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Enough Room for Hope

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A crow’s caw resounds through the forest. It receives another caw in reply, a third, a fourth, and a squeaky sound of a much smaller bird. Warning given, the crow abandons its post and flies through the air. It eyes a few tasty morsels closer to the ground, but it refrains from straying from its task. Its powerful wings take it where it needs to go, the wind a help instead of a hindrance. Home—not its nest, but something else, something the crow doesn’t completely understand but simply accepts—grows larger as it nears. It caws in greeting as it sets its sights on the figure sitting on the engawa and enjoying the last hour of sunlight before dark. The crow lands with a light scraping sound against the wood and approaches the figure without any fear. It has never felt anything of the sort toward the one who created it. It caws, managing to sound cranky and demanding to Shinra’s ears.

“You’re such a demanding one,” Shinra says with a laugh, reaching for the basket of berries and nuts he keeps for this very purpose. He takes a handful and pours it in a little pile on the wooden flooring. “Eat it carefully, won’t you? You don’t want Renzu shooing you off again when she sees the marks on the wood.”

He delights in gently stroking the bird as it eats. Its feathers are so very soft, and Shinra is in the best of moods. He doesn’t need to ask why the crow has come. He gave it life from ink and paper years ago, creating a bond between them that lasts even now that the crow is all but indistinguishable from a real bird. The crow had seen Shinra’s favorite visitor at the edge of the forest. Far away, Ginko is beginning the three-day trek to Shinra’s home once again, and Shinra can’t help jumping up with a burst of energy.

“Grandmother!” he calls, not quite sure where Renzu is but knowing she can’t be far. “Guess what!”

Renzu’s disgruntled sigh is audible and the woman herself appears shortly from inside the house. “I could not possibly guess the reason for your joy. Truly, it is a mystery.”

Shinra grins at her. “We’re having a visitor.”

“Ah yes, I do remember someone of the sort even in my old age,” Renzu replies. Her appearance is too young to properly pull off her words. She is a full head shorter than Shinra these days, her face as youthful as it has been since her transition into a mushi. “How long do we have until that wandering moocher arrives?”

Grandmother,” Shinra says, his smile preventing him from being properly plaintive.

“Apologies, I forgot to add thief.”

Shinra rolls his eyes at the petulant expression on Renzu’s face. It makes her look adorable instead of properly crabby. “He hasn’t stolen anything in five years. You must let it go eventually. Now, let’s see how much cleaning and cooking we can accomplish before he arrives.” Shinra gives the house an evaluating look. He isn’t a messy person by nature, but there’s still much he can do to prepare his home for Ginko’s arrival. Ginko visits so rarely that Shinra always wants things to be perfect, even though they always are just because Ginko’s company makes it so. This time, his fervor is more intense. This time, it really does have to be perfect. “We haven’t run out of pear jam?”

“Of course not. How can we run out when you make it only for him?”

“I eat it, too,” Shinra valiantly defends.

“When we run out of every other kind.” Renzu shakes her head at him, but when her head stills, she gives him a contemplative look. “You are still set on this plan of yours?”

“I am,” Shinra says. His heartbeat quickens at the very thought of broaching the subject with Ginko, but Shinra has set his course. He’s willful, determined, omegan. Shinra is tired of ignoring that part of his nature.

Nervousness and anticipation fuel his efforts over the next few days. He knows Ginko would enjoy visiting whether the house is gleaming or messy—as he’s often said, having a roof to sleep under and warm food is enough—but this time Shinra has something to prove. His cheeks gain some color when he prepares Ginko’s bedding and lies down to make sure there are no lumps in the sheets. When he inhales, all he can smell is clean sheets that he washed the other day. Soon, Ginko will lie here for at least a night. If all goes well, the sheets will bear both their scents. If not… Shinra will comfort himself with Ginko’s alpha scent until it fades away, as he always does. Renzu tactfully never brings it up. As a beta, she doesn’t truly understand the dynamics of alphas and omegas, but she understands love.

Shinra leaves to greet Ginko on the third day with a basket of home-cooked food he has no doubt Ginko will appreciate. He’s always found it satisfying to cook for Ginko, to make something for the alpha—his alpha, Shinra thinks, but it’s only true in his head. Maybe Shinra has spent too much time with his sentry crows, but he picks Ginko’s light hair out through all the trees and bushes in his way.

With a grin, he places two mats on the ground and arranges the food to his liking. Ginko is mostly soundless as he makes his way through the forest, but Shinra is all but a part of this forest. When Ginko is within hearing distance, Shinra calls, “Can I interest you in some food, wanderer?”

There’s a huff of laughter behind the trees and the sounds of a man speeding his pace, his footsteps loud against the forest floor. When Ginko appears, there’s a leaf in his hair and a splatter of mud on his pants, and Shinra has never seen anything better. Ginko drops to sit down on the other mat with a sigh of relief.

There’s humor in his visible eye as he says, “I can’t possibly pay, oh marvelous forest spirit,” and oh how Shinra loves it when he can lift Ginko’s mood and let him be a man instead of a mushishi.

“Your presence is always payment enough,” Shinra tells him with a smile. “But I wouldn’t say no to a story or two.”

“You ask for too little,” Ginko says, reaching out on impulse. His hand stills for a moment as the man remembers yet again that touch is not as simple now that Shinra has grown. Ginko is an alpha to Shinra’s omega, and he isn’t family nor mate, and despite the way Ginko is always happy to ignore social rules, he has been appropriate with Shinra in this.

Shinra abhors it. He’d rather Ginko be inappropriate, that he would ruffle his hair as he had on his second visit when Shinra was thirteen. On his third visit, Shinra had been fourteen and an omega growing into himself, and Ginko had refrained. On his fourth, Shinra had been fifteen and trying to hide his feelings. On his fifth, Shinra had asked Ginko about his past lovers with all the innocence he could muster and had been told that Ginko wasn’t the type of man to settle down. On his sixth, Ginko finally explained why, his words quiet as he talked about his past. On his seventh, Ginko had stayed a month as he recovered from an illness and Shinra had accepted that his feelings had dug themselves too deeply into his heart to ever be safely removed. On his eighth, Ginko sits across from Shinra in a forest and Shinra thinks that’s because I haven’t gotten to my question, but the words don’t slip from his mouth. He still has time.

In the meantime, he can feed Ginko and share his newest experimental fruit wine, which Ginko spits out after a second of having it in his mouth.

“It grows on you,” Shinra says with a laugh at Ginko’s dark look.

It’s late afternoon when they arrive at the house. Shinra gets another meal into Ginko, always concerned about his alpha’s eating habits when he’s on the road, and gets more than one story out of him as afternoon turns to evening. Renzu only stays for a short while, giving Shinra a look before she leaves. Shinra nods, feeling both nervous and at peace with his decision.

Like each of Ginko’s visits, they finish their day on the porch with fruit wine in their cups and an easy conversation between them. It’s always easy with Ginko, even when it’s hard. Shinra can’t imagine how dull his life would be had Ginko not arrived that day five years ago and had he not kept arriving in the following years.

“I’m glad it wasn’t injury that brought you here this time,” Shinra says after Ginko recounts his latest case. He doesn’t add, because Ginko already knows: I’m glad it wasn’t guilt, either. By Ginko’s third visit, Shinra began to understand just how much suffering Ginko encounters. Most mushi are benign, but some aren’t, and it’s up to mushishi like Ginko to help the humans they harm. Often, there’s no way to succeed. There is only moving on, finding somewhere to rest where an innocent’s death doesn’t dwell on his mind, and Shinra always wants his home to be that place for Ginko.

“No, it wasn’t that,” Ginko says, relaxed. “I was…” Too relaxed, enough that he slips up. Ginko has never been able to say he wants a friend or a meal cooked with him in mind or a place to rest easy, but Shinra knows even Ginko is only (mostly) human.

“Nearby?” Shinra asks, raising an eyebrow. One does not get close to Shinra’s home by accident. Even past his forest, the villages are quiet and peaceful. Shinra would know, as his crows stand guard over them to make sure any mushi don’t get ideas.

“Something like that.” Ginko takes a sip, the gesture one of avoidance.

Shinra lets him have it. His next words, Ginko won’t be able to avoid. “I’m glad you came. I’ve missed you, of course, but I’ve also started to get lonely these past few years. I never did as a child, but now…” He shrugs. “Grandmother is good company, but she is family and mushi and only one person.”

“I’m sorry,” Ginko tells him. “I know it must be hard, living all the way out here because of your talent. I noticed you have better control of it now.”

“My creations aren’t monstrous like they used to be,” Shinra agrees. “Sometimes, I can barely tell the difference between what I’ve created and what has formed naturally. I don’t worry as much about my power anymore. I even lived for a month in a proper village.”

Ginko blinks at that, setting his cup down. “When was that?”

“You’ve been gone for six whole months,” Shinra huffs. “Not everything stays the same.”

“No, it really doesn’t,” Ginko replies. His gaze is steady, softening. “Did you like it there?”

“I pretended illiteracy and artistic incompetence and didn’t pick up a single writing instrument the entire time I was there.”

Ginko’s laugh is short and quiet, but it’s still music to Shinra’s ears. “You must have been bored out of your mind.”

“I was kept busy farming and getting to know the people who live there. They’re nice, friendly, even if they think I’m a little odd for living alone all the way out here. They assumed I came down because I was lonely.”

“Didn’t you?”

“I am lonely, but not in a way they could help,” Shinra says, remembering his time there. “Though a few alphas did their best to try. I want to have a child, Ginko.” He smiles a little at the way Ginko tries his best to not give a reaction to that. Maybe five years ago Shinra would’ve believed Ginko didn’t care, but Shinra knows him now. Ginko cares for him, even if it’s not in the way Shinra wishes he would. But they wouldn’t have had this conversation five years ago, either. “I was even courted by one. If you can call a month’s length a courtship.”

“Were you.” Ginko’s voice is flat. He clears his throat and makes a visible attempt to shake himself into a more agreeable alpha. “I assume it didn’t work out?” He takes a deep, careful breath, but Shinra knows he won’t be able to sense another alpha’s presence, past or present. He hadn’t shared the location of his home with anyone in the village. Shinra doesn’t need visitors; he only needs a particular wandering alpha.

“I received a bouquet of fresh flowers daily,” Shinra tells him, unable to keep himself from teasing. “Ken’s confession of love was set to music and his mother adores me. He shares my yearning to have a child.”

“He sounds like the perfect alpha,” Ginko mutters, looking out into the distance instead of at Shinra. “Why didn’t you bond with him?”

Shinra takes a quiet, short breath. He’s always hoped that maybe Ginko’s possessiveness could bear even the smallest hint of romantic interest instead of familial. It seems that he’ll find out now. “He would have been put out to know he was my second choice.”

“Your second choice?” Ginko asks, turning his head to meet Shinra’s eyes. Ginko isn’t a stupid man by any means; there’s already a dawning realization in his visible eye. “You want me?” His tone is tinged with surprised incredulity. “Me?”

“Of course I do. There’s no one else I would have.” Shinra’s words are simple, but the emotion behind them is anything but.

“The village boy—”

“—is a handsome fool,” Shinra corrects. He won’t have Ginko believe Ken is even a contender if Ginko has any interest in Shinra’s offer.

Ginko shakes his head. “I’ve been told I’m one as well. Shinra… there are many better options than me.”

“You can be a fool on occasion,” Shinra agrees. Particularly now. “But you’re also kind. You never make me feel embarrassed over not knowing things about the outside world that others take for granted. You’re neither afraid nor envious of my power. You comfort me when I remember my parents. You let me comfort you in turn.” He pauses, smiles. “You’re handsome.”

“Shinra!” Ginko all but squawks.

Shinra could never apologize for that. “You are. I think you would make beautiful children. I’m not asking for your heart or your constant presence, even though I’m greedy enough to want both. I could live without love—” especially since he is so deeply in love with one who has never given him sign that he cares for him as an alpha instead of as a dear friend “—but I don’t want to live without children.”

“Children now, is it,” Ginko says, sounding like he’s still in shock.

“Well, I am very lonely.” The image of a whole bunch of children flits through his mind and Shinra wants it so badly that his heart aches. The kids laughing and playing, Renzu yelling and trying to settle them, Ginko on the porch with Shinra in his arms. I’m quitting, Renzu would yell, but there’s no quitting family, nor love.

Ginko takes a moment to steady himself, to put his walls back up. Shinra can only hope Ginko will still let Shinra build a ladder. “I can’t give you that.”

“Which part?”

“Any of it,” Ginko exclaims, gesturing with his hands. “I’ve told you why I wander, why I can’t stay.”

“What of the other two?” Shinra asks, his heart thudding over the noises of the forest around them. The look Ginko gives him is pained, but Shinra won’t budge. He reaches out to take one of Ginko’s hands in both of his, and for the first time in so long, Ginko allows it. Shinra searches for something in Ginko’s gaze, but he doesn’t know if he finds it. “Could you give me a child?”

So much emotional honesty seems to physically pain Ginko, but he manages to get out. “I can’t say. The mushi that changed me did so on such a fundamental level that I don’t know I can even have children.”

“Your scent has always been of an alpha in his prime and if I can bring ink to life with my hand, I believe I might be able to manage a miracle or two with my body,” Shinra counters. “Your next excuse?”

“They’re not excuses,” Ginko huffs, but a smile slips through. “I’m not an errant schoolboy.” After a moment, he places his other hand atop Shinra’s, his thumb rubbing unconscious, comforting circles into Shinra’s hand. “As for your third request, I could hardly not love you. I sometimes have to see the worst of people and mushi and then I return to you and see remember how much good there is to life.”

“You are rather good at resisting the urge to stay with me,” Shinra says, but his very being seems like it could fly into the air out of happiness.

“I always end up coming back here. Each time it’s harder to leave, but here I am anyway. I don’t know if I could leave you if I left a part of myself with you.”

“What if you didn’t have to?” Shinra asks. He continues before Ginko can argue, having considered the matter in depth over the years. “Even if mushi come to you, there is no settlement here for them to cause their mischief. They only have the forest, which can use a bit more life. We can take care of ourselves and the closest village is a three day’s walk from here. My creations can help us protect ourselves and keep watch over the village as they already do just in case.” Shinra has much more than crows up his left sleeve.

“You really have been busy,” Ginko says, something light in his voice that Shinra wants to call hope. “It could fail.”

“It could succeed.” And that is it: all that he has. He can only wait for Ginko’s answer, can only hope that Ginko will let himself stay. Shinra doesn’t know what he’ll do if Ginko decides to leave even with the love that flows between them, brighter than the river of light. “Please stay, Ginko.” It’s the first time he’s ever asked it of Ginko. It’s the first time he’s ever thought Ginko might want to. Ginko has been weaving in and out of Shinra’s life for years, but there’s nothing to say they can’t tie those strings together. Shinra will bear the chance of failure if it means Ginko will let the two of them try.

Ginko’s hands begin to move from Shinra’s, but Shinra doesn’t fear for longer than a moment. Instead of letting go, Ginko tugs Shinra closer, and Shinra goes. Maybe closer than Ginko intended. Shinra has waited for this moment for so long. He slips into Ginko’s lap like he belongs there, his hands resting on Ginko’s strong shoulders.

Ginko’s arms wrap around his back. “It’s a good thing you live all the way out here. You could tempt a priest with your smile.”

“I just want you,” Shinra tells him, and he doesn’t hold back his smile. So many years ago, the mushi at Renzu’s banquet told her that her grandson could change the world. But Shinra doesn’t want the world, whether to change it or have it. The village had been too crowded, too full of people for one who grew up in solitude like Shinra. He just wants one man.

“I’ll stay,” Ginko promises, guiding Shinra’s chin in for a kiss.

It’s his first one, and Shinra blushes to the tips of his ears when Ginko’s hands move lower and his mouth covers Shinra’s with his own. Shinra loses his hesitance but not his blush as he mirrors Ginko’s movements, losing himself in a kiss so much lovelier than he could’ve ever imagined. He never wants for it to end, but eventually Shinra pulls back to meet his alpha’s gaze. From his pocket, Shinra pulls out a green bowl just like the one Ginko stole so long ago and holds it between them.

“I wondered what that was,” Ginko says as the bowl begins to fill with light wine. “Are you sure?”

Five years ago, Shinra had moved to take a sip and Ginko had stopped him, telling him that an omega’s first sip of light wine often throws them into heat. Then, Shinra had been too young to want anything to do with heat. Now, he nods. “I’ve wanted this for too long to wait.” It’s possible he’d get pregnant without being in heat, but heat will raise his chances to an almost certainty.

Ginko’s gaze darkens with desire. He takes the cup from his hands and lifts it to Shinra’s mouth, which opens as easily for the cup as Shinra always does, always will, for Ginko himself. The light wine spills into his mouth. It’s unlike anything Shinra’s ever tasted or will ever taste, indescribably exquisite. After Shinra swallows a few times, Ginko lowers the cup to the floor.

“Don’t you want some?” Shinra asks. He doesn’t feel any different, but it’s only been a few moments.

“You make me lose enough of my wits already,” Ginko murmurs, brushing Shinra’s lips with his thumb to rub away a few spilled drops of wine. “Come on. Renzu will kill me if we conceive her great-grandchild out in the open like barbarians.”

By the time they make it to the sheets Shinra had rolled out for Ginko only earlier that day, Shinra feels warmth under his skin and the hardness of his length under his loose clothes. He’s had two heats already, ones Ginko had thoroughly avoided being here for, and those were such lonely, trying times. Days of wanting, of whimpering his lust to no one, needing someone’s touch and being forced to make do with his own. The light wine’s effects quicken and strengthen his heat, but Shinra is glad for it. He doesn’t want to be anywhere but here, being pulled in for another of Ginko’s kisses.

Shinra moans into the kiss, pulling back and ducking his head into the crook of Ginko’s neck as he shivers, warmth building inside him with the strength of a hurricane. “Alpha,” he says. Ginko’s alpha scent is all around him, heady and as wonderful as any light wine. “I need you.”

Ginko’s hands are already loosening Shinra’s clothes, but at that he stops, bringing Shinra’s face up into a passionate kiss. “Your first mating,” he murmurs against Shinra’s lips.

“My first love, first kiss, first—only—alpha,” Shinra adds, his hands catching the hem of Ginko’s shirt.

Ginko leans his forehead against Shinra’s. “If I were a better man I would stop.”

“If you were a better man, I’d tempt you anyway.” Shinra succeeds in raising Ginko’s shirt over his head, throwing it across the room. He doesn’t intend for Ginko to need it for as long as Shinra’s heat lasts. He wants Ginko; he wants Ginko’s child. If it takes multiple highly pleasurable couplings to make sure they succeed, he won’t mind at all. Shinra’s need feels insatiable, but by the way Ginko looks at him, he’ll never be alone in this.

Ginko pulls away to shed the rest of his clothes. Shinra had felt Ginko’s hardness against him, but now he sees an alpha’s sex for the first time. It’s larger than his own length, enough so that Shinra flushes at the thought of taking it inside himself. Ginko doesn’t seem to worry if he will be able to fit as he removes Shinra’s clothes, murmuring words of endearment against Shinra’s skin. Perfect, he hears, and Shinra has never felt more so than he does now under Ginko’s body. He can feel the wetness between his thighs, his body readying itself for Ginko. Shinra makes soft, needy noises as Ginko’s fingers enter him, testing his passage. Ginko’s fingers aren’t enough, but Shinra arches into their motion anyway as he pleads, “Please, you’ve made me wait long enough.”

“Shinra,” Ginko says, stroking Shinra’s length before his hands leave Shinra’s skin for a moment to guide his own length into place. His body is solid and warm over Shinra’s as the alpha finally eases into Shinra’s body. Shinra only helps him, pushing into the touch to meet his mate halfway. Ginko thrusts inside him, his rhythm slow as he kisses any part of Shinra within reach. In the midst of heat, it doesn’t take long for Shinra to keen and come apart, his seed spilling as his hole contracts around Ginko’s length. When Ginko’s thrusts begin to catch against his entrance, Shinra realizes his alpha’s knot has begun to fill. He presses against Ginko, a shiver going through his whole body as Ginko finally knots inside him. He can feel every inch of him, his body aching pleasurably as he takes his alpha’s knot for the first time. He relishes the sound Ginko makes as he comes. Ginko spills deep into Shinra while his knot prevents any seed from escaping, their bodies locked together for a time.

Ginko maneuvers them their position to one that will not crush his omega and Shinra moves with him, wrapping around Ginko even more.

“My alpha,” Shinra murmurs, feeling so wonderfully satisfied. It’s the sex, it’s the heat, but it’s also the possibility of having to begun to create a life inside him. Shinra has made all sorts of things come to life but this is something different, something he’s creating along with Ginko. A tiny, lovely little child, hopefully the first of many.

Ginko kisses the side of his head, his hand traveling across Shinra’s side. “My captivating, determined omega. Sleep. I’ll be here in the morning.” Quieter, a soft delight in his voice, he adds, “Every morning, from now on.”