A/N: the title of the second part is a reference to Ukiyo 浮世 , the floating world, a term used to describe the "urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of Edo-period Japan (1600–1867)" (wiki factoid). So yeah, there's going to be pleasure-seeking in the bamboo forest ^_^ The BL kind.
Part 1 義兄弟 Sworn brothers
All the leaders loyal to the Nura clan had come to pay their respects when the grandson of the Supreme Commander was born. Zen remembered the day well. Especially vivid was the image of the commander holding Rikuo in his arms. Back then, there hadn't been any talk yet of Rikuo becoming the Third Heir. That had been a much sadder occasion. The Second, Rikuo's father, had never wanted this life for his son. But it seemed fate would not be denied.
Yet what a strange fate it was. A human child with only a quarter of yōkai blood flowing through his veins, standing at the head of a clan of full-fledged demons. Impossible, unacceptable. That had been the general feeling among the top brass. Zen couldn't blame them. In fact, aside from the commander, the only one to believe Rikuo would become the Lord of Pandemonium, had been Zen. Perhaps he had been inspired by the unwavering faith Nurarihyon had placed in the boy. He wouldn't have done so if Rikuo was as powerless as he seemed. So, like his father and grandfather before him, Zen had sworn allegiance to the future leader of the Nura clan. His life and loyalty were Rikuo's.
Zen hadn't expected to grow so fond of the boy though, nor the boy of him. He still remembered Rikuo grabbing his finger under a cloudless sky in the garden and smiling up at him as if meeting Zen was the happiest thing in the world. A fragile human, reaching out to a fragile spirit. One brother vowing to protect the other. That's why Zen was devoted to him. The boy had inherited the will to protect those who were weaker, as the Nura clan always had. His sense of duty, well, that was to be developed over the years, as the commander prepared him for the position of leader.
Yet as the years went by, as the day of Rikuo's coming of age and his installment as leader grew nearer, the rumors began circulating in earnest.
He's weak! He doesn't want to lead us! Why should we let a mere human rule yōkai? He never shows any interest at the general meetings. It's like he doesn't even care.
So Zen had come at the commander's summons, to see what was going on with the boy. He sat in the middle of the room, calm and dignified.
The door slid open. First things first. Without taking a look at him, Zen planted his fist on the ground. Declare his loyalty blindly. Rikuo should know he didn't stand alone, that there was someone who would support him, stand by him no matter what.
The boy started. 'Oh! Y-Yes.'
Zen opened his eyes and looked at him. He was small, like the commander, with large, kind brown eyes behind glasses. He looked, for all intents and purposes, like the most ordinary human you could imagine. The look he gave Zen was that of someone trying to remember a face he knew he should recognize. Five years had passed since Zen had last seen him and a child's memories were a tricky thing.
'It's been too long. It is I, Zen.'
'Z-Zen-san!' Rikuo stuttered. Well, there was one thing he hadn't grown out of. He still got excited like a pure, honest little kid. Up went a pair of fists clenched with excitement and a delighted smile lit up his face, as if seeing Zen just made his day.
Zen couldn't help but laugh at the sight. 'There's no need to be so formal. Just call me Zen.'
Rikuo slid the door shut. The boy chuckled, but Zen couldn't tell if he was relieved or nervous. When he sat down and saw Zen scrutinizing him, it didn't look like Rikuo sensed the fondness behind Zen's gaze. He looked unsettled.
'Excuse me.' A pair of pale hands gently slid open the door. It was Yuki Onna. She sat on her knees with a serving tray next to her.
'I brought you some tea.'
She took the serving tray with the tea and stood up, her pose and movements utterly graceful. Right up until she stepped forward and let out a startled cry. A flurry of white entered Zen's view.
'Eeeehhh?' Rikuo yelped. The tray, and more importantly the cups and their content, went flying towards him. Tea splashed all over him. 'H-hot, hot, hot, hot!'
Yuki Onna recoiled, horrified. 'Oh, Master, I'm so sorry!' she cried. Zen got to his feet. The tea was boiling hot, had to wipe it off fast—
Yuki Onna drew in a deep breath, then blew out a small blizzard. Rikuo looked startled at the ice spreading across his body until he was frozen solid.
Zen stared disbelievingly at the ice statue. That idiot! First she spilled boiling hot tea on her master and then she froze him? The hell was wrong with that girl!
'Oi, Yuki Onna!' Zen exploded, getting to one knee and raising his fist in rage. Yuki Onna recoiled, tears of terror streaming down her face. 'How dare you be so rude to Lord Rikuo! Rather, my honorable brother!' He yelled at her across his raised fist. She shrank back, trembling. 'There will be no mercy, even for you!'
She got up and fled. 'P-please, forgive me!'
The door slid shut.
Well, at least the ice was broken. Zen sat back with a smile.
'Now then, young master….Tell me, what pranks have you pulled today?'
Rikuo brushed some residual ice chunks off his head. He looked put off. Perhaps he was remembering not his own pranks today, but rather those of his underlings. From the looks of it, the Nurarihyon household seemed quite a handful.
Since he didn't seem to be interested in idle chit chat, Zen decided to get down to what he'd come here to do, namely find out the stuff Rikuo was made from.
'Please forgive me for failing to attend the general meetings.'
'Huh?' Rikuo looked genuinely surprised, as if he hadn't expected Zen to worry about such a trifling thing. 'Oh, don't worry about that. All they do at those meetings is brag about their misdeeds.'
That wasn't good. For him to dismiss the general meetings as a gathering of braggarts showing off…That was unbefitting of the future Lord of Pandemonium. Rather he would insist on Zen's attendance, if he took the position seriously.
Could the rumors possibly hold truth in them? No, no way. Rikuo was just a little misguided, that's all. Nothing Zen couldn't set straight. After all, that's why he'd come.
'Now, you mustn't say such things, Master.' Zen crossed his arms. He closed his eyes to the sight of the little boy and drew himself up at the proud sight of the future leader he envisioned. 'After all, you will someday be the leader of all spirits.'
'I, Zen, cannot wait for the moment when you take over as the Third Heir of the Nura Clan.'
'Stop it, please,' Rikuo said awkwardly. 'I'm not the successor, I'm just a human…'
Had he heard that right?
Zen opened one eye wide. Seeing the boy awkwardly scratching the back of his head was like fuel to the fire. What-What the hell was up with this weak, unmotivated attitude? This wasn't the boy he was supposed to see!
'Don't kid around with me!' Zen rose to one knee again, bringing to bear the full fury of his anger. 'I've heard the rumors, Rikuo!'
The rumors he'd come to debunk, only to find that they might have been true all along! Seeing him falling back on his rear and looking up at the hot-tempered demon lord in terror…Was this the future leader of the Nura clan?
'That you're a coward, and that none of the top brass support you as the Third!' Zen barked. Rikuo snapped out of his terror for a moment to look surprised.
'Oh…You knew about that?'
'Of course! So tell me just what's going on with you!'
'Well….' Rikuo's shoulders sagged and he looked down at the floor. The sight made Zen's blood boil. 'Wouldn't it be weird….'
The only thing stopping Zen from completely blowing a fuse was the sudden defiant look Rikuo gave him. He might be resolved about the wrong thing, but at least he was resolved.
'If the Supreme Commander of all Spirits were a human? That's why it's impossible for me to be the heir!'
The fuse blew. The insult - the gross insult to both his grandfather and Zen who had supported him all those years, despite the fact he was human! If he were to be rejected as the leader of the Nura clan, it wouldn't be because of his human nature, it wouldn't be because of lack of support. It would be because this boy had no sense of duty whatsoever! What had he been doing all these years?
Zen couldn't take it a second longer. He rose up and sent a torrent of feathers at the boy.
'Die, you fool!'
Rikuo shrank back while Zen's feathers danced in a mad gust above his head.
'When did you turn into such a weakling?' Zen bellowed.
'Someone, stop him!' Rikuo cried. The doors slid open to reveal Yuki Onna. Rikuo scrambled towards her as the rest of his underlings flocked around them, screaming in tune.
'Lord Zen's wings are extremely poisonous!' Someone yelled. 'Don't touch them!'
Everyone scattered and fled, except Rikuo and Yuki Onna cowering on the ground. Zen clenched his fists angrily.
'Why should I live for someone like you!'
He'd gotten too worked up. The cough forced him back on his knees.
'Zen-san!' Rikuo got to his feet and moved towards Zen. There it was again, that caring for others that made him forget even himself. But that alone wasn't enough anymore.
'Stay away!' Zen said. As if he would let this boy with such a low opinion of his yōkai heritage come to his aid.
He could feel Rikuo's worried gaze on him as he left the room. But there was nothing more to talk about for the moment. What the Supreme Commander had summoned him for, he'd failed to do.
Hebidayu, who'd been waiting outside, propped an arm under Zen's shoulder.
Zen looked up. Gyūki was coming from the opposite direction. Stern, menacing, a powerful, troublesome man who was not in Rikuo's corner. Earlier Zen had frowned upon that, but in hindsight he was the one who might have been wrong, not Gyūki. Perhaps it was too soon to call Rikuo the Third Heir.
They passed each other wordlessly.
'Uhm, excuse me?' a girl's voice cried. She stood at the open door, looking into the courtyard.
Hebidayu helped Zen into the Gloom Cart. He sat down on the cushion, resting his back against the wooden wall.
'Is Rikuo here?' he heard the girl ask.
They passed by her on a great gust of wind. A human. Really, was that boy trying to balance an existence in two worlds? Or had he chosen her world already? In that case, the Nura Clan was doomed to fall and disappear. It could not survive without a strong leader.
The lanterns lining city streets were soon replaced by rays of evening sunlight filtering through trees. The Gloom Cart sped over a path cutting through a bamboo forest, a fleeting shadow racing across the sanguine dusk.
'Are you all right, Lord Zen?' Hebidayu asked. His sake cup stood next to the bright red kettle. Zen was thankful for the fire that warded off the evening chill. Travel took a heavy toll on him.
'Yeah.' Zen stared into his cup. He'd recovered physically from the ordeal, but….
'Truly, the heir to the Nura clan is such a fool. After you went through such pains to see him.'
It would have been worth it if the visit had paid off, but it had been a complete failure. The boy Zen had put all his faith in, vowed to live for, had no intention whatsoever of taking up the position of Nurarihyon. The day Zen longed for, would probably never come now.
Zen drank from the cup.
'Let us secede!' Hebidayu urged. 'Let us break away from the Nura clan.'
Ah, there was no blaming Hebidayu for thinking like that, especially after what they'd witnessed today. Nothing had changed since the time of Rikuo's birth. The Supreme Commander and Zen were still the only ones to believe in Rikuo. To the others, who couldn't see what they saw, that ambitionless human child was not worthy of being served. If he had a quarter yōkai blood, it didn't show. ' You don't need the influence of the Nura to make it on your own, Lord Zen.'
No, he didn't, but then Zen had no desire to make it on his own. All he'd ever wanted to do with this fragile body and this flickering life, was to serve a great man.
Zen appreciated the effort his underling was making though, even if Hebidayu was mistaken. The lord Hebidayu had devoted himself to wasn't able to stand alone. Moreover, it wasn't up to Zen to sever a bond between two clans that had lasted for generations. They wouldn't even be around anymore if it wasn't for the Nura clan.
'Thank you, Hebidayu,' Zen said. 'But we, the Zen Ippa Group, are greatly indebted to the Nura Clan. Myself, my father, and my grandfather, we're all physically weak. It was none other than Lord Nurarihyon who protected us and treated us equally as spirits.'
Zen smiled wistfully. That admirable sense of duty. Nurarihyon was the kindest, greatest yōkai Zen had ever known.
He glanced at the bamboo trees whipping past.
'That man feels no sense of such duty though. And with the Supreme Commander getting on in years, perhaps the end of the Nura clan is drawing near.'
'As is yours.'
The voice could be no other than that of Hebidayu, but surely he hadn't just heard him speak those words in such a menacing tone?
Zen looked over at him with wide, startled eyes.
Hebidayu's head soared forward, followed by a long stretch of snake neck. He hit Zen flat in the chest. Zen was thrown out of the Gloom Cart. He landed a few meters back down the path.
'Hebidayu…' Zen clutched his chest. Damn, Hebidayu was powerful. Another head butt and he was done for.
The yōkai stood next to the cart, his head retracted. There was no regret, no respect, no reverence in his stance. They weren't master and underling anymore.
'So, the anti-Rikuo faction put you up to this this.'
Hebidayu looked at him. Then his eyes narrowed, a split tongue came out for a moment.
'They didn't have to put me up to it. I'm glad to be the one to do this. Now I get to finish off the weakling who was once my boss myself.'
'The specter known as Zen is a bird spirit,' Karasu Tengu said sagely. 'The leader of the Zen Ippa Group and a master of mixing potions and poisons. When his wings are soaked in sake, they produce a deadly poison that causes the internal organs to fester.'
That explained why everyone had fled. Really, what a nasty surprise having Lord Zen get so angry like that.
'Members of the group are like medicine which can turn lethal over the years. They're said to be beautiful at birth, but around the time of maturity, their wings become extremely poisonous.'
Rikuo looked at the cute little crow sitting imperiously on the cushion with crossed arms, lecturing his young master with half-lidded eyes.
'However, perhaps due to this special trait, bird spirits are physically weak and can fade away at any time. They are ephemeral, fragile spirits.'
Beautiful, lethal, ephemeral…
He'd left out violently temperamental. Rikuo felt a sweat drop trickling down his temple. Still, it was Rikuo's fault that he'd gotten so worked up. But why had Zen come to visit in the first place? Why now, all of a sudden? Unless….
Rikuo looked cross at the Supreme Commander of the Nura clan, sitting next to Karasu Tengu.
'You asked him to come, didn't you, Grandpa?'
Karasu-Tengu looked at the young master in surprise. Somehow, he'd gotten him upset but he didn't know how. It was very unusual to see Rikuo angry.
'I guess you figured it out,' the commander said.
'What were you thinking?' Rikuo demanded hotly. 'Lord Zen shouldn't be travelling with his physical condition. You're terrible!'
Karasu Tengu sighed. He understood where the boy was coming from, but Rikuo only saw things from his own point of view. He didn't understand his grandfather, nor what it meant to be the leader of the Nura clan.
'If that's what you think of me, you won't inherit my Nura clan!'
The master got up to leave. Karasu Tengu flew up too from the cushion, reaching out to appeal to him to stay, but Lord Nurarihyon had made up his mind.
That hadn't gone well.
'What's he talking about?' Rikuo said. 'That's exactly what I've been begging for! And it's not your Nura clan! It's just a bunch of spirits going around making trouble.'
If anyone else but him had heard that, there would have been big trouble. Karasu Tengu turned to the boy. His arms were crossed defiantly again. Really, Rikuo was a good grandson, a kind boy loved and respected by everyone in the Nura household. His disdain for yōkai wasn't borne out of some sort of malicious resentment. It truly came from having a completely wrong impression of them. It was high time he was made aware of the true nature of the Nura clan. Then he was sure to come to respect his grandfather and the clan more, and best case scenario, would grow to be less averse to becoming their leader.
'Master Rikuo, you are mistaken.'
Rikuo looked up in surprise. 'Huh?'
Karasu Tengu flew to the wall map.
'This is the operations map of the Nura clan's Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. Here is the Nura clan.'
He pointed his tiny staff at the Nura clan symbol. In it was written "fear".
'Many smaller groups are affiliated with the clan, like Mokugyo-Daruma's Daruma-Kai, and Lord Zen's Zen Ippa Group.'
Zen's symbols were two stylized feathers. His territory bordered that of the Nura clan. Rikuo looked at the map in bewilderment.
'The entire map is covered with yōkai clans!'
'Yes. From ancient times, Japan has been home to many spirits. Spirits of the sea, of the mountains, and of inanimate objects.'
'I had no idea there were so many.'
'You would hardly notice their true number. Nearly all of them are weak creatures who live in the dark. Protecting those who are weak has been one of the duties of the Nura clan.'
Rikuo looked at the crow demon in surprise. 'Huh? Protecting the weak is a duty of the Nura clan?'
The young heir winced. He had called the Nura clan a mere bunch of spirits going around making trouble. Instead, they protected others. They did such a great thing and he'd insulted them in front of Grandpa.
'I had no idea,' he added quietly.
Karasu Tengu sighed. Of course he wouldn't, since he absolutely refused to listen to anything yōkai-related that his grandfather tried to tell him.
Rikuo's eyes raked across the map. 'The groups affiliated with us, they're all part of the Nura clan's demon parade?'
'And Grandpa leads all of them?'
'Yes. The Supreme Commander is the greatest of us. He stands at the head of the Night Parade. All the clans you see here, he has sworn to protect. That is the duty of the Lord of Pandemonium. Lord Rikuo, if you don't take up this role, who do you think will?'
Rikuo's eyes drifted back to Zen's clan symbol. He was still trying to process all that Karasu Tengu had told him, but he knew one thing for sure. Zen had to have a great deal of respect for the Nura clan he was affiliated with. The position of Supreme Commander, the Nura clan….Rikuo had scoffed at them in front of him and Grandpa.
'Now I understand why Zen-san got so angry. '
For a few moments, all that could be heard was the flapping of Karasu Tengu's wings.
'We can still catch up to Lord Zen.'
Rikuo looked up at him. 'But he left a while ago and he's in the Gloom Cart.'
'I know a shortcut. Follow me!'
Karasu Tengu didn't wait for him and flew out the room. Rikuo got to his feet and scrambled after him.
He ran out of the house, onto the street. Pink clouds drifted across a purple sky.
Even though he didn't remember much, Grandpa had told him how much time he'd spent with Zen as a child, and Zen considered them brothers. If he could just talk to him again….
'Karasu Tengu, can we really catch up to the Gloom Cart?'
'Yes! Leave it to me please.'
Karasu Tengu stopped near a lantern.
'Master! This way is the shortcut.'
The image of Zen towering over him, then collapsing to his knees flashed across Rikuo's mind.
'I should have been more direct about how I feel…'
He had to explain to him properly just what it meant that he was human. Surely Zen would see reason and understand why Rikuo couldn't become the Third.
Rikuo turned the corner. His left foot hit pavement, his right hit forest floor. He was running through a bamboo forest.
Karasu Tengu stopped near a slope. Rikuo caught up.
'There he is!'
Zen's cart had stopped in the middle of the road. Zen sat in front of it. A yōkai with an oddly round snake head was standing next to the cart. Had they stopped to take a break?
'In a place like this…'
Rikuo moved to go down, but Karasu Tengu stopped him.
The crow demon turned towards the scene below.
'Something doesn't seem right.'
Rikuo leaned forward a bit to get a closer look.
'What happened to the loyalty you swore to me when we exchanged sake cups?' Zen asked. His voice sounded strained, like it had when he'd collapsed. Rikuo felt a pang of guilt at the thought. Had he still not recovered? Maybe that's why'd they stopped. If he wasn't feeling well…
'Loyalty? What are you talking about?' The other yōkai stepped towards him.
'You're pitiful, you traitor,' Zen spat. He looked angry, but it wasn't the same kind of annoyed rage he'd directed at Rikuo.
'Heh. The way I see it, you betrayed me first.'
The other guy pointed at Zen. 'If you'd been more influential, I would probably have a better opinion of you.' He crossed his arms, looked down on Zen with utter disdain. 'But it was always, the Nura clan this, the Nura clan that.' The yellow snake eyes widened, the slit paper-thin. 'You don't have a shred of manly ambition.' His eyes narrowed again. 'I'm sick of you.'
Zen sagged forward a little. A grim, pained smile came on his face. This wasn't because of his earlier collapse anymore, Rikuo realized. The other yōkai must have hurt him. That act alone said enough about him. Everyone knew bird spirits were physically weak to begin with. This guy had to know that the journey and the confrontation with Rikuo had weakened Zen even more. To attack him now was nothing short of callous.
'Well, when they're done with you, you'll be cast aside too,' Zen said.
'That may be true,' the other admitted. 'If that happens, it happens. But right now, this is what I have to do.'
'I see.' Zen clenched his teeth. 'But I still have some unfinished business.' He suddenly hunched forward, coughing.
'You mean with that idiot son of the Nura clan?'
Rikuo started at hearing himself mentioned.
'You're still harping on about him?'
Zen caught his breath. 'I can't let you kill me here.'
Rikuo stared at Zen's figure. This situation was his fault. He'd been wrong about the clan all this time, but he'd never given anyone a chance to tell him what they were really like. He'd absolutely refused to listen to Grandfather. The other yōkai must have figured that if Rikuo wouldn't listen to the Supreme Commander, he sure wouldn't listen to them, so they'd never bothered to talk to him about it either. In his defense, he couldn't be blamed for getting the wrong idea when he was surrounded by a bunch of troublemakers. But by persisting in his ignorant behavior, he'd blinded himself to their other side. As a result, he'd insulted Grandpa and caused Zen-san to worry so much. Zen, who cared so much for the Nura clan that even now, when he was disappointed in Rikuo and faced with betrayal and death, he continued to stand by them. Wanting to live so he could be there for them.
It made Rikuo feel ashamed to his core. The way he was now, he didn't deserve that loyalty. If he'd been less self-absorbed, Zen could have been concerned with his own group rather than having to worry so much over the Nura clan's succession. He probably wouldn't have been betrayed like this.
'The least you could do as a weak bird is flap your wings hard and die.'
The last words were snarled at Zen. The yōkai's round head transformed into the shape of a huge snake and shot towards Zen, long neck zigzagging.
Karasu Tengu reacted immediately. He flew down the hill as fast as he could. Rikuo was right behind him, sliding rather than running down the hill to get to Zen faster.
They collided right in front of Zen, Karasu Tengu hitting the yōkai square in the head. He hit the ground in front of Zen.
'Karasu Tengu!' Zen yelled worriedly. He began coughing again. Rikuo reached the bottom of the hill.
'Zen-san! Are you all right?'
Zen looked up at him. His face was pinched with pain. 'Why are you here?'
'I had to apologize to you! I wanted to make you understand, so I came after you.'
Zen threw a worried look in the direction Rikuo had come from, but there was no-one else up there. 'Where are your bodyguards?' He glanced back at Rikuo. 'You know I can't protect you.'
He hunched forward, clutching his chest. Rikuo looked over at the snake yōkai. 'Who is he?'
Karasu Tengu pushed himself up off the ground. He didn't get up completely. He must have been hit hard.
'One of the officers of the Zen Ippa Group, Hebidayu.'
Hebidayu rubbed his head where Karasu Tengu had hit him. He didn't seem to be significantly hurt, unlike Karasu Tengu who was still winded.
'What a perfect opportunity. I'll kill Nurarihyon's grandson and win glory for myself as the head of the new Hebidayu Group.'
Rikuo grit his teeth. It wasn't enough that he had turned on his master, now he was going to betray the bond between the Nura clan and the Zen Ippa Group as well? All for the sake of his own glory. This was the kind of guy who would stop at nothing – unless someone stopped him.
Zen cleared his throat with a last cough, the hacking fit was over. 'Hebidayu!' he growled.
Rikuo came to stand between Zen and Hebidayu.
'This is unforgivable.'
'G-Get away, Rikuo!' Zen said. 'You can't do anything.'
Hebidayu's snake head shot forward. 'Die!' he screamed.
Huge fangs bore down on Rikuo.
'Rikuo!' Zen yelled. The boy was going to die, he had to get him out of the way-
'Stay still,' an unfamiliar voice said. It was much lower than Rikuo's, brimming with confidence. Zen's eyes widened.
Where Rikuo had been standing a split second ago now stood a tall youth armed with a sword. Evening sunlight reflected off the edge of the blade as it was drawn out of his sheath. He wore the same clothes as Rikuo. Zen stared up at the blue haori. at the shock of long hair, the top half pale as moonlight, the other dark as night.
The young man jumped forward to meet his enemy, the blade soaring up from the ground to catch the snake's fangs. To stop Hebidayu like that...He was strong.
'If you had even an ounce of Zen's honor, I'd have at least spared your life.'
He cut through the snake's entire length. Just like that it was over. Hebidayu's split corpse had disintegrated by the time the youth landed gracefully on the ground.
Zen got to his feet, staring at the apparition.
Zen did a double-take to Karasu Tengu hovering blank-eyed and gawking, then back to the blue haori.
The young man turned his head to look at them.
'Hey, Zen,' he said. Zen stared at his profile. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. How could this be Rikuo? They were- they were as different as night and day.
Night and day...
The quarter yōkai blood that had so far shown no sign of being present in Rikuo at all had just manifested itself. Judging from his utterly bedazzled look, Karasu Tengu hadn't seen this form yet either.
Zen turned away sat down at a short distance, his back to the cart and Rikuo.
'You are one-fourth spirit, after all.'
Zen let out a breath that seemed to deflate him. 'I'm pathetic. Here I am, a full-fledged spirit and yet, I was totally helpless.'
He coughed. His body had been put through quite a lot, but the ordeal had revealed to him what he wanted most of all.
Zen turned around to face Rikuo.
'Say, Rikuo….The way you are now, you can become the Third.'
Just an hour ago, he'd all but given up, only to have a trickster spirit come down from the moon and save his life and his hope.
Zen drew himself up with a smile. 'I wish you'd let me see you at the helm during my lifetime.'
Rikuo reached down near the cart wheel and picked up a bottle of sake that had been thrown out when the cart had come to an abrupt stop.
He turned towards Zen and held it up. 'Want to drink?'
'I'd like that. You'll pour one for me?'
Rikuo walked towards him and sat down in front of him. Zen held up the sake cup. Rikuo poured it full.
The last time he had done this had been with Hebidayu. Zen glanced at the haori they'd hung over a bamboo branch, the only thing left of his servant. Rikuo followed his gaze.
'Poor Hebidayu. It was all because I was such a weak boss. It must have been hard on him.'
Honor and loyalty. Hebidayu hadn't really understood what those stood for. Right in front of him now was someone who did though, and it was the person Zen wanted that bond with the most.
'Exchange sake cups with me.'
Rikuo looked back at him.
'I…' Zen's face grew serious. '…want to officially become your sworn brother. If I'm going to die anyway, I want to serve you, not the past generations.'
He held up the cup at Rikuo. Rikuo threw a glance at the haori. When he glanced back at Zen, his smile promised mischief, as if they were two little boys vowing to make trouble together.
Zen met his eyes steadily. 'I want to stake whatever life I have left on you as you are now.'
He held out the sake cup to Rikuo. Rikuo reached past Zen's hand, then hooked his arm around Zen's and pulled him slightly towards him.
'Fine. You're a weak spirit, Zen, so I'll protect you. Besides, there's a reason why you can't die, right?'
Zen only realized he still had a smile plastered on his face when it got wiped off. But only for a moment.
'You were eavesdropping?'
Rikuo didn't reply, just grinned a moment before drinking.
Zen brought the cup to his lips. 'How rude of you.'
Rikuo watched the Gloom Cart fly off on a gust of wind.
'Yes!' The crow demon flew up to Rikuo. 'I'm here.'
'How many spirits must I exchange loyalty cups of sake with, before they acknowledge me?'
Karasu Tengu recoiled with a yelp, flying back a few meters. Rikuo looked from the sky to the startled creature, face dead serious.
'I'm going to become the Third Heir.'
Karasu gawked at him for a moment, the bowed his head.
What a pity. When dawn breaks, his form will…. Karasu Tengu winced. They had waited for this moment for so long, and now it would be over so soon. He looked back at Rikuo, who was looking again at the sky where the Gloom Cart had disappeared. Such a pity indeed…
Interlude - Sickness
It was dusk by the time Zen arrived. Nurarihyon wasn't in, probably off scrounging for sweets again. Zen walked straight to Rikuo's room. Kubinashi sat in the doorway, Kejōrō sat by Rikuo's side.
Rikuo lay under a blue sheet drawn up to his chin. He had a wet cloth on his forehead. He looked flushed. The fever must still be rather high.
'Zen-san…' Rikuo looked at the door. Zen waited until Kejōrō and Kubinashi had excused themselves before coming in. He sat down next to the bed, brow furrowing skeptically.
He wasn't used to being on this side of the bed. One might think after having people fussing over him for years on end he'd have developed a better bedside manner, but that's where one would be wrong.
'You're so pathetic during the day,' Zen said, opening with his usual bluntness. 'You overdo it just a little, and you break out in a fever,' he said gruffly.
'You're more sickly than I am, Zen-san.'
Two could do bluntness, of course. Zen looked away with a huff. In all fairness though, Rikuo had done more than just overdo it a little. To perform such a powerful technique as Ōgi Meikyō Shisui during only his second appearance as a yōkai.
'Say, you really don't remember going to fight?'
'Well….' Rikuo averted his eyes. Zen hesitated. He was really venturing into unknown territory here. He didn't know how Rikuo's day self felt about becoming the Third Heir these days. But the determination, the confidence he had seen that night….That Rikuo, the one he had exchanged a loyalty vow with, wanted to become the Third Heir. So, even though Rikuo might not like to hear it, Zen was going to be the voice of his nightly self's will.
It required a certain amount of tact however, to convey to someone the ambition of their yōkai alter ego without making said person sound like a schizophrenic. Zen's one foray into trying to solve the Rikuo personality puzzle - what would happen if he started remembering? Would their day and night selves eventually merge? What kind of person would he become then? Or was Rikuo not actually himself now, but would be once the two had merged? - had left him feeling slightly schizophrenic himself. He couldn't imagine what it was like for Rikuo. Moreover, he didn't want Rikuo to feel as if Zen preferred his other self. The brother he'd known since the boy's childhood, the master he had sworn his loyalty to. They were one and the same.
Ultimately, he found no other way to tell him than to simply say how he felt.
'I….really want the Rikuo that came out that night to become the Third Heir.'
So…Become that person, Rikuo.
A faint breeze blew in. Rikuo didn't reply. Well, Zen had said his piece. He stood up to leave.
'I'm off. Take care, Rikuo.'
He stepped out.
The blow came out of nowhere and finished him clean off. One hit kill.
Inside the room, a whimpering Yuki Onna fell to her knees beside Rikuo's bed. Zen peeled his face off the ground and limped off, clutching his nose. Really, this household was insane!
Interlude - Concern
The next time he came over, Zen went straight to the meeting room. Rikuo's attendants were all occupied elsewhere, thankfully, so he didn't need to fear any more of Yuki Onna's brutal tackles.
'Supreme Commander.' Zen slide the doors shut behind him.
'Lord Zen,' Karasu Tengu greeted him. Zen sat down.
'Is it true? Has Rikuo…I mean, has the young master gone to Mount Nejireme?'
'New reaches you fast,' Nurarihyon replied. A polite way of letting Zen know that he knew Zen was keeping tabs on Rikuo. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. It was only natural for Zen to be concerned about his sworn brother.
'I know this is none of my business, but I must have my say…'
It wasn't his place to. He was supposed to stay at home and limit travel as much as possible. He knew. He also knew Rikuo was more than capable of handling any attack an enemy threw at him. An attack coming from a trusted subordinate, that was another matter entirely though. Zen had experienced firsthand how that could catch you off guard, and in a fight even a few unguarded seconds could be fatal. Moreover, Gyūki was a lot stronger than Hebidayu. The threat, to Zen, was very real. Nurarihyon might not realize the danger his grandson was in, never having been betrayed like that.
'Recently, I have gotten strange vibes from Gyūki.' Zen leaned forward, a physical gesture made to underline a sense of urgency he might not be getting across. 'Is it wise to ignore this?'
Even though it wasn't an outright accusation, the implication was serious. Nurarihyon narrowed his eyes.
He bowed his head. 'I will leave this incident up to Rikuo.'
'To the young master?' Karasu Tengu asked incredulously.
'Gyūki is an officer of my clan in whom I have placed great trust over the years. I want my grandson to discern with his own eyes what this man's true intentions are.' He looked up sternly. 'Any objections?'
It was faint, but it was there, a sliver of Hatsu. Karasu Tengu and Zen gulped. Zen was the first to recover. He smiled. He had been won over by Nurarihyon's faith in Rikuo. How could he object against the same faith if it was placed in Gyūki?
'No.' Zen coughed. He smiled ruefully at Karasu Tengu. 'In any case, even if I went, I would be of little use to the young master in this condition.'
Zen glanced back to the commander. Zen always had a feeling Nurarihyon was one step ahead of everyone. If he wanted his grandson to handle this himself, then he must believe that Rikuo would be able to see through Gyūki's motives, whatever they were. In that case, there was nothing else to do but have faith in Rikuo.
It was important to convey that to Nurarihyon, that Zen's worry over Rikuo didn't mean he thought him too weak, or unable to handle this himself. Far from it.
'But I swore my loyalty to him and I believe in him unconditionally,' Zen declared.
'Hmmm,' Nurarihyon nodded, seemingly satisfied. He looked at the right wall. 'You all got that too?'
'H-hai,' a choir of voices answered behind the wall.
Zen sighed. Really, what was up with this household?
Part 2 浮竹 Floating bamboo
Rikuo put his fists on the ground and bowed. The doors opened to admit blinding sunlight. Rikuo sat where Nurarihyon normally sat. The commander was seated behind him at a short distance.
"On this most auspicious day of the lunar calendar, it is my pleasure to welcome you to the Nura Clan's general meeting. I beg your pardon for addressing you from this height."
Rikuo sat up. His face was earnest. 'I will accept the responsibilities as the Third Heir of the Nura Clan. 'However, I am a novice…still training in the valiant ways of the spirit. So if I misspeak or am discourteous, I ask for your forgiveness. Now then, please allow me to explain Gyūki's insurrection…'
Zen had known about Rikuo's decision, so that didn't come as a surprise. What did come as a surprise was a twelve-year-old boy addressing the yōkai top brass without batting an eyelid. He really had come a long way since Zen had yelled at him that time.
'As you may have heard, Gyūki over there did indeed cross swords with me. It is also true that he used Kyūso, who had been previously expelled, and tried to circulate a petition to force my retirement."
At least he wasn't trying to downplay the charges. That would be seen as a weakness. But how was he going to handle this? Putting a human in charge of passing judgment on a yōkai. Even for Nurarihyon, this was risky. If Rikuo failed here, the fate of the clan was up for grabs.
'However, it is indisputable that he acted out of total devotion to the Nura Clan.'
It seemed taking insane risks was a trait that ran in the family. To first list a man's crimes against a clan and then say he acted out of totally loyalty to that clan…
'This resulted from my incompetence. Thus, with regard to this incident, I judge Gyūki not guilty. There is no sentence and I take full responsibility."
The words had no sooner left Rikuo's mouth or Hitotsume slammed a big hand down on the ground.
'Ridiculous! How can that be?'
Zen wished he could say he had expected the leader of the One-eyed Demon clan to react differently. Rikuo didn't let himself be thrown by the outburst though.
'It's my decision. Do you question it?'
Oh Rikuo had guts all right. Moreover, if he'd been in his yōkai form, Zen was sure Hitotsume would never have dared to answer back. But being faced with a human child, he forgot himself. Then again, it was good this was coming out now, because Hitotsume wasn't the only one to think this way. Now Rikuo had a chance to address the issue right away, in front of everyone.
'Of course I do! It's common sense to punish someone who commits treason!'
True, when judging the act itself, not taking into account the circumstances, then it was treason. A subordinate betraying his master should be punished. Hebidayu would have been, if he'd been the one on trial today. But he'd acted out of selfish interests. He'd wanted to get rid of Zen in order to start his own clan. Gyūki on the other hand, truly had the clan's best interest at heart. Even though he knew it was an unforgivable crime, he had turned on Rikuo for the sake of the Nura, to protect them from being destroyed by a weak leader. He'd been fully prepared to take his own life as punishment for his crime.
Grasping all of that and coming to the correct decision was beyond Hitotsume, Zen was sure. It was not beyond Rikuo. That's what made him a far greater leader.
'What Gyūki did was not treason.'
Whether Hitotsume was hissing in annoyance or surprise at Rikuo's firm reply, Zen couldn't tell.
'What are you basing this on?' Hitotsume demanded. He was being played so artfully, the poor man. Zen almost felt sorry for him, because now he'd just given Rikuo the chance to establish Gyūki's loyalty, which formed the crux of his argument.
'As you are aware, the Nura Clan does not have any territory west of Mount Nejireme which Gyūki protects. That mountain is our clan's border. It must be protected at all cost. In my mind, there is no one but Gyūki who can do so. Isn't that right, Gyūki?'
'I would give my life to protect it.'
'And so…as it has always been, and as it will always be, the Gyūki clan is part of our family.'
Very, very clever. Nobody would doubt the loyalty of a yōkai who would lay down his life to protect the Nura clan's border.
Zen didn't know whether to be proud or afraid of Rikuo. Managing to get Gyūki's neck out of the noose and shut Hitotsume up was no small feat. Rikuo during the day was just as fearsome as he was during the night.
Now all that was left was to close the meeting in a dignified man-
Rikuo suddenly tilted his head and smiled. 'Okay?'
Well, there was always next time.
'Sorry to take up so much time!' Rikuo bowed.
Hitotsume grunted angrily. He'd been thoroughly outsmarted though, there was nothing else he could say now. He didn't agree with the reason for the verdict, but if he called it into question, he called into questions the bonds of loyalty which were the very foundation of the clan that Nurarihyon had created. Not even he would go that far.
Zen let out a chuckle and grinned, satisfied. The Supreme Commander looked at Rikuo with keen, fond approval. He had not been disappointed. Nurarihyon nodded, content.
'This general meeting formally names Lord Rikuo the Third Heir! Furthermore, until Lord Rikuo reaches the spirit age of thirteen years, if no other candidate appears, Lord Rikuo will be the third-generation Supreme Commander.'
Zen opened one eye. Gyūki was looking at Rikuo. Rikuo met the yōkai's gaze and nodded once, with the same keen, fond approval. He truly was a natural leader, just like his grandfather. Zen had not been wrong to swear his loyalty to him. He'd follow the Third Heir, to wherever his path took him.
It was pouring down, an early shower that seemed intent on lasting well into the night.
Neither of them had their attendees with them. They were alone here in this place, where one vow had been broken and one had been formed.
Zen had been the first to have exchanged loyalty vows with Rikuo. He'd been fortunate enough to be the first to clad him with Fear as well. He looked across the doused campfire as Rikuo sheathed his sword. The black wings faded from his back. Darker than shadows. When Rikuo next turned his sword on an enemy, the blade would be coated with the poison of Zen's wings.
The Matoi technique was complete. The first of many Rikuo would perform with each yōkai in his demon parade. They would all lend Rikuo their own strength and each would leave their mark on his back whenever he used their Fear.
When he had one hundred techniques, he truly would be Nurarihyon, the greatest of all yōkai. Zen hoped to be by his side when that happened.
He snapped out of what he realized had been a stare. Rikuo had lowered his sword and was looking at him over his shoulder with a faint, smug smile.
'You look dazed, Lord Zen. I hope you're not feeling faint?'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Zen barked. 'A little trip like this isn't enough to tire me out.'
Zen gave him a look. He frowned suspiciously when Rikuo didn't sit down where he had before but knelt down right in front of Zen.
What the forces of gravity could not accomplish, nor the blood and fervor of battle, the nightly summer rain had pulled off. His perpetually horizontal hair sagged down on his back. Was he somewhere between human and yōkai, between night and day?
It looked as if someone had poured a cup of moonlight over his dark head.
Blood red eyes searched Zen's face with vague amusement.
'W-What is it?' Zen said. He wasn't prone to stammering, but getting a look like that from Rikuo usually didn't bode well. That day the commander had summoned Zen and he'd seen the boy again after five years, Zen had asked him what mischief he had gotten up to that day. Rikuo had merely looked pained. Such a thing had been beyond him then. It wasn't anymore now.
A trickster spirit come down from the moon.
'So you're not too tired then?' Rikuo asked.
Zen frowned, gaze flat. 'No.'
Rikuo raised a quizzical eyebrow.
'I don't know what you're up to, but I'm not up for it.'
Rikuo's smile widened, as if Zen's no was merely a challenge to overcome. 'A game of tag.'
'And what does the winner get?'
In his head he'd said no, I'm not playing your game. Clearly the message had gotten scrambled somewhere along the way.
Rikuo put his kimono back on. 'The loser,' he said deliberately, 'treats the winner to dinner at Bakenekoya's.'
Dinner at Bakenekoya's? That was all? Well that didn't sound too bad. In fact, it sounded just a little too harmless.
But Rikuo had gotten to his feet and was running off.
'Hurry up. Aren't land birds supposed to be able to run fast?'
A vein twitched in Zen's forehead. Land birds?
'Why you….' Zen surged to his feet with a growl and ran into the bamboo thicket.
He managed to keep up with Rikuo longer than he ever had before. Eventually though his rage-fuelled stamina ran out and he slowed to a halt.
He chuckled and sagged sideways against a clutter of bamboo stacks. And nearly jumped out of his skin when his shoulder was tapped.
Meikyō Shisui. Make the enemy unaware of your presence, then shift into their blind spot and go for the kill. To use such a technique for a game of tag….Zen grinned. That was putting his yōkai skills to good pranking use.
'Not bad,' he muttered. He turned round, but as expected there was nobody there. He felt Rikuo's presence near him though. He was close by. Waiting to strike.
Zen started walking. There was a way to dissipate the technique. You had to cut your opponent's Fear. But in order to do that, you needed something to cut with.
Tap on the right shoulder.
Zen twisted round. No-one there, of course. He continued walking, in what he hoped was the general direction of the Gloom Cart. That's where his sword lay and when he got it, oh was he going to cut Rikuo up good.
Tap on the left shoulder. Zen stepped a little bit faster. Looked over his shoulder occasionally.
Tap. Eyebrow twitch.
Tap. Veiny forehead.
Tap. Walking poisonous feather vortex.
He set foot into the clearing. Just a few more steps to the Gloom Cart...
'It's just a game of tag, you know,' Rikuo chuckled behind him. Zen whirled round. Rikuo was still there. Looks like he was done with the hit and run tactics.
'Hey, if you're using techniques, so can I,' Zen said.
'But if you use that, you can't tag me either. Unless you want to kill me.'
'Don't tempt me,' Zen grit his teeth. The second he dropped his guard Rikuo would get him. There was no way he could get a shot in, unless….
But that was low. Unbecoming. Uncharacteristic.
He didn't care. This was demon tag anyway, there were no rules and besides, he was going to wipe that smug smile off Rikuo's face, no matter how low he had to stoop.
Zen knew well enough how to fake it. A cough wracked his body. He took a staggering step backwards, the feather whirlwind around him wavering, then disappearing as he fell to his knees roughly, clutching his chest.
'Zen!' Rikuo reached out worriedly. Zen planted a hand on the ground to stop himself from pitching forward while breaking into a hacking fit. He felt he shouldn't push it though, before he started coughing for real.
'Guess I….overdid it a little.'
Rikuo knelt down in front of him. 'Just stay still, don't move. You—'
Tap. Zen looked up into the utterly baffled face of Nura Rikuo and smiled wickedly.
'You….' Rikuo began.
'I said I'd use techniques.'
'What do you call this one then?'
'Noroi no Karaseki.'
'Noroi no….Cursed Hacking Cough?' Rikuo stared for a moment longer, then chuckled incredulously and finally threw his head back laughing.
'I got you,' Zen said triumphantly.
'You did.' Rikuo admitted. 'But we're not done yet. Go get that sword of yours. Maybe you can even the score. Of course you could just end up buying me dinner even more.'
Rikuo's smug smile was back. So was Zen's boiling blood. He opened his mouth for an angry retort, but just then Rikuo leaned in closer until his nose almost bumped into Zen's.
Zen started when he felt a cool touch on his ribs. He looked down and saw Rikuo was touching one of the tattoos on his chest. He traced the outline at his leisure, running a finger along the edge of the tattoo.
Zen's brain had apparently decided this sensory input was so interesting it was worth shutting down several other unimportant brain functions for, like say, speech, in order to maximize focus on the feather light touch that set the nerve ends in his skin tingling.
'Zen-san, you're acting weird,' Rikuo said. Zen gaped at him.
I'm acting…? That's my line!
Rikuo's finger moved down a tattoo. He looked up from his handiwork, blood red eyes drifting to Zen's mouth. Okay, so there was no way to read this wrong. It was completely out of the blue, it didn't make sense at all, but there it was. Rikuo was coming on to him. So..Had he been bitten by something in the forest? Because short of temporary insanity, Zen could find no explanation for this.
Rikuo didn't seem particularly insane though. His expression was aloof as usual, as if he totally wasn't doing an outrageous thing right now. The Rikuo he knew wouldn't cross the line with his subordinates though. He wouldn't take a game this far. Whatever the hell this was, he was serious about it.
The expression on Rikuo's face didn't change, but the finger stopped moving.
'You've been acting weird for…as long as I can remember,' he said after a moment's thought. 'Ever since we met.'
'What are you talking about?' Zen asked, the lack of touching giving his brain a momentary reprieve to kick some higher functions back in gear.
Rikuo sat unmoving in the pouring rain. A soft sheen surrounded him like a shimmering halo. Just which one of them was the ephemeral spirit here?
Zen suddenly realized Rikuo hadn't answered. Instead, he asked another question.
'Why did you want to become my sworn brother that night?'
A really stupid question, since the answer was glaringly obvious. Loyalty of course. He had vowed to live for Rikuo ever since it had been announced he would be the Third Heir. Zen had sworn to serve the boy he had come to care about like a younger brother. That night, he had merely made official the feelings that had been there before. The night the leader Zen wanted to follow had shown himself before him. It had stopped being just about loyalty then. Perhaps that night was where the root of all his feelings lay. Devotion. Respect. Aspiration. Longing. Missing. Needing…. Worrying. Keep on coming back, ignoring orders, risking himself, coming, always, being around him, drinking together, being the first…the first when it mattered. He wanted to be. The first to take them. Those special bonds. Sakazuki. Matoi. They were his to have. Nobody else.
Zen gasped when the realization hit him, and the bold thought right after, that he had never thought to take this for himself too.
'Catching on, are you?' Rikuo asked.
'Catching on?' Zen repeated, blinking against the rain stinging his eyes.
'The first time you saw my spirit form, you asked me to become sworn brothers. You suggested to me to form a new Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. You were the first to perform Matoi with me and gave me your Fear. That was all your doing, right?'
'R-right…' Zen stuttered. He was barely able to keep up with his own confusing train of thoughts, but somehow Rikuo seemed able to follow it.
'Hmm. Seems like I need to jog your memory.' Rikuo's finger began moving again. He'd decided to work on Zen's left tattoos.
Somewhere it registered in Zen's brain that the rain had stopped. It was very quiet. As if the forest had fallen silent in order to listen in on them.
'I'm the one who brought the bottle and asked you to drink.' Rikuo traced the bottom edge of the tattoo right above Zen's sash. 'I'm the one who took your Fear and coated my blade with your feathers.'
Zen swallowed, forcing some moisture back in a mouth that had gone rather dry. Rikuo had somehow inched closer without Zen noticing, fitting his knees between Zen's legs. If that was the Meikyō Shisui being used again, he was going to call abuse.
'If you think the connection between us was all your doing, you're wrong. Did you ever stop to think that perhaps you were being chased, my little mouthy underling?'
Zen would really like to consider that, but expecting him to think when Rikuo was practically straddling him and slowly feeling up his chest was rather unrealistic at this point. Brain preoccupied.
'I kept thinking you were going to make a move, but you never did. You're not the bashful or the insecure type, so I figured it had to be because you really didn't realize. So it's up to me.'
'Whoa!' Zen yelped. His hands snapped around Rikuo's wrists to pull back the fingers on his sash.
'What?' Rikuo gave Zen a look as if he couldn't possibly fathom why Zen would object at this point. Zen was having trouble fathoming it himself. Rikuo moved his knees, pushing Zen's thighs further apart.
'Ri-Rikuo, I don't know what's come over you all of a sudden-'
'All of a sudden?' Rikuo repeated. 'Did you not just hear me? I've waited long enough.'
Zen was going to say, but you never showed any interest before. But considering what Rikuo had just said, Zen might have just been too blind to notice. That just left one question.
Rikuo shrugged. 'Maybe I like the moon tonight.' He twisted to get his hands free, but Zen didn't let him just yet, though he knew he wouldn't be able to hold Rikuo back for long. He didn't want to, but damn it, he had to just say one more thing.
'You….' One massively embarrassing thing. 'You might regret this in the morning.'
He was getting good at throwing Rikuo off. He stared as if he couldn't believe Zen had just said that. Zen couldn't believe it either. 'When you turn back into your human self…'
'Oh, cut it out already,' Rikuo said, exasperated. Even though Zen was the older of the two, Rikuo looked at him as if he was having to be patient with a child trying his nerves. 'When I'm in this form, my blood boils. I change. I know that. Even so, I decided. When I'm human, I'll handle human stuff. When I'm yōkai, I'll handle yōkai stuff. But it will always be me. I won't regret anything, either by day or by night. So stop talking already.'
Rikuo shook off Zen's hands and started untying the sash.
Maybe Zen should start worrying about himself at this point. Doing this immediately after that infuriating game of tag…He might not have the stamina for it right now. What he could do and what he needed to do were two different things though. That always been the case when it came to Rikuo.
Rikuo tossed the sash off to one side.
Zen was pretty sure neither of them had been with anyone before, but there was no hesitation in Rikuo's movements. If anything, he could appreciate that boldness. Zen went after what he wanted without hesitation too. And what he wanted was becoming painfully obvious.
The sky was slowly clearing. Rikuo had his back to the partially obscured moon. Zen's eyes widened with surprise when he saw the look on Rikuo's face. His smile was tinged with a possessive carnality Zen had never seen before. His heart kicked into high gear at the sight of it.
Rikuo put his hands on Zen's chest and eased him down on the forest floor. Zen tried getting his elbows under him. Even though there was no immediate danger, it went against his instincts as a warrior to just lie down in a vulnerable position like that. But then Rikuo was on top of him, sliding his body up along Zen's to be face to face and suddenly Zen could see the benefit in staying in this position. Rikuo was hard too, rubbing right there, again…Zen found himself pressing into rather than trying to get up from the ground.
He looked up alarmed when Rikuo stopped and levered himself off him. For a horrible moment he thought Rikuo had changed his mind and was going to get up to leave.
He wasn't going anywhere though. He sat down, supple thighs straddling Zen's hips. Zen's eyes fastened on Rikuo's hands. They were holding the straps of his hakama. Zen had only worn the garment on very rare occasions, preferring a kimono and haori. Too much of a fuss to put it on, as far as he was concerned. He found himself taking a great interest in watching it get taken off though. Rikuo's nimble fingers first worked the back straps, unraveling the right strap wound a couple of times around the left one that had been folded up in the front. Once those were free, Rikuo pulled them out from under the front straps tied around his waist. His movements were smooth, precise, the experience of dressing in a hakama for years showing. He reached behind him and pulled with both hands, bringing the front straps forward. The pants fell open.
Then he got to work on Zen again. Zen gave a startled gasp when Rikuo pulled his kimono open. He leaned forward and placed his arms on the ground on either side of Zen's chest, redirecting some of his body weight to his forearms and giving himself more movement range to thrust against Zen.
Rather than the thick fabric of the hakama and the silk of Zen's kimono, there was now only the thin cotton of their trunks between them. The full on rub sapped the strength out of Zen like a discharge of electricity. He squeezed his eyes shut, fingers digging in moist earth. Not enough purchase, he clawed helplessly while Rikuo grinded into him over and over, breathing hard in the darkness above Zen, searching for a rhythm.
He couldn't just lie here, he was getting swept away. He needed….needed something to hold on to, he needed to control part of the ride. Zen grabbed the thighs around him, but he couldn't get a proper hold on them, Rikuo's skin was still slick with rain. He reached back further, fingers scrabbling over trunks. He passed up Rikuo's hips and grabbed his ass, holding him right there, finally taking back some control for himself. Now it was about the two of them, not just Rikuo's pace.
Rikuo shifted to adjust to Zen's grip, flexing his hips. Pleasure ripped through Zen's body. He shuddered, the air leaving his mouth in short, breathless gasps.
He was sure Rikuo hadn't meant to do that flexing thing, but having discovered its effect, he put it to good use right away. Inspired use. Maybe he was using Zen's body language as a guideline, maybe he had some sort of perverted inner clock, but whatever it was, he was able to move just the right way, at just the right pace to completely unravel Zen's self-control. Zen had to struggle to keep his grip on Rikuo, fingers trembling with effort. Good thing he didn't need to actually consciously make his body move in tune with Rikuo's because that would probably short-circuit his brain at this point. Some sort of base primitive need was taking over - maybe the same thing that was making Rikuo move.
Zen's ears must be playing tricks on him because at some point he thought he heard his name… He looked up to see pale bangs spilling over sanguine eyes and thought Rikuo like this, flushed and panting breathlessly, was even more beautiful than when he'd first seen him that night.
Zen thrust into the motion one, two more times, pent-up pleasure finally finding its way out. He tossed his head back, a ragged groan escaping his lips.
It took him all his strength to keep going until Rikuo was finished too. Zen let go of him, his arms falling sideways. He felt utterly spent, but somehow better than he had his entire life.
Rikuo's voice was right above his face. Zen cracked open an eye to see where Rikuo's shoulder was so he could bounce a fist off it.
'That's not enough to kill me.'
Rikuo chuckled, a tired, thoroughly satisfied sound. 'Good. Because that was just a warm up.'
Zen lifted his head, eyes wide with alarmed astonishment. They narrowed to slits again when Rikuo snickered soundlessly.
'Cut it out,' Zen sighed, letting his head sink back.
Yeah, definitely time to start worrying about himself.