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"The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions."
- Oliver Wendell Holmes

 

1.

A week after he was named, Kuraha finally met the lady's exemplar.

Kuraha wasn't sure what he was expecting - whenever anyone mentioned Kazuma-san's name, it was with a touch of awe and absolute respect, and somehow in his mind Kuraha had built up the image of a man strong enough to lead their lady: square jaw and steely eyes, with broad shoulders and muscular body. He had pictured a man's man, someone noble and powerful. Someone worthy of his god-given name.

What he wasn't expecting was the soft-spoken boy who met him at the courtyard.

"Forgive me for not meeting you earlier," Kazuma said, and Kuraha stared slack-jawed at how utterly unassuming the boy looked. The boy's hands were clasped behind his back, and he spoke to Kuraha with a self-effacing smile. "I am called Kazu, my vessel is Chou, and my given name is Kazuma," Kazuma said, and it struck Kuraha that the family name was different. Ma, not Ha. Silently he wondered if this was an oversight on the lady's part.

"If you are wondering about my name," Kazuma said, moving to meet his gaze but still smiling at him. Friendly. Open. "It is because my name precedes the naming of the Ha clan."

"You're pretty sharp for such a young man," Kuraha said. Kazuma's mouth quirked.

"You'll forgive me, Kuraha. But I am not exactly young."

 

*****

 

2.

If Kuraha had a son, he would roughly be around Kazuma-san's age.

Kuraha was no fool. He knew that Kazuma-san was older than him. But in his habits and his mannerisms, he still behaved as an upright young man.

"I am old enough to be your father, you know," Kuraha said one day, apropos of nothing, as Kazuma-san was walking by him. He was in his lion form again, and as was typical for him, had less of a filter than he had when he was human. Kazuma-san quirked an eyebrow.

"Kuraha, with all due respect, I am older than you by at least two centuries," Kazuma said. He sounded amused. Kuraha swished his tail, lazily.

"That may be true, Kazuma-san. But this old man has lived a human life longer than you."

"True enough," Kazuma said, smiling. He was clearly humoring him. "I take it you have some advice for me, then?"

"No," Kuraha licked his paw. "It was just an observation."

And he stretched and yawned lazily, reveling in his lion form and swinging his tail.

"He's so young," Kuraha said to Akiha later, one of the only other "older" shinki on the lady's combat team. "Akiha-kun. How old would you say Kazuma-san would be?"

Akiha considered. "Seventeen," Akiha said. Kuraha nodded.

"I was going to guess around eighteen."

"Twenty," Kugaha said. Kuraha and Akiha looked up at their curer.

"Twenty? You don't say?"

"Early to mid-twenties, at the very least," Kugaha said. He swirled his medicines, thoughtfully. "Look at the maturation of his teeth," Kugaha said. "The bones of his wrists and the condition of his skin. He was, at the very least, of marrying age."

Kuraha scoffed, "Well of course he was of marrying age. He already passed puberty."

"What are you talking about?" Kazuma asked, coming out from nowhere. Akiha stuttered and Kuraha did an unmanly little yelp, and Kugaha just rolled his eyes and continued grinding his pestle into the mortar.

 

*****

 

3.

If Kuraha were living a human life, perhaps he would have been a sailor. A military commander, unused to following orders from an ostensibly junior subordinate. Respect and authority had to be earned, and while the rest of the lady's shinki bowed to Kazuma with unquestioning deference, Kuraha needed proof; without this, how could he respect such a young man to be his leader?

There was a torrent of phantoms bursting through a vent. The earring glinted.

"Kuraha. Head them off with a pincer attack. Bishamon-sama will take the rear."

This was a bad plan. Kuraha looked around, in his lion form and his mane catching the wind, and saw the rush of ayakashi spewing toward them.

Kazuma may be able to control the lady's other weapons, but Kuraha still had freedom of movement. "Ojou!" Kuraha said, and instead of leaping toward the phantoms from the side as planned, he jumped in front of her, head on.

Kazuma shouted, "Kuraha, get back! Bishamon-sama won't be able to use her sword!"

A phantom slammed through them. The lady whirled and ducked, barely blocking the phantom's path.

"Kuraha! Get back!" Kazuma was shouting. The earring glinted, frantically. "Kuraha!"

Everything went to hell.

 

******

 

"That was foolhardy!" Kuraha said, in his human form. They were on the roof of an abandoned building, the lady and her shinki standing beneath a purple sky. "A negligent display of showmanship! What use have you to endanger our lady! I can't believe you foisted this on her to prove a point."

The lady was injured. Phantoms poured out from the mouth of an open vent as she leaned against the door to the rooftop, cradling her arm.

"Kuraha," the lady began, but Kazuma held up a hand.

"I will handle this," Kazuma said. Bishamon nodded quietly then took a step back, letting Kazuma-san take a few steps forward. Kuraha stared him down.

"I have nothing to say to you. You are not my master."

"Are you done?" Kazuma said.

"Excuse me?" Kuraha said.

"I asked you, Kuraha, if you are done."

The other members of the team looked at them. Bishamon watched, silently.

"The fact of the matter is, Kuraha, you put this team in danger. Bishamon-sama is injured. We would not be in this position if you followed my lead and respected the chain of command."

"Chain of command?" Kuraha scoffed. "A proper leader would have realized that this was the time to fall back! We wouldn't have been in this position if you hadn't ordered us to attack!"

"That's enough, Kuraha," Kazuma said. Kuraha stepped around him.

"My lady! There were at least a dozen phantoms out there! And while he's content to-- to show off!--there are lives at stake, both in the Near Shore's and ours!"

"Kuraha!" Kazuma said, sharply. "I said that's enough." Kuraha turned and stalked into Kazuma's personal space, an alpha male challenging the pack leader.

"You are not my leader." Kuraha said. He towered over Kazuma, who barely came up to Kuraha's chest. "You are just an earring. The safety of our lady rests not on you, but on the rest of this team. How easy must it be for you to tell us what to do, when it's the rest of us who are putting our lives in danger!"

The shinki gasped. Bishamon watched them silently.

"Do you know why Bishamon-sama is the strongest god of war, Kuraha?" Kazuma said. "It is because of my guidance. And I will not brook any further insubordination. If you cannot heed orders, you do not belong with our team."

Kuraha scoffed. "You can't ground me, I only listen to our lady!"

Bishamon lowered her eyes. "I defer the discipline of my shinki to my exemplar," she said.

"Discipline?" Kuraha was gobsmacked. "You're letting this--this child--play commander of your unit?"

"Are you okay, Veena?" Kazuma said, ignoring him. The lady nodded.

"Yes, Kazuma, I'm fine."

"My lady, he is just an earring! He is not on the front lines, he's irresponsible and should not be the one commanding this team!"

"Let me help you stand," Kazuma said, hoisting her arm around his shoulder.

"My lady, please," Kuraha reached out to grab her arm.

"BAKUFU."

A crack to the head. That's what it felt like. The force of Kazuma's restraints slamming the sides of Kuraha's skull.

"What right have you to touch her?" Kazuma's voice was low. Angry. "Bishamon-sama is injured, the fault of which is yours."

Kuraha couldn't move. Couldn't turn his head even as Kazuma's footsteps echoed on the concrete. Kazuma came close and invaded his personal space, glaring at him and staring him dead in the eyes.

"Say what you will about me, that I'm just a little earring. But this little earring is more powerful than any phantom you will ever encounter. Hurt her again, and I will show you. Do you understand?"

Around them, the other shinki watched, nervously.

"Kura. Do you understand?"

The spell broke. Kuraha pitched forward.

"Forgive me," Kuraha muttered, not looking at him. A challenger male dominated by the pack's alpha. "It was not my intention to harm our lady."

Kazuma narrowed his eyes, then turned toward Bishamon.

 

*****

 

"Oh? You got a dressing down by Kazuma?" Kugaha chuckled, grinding his herbs. "Well. If it makes you feel any better, you are not the only one who takes umbrage to Kazuma's so-called leadership."

"Is that right?" Kuraha said. Kugaha nodded, dusting powder onto a scale.

"Indeed. Kazuma has long kept our lady prostrate. She is far from the proper god of war I know she's capable of being. He would rather her play house than vanquish her enemies on the battlefield. Although the way he addressed you is a tad unusual."

"Seems to me he was being reckless," Kuraha said. "Wanted us to rush in with no regards to the lady's safety."

"Well that is a first," Kugaha said. He sounded vaguely amused. "Usually our exemplar is much too timid." And he scraped the powder into a satchel, tying the bag.

Kuraha paced. He spent the rest of the day sitting in his room, looking out into the gardens where the shinki children were playing. There were many shinki whose forms were not weapons, and moreso whose forms were incomplete or broken. He understood the lady's kindness is what kept them here, and though Kazuma-san admittedly had a talent for scanning things, his utility as a combat shinki was lost on him. Kuraha resented him, this thousand year-old child who had the lady's full attention.

"Kuraha?" The lady knocked, then opened the door. "Kuraha, may I have a word?"

Kuraha looked up. The lady was wearing a white dress and pale shawl, and her hair was done in a thick braid which fell messily over her shoulders. She looked less like a war god than a lady of the manor, and Kuraha remembered Kugaha's earlier criticisms. "I spoke with Kazuma," Bishamon said. "And he's willing to overlook what happened so long as I speak with you first."

"And so you're taking orders from him?" Kuraha stared out the window, bitterly.

Bishamon spread her hands. "I take his advice," Bishamon said. "He actually advised me to release you, but I know he was just upset that I was injured. He blames himself, you know," the lady said. She smiled at Kuraha kindly. "Anything bad that were to happen, my Kazuma is quick to say that it's his fault."

Kuraha turned. The lady smiled and let herself in, tucking her shawl against her chest and carefully taking a seat opposite him.

"It has been a while since I've had a shinki take the form of a divine beast," the lady said, pulling her shawl. "A few centuries, at the least. Kazuma wasn't my exemplar then. He's used to drawing lines and guiding the others, but he's never had to command a shinki who could make his own decisions."

"He didn't command your other divine beasts?" Kuraha said. The lady shook her head.

"That was before his time," the lady said, and her eyes lost focus briefly, before she looked back at him and smiled.

It was often the lady sometimes got like that. She would be talking with the others when she'd suddenly lose focus, caught somewhere in the midst of a painful memory or a reminder of her past. Everyone knew of the Yatogami and how he slaughtered Kazuma-san's clan, and while Kazuma himself never mentioned it, the others could see the pain that would sometimes flash on the lady's face, the pinched way she continued to carry herself, shouldering her burdens and trying to carry on.

"You are quite the challenge for him," the lady said. She tugged on her shawl, picking it over her shoulder. "He is so used to controlling everything else that I fear he may have become frustrated. You're a free agent he cannot fully take into account."

"There is nothing to account for," Kuraha said, bristling. "Ojou. We both know he made a bad call. He willingly put you and the rest of the team in danger. You would have gotten injured regardless. It's a wonder we all survived."

"I don't know about that." She picked at a loose thread, absently. "Despite his appearance, Kuraha, my Kazuma is very strong. If he thought we could take them, then I'm certain we could."

Kuraha scoffed. "You have that much faith in him?" The lady nodded.

"I would not be half as strong without him."

Kuraha looked up. The lady smiled; her hands were folded demurely on her lap, and her hair fell loosely around her shoulders.

This was their master: this slim-hipped girl sitting on the chair opposite him. Just as his exemplar was little more than a teenaged boy. Kuraha sighed, shifting in his seat.

"Forgive me, Ojou," Kuraha said. "It's just that sometimes I feel that Kazuma-san is like my idiot son, and you would be my beautiful daughter."

The lady laughed, warmly. Kuraha scratched his head.

"It's...strange," Kuraha said, slowly. He looked at his the callouses on his hands, trying to find the words. "I know Kazuma-san and I just met, but in many ways, he reminds me of someone...." Kuraha's brow furrowed. Bishamon watched him carefully. "I feel like an old man watching his boy making stupid mistakes," Kuraha said, finally. Bishamon nodded, understanding.

"The nature of these things is that shinki often forge familial relationships. It is something that I'd like cultivated within our family. But I imagine it would be somewhat difficult, taking orders from someone you feel a certain responsibility."

She fell silent, turning inward, as if probing the memories of something. Her eyes flicked upward. "What is it that he inspires in you?"

"Concern," Kuraha said. "It isn't right for such a young man to shoulder so much responsibility."

The lady's mouth quirked. "My Kazuma is not that young."

"Even so." Kuraha cursed at himself, agitated. "I still think he was rushing us forward to impress you," Kuraha said.

Bishamon spread her hands. "My Kazuma already has my confidence. He should know he has nothing to prove."

"Yes, but..." But it was just a feeling Kuraha had, something deep in his gut. Something in the way Kazuma looked at her. Let me prove my worth to you.

"Animal instinct," the lady said, and Kuraha looked up.

"What?"

"Animal instinct," the lady repeated again. She smiled. "It happens to all shinki who are divine beasts. The instinct to conquer. The instinct to lead the pack. Now that you're my shinki, you're as much a lion as you are a man. It would make sense that you would pick up on human emotions even when the others cannot. And as I myself am separated from humans, I will have to trust in what you have to say."

The lady smiled, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

"I will talk to Kazuma," the lady said. "Furthermore, I will let you back onto the team on a probationary basis. But know that Kazuma will give the final judgment. If he still feels you are a danger, then you'll be reassigned to borderline duty with the other non-combatants."

"Thank you, Ojou," Kuraha said. The lady stood.

"Please be easy on him," the lady said. "I know he is young. But he works so hard to maintain the rest of this team."

"I will, Ojou, and thank you," Kuraha said. The lady smiled.

"No Kuraha," the lady said. "Thank you."

 

*****

 

4.

"Kuraha, if you have any misgivings about my leadership, I more than welcome any criticism you may have. I only ask that you do not question my judgment in front of my subordinates."

Kazuma-san was sitting at his desk, his hands folded in front of him, while Kuraha sat in a too-small chair in the center of the room; the height of the desk was such that Kazuma was practically towering over him, while Kuraha had to bend at awkward angles to properly fit the chair. "Of course, there are times when split-second decisions are the difference between success and Bishamon-sama's reincarnation," Kazuma continued. "Certainly if it is within your conscience to speak up, then do so. But once a decision has been made, the chain of command must be respected."

"I won't question your leadership," Kuraha said. "Forgive me for overstepping my bounds, Kazuma-san."

Kazuma stood up. The windows behind him were bright, such that Kazuma-san's figure was almost swallowed up by sunshine. Kazuma clasped his hands behind his back, walking toward the window.

"I apologize for my display earlier," Kazuma said. "I am not usually so aggressive. But I surmised you were acting on your more animal instincts. I had no choice but to put on a display of dominance."

"Display of dominance?" Kuraha said, surprised. Kazuma turned and smiled, self-deprecatingly.

"You see it often in animal hierarchies," Kazuma explained. "Ritualized displays of aggression and submission. Your lion instincts were leading you to challenge my authority as the alpha. You already disagreed with my decisions, but your animal nature had compounded things further. It is hardly my style, but in this instance I really had no choice."

"You were pretending?" Kuraha was shocked.

"I am not much for posturing," Kazuma said, apologetically. "I promise you it was as uncomfortable for me as it was for you."

He had a rueful look on him, and Kuraha realized how ridiculous it must have looked to the others, this glasses-wearing boy snarling and acting like an unhinged alpha.

Kuraha gave a sharp laugh. Kazuma's honesty was disarming. If you had told Kuraha just a few hours ago that Kazuma's aggression was just an act, Kuraha would dismiss it as an insecure young man's empty posturing. But now, with Kazuma-san smiling at him in the office, wearing that same self-effacing expression as when he first met him, Kuraha knew that this was a leader he could follow: someone who was aware of his weaknesses and his shortcomings, who put the wellbeing of the team in front of his own.

"Well, Kazuma-san. I will be the first to admit, this old lion here got bested by a tiny earring. You may have been pretending, but I am thoroughly convinced."

"I am glad." Kazuma gave him a small smile. "You may find this surprising, Kuraha, but I do value your opinion. I've long wanted a lieutenant, someone with the military experience to be my second in command. I think this team will benefit greatly from your experience."

"I would be honored," Kuraha said, touched by Kazuma's sincerity.

"Then I hope this will be a long and fruitful relationship," Kazuma said. And he offered Kuraha a respectful bow.

 

*****

 

5.

In time, Kuraha grew in awe of Kazuma.

True, he was not a weapon, and also true he was not physically imposing. But what Kazuma-san lacked in weight and heft he made up with a staggering mastery. He knew countless shinki spells and incantations, could throw lines and cast spells faster than any other shinki Kuraha had seen. He spoke hundreds of languages, knew the endless canon of their lady's myths by rote; he had a genius's intuition, one that was not simply because of his scanning ability.

But there were other things Kuraha noticed: how, at the end of the day, Kazuma would stand just apart from the others. Kuraha understood - Kazuma was their leader, it made sense that he would avoid fraternizing with his subordinates. But he didn't seem to talk to anybody. Not other exemplars. Not shinki beholden to other gods. The lady was the only one who ever seemed to talk to Kazuma-san.

"Doesn't he have any friends?" Kuraha said. Akiha shrugged and Kugaha sighed and rubbed his head.

The shinki were eating in the dining hall. Laughing and talking, they joked and shared stories about their nights on patrol while Kazuma took a seat away from the others, and it just now occurred to Kuraha that Kazuma always ate alone.

A shadow fell on Kazuma as he was eating his lunch. He looked up as Kuraha loomed over him.

"Do you prefer the solitude, or can an old man join you?" Kuraha asked. Kazuma brightened.

"Of course," Kazuma said. "Please, join me." And he made space for Kuraha at the table.

Kuraha sat. He looked at Kazuma's meal - a simple rice ball and a bottle of water - and sighed loudly, rustling through his paper bag.

Kazuma tilted his head, puzzled. "Kuraha?"

"Eat," Kuraha said, and he set a box of curry in front of him. "It's no wonder you're all skin and bones."

There was a warm silence. Kazuma politely took a chopstick full of curry and took a few sips of water, while Kuraha ate fast and swigged from his can of beer.

"So why do you sit by yourself?" Kuraha asked. "If it's to maintain distance, I can understand. But usually officers dine in separate quarters."

"Ah, well. I don't mind eating with the others," Kazuma said. Kuraha cocked his head.

"You ever try sitting with anyone before?"

"Um, I have." Kazuma stared at his rice ball. "But people are not so comfortable, sitting with me."

"How so?" Kuraha said. Kazuma smiled.

"I think the others are probably intimidated by me."

Kazuma's hands took the form of his cup, and Kuraha couldn't help but notice how delicate his hands looked. Long, tapered fingers, which elegantly curved around the surface of the cup, they were so unlike Kuraha's hands, which were large and rough and calloused. Kuraha's eyes followed the blood-red mark seared into the pale skin, up toward the slender wrist, birdlike and breakable, more like a child's than a man's.

"That doesn't bother you?" Kuraha asked. Kazuma shook his head.

"Not particularly."

"And that's because you spend most of your time with our lady."

"I suppose I can agree with that."

A sip from the cup. What a strange boy he was, how in battle his gaze soared above everything, all-seeing and freewheeling. Kuraha frowned and squinted at Kazuma's eyes.

"Why do you wear glasses?" Kuraha said.

"Hm?" Kazuma looked up.

"Your glasses." Kuraha gestured. "You have the sharpest eyes of any man I've seen. Why do you wear glasses when you have that kind of ability?"

"Oh." Kazuma looked down at his hands. "My eyesight itself is actually rather poor. You could say my ability is more in being able to sense things."

"And that's how you knew to challenge me?"

"Well you are a lion, Kuraha. It was more of an educated guess."

He watched the boy take another sip of water.

 

*****

 

6.

Increasingly, Kuraha found he enjoyed being a lion, the freedom and physical prowess that came with it. In his lion form, he was not plagued with stiff knees or arthritic hands, the dull aches and pains that came with his old age. In the garden, the lady walked while Kuraha padded contentedly beside her, shaking his mane and holding up his tail, feeling as muscular and young as he did in the spring of his youth.

"Veena," Kazuma said. They had just finished patrol, the lady having disengaged the other combat shinki while Kazuma frowned disapprovingly. "You forgot to call Kuraha's name."

"Oh?" Bishamon looked. Kuraha licked his paw, letting his tail swish.

"Allow me to stay a lion, Ojou."

"You heard him, Kazuma," Bishamon said, smiling. "He prefers to stay a lion."

Kazuma sighed heavily and tapped his clipboard.

"Kuraha. You know I have misgivings about this. The longer you stay in your lion form, the easier it is to give in to your baser instincts." Indeed, there were times Kuraha forgot himself, where he stopped thinking as a man and started merely existing.

"Fine, fine," Kuraha agreed, and Bishamon raised an eyebrow. The call of his name was like a wave, pulling and drawing away his lady's life force. The transformation always surprised him, how creaky and achy his human body was compared to when he was a lion.

"Have pity on me, Kazuma-san. For all your years, you still have the body of a strapping young man."

"And you truly do deserve pity if you refer to me as 'strapping,'" Kazuma said.

 Years had passed, and what had probably started as a mild irritation grew into something like affection, and now Kazuma accepted Kuraha's fatherly tone as a matter of course.

But Kuraha respected him. Kazuma was a keen leader, sharp on his feet and able to guide them through the most tempestuous course. No matter the danger, Kazuma kept his head about him, cutting through the tortuous eddies and swirling storms, always somehow leading them out of danger.

 

*****

 

7.

There was a shinki girl standing outside of the lady's gate. Kuraha looked out the window and saw the girl rubbing her arms nervously, her ponytail swinging as she turned. From her dress, he knew she was one of Tenjin's shinki - she wore the red hakama and white haori of a shrine maiden, a simple white ribbon tied loosely around her hair.

"Her name is Ayu," Kuraha said. Kazuma looked at them confused while Ayu stuttered and blushed, clutching a letter in her hand.

"Can I help you?" Kazuma said. The girl jumped a bit, looking up at Kuraha for help nervously.

"Kazuma-san," Kuraha said, gently. "I think the girl wants to talk to you."

"Why?" Kazuma said. He blinked, oblivious. The girl hid behind Kuraha's arm.

"He is hopeless!" Kuraha said. He was upstairs with Akiha, watching Kazuma and the girl through the window as they talked in the courtyard. "A beautiful girl like that wants to confess to him, and he's talking to her as if he's giving directions!"

"Kuraha-san. I don't think he's interested."

Kuraha rolled his eyes and made his way downstairs.

"Well?" Kuraha said, after Kazuma had dismissed the girl with a polite nod. Kazuma smiled at him apologetically.

"I think she had the wrong idea about me," Kazuma said.

Kuraha raised an eyebrow.

"I think she was only interested because I am a hafuri," Kazuma said.

"Isn't that a good thing?" Kuraha asked. Kazuma spread his hands.

"I have no desire to be in a romantic relationship," Kazuma said.

"You are a young man," Kuraha said. "Your time is best spent dating and making friends--"

"I can't help but wonder, Kuraha, if all this encouragement is just your way of living vicariously through me?"

Kuraha huffed, exasperated. Kazuma looked up at Kuraha owlishly.

Kuraha stalked around the hallway. It wasn't right for a young man to be so isolated. Heaven knows the months alone on a ship at sea would be enough to make a man stir crazy, and bouncing around the compound without anyone to talk to would be little different. If Kuraha had a son, he would not want him to be lonely. He would want him to go out and socialize, to mingle with the others and actually make some friends.

"Friends?" Bishamon said. Kuraha had found her walking along the garden, admiring the roses before dismissing Kazuma-san after another report. "Why wouldn't my Kazuma have any friends?"

Kuraha didn't know why it bothered him so much - so much so that he had to bother his lady about it. Intellectually he knew Kazuma-san's personal life was just that: personal. But somehow the thought of Kazuma sitting alone in his room made Kuraha feel protective of him. He would have gone to Kazuma-san directly, but he knew the young man would just minimize his worries. Kuraha waited as Bishamon frowned at the roses, holding her chin thoughtfully.

"I imagine it is because he is the caretaker to all of my other shinki," Bishamon said, finally. "I understand the impulse - it is difficult to be close to those for whom you have a certain responsibility."

"But my lady, you are a goddess. And I've not seen Kazuma-san consort even with exemplars of other gods."

"I see," Bishamon said, and she brightened. "Perhaps, Kuraha, we should invite them."

"Eh?" Kuraha said. Bishamon took his arm.

"A mixer," Bishamon said. Her eyes were dancing. "My Kazuma taught me about human mixers once. The others I'm sure will enjoy it, and it will be a good excuse to get together with the other lucky gods."

"Would Kazuma-san like being in a mixer?" Kuraha asked, doubtfully. The lady smiled.

"I don't see why not," the lady said.

 

*****

 

Unsurprisingly, it fell to Kazuma-san to plan the mixer.

Kuraha was in his lion form again, wandering the ballroom and the garden while the shinki of the Seven Lucky Gods chatted and mingled with each other, sipping drinks and trading stories. The mood was festive and lively, and the seven gods congratulated themselves on their get-together, happy to socialize outside of the purview of the Heaven's Colloquy.

"Well this is unexpected," Kugaha said. He was standing at the refreshment table, surveying the crowd in front of him. "I had no idea the Seven Lucky Gods were so popular. There are even shinki here who don't belong to any of them."

"Like who?" Kuraha said. Kugaha pointed with his drink at a few of Tenjin's shinki, chatting and forming a circle.

"Speaking of popular," Kugaha said, and he motioned toward Kazuma, who was standing alone at the corner of the ballroom. While the other shinki were chatting and eating, Kazuma was keeping watch, silently. "Such a dour exemplar, isn't he? He needs a few drinks to loosen up."

"Kugaha-san!" Akiha slurred. He bumped into Kuraha's flank and staggered toward Kugaha. "Is it true Bishamon-sama used you as a scale?"

"She used me to make appetizers as party favors, Akiha. Do not remind me."

"I thought you were trying not to drink," Kuraha said, shaking his mane, and at the corner of the room, Kazuma moved from his leaning position and started walking toward them.

"Busted," Kugaha said wryly, and Kuraha sniffed as Kazuma came closer.

"Akiha. I thought we discussed you were not going to drink." Kazuma spoke with the same authority he always did, as if they were in the middle of military exercises instead of in the middle of a godly mixer. Akiha grinned and touched his head.

"The little ladies kept filling my glass," Akiha said, and Kazuma sighed, hoisting the little man up by the armpits. They watched as Kazuma hefted his weight, Akiha grinning stupidly.

Kugaha raised his drink. "See you later, Kazuma-san," as Kuraha padded after him.

"Kazuma-san," Kuraha said, and Kazuma stopped and turned. "Put Akiha-san on my back. I will help you lift him."

"Oh, thank you, Kuraha," Kazuma said, and with difficulty he rolled Akiha forward like a sack of flour, draping him over the side of Kuraha's back.

Unlike the garden, the residential part of the manor was quiet. Kuraha's paws padded softly down the marbled floor, and as he walked he could feel Akiha shifting and rolling against his spine. "Don't worry," Kazuma said. His arm was on Akiha, steadying him. "I won't let him fall."

They dropped Akiha onto his bed, watching as he let out a happy contented sound and rolled like a pillbug at the center of the mattress. Kazuma pushed up his glasses before tugging up the blankets over him.

"Shall we go back to the party, Kazuma-san?"

"You go on ahead," Kazuma said. "I actually have quite a bit of paperwork I've been meaning to get to."

"Wouldn't you rather be at the party?"

"Not particularly." Kazuma stopped. A moment of honesty. He smiled apologetically. "I'm not much for these sorts of things," Kazuma said.

"What sorts of things, Kazuma-san?"

Kazuma chuckled, embarrassed. "Mingling, I suppose. I don't really enjoy needing to make small talk."

"That is surprising. With your ability you'd be very good at it."

"I suppose I am somewhat of an introvert." Kazuma tugged on Akiha's sheet, thoughtfully. "Veena actually uses me at the Colloquy sometimes. She has trouble remembering other gods' names."

Kuraha suddenly had an image of the lady at the colloquy, Kazuma in his chouki form whispering the names and facts of whoever god she was stuck talking to. "Well there are 8 million of them," Kuraha said, generously.

Kuraha went back to the garden. The sky was dark now, and there were yellow lights above the garden that were strung up like pearls. Gods and shinki mingled and there was the sound of clinking drinks and quiet laughing, and Kuraha looked up at the manor to see the single yellow window lit above them, the office where Kazuma-san was working, hunched over a stack of reports.

"Kazuma?" The lady looked up, suddenly. She had been chatting with a few gods when she realized her exemplar was missing. "Kuraha, have you seen Kazuma?"

"He is inside, Ojou," Kuraha said, and Bishamon smiled and excused herself from her companions, fixing her shawl and heading back into the manor.

Kuraha followed her. In many ways, he was less like a lion and more like a cat, and it didn't occur to him that he shouldn't be padding through the manor. It didn't occur to the lady that Kuraha shouldn't be following her either, and when she reached Kazuma's room, neither of them seemed to notice Kuraha sitting in the corner of the hallway, curling up on a warm spot by a heating vent as the two of them began talking quietly.

In the room, the lady laughed, softly. Kuraha's ear twitched. Lifting his head, he turned to see the lady leaning over Kazuma-san and rubbing his back, and Kazuma smiling up at her, shyly.

He had never seen them act like this. Always in front of the others, it was just about their work, but here now, there was an ease with which they talked to each other, two old souls finding comfort in being together.

At the party, Kugaha got drunk, and shinki were shrieking as he was spinning around naked by the punch bowl. Kuraha watched with some bemusement as Kazuma sighed and pushed up his glasses, taking a naked Kugaha by the elbow and leading him inside. "Yes, Kazuma-san!" Kugaha slurred. "Guide me!" and Kuraha's tail swished with amusement as Kazuma threw a towel over Kugaha's lap.

It made sense now why Kazuma-san wasn't much for mixers.

 

*****

 

"What is wrong with him?" Kuraha said. Akiha was holding a bag of ice over his head, hungover from the night's mixer, while Kuraha paced around, frustrated. "There were so many beautiful girls, and yet he wouldn't even talk to them! I can't believe he spent the mixer locked up inside the house."

"Kuraha-san, I already told you, I don't think Kazuma-san is interested."

"He is a young man, how can he not be interested?" Kuraha said.

Akiha lifted the bag of ice from his head. "Because Kazuma-san is in love with our lady."

"What?" Kuraha said. Akiha waved his hand.

"Everybody knows it," Akiha said. He replaced the bag on a different spot on his forehead. "You probably haven't noticed yet because you were just named."

Kuraha had his doubts. 

He followed them in lion form. Walking down the hallway, Kazuma kept a brisk pace as he went over various items with the lady. Bishamon nodded curtly as Kazuma flipped through the pages, and Kuraha's whiskers twitched, watching.

There was nothing amiss. Not in the way Kazuma talked to her, no longing glances when they separated.

Kazuma-san was talking to Kugaha again. For all Kugaha seemed to disparage Kazuma, Kuraha found that Kugaha was more than eager to give Kazuma advice. Kuraha watched as Kugaha went over the various medicinal herbs and applications while Kazuma nodded, his eye glinting ever so subtly as he took in the information.

"You know what they say about the man who blows both hot and cold with the same breath," Kuraha said. He leapt elegantly onto a sack of cotton and made a half-circle before sitting on top of it.

"What of it?" Kugaha said. He stirred his herbs. "Kazuma-san lacks the knowledge that I possess."

"I still don't understand why you don't like him."

Kugaha sighed, loudly. "Just because you are a lion," Kugaha said, "Does not mean the rest of us ought to acquiesce."

"I don't like how you talk to that pupil of yours either, you know."

"Oh, Suzuha?" Kugaha stirred his pot. "The boy is a proper idiot but a fine enough apprentice. Teaching him helps pass the time."

"I do wonder what you say about me, when you're talking behind my back," Kuraha said. Kugaha smirked.

"Believe it or not, old man, you are one of the few shinki here that I actually respect."

Kuraha gave a short laugh.

They were a family, this coterie of old men. Kugaha with his crotchety insistence on proper guidance and wielding power, Akiha with his good-natured musings, and Kuraha, the eldest of them.

Kazuma was in his room, the yellow lamplight from his desk making a soft halo behind Kazuma's back. Somehow he had finished his work early, and was now pouring over a medical textbook. Nudging open the door, Kuraha nosed his way inside, his lion's tail swinging lazily.

"Reading textbooks to pass the time, Kazuma-san?"

"Oh, Kuraha." Kazuma closed his book. "What are you doing here?"

Kuraha leapt onto Kazuma's bed. "Going over lessons from Kugaha?"

"Mm, indeed. I was just thinking how bereft we'd be, if our curer were the one to get sick."

Kuraha peered at Kazuma's notes. The boy had been studying intensely, and if Kuraha had to guess, had almost the same depth and breadth of knowledge as Kugaha did. "I've also been looking at medical textbooks," Kazuma said, showing him. "The advances of this time are really quite impressive. I'm considering applying for a medical license so that if necessary I can also prescribe western medication."

Kuraha has seen Kazuma forge documents. Obtaining a medical degree would not be that difficult for him.

He glanced at a box of parts sitting unceremoniously at the foot of the bed. "What is this?" Kuraha said, and he jumped off the mattress, padding toward the box, curiously.

"Oh, that." Kazuma swiveled in his chair. "I was trying my hand at building a computer."

"And what is this?" He nudged his muzzle against a few textbooks sitting messily in a corner.

"Um, those are language textbooks," Kazuma said. "This is an English primer. And that one is in German."

"You know many languages, Kazuma-san?"

"I have a working familiarity with most of them."

"And these are hobbies of yours, Kazuma-san?"

"Er, no. I do this for Veena. It's so I can be useful to her."

Kuraha looked up. Kazuma had looked away suddenly, staring quietly at his book.

"I am not a weapon," Kazuma said, after a long moment. "You said it yourself, Kuraha. I have no real way to protect her."

"But you are formidible, Kazuma-san! You're the one who guides our team."

"Perhaps." Kazuma looked down at his book.

"Kuraha," Kazuma said, and he swiveled toward him. "Were you following me today?"

"Eh?" Kuraha shook his fur.

"It's just something that I noticed," Kazuma said.

"Er, well." Kuraha didn't look at him. "Akiha had made a comment about you being in love with our lady. But it was so ridiculous, I wanted to verify it myself."

He was about to launch into a diatribe about how Akiha was drunk, how could he say something so crass about his exemplar and his lady, when he saw the expression on Kazuma's face.

A look of shock. A quiet horror, as if he had been caught doing something wrong.

"Kazuma-san?" Kuraha said, alarmed. "Kazuma-san, did I say something wrong?"

"It is all right," Kazuma said. Kuraha went to protest but Kazuma held up a hand. "It is a bit ridiculous, isn't it? The idea of a servant being in love with his lady. I honestly cannot think of anything more cliché."

"Right," Kuraha said, and whatever brief surprise Kazuma had clamped back into that perfect mask.

"The fact is, Kuraha, we all have ways of showing our devotion. That she is a woman and I am a man makes us an easy target for idle gossip.

"But it's getting late, and I'd like to continue with my studies. Is there anything else you would like to ask of me?" Kazuma asked, and Kuraha shook his mane.

"No, nothing that I can think of. Forgive me for bothering you," Kuraha said. Kazuma smiled.

"It was not a bother."

 

*****

 

8.

"Kuraha," the lady said. It was after their patrol, and the lady had just disengaged them. "May I have a word?"

The sun was an orange haze sinking into the horizon, and around them the sky was growing a dark amber. Kuraha walked, his shadow cutting a long dark shape onto the pavement, while the lady smiled and walked serenely beside him.

"I wanted to thank you," the lady said. "You've been looking out for my Kazuma, and I wanted to let you know your efforts have not gone unnoticed."

"It is not a problem, Ojou. Indeed, I can't help but relate to him as if I were my child."

"Somehow I think my Kazuma would not take kindly to that," Bishamon said, smiling. Kuraha spread his hands.

"He may be talented, Ojou. But he is still a young man."

"Indeed, Kuraha. And I am glad that someone like you can guide him."

Kuraha looked back at her, surprised. Bishamon smiled.

"Kazuma is my oldest and dearest child," Bishamon said. "He is responsible for so much and he works so hard, but he has no one he can confide in."

"Can he not confide in you, Ojou?" Kuraha asked. The lady shook her head.

"I am not...adequate enough a master to take on his concerns," she said. She spoke carefully, choosing her words. "He has tried before, but my responses have left him feeling cold. What he needs is a human," the lady said. She looked up at him. "Someone who can understand him."

Kuraha understood. The lady, when her attention was on you, radiated with the warmth of sunlight filling a darkened room; the moment she looked away, everything was cold.

"Sometimes, I feel that he would like me to relate to him as if I were a human. But what he can't understand is, I could never be enough for him."

"You are a god," Kuraha said. Bishamon nodded.

"I am far removed from him."

Kuraha understood. The most the lady could do for him was exist, while her guide would be consigned to a lonely, one-sided devotion.

They went back to the others. Almost immediately, the lady went to Kazuma-san's side. Unlike the aloof, cold god she had depicted herself as being, she slid her hand around his waist and fondly hugged him; Kazuma for his part returned her affection, smiling and offering her his arm.

 

*****

 

9.

He was bleeding badly. With difficulty, Kuraha and Akiha rolled Kazuma onto his back, Akiha grabbing a knife to rip away at the fabric.

The lady had slashed her great sword across Kazuma-san's chest, but Saiki was dull with blight and her reflexes were such that she pulled back at the last minute; even so, the gash was deep, cutting into the meat of Kazuma's chest and extending to the sides of his ribs.

"Um," Akiha fumbled. Kuraha searched through Kugaha's jars. "Um, I think we...I think we need to stop the blood."

"I know that!" Kuraha snapped. He grabbed a cloth and shoved it against Kazuma's chest, putting pressure on the wound. "Are any great vessels cut?"

"I don't-I don't- I don't know," Akiha said. Kuraha gritted his teeth and yanked open Kazuma's shirt again.

Of all the shinki to be cut, of course it had to be Kazuma-san. Kazuma-san, who was best suited to take over Kugaha's post as curer, who was currently passed out and bleeding on the table.

Somehow in the confusion, Akiha managed to find catgut sutures and a bottle of iodine, and together they fumbled through trying to close the wound. "I think...I think only the muscle was hit," Kuraha said. He cursed under his breath, his hand shaking with the suture. "I don't think the lady punctured his heart or lungs with this wound."

"Kazuma." The lady had found her way back to Kugaha's lab. Her eyes were swollen when she looked up at them. "How is he?"

Before Kuraha or Akiha could answer, she pushed past them, lurching toward Kazuma's body lying prostrate on the bed. His shirt was torn open, the gash on his chest weeping and crusted. The lady let out a choked breath, then hung her head, weeping quietly.

"Kazuma," she said. She squeezed her eyes and held his hand. "Kazuma. Oh, Kazuma."

"He is okay, Ojou." Kuraha knelt beside her quietly. "Did you have the ablution already?"

She nodded dumbly. Lank strands of tangled hair fell loosely across her face.

"This is my fault," she said. Her breath hitched. Tears in her eyes as she looked up at them. "I should never have exiled him. This is all my fault."

"He is fine." Kuraha spoke soothingly as the lady hung her head. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she began to cry again, noiselessly.

Kuraha and Akiha left, giving the lady space.

"That damned Kugaha," Kuraha said. His lion's instincts swelled. "Betraying our lady! The next time I see him I will rip his throat!"

"He never did like Kazuma-san," Akiha said, and silently they wondered about their third companion, one of the few old men among the lady's shinki.

The lady was asleep. Weakened by blight and overcome with grief, she had fallen asleep leaning against the mattress. Gently Akiha touched her by the elbow and Kuraha offered her a hand, but the lady blinked and raised her head, moving as if through a thickened haze.

She never left his side. Not when they finally moved him back to his room; not when the other shinki limped and crawled back to recovery. She sat beside him, gently clasping his hand or brushing her fingers through his hair.

 

*****

 

10.

Kazuma wasn't kidding when he said he needed his glasses.

"Now?" Kazuma said. He was limping in the garden, gingerly holding his hand to his side, while Bishamon stood quietly beside him. "Veena, I told you - you needn't bother shopping with me for glasses."

The lady pressed the tips of her fingers together. An imploring gesture. "Please?" she said. A hopeful smile.

They brought Kuraha along at Kazuma's insistence - Kazuma was injured and he wasn't a weapon, and even though the lady insisted on it just being the two of them, Kazuma shook his head and refused to relent. "Need I remind you, I don't need glasses," Kazuma said, stubbornly. "My ability counteracts my eyesight, anyway."

"You forget that you are just now back in my good graces. I don't think it wise to go against a request from your master."

"Fine," Kazuma said, awkwardly, and they both glanced back at Kuraha.

They walked. Kuraha was in human form, walking a few paces behind them.

Neither of them spoke. Even though the lady formally rescinded his exile, there was still an awkward distance between them. Kazuma walked with his eyes downcast, while the lady hovered anxiously beside him.

They reached a crosswalk. The light changed, and suddenly a crowd of people appeared, walking around them like water rushing around a stone. Quietly Bishamon reached out and brushed her fingers against Kazuma's hand. Kazuma looked up, startled.

The lady didn't look at him. "I feel as if I'll get lost without my guide," she said, and her fingers closed shyly over his.

Kazuma looked up, and for a moment, Kuraha could see every flicker of doubt, every hint of the deep wells of uncertainty and self-loathing that seemed to gather at the corners. The lady smiled at him, and hugged his arm.

Kuraha watched. Kazuma smiled and sniffed while the lady hugged him, the crowd the starting to thin as the light changed again; at the optometrist, the lady leaned against his back while Kazuma squinted into the refraction wheel, then laughed and picked out goofy frames for him while he shopped for his new glasses.

"Ojou. Kazuma-san," Kuraha said, and the two of them looked up. "This old man is getting tired; if you don't mind, I will take my leave."

"Thank you, Kuraha," the lady said, smiling, and Kuraha saw how Kazuma blushed happily when the lady held his hand.

 

*****

 

Perhaps - and this may be an old man's cynicism - but perhaps Kugaha's betrayal was the best thing for them.

There was always a convivial warmth between the two of them that Kuraha could appreciate, the long years together allowing them to talk with ease. But now, in the weeks and months after the culling of the Ha clan, Kuraha noticed something different about them. A frisson of electricity between routine meetings; the unguarded brush of one's fingertips against the other's leading to a bashful silence.

"I wonder," Kuraha began, "If the lady is in love with Kazuma-san?"

"What?" Kinuha laughed. Though not an old man, Kuraha found Okinu-san had the sensibilities and cynicism of one, taking Kugaha's place as the third observer of youthful antics. "Kuraha. That is crazy."

"If Ojou were my daughter," Kuraha said, and Kinuha smirked and Akiha groaned, "If Ojou were my daughter, I would want her to marry someone like Kazuma-san."

"You always see them as your sons or daughters," Kinuha said. "But Kuraha. The lady is a god, and Kazuma-san is her exemplar."

"As it is between the Lady Goddess of Poverty and hers," Kuraha intoned solemnly. Kinuha shook her head.

"Even if that is the case, Ane-sama is prohibited. The Lucky Seven isn't allowed to date!"

"What are they talking about?" Bishamon asked, coming up to them. Beside her, Kazuma shook his head.

"Our love lives, apparently," Kazuma said. Bishamon tilted her head.

"Don't mind an old man," Kuraha said, winking, after Kazuma had bid the lady goodbye and settled beside them, rearranging a stack of reports. "We have nothing better to do than to relive old glories and live vicariously through your youth."

"Speak for yourself; I'm not an old man," Kinuha said. Akiha grinned and grabbed his pork pie hat. Kazuma-san smiled.

"Kazuma-san," Kuraha said, as Kazuma settled next to him. "Have you ever considered taking the lady on a date?"

"Huh?" Kazuma's head snapped up. There was a panicked look in Kazuma's eyes.

"A date." Kuraha's eyes twinkled. "I'm sure she would find it most welcome."

Kazuma shoved his glasses up, blinking quickly. "Well, er, Kuraha, I don't think that would be appropriate. To even suggest such a thing borders on the ridiculous. And furthermore--" Kazuma started speaking faster, a tick he had that betrayed his nerves "--and furthermore, Kuraha, I am Veena's exemplar, for all intents and purposes, I am her guardian in this world. Veena has no concept of dating, let alone romance, not to mention it's prohibited for the Lucky Seven to be in relationships--not that she would be in a relationship with me!" Kazuma said, somewhat frantically. "But I mean, hypothetically, if we were to embark in that sort of thing."

Kuraha raised his eyebrows at him. Kazuma swallowed, flustered.

"So no, Kuraha," Kazuma said, regaining his old authority, "I will not be taking our master on a 'date.'"

"I see," Kuraha chuckled warmly.

"Date?" Bishamon said. Kuraha had found the lady in her room. "What do you mean, take my Kazuma on a date?"

"I mean as a chance to spend some time with him," Kuraha said. "You did tell me it was my duty to look after him."

"Indeed." Bishamon stroked her chin, thoughtfully. "My Kazuma does work very hard," Bishamon said. "And I have long looked for a way to show my appreciation for him."

"What are you doing?" Kinuha said, while Akiha stared at him, flabbergasted. There was a skip in Kuraha's step. He did a have twirl and grinned at them.

"There's nothing like new love to brighten up an old man!"

"Oh, geez," Kinuha breathed.

 

*****

 

Springtime seemed to fall upon the manor.

If you had asked an old man, he never would have predicted his lady would be breaking bread with her old enemy, but now the Yatogami's presence was almost a daily occurrence. Young Yukine breathed new life into the stale air of the compound, and Ebisu's old shinki energized a group of young ones beleaguered by old betrayals and the death of their clan.

The biggest change, though, was between the lady and Kazuma.

An old man knows. It wasn't often that happiness stared him in the face, but as Kuraha watched them, the giddy, nervous energy that radiated from Kazuma as he walked with Bishamon on their date, he knew that this was probably as close to happiness as his exemplar was allowed.

No longer burdened by the weight of his secret, Kazuma seemed like a different man. He was more open, easier to smile and share a laugh. Someone who would willingly accept a date with his master, despite the rules. Someone who wouldn't pull away when she held his hand.

 

*****

11.

The heavens laid down their edict. The crowds parted, whispering amongst themselves as Arahabaki stepped forward, carrying their master.

Kuraha watched as Kazuma looked up, tears filling his eyes as Arahabaki gently set the lady on the ground.

Kazuma sobbed. Broken, ugly sounds, while the gods cried and hugged their shinki.

"Kuraha," Kazuma said. His voice was thick, and his eyes were red and swollen. "I can't carry her. I-I'm blighted. I can't--"

"Put her on my back," Kuraha said. Numbly, Kazuma nodded, and together they managed to heft the lady's body over his spine.

Just like Kuraha carried Akiha all those decades ago, Kuraha carried their lady, padding softly through the grass while Kazuma limped beside him, steadying her weight with his hand on her back. He wouldn't let her fall.

"Ane-sama!" Aiha and Kinuha ran to the gates, the surviving shinki gathering around them, concerned. "Ane-sama! Is she okay?"

"She's fine," Kuraha said. He glanced behind him. "Kazuma-san needs an ablution."

"What?" their heads snapped up toward Kazuma, whose shoulders were hunched and whose eyes were obscured by the glare of his glasses.

The ablution was brief. There was a bright light and a gust of wind, which whipped through Kuraha's mane, and through broken sobs Kuraha couldn't hear the list of Kazuma's sins. Just the sound of shimmering borderlines, the pop and sizzle of blighted flesh, burning up and crumbling away.

 

*****

12.

"Kazuma-san!" Kuraha said. They flew up toward the heavens, flinging themselves through the fray. "What exactly are we going to do?"

"We grab her and run!" Kazuma said. Below them, Kagutsuchi was giving chase. Kazuma lifted his fingers into a halberd.

"Kazuma-san!" Kuraha could see it. That crackle of static energy. The electric jolt of power running down his arm. "Kazuma-san! Don't!"

A slash, and Kazuma cried out, stung.

This was his exemplar. A man who did no wrong.

 

*****

13.

It was dark in the manor when Kuraha found him, standing at the side of lady's bed. His eyes were red and he was still weak from the ablution, and Kuraha watched as he dully ran his fingers along the lady's temples. He took a shuddery breath, then reached a hand to wipe his eyes.

"I never did apologize," Kazuma said, softly. "I dragged you against your will in the middle of heaven's conflict. I'm sorry," Kazuma said, but Kuraha shook his mane.

"It was I who was about to give up on our lady," Kuraha said, firmly. "Kazuma-san. You were never wrong."

"If that were the case, then I wouldn't have stung her." His fingers made dull circles along her temple, a slow, stereotyped movement, as his eyes turned bright and glassy again.

He started to cry. Kuraha watched, quietly.

The next day, Kuraha padded toward the lady's room to check on them; he expected to find Kazuma-san sleeping on a chair beside the bed, much like the lady did when she had struck him. He had hoped that a good night's sleep and time spent with his lady would soothe him. But when he got to the room, he found the lady was still unconscious, and that Kazuma had already gone.

 

*****

 

14.

The Yatogami was talking with their exemplar again. Kuraha waited until he waved goodbye to him, catching up with him before he and his hafuri made their way back into the Near Shore.

"I wanted to thank you," Kuraha said, as the Yatogami turned. "For watching over Kazuma-san. You could have unburdened yourself to the lady, and yet you allowed her to hunt you for centuries. I am glad for Kazuma-san to have such a true friend."

"It wasn't that big a deal," the Yatogami said. "Kazuma and I go way back. I helped him out, but he always helped me out, too."

Kuraha smiled and offered him a seat on the park bench beside him.

"I am glad," Kuraha said again. "Kazuma-san never had much in the way of friends. I'm happy that he had someone he could confide in."

"That guy always did keep to himself," the Yatogami said.

"The loneliness of genius," Kuraha said. The Yatogami rested his chin on his hands.

"Kazuma isn't a genius," the Yatogami said. Kuraha watched as the nameless god squinted his eyes out into the horizon. "The only thing Kazuma has is an inferiority complex and a lot of free time. He only got good at casting spells because without his glasses, he's practically blind. He had to learn to cast them fast, because he had to get close to his enemies in order to read the kanji.

"He had no other way to protect her," the Yatogami said. He squinted his eyes into the yellow sunlight, watching the light being swallowed from every direction. "Even though that guy's a hafuri. He'll always see himself as a worthless nail."

They both fell quiet, watching the coin of sun slowly bleed into the horizon.

The younger shinki were playing along the riverbank. Shrieking and laughing, they yelled and played and jostled for the lady's and Kazuma-san's attention.

Kuraha watched. Silhouetted by falling light, their bodies were twin shadows against the surface of the river. A brush of the hand, a knowing glance, the ghost of a smile as they walked toward them.

At the bank of the river, the lady laughed, as a shinki child plucked a flower and tucked it behind Kazuma's ear.