Author's Notes: I actually wrote this chapter first... Prepare for the stunning conclusion, in which the question of how Haruka and the Rice Bowl get together is answered. Or not.
Comments appreciated, as always. :edit: Finally remembered to make a few suggested changes. Thanks Akabeko!
With a curt nod of satisfaction, Haruka moved away from the second story window and plopped down on top of a chest of drawers. At least he now had a breeze to disperse the musty air: when was the last time Kantarou had bothered to air out this book- cluttered storage room? Haruka carefully arranged his bandaged wings over the stacks of dusty folklore texts behind him and crossed his legs.
Haruka scowled and reached behind his back to pick at a coarse bandage. It itched. A lot.
Needing a diversion from the itching, Haruka glanced around the room. He had already grown bored of staring out of the window and watching people run afternoon errands, but a luridly titled book (The Secret Diets of Demons Exposed!) offered an inviting distraction. Haruka flipped casually through the book, pausing only when an illustration caught his attention. Ah, here was one depicting a demon gleefully roasting a small fishing village with black flames. A few pages later there was a crowded depiction of a cheerful group of demons sharing a messy lunch – a farmer, judging from the abandoned hoe. Haruka slowly rotated the book for a better view. The farmer's hand was in the right hand corner of the image, a lung near the top middle, a bit of rib there ... demons really were a disgusting lot. Not the sort he would bother trying to rescue.
Why would Kantarou even consider putting himself at risk for the sake of such creatures? Haruka pondered the possibility of leaving this book on Kantarou's writing desk, with a few helpful bookmarks for quick reference. Obviously he could use a refresher. These weren't his "friends," not by a long shot.
The next page of the book illustrated a struggle between an ornately-robed monk and a clawed serpentine beast. The beast had clearly gotten the upper hand in the struggle as its teeth were buried in the monk's throat, from which crude spatters of ink gushed. Haruka's eyes widened, and he threw the book to the floor.
"I take it you don't care for my taste in literature, Haruka?"
Haruka gritted his teeth, forcing himself not to whirl around – that would betray his alarm. Kantarou's usually impish voice was flat with exhaustion and pain; how had he managed the stairs?
"It was boring," Haruka replied with as much disinterest as he could project, pointedly keeping his gaze fixed forward. "And you're supposed to be confined to bed for at least three days; didn't Youko tell you?" Haruka felt a renewed surge of anger towards Kantarou and his stomach tensed. Just couldn't wait to heal before you trudged up the stairs to give me a lecture, eh? He hoped that Kantarou would leave quickly; he had chosen the second story room partially so that Kantarou wouldn't see him in this ridiculous set-up, looking every bit the broken marionette with his wings suspended all over smelly books.
There was no answer except for the sound of sock-clad feet shuffling across wooden floor, like those belonging to an old man. Haruka frowned; he had grown accustomed to the sound of Kantarou prancing about, his loose hakama rustling against his slim hips. Then Kantarou placed a heavy object on the ground, and Haruka heard the distinct slosh of water in a bucket.
Haruka swiveled his head around, the hell with indifference; Kantarou was about to do something weird to him again. He watched as Kantarou dipped a stiff brush into a bucket of water and brought it up to his right wing. With a firm but gentle stroke, Kantarou ran the bristles through the thick feathers. Droplets of blood sprinkled onto the floor.
Haruka understood now. "That's not necessary."
"If the blood dries, you won't be able to get it out," Kantarou said firmly, dipping the brush into the bucket of water again.
"I'll just pull them out later. They'll grow back soon enough."
"No! That would hurt Haruka!" Kantarou yelped, his voice cracking.
Embarrassed by the sudden outburst, Haruka turned his head back towards the window. "Fine. Do whatever you want." Not that Kantarou needed his permission; when it concerned goblins, Kantarou always did what he wanted, without regard for others' opinions... but today this stubbornness had nearly killed him. The knot in Haruka's stomach tightened as the unwelcome, too-fresh memory returned: Kantarou falling, wide eyes full of shock, a forgiving smile still frozen on his lips as waves of blood gushed from his pale throat.
The demon had feigned interest in Kantarou's conciliatory words and pretended to repent, claws outstretched beseechingly as it crept close to the kindly "demon buster." But it had only been posturing, waiting for the right moment to lunge for Kantarou's windpipe; it knew that Kantarou couldn't bind it again without words. It had nearly succeeded, too. Haruka remembered the frantic flight back to the house. The demon had cut deep, and Kantarou's blood kept soaking through the makeshift bandages. Haruka had held Kantarou's head against the crook of his neck as he flew; he had been so worried that Kantarou might stop breathing and he wouldn't hear it over the beating of his wings. And there had been the terrible, sticky feel of Kantarou's blood pumping out onto his neck...
Hadn't he warned Kantarou not to release the demon? That some types just couldn't be redeemed?
The silence in the room was broken only by the rhythmic strokes of Kantarou's brush. A tingle ran up Haruka's spine as Kantarou brushed over a sensitive area, and Haruka suppressed the odd urge to snatch his shirt off the floor and clutch it to his bare chest.
Kantarou drew close to Haruka as he neared completion of the self-imposed task. "Haruka," he said, "I wanted to say that I'm disappointed..." His voice trailed off.
Haruka clenched his jaw. Here came the lecture: I'm disappointed in you. Well, Kantarou was in for his second disappointment of the day: Haruka wasn't going to apologize unless forced to with his name. He wasn't going to beg forgiveness; he wouldn't play the role of submissive servant. He wasn't sorry in the least about ripping the demon apart with claws of his own. His only regret was that he hadn't killed the demon while it lay paralyzed in Kantarou's spell.
"I wanted to say that I'm disappointed in myself," Kantarou continued. "I let you down, Haruka. I should have been more cautious." The brush faltered in his hand. "You were right when you said that I was being naïve about goblins. I wanted to believe, so much, that all goblins and humans could get along... or at least learn to live together."
Haruka smelled a faint trace of salt on the air. Was Kantarou... crying? The knot in his stomach began to loosen.
"But it was different when I worked by myself: I made the decision to put myself in danger for my dream. It was wrong for me to order you--"
"Don't get the wrong idea," Haruka interrupted. "I didn't get injured to protect you; that demon just annoyed me. It was insulting me." It had insulted him: it had dared to touch his master in front of him. Kantarou was his.
"Thank you for protecting me." Kantarou pulled the stained brush through the glossy feathers once more, then picked up the bucket. Haruka watched him shuffle out of the room, silver hair spilling over his bent head.
Relief washed over Haruka; he needed time to sort through Kantarou's behavior and his own strange reactions. Only once before had Kantarou revealed tears to him – when he had broken the seal. At that time, Haruka had stared at the folklorist with suspicion: what sort of odd ploy was this, to show vulnerability to a tengu famed for ferocity? But that was an exception. Kantarou's real thoughts and feelings were usually kept secreted away, hidden behind a calculated mixture of lies and levity. The levity took the edge off his naturally deceitful nature, and his youthful appearance constantly belied his self-centeredness.
Haruka knew these aspects of his master's nature well, and Kantarou was aware in turn that his servant did not trust him. Thus they had always maintained an artful balance, like two performers skillfully executing their assigned steps in an elaborate dance – but never touching one another. That way was best – no, safest - for humans and goblins.
But Kantarou had breached the balance; he had stepped outside of the designated boundaries. The tears, the apology – Kantarou had exposed himself, but instead feeling disdain or victory, Haruka felt a strange, soft sensation creeping through his body, as if he had swallowed a gulp of hot, honeyed tea.
The sky was dark and speckled with stars when Kantarou returned with a small jar and a flickering candle. "Balm to help with the itching," Kantarou explained. "My bandages were irritating my neck, so I had Youko help me with this recipe. Works pretty well." He unscrewed the lid, and Haruka's eyes widened as a familiar, tantalizing smell wafted through the air. "It smelled bad, though, so I added wild strawberries to it. Crows like strawberries, so I figured you would too," Kantarou said softly as he began to rub the balm on Haruka's shoulder blades.
A flush crept across Haruka's cheeks. "Like" didn't quite encompass his instinctual reaction to strawberries – or to Kantarou's hands against his bare skin. It was too soon... he needed time alone to rebuild his defenses. He would tell Kantarou to stop right now, ask him to leave the room, then he would go hide in a tree, preferably somewhere out of Kantarou's reach.
But Haruka did not say anything. Instead, he reached under a wing and wrapped long fingers around a slender wrist, dragging the wrist's owner in front of him with one fluid motion. Haruka plucked the jar from that hand and tossed it aside as Kantarou blinked slowly in surprise. Another tug on Kantarou's wrist brought him down to Haruka's eye level. Haruka stared at Kantarou: he looked ethereal, framed in the starlight streaming in from the open window, his skin and bandages glowing a soft white. Haruka carefully began to trace his fingers along the bandages' boundaries. Balm rubbed off onto his fingers, and he slowly licked his fingers clean, one by one. It tasted good, even better than it smelled. Haruka wanted more, so he began to lick Kantarou's neck clean gently. Oh, this tastes even better.
"Haruka ..." Kantarou whispered. Haruka paused and looked up, trying to interpret Kantarou's expression. Was he upset? Had he misread all of Kantarou's little touches and flirting glances?
"Order me to stop then," Haruka said, his voice faint.
Kantarou smiled then, a teasing, tender smile, and buried his fingers in Haruka's hair. He answered Haruka's challenge by covering the other's mouth with his lips.
Haruka inhaled sharply as his senses were completely overwhelmed by the taste and feel and smell of Kantarou.
This was a completely new dance.
Note: I stole the wing-cleaning idea from Haibane Renmei (copyright yoshitoshi Abe.)
Haruka, Kantarou, and Youko are the licensed property of their masters (Mag Garden & Sakura Kinoshita & Kazuko Higashiyama; ADV Manga in the states.) I don't own them. My imagination is just borrowing them for a bit.