Title: Ginkgos In Autumn
Author's note: kink meme: Greece is secretly ticklish behind his ears. And somehow this turned into Nekomata!Greece with Onmyouji!Japan in the Heian period. Notes at the end of the story.
The stray came onto his door in autumn when the nights turned cool. Pochi, and his cats did not mind him. He played in the golden fallen ginkgo leaves, rolling as they rustled. Kiku had never quite seen a cat like this. A bake-neko, he assumed. It had the body of a man, yet the ears and tail of a cat. The tail itself was forked at the end, branching into two tails. Together, the contrast of animal and man, beast was a pleasing aesthetic. Especially as the man himself was quite handsome. His hair was soft, curly and fluffy. It was made from the soft brown of new earth, and of the way that did not occur in his homeland. He was much taller than Kiku himself, and quite strong, and yet there was a gentleness that permeated his features.
He could only assume it to be a bake-neko, for he had never come across a Bake-neko himself, let alone one grown to nekomata state. He'd heard of tales, horrible fearsome descriptions of them walking on hind legs, reanimating the dead, or targeting a person to take their life and assume it. He'd also heard tales of kindness: a cat-daughter adopted that took care of its adopted parents; a cat who turned into a beautiful woman to marry its owner; a cat which helped a famous monk.
Of the obake, he was not entirely unacquainted. He'd found two Kitsunes in the court before, hidden under the guises of beautiful women with eyes brown, yet with a tinge of gold. With just a look they could captivate, ensnare, and ruin. They were a pair of sisters, so beautiful that it hurt to look at them directly, as looking at the sun.
But this creature did not resemble the Kitsune with their too-tight, smug smiles and radiant beauty. He could look at this nekomata without the pain of the terrible beauty that stung for hours afterwards. That did not mean it was any less beautiful, or any less alluring in its own way.
Carefully – for care is how one should always react when dealing with a feral animal, let alone one that might be a spirit, he unwrapped and laid out a freshly caught fish he had planned to make his dinner. Instead of bending, the curious creature lifted it to his mouth. He nibbled at it, scales falling to his shirt and around him in a silvery sheen as he did. When he was done, he licked his palm and looked up.
Kiku stayed back, waiting. His Kamidana was always filled with Ofuda. He had purified his house with go-hei, and kept his protective amulets with him at all times. He'd even laid rice at the edges of his house to feed the hungry ghosts. He wondered if bells would hinder its magic, as they did the Kitsune's magic.
No, his bells were too far off, and the nekomata would surely be too fast. Chanting would likely be the best if it attacked. And even that was a question. Kiku did not begin his chants, or the rites of purification, however. The nekomata had made no moves of aggression, and it was too lovely to drive away without reason.
The nekomata tilted its head and studied him, curious. Kiku moved a little closer. By all means, he should have stayed away, even driven it from him for safety, but the ears were too soft, and Kiku was too easily swayed by cute things. It was his greatest weakness. He leaned down and scratched behind the ears. The nekomata made a sound like human laughter infused with purring. Then he turned over on his back, and Kiku rubbed his belly.
The nekomata smiled wide, and Kiku too could not keep himself from smiling, even if he was usually given to a stoic demeanor. It purred, and he saw a hint of tongue between its teeth as it laid back, lost in its own bliss. When he stopped, it got up and considered him again.
As he went for his house, the nekomata followed after him. It waited at the door, and Kiku let it in. Cats chose their masters, not the other way around.
He held divinations for women of the court, with a screen between them for decency's sake. They giggled behind their screens and fans, swathed in rivers of colored silk while he scanned through their future. Casting the hexagram with a yarrow stalk, connecting the intersecting lines and reading the esoteric meanings therein. They asked for the affairs of women: who would their husband be? Would they be fruitful and bear him many sons?
They were questions any common fortune teller at a festival could answer, but Kiku did not turn them away. He took them on with as much patience as when he took on the highest ranked courtiers.
He could have an abode of the finest making near the court. However, Kiku valued his solitude, and would isolate himself upon any given chance. After his divinations, his advising and rites of purification, he would come home to his house in the shade of the gingko trees.
The nekomata slept in odd places. Kiku would often come in to find him turned into a strange way, his legs jutting out over the stairs he had suddenly decided to nap upon.
He bought fish and sake for him. He did not partake of sake, given his profession, but the nekomata loved it. Feeding it sake meant it was less likely to drink his lamp oil. The scent of the oil would linger on his breath for days, and it always made Kiku wonder if it might cause...incendiary reactions. Kiku had no sense of bad fortune following the nekomata, and it hadn't done as much as scratch him. The nekomata was more affectionate than most cats he had come across, which chose their own ways and seemed to almost think derisively of humans.
When he arrived home, the nekomata waited for him, sprawled asleep outside with yellow leaves in his hair.
"Neko-san, there are rain clouds on the horizon. You should go in," Kiku said. "You won't be happy if you fall asleep and get soaked."
The nekomata tilted his head. He licked his palm, and stared up at the sky surrounding Kiku from his bed of yellow gingko leaves.
"Herakles..." it said. It yawned and stretched, and got to its feet.
"What?" Kiku said.
"My name is Herakles," he said.
"That is an interesting name," Kiku said. "I have never heard any like it before."
"It isn't from here, but from a long place away...I spent time there..." Herakles said. He had not until this time heard the nekomata – Herakles – talk. He had a deep, yet calm voice that seemed raspy as he was wont to trailing off.
He followed Kiku in as the first raindrops started to fall. Herakles laid his head in Kiku's lap.
Kiku stroked his back, and itched the place no human could ever reach. Herakles arched his back, and sighed when it had finished. Kiku then stroked the unruly curls at the crown of his head.
Such affectionate ways were not uncommon. Every day Herakles would rub against him, as was the way of cats. Kiku would wake to find Herakles with his face against Kiku's robes, rubbing his cheeks against them. Throughout the day Kiku would look down to find him nuzzling against his knees, his legs, whatever body part was nearest. If he was standing, he'd start to purr and rub their foreheads together.
When Kiku slept, Herakles nestled against him. With each rise and fall of breath, his soft hair would brush against his neck, Pochi at his feet, and several other cats found their way to various parts of his bed that Herakles had not already claimed.
He felt the presence from the first moment it came near. Unlike Herakles, it did not have a gentle, languorous air, this creature felt more warlike. It had a black mask over its face, and stared back at him with intelligent eyes. It was a tanuki of large size who like Herakles, had bypassed the kekkai, the ofuda, and all his other wards against the world of the obake.
"Is it a friend of yours?" Kiku asked.
"No," Herakles growled. He hissed at the tanuki, who made chutchutchut sounds that must have been an insult in their tongue, for Herakles turned to cat form and his fur stood on end. He let out a snarl and leapt down to attack.
Kiku couldn't chant, for he was afraid he would drive away Herakles as well. The tanuki snapped and bit at Herakles' throat. Together they were a storm of teeth and claws. Kiku racked his mind on a way to best drive away the tanuki without driving away Herakles as well. Before he could act, the tanuki broke free and made its way to Kiku. Instead of attacking him, it rubbed affectionately at his heels. Kiku was stunned. But not for long, since soon Herakles was chasing the tanuki towards the door, growling and hissing and even making a sound akin to screaming.
They ran out the gate, fighting, clawing their way through the streets and even outside of the city until they were out of sight.
Kiku felt his heart clench. He had liked Herakles, and without his presence, it felt too quiet. There lacked a warmth.
He brewed a pot of tea to calm his nerves and mentally reprimanded himself for not acting sooner. Tanukis were known to be mostly mischievous, but he remembered one report of such tricks being gruesome. In particular, serving the human flesh of a wife to her husband.
He felt a shudder inside. Obake were not always evil creatures by nature, but still one must always guard themselves. Herakles had seemed different, the one exception, perhaps.
He hoped that as an obake, Herakles would have far more strength and resources than a mere human. They were not immortal, though. Simply harder to kill.
So he waited, and tried to keep his thoughts on tomorrow's affairs. And waited, his thoughts hopelessly returning to Herakles, his nekomata, his beloved companion.
Herakles limped to his door far later when nightfall had come. He was scratched up, with pieces of fur missing, new nicks in his ears, and deep slashes and bites across his chest arm arms. His clothes were soaked with blood. Without a thought to decorum, Kiku rose and embraced him.
Herakles flinched, but when Kiku tried to let go, he felt strong arms at his back, holding him close. When the grip slackened enough, Kiku stepped back, embarrassed.
"I apologize, I was worried," Kiku said.
"There is nothing to apologize for..." Herakles said.
Herakles stripped off his clothes, the strange shirt, the pants and boots from another land and lay with only a covering about his loins. Kiku applied healing balm to his wounds, and murmured soft words. Herakles, back in his more human form made soft mewls in the back of his throat.
"You are very brave," Kiku said. He rubbed Herakles behind the ears to try and elicit a smile. He shook with silent laughter, twitched, but was too sore to be quite as energetic as the first time.
"I am glad to protect you..." Herakles said, nuzzling into Kiku's robes.
Kiku only kept stroking his soft hair and ears. There was an encompassing sense of relief, and yet more. A new feeling which was filling him. The kind of feeling that made him breech all decorum and throw his arms about Herakles.
Just the thought of how impulsive he'd been at that moment made him flush with embarrassment.
That night he fed Herakles an extra helping of fish.
Herakles limped for days afterwards, but still, there was an air of triumph about him. From that day on, Herakles became more than the nekomata which slept in his house. He was Kiku's companion.
They were an odd sight together, an onmyouji and a nekomata walking through divinations, dancing through the complexities of the court together.
Soon enough, people got used to the sight. Priests and monks were always befriending the oddest sorts. Kiku was no exception.
Kiku rarely traveled. His job was in the capitol, giving readings to shy girls behind screens and, to officials and keeping up the rites of purification. Herakles helped him in these accomplishments now, in that he seemed to bring a sort of protection that kept other obake away.
However, news came of a small town outside the capitol which had several troubling issues of their children disappearing. The priest in that village had died of old age, and no one had succeeded him. The Minister of the Left personally asked his assistance. He had been a distant relative to the priest, who had moved to the more rural area in the twilight of his life. He did not want his relative's name stained with the rumors of incompetence.
So it was that Kiku left his glorious post to go down the dusty roads. Herakles followed after him, resembling more a dog in his loyalty and affection than a cat.
He stayed in the inns of kindly grannies, of young men and their wives and any other person benevolent enough to have him. Obake and unscrupulous sorts alike took pause with his nekomata companion always by his side. He switched from cat form to his humanoid form on whims, or perhaps it was just by whoever was around him. The human form was just as calm as the cat, and yet, with the way he towered over most of them, he was an imposing force.
When they finally reached the pool, there was no visible hint of carnage, no bones lining the cave of a monster. It looked by all means, a serene place, but Kiku knew better. He could feel the creature, its lingering energy around the place.
He stood and waited. Herakles gaze was also fixated on the pool. His muscles were taut, and he looked ready to pounce at any moment.
He did not have to wait long.
Unlike Herakles, the creature that came out of the pool was not given to a kindly disposition. It was a mix of frog, ape and turtle with green skin, claws, and snapping beaked mouth. It had a lily pad on its head, filled with river water. He could almost see his reflection in it from this distance. He knew that the kappas usually feasted on children. However, they could, at times, be given only to mild trickery. (And he wondered what this said about his stature if it was so willing to add him to its collection).
He knew that what it sought, to bend him over and suck out his shirikodama. It must be a terrible way to go, and one he did not wish, or intend to experience. Herakles jumped in front of him as the kappa reached with its claws and snapping maw. He hissed, teeth bared. He leapt on the kappa that would make a meal of him. The kappa, however, was not afraid of him. It bit into his arm, which only made Herakles dig his claws and teeth in deeper.
However, Herakles did not like water, and the kappa was a creature of water. It began to shake itself, trying to dislodge Herakles. Herakles was thrown to the other side, just missing the large rocks at the mouth of the pool.
He wished to call Herakles' name, to go check on him, but any loss of composure would be the death of both of them. He there was only one cure against kappa: their politeness.
He looked the kappa right in its eyes, and bowed.
The kappa paused, mid stride towards him and bowed back. As he did, the water poured from the lily pad on its head. It stopped, mid place, its features frozen in shock.
As calmly as he could with his racing heart, Kiku filled the lily pad with water from the river.
"You will no longer feast on the children. I will ensure that they bring you other offerings."
The kappa nodded, and disappeared deep into the water again.
Kiku made his way to where Herakles was. He touched a hand to Herakles' heaving side and began to attend to his wounds. The bites were deep, yet he would soon heal. That was the way of the obake. Still, there would be scars left, Kiku thought. He traced his fingers across the white lines left. He recognized some, while others remained mysteries. One was a large horizontal slash from the fight with the tanuki, and this new bite mark.
"You defended me again," Kiku said.
Herakles' eyes were half-closed in pain, and a pervading sleepiness. He nodded, and said a quiet, raspy I always will.
"I'm...I'm glad to have met you, Herakles. Thank you for coming to my doorstep."
He swallowed back any apprehension he felt as he felt the pulse under Herakles' skin. The thought of his life before Herakles had arrived seemed terribly quiet, and so very alone. The thought of him returning to some other place, of him dying left an empty, ragged feeling inside him.
Kiku pulled his hand away, realizing he had kept it on Herakles' chest too long to be decorous. His hand still felt warm from where he had touched, and tingled with the sensation of touching an obake always gave one.
"We must go soon, or we won't reach the village by the time it is dark," Kiku said. His voice was quiet, apologetic, even.
Herakles let out a shaky breath and used what little strength he possessed to turn himself into cat form again. Kiku scooped him up and walked off, the pool melting into the distance as he returned to the village.
He would send word to the Minister of the Left that he would be kept a little longer in instructing the villagers of the offerings to give. That would give him some more time to let Herakles heal.
He would not risk Herakles' life, even for the Minister of the Left in all his power.
Things soon returned to normal. Lady Momoko often came to his divinations. To be paid attention by one of such beauty as her was considered quite an honor through the court. Many poems had been written about the way her hair fell as mysteriously as the dark night, the delicate structure of her nose, or her enigmatic eyes.
As always, for decorum's sake, the divinations were done between a screen. Still, the questions she asked were coy, and certainly inviting. She often asked about marriage and love, always hinting to him of what life would be for him if he could marry.
Herakles was not fond of her. Kiku had to leave him behind in the divining process, for his disapproval of her. Kiku at first had thought that this would be a sign of another Kitsune, for indeed, Lady Momoko did have an ethereal beauty to her, but he felt no aura of the other about her. The grudge Herakles held against her was personal, it seemed.
Kiku returned home to find Herakles sulking. Offers of fish barely made him stir. He was usually such a calm sort, but Lady Momoko never failed to get him into a bad mood. It was almost as bad as the tanuki, he thought with an inner sigh.
All he could do was wait until Herakles would grow hungry enough to talk to him. After he'd eaten, Kiku brushed the silvery scales away from his cheek and waited. Herakles was more than simply a pet. He was a companion, a beloved friend, and very important to him.
"She's hoping you will marry her," Herakles said. He sounded bitter in a way he had never heard before.
"I have no designs towards her," Kiku said, quite honestly. "I am an onmyouji; I have my work."
"Is that all you have...?" Herakles asked.
Herakles leaned in very close, as he was wont to do, but it seemed different somehow. His green eyes were penetrating, searching him.
"Herakles–?" Kiku said.
Herakles was looking at him in a way he'd never seen before. Everything about him seemed different. There was a taunters, a possessiveness to him.
The moment Herakles pressed his lips to him was a surprise. He tasted of salt and fish, a slightly bitter taste. Herakles lifted his chin and hummed, half song, half purr as he licked Kiku's face.
Kiku had never felt something like this before – the caress, the taste, the feeling in his chest. He did not move away, and yet, he did not fear of Herakles' intentions. He trusted Herakles, even with a different side shone through. They stayed there, breaking away for breath at times, only to lean, forehead to forehead for closeness.
"I would have turned myself into a beautiful woman for you, but you do not like women in that manner," Herakles said.
"I saw you coming and going...besides, you were immune to the charms of the Kitsune sisters."
"You've been watching me for some time then?" Kiku asked tentatively.
"You must not remember...I only had one tail then."
He touched Kiku's forehead and Kiku saw a series of images, memories splayed down as a canvas: a well-to-do family, a boy late for his studies, his sandals making a thwack thwack sound on the road as he made his way towards his tutor's house, a hurt cat. The mountain in the background is capped with snow and immense, the gingkos have fallen and line the roofs with nests of gold.
It was all so clear, and yet so dreamlike at once. The details felt so real, as if he could pick up a fallen leaf and keep it with him.
As if he had not remembered it, but actually been transported to that time, that place, that day.
"No, I remember...I did not realize that was you," Kiku said. "You were the first brush I had with that world. You were...what caused me to take this path."
"I was waiting to grow strong enough to transform and find you again," Herakles said. "I've always treasured that kindness..."
Truly, what had it been? His lunch of fish and rice given up freely. A bit of cloth to bind the wounds boughten off of a peddler, nothing much. He'd pulled the cat away from the road and given it care. He could not sneak it inside his home, but he had visited it every day with food, until the day it left the cubbyhole Kiku had found for it.
Herakles stroked Kiku's cheek. "You smell like me. It means you're mine now."
And he could smell the traces Herakles had been leaving on him. Claiming him. It was a musky scent, manly, and yet not entirely unpleasant. It kept away the other obake, the youkai that might think to test him even with his powers stayed away.
He was Herakles'. The thought was such a comfort. If Herakles was his, then he wouldn't leave. The house wouldn't return to such emptiness, and he wouldn't have the panicked feelings he'd gotten when he thought he might lose Herakles.
"Yes...I'm yours," he said.
At that moment, Kiku was sure he had never felt happier.
The famous monk Honda Kiku lived a long life, and had many great deeds. The Minister of the Left was so pleased with his dealings with the kappa that he often turned to Kiku when any dealings with the supernatural arose. Through his wits and calm ways, Kiku helped keep the land at peace. The nekomata Herakles rarely left his side. The fearsome beast had completely been tamed under Kiku's gentle hand.
Shortly after his death, an attending maid witnessed a cat jump over his body, and sworn he was reanimated to life. But not his body, for his body was left, an empty husk. It was the form of the reincarnation, a cat leaping into the wilds with the nekomata companion. It was said that on full moons one could catch sight of two cats traveling together. One was black, and the other brown.
But then, no one is sure of the last. The threads of his life have been lost to history and rewoven by forgetful hands. He is steeped in legend.
Such maids are always full of tales, but some of them may be true.
Bake-neko: the ghost cat. Generally considered monstrous/bad, but there's exceptions to the rule. (As Kiku ruminates upon) nekomata are what they grow into when their tail splits. The story of the bake-neko seems to have originated from Japanese bobtails. (Thus, not letting their tails get too long). Because of the fish oil in the lamp oil, cats were wont to drink it which made people believe they were bake-nekos
Kitsune: fox spirits who were shapeshifters, most known for taking the form of beautiful women who loved to seduce men.
Feeding the ghosts: to my knowledge, this is actually Chinese, but it's not completely unheard of that it might get picked up in Japanese culture. Kanji and Buddhism came from China, after all. If not, then call it artistic license – it's quite hard to find Shinto methods of warding spirits, that fit into this.
Kamidana, Ofuda: Kamidana is a household shrine, while Ofuda are strips of wood/metal/paper blessed by priests to keep away bad fortune/bad health/for protection. They have to be renewed every year or so.
Go-hei are ceremonial strips of paper on sticks used in purification rites.
Kappa: a lot of recent media depictions has them as cutesy creatures, but the originals would suck out your intestines! Or, to be more precise, the mythical shirikodama – a ball they believed lived in your anus. They loved cucumber almost as much as they loved the flesh of children. People would throw out
However, like most obake, not all of them were monstrous. Some of them even had shrines for their notable ways of helping humanity.
Thanks to Myaru for help with the research.