The Shape in Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

+++

“This is a new tactic,” Kantarou said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

He does not wake.

“Oi,” Haruka says again. “Oi.”

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

Without looking back he flies towards the mountains.

+++

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

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

“Sensei?”

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

“Game?” Kantarou’s eyes narrowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

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

“Haruka-chan–!”

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

+++

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

+++

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

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

He couldn’t–

+++

“Youko,” Haruka says. “Move.”

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

+++

Something fell out of Kantarou’s mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

+++

And Kantarou opens his eyes.

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

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

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

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

“… tea …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

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

Delicately, she bites halfway through.

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