Passionate Strangers

Homura's cape swung behind him in a silken bell as he paced through the halls, each step faster than the next until he was nearly running, and then he caught himself and began to walk slowly again. His face was impassive -- a habitual expression, etched into him in the years of darkness and cold, where bars and walls bounded the universe, where rage and joy and anything else had run out through the corners of his world and been lost. He'd found them again and lost them again, all in the same brief span of time, a flicker of a moment in the life of an immortal, a spark to a flame.

And now he was Toushin Taishi. The title weighed on him, empty and meaningless, but far heavier than the shackles on his wrists. He was used to those, at least -- he had grown into them, he understood them. They helped define him. But the title, that was different. It meant nothing to him. So now I kill for Heaven because Heaven requires a killer, where before I was a prisoner because I would have fouled Heaven's marble pavements with my itan feet.

He slowed his pace, again.

Smoke and blood were scrawled across the walls in uncomplicated designs, like a child's broad sweeps with crayons. The terrified youkai had not stopped to scrub the place clean when they fled it, but had left it stinking with the aftermath of battle. Someone had gone to the trouble to drag away the actual corpses which should have littered the corridors, but the smears of passage still lingered, like writing to declare Nataku passed this way.

If it had been him, he would not have stopped at such a minor slaughter on the way to confront Gyuumaoh. He would have left the corridors running in blood and scorched with fire, to make it explicit to the creatures of this world that they had offended Heaven.

And what, precisely, was the point of that? Was he so petty that he had to take out his temper on the beings of the world below because those of the world above had put chains on his wrists and a sword in his hands? Yes, why not? Was he so ready to take orders that he would kill on demand? What else kindles flame in you?

Who was the Toushin Taishi?

He walked down the passageway to the main hall. That was why he had come here tonight, in an attempt to understand Nataku. To understand himself. To have a brief respite from the light of Heaven and the guarded fear in the eyes of those around him. Not that the fear wasn't sweet, after so many years, but even that grew boring -- no, had already grown boring.

Resentment did not bore him yet. He was certain that he would have it as his faithful companion through the years, a warmth around the heart, a burning in the soul. Despite and resentment and hatred, such consoling things, such comfortable emotions.

The great hall opened before him, an open space of stone and air suited for the height of the bound Emperor. It was empty now, like the rest of this castle -- youkai fled, Emperor concealed somewhere in the cellars, left to the shadows and the silence and the ghosts. Nataku's blood surely stained this floor.

He had been told how the boy had emerged from the castle, pale and staggering, robes torn, wounds gashed red into that pale skin. How he had walked through the waiting ranks of the army, and not one officer had raised a hand to help him.

I am the Toushin Taishi.

His mouth curved into a smile, and he drew his sword from the air, digging the point into the shattered onyx tiling of the floor, and leaned on the blade. It gleamed with its own fire, an arc like the heart of a furnace here in the dark chamber.

What is the Toushin Taishi?

Heaven's executioner. The one who takes blood on his hands so that the others may keep their purity. Impure already -- he'd heard that from every voice, seen it in the faces of the people who looked at him even now that he was free. It had been the earliest lesson taught to him. The second had been that he was a thing to be used. The third . . .

His smile stayed the same, but the flames around his sword leapt up in unbidden obedience to his thought. The third had taken him a while to learn, but oh, it had been branded into him with such deliberate patience, such careful design. That he owned nothing. Anything he had could be taken away from him at the wish of those above him. Even the sword he bore was nothing but the mark of the Toushin Taishi.

And how am I to endure having nothing, being nothing, when I see others around me who have each other?

It was perceptible in their movements, in the way that their bodies had inclined towards each other, in the sheer certainty of speech and response, in everything. They had. He had not. Even the knowledge of their death, and what had come after, was not quite enough to solace him.

Lost in his thoughts, he saw the fire writhing across the chamber towards him before he registered what it was, and reacted automatically, bringing his sword up to parry the flames. The force of the attack rocked him, sliding him backwards three steps into the corridor. The blaze leaped and roared in front of him in a red wind of fury, crackling with a rage and hatred that curved his smile wider.

The carved wooden pillars of the door smouldered and caught, framing the entrance to the hall in an archway of fire. He strode through it, sword moving in an arc that cut the flames and drove them back in burning sheets of scarlet. What fool -- what surprisingly powerful fool, considering this display -- could be trying to attack the Toushin Taishi?

He had a moment to ponder this, and almost spared an ounce of pity for the youkai's folly, when a brush of feet on stone came from behind him, as light as a cat's landing. The blow caught him on the shoulder as he was beginning to turn, knocking him down on one knee, and the swipe of clawed hands which followed it nearly tore his throat open. A single scratch on the side of his neck trickled blood, slow and warm.

Oh, better and better. He was starting to enjoy this.

The youkai was young, skin a light bronze, hair flying loose behind him in shadowy crimson arcs as he caught his balance and moved to attack again, eyes as deep and rich as good wine. The leaping flames and darkness paled his skin and darkened his hair, and laid long streaks of light along his claws, and flashed on the collars which circled his neck and the earrings which brushed his shoulders. He was snarling in utter fury, high-boned face twisted in anger, and his open leather jacket swung back from his shoulders as he lunged for Homura. He was as beautiful as the blade of Homura's sword, as incandescent in his rage as the flames which circled them both.

It was a dance.

It ended too quickly for Homura's liking. The youkai was fast, but he lacked control, perhaps driven by the vehemence of his anger, perhaps simply flawed by his youth. He lay on the ground at last, Homura's knee in his stomach, Homura's sword at his throat, blade drawn back so that the edge lay against skin. The chain of Homura's shackles ran over the youkai's chest and puddled on the floor in a smooth curve of links.

"I am the Toushin Taishi," Homura stated blandly. "Who are you?"

"You aren't the Toushin Taishi," the youkai spat as he lay pinned, chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. "Nataku is."

All his musings, and he'd never once considered that nobody had told the world below that there had been a change in Toushin Taishi. "He's . . . indisposed," he informed the prone creature. "Who are you?"

"Kougaiji," the other replied, tone cold. "Kougaiji, son of the Emperor. Bound here by the Toushin Taishi. The previous Toushin Taishi. And what's a kami doing here now? Come to dirty your feet on earth and gloat a little?"

It was its own kind of enlightenment. Homura had never before met someone who burned with that sort of pain, that well-known and clearly recognized bitterness, and who was so willing to throw it in his face. He saw his own rage in Kougaiji's face, muted by youkai features and sourced from a different reason. "No," he said. "Not in that way. Not at all. I'm going to let you up. Hold your peace for the moment." He drew back his sword, returning it to the air from which he habitually drew it, and rose to his feet, shaking out his cape.

Kougaiji came to his feet in a quick lithe motion, not quite stepping back, and stood there balanced on the balls of his feet. His eyes were cautious, suspicious. The flames from the burning archway reflected on the black silk of his jacket. "And?"

Homura smiled, letting the moment draw out. "And nothing. I didn't come here to fight you. I didn't expect to find you here. I see no point in killing you."

Kougaiji twitched a shoulder. "Or I in killing you, I suppose -- for the moment. But why are you here?"

Homura let the question of which of them would have killed the other drop for the moment. An old quotation came to him. "Going to and fro in the world, and walking up and down in it. Thinking. Why are you here?" Then he remembered, and could almost have regretted his words. Of course. Gyumaoh's son had been bound inside the castle, trapped like his father, if not quite with the same degree of severity. If you could actually call it mercy, to leave him prowling in the shadows here, barren of company, empty of conversation, with only the stony body of his father to despise.

"Bound," Kougaiji simply replied. He apparently hadn't thought that Homura could be mocking him.

"Yes." Homura raised one wrist for a moment, letting the chain shift and flash in the jumping firelight. "I know the feeling."

There was a pause. He could see a thought form in the darkness of the other's eyes, and wondered idly what it might be. This was more interesting than just another killing -- and as he wasn't supposed to be here in any case, hadn't even been ordered to investigate the place, he had no particular responsibilities beside the obvious one of self-defence. Intriguing, yet strangely obvious -- if he had no life beyond his role in Heaven, then he had no duties outside it either. The chains which restricted him also freed him. Perhaps he should consider doing something like this again.

"May I offer you some wine?" Kougaiji asked politely.

"I would be most grateful," Homura replied courteously.


The castle was peopled by shadows; shadows, and one living youkai. As Kougaiji led Homura through the passageways to a room where they could actually sit down in comfort, even if it lacked the ambience of the great hall, the darkness of the walls seemed to lean towards them, and half-heard whispers echoed after their footsteps.

"Do you hear anything?" Homura asked idly.

"There's nothing to hear," Kougaiji said. He didn't turn to face the other man. Tension gripped his shoulders, visible even through the loose lines of his jacket.

"Hnh." A shadow stirred on the wall, twitching and shuddering, and the echoes whispered mother.

"Here." Kougaji opened one of the doors lining the passage. "Come in." His mouth twitched at the simple, incongruous statement.


Homura closed the door behind him.


It was a scholar's room, which surprised Homura, though he took care not to show it. I am the Toushin Taishi. I hold the power here. Scrolls were neatly stacked on the desk in the corner, and ink-brushes were sorted neatly in a holder next to inkstone and dried stick of ink. A small lamp on the desk had been carved from alabaster, shaped and polished till the light would shine through it like glass. The rest of the room was -- well, acceptable, even for a prince, but undistinguished. The lengths of silk which fell in gorgeous shades across the couches lacked any significance or personal taste. The chair by the desk was ebony, smooth and glossy and perfect, but not carved with any personal design. The whole room could have belonged to any royal personage, except for that desk in the corner, and except for the tapestry which hung on the opposite wall.

Homura walked across to examine it more closely. A larger-than-human figure in imperial trappings stood proudly against a landscape of wind-blown trees, flowing rivers, artistically arranged mountains. And then, as he examined it, something about its design clicked into focus. The carefully positioned features of landscape were humans, all of them -- humans raising their hands to heaven in terror, human bodies cascading across the landscape in rivers of corpses, human bodies forming the mass of the dainty background mountains. The central figure trod them down and laughed, walking across the earth in proud dispassion, feet unstained by blood.

"It was a gift from my father." Kougaiji's voice came from behind him, tone perfectly even.

"It hardly seems quite to your taste. From what I've seen of you so far." Homura turned to smile at the youkai.

Kougaiji's expression did not change. "It was a gift from my father."

"And yet you hang it where you can turn your back on it."

"It was a gift from my father," Kougaiji said for a third time. He did not speak again while he poured the wine.

Homura took the wine-cup, and drank from it without hesitation. This wasn't a setting for poisoning or treachery -- not this place, not this man. Heaven, perhaps; the image of a poisoned wine-cup offered with a smile and a friendly word suited Heaven all too well. But this dark castle, this angry youkai prince, both promised nothing but good wine to drink.

The danger would lie somewhere else. He wondered where, and smiled.

Silence stretched between them. Finally Kougaiji snorted. "So what actually happened to the previous Toushin Taishi?"

Homura found himself reluctant to describe the precise events. Threads of things which he did not want to remember or consider were braided through Nataku's fall; small things, tiny things, like the simple gesture of kindness when Kenren tried to help the child, that kindness which for some reason he found so utterly galling. "His father played politics. The child was caught in the afterwash."

"Mm." Kougaiji raised his cup of wine. "Here's to the children who suffer for their father's sins." His mouth was curled in bitterness as he sipped the sweet liquid.

"And are you innocent?" Homura asked casually. He raised his own cup and drank.

"Oh no." The light from the candles around the room danced in Kougaiji's eyes and gleamed on the collars around his neck. "Are you?"

"What has that to do with it?" He caught the defensiveness in his own words, and his lips tightened.

"Something in your tone," Kougaiji said, and his voice was soft, but the room pulsed with fury. "Something in the words you choose. Something in the way that neither of us give our father's names when we introduce ourselves. Something in the way that you don't understand what it means when your father gives you something which you can't refuse. Or am I wrong?"

"How would you know what my father gave me?" He could feel that smile growing on his lips, the dangerous smile, the one that went with anger and careless fire, the one that said, do you really think your life or your soul or anything that is yours matters to me in the slightest?

"The wrong things." Kougaiji shrugged bonelessly, flesh soft gold in the candlelight. "Just like me. Never the things that either of us would have asked for."

"Are you trying to provoke me?" he asked, a purr to his voice.

"Of course. You did the same to me."

"And are you enjoying it?" Homura took another swallow of the wine. A carnal, fleshly indulgence, grown from earthly grapes. He was not yet accustomed enough to Heavenly wine to be able to note the differences. The candles were more of an intoxicant than the wine; all the shades of light, caught in those tiny flames, flickering across flesh and silk and wood and stone. He had sat in the darkness as the years went by, and had been grateful for each flicker of light.

They had all been one thing for him -- the sunlight, the flowers, the woman -- and the greatest of them had been the light in her eyes as she looked at him, as she saw his face, as she turned towards him as if he were her sun and she were the flower. He had never been that necessary to any living thing before. When he had lost her, he had lost everything else as well.

"Yes," Kougaiji said consideringly. "I believe that I am."

"I suppose it gives you something to do with your time." He let his gaze wander around the room, deliberately contemptuous this time.

"When someone walks up to me and shows his weakness, what does he expect me to do?" Kougaiji kept his gaze steady as he drank from the winecup again.

"How very like your father."

The words hung in the air between them, broken by the tiny sound of stone on wood as Kougaiji put his cup down. "Do you ever feel that we build our lives in reverse?" he asked, as though the question were casual, as though there was nothing moving behind his eyes. "That we shape ourselves in contradiction of what we are supposed to be, or against the blood that we know in our own veins? That we try to make ourselves something other than what we are, because to be the creatures that we are born to be is unbearable?"

"Don't be a fool." Homura watched the pulse in the other man's neck. "We are who we are."


"And no more than that. You can change the world." Can you, he wondered. Can you really. "You can't change who you are."

"And so you won't." Kougaiji moved one long-nailed hand, brushed his fingers across the smooth grain of the table, watching as though the gesture meant something. "And I can't."

"Can't change yourself?"

"Can't change the world. After all, that would imply there was a world outside these walls, wouldn't there?" He drew back his lips and showed his teeth in what was not a smile. "And that would be a stupid thing for someone like me to think, wouldn't it, Toushin Taishi?"

It had been like that, he remembered -- the long darkness, the awareness that there was something beyond the walls, but also the wonder what it might have been. He'd never known the outer light before he was sealed away down where torches were a pitiful imitation of the sun. For a while, each day had built a new castle of dreams about his release, about walking outside into the light, about freedom, about the feeling of clean air on his face, so different from the closed bone-deep smell of the dungeon and the stink of the flesh of the only ones who ever came to find him down there, hands on his face in the darkness, it always began that way, and each day hoping, and each day giving up hope. "It does you no good to think it," he said, and looked at the cup in his hand, and put it down next to Kougaiji's own.

"How very divine." There was a deliberate bite to Kougaiji's voice this time. "I thank you for the lesson."

Homura shook his head, once. "You fail to understand me."

"Oh? Enlighten me."

"Thinking about the outside is folly." The flagstones of the floor had been set irregularly. He had traced the pattern with his eyes, day after day, darkness after darkness. How strange, to find the imperfect in Heaven. What a fitting place for an itan child. "Thinking about tomorrow is folly. Thinking about escape is folly. Thinking about anything beyond these walls is folly. Nataku would have been more merciful if he had sealed you like your father."

An odd light flared in Kougaiji's eyes, and he looked sidelong at Homura from under arched brows. "Do you think that I care about Heaven's mercy?"

There was this to be said for anger; it aroused him, even as the shadows of the past fell around him. "Do you think I care about your good opinion? You asked. I answered."

Suddenly Kougaiji began to laugh; a raw, dry sound, but with an undertone of genuine amusement. "And I can't hurt you. It makes it even better."


The other shook his head, then shrugged, and the reflections of the candles shifted and glittered on his earrings and collars and bangles. "You know what my father is. Was. I know that he's in me -- my blood, my bones, my heritage. I wear these," he tapped a dangling earring with one long fingernail, "I discipline myself, and yet I know what I may become. Do you ever have nightmares about blood?"

"Dreams," Homura answered, voice low.

"I imagine myself like him," Kougaiji went on, as though he hadn't heard. "No. I know I'm like him. Son of the Emperor. It was growing up in a cage, living by the lines he'd drawn for me. Do you understand?" A rustle of air stirred his hair and made the candleflames dance. "You're a kami." The word on his lips sounded like a curse.

"I'm impure." Homura reached forward and ran his fingers over the back of Kougaiji's right hand, tracing up over the knuckles and along the fine bones to the jade bangles that clasped his wrists. He slid his fingers under the other man's wrist, trapping them between jade and flesh, feeling the quick pulse of blood. "You've lived in the light all your life. But it was just a cage then, you say. Very well, it's just as much a cage now."

The still darkness thickened at the edges of the room. The castle was full of shadows, corridors leading nowhere except further in for this prisoner. In the end it was no larger than a single cell had been.

"There is no way out for either of us."

In the cold and darkness, he had let go of his dreams of the outside world, of love, of hope, of anything beyond the walls and any future. He had stopped counting the days. He had weighed his chains in his hands and dreamed of a present fire to consume him.

"There is no day but this."

He smiled, vicious and sweet, and caught Kougaiji's left wrist in his other hand, feeling the fragile thin bones under the flesh, and saw the answering glitter in the other's eyes. "Give up the future. Live each day and don't think about a future or you will go mad. Maybe some day someone will release you -- but really, why should they? You are the Emperor's son." His voice softened to a murmur. "You want to live, don't you? You talk about being bound in sleep, but that's no life. You could lie there a thousand thousand years and be nothing but stone. But here, now, even in this place, you're alive." It was the danger of it that warmed him and set fire in him, the controlled anger and desire in the other man's eyes, the ability to walk into another person's cell as once others had walked into his, the sense of knowledge, the knowledge that gave him power. It was nothing so simple as mere physical control; it was the understanding of this youkai prince's fury and despair that put a sword in his hands. "Am I understood?" He rose, pulling Kougaiji to his feet along with him.

Kougaiji twisted his hands, pulling free of Homura's grip on his wrists. "Well enough." He turned, moving to the door in the far wall, next to the unchancy tapestry. "Are you coming?"

"To where?"

"To my bedchamber." Kougaiji paused, one hand on the door. "Or do kami prefer to couple on the floor?"

"How odd." Homura stretched, letting his cloak fall from his shoulders onto the couch behind, and followed him. "I had been wondering the same thing about youkai."

"Oh, rea--"

Homura explored Kougaiji's lips with his fingers as he backed the other through the open doorway, then traced across his face to the cheekbone, down the line of the jaw, down the neck to the two collars which lay loosely round his throat, and down the warm skin of his chest to the waistband of his jeans. They stumbled together to the couch, Kougaiji's jacket slipping to the ground in a rustle of silk, Kougaiji's hands moving down Homura's shoulders and following the lines of his ribs and pectorals, down to his buttocks, forcing their hips together, and he could feel the cords of muscle and nerve which ran through him, a flame in his groin, a hunger in his mouth. He let himself fall back towards the couch, catching himself on his hip and rolling sideways, pulling Kougaiji down with him, one hand knotting in the other's long silky hair and holding him still so that he could kiss those open lips, get his tongue inside that quiet mouth, feel Kougaiji's hands working his jeans down and over his hips, everything in the candlelight that painted the room in the colours of gold and blood.

"Let go," Kougaiji gasped, pulling free for a moment and jerking his head, tugging at Homura's grip. Homura released his handful of hair, letting the strands trail through his fingers, and watched as the other man slipped his own trousers off, enjoying the smooth unconcern of the motion. No shame here, no obedience, no farce of deference . . . Then Kougaiji was bending over him again, mouth moving over the cords of his neck, hands warm on his chest -- and Homura caught the other's ankle with his foot, tripping him and catching him as they fell, rolling sideways so they lay on the couch together, Homura's arm over Kougaiji's torso, his hand brushing the other man's nipples, skin against skin, heat against heat.

"I'm the one in chains," Homura breathed into Kougaiji's ear. "Down."

Kougaiji paused for a moment; then, with a deliberate slowness to make it obvious that it was his choice, he rolled over, lying there on his front with hair falling loose around him, a prince waiting to be attended to.

Homura obliged him, moving down his body, mapping the bronze skin -- just as unmarked by scars as his own -- and the contours of heat and muscle and breath. His chain lay like a dark serpent across Kougaiji's body, shifting with his movements, rippling with each breath. The taste of a mortal body. The taste of fire. His mouth and hands on another man's body, another man's cock, but through his choice this time, and the other submitting not through fear or blackmail, but accepting . . .

Kougaiji gasped, whole body shaking. "Just -- do it -- " he hissed, turning his face away.

Homura could feel himself smiling, that lightness running through his body like flame, as he moved to cover the other, easing inside Kougaiji's tight body, one arm curling around his narrow waist, the other stroking the soft skin beneath Kougaiji's paired collars, delighting in the desperate hammering of the other's pulse, there, just where the blood ran close beneath the surface, the spice-and-copper scent of his hair, the knowledge of someone else real in his arms, under his hands, around him, beneath him. Fire in the candlelight, flame in his eyes, the harshness of breath, the jolting urgency of motion, the world bounded by the other person's body, dreams of violence and blood and the shaking of the heavens, the stroke of orgasm through him and into Kougaiji and through Kougaiji's body in turn, the fall from burning star to warm flesh and candlelight and the other's breathing and the body's peace.


He felt the dawn break outside, though no light entered the room where he lay with Kougaiji among the tangled silks, and he drew his hands away from the other man, turning to rise from the couch and find his clothing.

He could feel Kougaiji's eyes on him. He didn't speak.

"My father's body is in the cellars below," Kougaiji finally said, the sound of his voice soft in the quiet room, in the artificial candle-lit darkness bounded by the elaborate ivory walls. "If you really want to see him."

"It would tell me nothing that I don't already know." He turned, clothed, to look at the youkai prince lying casually on his bed, so effortlessly serene in his nudity, so peaceful, so untouched, and felt the heat leap in him again, and sealed his face with a calm smile.

It was true, what he had said; they were all bounded, however large or small the size of their cell. He had all the breadth of heaven and earth beneath his feet, to walk as he chose, and the chains of his birth and function still held him to the path of obligation from step to step. Kougaiji was caught inside the castle walls, a spirit of flame trapped with the darkness and the ghosts, but in some ways he was now more free than he had ever been under his father's guidance. And what gave him that freedom? The ability to say I am not you, I am not who you would make me, I am not who you say I am?

The only way out for either of them was to break the walls of their imprisonment, and for Homura, that prison was the whole of creation.

"And what do you know?" Kougaiji asked. His shadowy eyes already held the answer.

"I am the Toushin Taishi."

I destroy at Heaven's command. I am impure and I bring down the impure. I am the fire of Heaven's wrath.

He turned away.

I am the tool that Heaven has set at its own throat, and Heaven has made me full of anger, and I have a taste for blood.

Silence followed him.

I shall be the destruction of Heaven.

He smiled.


Fanfic Page