by Kikuchi Makoto (菊池 誠)
Ame no Shoubumei no Mikoto once quarreled with his sister, Enkanushi. In her fury, Enkanushi called forth a great tidal wave, intending to crush Yasukou Province, home to Shoubumei’s head shrine. Before the great wave fell, Shoubumei apologized and presented sacred sake as a peace offering. Enkanushi accepted, and spared Yasukou.
Shoubumei’s power is such that he could have stopped the wave, so why did he surrender? The majority of scholars agree that Shoubumei will not countenance even the possibility of harm to his lands. Others aver that his strong sense of sibling piety moved him to reconciliation. Still a third faction suggests that the threat of salt waters intermingling with his own proved distasteful enough to evoke surrender. Finally, a small minority holds that because Shoubumei abstains from alcohol during battle–and because the quarrel had already stretched to a month by that time–he considered a drinking party the most desirable course of action all around.
As this suggests, Shoubumei’s intentions are often difficult to decipher. Another example: Why would Shoubumei separate from his divine element, manifest as a teenage boy, take the name “Shizuka,” and enter into a sexual relationship with a reluctant onmyouji?
This question was never far from the mind of Sakaki Manabu, who happened to be said reluctant onmyouji. It sprang up with particular clarity now, as his office door opened, and Shizuka poked his head inside.
“Are you busy, Sakaki-san?” Shizuka asked. An intermittent smirk marred the pretense of humble innocence.
Sakaki dropped his gaze to the sheaf of papers in his hands and frowned. “I’m always busy.”
“Well, yeah.” Sakaki felt more than heard Shizuka sidle into the office, close the door, and lock it behind him before drifting over to the desk. “But there’s busy, and then there’s busy.”
“Mm.” Sakaki flipped a page and hoped it was not too obvious, the way his skin prickled at Shizuka’s proximity.
Shizuka slipped around the desk and took the papers from Sakaki’s hands. “And baseline busy is practically free,” he said, setting them aside. He settled on the edge of the desk, his legs dangling on either side of Sakaki’s.
Sakaki leaned back in his chair. His frown deepened.
“So what’s with this Hama-whatsit guy?” Shizuka asked.
Sakaki’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline. “I’m sorry?”
“Hamamura?” Shizuka said, sliding his gaze up to the ceiling and touching a finger to his chin. “The guy you and Hayashimoto were talking about during that meeting earlier.”
“Oh, you mean the private meeting I had with my aide-de-camp,” Sakaki said. “The private meeting that none of my other employees had access to, and that took place behind locked doors.” He paused. “That meeting?”
Sakaki straightened his tie and said, “Hamamura Naoki. He’s an up-and-coming onmyouji from Akimiya.”
“Who’s been making a name for himself here,” Shizuka said, nodding. “I meant, what’s he like?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never met him. From what I’ve heard, I understand that he’s quite–Uh.”
Shizuka had planted one socked foot beside Sakaki’s left thigh, the other between Sakaki’s legs. He smiled and prompted, “Quite?”
“Quite ambitious,” Sakaki said, clearing his throat. “He earned considerable renown by bringing a tempestuous shikigami–”
“–under control. Rumors have it that Goukyou’s powers rival Youshun’s.” Sakaki doubted that. Youshun was his strongest shikigami, and far stronger than any other he’d encountered. Besides, he understood the nature of rumors too well to trust them. “I also hear he’s very mindful of tradition.”
“Hmmm.” Shizuka trailed a toe down Sakaki’s thigh to his knee and back again. “He visited Yasukou Taisha last week, you know.”
“Yes, I do,” Sakaki said, shifting in his seat as Shizuka’s foot glided down over his inner thigh. Hamamura’s visit to the grand shrine gave Sakaki even more cause for concern than the steady encroachment on his prefecture. “Hayashimoto mentioned that in her briefing, you may recall.”
“I got bored before that.”
“Then how did–” Shizuka’s foot eased down over Sakaki’s crotch as though on a gas pedal. Sakaki bit back a moan as his eyes briefly rolled back in his head. “How did you know?”
“I know things,” Shizuka said, pushing Sakaki’s cock hard against his body. “He prayed for my favor.”
“I–I thought you couldn’t…” Sakaki made a concious effort to unclench his teeth from his lip to keep from drawing blood. “I thought you couldn’t hear prayers in this form.”
“You aren’t the only one with attendants, Sakaki-san.” Shizuka smiled and dragged the ball of his foot up Sakaki’s length. “Hamamura doesn’t think much of you, by the way. He thinks you’re disrespectful. Self-willed. Unworthy of my gracious regard.”
Sakaki tried to gather his thoughts. Shizuka rarely spoke a careless word, and he tended to use his most casual tone to relay the most important things. Unfortunately, Sakaki found it all but impossible to process anything while under that relentless kneading.
Humming brightly, Shizuka brought his foot up to Sakaki’s chest and pinned him back against the chair. “Hey, you know what would be hot?” he said.
“Well, no one can fault you for lack of focus,” Sakaki said, though in truth, he was grateful for the respite.
“Hiding under your desk and going down on you during one of your meetings.” Shizuka slid his sole back down to resume its ministrations. “What do you think, Sakaki-san? Would anyone notice?” His foot drifted lower, then lower still.
“W–wait,” Sakaki gasped. His balls had always been sensitive. Even the thought of anything touching them set his teeth on edge. In an unpleasant way. “Not there.”
Shizuka tsked, and disappointment darkened his expression like a cloud. It cleared at once, but the shadow of it dampened Sakaki’s pleasure, even as Shizuka wrapped surprisingly dexterous toes over the head of his cock, caressing, massaging, and pressing until Sakaki jerked up and collapsed back into his chair.
“So,” Shizuka said. He slipped down off the desk. “All those spare clothes in the closet over there–is this the kind of thing you keep them around for?”
“You’re leaving?” Sakaki said, sitting up as Shizuka crossed the office to the door.
Shizuka shrugged. “Thought I’d go for a walk.”
Sakaki sat back. A perplexing chill settled in the pit of his stomach as the door clicked shut.
“Oh, grow up,” said a voice as sharp as ozone. “That kicked puppy look is making me sick.”
The scant shadows in Sakaki’s office grew deeper, and gathered in the center of the room like a pool of living ink. They spun themselves into a swirl of dark cloud, lightning crackling at its edges. It vanished as suddenly as it appeared. An impossibly tall woman stood in its place.
Or at least what looked like one.
The sharp features, the navy skirt suit, the long, clipped back hair–Youshun could have been Hayashimoto’s elder sister under 2x magnification. Sakaki had asked about it once. Youshun had growled, “She’s the only halfway competent person in this place,” and vanished in a thunderclap.
Sakaki retrieved his papers and tapped them straight. The unpleasant sensation of semen cooling in his boxer briefs reminded him to set the papers aside again. He headed for the closet.
“What did you expect, anyway?” Youshun said. “It’s Shoubumei. He was bound to lose interest sooner or later. Sooner’s better, if you ask me.”
Sakaki could not deny it. The alternative would have been to draw things out until they were discovered. Would it be worse, Sakaki wondered idly, for people to believe that he was taking advantage of a minor, or to know that Ame no Shoubumei no Mikoto regarded him as a plaything? Neither was ideal.
So yes, the best case scenario was for Shizuka to lose interest and move on, as quickly as possible.
Sakaki still did not want to hear that from Youshun. In fairness, he did not want to hear most things from Youshun.
“Look on the bright side,” Youshun said. “Maybe he’ll prove just as much of a distraction to that Hamamura brat. And maybe then you can keep your job.” She vanished in a fleeting mist, though her presence lingered like the scent of rain.
Now that he had changed, Sakaki realized that going through expense reports right now was an unrealistic expectation. He took the elevator up to the gym instead, began his daily workout early, and checked himself in the mirror afterward. Not bad, he thought, especially for a man just past his thirty-third birthday.
But compared to one in his early twenties?
Turning to one side, Sakaki looked again, through more critical eyes. His chest and stomach displayed acceptable definition, but had he lost weight? Yes, he decided. Particularly in the thighs and upper arms.
Sakaki glanced at the clock. Well, he had no particular obligations today.
After an extra half hour or so of squats, lunges, and barbell curls, Sakaki returned to the mirror. On a rational level, he knew that no perceptible change could have taken place so soon. Then again, he could have sworn his muscles responded more readily to the subtlest flex…
Hayashimoto’s reflection materialized beside his own, and Sakaki jumped guiltily away.
“I was, uh–”
“I’m sure there’s a fascinating story behind it, sensei,” Hayashimoto said, bringing up her phone in one crisp motion. Her fingers skittered over the screen like civic-minded spiders. “And I’m just as sure it’s none of my business. An oni has appeared in Kagawa’s Sugimi district, heading east.”
Toward Yasukou Taisha, in other words. The power that radiated from the grand shrine made it a tempting target. Sakaki grabbed some clothes and a towel and dashed to the showers. “Red or blue?” he called back.
“I see.” It would be.
“Quit your whining.” Youshun’s voice came from everywhere and nowhere at once. “You should be grateful for the challenge, if you’re so worried about getting fat.”
“I’m, uh, not worried about getting fat.” Sakaki scowled into empty air and switched on the shower. Raising his voice, he said, “How are the barriers?”
“I have Itou and Takada on them now,” Hayashimoto called from around the partition. “They’re diverting power from the distant barriers to boost the strength of those nearest the oni. Meanwhile, the shikigami, Muramasa, and Azuma have begun evacuating civilians to the shelters.”
Some of the tension in Sakaki’s shoulders eased. Independent barriers covered the shelters, so they would hold even if the barrier network failed. “Any news from Yasukou Taisha?”
“Sakaki Yuya-sama is praying to extend the shrine barriers to the surrounding city blocks. However, that could still leave four blocks exposed in the event of a catastrophic failure of the civilian barriers.”
Sakaki emerged from the shower area, knotting his tie before reaching for a vest. “Any collateral damage?” he asked.
“We’ve had no reports of civilian injuries or significant property damage thus far.” Hayashimoto fell into step beside Sakaki as he strode into the hall. “However, the barriers can only withstand a further cumulative twenty-three hits before failing.”
“I see.” Driving could get them there too late, then. Sakaki stopped walking. “Youshun.”
A disembodied sigh flooded the hall with sullen resentment. Even so, a moment later, the surrounding air took on a lightning tang, then plunged into perfect darkness. Sakaki brought a hand up to shade his eyes as the light returned. He and Hayashimoto were standing on a street corner, in the direct path of the rampaging oni.
Sirens blared in competition with the oni’s roars. The monster swung its skull-tipped club at an abandoned food cart, launching it toward the municipal junior high school across the street. The school’s barrier flared to life and disintegrated the cart in mid-flight. Sakaki adjusted his glasses and slipped a hand into his jacket.
A blur of blue and white streaked past, straight for the oni. After a moment, the blur resolved itself into a human, and a mostly human-shaped shikigami.
The human skidded to a halt in the empty street, a mere meter and a half away. He reached into his wide sleeve, and sunlight winked off the silver carp embroidery that adorned his watery blue kariginu.
The shikigami floated placidly beside him. Diaphanous fins trimmed her arms and legs, undulating in a nonexistent current while tiny, leafy sea dragons darted among the sea-foam curls of her hair.
Hamamura and Goukyou, Sakaki realized belatedly.
“Now!” Goukyou shouted, casting a shower of salt at the oni’s feet.
Hamamura pulled a sheaf of spell slips from his sleeve and threw them into the air. They formed a perfect circle above his head and spun, the circle widening with each revolution until it encompassed Hamamura, Goukyou, and the oni.
A barrier flared to life, extending from the whirling spell slips to form a massive, translucent cylinder that stretched into infinity. Its walls whirled in crystalline blue and purple, like bruised glass, and binding characters chased each other over its surface.
A combat barrier. It would warp reality itself and draw the space within into a liminal realm. That way, Hamamura and Goukyou could attack at full strength without worrying about collateral damage.
“Orders, sensei?” Hayashimoto said.
“Continue the evacuation,” said Sakaki, “then divert all power to the barriers between here and Yasukou Taisha.” Even though the combat barrier created its own plane of existence, the battle remained visible from the outside. “If they win, well, then that’s fine. Otherwise…” He pulled his own stack of spell slips from his breast pocket and watched.
This was Hamamura’s first battle against an orange oni–they only ever got red and green ones back in Akimiya. Though orange oni were notoriously dull-witted, Hamamura knew they made up for it in raw power.
It was a stroke of luck that he had thought to bring coral prayer beads to this fight. Otherwise, a single direct hit could have brought either him or Goukyou down.
While deciding on the best course of attack, Hamamura made the mistake of looking into the beast’s eyes. Fear threaded through his body like frost, freezing him in place. Not fear that he would die. Instead, he felt the terrified certainty that the orange oni would shatter his barrier like old bones and continue its thunderous progress down the city streets, sowing the death of innocents with every step.
“Stay focused, Naoki,” Goukyou said, sweeping the fear from Hamamura like flotsam on the tide. She circled the oni, and water welled up in her wake, swirling in tiny pools that spread and combined. Within seconds, half of the combat plane’s floor had become a shallow whirlpool.
The oni bellowed and blew out, its bulging eyes fixed on Goukyou. Hamamura took five spell slips in hand and watched as the oni pawed the ground. The beast leapt, attaining a height that defied its massive bulk. Goukyou hovered in place. Her fathomless blue eyes followed the oni’s arc.
The skull-tipped club swung down. Goukyou dissolved into sea foam, sinking into the ground and reforming on the opposite side of the combat plane. At the same time, Hamamura dove and rolled into the club’s path, slapping the spell slips down in a circle on the ground before springing away.
The club struck the center of the circle, and the spell slips activated, holding it in place. It never occurred to the oni to release its club and come after them barehanded. Instead it stood rooted in place, grotesque muscles straining as it tried in vain to free its weapon.
Goukyou murmured, “Cleaving Whirlpool.” Arcs of water shook free from the pool at their feet, slowly at first, then too fast for Hamamura to see. The oni grunted and fell to the ground in pieces.
The head knit itself back to the torso first, followed by the shoulders and hips. Hamamura launched a spell slip to land dead-center on the oni’s chest. The resulting barrier would not stop the regenerative process, but it would at least hold the oni in place. Goukyou needed time to replenish her strength.
Hamamura pulled his prayer beads from his sleeve. “How is it, Goukyou?” he asked.
“Around twenty percent, Naoki,” she said. She floated in the center of the combat plane, as though in deep meditation, her slender hands forming the necessary seals.
The oni grunted a second time. That was the only warning Hamamura got before the skull-club swung up to land a glancing blow on his shoulder. He flew backward, his teeth clacking painfully as his head connected with the combat barrier.
Hamamura crumpled to the ground and bit his lip to keep from crying out, thankful that Goukyou’s eyes were closed. She could not afford any distraction.
Ignoring the pain that flared in his shoulder, Hamamura pulled another spell slip from his sleeve and used it to pin the oni’s arm. Then he retrieved his fallen prayer beads and brought his hands up in front of his chest.
“Rin, pyou, tou, sha,” he chanted, forming the seals with shaking hands, “kai, jin, retsu, zai, zen!”
The barriers that pinned the oni expanded to cover its entire body, weaving and reweaving themselves to bind it so tightly even its healing process slowed.
As he stood there, panting and clutching his shoulder, Hamamura felt the ground shift. Jagged rocks grew up beneath his feet, lifting both him and Goukyou high into the air. The oni shrank to a rusty smudge below them.
Goukyou raised both hands high above her head, the power gathering in a swirling white sphere between them. “Divine…” she murmured, whirling once before spreading her arms straight out to her sides. Goukyou opened her eyes, the sphere cracked like an egg, and a tsunami came spilling out. “…Tidal Crush.”
Wave after wave tore down the tiered cliffs at her feet to bear down on the immobilized oni and flood the combat plane. The seething waters collided against each other and clawed up the swirling barrier walls, some reaching high enough that Hamamura felt their spray on his face.
Gradually, the waters subsided, and the cliffs with them. Hamamura’s feet returned to solid earth, and the oni’s body shattered into a cloud of butterflies and cicadas. Moments later, the combat barrier evaporated. The wail of sirens flooded back into Hamamura’s ears.
“Kill the alert. The oni’s dead,” said a nearby voice, and Hamamura turned his head to see a woman in a beige skirt suit, tucking a phone into her jacket pocket. The sirens died around them, and Hamamura could hear the heavy grind of steel doors drawing back. Civilians trickled into the streets.
Most of their faces showed cautious relief. A few held open gratitude. But they all gave Hamamura and Goukyou a wide berth as they returned to their daily lives.
All but one particularly bland salaryman in a charcoal suit.
He walked right up to Hamamura and gave him a stiff nod. “That was … quite an impressive fight,” he said. His tone and expression were best suited for a comment on the traffic. At Hamamura’s inquisitive look, he added, “Sakaki Manabu, Yasukou’s Prefectural Onmyouji. And this is my aide-de-camp, Hayashimoto Kaori.” He gestured at the woman in beige.
“Ah! Sakaki-sensei,” Hamamura said, dropping a hasty bow. “I apologize for overstepping my boundaries.”
“Not at all. You perceived a threat and acted accordingly.”
“Yes. I worried that you might not arrive in time, Sakaki-sensei. Yasukou Prefecture is quite a large area for just one onmyouji to cover, after all.”
A tiny crease appeared between Sakaki’s eyebrows. “I see.”
“You could always share,” said a new voice, and Hamamura started.
A boy–around fifteen or sixteen, Hamamura guessed–had appeared at his shoulder without his sensing a thing. Hamamura exchanged a glance with Goukyou. She looked as surprised as he felt.
Sakaki, on the other hand, seemed merely annoyed. Even that vague hint of emotion smoothed into impassivity after a moment. “This is Shizuka,” he said, and Hamamura wondered just who the boy was. A given name alone told him nothing.
Unlike Sakaki, Shizuka could never have blended into a crowd, not with hair like that–halfway between sandy and silver. Hamamura rarely noticed the colors of people’s eyes, but this boy’s were so aggressively teal they refused to be overlooked. They reminded Hamamura of newborn grass. He supposed Shizuka must be popular with the girls.
“Shizuka, this is Hamamura Naoki-sensei, and this is his shikigami, Goukyou.”
Shizuka tipped his head to one side and narrowed his eyes at Sakaki. “I guessed.” The irony vanished from his face when he looked up at Hamamura. “That was amazing. You really live up to your reputation.”
“I’m surprised you’ve heard of me,” Hamamura said, laughing. “I’ve yet to do anything of note.”
“I hear things,” Shizuka said. The corner of his lips twitched up into a small smile.
“Well, it was a pleasure to meet you, Hamamura-sensei,” Sakaki said. He used two fingers to push up his glasses. “Unfortunately, we’ll have to excuse ourselves now. Very, uh … very busy these days.”
A disembodied scoff echoed through the street. Sakaki seemed not to hear.
“Shizuka?” he said. “You coming?”
Shizuka swept a stray bit of hair from his eyes and said, “Later.”
“Very well, then,” Sakaki said, and he and Hayashimoto vanished.
Hamamura thought he could smell a storm in the air, though the sky above was clear. He felt a tug on his sleeve and glanced down to see Shizuka nod at a tiny tea house across the street. It looked as though it had grown out of the surrounding red pines.
“Buy me a cup,” Shizuka said.
After considering for a moment, Hamamura shrugged his assent. “You were … Sakaki-sensei’s son?” he ventured as they crossed the street together.
Shizuka pulled his face into a comely moue. “If Sakaki-san were my dad, I’d have to kill myself.”
So it was “Sakaki-san,” rather than “sensei.” Hamamura wondered about the implications. “I know what you mean,” he said, giving Shizuka a conspiratorial smile. “For someone who takes such a liberal approach to onmyoudou, he’s surprisingly, ah…” Hamamura cast around for an inoffensive phrasing, and settled for “Tame.”
“So he’s not your father,” Hamamura said, and let the question hang unspoken.
“I’m staying over for a while.” Shizuka held the tea house door open for Hamamura and Goukyou. “I’ve known him forever.”
Once they were seated, Shizuka ordered River and Whirlpool sweets to accompany his tea. Tiny orange-and-gold fish (molded sugar and rice flour? Hamamura had never been sure) swam in clear jelly over a riverbed of sweet bean paste. Beside it, two azuki bean pebbles lay at the bottom of a miniature vortex of crystal blue agar.
They symbolized the reconciliation of Ame no Shoubumei no Mikoto and Enkanushi. Every worthwhile tea house in Yasukou offered them throughout the summer.
“You can have this one,” Shizuka said, holding the Whirlpool confection out to Hamamura, so close that Hamamura’s eyes crossed. It shimmered like a jewel between his slim fingers.
Hamamura sat back and accepted the chilled sweet. It melted icily over his tongue, the faint aroma of plum liqueur enhancing the cooling sensation.
“So why do you think he did it?”
Hamamura wrinkled his brow. “Are we still talking about Sakaki-sensei?”
Shizuka picked up the River sweet. He wiggled it meaningfully before popping it into his mouth.
“Ah.” Hamamura gazed through the gauze of steam that rose from his tea as he meditated on his answer. “I don’t think that’s for us to say. The ways of the kami–especially one of Ame no Shoubumei no Mikoto’s rank–are often beyond our understanding.”
Hamamura smiled and sipped his tea. He had been the same as a teenager, eager to know everything and certain he could learn. It embarrassed him to think of it now. His only consolation was that his elders had probably regarded him with the same tender condescension he felt now.
“I am content with mystery,” he said.
Shizuka rolled his eyes. “How Zen of you.” He refreshed Hamamura’s tea and said, “So when are you going to challenge Sakaki-san?”
Hamamura nearly dropped his cup. “What makes you think I will?”
Shizuka narrowed his eyes and smirked in reply.
He had not come on his own, then; Sakaki had sent him. Too bad his brash manner made him a terrible spy.
“The shrine priest of Yasukou Taisha suggested a joint position,” Hamamura said cautiously.
Another smirk. “And I’m sure you’d be content with that too.” Shizuka drifted up from his chair and produced a wallet. He dropped a few notes on the table on his way to the door. His voice wafted back through the fragrant air of the tea house: “Just let me know ahead of time. I’d hate to miss it.”
Hamamura watched the door for a long time after Shizuka had left. He felt an odd tug at the back of his mind, as though he were trying to recall something just beyond the reach of his memory.
Goukyou said, “Naoki…”
Hamamura shook himself and gave her a pacifying smile. “What’s that look for? He makes a good point.” Running a fingertip around the rim of his cup, he said, “Sakaki may have ties to the grand shrine, but he can’t expect to get by on lineage alone. Shoubumei deserves better.”
“It’s reckless,” Goukyou said, shaking her head. “Besides, you don’t have the infrastructure to look after an entire prefecture, not yet. We talked about this.”
“Suppose Sakaki’s people decide to work for me instead?”
Goukyou drew her lips into a disapproving pout. Her sea dragons came to an abrupt stop and stared at Hamamura, accusation rippling along their fins.
“All right,” Hamamura said, sitting back and chuckling. “Consider it a test of my abilities, then. I never liked the idea of all this sneaking around anyway. If I can’t beat Sakaki in a fair fight, I don’t deserve Yasukou.”
Sakaki spent the rest of the day and most of the night reworking and strengthening the prefectural defense barrier system. Then he turned his attention to the alert barriers–the sooner he knew about demons invading the prefecture, the more quickly he could deal with them.
Hayashimoto stuck around to help until about two in the morning. Shizuka never did come home.
Sakaki took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He needed to eat something. A drink would not hurt either.
He took the elevator to the ground floor, then passed through the courtyard toward the cafeteria. Halfway there, the moonlight turned a crisp, bluish purple. Sakaki found himself surrounded by a combat barrier.
“That was fast,” he muttered as Youshun manifested at his side.
Hamamura and Goukyou emerged from the shifting shadows. “Sorry to visit so late, sensei,” Hamamura said. “I thought this would be our best chance to talk without interruption.”
“Talking, is it?” Sakaki adopted a defensive stance, his lips thinning to a hard line.
Hamamura was ambitious and impulsive, but Sakaki doubted he would have decided on this course himself, however much he might have wanted to do so. Which meant Shizuka must have…
Sakaki threw three spell slips, which Hamamura dodged easily. Goukyou launched a barrage of watery darts to neutralize the slips, then sent a second volley flying for Sakaki. A bank of black cloud shot up from the ground to swallow them.
Propelled by a swift chant, a circle of spell slips flew like arrows toward Sakaki’s chest. Sakaki ducked, then rolled when the slips reversed direction.
A whisper passed through the combat plane, gentle and distinct as an ocean breeze: “Abyssal Fountain.”
Dark mist whirled Sakaki up into the air, just in time to avoid a series of geysers that burst up where his feet had been. Yet another barrage of spell slips seared through the mist. Sakaki barely managed to counter them before they could destroy the mist and send him plummeting back to the ground.
He leaned forward, and the mist slanted down to carry Sakaki back to earth. He ran out the last few steps, which gave him just enough momentum to dive out of the path of a phantom strand of prayer beads.
Losing here would not cost him his position, at least not right away. Granted, he would need to put in an effort to reestablish himself as the better choice, to counteract the swell of public support for Hamamura, but he needed to do that anyway.
Then again, could any onmyouji last without the tutelary kami’s support? Or in direct opposition to it. Assuming this was Shizuka’s … Shoubumei’s way of trading one onmyouji for another, what point could there be in a serious fight? Surely it was a foregone conclusion.
Hamamura spun in place, his sleeves unleashing a flurry of spell slips, and Goukyou whipped up a squall to give them greater force. Youshun extended her arm, and a claw of lightning reached out to crush the slips into ash. As Youshun brought her arm back down, though, Goukyou twitched a finger. A jagged spur of rock shot out from the ground to stab Youshun in the forearm.
Sakaki grabbed his own arm as the skin split apart in sympathy. Youshun glided over the space between them until they stood back to back.
“We could win this,” she rumbled, leaving the if you wanted to unspoken.
How pathetic must he be, for Youshun to show restraint around him?
“So?” Youshun said.
“Well.” Sakaki tossed his jacket aside and rolled up his shirt sleeves. “If I’m on my way out anyway, we may as well give him a show.”
Youshun snorted. “About time.”
Hamamura set up a barrier to shield Goukyou, and the air took on a briny edge as she gathered her power. The surf rose up and eddied around Sakaki’s shoes.
Nodding once, Youshun held her uninjured arm straight out. Sakaki jumped on, and she launched him into the air, following after in a rushing thunderhead. At the peak of his arc, Sakaki flipped around, pulling a dozen spell slips from his breast pocket. As he fell, he arranged the slips before him like the head of an arrow. Lightning burned just under his skin.
A few scant meters from the ground, Sakaki kicked off from the spell slips and fell back into a waiting cloud. The spell slips continued their meteoric descent, piercing Hamamura’s barrier like target paper. On contact with Goukyou, they acted as a conduit for Youshun’s power, drawing it into the gathered water to form a fulminating ball of lightning that shattered the combat barrier, threw Hamamura across the courtyard, and drove Goukyou from her corporeal form.
Sakaki jumped down from the cloud and landed, panting. He gazed down at Hamamura’s fallen form.
Hamamura struggled to a crouch, and his eyes raced over the courtyard. “Goukyou!” he shouted, trying to walk too soon and staggering back to his knees. “Goukyou!” He turned and grasped at the air between him and Youshun. “You couldn’t have–You didn’t!”
“Of course not,” said an amused voice. Shizuka sauntered out from under the shadow of an arbor. “I wouldn’t stand by and allow someone to kill my precious niece. Would I, sweetie?”
A puddle beside Hamamura bubbled, gently at first. Then it erupted like a wave against a rock. Goukyou emerged from the spray, tossing her moonlight gleaming ringlets back over her shoulders. “You know, Naoki, if you’re worried about me getting hurt, you shouldn’t go picking unnecessary fights,” she said. Then her eyes flew wide, and she swam through the air until her nose almost touched Shizuka’s. “Wait, what did you say?”
“You’re not going to make me repeat myself, are you?” Shizuka said, hooking his thumbs into his pockets.
“No way! Uncle Shou? You’re kidding, right?” Goukyou gazed unblinking into Shizuka’s eyes for a long moment, then said, “What did you get me for my hundredth birthday?”
“Oh, right. How are Aki and Haru? You’ve been taking care of them, I hope.”
“It is you!” Goukyou spun in midair, smiling back at the dumbfounded Hamamura. “You know Aki and Haru. My koi, the ones I keep in that special globe of water that stays fresh even in the ocean. Uncle Shou’s the one who gave them to me. He’s the only one who knew about that. It is him!”
Shizuka leaned to one side and smirked at Youshun from around Goukyou’s shoulder. “What are you laughing about? You didn’t recognize me either.”
“Oh, Uncle Shou,” Goukyou said, “I was so worried. We couldn’t contact you at your shrine.”
“Hey, how come the brat gets to enter your shrine grounds?” Youshun said. “Why do I gotta hang around outside for Manabu to get back?”
“Goukyou’s family,” Shizuka said, resting a hand on Goukyou’s curly head.
“Yeah? Well, I’m apparently as good as a sister-in-law. So again, what the hell?”
“Huh?” Goukyou looked from Youshun to Shizuka and back again. “She’s what, now?”
Shizuka put a finger to his chin. “Hmmm. I’ll think about it, Youshun.”
“This is ridiculous!” Hamamura shouted, rising to his feet. “You aren’t Ame no Shoubumei no Mikoto. You can’t be.”
Shizuka glanced unconcernedly over at him. He murmured, “Naoki,” and the world changed. Or perhaps it vanished.
It was all the same to Sakaki because in that moment, there was only Shoubumei. His gentle, overwhelming presence turned Sakaki’s blood to fresh fallen rain and his thoughts to mist. Though Sakaki had always known it on an intellectual level, this was the first time that he felt himself to be water, given temporary form.
But if he was water, then why did he feel this consuming thirst? He marveled that he could have been so naive as to grant that label to anything short of what he felt now–the steady flow of his life draining away into a bottomless craving.
Longing hummed through his veins, and in all the world, only Shoubumei existed.
Then, just as abruptly, he was Shizuka again, a cocky teenager with a lopsided grin. Sakaki gasped awake and realized that he had taken three steps forward without even knowing it.
He looked around to see that Hamamura had fallen back to his knees. Goukyou crouched protectively over him. Youshun’s face was set in an expression of perfect sardonic distance, which meant that she was the most shaken of them all.
Shizuka strolled over to Hamamura and gave him a hand up. “No hard feelings,” he said, his voice unusually mild, “but Sakaki-san can handle Yasukou Prefecture. Now.” He looked back over his shoulder at Sakaki. “How about you get to the infirmary and stop that bleeding? You want me to stick around, don’t you?”
On inspection, the laceration on Sakaki’s arm was relatively shallow. Youshun must have absorbed the brunt of the attack. Once the bleeding had stopped, the infirmary doctor cleaned the wound, put in a few stitches, then wrapped it in gauze and tape.
“Come see me every day for the next ten days so I can check for infection,” she said, yawning as she shuffled back to bed.
Still seated on the edge of the infirmary bed, Sakaki sighed and hunched over.
“Rough day?” Shizuka asked.
Only the first row of fluorescent lamps–just above the door–were on, so it was impossible to see him until he stepped out from the shadowy far corner. Whether he had been there the whole time, Sakaki could not say. He didn’t much care.
“I hope you had your fun, at least,” he said, sitting up straight. His voice sounded almost as hollow as he felt. He cleared his throat. “I take it Hamamura failed to show sufficient interest in your advances.”
“You think my self-image is that fragile?” Shizuka drifted over, into the narrow space between the beds. He reached a hand out, then pulled it back without quite touching Sakaki’s bandaged arm. A dark cast of disappointment clouded his face. “You weren’t supposed to get hurt,” he murmured.
Sakaki’s breath caught in spite of himself. He laid a hand over the small of Shizuka’s back and pulled him close. The thought of being a consolation prize pricked his pride, but the rest of him ached for Shizuka. By now, he harbored no delusions about his ability to resist.
Shizuka moved easily, too easily. He flowed up to straddle Sakaki’s lap.
“I guess I’ll have to work harder,” Sakaki said. He smoothed a lock of Shizuka’s hair behind his ear, then bent his head to nuzzle at the exposed stretch of throat. Just breathing, his lips ghosting over skin as he said, “To live up to your expectations.”
“This is new,” Shizuka said. His slender fingers trailed up Sakaki’s back and over his nape, into his hair. They massaged lightly at his scalp.
Sakaki dragged his teeth from Shizuka’s earlobe to his collarbone. “The amount of physical contact?” he asked. He felt Shizuka’s chuckle against his lips.
“That too.” Shizuka’s hands came down to Sakaki’s shoulders, bracing him so he could shift and rock his hips back and forth a few times. “Are you getting hard for me?”
“That … seems like a useless question,” Sakaki said, wrapping an arm around Shizuka’s waist and pulling him closer. The difference was slight–there was little space to close–but it was enough that Sakaki had to lift his head. He turned to bury his face in Shizuka’s hair.
“Not really. This” –Shizuka slipped a hand between them to cup the front of Sakaki’s pants– “could be a coincidence. I may have nothing to do with it.”
“There’s that fragile self-image again.” As Sakaki spoke, he unbuttoned and unzipped Shizuka’s jeans, sliding a hand inside to take hold of his cock. Shizuka moaned and canted his hips. “Easy, now,” Sakaki said. Knowing it was probably an act did nothing to slow his pulse. “You’ll chafe like that.”
Shizuka shivered and said, “Back pocket.”
Sakaki reached around to find a small tube of lube. So much for the thin pretense of spontaneity. Shizuka raised himself up on his knees so Sakaki could slide his jeans down his hips–not far since they sat low anyway–followed by his boxers.
Then Sakaki unscrewed the cap and squeezed out a palmful of lube, all one-handed. Shizuka watched with apparent appreciation, but his eyes slid shut the moment Sakaki wrapped a slick hand around him.
Sakaki put his lips to Shizuka’s ear. “Go for it.”
“Yeah?” Shizuka stood on his knees, wrapped his arms around Sakaki’s shoulders, and started to move, slow at first, his every thrust punctuated by a gasp or a half-strangled plea. He made enough noise for the both of them, and Sakaki could hardly stand it. “Oh, your hands are perfect, Sakaki-san. Ah. But wait a second. I want to…”
Shizuka eased back, sliding off of Sakaki’s lap to kneel between his knees. Humming, he went to work on Sakaki’s fly and fumbled, like this was what he really wanted. He did not bother to tease this time, but Sakaki was already mostly hard anyway, became fully so in Shizuka’s hand.
Shizuka tucked his hair behind his ears. That was the only preamble before his lips closed over the head of Sakaki’s cock.
He pulled back just as Sakaki jerked up to meet him. Then he slid down the shaft in a glide of lips and tongue, got it good and slick before coming back up and opening his mouth to take him in right. He swallowed Sakaki down smooth and deep, arching his back to get the angle just the way he needed it.
Sakaki sort of hated that part. Because while his thoughts were mostly a hazy loop of hot, tongue, Shizuka, more, one compartment of his brain–the distant, analytical part that never shut down, not even when he was being sucked stupid–wondered.
Suppose Hamamura had fallen for Shizuka. Suppose Sakaki had surrendered. Suppose he had been unable to win. Would Shizuka and Hamamura be doing this exact thing at this exact moment?
Shizuka shifted his grip, and Sakaki realized that Shizuka was holding him in his left hand now, his right hand thrust down between his own legs.
The added distraction meant that Shizuka could not take him as deeply anymore, but he picked up the pace, as though to make up for it. He never once slipped up with his teeth, even now, even like this. His muffled moans, the rough, desperate jerks of his arm, the steady roll of his shoulder–they make Sakaki’s nerves spark and his balls ache. Close, so close now. He curled a hand over the back of Shizuka’s head.
Shizuka shuddered and choked. Sakaki yanked his hand back. Did I do that? Then he realized that Shizuka had just come, and it threw off his rhythm. Shizuka slid up off his cock, his voice husky and breathless as he said, “Sorry,” before bracing a sticky hand on Sakaki’s waist and going back down on him.
He worked with full concentration now. His tongue flicked at the slit before swirling down to lave the spot just below the head in rough, slick heat.
Sakaki did not bother to warn him before he came, breath hissing between his teeth as his head fell back. He did the first few times, but Shizuka had stayed where he was, swallowing around him with a look of contentment. He did the same now, his fist pumping at the base as though to ensure he got every last drop.
Only after Sakaki had completely softened in his mouth did Shizuka let his cock slip free. He got up from the floor, just a little shaky, and licked his lips. They were amazing lips even under normal circumstances, but they looked best like this–dark and swollen from cocksucking. Sakaki swallowed hard.
Shizuka climbed back onto Sakaki’s lap. He cradled Sakaki’s jaw in his hands, and slipped his tongue between Sakaki’s lips.
Along with a portion of Sakaki’s own come.
“You taste so good, I had to share, Sakaki-san,” Shizuka said. He took in Sakaki’s stunned expression, and his own clouded. He tsked and murmured, “Too much?”
Only now did Sakaki recognize Shizuka’s disappointment as self-directed. The realization stole the breath from his lungs.
Taking a shuddering breath, Sakaki shook his head. To his horror, he said, “That was our first kiss.” It sounded even stupider in his ears than it had in his head, but it slipped past his lips before he could stop it.
Shizuka’s laughter pattered through Sakaki’s head like rain on a lake. He sat up on his knees to give Sakaki a peck on the tip of his nose. “You’re cute,” he said. “I like you.”
Feeling the heat in his face, Sakaki shoved Shizuka off his lap.
Juzu: “Prayer beads” in the story. Used to count time while meditating on mantras. In fiction, they are often portrayed as weapons against evil spirits or amulets against curses.
Kami: Spirits. May be personified deities, spirits that dwell within nature, or forces of nature themselves.
Kariginu: A kind of traditional Japanese garb. It comprises a single width of cloth for the body, which is secured with a waist belt, and a double width for each of the sleeves, which are only partially attached at the back. The sleeves have a length of string run through their edges so that they may be gathered and tied to allow ease of movement.
Kekkai: “Barrier” in the story. Often refers specifically to a barrier that is spiritual or magical in nature. In fiction, they are often portrayed as protective force fields.
Ofuda: “Spell slips” in the story. Amulets bearing the name of a kami and usually made of paper or wood. In fiction, they are often used as projectiles or wards.
Oni: Gigantic, mostly humanoid creatures often depicted with two long horns growing from their heads.
Onmyouji: Specialists in magic and divination who are able to summon shikigami.
Shikigami: Summon spirits who serve onmyouji. Though usually invisible, they can take human or animal forms on command.