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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