The one-tailed kitsune child sat disconsolately by the river at Ryuzo’s favourite napping spot, poking at the water with a stick. Ryuzo looked around, scratching under his straw hat with a grimace, but didn’t see any other kitsune nearby. “Hoi,” he said, leaning against a tree and folding his arms over his yukata. “Are you lost, boy?”
The child jerked to his feet. Two large fluffy ears pricked up from his dark hair, combed to a bun behind his head, while a thick brush of a tail curled over his knees, the colour of the summer sun. He wore a bright yellow kimono to match, printed with a crest that Ryuzo didn’t recognise. The kid’s big eyes went from Ryuzo’s worn hat, down his haphazard armour, to the large brown tail. He blinked. “Tanuki?”
“Bake-danuki,” Ryuzo corrected, yawning to bare his sharp teeth. “You don’t even know that? How old are you? Where are your parents?”
The golden ears drooped, and the kid went back to poking at the water. “I don’t know. I woke up alone over there.” He pointed in the direction of a hidden nook that contained an old shrine to Inari Ōkami. “I…” He paused as his stomach rumbled loudly enough for Ryuzo to hear.
“What’s your name?” Ryuzo asked, trying to sound gentler. “I’m Ryuzo.”
“Sakai,” Sakai said. He looked up as Ryuzo walked over and went down on his haunches beside Sakai.
“Tell you what,” Ryuzo said, because it was a nice, warm day, and he was feeling slightly inclined to be generous. “I’ll feed you, and then we’ll look for your parents. Sound good?”
“Why would you want to help me?” Sakai asked, looking curiously at Ryuzo’s large brown tail. “Aren’t you one of the yōkai?”
“You look like yōkai yourself. Should you be the one to assume?” Ryuzo shot back, poking Sakai’s fluffy golden tail. Sakai blushed, tucking his tail around himself.
“You’re right. I’m sorry. You offered to help me even though you don’t know me, and I was ungracious to you in return.”
Sakai looked so upset with himself that Ryuzo laughed and felt moved to pat the boy on the head. What a cute and serious kid. “Not at all. Suspicion will keep you alive.” He looked around. “I’ll find something we can use to catch a fish—” Ryuzo sputtered as a large orange-bellied iwana leapt out of the river, smacking him in the face.
That helped. Ryuzo gutted and cleaned the fish as he tried to occupy the kid by asking Sakai to gather sticks for firewood. Sakai nodded solemnly and trotted over to the nearby trees, peering through the grass. As Ryuzo filleted the fish and looked over to check on the boy, he yelped as a large branch fell out of a tree beside Sakai, narrowly missing him. Ryuzo dropped his knife and scrambled over, scooping up Sakai and moving him clear of the tree. Huh. He’d never thought those branches were that rotted through.
Sakai made a soft, surprised noise in Ryuzo’s arms but didn’t struggle. He showed Ryuzo the handful of tiny branches in his hands. “Would this do?” he asked, tail curling over Ryuzo’s arm.
It would take hundreds of tiny branches even to start a fire. Ryuzo swallowed his sigh. “Never mind. Just. Sit over there and wait quietly.” He picked up the large branch, breaking it up and building a fire, then finding a large flat stone around the right size and washing it in the river. Ryuzo passed over most of the sashimi fillets to Sakai, who tried to eat slowly despite his evident hunger. “Don’t be shy,” Ryuzo told him.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Sakai asked.
“I’m not the one whose stomach is gnawing its way out of his body.” Ryuzo popped a piece into his mouth even as Sakai gasped and looked down at his belly in alarm, petting it. “That was a figure of speech,” Ryuzo said, stifling a laugh. “Are all kitsune like you? Aren’t you meant to be tricksters?”
“I don’t know? I don’t remember any other kitsune,” Sakai said, and looked so distressed that Ryuzo leaned over and pushed another piece of sashimi into his mouth.
“Maybe you knocked your head on something,” Ryuzo said, though Sakai didn’t look injured. He grilled the rest of the fish, sharing that too, then wiped his hands down on his hakama and offered Sakai some water from his gourd.
Sakai drank, smiling shyly. “You’re very kind. Thank you.”
“Not particularly. I just remember what it’s like to be hungry.” Ryuzo took the gourd back and drank, then got to his feet. “Come. If your parents aren’t nearby, we’ll start with Wolf. He might know something.” If anything, Ryuzo couldn’t have tiny children toddling around, nearly dying to concussion from wayward branches. That sort of thing only tended to be depressing.
“What have you done now?” Wolf asked in his soft, gruff voice. Compact and rangy, shorter than Ryuzo, Wolf looked deceptively like a beggar on a first impression. Silver-flecked wolf ears emerged from greying hair tied haphazardly at the back of his skull, and his ragged red haori hid his grey bottle brush of a tail. Wolf bore a black katana at his hip and piecemeal armour over his chest and remaining good arm, the other cut off over the joint and replaced by an enchanted prosthetic.
“Found this kid walking around by a river with no memories,” Ryuzo said, trying not to sound defensive under Wolf’s cold stare. “Fed him and told him I’d help him look for his parents. You get around quite a lot. Would you know anything? Like some kitsune missing a child?”
Wolf stared at Ryuzo for a long moment with his unsettling golden eyes. “That’s a tenko, not a kitsune. He doesn’t need your help. Or mine. They’re what kitsune hope to become.”
“A tiny child wandering around, unable to feed himself?” Ryuzo said, sceptical. “What, just because his tail isn’t the right colour? Maybe not all kitsune are red. I’ve never met any of them before.”
“I have,” Wolf said, and stiffened as Sakai yawned and woke up, rubbing his eyes. He looked curiously at the dilapidated temple and the ragged bamboo, then at Wolf, whose hand drifted casually down to the hilt of his katana.
“You must be Wolf,” Sakai said, oblivious to Wolf’s tension. “Ryuzo said you might be able to find my parents.”
Wolf stared at Sakai, meeting the boy’s honest gaze, and after a long moment, was the one who dropped his gaze. “No,” he said.
“You could tell us where you last met some kitsune,” Ryuzo said, unsettled by Wolf’s mood. Did Wolf just not like fox spirits? Some ancient grudge, perhaps? Wolf was famous for holding grudges.
“It is not a place that yōkai can easily go,” Wolf said.
“Aren’t you yōkai as well?” Ryuzo pointed out, growing annoyed. “Look, if you don’t want to help, fine, but just say so.”
“I travelled under an exception, one that has now been revoked.” Wolf glanced back at Sakai. “I last saw your kind at Castle Shimura, in the Divine Realm.”
“What were you doing there?” Ryuzo said, surprised.
“Business,” Wolf said.
“On behalf of Owl?” Ryuzo asked, naming Wolf’s adoptive father, one of the more frightening yōkai Ryuzo had ever met. “Or Phantom Butterfly?”
“You do not need to know,” Wolf told him. “It should not be hard for this child to return on his own.”
Sakai’s ears wilted over his head. “On my own, but without Ryuzo? Why?”
“We are not the same,” Wolf said, He inclined his head politely and turned on his heel, stalking back into the temple. Ryuzo closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Well. That had been helpful.
Sakai tugged at Ryuzo’s sleeve. “What now?” he asked.
“Do you know how to get to Castle Shimura?” Ryuzo asked. When Sakai slowly shook his head and chewed his lip, Ryuzo exhaled. “Maa. I was hoping to be able to avoid this.”
Sakai’s lower lip trembled. “You won’t help me anymore?”
“I didn’t say that. I meant, we’re going to have to talk to someone dangerous. Who I don’t like.” If Wolf didn’t want to talk, maybe Owl would.
Sakai’s ears wilted further, flattening over his skull. “Dangerous?”
“It’ll be fine. With a proper bribe.” Ryuzo absently shifted Sakai’s weight against him. “Hm. Hopefully, that useless old mujina still has some Dragonspring sake.”
“Ryuzo, my friend,” Kenji said, bobbing his head. He looked curiously at Sakai, who clung to Ryuzo’s back, arms locked around his neck. “Ah… and your… son…?”
“Does he look like my son to you?” Ryuzo said with a snort. “This is Sakai, a kitsune. We’re looking for his parents, and I’m going to have to talk to Owl. Do you have any Dragonspring sake left?”
“Wah! Dragonspring sake? You know, it’s costly, very rare,” Kenji said, spreading his arms. “Can you, ah. Pay?”
“How much money are we looking at?” Ryuzo asked, suspicious.
“Ten taels of silver?” Kenji flinched as Ryuzo growled, holding up his hands. “I’m not trying to cheat you, I swear! Just that Dragonspring sake, haha, has been very popular lately? I only have one bottle left?”
“Is that a lot of money?” Sakai asked as Ryuzo exhaled.
“Ah, well, money is a hallucination of the masses,” Kenji said, bobbing and grinning toothily. “In some ways, it is not very much money at all—” He yelped and backed off several steps as Ryuzo advanced on him, only to freeze as a silk brocade bag fell out of Sakai’s sleeve, clinking on the ground. Ryuzo bent, picking it up—and frowned. He undid the strings and peered inside. There were exactly ten taels of silver.
“Did you just…?” Ryuzo said, peering over his shoulder at Sakai in surprise.
Sakai looked at the bag with genuine astonishment. “Oh! Where did that come from?”
“Tenko, hm?” Ryuzo said slowly. The fish, the branch, Wolf’s open suspicion, and now this. Sakai met his stare with innocent confusion. “Are you a divine incarnation of good luck or something?”
Sakai’s expression creased into a frown. “Could something like that go hungry? Or lose their parents?”
“Maybe it doesn’t work all the time,” Ryuzo conceded. He tossed the brocade bag to Kenji. “Here, you greedy majina. You’d better not water it down, either, or I’ll come back and burn your brewery down.”
“Ryuzo!” Sakai gasped.
Kenji let out a skittish burp of laughter. “Haha, Ryuzo, you and your jokes! I’ll. Go get the sake.” He scurried off.
“You didn’t need to threaten him,” Sakai said.
“Didn’t you hear him? It was a joke.” Ryuzo smirked.
“If it was, it wasn’t a good one,” Sakai said, still pouting.
“Hai, hai. I’m just a lowly yōkai. Violent, greedy, and dirty, hm?” Ryuzo said, a little annoyed at being lectured by a child he was trying to help for free. “Nothing like you celestials.”
Sakai tensed up. “I’ve offended you.”
“What do you expect? Do you like getting scolded?” Ryuzo paused as Sakai started to sniffle. “Are you seriously crying? I… Stop it. Aren’t you a divine spirit? Hoi… shh. Shh. I’m sorry. Don’t cry. I was joking, all right? I’m not offended.”
“Really?” Sakai mumbled.
“Would I still be trying to help you if I were? Stop it,” Ryuzo told him. Sakai stifled a sob against Ryuzo’s collar but went quiet, hiding his face as Kenji returned with the sake, wrapped carefully. Ryuzo fixed him with a pointed stare as he opened the bottle and sniffed it. It didn’t smell watered down. “Thank you,” Ryuzo said, closing it back up.
“No problem, no problem. Come back anytime, eh? Your cute little friend too,” Kenji said, with a weak smile at Sakai. “I’ve never seen kitsune before. I hope you find your parents.”
“A tenko,” Owl rumbled. “I haven’t seen one of your kind for a while.”
“Since your last visit to Castle Shimura?” Ryuzo guessed.
Owl ignored him, sniffing the air. “Dragonspring sake?”
“I’d like to buy some information,” Ryuzo said, holding out the wrapped sake. As Owl beckoned, Ryuzo approached, handing over the sake and kneeling as Owl gestured for him to sit. Sakai began to sit as well, but Ryuzo blocked him from doing so with an outstretched arm, gently pushing him behind Ryuzo.
Owl smiled coldly. “Why would a tenko need a mere bake-danuki as a protector?”
“Why does anyone need protection from anything?” Ryuzo said before Sakai could speak. “The other tenko. How might I get Sakai here to them?”
“Why bother?” Owl said, opening the bottle and sniffing it. He made an appreciative sigh. “You know what celestials think about the rest of us.”
“He’s just a child,” Ryuzo said.
“If you think that, you’re more ignorant than I thought, little tanuki.”
Ryuzo glanced at Sakai, who gave him an innocent, bewildered stare in response. Deciding not to argue with Owl, Ryuzo said, “Isn’t it up to me what I want to waste my time on?”
“True,” Owl conceded. “Very well. There’s no easy way for you to get to Castle Shimura—the way there is closed, especially of late.”
“Disputes that are none of our concern. Perhaps that’s why your little tenko ended up in our realm.” Owl drank directly from the bottle, not bothering with a cup. “I can’t advise you on a way to get to the Divine Realm, but I do know where you might be able to find another fox. One of the yako—a nogitsune—but he might be able to help you sniff out the divine version of his relatives. You’ll find him in Kashine Forest.”
Ryuzo made a face. “The forest that’s supposed to be haunted by the spirits of vengeful samurai?”
“The same.” Owl smiled coldly. He made a dismissive gesture.
As Ryuzo made his way down the tree, Sakai said, “I don’t think I liked him.”
“Nobody likes Owl,” Ryuzo said, watching his footing.
“What he said about celestials…” Sakai trailed off, his arms tightening over Ryuzo’s shoulders. “It can’t be true. I like you a lot.”
Ryuzo chuckled. Troublesome as this was, at least the kid could be cute. “Hai, hai. Good to hear.”
“Don’t be afraid,” Ryuzo told Sakai, in case the kid panicked.
“I’m not. You’re here, after all,” Sakai said, with the complete trust of a child. Ryuzo laughed, his grip loosening over the hilt of his katana.
“Let’s just hope that I don’t get us both lost in here,” he said even as lanterns lit up among the trees, sketching a path through the mist. “Was that you?”
“I don’t know?”
Ryuzo cautiously approached the closest lantern. It looked like a regular paper lantern, which made things worse: paper shouldn’t look so crisp and new in the mist. Against the fog, the trail looked like a line of red eyeballs. Keeping an eye out, Ryuzo advanced from lantern to lantern, trying not to get turned around. He grew grateful for the warmth of the small body against his back. Left to himself, Ryuzo definitely would’ve been a brittle bundle of nerves by now.
Hell. Left to himself, Ryuzo wouldn’t even be here. “What am I doing,” he muttered as he walked.
“Ryuzo?” Sakai said.
“I… thank you. For going to so much trouble,” Sakai mumbled.
Ryuzo chuckled, as much as the effort to do so felt strained. “Ah, well, once I return you to your tenko family, maybe they’d give me a nice reward, hm?”
“O-oh,” Sakai said.
“All right over there? Try not to look at the trees,” Ryuzo said in case the forest was starting to get to the boy.
“No, it’s. It’s nothing.”
“Tell me,” Ryuzo said, in case Sakai had tenko senses or something.
“I was just… I thought. I—” Sakai stiffened, looking sharply over at the trees. “Someone’s over there.”
Ryuzo helped Sakai down and pushed the boy behind him, putting a hand on his katana. “Don’t run off,” he warned, searching the shadows. His feet shifted into a combat-ready stance as something moved, a piece of darkness detaching from the others and gliding out into the light.
The nogitsune wore black armour, a snarling mask and headband, and a ragged cloak, a black katana and tanto at his obi. Black fox ears poked out from his hair, and seven black fox tails drifted behind him in the shadows before blurring into a single brush. He drew closer, studying them both, and removed his mask to reveal a tired, lightly bearded face drawn into a smile of relief. He went down on a knee. “Lord Sakai. I am glad to see that you’re safe.”
“Lord Sakai?” Ryuzo repeated.
The nogitsune didn’t bother looking at him. “Kneel. A mere yōkai should not remain on his feet when addressing one of the tenko.”
“Ryuzo is my friend,” Sakai said sharply, glowering at the nogitsune. “Do I know you?”
The nogitsune looked at Sakai in surprise, then at Ryuzo in suspicion. “What did this bake-danuki do to you?”
Ryuzo rolled his eyes. “Celestials. Well, Lord Sakai, it looks like we’ve found someone who knows you, so. I’ll leave you to it.” He started to stalk off, only for Sakai to grab his sleeve.
“Ryuzo, wait,” Sakai said with an anxious stare. Ryuzo shook him off, taking another step, only to come up short as the nogitsune barred his way.
“Lord Sakai instructed you to wait,” the nogitsune said.
“Are you looking for a fight?” Ryuzo bit out.
“No, but if you are, you will lose,” the nogitsune retorted.
“Enough.” Sakai darted between them. “Who are you?” he asked the nogitsune.
“You named me Kurobo,” Kurobo said, looking between Ryuzo and Sakai warily. “I am your appointed shinobi. Jin—your samurai—and I have been searching for you through the realms for years.”
“Years?” Sakai said, surprised. “What happened to me?”
“You tumbled off Minamoto falls,” Kurobo said, his jaw clenching. “During a war. We jumped after you, but ended up in different realms. I only found Jin again last year. We decided to split our efforts downriver. He’d be glad to see you again.”
“This is all very fascinating,” Ryuzo said, wary about getting even peripherally involved in a celestial revolt, “but can I go now?”
“We owe Ryuzo a reward,” Sakai said, frowning at Kurobo, “and you owe him an apology. He found me by a river and has been trying to help me since. Even though he didn’t know me.”
“I see.” Kurobo went down on his knees, bowing deeply and touching his forehead to the grass. “Forgive me for the misunderstanding.”
“No need for that,” Ryuzo said hastily. “Ah. Lord Sakai, you look like you’d be safe with Kurobo over here, so. Best of luck.”
Sakai nibbled on his lower lip. “You want to leave?”
“Yes?” Ryuzo said, then groaned as Sakai began to sniffle. “Oh no. Not this again.”
Kurobo went up on a knee with a scowl. “You’ve upset Lord Sakai before?”
“Lord Sakai gets upset very easily for whatever he is,” Ryuzo said, exasperated, as Sakai began to sob. He flinched as thunder rolled overhead. It began to rain, driving through the trees. “What the…? Is that him too?”
“A common occurrence when he is upset,” Kurobo said, completely unsurprised. “It could be worse. Once, when there was a death in the family, the river rose and drowned Minamoto Palace.”
“Oh, for…!” Ryuzo scooped up Sakai, ignoring Kurobo’s tension. Rocking the boy, Ryuzo said, “All right, all right. Don’t cry, hm? I won’t leave yet. Cheer up.”
Sakai sniffled again, burying his face against Ryuzo’s collar. The rain eased into a cold drizzle, then stopped altogether as Sakai stopped shaking. Ryuzo gave Kurobo a helpless look and got a long, appraising stare in return.
“We should meet up with Jin,” Kurobo said. “Will you come with us for now?”
“I guess I don’t have anything better to do,” Ryuzo said, exhaling, “but there had better be a generous reward at the end of all this.”
“Jin,” Kurobo called. “Over here.”
Jin turned. He let out a gasp of relief, rushing over and going down on a knee. “Lord Sakai. Our prayers have been answered.”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” Sakai said cautiously as Ryuzo put him down. “Jin, was it?”
Jin looked sharply at Sakai, then at Ryuzo. “What is a bake-danuki doing here?” Jin asked.
“Are we going to have to go through this each time?” Ryuzo asked Kurobo.
Sakai set his jaw. “Ryuzo is my friend. Kurobo told me that I suffered an accident? I awoke only recently, without any memories. Ryuzo found me and has been helping me ever since.”
“I see,” Jin said, smiling warmly at Ryuzo. “Thank you.”
“You are a lot nicer than your brother,” Ryuzo said, smirking at Kurobo, who sniffed. “Well. Now what?”
“The way back to the Divine Realm has been severed,” Jin said, “and the repercussions have shaken through the Mortal Realms as droughts and famines. We’ll need to find a way to get in contact with Lord Shimura. There is a halfway place in Jigoku Temple that might make that possible.”
Ryuzo grimaced. “Does it have to be there? That’s not a fun place to visit. Especially not with a child. The last I heard, it was overrun by vengeful spirits and oni.”
“It is precisely because of Lord Sakai that we may be able to get there safely,” Jin said, “though it is not a journey that I would wish on anyone.”
Sakai glanced up at Ryuzo with a pleading look. “Will you come too? Please.”
Jin gasped. Kurobo scowled, saying, “A tenko does not beg. Especially not anything of a mere—”
“Don’t be rude,” Sakai cut in, with an angry glance at Kurobo that had Kurobo stiffen and drop his gaze. “Ryuzo.”
“Maa, you’re going to get me killed,” Ryuzo said, but as Sakai blinked and began to look upset, he patted Sakai on the head. “Fine, fine.”
Jin lunged over and grasped Ryuzo’s wrist, jerking his hand away from Sakai’s head. “You would dare,” Jin said.
“Jin!” Sakai snapped. “I’ve had enough. The two of you will respect Ryuzo as my friend, or I’ll go to this temple without either of you.”
“Not a good idea,” Ryuzo said quickly, but Jin let go of his hand and bowed his head.
“As you wish,” Jin said. Kurobo nodded, though, behind Sakai’s back, he shot Ryuzo a cold stare.
“We’re all brothers,” Jin said, with a nod at Sakai, who had dozed off over Ryuzo’s lap.
“Really?” Ryuzo said, surprised. “The two of you act like his servants.”
“We treat him with the respect that he deserves,” Jin said, though he grinned where Kurobo would’ve scowled. “A respect that you lack.”
“It’s hard to respect a little boy who starts crying when things don’t go the way that he wants,” Ryuzo said, though he smiled. “Lucky he’s cute.” He glanced over in the direction where Kurobo had vanished, presumably to keep watch.
“A little boy?” Jin asked, cocking his head.
“Don’t tell me that you’d find even that a disrespectful term or whatever,” Ryuzo said, trying not to roll his eyes. “Your baby brother is not going to mind.”
Jin laughed. “Ryuzo, don’t you know what the tenko are?”
“Very powerful kitsune?”
A faint snort of laughter drifted in through the trees. “They’re the final stage of our life cycle,” Jin said. He took a stick, doodling a small fox on the ground before him. “We begin as inari, the sacred messengers you might see here and there. Then we evolve into zenko or yako, depending on the choices we make.” He drew arrows pointing to two different stick figures, adding stick-like tails. “Once we attain nine tails and reach a thousand years of age, we are reborn again. Becoming one of the tenko.” He drew an arrow pointing toward Sakai. “Lord Sakai is our oldest brother.”
Ryuzo gawked at Jin. “You’re joking.”
“Not at all.”
“He’s a thousand years old? He acts like a child,” Ryuzo said, incredulous.
“He is and is not a child,” Jin said, after a moment’s thought. “He has no memory of who he was before becoming a tenko. Once, however, he was a legend among us. There are only two tenko left in all the worlds. Him and our uncle, Lord Shimura.”
“That’s… even weirder than I thought,” Ryuzo said, blinking slowly. “Your family reunions must be incredibly confusing.”
“You have no idea,” Jin said with a rueful smile, and shifted over, peering hopefully at the eels. “Are these done yet?”
Ryuzo twitched his tail away from one of the fluffy red tails that curled against his fur as Jin sat closer. “Be patient.”
“Haven’t you and Kurobo been walking the realms for years?” Ryuzo was glad now that he’d stuck to his corner of the world.
“Only the parts that Lord Sakai was more likely to be in,” Jin said.
“Downriver? The river passes through here too,” Ryuzo said, trying not to look down as they edged over a very narrow pass that hugged a sheer cliff.
Jin gave him a puzzled look over his shoulder. “A barren place like this? No tenko would have been residing here. The world itself responds to the weight of his presence. That’s why we have to find a way to return him to the Divine Realm. If it’s this bad downstream, our uncle may be in trouble, and the only thing that can save a tenko is another tenko.”
Ryuzo glanced over at Sakai, who said nothing, draped over Ryuzo’s back with a little frown. Even now, Ryuzo couldn’t reconcile Jin’s words with the boy on his back. “He’s that powerful?”
“Lord Shimura?” Jin said, misunderstanding. “He is, but he isn’t infallible.”
“I meant Sakai. Both of the tenko,” Ryuzo said, gratefully emerging out behind Jin onto a broader plateau. A rope bridge strung between the plateau to the other side shook in the wind, which grew still as Ryuzo approached.
“They are what they are,” Jin said as he walked gingerly onto the rickety bridge. “Watch your step.”
They made it halfway through the bridge before something stirred in the depths. Ryuzo gasped as a gigantic white snake reared out of the deep mist, its head easily twice as long as Ryuzo was tall, a purple forked tongue slithering out from its jaws as it hissed. Jin bit out an oath, drawing his katana.
“Run!” Ryuzo yelped, shoving at Jin’s back. Thankfully, Jin obeyed, charging across the bridge with Ryuzo hot at his heels. The snake surged forward, the bridge tangling against its throat and snapping free, planks dropping into the mist. As the ground fell away beneath his feet, Ryuzo tried to twist around and make a grab for Sakai, to maybe cradle him from the worst of the fall.
“Ryuzo!” Sakai cried as the wind plucked him from Ryuzo’s back.
Birds burst past Ryuzo in a thunder of wings, small and large—cranes, woodpeckers, pheasants, pigeons, more. They grabbed hold of Sakai with hundreds of clawed feet, squawking as they arrested his fall. Plunging past the mist, Sakai’s horrified face was the last thing that Ryuzo saw.
“What? I fell…” Ryuzo didn’t feel any pain, other than dizziness as he sat up. He had been lying on an old futon in a broken hut. Beyond the large hole in the wall was a swollen river, lapping at the engawa, and—Ryuzo gawked. Further upstream, the river swept past unmoving, bloody white coils. “Did you do that?”
Kurobo followed Ryuzo’s stare, sniffed, and opened the ragged shoji door, leaving. He murmured something to someone in another room—probably Sakai, given the loud gasp and the patter of small footsteps. Ryuzo was still staring at the dead snake as Sakai rushed in and threw himself onto Ryuzo, hugging him tightly with a wail.
“Hoi, hoi,” Ryuzo said, grimacing as dark clouds began gathering over the patch of sky that he could see. “Calm down.” He patted Sakai awkwardly on the back.
“Calming him down would be good,” Jin said, coming in more sedately and kneeling. “If the river stays like this, there’d be floods in the farms downstream.”
Ryuzo glowered at Jin and Kurobo. “Can’t the two of you do anything? He’s your brother.”
“He’s at a delicate stage of the life cycle,” Jin said, which was a roundabout way of passing off responsibility. Ryuzo rolled his eyes, tickling Sakai against the back of his ears.
“I’m still here, all right? Still here. Somehow without even a scratch,” Ryuzo said. He managed a chuckle. “Though all the birds that flew up to save you could’ve tried harder to save me too.” As Sakai sniffled, Ryuzo said, “Joking, joking.”
Kurobo shot an uneasy glance at the snake. “We can’t stay here too long. That thing being here… there’d be worse ahead. Not to mention creatures that’d be attracted to a carcass of this nature.”
“Right.” Ryuzo tried to get to his feet, but grew dizzy again and sat back down. Jin grabbed his wrist, touching his fingertips to his pulse, then glancing at Kurobo.
“He’s still healing,” Jin said. He grimaced. “I’m not as good at ki transfer as I should be.”
“At least you can do it,” Kurobo said, lifting a shoulder in a slight shrug. “I can’t, and Lord Sakai doesn’t have the fine control yet to help.” Against Ryuzo, Sakai tensed but said nothing.
“There is another way that you could help,” Jin said, grinning. Kurobo sniffed loudly, glowering at the river. “Look at it this way. The quicker Ryuzo can walk without fainting, the further away from here we can be.”
“…Fine,” Kurobo grumbled, “but not with…” He cleared his throat. “Not with Lord Sakai present. Or awake.”
“Doing what?” Ryuzo asked, suspicious, only to stiffen in shock as Jin smiled slyly and climbed into his lap. He made a grab for Jin’s hips and got an awkward handful of Jin’s tail instead, Jin humming and nuzzling Ryuzo’s throat. “Jin!”
Kurobo knelt beside Ryuzo, his palm splaying pointedly over the bared skin of Ryuzo’s chest. “A direct transfer,” Kurobo said, his gaze intense. “From both of us. If you agree.”
Ryuzo reddened. “I…” he stifled a gasp as Jin wriggled enticingly on his lap. “What? Really?”
“Or we could stay here for a few days and fight off an army of ghouls,” Kurobo said. He winced as Jin elbowed him in the ribs.
“You’d want to?” Ryuzo said in disbelief. “With a yōkai?”
“I want to help,” Sakai said sulkily, glaring at his brothers. “But apparently, I’m not yet old enough, even though I’m a thousand years old.”
“Maybe in a few years more, Lord Sakai,” Kurobo said, shifting over to pry Sakai off Ryuzo. “I’ll give you something to help you sleep.” He led a reluctant Sakai away, even as Jin chuckled and sat up, kissing Ryuzo as Ryuzo sputtered, taking his mouth with gentle confidence. Ryuzo’s dizziness faded as they kissed, as he breathed a disbelieving groan between them, stroking wandering hands down Jin’s back.
“So what exactly are we going to do?” Ryuzo asked as Kurobo returned.
“You mean it isn’t obvious?” Kurobo asked, starting to strip off his armour.
“Just so it’s out in the open,” Ryuzo said, “with no misunderstandings.”
Kurobo tossed his gloves to the side of the room; his tail swaying from side to side. “Jin and I will mate with you. At least once each, but if we can manage more, it’d be quicker.” As Ryuzo flushed and started coughing, Kurobo smirked at him. “No misunderstandings now, I hope?”
“With a yōkai,” Ryuzo said, stunned.
“Yōkai aren’t what we thought they were,” Jin said, even as Kurobo sniffed.
“If Lord Sakai were grown, it’d be him putting us to sleep. To have you to himself,” Kurobo peeled off the last of his armour and pulled off a surprising number of weapons. “He’s always been possessive with his favourites.”
“Lucky us,” Jin said, chuckling at the stunned look on Ryuzo’s face. He grinned as Ryuzo gave in and kissed him, licking into his mouth, already light-headed with anticipation. Was that a kitsune thing, the way Ryuzo was already hard in his clothes as Jin began to strip, baring pale and unmarred skin? The illusion of one tail split from both of them as Kurodo stalked over and pressed himself against Ryuzo’s back, biting down over the nape of his throat as he rubbed his erection against Ryuzo with a low growl.
“Am I even going to be able to walk tomorrow?” Ryuzo asked weakly as deft fingers worked his obi free, pulling off his yukata.
Jin laughed, grinning as he tugged Ryuzo’s fundoshi loose, his ears flicking forward. “Do you want to?”
“You will,” Kurodo growled against his back, reaching between Ryuzo’s thighs and squeezing thickened flesh meaningfully. “You will do what we want.”
“Gently,” Jin told Kurodo with a frown, “or I’ll go first.”
“You’d have to fight me to go first,” Kurodo shot back, “and you always lose.” He pushed Ryuzo forward onto hands and knees. Fingers slicked out of nothing Ryuzo could see pushed inside him before he could speak, his startled cry swallowed by Jin’s hungry kiss. The stretch, oddly, didn’t hurt. It felt good instead, better than it should, Kurodo’s fingers sparking pleasure where they touched, as they stroked deeper, thrusting and scissoring.
“Hm,” Jin said, peering over Ryuzo’s arched back to watch. “He doesn’t look all that different from us. I thought tanuki were meant to have huge balls?”
“Please,” Ryuzo grit out, “no tanuki jokes.” His tail quivered as Kurodo laughed, getting his fingers in to the knuckles. Ryuzo groaned, shivering as Kurodo probed inside him, then gasped as Jin squirmed under him, palms pressed against Ryuzo’s knees. As the warm, wet mouth closed over his cock, Ryuzo cried out in disbelief.
“Quiet,” Kurobo grunted, “or you’d bring the ghouls down on us.” He pushed in a third finger as Ryuzo started to bite out something rude, turning his words into a strangled moan. Jin chuckled, taking more of Ryuzo in, not even gagging as he drank Ryuzo down to the root. Ryuzo’s hips jerked involuntarily, but as Jin only groaned, he let out an incredulous laugh.
“Good, isn’t he?” Kurobo said, amused as he stretched Ryuzo out further.
“You’ve… done this before?” Ryuzo panted. “The both of you? With someone?”
“Not for a while,” Kurobo conceded, “what with our oldest brother being reborn and then another war breaking out—” He cut himself off at an irritated noise from Jin, chuckling. “Fine.” Pulling out his fingers, he gave Ryuzo no time to miss them as he pushed inside. Ryuzo let out a guttural yowl. Again, this felt far better than it should—without the usual gritty pain, his body giving in to Kurobo’s more eagerly than the meagre prep should have allowed. Kurobo let out a soft, satisfied sound once he got balls-deep, setting his hands over Ryuzo’s hips and nipping him hard on the back of his throat, tails shifting against Ryuzo’s thighs, against his arms as Jin began to suck. As Ryuzo jerked between them with a sob, Kurobo chuckled. “Come as much as you want,” he said, licking Ryuzo’s ear. “You’ll be dry by the time we’re done.”
“You—“ Ryuzo yowled as Kurobo started to move, taking him with sharp, brutal thrusts, each shocking a raw pleasure through Ryuzo that he’d never touched before. Ryuzo whined, clawing at the futon, bucking desperately between the mouth on him and Kurobo’s cock, already dragged close to the brink. Jin hummed loudly, stroking Ryuzo’s thighs, the vibration shaking through Ryuzo and tearing him over the edge. Ryuzo cried out as he slammed into his first release, pulsing down Jin’s throat.
As Ryuzo fell panting onto his elbows, Jin wriggled out, grinning and wiping his mouth. He cradled Ryuzo against him, kissing to share, licking into his mouth as Ryuzo shivered and clutched at Jin under the force of Kurobo’s mating. “You’re doing well,” Jin murmured. Ryuzo let out a dry laugh that turned into a loud groan as Kurobo drove in and went still with a soft grunt, his hips jerking. Jin kissed Ryuzo, stroking his cheeks as Kurobo pulled slickly out, then he smiled with hungry anticipation and shifted away to take his brother’s place.
“Stay awake,” Kurobo said, his hand closing over the back of Ryuzo’s throat as Ryuzo gave him a dazed stare. “We’re nowhere near finished.”
“Do you think he’d be able to take both of us at once?” Jin asked, and laughed as Ryuzo groaned and trembled.
“Morning,” Ryuzo told Sakai, his voice ragged. He cleared his throat.
“Kurobo went to find us some breakfast,” Sakai said, still pouting. He smacked his hands against Jin’s back until Jin stirred and glanced over with a yawn. “Jin! Go and help.”
“Hai, hai,” Jin said, stretching luxuriously and fixing his clothes. Sakai threw himself over where Jin had been, glaring at Jin until Jin shuffled off, still yawning.
“Do you feel better?” Sakai asked, mulish.
“I think so,” Ryuzo said. More than better. His senses felt sharper, even.
“Good. Don’t do that again. Getting that badly injured. Or at least, not until I’m grown,” Sakai said, his golden tail lashing furiously.
“Who says I want to be around all you foxes for years?” Ryuzo said, and smirked as Sakai gasped and sat up.
“I’ll think about it. If you don’t cry so much over small things.” Ryuzo stretched, sitting up.
Sakai glowered at him. “Fine. I won’t cry anymore.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Ryuzo said as he dressed. After pushing his katana and tanto through his obi, he picked up the grumpy boy. “Don’t pout. What do you want for breakfast?”
“Rice! And yakizakana. Maybe some umeboshi. Oh! And miso soup.”
“Haah? Where are we going to find all that out here?” Ryuzo said, even as a large wrapped package fell into the water beyond the house with a splash. “…Fine. I’ll see what I can do.”