Title: under the bridge, across the river
Fandom: Kuroko no Basket
Characters: Kise/Kuroko/Aomine, Akashi/Kuroko, Midorima/Takao, Satsuki
There is an old saying, about the bridge across the river; like all old sayings, it is fraught with imagined tragedies and empty sentimentalities, hallucinations and well-worn wishes that begin with a pair of lovers and end with only one.
Most days, Daiki pays less attention to the village gossip than Momoi does. You can never get by with too little information, Dai-chan, she says, wringing her hands even as Daiki turns to his side and yawns. Sometimes Momoi is a wealth of knowledge, and sometimes he has no use for it at all.
It is Momoi who regales him and Tetsuya with old wives' tales as she mends his shirt, Momoi who waits for him even as the sun vanishes past the copse and beyond the mountain range. When Daiki ventures a little too far into the forest to hunt for the occasional fox, it is Momoi who keeps her silence and presses her lips together until all Daiki can see is a thin, red line.
"You're late again," she tells him, quietly. The lamp light casts a brighter shade to her pink hair. Daiki scoffs even as he sets his tools aside.
"Gotta hunt to eat," says Daiki. Tetsuya shrinks into himself, like he does when Momoi and Daiki begin their many arguments.
"It isn't safe out there, Dai-chan," Momoi protests, her hands clenched into fists. "You know all sorts of creatures come out at night, and the woodcutter says—"
"I don't believe in stuff like that," says Daiki, rolling his eyes. The only thing he believes in is himself, after all, ever since his father vanished into the forest and his mother followed; Momoi gives him that soft, pitying look that Daiki hates the most, that makes Daiki want to avert his eyes.
"Oh, Dai-chan," says Momoi, touching his arm – the closest they ever come to apologies without saying them.
They have rabbit, for dinner. Rabbit and regret, two things that stew in Daiki's mind for hours before he can lose himself in sleep.
It is Tetsuya's face that Daiki wakes to, in the morning.
"Nngh," says Daiki, scrunching up his face. "Morning."
"Good morning," says Tetsuya. He bends to press a kiss to the side of Daiki's jaw.
Daiki huffs, but cracks a smile. "You okay?"
"Mm," says Tetsuya. He rests his cheek against Daiki's brow; Daiki crooks his fingers into Tetsuya's hair.
Daiki does not know Tetsuya as well as he knows Momoi, but sometimes, he feels that it comes close. When he kisses Tetsuya, open-mouthed and wanting, Tetsuya shudders and melts into him, always so eager, so easy to please. Daiki has only known Tetsuya for all of three years, since he and Momoi found the unconscious boy floating in the river, but Daiki is confident that all the years before it is miniscule in comparison to the longer stretch of the future.
"I made rice balls for breakfast," says Tetsuya, when they separate.
"You're amazing," says Daiki.
"Not really," says Tetsuya, but he is smiling, now. The blue in his eyes seems to turn a deeper shade, full of affection.
They eat breakfast as they walk to the bridge, Daiki hefting an axe and Tetsuya with a small water skin in hand. Tetsuya fills it with water and ends up wading in the river as Daiki sets to work; it takes longer for Daiki to gather lumber, driven to distraction by Tetsuya's bare skin, the slight trace of burning from the sun.
Sometimes Tetsuya comes to close to the deeper part of the river for Daiki's comfort. Submerged, Tetsuya is an absent thing, and it is easy to forget his presence, like that. When he stays far too long under, Daiki sets his axe aside and removes his robe, ready to dive in.
As Daiki comes closer to the shoreline, Tetsuya emerges, hair plastered to his skin. He wades closer to Daiki, like he knows the tiny fears that rest in Daiki's heart, the anxiety in his stomach. He reaches out to pull Daiki into the water with him, and Daiki follows, kissing him in the shallows.
"What are you doing?" Daiki asks, touching the top of Tetsuya's head. The color of his hair ripples blue, almost white in the light.
"Nothing," says Tetsuya. He loops his arms around Daiki's shoulders, white against dark.
"You're a fish, that's what you are," says Daiki, laughing.
Tetsuya smiles at him, and does not meet his eyes. "Maybe," he says, pulling away. "In another life, I suppose."
Tetsuya in the water, under the wooden bridge – it is a lonely sight that makes Daiki want to kiss him again and again.
He walks back to land, instead.
There is a strange quality to Tetsuya that Daiki cannot presume to comprehend. His appeal is in his mystery, Daiki supposes, and it appears to work in his favor when it comes to Momoi's attention. Quiet, polite Tetsuya is no different from the fourteen year old boy that could not articulate his wants, could not speak the local language. It was Daiki, then, who took him in; it is still Daiki that loves him the most.
Tetsuya lives with his brother, in the woods; Daiki has never been to Tetsuya's home before, because Tetsuya does not like talking about his family, or anyone else. When Momoi brings it up a few times, Tetsuya looks a little distressed, a little heartbroken, and it only strengthens Daiki's resolve to keep Tetsuya protected, to keep him a little longer with him in his tiny room where he can forget everything else.
Sometimes Tetsuya has bruises, along his jaw, his collarbones. Daiki feels a chill in his spine, when he inspects them. Momoi looks close to tears as she patches Tetsuya up, but she does not know what to say to him. I'm sorry sounds too patronizing. Stay will only invite some sadness in Tetsuya's posture. Daiki covers his face with his hands, like he can't bear to look.
"You know we'll never let anything hurt you," says Daiki, through the gaps of his fingers.
"I know," says Tetsuya, wincing as Momoi applies a healing salve on his brow.
So why don't you let us help you, Daiki wants to ask. He keeps his silence, instead, and goes off to make porridge for all of them.
Momoi stays with them, on those nights. She falls asleep on Daiki's spare futon, and Daiki watches her drool, in her sleep, and whisper Tetsuya's name as if in a nightmare. Daiki feels his heart ache, a little.
"There's some truth in old sayings, you know," says Tetsuya, breaking the silence. He rests his cheek against Daiki's shoulder and closes his eyes. "There are dangerous things in the forest."
"Why do you keep going back?" Daiki says, tersely. He stiffens as Tetsuya's hand searches for the spaces between his fingers.
"Duty, I think," says Tetsuya. "Love, maybe."
The admission yields a spike of jealousy that surges from Daiki's throat. He growls Tetsuya's name into his mouth, as replacement for the person Tetsuya refuses to name. When Tetsuya touches his cheek, Daiki falls limp into his hand.
"Don't be reckless," says Daiki, defeated.
"You're so kind," says Tetsuya.
It is not an assurance.
Momoi is gone, when Tetsuya and Daiki wake. By the small slant of light that approaches the window, Daiki supposes it is already well into the afternoon. Daiki slips out of Tetsuya's grip on his sleeve, and he exits the house to head to Momoi's home.
Her mother is pacing on the small plot of land Momoi grows herbs in. When she catches sight of Daiki, she flutters panicked fingers over her chest.
"Have you seen Momoi-chan?" Her mother asks. Daiki's gut twists, and he feels his mouth dry up.
"No," says Daiki. "Did she say where she went?"
Her mother looks close to tears, and she wrings her fingers – a habit Momoi's adopted, too. "She said she was going to look for more herbs in the forest, but that was a few hours ago. I don't know why, but – Daiki-kun!"
Daiki is already running, before she calls out to him. He tries to remember the things Momoi used to tell him – creatures in the forest, predators at night, parents that never come back, that stupid, stupid girl that never listens to her own advice. Daiki would cry if he isn't so angry.
He goes past his own home, where Tetsuya is most likely still asleep. The sky is already a rosy shade above him, and he bites the inside of his cheek. His footsteps are loud and heavy against the worn wood of the bridge. The calm of the river is a counterpoint to the rushing in his ears.
"Where are you?" Daiki whispers, as he steps into the copse. "Momoi!"
There is no light filtered through the tree tops, no person in sight. But Daiki thinks of Momoi, scared and lost, of Tetsuya who takes the same tracks through the forest.
Daiki forges on.
The sky is dark outside.
Ryouta squints at the sky and frowns at the heaviness of his stomach. Hunger, when sated, renders taste anew, but too much or too little leaves a bad impression in his gut.
No matter. It will keep him going for days, at least.
"Shame I left some crumbs," says Ryouta, touching his mouth. When he pulls his fingers away, it comes out viscuous and sweet. The stain is also present on the fringes of his robe, dark against the blue of his yukata. He wrinkles his nose.
"Guess I have to wash this out, now," he says, only a bit put out. He brushes the dirt off his backside and pats down his clothes. Inside the obi rests a small dagger, crafted from the nearby village. The blade glistens, still clean even from the hunt.
The river is quiet, at night. Ryouta strips off his clothing, leaving it on the riverbank. It can be washed out later, after he soaks. It has been a while since he has ventured this near to the human realm, and the water reeks of something else, something sharp and somber that pricks at his spine.
A water dragon used to live here, once, before it was driven into the spirit world to marry a demon. Or was it a fire dragon, Ryouta wonders. The two are not so different, after all, with their propensity to kill with efficiency, with retribution. Ryouta almost feels pity for it. Almost.
The grass rustles, near the edge of the river, by the wooden post of the bridge. Ryouta blames his preoccupation with fussing at his tails for not sensing the presence, and he raises apprehensive eyes at the intruder. His nails glint, predatory. He narrows his eyes.
"You can come out now," says Ryouta, baring his teeth. "I won't kill you just for peeping."
The shadow stills, but it moves closer, a little too brave, a little too stupid. It steps forward, one, two, three, and illuminated by the moon, the boy seems unearthly, like a ghost.
Ryouta feels his mouth twist into a grin.
"What's a boy like you doing here?" Ryouta says. He wades through the water to approach the human, the appearance of grace despite the heavy matting of his fur. "Didn't they teach you not to wander too far from home?"
The stranger keeps his hands at his side, loosely. No outward appearance of fear, and yet he smells of it. "I'm not a boy," he says, apropos of nothing, like it is the only thing he can focus on. Ryouta brings a hand to his mouth, amused.
His last human was a finicky thing, quiet one moment, rabid the next. When it – she? – tried to claw at him with her blunt nails, he laughed and provoked her for more. The same quality of courage, and yet this boy seems to have more sense of his life, more keenness for it. Ryouta values that much, to his favor.
"You're a small thing, aren't you?" Ryouta says. He steps onto the riverbank and wrings the water out of his tail. He smoothes down his ears, and licks the water from his fingers. The boy stares at his face, seemingly unmindful of his nudity. Like it does not even register past the brightness of Ryouta's eyes, the handsome plane of his face.
"Not a boy," says the stranger, heatedly despite his blank expression.
"Not a boy, then," Ryouta concedes, but only to humor him. "What do I call you?"
The boy bites his lip; Ryouta follows the glimpse of teeth, the groove of muscle, the wet sheen. "Tetsuya," he says, finally.
"Tetsuya," Ryouta tests it out, with his tongue. "May I call you something else? Something shorter, like Tetsu?"
Tetsuya frowns and his eyes turn dark, as he narrows them. "No."
Ryouta sighs, stretching his arms above his head. "Tetsuya then," he says. He comes forward to inspect Tetsuya's face. "Are you here to bathe, little boy?"
Tetsuya fumbles and almost trips on his feet as Ryouta takes hold of his jaw and pulls him closer. "I'm looking for someone," he blurts out. To his credit, he does not even blush, but – Ryouta smiles – the top of his ears turn red. "My friends, they've gone missing."
"Your friends must miss you very much," says Ryouta, looking at Tetsuya through half-lidded eyes. Is that a plea for help, or is it the naiveté of a human?
"Have you seen them?" Tetsuya asks, a little lost, a little desperate.
"No," says Ryouta, humming. The way Tetsuya deflates – it excites his blood.
"Oh," says Tetsuya, wrestling his chin out of Ryouta's hold. "I—"
"I can always take you to them," says Ryouta. A tail curls around Tetsuya's wrist, his knuckles. Whatever reassurance the touch brings is lost in the sharpness of Ryouta's gaze. His voice like water, honeyed words that catch at rough terrain despite its fluidity. But Ryouta's an old hand at this game, and he bargains. "For a price."
Tetsuya allows his fingers to pet Ryouta's tail, submissive and pliant. Nothing like his initial resistance – easy, it is so easy to loop an arm around his waist and disappear into the thicket. Ryouta swallows.
"No tricks," says Tetsuya, after a measured moment.
"No tricks," says Ryouta. It is a lie, and it is not.
Kitsune have no use for definitive truths, for honor; only the enticement of a young boy, and the prospect of little else but pleasure.
Mark it. A boy has forfeited his life.
Tetsuya describes his friends to Ryouta, and he goes through indolent motions to search for the presence of humans in the forest. The familiarity of their appearance sticks to his mind for hours, and yet he forgets where he remembers them. Perhaps once, when they both strayed too far, as children, or as a demon's recent meal. Rare, they may be, but Ryouta cannot recall most humans in his life, their souls too dull to strike a chord.
Not even his former lovers are more than empty indentations, in his bed.
"Nothing," Ryouta says, a week later, as a greeting. Tetsuya stops, in the hallway of his friend's home. He stares at Ryouta, already splayed out across the futon. "Absolutely nothing."
"No news, then," Tetsuya states, blankly.
"I'm sorry," says Ryouta, "but I looked everywhere, and you have no idea how hard it is to find humans in the forest."
Tetsuya sits down. He leans against the paper walls and covers his face. When his shoulders begin to shake, Ryouta curses himself for his indelicacy.
"I'm sorry," says Ryouta, even if he is not. He hovers over Tetsuya's hunched form, and his fingers fuss at his sleeves. "I didn't mean to sound so rude, really. It's just that you looked so lonely and I didn't want to give you false hope and…"
Tetsuya starts to cry, louder, now, like something in him breaks. Ryouta falls to his knees and cups Tetsuya's cheeks, his thumb brushing away the sliver of fresh tears.
"You could always marry me, so you won't be alone," says Ryouta. His voice is thick, to hide his fretting. It is only later that he realizes he means every word he says. "I don't mind. I could be a human, for you. Female, too, if you prefer that."
Tetsuya makes a strange sound, in his throat, a cross between laughter and a snuffle. He shakes his head and slumps against the floor.
"What is it?" Ryouta says, genuinely distressed. "Did I say the wrong thing again?"
"It's just," says Tetsuya, "I don't even know your name."
"Oh," says Ryouta, and bends to whisper his name into Tetsuya's mouth.
The boy on the futon is nothing like the boy from the river bank. The ethereal paleness of his skin is replaced by streaks of red that bloom under Ryouta's insistent mouth, his fingers that press deeper until they feel the hard bone under his muscles. Under his touch, Tetsuya comes alive, wanting, his blood thrumming in his veins, his voice sending shocks of desire that course through Ryouta's system. Did he do this with his friends, too, Ryouta wonders. Did he say their names like he did not know anything else?
"Please," says Tetsuya, as Ryouta hikes up his knee to rest on Ryouta's shoulder. "Please."
This, is payment too. Ryouta loses himself in Tetsuya's unfamiliar heat, the sharp pang of yearning in his belly. How different it feels inside of him, when his feet remain cold against the slope of Ryouta's back, his knuckles that feel icy even as they prod at Ryouta's senses. Sight, to take in the intensity of Tetsuya's full-bodied blush. Hearing, to register the gratifying aborted attempts at his name. Touch, for the goose bumps across Tetsuya's shivering arms. Smell and taste, to ingest the salty aftertaste of Tetsuya's come, the scent of sex in the aftermath.
Not dull, no. Never dull, and it excites him.
Tetsuya hums, as Ryouta strokes his hair, the nape of his neck. Ryouta wants to replace his fingers with his mouth, to nip at Tetsuya's skin like a vice. He wants to crook his fingers inside Tetsuya, once more, wants to see him squirm. Wants to trace proprietary marks along the inside of his thigh. The definition of his stomach. Lower.
"There's a saying about that bridge," says Ryouta, instead. "If you cross it, you never come back. No one ever does."
"That's not true," Tetsuya mutters, into Ryouta's skin. Ryouta stifles an incoming gasp; Tetsuya's breath is cool to the touch, almost inhuman.
"You're still waiting for your friends, aren't you?" Ryouta asks.
Tetsuya averts his eyes. He closes up, instantly. Ryouta almost regrets asking too much.
Ryouta takes a deep breath. He feels his head ache, a little. "Humans that go too deep into the forest end up eaten by all sorts of things, if they're not careful. It isn't a journey for the fainthearted."
"Have I what?"
Tetsuya's words are muffled, but they ring clear. "Eaten a human, before."
Ryouta bites his lip. His fingers lay idle on Tetsuya's skin. "Yes."
Tetsuya stops breathing, for a moment. His voice sounds rough when he speaks. "What was it like?"
Nothing like devouring Tetsuya's mouth, or trailing the ridges of his spine through his skin with his teeth. Nothing like the taste of Tetsuya's fingers, his tongue. Sustenance for the stomach means nothing compared to the swelling of his heart.
"Would you eat me, if I asked you to?" Tetsuya says, when Ryouta says nothing.
Ryouta's response is immediate. "No," he says rising to cradle Tetsuya in his arms and sink his face into the juncture between Tetsuya's neck and shoulder. "Never."
Tetsuya raises his head from Ryouta's chest, meets Ryouta's smile with an unreadable expression.
"Come to me," says Ryouta, extending his hand, and Tetsuya follows.
The messenger that arrives on the doorstep bears a letter, in its mouth. Ryouta stares at it for a few minutes, and tilts his head to the side.
"A frog?" Ryouta says, dubiously. "Are you Shintarou's lucky item today?"
The frog croaks and stares back. If Ryouta squints, he could almost recognize Shintarou's disdainful aura in it, too.
Ryouta shakes his head and takes the letter. He watches the frog disappear into the distance, and he unfolds it.
The summons is nothing new; for all the decades Ryouta has lived, Shintarou's reprimands take up a significant bulk of it. While he blusters about how he could care less, the repetitive flare ups weigh heavily against his supposed indifference. Ryouta taps the letter against his mouth, considering.
"I thought I heard something," says Tetsuya. Ryouta does not jump, no matter how surprised he is. For a human, Tetsuya is quiet – too quiet. Except, he thinks, as he kisses Tetsuya, never quiet when it matters.
"I'm going out for a bit," says Ryouta.
"Will you come back?" Tetsuya asks. He sounds almost… fond. Ryouta feels something tight in his stomach, dislodged even in his throat.
"Later," says Ryouta, kissing his knuckles. What he would do to keep this boy happy, to keep him with him.
Shintarou greets him with a ceramic bowl to his head when he pops into the sitting room without much warning.
"Ow," Ryouta complains, rubbing at the slight bruise on his brow. "I thought you told me to come here!"
"There's a door for visitors," Shintarou says, sternly.
"You've been living with your human for too long," Ryouta accuses. A kitsune that shacks up with a fortune teller far more mischievous than he is. Stranger things have happened.
"Does this have a point," says Ryouta, later, after Kazunari brings out tea and placates Shintarou with a fresh confection. He fiddles with the rim of his bowl. "Because if you wanted a little more variety in your relationship, you could have just said so. You know I'd never turn you down, if you offered–"
Kazunari chokes, into his bowl. Shintarou looks extremely unamused. "A dragon is causing a ruckus again," says Shintarou, already impatient with Ryouta's theatrics. "Did you have something to do with this?"
Dragons are always causing trouble, Ryouta thinks. Perhaps a dragon ate Tetsuya's friends. Tetsuya would probably cry, if he knew.
"No," says Ryouta, cheerfully. "I haven't come across any dangerous dragons recently, I think."
Shintarou looks ready to pounce and rip his throat out. "You think?"
Kazunari coughs, politely. Shintarou visibly settles down.
"Did Kazunari put you up to this, again?" Ryouta says, taking a sip from his tea. "Look, I know you're some kind of omniscient superhuman, but this is a little ridiculous."
"It's probably just a bad day," says Kazunari, mildly. Ryouta feels a chill, permeating through his skin. "Even humans have their secrets."
"Flaws, you mean," says Shintarou.
"Oh," says Kazunari, "see, I never claimed to be good with words, haha."
"If there isn't anything else," says Ryouta, setting his cup down. "I'll be taking my leave, then."
He rises, from his seat. Kazunari is still smiling at him, that same, unnerving smile Ryouta sometimes employs, when he knows too much.
"Don't do anything stupid," warns Shintarou.
Ryouta grins. Stupid, no, not exactly. Reckless, perhaps. "Don't worry, Shin-chan, I'll be careful."
Kazunari muffles his laughter, a little too late, taking too much delight in Shintarou's irritation. "Good luck with your new plaything, by the way!" He says, sly.
"Luck has nothing to do with it," says Ryouta. "I'm very skilled, you know?"
"I'm not even going to ask," says Shintarou, shuddering.
It is Kazunari that sees him, to the doorway. Kazunari hands him a small slip of paper, and Ryouta unfolds it. He stares, for a moment. He passes it back to Kazunari without a word.
"This will make him happy, I'm sure," says Kazunari. Never a kitsune, but still deceitful, above all things. A human that sees too much will not last long in this earth. Ryouta feels sorry for Shintarou, almost.
"You have a bad personality," says Ryouta. Kazunari laughs and shakes his head.
Ryouta raises a hand, in farewell. He shuts the sliding door behind him, and treks back to the only place he wants to be in the most.
Only, he does not know if he is as welcome there, in the shadow of a missing man.
Ryouta stares at his reflection, on the surface of the river. His golden eyes, his fair hair. The white of his skin, only a few shades darker than Tetsuya's.
The image, on the paper, fits Tetsuya's halting descriptions. Dark hair, dark skin, a cocky mouth. Limbs that stretch longer than Ryouta's do, but Ryouta can take him down, probably. Likely. The thought is familiar. It is so strange.
Tetsuya deserves his peace, his brief moment of happiness. Closure is nothing to Ryouta, who has time without end and ends without meaning, but humans, they are soft, and they value companionship too much.
Why does it feel like Ryouta is about to lose some part of himself that he cannot breach?
Do it. Don't do it. Do it. Don't do it. He won't forgive you. He will love you. Do it. Do it.
Ryouta shuts his eyes. When he opens them again, his reflection is different. Changed. The illusion of it fools even him. He tests out his arms; he dips his feet into the water. His hands. They smell of blood.
He feels for the dagger, in his robe. He wants to gouge out his eyes, to stab at his face – this face, that Tetsuya seems to love most.
The house – this face's house – is lit only by the small lamp on the tiny porch. When Ryouta approaches, he can see Tetsuya dozing, on the floor. What he would give to come home to this. What he would kill for, just for this.
"Tetsu," he calls out. Tetsuya's eyes flicker open, drowsy. He raises his head.
Ryouta takes a deep breath, and steps forward. Tetsuya's face – wild, in its incredulity, and wrecked, utterly wrecked – it undoes him.
"Tetsu," Ryouta says, in a strange man's voice. "I'm home."
It is done.
For the entirety of dinner, Ryouta plays the part. Daiki is an uninteresting man, a single-minded human with little to boast for. Ryouta knows all this from Daiki's face – the sharpness of his gaze, the near-instantaneous furrow of his brow. Dull, uninteresting men with their beautiful, beloved boys. Ryouta clamps down the fleeting feeling of possession.
Tetsuya watches him like a lost soul, like an unsure pilgrim that does not know what to do with small miracles. If he were himself, Ryouta would woo him with laughter, with conversation, with adulation; because he is not himself, Ryouta stays silent.
"Momoi," Tetsuya finally says, as they pick at their bread, "is she gone?"
"I don't know," says Ryouta. Tetsuya lowers his eyes.
When Ryouta turns off the lamp, Tetsuya comes to him without a word. He sinks into Ryouta's body like he cannot bear to let go.
There is a sadness, in the way they make love that night; like two men lost in grief, they cling to each other, Tetsuya making no sound but crying into Ryouta's shoulder. Ryouta lets Tetsuya straddle him and mouth shaky platitudes across the column of his throat. When he sinks inside Tetsuya, Tetsuya tightens his grip on his shoulders.
Tetsuya's yukata pools around his hips, bunched on his waist. Ryouta's fingers search for the back of Tetsuya's legs, and Tetsuya lets him guide him through the motions, slow and deep and sharing no pleasure, only ritualistic need. Tetsuya's hands – they push past the opening of Ryouta's yukata to touch his bare skin with his cold hands.
"Daiki," says Tetsuya, softly, "I love you."
Ryouta whimpers, and his eyes flash golden, in the darkness.
The spell breaks, briefly. Tetsuya stares at him, and Ryouta opens his mouth, but it is enough. Tetsuya curls into himself and pulls away.
"I'm sorry," says Ryouta. Tetsuya does not move. "I didn't know. I only – I think I saw him, once."
Tetsuya crosses his legs, and breathes into the tatami mat. Ryouta falters, and keeps his hands fisted at his sides.
"I just wanted to make you happy," says Ryouta, helpless.
The air is thick with tension, with accusations. Ryouta can't breathe. "Did you enjoy it," says Tetsuya, "watching me like this."
Ryouta's distressed sob comes out strangled as he gathers Tetsuya's prone form into his arms. Tetsuya hangs, limply, against his chest. "No," Ryouta moans, touching his cheek to Tetsuya's forehead, his brow, the slope of his nose, just shy of his mouth, still bruised and raw from Daiki's – Ryouta's fervent kisses, the slick-slide of his teeth, his tongue. "No, no, no, please, Tetsu–"
Tetsuya stiffens. "Don't call me that," says Tetsuya, brokenly. "Please don't."
Anger broils in Ryouta's bones, already a familiar lover. Undeserving, damnable human, too persistent even in his absence, like that damned blood on his clothes, his hands. So fragile, yet so difficult to extinguish.
"I would be him, for you," says Ryouta. Like wood, like stone, immovable. "If you'd let me."
Tetsuya bows his head. Water seeps through the fabric of Ryouta's clothing, in tiny drops. Ryouta raises Tetsuya's head to meet his eyes.
"Nothing will ever hurt you," says Ryouta, a hand on Tetsuya's cheek, his thumb across his mouth. How strange, this fascination. How detestable. His face changes, briefly, only a flash of tanned skin and dark hair, nothing like Ryouta's and yet promising eternity. Will he take it? Will he take him?
Tetsuya's fingers tremble, as they cover the back of Ryouta's larger hand. "Not even you?"
"Not even," he promises. Not a lie, this time. When kitsune make oaths, they follow through with the depth of its importance, their conviction. "I swear it, I–"
Tetsuya kisses him, briefly. Ryouta makes a pained, helpless noise when Tetsuya bites down too quickly and draws blood. Blood, like the fire that burns in Ryouta's heart.
Ryouta closes his eyes; he shuts his mouth. Breathe. Just breathe.
During the harvest season, nature is a tempestuous lover. One morning, sunlight creeps into the windows, past the tatami and the futon, coaxing Tetsuya awake. The next, torrents of rain come with vengeance, and the children send paper cranes adrift the river, where they crumple and break at the nearest bend.
No destination is straightforward, no pathways narrow and direct. Even the bridge creaks and groans under the influx of water, the nudge of sediment from the valley beyond. Wind in his hair, pulling at his clothes, water plastered to his skin, soaking through the cloth; it is like bathing, only Tetsuya, helpless, coasts along.
His eyes are sore and dry, protesting even as he steps outside Daiki's house. Ryouta is absent, for now, the only reminder of his presence a short string of his hair that turned gold under the light, or what little there is left. Tetsuya takes nothing with him but Ryouta's marks. The smell of his skin, his come. He hopes he reeks of fox, for spite, for all plausible scenarios of hell.
The river seems to still, as he crosses the bridge. Splinters of wood crack under his feet, but Tetsuya does not fear falling. Three years ago, the river sung him to sleep, swept him past the darkness of the lake, under the bridge and into the rough hands of Daiki, the panicked flurry that was Momoi's fingers. Warm hands that eased his mind and gripped at his heart. Heat, that made his toes curl and his breath run ragged, broken, a litany of names in the dusky summer nights.
Keep moving forward, he reminds himself. No one will harm you, if they cannot notice you at all. Not all who enter the forest in the veil of the night abandon hope of ever returning. Tetsuya slips past the bamboo shoots, the stalks of overgrown weeds and brambles. The forest is quiet. Something sings, in the thick of it.
Outside, a storm is brewing.
Here is a secret Tetsuya never tells.
Tetsuya lives in his brother's home, deep in the forest. He calls him brother even if he is not, even if they are borne from different wombs, different bloodlines. His brother is a shock of red that strangles Tetsuya's calm, his serenity. When Tetsuya looks at his brother, all he can think of is a distant raging, like a flooded bank, a broken dam, water spilling over cracks of rock and foliage in its temerity.
Their father, disappeared into silence, was a slip of fire in the face of his heir. Sometimes Tetsuya wonders if his brother has a hand in that, but thinking like that is dangerous, and he empties his mind.
His mother, the courtiers drew from the river; her hair spread wide across the water and her clothes were ripples of thin sheets. The whispers of the court claim she was a water nymph, but Tetsuya knows, in his blood, what she was, and it is not a god. The day they caught her by the flimsy material of her robe, his mother died, bereft, lost. In the river, she was beauty; outside of it, she withered away.
Tetsuya looks nothing like his father, so he must take after his mother. If his brother catches him by the wrist and considers his face far too thoughtfully, then he must have loved her, once, must have known her secrets, her despair. His brother searches for something in Tetsuya that he cannot find. Some days, it is his mother. Others, his soul.
In the water, he might find it.
Maybe is not certain.
There are three things Tetsuya learns from his brother: the first is how to lie.
Part of Ryouta's weakness is that he does not know deception in all of its forms, despite his lineage. Vulnerability, for one. Inconspicuous as he is, Ryouta does not – cannot imagine to – suspect him. Foxes are easy to trap, when dangled with things that attract them. The thin veneer of a child, the supposed artlessness – they strike his interest, his brief fancy. They were never known for their fidelity, that much is certain.
This court, though – his home; it is his only worth.
When Tetsuya bows his head in subservience and presents his brother with a kiss of deference, he is already playing a part. Better to allow his brother his few pleasures, his displays of power. Tetsuya has few fears, and this is not the worst of them.
His sleeves, they pool afloat his brother's knees, the fine cloth of his haori. The horns atop his brother's head seem to twitch, as he yanks Tetsuya closer. He presses his nose against Tetsuya's neck, where he can feel a pulse.
"You reek of kitsune," says his brother, apalled. He releases Tetsuya and turns away. "Better than human, at least."
Sometimes his brother forgets himself and civility. It is – forgivable. "Hello, Seijuro," says Tetsuya, folding his arms on his lap. "How is your garden, today?"
Seijuro presses his fingers together, not quite fitting the gaps. In his throne, he is regal and formidable, like a punitive god. A lesser man would tremble, at his sight, but Seijuro does not tolerate fools and Tetsuya never quakes in his presence.
"You barely take interest in things like that," says Seijuro. His skin ripples, revealing scales for a fleeting moment. Red, almost golden in the lamp light. "Is it so important?"
"I've asked for lesser things," says Tetsuya, carefully. The fire in a nearby lamp flickers, and flares.
Seijuro clicks his tongue. "Always inefficient, aren't you? And so dull, too."
Tetsuya does not rise to the bait. He can't afford to. "It is always a clean, precise method," he says. "And plants have their uses."
Flicker and flare, flicker and flare. "Mmm," says Seijuro, "that girl, she taught you healing, didn't she? Although I wonder..."
"Momoi taught me many things," says Tetsuya. "As did you."
His brother's expression is knowing, and somewhat assessing, like he understands the inevitable conclusion. It seems to please him, at least. Dragons with wise eyes – they must look like Seijuro, despite his relative youth. Tetsuya dislikes them immensely, the kind of aversion that stems from grudging respect and some measure of intolerance at past offences, their means.
"Take whatever you like," says Seijuro. "But do try not to make a mess, alright?"
Tetsuya bows, once more. "I won't."
When he lifts his head, Seijuro looks amused. "I can always eat him, you know," his brother offers, his mismatched eyes glinting in the darkness like Ryouta's would. A flame is snuffed out, completely.
"I could do it," Seijuro continues, distantly, like he is considering it seriously. Like he is the law. "I could gut him and present his head to you, if you'd like. A reprisal, of sorts. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Please don't say things like that so easily," says Tetsuya.
"My apologies," says Seijuro. "You were always so… delicate."
Seijuro is always too rough, with the things he loves the most, expecting more than what he gets and pushing and pushing until Tetsuya has no more to give. Tetsuya knows this, in the wounds Momoi used to trace with a gentle, shaking hand, bruises from too exacting teeth and fingers that grip at his thighs to hold him down. No resistance, more force. But Seijuro is not needlessly cruel, only…
Only he is not human, that is all. Some things are beyond him, and all things physical, all pains and pleasures – they mean nothing.
Tetsuya clenches his teeth, as he rises. Bites down the unsettling feeling rising in his throat, clogging his lungs until he can't breathe. "Goodbye, brother."
He makes it halfway to the entrance, before he feels it; that familiar, unsettling feeling of Seijuro's aura coiling around his neck, like a snake. "Tetsuya," says Seijuro and Tetsuya stops. Seijuro cracks a smile, bitter, triumphant. "You'll come home soon, won't you?"
Always, always a command, with finality, with surety.
Tetsuya turns on his heel, and says nothing.
There is no pestle in Daiki's residence, nothing to crush a plant with short of using his hands.
Along the river, he sets to work. He pounds the herb, with a flat stone. The root is stained with soil, like Tetsuya's fingers. He'd taken care not to uproot the stem with his bare skin. How unfortunate if he rarely listened to Momoi's reprimands. A devil's herb, for a mortal man.
Poison, in small doses, is not enough to kill kitsune. What he needs is not a fatal ingestion, nor a succession of ill-fated symptoms. Rather, sleep is the most potent mercy he can spare, the most drawn-out, that gives false hopes.
Tetsuya knows all of this because the water speaks to him, of secrets. Not all kitsune are amicable, in the same way humans can kill their own kind.
By the time he is done, his wrists ache and his arms shake, with the effort. It is a relief to throw the stone into the river, swallowed in its silence. It sinks to the bottom easily; it disappears into the water.
The powder flits through the spaces between his fingers, easily filtered. He scoops it up again and keeps a fistful in his palm. It seems to burn, into his skin, the touch of it causing blisters, stinging. It is alright. He is accustomed to pain, in all of its forms. He almost revels in it, with the knowledge of its potency, its use.
Tonight is a day for loss, and celebration. He will make sure of it.
His hands, though. They cannot stop shaking.
He pretends to be asleep, on the wooden porch. Feigns ignorance and calls Ryouta by Daiki's name, and something in Ryouta's eyes flicker. It dulls, into the dark shade of Daiki's eyes. Only a pale imitation of his likeness, without much shine.
No words, either, that remind him of Daiki. Ryouta does not know how well Tetsuya knows beyond the map of Daiki's body, his posture, his air. Shallow mimicry, with no improvement, no basis for comparison. The realization makes Tetsuya's fingers burn, his hips canting in frenzied, diluted fury if only to say: this is not enough. He mourns its loss, its transparencies.
I want you to be sorry, Tetsuya's mind screams, just say it. Say it, like you mean it. Like it's true.
But he doesn't. He doesn't know.
It would have been better, if Ryouta kept up appearances; just the smallest crack, and it sets Tetsuya on course.
He rests his head against the mat and breathes deeply. One, two, three. He curls into himself and waits for Ryouta to speak. Waiting, always waiting. His brother would grow bored of this.
It is raining, outside.
The room is humid and suffocating, despite it. Ryouta looks at Tetsuya's knees, the steadily drying streak of come, translucent at the back of his hips. Like extracting promises and inducing guilt, Tetsuya keeps his essence, his truths. The body is so honest.
Tetsuya kisses him, to keep him quiet, pacified. Ryouta's mouth is warm, and his tongue attentive, but Tetsuya's lip is coated with a fine line of paste, from Seijuro's gift. Ryouta gasps, as Tetsuya nips on his lip. His eyes flutter close, his mouth, his breathing. It will take longer, before it takes effect. He has patience and more time than he knows what to do with. It is no matter at all.
He gathers his clothes; he pulls on his yukata as he goes to make tea. With mechanical movements, he goes through the motions. The shock, the fragility, it is gone away from Ryouta's sight. Purposeful, efficient, deceitful – no, not simply that.
It is only a fair exchange, only justice – and Tetsuya has always believed in that.
Ryouta is stretched out on the floor, no doubt still lost in his imagined woes. Tetsuya feels almost sorry, to see him without his enthusiasm. But it is only momentary.
"Would you like some tea, Ryouta-san?" Tetsuya offers. He raises the cup; the hem of his sleeve slips past his arm, pools at his elbow. Ryouta follows the movement, and blinks.
"I could never refuse you," says Ryouta, covering the back of Tetsuya's knuckles with his larger hand.
When Ryouta looks at Tetsuya, he looks at him like he cannot see anything beyond the fine slope of his nose, the soft swell of his cheek. Behind him, his tails swish in lazy circles against the tatami mat, belying the sharpness of his eyes. Daiki had eyes like his too, severe and indifferent at turns. Greedy, at times. Insatiable. He almost looks human, and it breaks Tetsuya's heart.
Ryouta breathes his name, once. Tetsuya guides the cup to Ryouta's lips, firmly. Almost is not enough.
It rains on. And on. And on.
By the end of the evening, Ryouta is a muddled mess, drowsy and aching even as he twists and turns in Tetsuya's arms.
"It hurts," says Ryouta, grappling at his throat. Tetsuya touches his hand, and Ryouta flinches. Watching him, like this, is almost an exercise in closure, in justice. Ryouta's tails droop and curl at Tetsuya's knee.
A knife lays at Tetsuya's side. He has to still his hands from reaching for the familiar press of the handle, the sharp tip of the blade. Once, hands browned from the sun held this. Once.
Because the truth is, when Tetsuya first meets Ryouta, he knows: the blood on Ryouta's clothes, and deeper into his skin – Momoi's blood, her innocence; Daiki's, his life. How they must have felt fear in their bones, in the tenderness of their muscles. He knows, even as Ryouta does not. The river says many things; it knows too much. Too lost in the heady drunkenness of a fresh kill, uncertain of how to move forward, all within the span of hours, when time is nothing compared to forever – all these things are familiar, and yet…
Tetsuya does not forget, and he does not forgive so easily. Above all things, he is not human, too.
It is just easy to forget, that is all.
"Tetsuya," says Ryouta, "I'm so tired."
Tetsuya passes a hand over his brow, and lets it rest on his jaw; Ryouta closes his eyes. His fever burns, despite the coolness of Tetsuya's touch. His heart beats, under Tetsuya's fingers, erratic, and feeble, quailing. Demanding. Please.
Tetsuya's first night, in Daiki's house, he had suffered from nightmares, feverish half-dreams that heated his skin and left his mouth parched. Daiki had watched over him, then, had wiped the sweat off his forehead, the faint tracks of tears. Without complaint, without malice. A good man, without a good end.
It would have been easy, to ignore his fitful repose. But Tetsuya watches for a different reason, a crueler motive. His touch remains gentle, belying the thickness in his throat, the thirst for the splinter of bone.
"You're here," says Ryouta, through shallow breaths. "I'm glad."
"Hush," says Tetsuya, soothing.
"Damn fortune teller probably poisoned me," Ryouta wheezes. Tetsuya stares at the sweat that pools along Ryouta's collarbone and presses his lips together to keep from betraying himself. Ryouta closes his eyes and laughs, short, harsh. Desiccated. "Shouldn't have taken a sip, huh?"
Trust is such a foolish, sentimental thing. How much does Ryouta believe in him? How little does he think of Tetsuya's capability?
"I could have done it," says Tetsuya, quietly. "What if I had?"
Ryouta turns his head, his nose nuzzling Tetsuya's palm. "You wouldn't," says Ryouta. "You're too young, too kind."
Not kind. Anything but kind. Tetsuya's heart hardens even as it deflates. Even this, is arrogance. Ryouta is so young, riddled with pride and blinded by an unknown quantity of man. What he measures in years, Tetsuya forgets in centuries.
Ryouta mumbles something; it is lost in the soft skin of Tetsuya's hand. He breathes and kisses the lines of Tetsuya's palm, still adoring, worshipful. This slant, for wealth. This, for life. Children. Love. Things he will never beget, never realize, always trailing after the shadow of a man. How sad, how meaningless. Tetsuya crouches down, to whisper in his ear.
"Sleep," says Tetsuya. "Just sleep."
In the softness of Ryouta's parched mouth, along the cracks of his lips and his sharp teeth, Tetsuya's hands – they finally stop shaking.
This, is fact: you cannot kill kitsune the way you would a human. Humans, they break too quickly, too easily, and they struggle by instinct, they do not understand nature's cruelties, its ways. Kitsune are hardy, slippery things that would cut a child's throat, if they could not help it. Death is such a foreign word, a distant shore, escapable for decades on.
But you can try. And try, and try again.
Failing that, Seijuro's voice whispers – that tiny, destructive part of himself, the part he detests the most – there is always revenge. Protect your own kind; keep them close, keep them safe. It is your duty, and your right.
Ryouta's neck is so, so white. Tetsuya marvels in it as he stoops down, and bares his teeth. The quickness, of his pulse. His labored breathing. Sleep, and all of its small graces. His hair, soft and golden, sticking to his brow with sweat.
Two other things he learns: the white-hot desire for retribution, for recompense. Second, how to kill, without reason, or remorse. Things he had no use for, once upon a time.
A dragon can eat a fox. Mark it, Tetsuya thinks, even as he can feel his eyes water with something dangerously close to regret. Ryouta's skin, his labored breathing. His ears, flat and tamed. Mark it.
All paths lead to one place. Only one, and no more.
There is a saying, about the bridge across the river; like all old sayings, it is half-truth, and half a lie.
Fact: there is no fortune for a boy who crosses the wooden bridge to find a girl, a boy who carries only a dagger and his heart as his only saving grace. No hope for a doomed man, and Tetsuya is powerless.
Fact: there is no tragedy beyond the hubris in Ryouta's probing fingers, in the sweetness of his jaw; there is no catharsis in his blood, his come across Tetsuya's sweat-slicked hips, the pale inside of his thigh. Blood on Tetsuya's fingers, blood in his mouth. When Tetsuya curls his shaking fingers into the wispy quality of Ryouta's tail, he can almost hear Ryouta's faint whimpering, in the distance. In his faulty memory.
The distance between Daiki's house and the river is approximately fifty paces – a hundred, with Tetsuya's aching feet, his body that hurts all over. What could the water give him now, but heartache, and regret? Like tiny birds, the dirt on the ground picks at his sole, plucks and pecks at the skin rubbed raw. It is almost a relief, to reach the edge of the river, to duck under the rickety slats of wood. Below the bridge, he cannot see the trees, nor the bamboo shoots: only the water, clear and dark, deep enough that when he crosses it, there is no turning back.
Near the center of the river, only Tetsuya's head surfaces. He takes a deep breath, and plows on. His clothes are spread sparse and drag him deep into the water.
Was this what you wanted, brother, Tetsuya thinks. In the river, he thought he was home, as long as Daiki was there to watch him, to make sure he did not go too far off. Now, there is no one to pull him back, to keep him anchored and afloat. Only the water, with its secrets.
There are many tales of kitsune and only few that end without despair. Lies, deceit – no stranger, no recourse. Momoi's cheer, her remarkable intelligence, her hands that touched him only to mend. Daiki's gruff kindness, his brightness, Daiki, Daiki, Daiki. Both of them must have loved him. He must have loved them, too.
Walk on. Walk on.
Ryouta, though –
("You came to me," says Ryouta, like he believes in it. His voice is soft but not weak, never weak. "You came and I loved you from the start." Tetsuya's fingers flutter against the cup. Do not tremble. Do not hesitate. "That bridge, and the river," says Ryouta, "it only led you to me all the more.")
Tetsuya's fingers flutter against the cup. Do not tremble. Do not hesitate.
"That bridge, and the river," says Ryouta, "it only led you to me all the more.")
Take it apart, piece by piece. Did he mean anything, when his words were merely pallatable and suited his need? All roads, they lead to one point, and only one. That point, it must have been nestled in his heart, his belly, the dissolution of matter absorbed and coursing through his body. Parts of all of them, lost now. Mark it. Mark it.
They could be happy, in another lifetime, in another place.
The sky – it stops crying, now.
Tetsuya breathes in water, and exhales.