The Crane Takes Flight

Everything started with a man who came to ask for Kantarou’s help in finding his wife.

It was all a terrible mistake, he’d said, dabbing his eyes with his sleeve; he hadn’t meant to break the one promise she’d extracted from him, and he’d been so curious about why she would lock herself in the closet in order to do her needlework — and the awful clattering noises he’d hear from within, any decent man would be concerned! But then he’d opened the closet and found a long-necked crane in the process of tearing feathers from her breast and then she’d run away and ah! Ichinomiya-sensei, please please help!

Kantarou had listened to the man’s story, making sympathetic noises whenever there was a lull, plying him with the tea that Youko kept bringing out.

When the story finished, Kantarou crossed his arms and told the man that it would be very difficult — after all, like the old story went, a crane-wife tended to disappear once she was discovered, and really, as a married couple, there should have been more trust between them! And Japan was a very wide country, it could take years to trace her, if they even could track her down …

(Which, of course, was a lie: Kantarou knew full well that crane-youkai tended to gravitate in only a few places, where villages were still small and the salt-marches were nearly untouched — but it was good for dramatic effect.)

At which point the man went down on hands and knees, bowing so low his forehead touched the ground. He’d pay any price, he promised; money was no object or issue — he and his wife lived handsomely off her work and his own woodcutting; the great Ichinomiya-sensei would be more than compensated for his time.

–which (Haruka thought, watching) was exactly what Kantarou had been waiting for, and he produced a fan from his sleeve, snapping it open, and promised that he’d see what he could do.

+++

“This is a stupid idea,” Haruka said.

Kantarou made a tsking noise. “Haruka, don’t be cruel,” he said. “All he wants is to see his wife again and apologize. There’s nothing wrong in helping them reconcile, is there?”

“There is,” Haruka said, his voice warming in his irritation. “Kantarou, he’s human.”

“Yes?” Kantarou ducked under a low-hanging branch and held it for Haruka. “Most of my clients are.”

“His wife’s a youkai.” Haruka didn’t move from his place, staring down at Kantarou. “It’s better if they don’t meet again.”

“What, never again?” Kantarou pouted. “That’s so cold! Who wouldn’t want to see their wife again, after making an honest mistake?” He turned and pointed through the woods, where a few flickering lights were distantly visible. “Look, there’s the crane village right there, if we hurry, we can get there by nightfall–”

Haruka gritted his teeth. “Kantarou. You can’t tell me you don’t understand.”

Kantarou continued to point for a moment, then let his hand fall. “Don’t understand what, Haruka?” he asked softly.

“You know,” Haruka said. “A human and a youkai can’t last together like that. Even if you bring them together now, something like this will happen again. It’s inevitable.” He stared hard at the back of Kantarou’s head. “It’ll only end in tragedy.”

“Because he’ll eventually die, right?” Kantarou said. He tilted his head as though listening to something faint and far away. “But even youkai couples have that possibility. And … he just wanted to see her again. Even if they don’t get back together, at least he can say sorry — right?” He looked over his shoulder. “A parting like that isn’t any good.”

Haruka stared at him. “Kantarou–”

“Saa, Haruka, let’s keep walking!” Kantarou pointed. “Ahh, I don’t want to spend the night in the marshes, it’s unpleasant and wet and it smells bad!” He held out his free hand. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

Haruka did not take his hand, but he moved forward again, ducking under the branch Kantarou still held for him and continuing on, towards the tiny lights beckoning on the other side of the of the marsh. He heard Kantarou splash after him to catch up, but couldn’t quite make himself look back.

+++

The cranes scattered as soon as they arrived; a few took flight, crying in fear; others, caught in human form, fled into the woods and hid themselves. Kantarou stood in the center of the village, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Ah, hello?” he ventured. “Hello, we’re sorry to interrupt, we’re just looking for someone–”

Hidden in the undergrowth, one of the cranes made a rude sound; it echoed through the woods, so that it was difficult to pinpoint the source. Kantarou winced.

“We’ll be gone as soon as we find her,” he added, then glanced up. “Haruka, reassure them!”

Haruka stared at him. “… what.”

“They’re probably afraid of you,” Kantarou said. “After all, you’re the Oni-Eater! You’ve scared my friends before.”

“Excuse me if your friends are weak,” Haruka said sourly, then cleared his throat before Kantarou could protest. “I-will-not-hurt-you,” he said through gritted teeth. “Please-don’t-be-afraid.”

Kantarou puffed his cheeks. “That’s hardly reassuring, Haruka …”

He shrugged. “It worked, didn’t it?” He pointed to where a single white head was now visible, the crane blinking its round black eyes at them from behind a fallen tree trunk. Kantarou immediately pivoted on his heel and gave the crane his most winning smile.

“Good afternoon,” he said. “Ah, or maybe it’s good evening? We don’t mean any harm, we’re just looking for someone.”

The crane just stared at him, unspeaking.

“I’m a friend of the crane that lives near Sugino Village,” he added. “My name is Ichinomiya Kantarou. I’m here on behalf of Sasaki Akihito-san, we’re here to look for–”

“Akihito-san?” For a moment the crane’s image wavered between a long-necked bird and a young woman. It finally settled on the woman, with loose hair and bare feet. “I won’t see him.”

Kantarou didn’t skip a beat; in a heartbeat he went from cheerfully ingratiating to gently consoling. “Why not? He misses you very much.”

She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at him with inhuman eyes, never once blinking. “He broke his promise to me,” she said. “He swore — he swore! — that he’d never open the door, he’d never look at me that way, and I–”

“You believed him,” Haruka noted, deadpan. “That was foolish of you.”

“Haruka!” Kantarou whirled to glare at him. “Shhh, shh, you–”

“You’re right,” the crane said quietly. “I was foolish. I should not have believed a human’s promise, but I did.”

“No, no, no!” Kantarou turned back to her. “Ahh, please, he’s just grumpy all the time, don’t listen to him, he–”

“But you did,” Haruka agreed. “And now you’ve left it as a huge mess. Shouldn’t you clean up after yourself?”

“–doesn’t know what he’s … Haruka?” Kantarou blinked. The crane ducked her head, so that most of her face was hidden by her flowing sleeves. “What are you saying, you–”

“It’s tasteless, leaving your problems for someone else to clean up,” Haruka said, then jerked his thumb at Kantarou. “It’s the sort of thing that guy does. You don’t want to be like him.”

“Eh! Haruka, I’m not ‘that guy,’ I’m your master, take that back–”

“Besides,” Haruka went on, ignoring Kantarou’s rant, “a broken promise is bad, but a regret is worse. Or a grudge, if it comes to that.” He turned his head a little, and for a moment his expression was completely unreadable. “Are you prepared to accept that?”

The crane stared at him, one hand clenched over her heart. Kantarou sidestepped between the two of them, holding both his hands up. “Ah, now, now,” he said. “Haruka, tsuru-san, this isn’t getting us anywhere–”

“How can you say such things?” the crane demanded suddenly. “When you’ve come here on your human master’s leash? You come and you say such noble-sounding things, but if you had the chance, you’d break away sooner than I ever would!”

Kantarou winced as Haruka’s eyes widened, some of the color draining from them. “Ahhh,” Kantarou said. “Our relationship isn’t really anything like–”

“I stayed with Akihito-san out of love!” the crane said, tears beginning to well up in her eyes. “He said he loved me, that he trusted me, but even so … even so … !” She wrang her hands. “At least I stayed with him because of more than a name!”

Haruka reached out and grabbed Kantarou’s arm. “We’re going,” he said shortly.

“Eh? Ehhh?” Kantarou twisted, wide-eyed. “But, Haruka, we haven’t–”

“Talking isn’t going to do any good,” Haruka said. “We’re just wasting our time.”

“But Haruka, I — ah!” Kantarou’s feet kicked on instinct as Haruka wrapped an arm around his waist and spread his wings, launching upwards with a single powerful beat. Below them, the crane looked up after them, her pale face shining wetly in the deepening dusk. He watched until she vanished from sight, then twisted to scowl at Haruka’s profile. “Haruka! What was that for?”

“I told you,” Haruka said, angling towards home. “There was no point in continuing the conversation.”

Kantarou huffed, wriggling. “It might not have started out that well,” he admitted, “but I think I could have made some headway, if you’d let me! She misses her husband just as much as he misses her, I could tell! If I’d just had a little more time–”

Haruka shrugged violently, causing them to swerve in the air; Kantarou yelped and latched on tighter to his arm. “You wouldn’t have changed her mind,” he said shortly. “It was made up long before we arrived.”

“Haruka!” Kantarou clung for a moment as Haruka regained his balance, still winging straight home. “I should order you to turn around right now!”

“You could,” Haruka agreed blandly. “… you won’t.”

“How do you know that, ehh?!” Kantarou scowled. “Haruka, I order you to–”

“Kantarou.” Haruka’s voice was sharp, and for a moment his face was completely hidden from sight. “Just let it go.”

He sank back, surprised. “Eh, but–”

“Trust me,” Haruka said, and began to angle downwards; when Kantarou squinted, he could see the familiar buildings of their neighborhood taking shape, and their own house, where the lights in the kitchens were still on. “There are certain things we shouldn’t interfere with.”

“I already accepted the payment,” Kantarou argued. “I can’t just let it go — Haruka! Was it just about what she said? We’re friends too, not just master and servant, aren’t we? I could have explained it to her — ah! Were you just embarrassed? I–”

Haruka let him go. Kantarou yelped as he fell the few feet left to their yard, wincing at the jar to his bones, then looked up.

“You are embarrassed!” he managed, a bit breathless from pain. “That’s why you just–”

Haruka didn’t answer him, winging up to the roof and settling there; for a moment his dark wings were spread wide against the moon, then folded in and vanished, leaving only the outline of a man. Kantarou got slowly to his feet, flinching a bit in the effort, then puffed his cheeks out in irritation, though he doubted Haruka could see him now.

“Ahh, jeeze!” he hissed — not loud enough to wake the neighbors, but enough, he thought, to carry to a listening tengu’s ears. “Haruka can’t ever be reasonable about these things, can he!”

There was no answer — though he’d hardly expected one — and Kantarou drew himself up with as much dignity as he could manage with a stinging tailbone, and limped into the house.

+++

The next morning, Haruka woke early for once and came downstairs quietly. In the backyard there was a woman who stood under the shade of the trees in the back, her hands clasped and her head bowed. She glanced up when Haruka came out and stopped on the porch, then glanced away.

“I wanted to apologize,” she said. “For my behavior the previous night. I did not mean to offend the Oni-Eater.”

Haruka shrugged. “It wasn’t our business,” he said. “That guy just insisted on butting in.”

She swallowed, glancing at him again. “… I’d heard,” she said finally, “about how you’d been unsealed and named. Until yesterday, I didn’t believe it.”

“You must be named, too,” Haruka said, lifting one eyebrow. “You’re married.”

She bit her lip. “He didn’t know what he was doing,” she said finally. “When we met, I would not tell him I had one, and so he offered one by accident.” She bowed her head. “And I could not tell him to take it back, and so I went with him. But he was kind, and I grew to love him, so …”

Haruka stuck his pinky into his ear, tuning out the rest of her words; from the look on her face, she was now just talking to hear her thoughts aloud, more than any explanation to him. It was early enough that even Youko wasn’t awake yet, and so there wouldn’t be any opportune interruptions with tea. He was entertaining the idea of just making it himself — if they even had enough leaves left to make a proper pot — when the crane’s voice sharpened, sounding more like a question than vague muttering, he turned his attention back to her. “… What?”

“I said,” she repeated, knotting her fingers together, “that if — if Ichinomiya-sensei is willing to mediate, I wouldn’t … I’ll see Akihito-san again.”

The request didn’t come as much of a surprise. Haruka rubbed the back of his head. “Knowing that guy, the first thing he’ll do when he wakes up is sneak out to convince you to change your mind,” he said. “He gets youkai well enough, but not their marriages.”

Her eyes widened. “Really? But I thought — you and he –” She cut herself off abruptly and broke eye-contact with him again.

Unphased, Haruka shrugged again. She wasn’t the first youkai who’d mistaken Kantarou’s familiarity as something beyond what the name-bond would entail; even some of Kantarou’s own friends had looked askance at Haruka now and again, not to mention Sugino’s constant rants on the matter.

“He’s not a bad guy,” he said. “As masters go, there are worse.”

She blinked, then smiled tentatively; it made her look pretty, like the crane-women from Kantarou’s scrolls, birdlike with their long necks and limbs, half-melting into avian form and ready to fly away at the smallest sign. But there was relief in her too, like she’d been waiting for a fellow youkai’s character assessment on the strange human who constantly tried to insert himself into their affairs.

“In that case,” she said, and bowed low. “Please help me out.”

That was usually Kantarou’s cue for some sort of glib jibe or cute comment; since he was not there, Haruka just shrugged. “If we didn’t, Kantarou would complain,” he said. “And I’d never get any sleep. This is just self-preservation at work here.”

She didn’t straighten, and her long hair had fallen to hide her face, but he thought he saw her smile.

“Of course,” she said.

+++

The reunion went well, if Kantarou did say so himself.

The client and his wife met on opposite sides of a screen, and it was all very tearful and dramatic, with him promising a thousand new things and her always demurring, though Kantarou saw the wistfulness in her face as well, and thought: ah, it would work out, if only because they both wanted it so much. At some point Haruka had gotten bored and wandered off, but Youko had remained, nibbling on rice crackers and watching with wide eyes. It had all the elements of a good drama, and Kantarou thought that if he remembered enough of the details, he might write it down later — just in case Reiko or someone else at the publishing house was interested.

Eventually, though, in perfect dramatic timing, the client pushed aside the screen and took his wife’s hands, promising in a ringing voice that he’d never doubt her again, that he’d always believe in her forever more, and they could work out, if she’d only believe! — and for her part she seemed very moved, tears finally coming from her own eyes, and it was like all the old courtship stories that Kantarou had researched for Numata-sensei as a student: all politely intimate language and damp sleeves and even recitations of poetry. All they needed now was to die dramatically to make the story perfect — though Kantarou was glad they refrained from that part; it was bad luck, after all, to have someone commit suicide upon your property!

Kantarou snagged a senbei from the snacks Youko had brought and nibbled on it himself, and when they turned to him, still holding hands and beaming tearfully, he puffed out his chest and grinned right back: oh, no, no, it was his pleasure, he was glad to see the couple reunited, and he wished them a long and happy life together. When they left, he stood in the doorway waving until they were out of sight–

–at which point he realized that he’d never been paid.

“Ah, well,” Youko sighed, as she began to gather up the teacups and plates. “It’s not the first time this has happened! And at least things got resolved quickly, so you can get back to your article without distractions.”

Kantarou made a face. “Ahh, about that …”

“Kan-chan, don’t tell me you’re not going to–”

He ducked, covering his head with his arms. “I will, I will!” he protested. “Youko-chan, give me some more credit than that …”

“I’ll give it to you when you earn it!” she huffed, then trotted off to the kitchen with her burden.

Kantarou sighed, rubbing the back of his head and looking wistfully to the stairs, on the opposite end of the house from his study, but–

“Don’t even think about slacking off!” Youko called from the kitchen.

“Ngku,” said Kantarou, who then smiled wryly to himself and got up, still careful as he moved — his bruises weren’t the sort of thing that could heal in just a day! — and began to limp for his study. At the very least, once Youko left for work, he could possibly sneak out and enjoy a bit of a walk before it got too dark–

He thumped into a sudden solid wall and fell back with a yelp, rubbing his abused nose. He glanced up and huffed. “Ehh, now what does Haruka want?” he said. “After all, he missed the good parts of the tearful reunion!”

Haruka’s expression was more still than usual. His shoulders were hunched up and he smelled like the wind, as though he’d left the house to go flying. Something in his eyes, though, made Kantarou tense and almost back up; he held back through sheer force of will. He wasn’t afraid of Haruka, just a little apprehensive: Haruka could hit hard, after all, if provoked.

“Kantarou,” Haruka said at last. He sounded more like he was staring a new conversation, instead of listening to Kantarou’s previous accusations, and Kantarou scowled as darkly as he could manage.

“What!” he said. “Haruka keeps interfering with every step of my work, and now he’s going to just talk at me? I won’t have it, you know! You should listen to your poor master now and then, he works so hard for you–”

“That was a stupid thing you’ve done,” Haruka said.

Kantarou drew himself up to his full height, and perhaps rocked onto his toes just a little, so that he would be completely eye-level with Haruka. “Stupid! That’s a fine thing to say, you should respect the bonds of marriage more, Haruka! You’re going to make your bride very unhappy someday if you have that sort of attitude! Ahhh, haven’t Youko-chan’s lessons made any sort of lasting impression?”

Haruka’s hand didn’t dart out — Kantarou saw it coming from the corner of one eye — but it was suddenly holding tightly onto Kantarou’s wrist, tight enough that it almost hurt. Kantarou bit the inside of his cheek, rocking on his feet, but not backing down.

“It was very stupid,” Haruka repeated. “You shouldn’t be so quick to encourage youkai and humans to live together like that.” His hand tightened as he spoke, and Kantarou squinted one eye shut at the pain. It took effort to lock his knees and remain staring back at Haruka as best he could, and he was rewarded by confusion in Haruka’s eyes.

“… You should be afraid of me,” Haruka said finally. “We’ve been through this before, haven’t we.”

“We have,” Kantarou agreed. “My answer still hasn’t changed.”

“It should.” Haruka glanced past him, to where the reunited couple had sat and talked. “Even if they don’t have another fight like this, he’ll die soon enough.”

“He was a young man,” Kantarou said. “He’s got at least another fifty years, barring accidents! That’s not a short time at all.”

Haruka tilted his head just so, and his bangs fell forward to cover his eyes. “It’s nothing at all,” he said. “That’s barely anything, to a youkai. In the end, she’ll just be left with bitter memories.”

Kantarou frowned; Haruka’s voice had gone distant and there was a peculiar weight to his words. “I don’t think they’ll be so bitter,” he said. “They’re happy.”

“Happiness always changes.” Haruka’s head came forward — not bowing, per se, but something uncomfortably close to that. “Fifty years of uncertain happiness isn’t enough for anything but regrets.”

Silence followed his declaration. Haruka remained standing with his head angled forward, and Kantarou stared at him, wrist still trapped, turning over possible answers. The obvious and easy answer would be to make another joke, especially at Haruka’s expense, and break up the odd tension, but …

Well. He’d promised himself he’d stop running away, right? Kantarou took a deep breath.

“I told you once, didn’t I?” he said. “What I believe — that even if the parting is bittersweet and the memories painful at first, I think that the joy of meeting is better than never coming together at all.” He covered Haruka’s fingers on his wrist with his other hand; they were cool and dry to the touch, like a bird’s talons. “I think it’s worth it.”

Haruka stared. “… maybe for you,” he said. “Maybe for you, who’ll die in no time, you–”

“And maybe it’s ‘no time’ for you,” Kantarou retorted, “but it’s an entire lifetime to me.”

There was a clear heartbeat of silence, where Haruka stood gaping at him and before Kantarou’s own nerve failed him. He stretched up and used Haruka’s hold on him as a lever to pull him forward. Haruka’s eyes went wide and then it was completed: Kantarou kissed him, clumsily and awkwardly and badly, but there it was; it was done.

Haruka made a startled noise and then the moment broke as he pulled back, eyes wild and so pale they were nearly white. His mouth opened soundlessly, and Kantarou could see the tips of his fangs from behind his lips, and the hand on his wrist had changed, fingers lengthened into claws, enough to draw blood.

“Honestly, Haruka!” he said brightly, like nothing had changed, like he’d deliberately thrown everything off-kilter. “What are you getting so upset about, it’s nothing that serious–”

Haruka let go of his wrist and grabbed his gi instead, yanking him up onto the very tips of his toes, the cloth tightening around his throat. He lost the breath to speak for a moment, but he’d had a lot of practice acclimating himself to Haruka’s face and the thrill of being close to a legend, so after a moment he recovered enough to say: “Haruka, you should be more gentle with me. I break easily.”

“You do not,” Haruka snapped, his voice low and sharp and his breath hot on Kantarou’s cheek. “You never do anything easily.”

“I don’t know,” Kantarou said, still bright and innocent. “I think I could get used to a rich life very easily–”

“You …” For a moment, Haruka’s voice cracked, turned rough and unhappy. His head bowed forward, his shoulders hunching up; he looked as upset as Kantarou had ever seen him, and that was the most frightening thing. “You’re so–”

“Haruka,” Kantarou said gently, and put his own hands on Haruka’s shaking ones. “I’m not any different from who I was when we first met. I told you, didn’t I? I thought I’d become stronger, but instead, I’m still the same man I’ve always been.”

Haruka didn’t lift his head, remaining silent and still without speaking.

“You’ll make me self-conscious, you know,” Kantarou added, and tugged at Haruka’s wrists. “Ah, so it was a bad idea, I’m sorry, you can let go now–”

“… Kantarou.”

“Eh?” he squeaked, and mentally cringed at how close to needy he sounded. “What, Haruka, you’re acting weird–”

“You didn’t do the same,” Haruka said. “When I … left. Before.”

Kantarou’s heart stuttered to a halt for a moment, then tripped back into motion, so hard and fast that his chest ached. “I–”

“I left, and you didn’t come after me,” Haruka said. “You only came because of Suzu. But you’re saying the same sort of thing that guy said to his wife. Which do you actually mean?”

He swallowed and stepped back. “It, that’s different,” he managed. “With them, it was an accident — he opened the door because he thought she was in trouble, because he was worried about her. With us …” He closed his eyes for a moment. “You said you wouldn’t come back. It was your conscious decision.”

“You could have tried harder.”

“Haruka,” Kantarou said weakly, and managed to inject some of his usual whine into it. “I don’t want to always be the one chasing.”

Haruka cocked his head, apparently deeply considering the words. Kantarou peeked up through his lashes, then took a deep breath, ready to laugh again if he had to, just in case–

“That’s fair,” Haruka allowed. “I shouldn’t, because you take advantage of everything you’re given, but it’s fair.”

“It — it is?!” Kantarou stared. “Ehhh, what, Haruka–”

“Once in a while,” Haruka said — and though his voice was deadpan his mouth curled just fractionally — “I suppose I can chase after you.”

+++

Life waited for no confessions: as Kantarou stood there gaping, Youko came stomping out of the kitchen, waving a wooden spoon. She hardly seemed surprised by the explanation, but as soon as it was finished, she pointed her spoon at Kantarou.

“You,” she said. “Work.”

“Eh?” he said, and then “Ehhhhh?! Youko-chan!”

“Think practically, Kan-chan!” she huffed. “We didn’t get paid and you wasted a week traipsing around salt marshes looking for the crane, and then longer getting their meeting set up, you’d think you were trying to do o-miai for a married couple! And that’s two weeks where no article was finished, how do you think you’ll even have the energy to consummate anything if you don’t have the money to buy food and keep up your strength!”

Kantarou staggered. “Con– consummate, Youko-chan …”

“You’re not twelve,” she scolded. “You’re an adult, so act like one! Get back to work!”

He ducked, covering his head with both arms as she brandished the spoon; he turned to Haruka, whining in his throat. “Ehh, Haruka, shouldn’t you save me? If you loved me, you–”

“Ah, no, time out!” Youko scooted between them. “This is a matter of life or death, Kan-chan! Food, food is what’s important right now, not sex!”

He flushed again. “Y-Youko-chan …”

With a dramatic flourish, as grand as any actor in kabuki, she pointed to his office with her spoon. “WORK.”

He whined protest, but fled before she could actually make good with the implied threat, glancing over his shoulder. Haruka was watching him still, his eyes dark and thoughtful, and once again, Kantarou caught sight of a brief, affectionate smile. And in spite of himself he grinned back, giddy, before he fled Youko’s wrath for good.

+++

Evening came and brought dinner and a brief reprieve; Youko looked critically at the two and a half pages he’d managed to cobble together, somehow, before sniffing and declaring it adequate for the moment — “but tomorrow, you’d better work hard, Kan-chan!”

Kantarou picked at most of his meal without actually tasting what he managed to eat; he was acutely aware of Haruka watching him from the other side of the table. Not that Haruka was being obvious about it, not at all — but Kantarou had made the study of the Oni-Eating Tengu his life’s work, and he’d never seen a reason to restrict that merely to Haruka’s long vague past.

After his third failed attempt to actually catch Haruka in the act of staring, Youko shook her head and sighed loudly at him. “Just go upstairs, Kan-chan,” she said.

“Eh?” He jerked, guilty, his chopsticks dangling from his fingers. “Ehehehehe, Youko-chan, I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Yes, yes, Youko-chan is partly to blame, too,” she sighed, though she smiled wryly when she spoke. “Kan-chan is the sort of person who likes to revel in good things as soon as they’re his, isn’t he?”

In spite of himself, he blushed. “Well,” he said. “Ah, I guess it depends on what Haruka wants, too–”

Haruka put his own chopsticks down. “Youko,” he said. “Thanks for the meal.”

She waved at him. “Go on, then,” she said. “Kan-chan’s going to jump out of his skin if he waits much longer, and you’ll have to be the one who deals with it.”

Kantarou put his own dishes aside, heart in his throat as he waited for Haruka’s dry answer — which never came. He glanced up and finally found Haruka staring at him openly, looking more bemused than anything else.

“I suppose I will,” he said. “… Kantarou. Try not to be irritating all the time.”

“Like I’m ever!” Kantarou protested, but without much rancor. He almost tripped over his own feet coming around the table, and then, after a deep breath for encouragement, took Haruka’s hand in his own. To his vague surprise (even now!) the long fingers turned and curled securely around his own. “Haruka–”

“Upstairs, then,” Haruka said.

+++

It wasn’t (if he was honest) the first time he’d ever had sex, either with a man or with a youkai, but he felt more awkward than he ever had as a virgin, not quite sure what to do with his hands or the rest of himself, standing dumbly in the center of the bedroom as Haruka began to strip with practical efficiency: the tie first, then the suitcoat, the shirt underneath, pants. He left his tabi socks for last, and Kantarou found himself focusing on that instead, and the ridiculous image of Haruka nude except for his feet.

Then Haruka’s palms settled on his shoulders, warmer than his hands had ever been before, and Kantarou’s head lifted as Haruka’s came down, and then they were kissing.

Once it started, things came easier: it had been years since his last affair, but he’d spent all his life building fantasies about this, and it was oddly comfortable to just reach up and put his arms around Haruka’s shoulders, sliding his fingers into feather-soft dark hair. Haruka, on the other hand, reached to undress Kantarou with the same efficiency that he’d disrobed himself, and Kantarou broke the kiss a moment to shiver.

“… It’s not that cold,” Haruka said, hands on the knot of Kantarou’s hakama.

“It’s an excuse,” Kantarou said brightly. “Warm me up, Ha~ru~ka~”

Haruka snorted — but he didn’t strain against the command as he normally would, sliding the hakama down Kantarou’s legs so he could step out of them, then pushed Kantarou towards the futon. “Idiot master.”

“But I’m your idiot master,” Kantarou said, wide-eyed, as he let himself be tripped and lowered; he put his arms around Haruka’s shoulders again. “Be gentle with me, Haruka!”

“… is that what you really want …”

He sounded doubtful, and Kantarou made a face before dragging him down for another kiss. This time Haruka’s fangs caught on his lower lip, and Kantarou made a small noise, tracing them with his tongue until Haruka bit down, and he tasted blood.

“Idiot,” Haruka breathed against Kantarou’s mouth. “I can’t be gentle if you’re like that.” His hands rested on Kantarou’s shoulders and slid out, pulling his arms down until they were pinned to the mattress by his wrists. “Make up your mind.”

Kantarou opened his eyes as wide as he could and and tipped his head back and turning it partly to one side, to better expose the full length of his neck. He arched up and managed to hook a leg low around Haruka’s hips. “This,” he said. “This is good.”

Haruka’s eyes widened, and he made a stunned noise. “Ah–”

“More like that,” Kantarou purred, rubbing slowly. “More like–”

Haruka kissed him hard — Kantarou felt his lip split under the pressure — then transferred Kantarou’s wrists to one hand and reached down with the other, shifting his own weight for more room.

His fingers were very warm.

“H–Haruka–Haruka, ah–” Kantarou twisted as best he could in his trapped position; Haruka’s grasp on his cock was clumsy, but still moving strong and fast, and his breath against Kantarou’s ear was rough.

“Like this?” Haruka hissed into his ear. “You like this, right?”

He managed a shaky laugh. “This is good,” he said, “but more, Haruka, more–”

“More how–?”

“I’ll show you–” Kantarou licked his lips and pulled at his wrists, still trapped. “Haruka, let me go for a moment.”

Haruka blinked at him, pale eyes uncomprehending for a moment, then finally loosened his grip enough for Kantarou to tug a hand free. Grinning cheekily, glad for the first time that they were in Haruka’s room instead of his own, Kantarou pointed. “Haruka has oil, right? We need one of those.”

Haruka blinked at him again, and then his eyes widened. “You want–”

“I want very much,” Kantarou said, as innocently as he could manage. “Nee, Haruka, don’t you want it, too?”

“You’d — you’d let me–” Haruka’s brow furrowed. “What are you aiming for?”

“Eh?” Kantarou blinked. “Aiming?”

“You — you’d let me –”

“Yes,” Kantarou chirped. “Yes, so hurry up, Haruka~”

Haruka growled at him, twisting to grab a vial of oil from a nearby shelf. Even in the dimness the glass shone brightly. Kantarou spread his legs and arched again, eager. Haruka was not overly gentle, but he was still holding back; Kantarou could feel the faint tremble in the body pressed to his, and thought that next time, maybe next time, he’d tell Haruka it was okay, he could go all out–

And then Haruka was moving over him, grasping Kantarou’s hips and tilting them up. Kantarou gasped, curling his hands into the sheets and bracing himself as Haruka began to press in.

It hurt a little; Kantarou gritted his teeth against the noise of pain that tried to bubble out. Haruka’s own expression was one of intense concentration, brow furrowed and eyes squeezed shut. A small bead of blood welled at the corner of his mouth, where he’d bitten down on his lip.

“Haruka,” Kantarou whimpered, raising his arms so he could grasp Haruka’s tense shoulders. “Haruka–”

And then Haruka was all the way in, arched over him, growling low on every breath. Kantarou forced his eyes open, watching with blurred vision as Haruka began to move, even as heat began to unfurl in his belly and through all his limbs, and he moved instinctively in response, gasping.

Haruka’s breath was harsh in his ear, more like a crow’s voice than anything remotely human, and Kantarou finally gave up and squeezed his eyes shut, wrapping his arms around Haruka’s neck and pressing as closely as he could, moving helplessly and

“Oh,” he said, or maybe just thought he did, “oh–”

Sharp teeth bit down on Kantarou’s shoulder and he cried out, the pain singing in his veins and felt more like joy than anything else.

+++

“This was stupid,” Haruka said.

Kantarou ran his hand idly through Haruka’s hair, wrapping strands of it around his fingers. “… probably,” he said. “I don’t mind, though.”

“You should.” Haruka eyed the bitemark on Kantarou’s shoulder, then licked it. “It’s stupid.”

“Then let’s be stupid,” Kantarou said, and yawned. “Good night, Haruka.”

Haruka looked at him, then snorted and closed his own eyes. “Good night yourself.”

+++

A week later, a paper-wrapped bundle appeared on their doorstep. When Youko cut the twine holding it together, they found an elegant new haori, screened with flying birds through a windstorm of cherry blossoms. Wrapped inside of that was a handsome sum of money, and a single pure white feather. The money Kantarou gave to Youko (who was a little teary-eyed, and even went as far as to promise Kantarou’s favorite dinner); the haori he hung in his own closet; the feather he gave to Haruka, smiling as he did.

And the next morning there was a black feather on his pillow, and a scattering of glass pieces on his desk, including the marble collection that Haruka prized so much.

Kantarou pressed his lips to the quill, then went off in search of Haruka.

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