queen remained at her son’s side, and she looked sadly upon him.

“Do not blame your father,” she said, “for he is a good man, and true of heart. And do not blame Raven, for he loves your father as dearly as I, and wishes only to distract him from his sorrows on what should be the happiest of days.

“But live wisely, my son, and keep to heart your mother’s warnings, for her own heart will be in two before yours is ever broken.”

And the prince looked upon his mother, with her eyes blue as the sky and her hair red as firelight, and was silent as she wept over him.

***

Time passed, as time always will, and the prince grew from a lovely child to a strong young man, and his companions grew beside him, ever his shadows and his faithful friends. Both were dark as the prince was bright, though Ravenson was quick to jest and to laugh, and Knightson was solemn, preferring the study of books to the study of combat.

“How ironic,” Ravenson said once, as the three of them rode out for a fox-hunt. “That his pen be quicker than his father’s sword, where I would prefer to spar than bury myself in my own father’s texts.”

“There is nothing wrong with that,” said Knightson, who squinted at the bright sun in his eyes. “It means that we are not bound by our fathers. It means we can change, and we are not bound by fate.”

“My dear friend, we are always bound by fate,” said Ravenson. “It is simply a matter of whether we choose to accept it as men, or flee from it as dogs.”

The prince said nothing, riding between the two of them, and what thoughts he had he kept to himself. Through the woods they ran, pursuing foxes — and some they caught, and some they did not. Mindful of his lord’s quiet, even Ravenson ceased his chattering before long. Like a witch’s spell the silence grew and strengthened between them, until even birds fell silent as they passed — which in itself was unusual, as most were apt to burst into song at the prince’s approach.

However, when they came to a lake in the middle of the forest, their horses began to shy and worry, tossing their heads and refusing to come forward. The air reeked of magic, so that even they three humans could sense it. Ravenson finally shook off his quiet and said, “My lord, we should not travel any further.”

And the prince looked up, stilling his horse as well. “What do you see?”

“They say a fairy of the water lives here,” said Ravenson. “She’s not the sort to let travelers pass without a toll, let alone those who’d hunt in her part of the woods.”

Knightson smiled thinly. “What, are you afraid?”

And Ravenson frowned, for he was stung by the veiled insult. “I am not,” he said. “I am merely doing as I should, and advising our prince against danger.”

“Even if there were,” said Knightson, “we would keep him safe, would we not?” And he put his hand on the hilt of his sword, to show his readiness for battle. He looked at the forest around them with disdainful eyes. He looked very dashing and powerful, and not at all like a man who preferred the quiet seclusion of the library to the battlefield.

Ravenson looked to their prince. The prince looked to the lake, with its calm sparkling surface. After a moment he dismounted and walked to the water’s edge, kneeling in the tall grass growing there. After a moment both Ravenson and Knightson dismounted as well, and came to stand by their lord’s side: to his right and to his left, just as they had long ago been chosen for. Together they peered down, and saw that their reflections were not visible, though the prince’s face looked back at them from the water. Ravenson took his lord’s shoulder.

“My prince, you must come away,” he said. “The fairy has seen you, and you are in danger. You must not linger so close to the water, or she will pull you into her world.”

But the prince looked at Ravenson with his gentle eyes and shook his head. “She is very sad,” he said, and put a hand over his heart. “She is not here of her own will, but has been trapped for a long time. She does not even remember her true home.” He looked back to the water, to his solitary reflection. “We should help her.”

“Ravenson is right,” said Knightson. “We should not linger here, my prince. You must not be taken in by the illusions of a fairy. It is not your place to rescue her, if even she is in need of that.”

“I am a prince of the kingdom,” said the prince, and he did not move from the water’s side. “My duty is to all those in need, whether they be man or beast or fairy.” And he leaned over the lake’s surface, and he said: “I will rescue you from this prison.”

And then to the horror of both Ravenson and Knightson, the prince’s reflection in the water stretched up long white arms that broke the surface. They wrapped around the prince’s neck and then before any man could hope to come to his aid, the arms pulled him into the water. Knightson drew his sword, but at the last moment Ravenson caught his sleeve.

“You are the best rider of us,” he said. “You must hurry back to the castle and tell my father what has happened.”

“I am a knight,” said Knightson, “I will not run away when my prince is in need.”

“Against a fairy, your sword will mean nothing,” said Ravenson. “If you turned cold steel against her, she might kill the prince in retaliation.” He clasped Knightson’s shoulder and went on: “I am my father’s son. I will buy you time.”

Knightson looked him in the eye, and then clasped Ravenson’s shoulder in turn. He said: “Do not get yourself killed in his place. Our lord would mourn you as much as anyone.”

Ravenson smiled tightly. “Our lord mourns the falling of leaves every autumn,” he said. “It would not be a bad thing, to be worthy of his sorrow.”

He turned then, as Knightson ran for his horse, and dove into the waters of the lake where the fairy had taken the prince. And though he was a strong swimmer, he found himself sinking straight to the bottom of the lake, where a glittering palace of white stone and pearl stood with its bone-gates wide open. Here he set foot on what appeared to be solid dry ground, and so forgot himself he took a breath in surprise — and found that water did not immediately rush to fill his lungs. The air tasted like enchantment, so thick on the tongue that he nearly gagged on it. Despite his earlier warnings to Knightson, he found himself putting his hand on the hilt of his sword — just in case.

Through the long, winding hallways of the castle he walked. Strange flowers, the likes of which he’d never seen before even in his father’s oldest texts, nodded at his passing. He almost fancied he could hear them whispering amongst themselves as he passed.

His footsteps echoed.

Eventually, however, he came to a ballroom, where the walls ballooned out and paled to transparency. In the center was the prince, caught in a pas de deux with a woman all in white, whose pale hair fluttered out behind her like the stretch of great wings. Even from the distance, Ravenson saw that his lord’s face was sorrowful: for his heart was such that he felt pain for all beings injured or unhappy, and he was the born champion of all who might need his strength.

I am lonely, said the fairy’s dance; I am afraid.

I will help you, said the prince’s dance; I will protect you from that which would harm you.

You cannot, said the fairy’s dance; your doom has already been set.

And this declaration, told in the delicate arch of the fairy’s lifted foot and the way she turned her lovely face to the side, chilled Ravenson’s heart. Once more his hand went to his sword, and this time he drew the blade. He thought of the kindness of his lord, and found he disliked the look of the prince’s hands upon the fairy’s back, how graceless they suddenly seemed, as though the life were already being sucked from him. In a rage Ravenson charged, and his battle cry was the prince’s name.

For the first time he was noticed; the fairy’s eyes turned to him. Her expression remained sorrowful, and he could not stop himself as their pas de deux turned them, and Ravenson watched as his sword struck his own lord’s heart.

Like a spring-rose, blood flowered from his chest, but the fairy did not move: she opened her small white hands and caught the blood, and these in her hands turned into the pieces of the prince’s heart. The prince made no sound as he fell.

Ravenson stared at his fallen lord and at the damned sword in his hands, and the despair that gripped him was as deep and chill as the waters of the lake. He watched numbly as the fairy placed the pieces of the prince’s heart on her skirt and as she walked in a slow circle, picking up every small fragment that had been missed. When she came to stand before him, he saw in her eyes an understanding that cut him sorely, as though she knew exactly what madness had driven him to turn a blade against his lord.

Her pale lips moved; her voice was soft as a dream’s whisper. “I would have the last piece of the prince’s heart,” she said. “For he may be saved, but only if all of his heart is given back to him.”

And Ravenson looked down upon himself and saw that there was no blood on the blade, but on his own breast, in the same place where the prince had been struck. He took a deep breath and felt the warm stickiness of it upon his chest. He looked at the fairy, and saw that while she stood en pointe, her feet still did not quite touch the ground.

He says, “If it will save my lord, then.”

The fairy looked at him. She put out one small hand and touched the stain on his clothes, and this came off into her palm, a small glowing red fragment. For a moment, he felt cold with its loss, like something precious had been taken from him.

Without a word he watched as she turned and knelt beside the prince. Her fingers were slim and delicate, but they knew their work well: within moments she has assembled a crystalline heart upon the folds of her skirt. This she took and placed upon the prince’s chest, where it began to glow white at the edges. The prince made a little noise — a brief, pained sound, but still glorious proof that there was yet breath in his lungs — and the fairy turned to Ravenson, her eyes sadder than before.

“I have something I must tell the prince,” she whispered. “In that moment, you must strike me down.”

Ravenson stared. “I cannot,” he said. “You’ve saved my lord from my folly. You should be rewarded.”

“I have lived here a very long time,” the fairy said. “I have long watched the prince from my prison.” She gestured to the bubblelike walls of the ballroom. “You must do this, or else the prince’s doom will fall upon him still.”

“But you’re saving him!” Ravenson cried. “How could I do that, when I have already wounded my lord–”

“You must,” said the fairy. “For your own doom will be far worse if you do not.”

“I cannot,” said Ravenson, and he took his sword and threw it away: it hit the ballroom floor and spun far out of reach. “I will not be so callous twice.”

“Even now,” the fairy said, “your father the Raven has betrayed his father the king. They comb the countryside looking for you. If you do not strike me down, they will find you, and they will use you to kill your prince entirely.” She stretched up both her small white hands and covered his; when she pulled away, there was a dagger in his hands where none had been. “It has always been your fate to be the one to strike the prince down: but this has come to pass, and you may yet escape repeating history.”

Ravenson stared. “I do not believe you,” he said. “My father loves the king as a brother, he would not betray our lord so!”

But the fairy pointed, and Ravenson looked and saw with sinking heart the castle where the prince lived, and he saw the flames that danced across the stone, and the black smoke that came boiling out the windows. He saw his own father with a bloodied sword, and the slit throat of the king; he saw the Knight and Knightson both with their blades drawn, fighting their way through a mass of black-feathered bodies, as his own father’s guard sought to cut them down as well.

“No more,” Ravenson said, and averted his eyes. “No more, I will not — I cannot take this.”

The fairy looked at Ravenson, and it was not pity but compassion in her eyes. Her cheeks were wet.

“And what will happen,” said Ravenson, “if I do this for you?”

“Your father shall become powerless,” said the fairy. “For he has used my own strength for years, and would use me again to track the prince, and hunt him to his death like a fox in the woods. But you shall take his place, and your prince will never again look upon you with love.”

Ravenson swallowed and bowed his head. “I have already betrayed my lord,” he said. “It is a fitting punishment for one such as myself.”

The fairy placed her soft hands over his and squeezed gently. “There is still a way to the light,” she said softly. “Your prince will find happiness, I will promise you that.”

“Thank you,” Ravenson said. “That is … good to know.”

And then the prince said, his voice fading and tired: “What is going on?”

“Please,” the fairy whispered, and turned her back on Ravenson, turned to face the prince once more.

“Prince,” she said. “I am the fairy of the lake, trapped here by a dark curse. I was meant to lead you to your death, but I have watched you through these years, and I have been swayed by the kindness of your heart. And I wish to say one thing to you, before my own doom befalls me.”

Ravenson thought of the queen’s prophecy, years ago, and gripped the hilt of the dagger so tightly his knuckles turned white. He thought of the many years of kindness from his lord; he thought of the years of betrayal that would be yet to come. And his own tears fell at the thought of what would become, for the prince would never forgive striking down an innocent, especially one that had saved his life — but Ravenson would never allow himself the close comfort of his lord’s confidence again: it was too much to ask, for one who had turned steel upon his prince, however unwittingly.

“I love you, my prince,” said the fairy, and she did not speak for herself alone.

***

“My lord!” Knightson flung himself from the saddle, heedless of his injuries, and hit the ground running. He dropped to his knees, reaching out to grasp both of the prince’s arms and haul him out of the lake. “What happened?”

The prince shook his head. His eyes were terrible to behold. “We have been betrayed,” he said.

“We have,” Knightson agreed urgently. “The Raven has gone mad, my lord, and your honored father has been murdered — we must hurry, perhaps Ravenson will know something –”

“Then we are twice betrayed,” the prince said, his voice hollow. He turned his eyes upwards, to the empty sky overhead. “And it will be a long time till morning comes again.”

***

Once upon a time:

There was an old raven who’d lined his nest too far and deep with treasures gathered during his many years of life, and who sought to move his nest to the highest point on the tree.

But this raven had a son, stronger and more clever than himself, and at the moment what would be his father’s greatest, he struck the older bird down, so that his body dashed to pieces against the rocks far below. And the raven’s son took the highest nest for himself, and he looked upon the wide stretch of country so far below and open to him, and smiled.

And in the kingdom below the tree there was a prince, pure and noble of heart, who swore he would fight the raven, and remove his darkness from the land. And he set out, with his faithful knight by his side,

But that is another story, for another night. How nice, how nice.

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A Beautiful Thing

Kantarou kissed Haruka first.

He hadn’t meant to, but Haruka was cute when he actually got flustered, scowling and wild-eyed and exasperated, you stupid human, what the hell is wrong with you? and there was just something very cute about Haruka’s flustered anger and exasperation, and in the way he bent himself — he, strongest of all youkai, fiercest of all tengu! — in order to yell straighnt in Kantarou’s face. It was cute, how Haruka sputtered and swore and threatened things, but his arms were always careful carrying Kantarou, and even if he flew off into the sunset, he always came back. Continue reading

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for outside eyes, unseen

Of course Kurosaki-kun knows: the darkness can only hide the physical form, not the emotions that may be lurking within.

And of course Tsuzuki-san does not know: because he is as desperately in love with Kurosaki-kun as he has been with all of his old partners, but this is the first one that has ever really loved or wanted him back. And in many ways this brightly, wonderfully, desperately hopeful Tsuzuki-san is the most intimate thing Tatsumi has ever seen. Continue reading

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xxxHOLiC crossover drabbles

(Bleach — Urahara spoilers?)

What I want to know is,” she drawls, swirling her cup, “what do I get out of it?”

Urahara puts his hands together and looks wounded. “Yuuko-chan,” he says, “when have I ever stiffed you on a payment?”

She puts her lips to the cup and looks at him, eyes narrowed just so. She looks lazy-eyed and indulgent, sprawled across her divan like a cat (and there are rumors that the Dimension Witch was the one who first taught the Shihouin family the technique of shapeshifting), her long hair and clothes arranged artistically about her. Urahara meets her look and smiles.

“Very well,” she sighs, and looks down into her cup. “In exchange, I want you to make a helper for me.”

Urahara’s smile almost slips. “Hm?”

She gives him a look and sits up a little. Even though it bares the long expanse of her white throat, there’s nothing friendly or vulnerable about her posture. “I’ll provide you the raw materials, but I need someone who’ll help maintain my shop in my absence.”

He does not blink, does not move, does not even breathe. “Yuuko-chan …”

Yuuko smiles at him again, and there’s definitely teeth in her expression. “Something like that little girl of yours,” she said. “Ah, but you don’t have to barter souls for them. The shop will provide.”

“How cold, Yuuko-chan,” he says, though he smiles still. “Couldn’t you make them yourself?”

“Of course.” She slides a hand through her hair. It slides across her white skin in a sibilant hush. “But that isn’t the point. I make something for you, you make something for me. Fair, right?”

He ducks his own head then, the abashed and embarrassed boy before his elder (and there are stories about that, too, that the whole of Seireitai was formed by the power of a wish she granted).

But he needs this body — he needs this true-form that is no different from a living human body, more flesh and blood than a regular gigai and without his own unique signiture in its making. “Fair,” he says. “And in return–”

“In return,” she says, and her blood-red lips bow upwards into a smile, “I will grant your wish.”

+++

(D.Gray-Man — no spoilers)

“I want to understand,” the boy says.

There is blood on his hands and blood pooling under his feet. Very little of it is actually his.

“Understand?” the witch asks. She is dressed all in black, so if there is blood on her as well, it cannot be seen. She walks towards him, and the low hem of her skirt just barely avoids trailing across the ground. “What do you want to understand?”

The boy closes his hands into fists. “Why this happens,” he says. “Why — even without Akuma, why people are so …”

She looks down at him. “You want to see the reason?”

“I don’t understand,” he says, and though he is a very young boy, his voice is heavy as that of an old man. “Why, how, what’s the meaning–”

The witch puts her hand on his head. He starts, but holds himself very still.

“No one can ever really know ‘everything,'” she says. “But you can at least learn ‘something,’ and that may be enough.”

Down her fingers trail, long and thin, and they press into the tender skin just under his eye. “But there will be a price.”

The boy swallows. Behind him, a body rolls over and gurgles thinly, even though the Akuma is dead. The thought bubbles up and floats by: that perhaps he’s gone from one deal with the devil to another.

Still, there’s very little left for him to lose here, isn’t there?

He looks at the witch and into her blood-red eyes, and he says, “I don’t care.”

“I am Bookman,” the old man says. There are liver-spots on his wrinkled skin and the dark circles around his eyes make him look like a wizened, unkind panda. “I understand you’re interested in apprenticing to me.”

The boy nods slowly. His head doesn’t quite hurt, though he thinks maybe it should — he can’t remember what the witch did to his eye, only that he woke with the bandage wrapped round his head and the gut feeling that something was just gone. He fists his small hands on his knees. “Yeah.”

“Very well.” The old panda puts his hands together and narrows those mean, hawk-clever eyes. “What’s your name, then, boy? You won’t be Bookman for a long time yet, there must be something to call you.”

The boy gingerly touches the bandages over his empty eye socket.

“Ravi,” he says.

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