cowritten with Harukami
The ceiling fan spins out an uneasy pace, marking each passing second with a slow easy swirl that disperses the cigarette smoke throughout the room but does nothing to actually clear it up. I don’t mind; the smoke matches my mood: Dark, thick, and likely to end in death.
I pour myself another drink of sake with a hand that barely shakes and sink down lower in my seat, propping my tabi-clad feet up on the desk in front of me. I’ve barely had a chance to let the sake burn its way into my mouth when the door opens and lets in my super-perky secretary, Youko.
Youko’s kimono is a bright and sunny thing, at odd with my current feelings. She gives me a fond sigh as she comes over, opening the window to let some of the cigarette smoke out and some sunlight in. I nearly tell her to leave it, but she seems so pleased with herself that I just don’t have the heart.
“What’s up, doll?” I ask.
She gives me a perky smile. “You’ve got a customer, Kan-chan,” she says, brightly.
I’d say I wasn’t interested and to send the guy away, but the bills need to be paid and the landlord’s starting to make angry noises. I can delay him for a few more days, maybe, but I’ve got to cough up the money soon — I can’t say no. I’m not good at that.
“Send ’em in,” I say, and sit up. It doesn’t do any good for me to give any bad first appearances. Youko just beams at me again and ducks out of the room; I can hear her talking briefly with the customer. It sounds high-class, certainly; hopefully it’ll be someone who just wants a quick exorcism or purification — those don’t take much effort at all.
“Sugino-sama to see you,” Youko announces, and then the client walks in.
At first I think it’s a dame — the customer’s wearing a long dark kimono embroidered with gold dragons, and wearing one of those black western veil-hats that are becoming popular these days. The hair underneath is long and dark, tied up in pigtails, like some kind of little kid’s. But if it’s a dame, she’s an awful tall one with no figure to speak of. The bells on my wrist ring, and I think: well, shit.
“You’re the folklorist?” the customer says, and the tone used — disgust and doubt — rankles, though I merely smile back. “You look too young to be doing this work.”
I tip my hat up with a finger and give Sugino a sharp grin. “But appearances can be deceiving, can’t they — Youkai-san?”
It’s hard to make out Sugino’s features behind the veil, but I think his lips tighten. “How rude,” he says, and the offended arrogance lets me place him —
A Tengu. Interesting; I’ve been looking for a particular Tengu for some time, and while they’re not a particularly close-knit bunch, there’s always a chance this one’s got contact with that one. I let my smile lighten and hope he doesn’t immediately clue into my sudden self-interested politeness.
“My apologies, Sugino-sama,” I say, and lean forward. “I shouldn’t be troubling you in a time like this — you must be going through something unpleasant, for a guy like you to come to a guy like me for help.”
Sugino just sneers down his long nose at me, crossing his arms in front of his chest. I’m now certain he’s a man; no lady I’ve ever seen has been that flat, even in the restrictive bindings of a kimono. “I’m looking for someone,” he says.
I press my fingertips together and smile up at him. He doesn’t look like he trusts the expression, but hell, his sort rarely trusts anyone but themselves. “Ah? Who, then?”
“My wife.” He reaches into his sleeve and produces a photograph, which he tosses at me. I catch it without breaking eye-contact; he looks grudgingly respectful of that, though he hides the expression quickly enough. Tengu are a touchy bunch; they don’t like to acknowledge when anyone’s done something good, and it’s no good to show off too much. “She’s been missing for about half a day, now.”
I raise an eyebrow. “That’s hardly a reason to get worried,” I point out. “Maybe she just went for a walk.”
He looks offended at the very thought. “Would I be wasting both your and my time if this were the case?” he snaps, his voice going shrill. “No, my Moo-chan is out there somewhere, far away from her beloved husband, and needs help.”
“Even in the case of humans,” I say, “the person has to be missing for longer than that before you can be sure they just didn’t get delayed somewhere. I’m not saying you’re wrong, but–” I glance at the picture of a small round youkai. “Any evidence you have that she’s missing would help me find her that much faster.”
Sugino hesitates a moment too long before answering. Aha, I think. He’s hiding something. “It’s a husband’s instinct,” he responds, aloof.
“You seem very worried,” I say, guessing wildly, but not letting my smirk waver. Better he think I’m confident; he might give away information that he wouldn’t otherwise. “Do you think there’s something out there that might be threatening her?”
He continues to stare at me like he thinks I’m crazy. “I don’t know,” he says. “Still, if she’s been missing for this long, something must have happened. Moo-chan never leaves without telling me, first.” He takes in a deep breath and lets it out slowly, still scowling. “So are you going to help me or not?”
I smile and nod. “I never turn down a request for help,” I say. He’s a Tengu, and probably the god of some local shrine or forest, so he’s likely rich; if Youko and I play this right, we could score a decent amount of money from him — certainly enough for this month’s rent, maybe, and a new kimono for Youko. “Ichinomiya Kantarou, at your service.”
Sugino frowns at me like I’ve insulted him by saying my name. “You’d better find her,” he says. “If anything happens to Moo-chan, you’ll be the one who’ll pay for it.”
“Don’t worry, Sugino-sama,” I say, and snap my fan open. “I’ll find her, without fail.”
Tengu or not, he has a lousy idea of what a man needs to work on.
I’ve got nothing but her photo; in the end, he didn’t give any information on where she might be. He says she’s not on their mountain, and that’s something at least — though Japan is a big place, and so few people know about youkai that it’s not like I can show the photo around generally.
Except for one person.
Yumeyakko is an old friend — we go back a long way, and though I don’t always trust her, she knows about youkai and generally hears about missing girls before anyone else. I hate being farther in her debt, but there’s nothing to do, so I grit my teeth and head out through the dirty streets.
The street lamps barely succeed in lighting my path — if anything, they make the darkness between the pools of light seem even darker, as if they’ve sucked all illumination from the surrounding area into their tiny circles. It’s a dangerous night, and I keep on alert as I go; any thief messing with this folklorist is gonna find himself with more than he bargained for.
The red light district is the same as it’s always been, with men walking with their heads turned away and the red-paper lanterns hanging in the windows and the girls all decked out and calling with their coy high voices to anyone walking by. One of two of ’em even give me the call, though they know me by now — I’ve helped them out a few times in the past, as favors to Yumeyakko.
At her own house, the landlady greets me politely, but coldly; she’s not terribly fond of me. She thinks I bring bad luck, and who knows? After the fire that happened during the last exorcism I performed in this area, she probably has a good reason to believe that.
“Yumeyakko is busy with a customer right now, Ichinomiya-sensei,” she says. “Can this wait?”
“I’m kind of in a hurry,” I say. “I’m looking for a missing girl. Her husband’s very worried about her, so –”
If anything, the landlady turns more frigid — sometimes I think she makes up for her own girls by just getting colder and colder. “He’s quite a well-paying gentleman, Ichinomiya-sensei,” she says. “With troubles to get off his shoulders.”
“As is my customer,” I say, and give my most charming smile. “Still, will she be long?”
“I’m expecting another hour or so,” the landlady says. “You can wait.”
I don’t seem to have much choice, though I don’t like the feeling that I’m wasting time. I nod, gritting my teeth and smiling still, and take a seat. The chair is uncomfortable and hard, but it leaves me nowhere near as uncomfortable as I’ll end up being if I piss off a Tengu. And Yumeyakko is the only one who knows to keep an eye open for me; she’s got a little bit of spiritual sensitivity, so while she can’t see most youkai, she can usually tell if one’s around. Hopefully, Sugino isn’t the sort of client that likes to check up on my progress every half-hour; it’s nearly impossible to get work done when there’s someone hovering over your shoulder at all times.
An hour later, right on time, Yumeyakko comes down the stairs, escorting a man in a plain gray yukata. I take one look and consider how I must have done something truly horrible in my last life, for my luck to turn out this way.
“Ichinomiya,” says Hasumi, and pushes his glasses up his nose. He was my rival in school, and continues to oppose me whenever he can on the scholarly side of my profession; it’s always a pain to run into him. “Fancy seeing you in a place like this.”
I force a smile, though I can feel my eyebrow twitching. “The same goes for you,” I say. “I would think that an elite folklorist like you would have something better to do with his time, rather than frequent a house like this.”
Hasumi seems to puff up like an offended pigeon. “My pardon,”he says. “Some of us actually earn money doing hard work and need some relaxation. Speaking of which, what are you doing here, then? Though I suppose it isn’t surprising, as you’re anything but an elite folklorist…”
In retrospect, it wasn’t the best comeback I could have made. “I’m here to talk to Yumeyakko. If you’ll excuse me–”
Hasumi gives me a strange look — a look that sets me a little on edge. But then, Hasumi’s never liked me much. His loss. He doesn’t believe in youkai and he’ll never make it far in the business like that.
Yumeyakko’s expression is exasperated. “A place like this, hmm? You’d better talk fast, Kantarou; even a friend can only be expected to take so much.”
Uhoh. It’s never good to piss off a dame. I give her my most charming smile. “Ah, Yakko-chan…”
She doesn’t look appeased. “Kantarou,” she says. It’s the tone of voice she had when we were kids, which usually means she’s about to either say something really embarrassing about me, or hit me, one or the other. “What is it, then?”
I glance sideways at Hasumi, who’s still looming and projecting offended arrogance. I clear my throat and take Yumeyakko’s sleeve, pulling her away a little, then lean up to whisper in her ear, “I’ve got a client looking for someone. I was wondering if you’d seen –”
Yumeyakko sighs and pulls away, frowning at me. “Kantarou, this sort of thing again? Honestly, people would take you more seriously as a folklorist if you didn’t spend all your time chasing dreams –”
“It’s important, all right?” I hiss. Hasumi is eavesdropping, and not being subtle about it at all. His expression is growing progressively more offended; it’s like the presence of youkai are a personal insult to him. “Come on, Yakko-chan …”
“All right, all right,” she says. She gives Hasumi a coy smile. “A minute, Hasumi-san, before I can see you off?”
“I’m not sure why you’d bother to waste your valuable time on this sort of thing,” Hasumi says, not hiding the evil eye he’s giving me. “But I understand; it’s better to play along, isn’t it?”
I tip my hat at Hasumi. Showing how pissed off he makes me will just make him happier and the dame less likely to help. “Thanks for your understanding, Hasumi.”
Yumeyakko’s eyes roll delicately as she leads me to a side room. “All right,” she says, suddenly all business; it never fails to amaze me how women can be so changeable. “What do you need?”
I hand her the picture, and wait as she studies it. Her lips twist a little at the sight; Yumeyakko has been in this business since she was twelve and she prides herself on her aesthetic sense. “Kantarou,” she says, “are you sure this is a girl?”
“Her husband sure seems to think so,” I say. “Youkai don’t always have the same ideas of beauty that we do, Yakko-chan.”
She rolls her eyes at me and gives the picture back. “I haven’t noticed anything,” she says. “Honestly, Kantarou, not every youkai that disappears comes through here.”
“Maybe I just miss you, Yakko-chan,” I say brightly. “You are my childhood friend, after all.”
Yumeyakko just looks suspicious. “I would believe that of any other man but you,” she says. “Still. If this girl is missing, she hasn’t come by here.”
She probably isn’t on the run then, at least; most girls who find themselves suddenly homeless — youkai or human — end up passing through the red light district. Of course, with so little time since her disappearance, it’s hard to be sure. “Thank you, Yakko-chan. If you see her, can you give my office a ring?”
Yumeyakko gives a little shrug which seems deliberately designed to show off as much shoulder as possible. “If I see her,” she says. “It’s not likely, though; it’s not as if she’s, ah, the type who could pass for human. Now, if you’ll excuse me–”
“Busy work,” I agree, and take a step back. “Sorry, Yakko-chan, for interrupting–”
She heads for the door and turns back at the last moment, casting a sultry glance over her shoulder. “Oh, yes,” she says. “Are you still looking for the Oni-Eating Tengu? There was a customer I had earlier who mentioned something about it…”
“A customer?” I can’t help but lean forward, my curiosity and excitement welling in me. “Who was he? What did he see?”
“What was that name again…” She’s playing coy now; she’s too good at her job to forget a customer’s name. “Ah, yes, Minamoto Raikou.”
“Minamoto?” I blink, then frown a bit. I’ve heard the name before; the family’s pretty well-known in my professional circle, and I know my family’s had business with them in the past. “Interesting … did you give him my name?”
She looks insulted, though she hides her mouth behind one sleeve. “Kantarou, you’re the only one I break business protocol for,” she says. “Because we’re old friends. No, I didn’t, but you may want to keep an eye out for him.”
I smile at her. In spite of everything, she’s a good kid; she’s loyal, which is more than I can say for a lot of folks, human or youkai. “Thank you, Yakko-chan.”
She bows to me, then sweeps off to see Hasumi off. I watch her go and then leave myself, heading back out into the humid night. It’s warm enough that I almost regret Japanese propriety; my clothing sticks to me like a second skin. I’m back to square one, looking for Sugino’s wife, but now I know I’ve got competition looking for that Oni-Eating Tengu I’ve been searching for all these years …
It’s something, at least.
I go back to my office for now; it’s late at night, and I’ve got no clues. It’s one thing to be enthusiastic about your job, and another to work yourself into the ground over nothing — though sometimes I think everything comes down to nothing in the end.
I’m woken bright and early — much earlier than I’d like, and my head damn well hurts — by Youko shaking my shoulder. “It’s Sugino-sama,” she whispers at me, but somehow manages to sound perky despite it. Youko’s a morning person. “He’s back again.”
I rouse myself a moment before the Tengu himself stomps in; I don’t let myself show the weakness of how sleepy I’m definitely feeling. “Sugino-sama–”
“You! It’s been all night and you’ve been here sleeping?!”Sugino demands. “Don’t you understand the urgency? This is my wife I’m talking about, my wife!”
Something about his suspicious behavior before clicks in and I make a wild guess, just to see his reaction. “I’m not sure I can go much further without information,” I say. “Have you heard of a Minamoto Raikou?”
Sugino recoils a moment, like the name’s distasteful to him. He recovers quickly, but not fast enough. “Never heard of him,” he snaps. “More importantly, Moo-chan’s been gone for a day now, a whole day, and you’ve been wasting the time like this –”
“It’s only to be expected,” Youko murmurs in the background, like she’s trying to be soothing. “Sugino-sama, he’s only human –”
“Ahhhh, this is why I hate humans!” Sugino points an accusing finger at me. “Moo-chan could be hurt or frightened somewhere, and you’re wasting your time just lazing around in bed! I don’t even know why I hired you, you good-or-nothing lazy –”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and pray for patience. “I went looking,” I say, a bit more sulkily than I probably should. “As it stands, the only name I’ve found is that of Minamoto Raikou, and Sugino-sama, you haven’t even told me where you last saw your wife, only that she disappeared yesterday –”
“I don’t need to tell you these things!” Sugino snaps. “You’re just a pathetic human with an obsession with the Oni-Eater! You should do your job without asking any sort of personal questions!”
Oho. I try not to let his slip stand out too obviously. “Still,” I say. “If you can’t find her, and you know all these things, how do you expect me to find her if I don’t?”
I press my point, not giving him a chance to rest and recover. “I see you knew something of my reputation before hiring me, if you know I’m looking for the Oni-Eating Tengu. Do you think your wife may have been involved with ogres?”
He looks horrified by the very idea. “You don’t know what you’re suggesting, human,” he growls. “My Moo-chan would never consort with ogres, how dare you –”
“Obviously, you had some faith in my abilities, if you asked around and heard about me, and still came to ask for my help.” I cross my arms over my chest and try to puff myself up; it’s hard to pull off dignified when a Tengu is yelling at you and you’re only wearing the clothes you sleep in — but I think I do a pretty good job. “Are you hiding anything, Sugino-sama? Please, tell me.”
Sugino growls. “I –”
“I can only work with what I’m given.” I spread my hands and try to look resigned. Behind Sugino, Youko is giving me horrified looks and gesturing for me to shut up before I make him any angrier. “You can tell me everything you know and I’ll give you my all … or you can keep silent still, and let me wander around in circles while your wife is still lost.”
He’s pulled out his fan and it’s trembling with his rage; I keep one hand under the covers but reach slowly for the juzu I keep hidden under my pillow.
After a moment, though, he sighs and his hand droops. “I… have also some interest in the Oni-Eater,” he says. “We knew each other, back before he was sealed — so I wasn’t surprised when a certain man came to visit me on the mountain.”
“Minamoto Raikou,” I say.
Sugino nods — it’s a relief; I hadn’t been sure, but my suspicions have been proven correct. “He came to see me, and asked me a lot of irritating questions. It was none of his business, and I told him so.”
“And your wife disappeared after he left?” I try to keep my voice gentle, and my hand under my pillow. I’m not really strong enough to take on a Tengu, but if I needed to, I could distract him enough to run away. It sounds like this might be a better lead than anything else I’ve found, especially for the trail of the Oni-Eating Tengu; maybe, if I can keep contact with Sugino after this is all over, I might be one step closer to finding him. “Sugino-sama?”
“Moo-chan is so trusting,” Sugino says miserably. “What if that damn Minamoto took her with him, to use as some kind of bargaining chip against me, so I’ll tell him where the Oni-eater is –”
“Do you know?” I blurt, before I can stop myself. “I mean –”
He looks at me, irritated. “I know he was sealed, and who did it,” he says. “I don’t know where, or how to break it. More importantly, Moo-chan is –”
It’s no more than I knew, and I feel my heart sink in my chest. No time to let myself worry, however; I’ve still got a potentially dangerous Tengu on my hands. And he’s got a strange glint in his eye — I suspect he might know, and is simply holding the information back. Maybe as a bargaining chip, maybe he just doesn’t like me.
“All right,” I say soothingly. “I’ve heard of Minamoto Raikou. If he’s got your wife with him, he’s sure to contact you to make his demands known.”
“He hasn’t yet,” Sugino says, and for the first time there’s doubt in his voice.
“Go to where he’d know to find you,” I say. “In the meantime, I’ll look into the matter myself.”
He frowns at me and gathers himself up; in the hallway, Youko yelps and dives for cover as he spreads his wings suddenly. They’re pure white, I see, and somehow, it doesn’t surprise me that he’s a white Tengu, and not a normal one. “Kantarou,” he says, “I don’t know –”
“You should go back, just in case,” I stress. “Minamoto Raikou knows what you are, and if you try to attack him on his own territory — well, if he does have your wife, he may threaten her to get to you. Please go back and wait on your mountain. I’ll let you know if I find anything out.”
Sugino continues to scowl at me for long moments, then draws himself up and nods stiffly. “… Good luck,” he says, reluctantly, like it pains him to say the words. “I’ll come back tonight, if I haven’t heard from him.”
Before I can answer, he sweeps off. When he’s gone, I lean back on one hand and finally let go of the juzu, rubbing the back of my neck. Youko peers around the doorway at me. “Kan-chan,” she says. “You really do stupid things sometimes, don’t you?”
If it were anyone else, I’d take offense. As things are, all I can do is give Youko a small embarrassed laugh. “Well, he had me between a rock and a hard place,” I assert. “At least this way, if Minamoto does make demands, we’ll hear about it.”
“Are you actually going to his place?” Youko looks concerned. “His family is famous for youkai-hunting.”
I hadn’t known that much, but it doesn’t surprise me she’d know; youko know how to keep their tails out of trouble. “Are they, now? I wonder if that’s why they’re looking for the Oni-Eater–”
She gives me a horrified look. “Kan-chan! You’re not thinking of going because of that, are you?”
“He may have different information from what I have,” I say. “He may know the location but not how to unseal him, or something…”
“Do you really think this is a good idea?” She scoots into the doorway and continues to frown at me. “Kan-chan, the Oni-eater might not be happy at all with his imprisonment, and he may take it out on you –”
“I’ll be careful,” I say, waving at her to turn her back as I rise to get dressed. The full uniform, I think; Minamoto might not recognize Ichinomiya Kantarou by himself, but he’ll very likely at least know my family name and the tools of my trade. “I mean, after all this time searching, I can’t stop now, do I?”
She sighs and bows her head a little. “Kan-chan, come on,” she moans. “You’re going to get killed and I’ll be stuck with a boring name like ‘Youko’ for the rest of my life –”
“I promise I’ll be good,” I say. “Youko-chan, I do actually know how to take care of myself.”
She makes a face, forces herself to smile, though she’s barely the image of her usual perky self. It’s nice to know she’s still worried about me, even when I do quote-unquote stupid things. “Well, be careful at least,” she says.
I ruffle her hair lightly. “I always am.”
I leave her squawking behind me as she fumbles to get her hair back into place, and head off. It’s quite a long trip to the Minamoto residence, and the sun is high overhead by the time I arrive at the front gates. The place is huge; a mere folklorist like me has no chance of ever living in a place like that. I whistle under my breath.
In their time, the Minamoto clan was favored by nobility, and were nobility themselves; it’s reflected in their ancestral home. There are wards set up everywhere, and I think that this is probably more trouble than it might be worth. I’m not really good at physically fighting, so if it comes to that, I’m probably in trouble. And I’ve still got an angry Tengu with his eye on me, so one wrong step and I’m dead either way.
Days like this, I think, are the reason men sometimes shouldn’t get out of bed.
I turn to circle the gate, and see if there’s a place to sneak in, and trip over something that squishes under my foot. I go flying, and the bells on my wrist ring like crazy.
After the stars and swirling lights have faded, I feel something small and cool patting my cheek. “Muuu?”
I manage, dazed, to pry my eyes open. For a moment, I think I hit my head badly enough to leave me hallucinating.
The youkai facing me is instantly recognizable as the one from the photograph — small, green, with a strangely interested and perplexed expression. I stare at her for a long moment. “Er, Moo-chan?” I ask.
She seems absolutely delighted that I know her name. “Muuuu!”
This wasn’t, in a word, expected. “I, ah — was here to rescue you. Er. Were you, uh, …. rescuing yourself?” Very smooth, Ichinomiya.
She puffs up, and looks very proud of herself. “Muumuu!” she tells me. “Mu!”
“…Oh.” Don’t I feel stupid; she’s married to a Tengu, after all. Another half-hour, and she probably would have made it home herself. “Well. Your husband is quite worried about you, you know.”
Moo-chan nods and pats my cheek again; she seems oddly fascinated by touching human skin. “Muuu,” she says. “Muumumumuu, mumuu!”
I don’t know whether it disturbs me or not that I can understand her. She’s not like any dame I’ve ever met, or probably ever will, but I don’t think Sugino would be very happy if I followed them around, trying to study his wife — he strikes me as the jealous sort. “We should probably get you home, then.”
She tilts her head as she stares at me, and slowly her cheeks take on a red flush. “Muu,” she says, and latches onto my arm.
Oh, hell. This is why dames are nothing but trouble. “Because,” I say, “your husband,” I stress the word, “hired me to come find you…”
“Muumuu muuuuuuu,” she sighs, and I swear she’s actually nuzzling my hip at this point. “Muuu?”
…If that was an invitation, I don’t even want to know. “Come on,” I say. “Come on, let’s get going…”
“Muuu!” she protests, loudly enough that I flinch on instinct; a house like this, there are bound to be guards, and for such an important “guest” as Moo-chan, they’ve probably already noticed she’s gone.
“Miss, please,” I say. “Your husband’s a powerful youkai, and I’m not strong enough to face him –”
“Muumumuu,” she tells me, and pats my hip again. About the only thing worse than being propositioned by a married woman is her promising she’ll protect you from her husband. “Muuu.”
I push her away carefully and stand up. She immediately hops up at me, and I’ve got no choice but to catch her. She nuzzles against me and seems perfectly content to stay there, and I think that I’m in pretty deep trouble. “Moo-chan, we really shouldn’t –”
“Muuuuu.” She blinks at me, which I think is supposed to be her equivalent of batting her lashes. “Muu muuuu mu.”
I swallow; there seems to be no way out of this. “I’ve, ah, promised myself to someone,” I say quickly. “Another Tengu.”
Disappointment seems to flash over her features for a moment — at least, I think it’s disappointment — and then she dismisses my words out of hand, clinging tighter. “Muu,” she says, and one of her puff-ball hands traces a coy path down my front.
“Miss!” In my sudden panic, I know I get too loud, my voice cracking on the highest note.
I hear a call of “Intruders!” and look over; a man in an army uniform is running towards me.
Out of the frying pan, I think, and into the fire.
I’m reaching for the juzu looped around my neck — it’s harder to do any sort of senjutsu one-handed, but I really can’t just drop a mountain god’s wife like a piece of trash even if she won’t stop trying to get my gi open — when suddenly Moo-chan squirms in my arms and opens her mouth and takes a deep breath that keeps going.
The soldier stops in surprise, then tries to backtrack as a huge vacuum of air opens up before him, pulling at his clothes and the sword he holds. His hat goes flying off his head and into Moo-chan’s mouth; she doesn’t even pause to swallow. I wince at the thought.
And then, suddenly, she stops and looks up at me with huge eyes. “Muuu,” she says, very seriously.
“Right,” I say, and take her advice and run as fast as I can.
We book it out of there, and Moo-chan helps propel me along by exhaling the same breath of air she’d drawn in; I’m blown nearly off my feet and scrape my knees when we go tumbling around the corner, but I’m up and running again as soon as possible.
Combining our efforts, we make it back in about half the time it had taken me to get there in the first place, though I’m more tired than I had been before, my chest burning with the pain of running so fast.
She seems to realize something’s wrong, and pets my chest again — less as if she’s trying to cop a feel this time and more out of concern. “Muuu?”
I pretend to misunderstand her worries. If I accept her concern, she might take it as encouragement. “I think we lost them,” I say. And it’s true; I don’t hear any more pursuit. Though I’m pretty sure the soldier got a good look at me…
“Muuu,” she says, and her slash of a mouth turns into a frown. “Muu muumumu.”
“I’m fine,” I say, and push myself to my feet. “I –”
“MOO-CHAN!” It’s a wail that makes me jump, and I inadvertently toss Moo-chan, who goes “muu” once before she’s flying through the air, and conveniently into Sugino’s arms. “YOU’RE ALL RIGHT! I WAS SO WORRIED!”
So much for waiting for the evening. I suppose the bond between a married couple really isn’t something to mess with. I rub the back of my neck and say, “Congratulations, Sugino-sama, on a happy reunion. Now, about payment –”
Sugino pays me hardly any attention. “Oh, Moo-chan! I’m so glad you’re safe!” He squeezes her so hard she nearly squeaks. After a moment, he glances up at me, the expression thick with distain. “What are you talking about? I met that human’s demands and he gave Moo-chan back, didn’t he?”
I feel my stomach drop. “What? What did you say? No, I broke into there, and–”
Moo-chan is nodding furiously. “Muuuuu,” she says. “Muumuu MUUU!”
Sugino goes pale. “What? You mean — I told him about the Oni-Eater for nothing? He… that human tricked me?”
“Muumuu mu!” She waves at me, and ends up actually whapping Sugino on the nose. “Muuuuu!”
“Oh damnit –” Sugino turns, his wings spreading, then pauses to glare at me. “You, Kantarou,” he says. “Get on my back. We’re going.”
“Huh? What?” I stare at him. “Going where?”
“To where the Oni-Eater is, obviously! He’s going to do something stupid like unseal and kill him, and I’m not going to let that happen! I’ll deal with him; you deal with the human!”
It all makes perfect sense, if what Youko said is true — if his family is known for killing youkai, the Oni-Eater is one of the most famous, after all. I feel sick at heart, something within me already dreading the possible outcome — I’ve been chasing after the Oni-Eater since I was a child, and have wanted nothing but to meet him.
I’ve even had a name picked out: Haruka. Because he’s just that much stronger than anything else, and because the goal has always seemed so distant…
Well, damn straight I’m not sticking around here and just letting him get killed. I nod, and press myself to Sugino’s back.
Sugino shudders. “Hold tight,” he snaps, and his wings pump, lifting us into the air.
I’ve never flown before, and for a moment I hold on tighter, because it feels like I’m about to fall. Moo-chan’s head pops over Sugino’s shoulder, and she pats my arm comfortingly. “Muumu,” she says, and I close my eyes. She’s right, it’s a lot better if I don’t look down. We fly fast enough that the wind screams in my ears and tears at my hair, and then suddenly we’re going down, plummeting like a dropped rock.
“There!” Sugino says. “There, they’re already there!”
I can feel my heart in my throat and force myself to open my eyes. There’s a young man in a military uniform standing in front of a large rock covered in old, weathered wards; I’ve never seen him before, but I know it’s Minamoto Raikou — he exudes the sort of power and confidence one might expect, from a famous youkai buster once favored by the imperial family itself.
The rock is glowing yellow now, and I can hear the sounds of wards breaking. Raikou glances up at smiles toothily, unconcerned, and draws his sword. There are black feathers rising in the air in a cloud, and I know Raikou plans to cut the Oni-Eating Tengu down as soon as he emerges from his prison.
I can almost make out a figure through the feathers, tall and strong with cold, cold eyes. Raikou pulls his sword back; light glints off the blade. I can taste my heart in my throat, beating hard, as all those years of looking for the Oni-Eater flash to mind.
After all this time, I can’t let it end like this.
I cry out. “No! Haruka, no!”
Those blue eyes fix on me, and darken, and Raikou is turning, his expression changing from elation to disbelief — and changing fast to sheer rage.
“You named him,” Raikou says, his voice shaking.
Sugino stares at me as well. “What did you just call him?!”
“Er.” And suddenly everyone is staring at me, including Haruka, and I’m wondering if I can use a dispelling charm on myself, and just disappear. “Well, I, ah — I had this name picked out since I was very little, and –”
“You stupid human!” Sugino rants, and drops me. I land with a thump and yelp, because damn if it doesn’t hurt. “You just named him, and now you’ve put a seal on his true power — break it at once! Break the contract at once!”
Raikou points his sword at me. “You heard him,” he snaps. “Break the contract!”
I swallow hard and look up at Haruka, sitting on the rock. He doesn’t look anything like I imagined; I’d expected white Tengu to look like humans, but for a true Oni-Eating Tengu to look this human … was more than I expected. He just frowns at me, and says nothing. I wonder what his voice sounds like, or if he can even properly speak, after being sealed away for so many years.
“Break it, I said!” Raikou is standing over me now, and the edge of his sword is at my throat. “Ichinomiya, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll break that damn contract right now –”
This is nothing I can fight off. If I don’t play my cards exactly right here, I’m dead meat. I look at Sugino — holding Moo-chan tightly enough that she can do nothing but gape — and the look of outrage on his face, and I look up at Raiko, whose blade is shaking in his hand.
He doesn’t dare kill me, I realize, because he wants the contract broken and if I’m dead, it’s stuck — no wonder he’s so furious; a youkai killer who kills youkai with limiters put on their power would lose his reputation and fast. I have a little time, I think.
I look over. “Haruka,” I say.
After a moment, the Oni-Eating Tengu opens his mouth. “Yes,” he says, and I feel something constrict in my chest — like he accepted the name, somehow.
It’s not enough to make me forget my predicament, though, and I squeak out, fast, “Help me”!
He eyes me for a moment, disdainful, and I can feel my stomach sinking — I wanted to be friends with him, but it looks like he might not even accept that — and then he nods, standing. In his hands, the shakujou sparks and its rings clash, and I want to roll over and run because I’m still a coward —
And then he, the Oni-Eating Tengu, Haruka, launches himself off the rock, and Raikou has to lift his sword to block the blow, the two of them locked together for a moment before they leap apart. I scramble to my feet and try to steady myself; this is really not how I pictured our first meeting going at all.
Haruka’s eyes are narrow and pale, and Raikou is definitely hesitating; to kill the Oni-Eating Tengu is one thing, to kill Haruka is another. Haruka, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any trouble with the idea and I grab his arm before he lifts the shakujou again, hanging off it with all my weight. He doesn’t seem terribly impressed.
“Don’t kill him,” I add quickly. “I don’t want you to kill him, just — help me –”
Haruka doesn’t seem to know what to do for a minute, and I feel a sort of deep sympathy well within me — after all, he’s a Tengu who’s had, from what I’ve heard, a very simple set of morals so far — that being ‘kill your enemies’.
Still, Haruka raises his shakujou and lightning flashes, crackling at Raikou’s feet and making him jump back. And the next thing I know, strong arms have wrapped around me and I’m being lifted into the air again.
Being carried in a Tengu’s arms is very different from riding piggyback — or maybe it’s just that it’s Haruka’s strength holding me, and Haruka’s warmth seeping into my skin.
“Um,” I say, and this is the strangest situation I’ve ever been in; usually, I’m the one sweeping people off and trying to be mysterious and seductive — though I don’t think Haruka’s doing it on purpose, it’s just sort of happening that way. “Haruka –”
“Where should we go?” Haruka’s voice is flat, but not as much as before; he sounds almost resigned, and that makes my stomach turn a little more. “It’s been a long time. I don’t know how the area’s changed.”
I swallow, and stop myself from leaning against him. “That way,” I say, and point in what I hope is the right direction. “My house is that way. Er. Youko-chan will be surprised to see us, I think …”
“Youko-chan?” He considers this, and frowns. “A youko, then. You’ve got a bad habit of naming youkai, don’t you.”
“Not that many,” I protest. “Youko-chan was an exception — found her in trouble, and she needed someone to take her in; I needed to call her something, after all–”
“Mm.” Haruka doesn’t sound impressed, and that’s a damn shame — I wanted to impress him. “And me?”
“You’re… different,” I say. “I’ve wanted to meet you, all this time–”
“…Mm.” There’s something a little dark and mysterious about him. “What did you need me for?”
“Need you f– nothing,” I say, and I sound like a stupid kid, blurting this. So much for the smooth and cool Ichinomiya Kantarou, who handles everything else so easily. “I just … wanted to meet you.”
“You’ve met me.” Haruka’s voice still gives away nothing; it’s kind of like talking to a wall. “Now what do you want?”
Everything else I’ve said has turned out badly so far, so it takes me a moment. I stare at the ground below us until it makes me dizzy, then close my eyes. “I wanted to meet you,” I say again. “I wanted … to be friends with you. I’ve admired you for a long time, Haruka.”
“Admired.” He sounds disbelieving. “With no other motives than that.”
“That’s it,” I say, helplessly. “For a long time, the youkai have been my only friends–” Oh, very nice, Ichinomiya. Can I sound any more pathetic? “And everyone had such a high opinion of you, I wanted to meet you to, get to know you–”
“For how long?”
It’s a strange question and I find myself hesitating, then pointing down towards my house as a stall tactic. Finally, I say, trying not to let the embarrassment seep into my voice — cool, Ichinomiya, be cool — “However long I can have.”
Haruka begins a circling descent, much gentler than the one Sugino had made. “Why?”
“Because …” I don’t know quite how to say this, how since the first time I’d heard of him, the only thing I wanted was to meet him. I hadn’t really thought much further than that. “Because you’re you, and I’ve always admired that strength.”
He lands easily; I can barely feel the thud of his feet touching the ground. “I’m not at my full strength now,” he says. “You saw to that.”
Maybe, I think, releasing the name contract and letting him kill me right now would be the better idea. This first meeting, my life’s dream, has been entirely ruined, and Youko, much as she likes me, probably won’t make things better. “I know. I’m sorry. Haruka –”
“Kan-chaaaan!” Youko pushes the screen door open, then freezes at the sight of Haruka. “Kan-chan, who –”
I wet my lips; this is gonna be an awkward introduction at best, I think, because I don’t know whether or not I should use the name I gave Haruka any more, whether or not he’d hate me for it. “I…”
Haruka gives me a strange look, then nods to her. “Haruka,” he introduces himself, briefly. “I’ll be living with you.”
As Youko gapes, I stare at Haruka and realize that maybe, just maybe, I’d been projecting my fears — maybe he didn’t care, like it looked like he didn’t. Maybe he’s fine with staying here, maybe he’s fine with having a name, maybe he was just trying to find out why.
“I think,” I tell Haruka, “this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship.”
“Kan-chan,” Youko gasps, and then louder, “Kan-chan! Kan-chan!”
I frown — the world’s gone hazy; I feel almost drugged.
“Wake up already, Kan-chan! I don’t care HOW drunk you got, if you sleep the day away you won’t make any money, and then how will we eat?!”
“Huuuuh?” Kantarou lifted his head and blinked rapidly. He had a pen in one hand and his neck hurt, like he’d been …
… sleeping sitting at his desk …
… nearly all day.
He blinked at Youko, then tried a hesitant smile. “Youko-chan,” he said. “Um. This isn’t –”
“Ahh, I can’t believe you!” She shook her fist in his face. “I go and work hard AND take care of this house and you just get drunk and sleep! It’s not fair, Kan-chan, you’re supposed to be the primary worker of the house and all you do is play! Even Haruka-chan does more work than you do!”
Kantarou blinked around and found Haruka, leaning against one wall and looking right back. “Haruka,” he said.
“…What’s with that face?” Haruka looked slightly disgruntled.
Briefly, Kantarou thought about mentioning his dream, then decided against it; it was probably just as embarrassing, he thought, to confess something like that. “Nothing,” he said, lamely.
“It’s not nothing! Honestly!” Youko stomped a foot. “Do you even know what time it is? It’s after noon! What’s the matter with you, already? AND you were mumbling in your sleep!”
“Er. Did I say anything, um…”
“You were muttering in English.” Youko pointed at him accusingly. “Kan-chan, if you’re so damn smart that you can sleep talk in another language, make more money by doing some translations! It worked really well that one time –”
“Er.” He rubbed his face, feeling the creased lines on his cheek from where he’d slept, his head pillowed on his papers. “Youko-chan, that’s –”
“You drive me crazy!” she wailed, throwing her hands up into the air. “Augh, Kan-chan! If we don’t have money, we don’t eat, it’s that simple! If I starve to death, Kan-chan, I swear, I’ll become a ghost and haunt you –”
“Um.” He blinked away fragments of his dreams from his eyes; Haruka hadn’t worn the traditional Tengu robes since he’d first come to live in Kantarou’s house, and he was glaring now as though Kantarou had grown a second head, rather than look even remotely inviting. “I, uh, I guess I’ll get back to work, then, ahaha –”
“Good!” Youko crossed her arms and shook her head as she stomped out, sighing. “Honestly, Kan-chan…”
He groaned, leaning over his papers. “She’s meaaaan,” he sighed. “She is, isn’t she, Haruka?”
Haruka gave him an incredulous look, then let it go in favor of a shrug and another not-question. “….Kantarou. You were moaning my name in your sleep.”
He could feel himself flushing at that. “I, er…”
“I hope you don’t expect a good morning kiss.”
Haruka’s frown deepened slightly. “…you stink of alcohol.”
“Er, well.” Kantarou continued to grin hopefully, but Haruka’s frown didn’t lessen at all. If anything, he seemed to be more irritated by that, and really, after so many months, it was only to be expected that he’d start learning the patterns of Kantarou’s evasions. “I, ah, got distracted while drinking?”
“You usually don’t drink until you’re drunk.” Haruka flicked a finger in the middle of Kantarou’s forehead. “What the hell were you dreaming about, anyway?”
“Wishful thinking?” he offered, as brightly as he could. Haruka looked distinctly unimpressed.
“Are you all right, then?” he asked, finally. “You looked sad, too.”
Sometimes, Kantarou thought, he could still be surprised whenever Haruka said something that showed he did actually pay attention, to Kantarou and other things around him. Relieved, Kantarou smiled. “I’m fine,” he said. “It was only a dream, after all.”
“All right,” Haruka said, accepting that. “Well. Get your work done.”
He sighed. “I will, Haruka…”
“And then wash your mouth out, and…”
He looked up hopefully. That implied some worth work incentive, especially if Haruka followed through with the offer with that same low tone of voice. “And?”
“…and I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
For a moment, Kantarou thought he was joking, but Haruka was utterly deadpan, staring at him. It was a bit suspicious, but…. he picked up his pen and grinned.
“Right!” he said, and got to work.