released 26th September, 2004
Subaru decided, with the detached part of his mind that was still capable of thought, that he reminded himself of the mountain crone of the Noh play. His feet dragged, weary against the pavement and he felt as though he carried all the good and evil of the world heaped upon his back. Grief and anger and broken things burned at the backs of his eyes, and he was far more dangerous than he looked.
This Tokyo, this unbroken city... it glowed around him, neon signs and voices. He shied away from the whispers, seeking the quieter back streets and the comforting darkness held there.
As if from a far-off dream he spotted a small stall and the lettered curtains that read "ramen." Subaru's stomach clenched, reminding him that he hadn't had anything to eat that day or the day before either. He patted a pocket and discovered his wallet. Taking the train that morning had been a small last pleasure, using his subway pass to ride to Tokyo Tower like any other human being might. Somehow his wallet had stayed with him through it all.
He ambled forward toward that welcoming light. Two of the seated figures got up and left, the owner clearing away their bowls, wiping down the counter with a cloth. Subaru pushed aside a curtain and sat down inside the light, drained to the bone.
"Hello," the owner greeted him, and as Subaru looked up to see the dark-haired young man clearly for the first time all he could feel was despair tiding through him.
He absolutely had no strength left to deal with this situation.
The lanky guy who'd just sat down at his booth stared at Yuusuke with mismatched eyes that Yuusuke somehow didn't think were contacts. He stared at Yuusuke as if he was at the end of his rope and being asked to order ramen was beyond his limits.
"What would you like?" Yuusuke pressed his luck anyway.
The man continued staring for a moment longer, then suddenly relaxed, his head dropping to the counter. "Just... kill me now," he invited, his voice mumbled from within the circle of his arms. "I'm not going to die in humiliation. I know that I haven't got enough power left tonight to fight you."
Yuusuke exchanged a look with Kurama, who was sitting at the far end of the stall eating his usual order.
"How about you just order some ramen instead?" Yuusuke suggested, turning back to the guy. "It'd probably be easier for both of us." And you look like you need it, he added to himself.
Subaru considered that if he was going to be killed by a demon tonight, he'd prefer to die without his stomach's pointed reminders. Aside from which, the smells in the air were good. "Kitsune ramen," he asked politely, raising his head. The demon--who looked to all external eyes like a young human in his late teens, black hair, brown eyes, not unattractive--nodded and turned to his equipment. Subaru watched him for a moment, then turned his head to look at the stall's other occupant.
The androgynous redhead slurped up his own noodles and turned green eyes on Subaru, and he wasn't human either. Subaru wondered if there was some section of Tokyo dedicated to demons and if so when he'd wandered into it.
"I'm Minamino Shuuichi," the redhead introduced himself. "He's Urameshi Yuusuke. You are...?"
"Sumeragi Subaru," Subaru replied. At least he wasn't being attacked, if he was in the wrong sector of town.
The redhead raised a delicate eyebrow. "Of the onmyouji clan?" he asked, surprising Subaru. Most people didn't immediately make the connection... he remembered Sorata and Arashi, who had, and immediately felt sick as a wave of pain and loss suddenly slammed into him.
The owner and his patron both immediately noticed as worry crossed their faces. "Are you okay?" the owner--Urameshi, Subaru remembered, tagging the name to the face in his memory with repetion, like a spell, like he'd been taught--asked.
"No," Subaru mumbled, crumpling to the counter again. Not just Sorata and Arashi, Yuzuriha, too, who had given him a toy when she had visited him in the hospital and extracted a pinky-promise from him. She'd died in the arms of the one she loved best, and Subaru envied that of her, but she was dead.... And beautiful Kasumi-san, torn into pieces, her blood as red as her hair. Aoki-san had grieved over her body, screaming, before that scream had been cut short, a gurgle of blood in his lungs.... Subaru stared at his hands. There was blood there too, red and hot and slick, Seishirou-san and others since but never any so important as that first, and Kamui had died too, Kamui, the little brother he'd never had, the chance he'd never had, dying to protect Subaru and others and things he didn't believe in any more--
They were all dead.
A thin keening noise broke from Subaru's throat.
Yuusuke stared, wide-eyed, as the guy at his counter started falling apart in front of his eyes. Sumeragi was doing it quietly, but there was no mistaking the way his body was shaking for anything but tears, and Yuusuke was not good at comforting people.
Kurama, who was watching, sighed softly and pushed his stool back from the counter, tossing a few hundred yen into the basket. He walked over and sat down next to the new customer, laying a hand on his back. Sometimes it really surprised Yuusuke, who knew what a ice-hearted bastard Kurama could be when it suited his needs, to see his friend's gentler side. Kurama's hand stroked up and down the man's back, almost like he was petting a cat. "Shh, shh," he murmured. "It's all right. Cry it out."
Eventually, and probably not surprisingly, the man stopped shaking.
Kurama looked back up at Yuusuke. "I'll take him to my apartment for the night. He's too out of it to find out where he lives."
"You sure?" Yuusuke asked. "I mean, you don't know him or anything, Kurama."
Kurama flashed him a smile, standing and pulling Sumeragi up as well, one arm draped around Kurama's shoulder. "It's all right, Yuusuke. You might say that we're relatives, though we've never met before."
"Relatives?" Now that Yuusuke thought about it, he could kind of see a resemblance. Sumeragi's green eye was almost the same color as Kurama's, though that still didn't explain the brown eye.
Kurama's eyes twinkled. "I'm his ancestor."
Subaru woke in a red room. This confused him until he realized it was the light of the setting sun that was painting the walls the brilliant color. Still, it wasn't his room. He lay in the bed for a few minutes after waking, examining what he could see. Decorated simply in clean colors and lines, the owner of this bedroom clearly had good taste and a fondness of the traditional Japanese aesthetic. The floor was covered in tatami and the few pieces of furniture--a chest of drawers and a bedside table--were both immaculate age-darkened wood with bright brass handles and hinges. The person also seemed to love plants: there were no less than a dozen in the room, hanging in baskets or standing along the walls.
Pushing back the black coverlet, Subaru stood. The room swirled for a moment, then held still. He found his way to the bathroom and splashed water on his face.
Then he went in search of the apartment's owner.
Kurama sat cross-legged on his balcony holding an argument with a miniature pine. It stubbornly clung to the position that as the finest poet in The Tale of Genji the Akagi lady had the right to raise her daughter, while Kurama, who had lived in Heian-kyo, held firmly to the fact that only Murasaki had the social skills to raise the girl in a way that befit Genji's daughter. As Kurama was currently getting thousand-year-old poetry quoted at him by a bonsai, he was considering not reading it any more ancient literature in the near future. Pines were stubborn, and this one refused to give an inch on its views.
The pine fell silent as Kurama heard a soft footstep behind himself.
"Hello, Sumeragi-san," he said, turning to face the young man. "Are you hungry?"
"Were you...." The man was staring at him and at the tree.
Kurama stifled a smile as he stood. "Arguing literature with a tree? Yes. For a brat that's less than a hundred, it certainly thinks it knows more than I do. There's miso soup on the stove... I'm not the best of cooks, but I hope teriyaki chicken is all right?"
"What are you?" the onmyouji asked, following Kurama to the kitchen. He sounded bewildered.
"A relative of yours," Kurama replied, opening a cupboard and reaching for bowls. "Which is why I'm taking care of you. You owe Yuusuke an apology for collapsing at his stand, by the way. Fortunately he didn't take it as an insult to his cooking."
"Relative?" Subaru seemed to be getting lost in the conversation.
"How much rice do you want?" Kurama inquired, opening his rice cooker. Steam wafted up.
"Relative?" the Sumeragi repeated with just a touch of force behind the question.
Kurama sighed and half-turned to face his guest. "As a Sumeragi, you are a descendant of Abe no Seimei, aren't you?" he asked pointedly. "Therefore, you and I are related."
Minamino managed to drag the tale out of Subaru during the course of dinner, somehow without managing to tell Subaru much about himself in exchange. He seemed to take the battle for the end of the world in stride, which bothered Subaru.
"You act like this is the only world there is," Minamino replied. "It's not. There's the Makai and the Reikai and a whole host of other planes that aren't really in touch with the Ningenkai."
"It's my world," Subaru returned forcefully. "The only one I know."
"As an onmyouji, though," Minamino said calmly, "you know that death is not an end, only a new stage. So even if all the humans of this world were killed, it's not like they'll have vanished from existence. Though I don't want to picture Koenma's desk if that had happened."
"Koenma?" Subaru asked.
"Enma Daioh's son. Among other things he runs the bureau that deals with demons in the Ningenkai."
Subaru saw the perfect opening and took it. "Like you."
"You don't give up, do you?"
Subaru shook his head. "I'm grateful that you've taken care of me, but that doesn't mean I entirely trust you," he said honestly. "I don't even know what you are."
Minamino leaned forward slightly, resting his chin on interlaced fingers. "Given that I've said we're related through Seimei, there's really only one answer to that, isn't there?"
"If you're a kitsune, then why do you have a human name and apartment?"
"Deliberate reincarnation to keep myself safe and alive." The green eyes were narrowed now. "I very much am the human Minamino Shuuichi, you see, but I'm also very much a youko."
"What's your name?"
"Can't you guess?"
Why the fox spirit thought he would be able to... Subaru thought about it for a moment, then felt the color drain from his face.
"Impossible," he whispered.
"What's your guess?" the human-youko asked, smiling now, enjoying Subaru's discomfort.
"Kurama?" Subaru choked.
Still smiling, Subaru's ancestress nodded once.
Yuusuke stared at him, then turned his back on Kurama. "That falls under the category 'things I didn't wanna know'," he announced to the back of his stall.
"You already know I'm a shapeshifter," Kurama pointed out. "Why should it matter if I've been a woman in the past?"
"Because I'm comfortable in your masculinity, thank you very much!" Yuusuke turned around and glared at Kurama, whose eyes were twinkling.
"Haven't you ever wondered why I'm popular with women?" the redhead inquired.
"Because you're a damned smart pretty boy with manners."
Kurama shook his head, his expression losing a touch of its usual amusement. "I know what it's like for women, Yuusuke. I've been where they are, and so I treat them better than I was treated." His eyes unfocused. "That said, Yasuna was a good man."
Yuusuke waited a moment, then asked, "Did you want to talk about him?"
Kurama's eyes focused back on Yuusuke.
"I can be sensitive!" Yuusuke defended himself. "Besides, I've known you for what, five years now and I didn't even know you were married. We are friends, right?"
Kurama's half-smile had come back. "It was well over a thousand years ago, Yuusuke."
Kurama took a swig from his soda then set the can down, fingers tracing along its sides. "A thousand years ago I was young and arrogant. I was already a reknowned thief who had lived long enough to turn white, and Inari-sama had entrusted me with the keys to his storehouse."
Yuusuke rolled his eyes. "What kind of idiot god gives his keys out to a thief?"
Kurama's smile broadened. "You gave me the keys to your place when you took Keiko-chan to that hot spring resort."
"She woulda killed me if I'd let any of those plants she gave me get killed," Yuusuke shot back.
"It's a ritual phrase anyway, Yuusuke. It means that I'd lived long enough and proved myself quick and clever enough to be accepted into Inari's retinue as his messenger. He gave me power over plants as a mark of his trust."
"You mean you weren't born with that power?"
"No more than you were born shooting reigun blasts."
"Huh." Somehow Yuusuke had thought that all youkos had plant powers. "So you were young and stupid," he prompted. "What happened?"
"A trap in the woods on Mount Kurama." Kurama snorted. "You have no idea how much one of those hurts, or how impossible it is to get out of one when it's warded to keep you in fox form. I think I was in it for three or four days. I was pretty out of it by the time the trapper came back. Fortunately my lord appeared with a hunting party at the same time and saved my life. I had to repay him for that, so I followed his party for two days. I found out that his wife had recently died. On the third day--" Kurama smiled a little sappily. "--they happened upon an abandoned mansion where a fair flower of noble blood was wasting away, waiting alone to bloom. Quite coincidentally, she resembled the dead lady so closely that they might have been sisters, or even twins."
Yuusuke remembered stories about fox spirits. "You bewitched him, didn't you?" he accused.
"At first," Kurama admitted. "It wasn't hard--he fell in love mostly on his own. And I really did want to repay him. That time it wasn't for a trick."
Yuusuke decided he didn't want to think about the phrase "that time." "So what happened then?" he asked instead.
"He made me his wife and took me home and eventually we had a son." Kurama's voice was wistful. "It lasted nine years. Nine years of silks and perfumes, poetry and painting competitions, the sounds of flutes or koto in the air... watching my son take his first step and helping my lord advance his standing where I could."
"So why don't you like Kyoto now, if you were so happy there?"
Kurama seemed to come back from his memories. "It's not the same city anymore, Yuusuke," he explained. "Yasuna and Seimei are both dust, and not a matchstick remains standing of the capitol I knew and loved. Time hurts, Yuusuke. Everything changes and nothing stays. Even our friendship will probably end someday. I've learned to live in the present moment because the past can never be brought back."
"If it could be, would you bring it back?" Yuusuke asked. There was a lot about Kurama he didn't know, and he wasn't above finding out what he could. "Was that when you were happiest?"
Kurama shook his head. "It was a good time, but not a 'best time.' I worried a lot. I had to keep myself hidden, keep up with the court, keep Yasuna's attention, keep my son safe and healthy, educate him... in the end it all became a big game of sorts, like playing keep up with the neighbors and playing house at the same time." He took another drink from his soda. "I think the fact that I was treating it like a game was what made me finally lose."
Fingers slid through long red hair and held strands of it up for inspection. "Even though I'm human now, like this, there are still hints of what I really am that show through for those who know how to look. Aside from me, have you ever met any Japanese with bright red hair and green eyes?"
Yuusuke was forced to admit that he had not.
"Just a century ago people would've known by looking at me. Now, though, old truths are being lost in modern ways. So now, when people dye their hair and wear colored contacts, being human like this is safer. My shadow is Minamino Shuuichi's shadow. But then, when I was human only by shapeshifting, I looked right... until you looked at my shadow. It had a fox's snout and a tail. For the most part I managed to keep it hidden, but... I was admiring some chrysanthemums one day. We were having such a nice conversation that I slipped. I let my shadow be seen. It... ended everything. I left that night."
Kurama waited in her chambers for her husband to return from his duties. For one last time she picked up her hairbrush and smoothed long black strands. Whispers had already gone around--her ladies refused to attend her anymore. She supposed she couldn't blame them. In the round mirror before her the reflection rippled, blurred, then changed to that of a fox-man, white-silver and strong. Her true face, which she hadn't seen for nine years. With trembling fingers she touched the mirror.
Kurama jumped and whirled.
Her lord stood facing her, dressed in his court robes. His still face seemed to hide his heart behind a screen.
"Lord Yasuna," she said.
He wasted no time on preambles. "Is it true?"
She bowed. "Yes."
She smiled, rueful nostalgia. "You saved my life on the mountain where we met. I wished to repay what I owed." She met his eyes, reading the pained betrayal in them. But already her heart was rewriting itself, making her husband into a fond memory rather than the reason she woke each morning.
"The boy?" he asked.
"Your son," Kurama replied, bowing again. "I leave him to you--he cannot come where I go."
"He is a demon's son. It will not be easy for him." Yasuna knew better than to think he could stop rumors.
She nodded in acknowledgement. "Let it be known that his mother is a myobu, one of Inari-sama's train, and no mere kitsune. Perhaps that knowledge will ease his path among humans. As my son, though, he will see the unseen and converse with the unknown. Please, Yasuna-sama, let his powers be trained." This time her forehead touched the floor as she bowed.
He was silent for a long moment, then murmured assent. "Would an onmyouji be acceptable?"
Kurama sighed in relief. Yasuna was neither rejecting Dojimaru nor stifling his gifts. "Thank you, my lord." She sat up, then stood. "My presence causes you distress, my lord. I shall go. May I see the boy one last time?"
"Of course." He did not turn as she walked past him. But at the moment when they stood shoulder to shoulder, he asked in a quiet voice, "May I have the honor of your name, fox-wife?"
"Kurama," she replied in an equally quiet voice. "I am called Kurama."
"Kurama," he repeated, not without affection. Then he sighed. "You were a fine wife."
"Thank you. You were a fine husband. Be good to the boy."
Kurama left him behind, and did not look back.
"Dojimaru. Dojimaru." He was gently shaken awake by a hand on his shoulder. The boy, in the spring of his sixth year, rubbed his eyes.
"What is it, Mom?" he asked sleepily.
"Come into the garden," she whispered. "We are going to look at the moon together, just you and I." She glared at Dojimaru's nurse, who scurried away like a frightened spider. His mother took Dojimaru's hand. "Come, Dojimaru," she said again. "Come into the garden."
He followed along, his hand in hers, to the verandah where they sat down together.
"It is an excellent moon," Dojimaru opined. It was large and round, seeming to light the entire sky.
"Yes," his mother agreed, and they sat together in silence for a long time.
Dojimaru was slowly falling back asleep, so at first he thought it was part of a dream when a morning glory vine crept down from the wall and slithered over to his mother, curling around her fingers and wrist. She stroked it like it was a tame snake.
"Mom?" he asked.
"It's all right," she soothed. "Watch." Dojimaru's beautiful, elegant mother stepped down off the verandah and out into the garden, the vine following her like a faithful pet.
Other plants turned to face Kuzunoha as she walked, leaves rustling. The plum tree, bearing small fruit, suddenly flowered again. The cherry tree, already covered in blossoms, began to shed them and produce more, its trunk quivering as Dojimaru's mother drew near. She raised an arm up to the moon and seemed to draw its light down to herself. She glimmered with an eerie, bewitching light.
Dojimaru was fully awake now. "Mom?" he asked again.
She turned to face him. "Do you know what this is called?" she asked, gesturing at the ghostly, glowing mist that hung around her.
"It's called foxfire. We use it to lure humans, to play tricks on them."
"We?" Dojimaru's mouth was dry now.
She came closer and he thought he could see forever in his mother's eyes. "Your father and I first met when he saved the life of a fox in a trap." Another step and she was almost close enough again to touch. The foxfire clung to her like an elegant perfume, moving as she moved. "In gratitude for his kindness, I became a woman and his wife." His mother reached out and took Dojimaru's hand in her own. The light flowed up his arm, cool like the touch of mist. "This fox blood of mine flows in your veins as well and makes you powerful, Dojimaru. Soon, your father has promised me, you shall begin to study and master talents you do not yet know you possess. Promise me that you will study hard."
Dojimaru nodded once. "I promise." Then he reached up and touched his mother's face. "Mom, why are you crying?"
"Because I won't be here to see it," she replied, and suddenly he realized that the cherry tree was weeping with her.
"Where are you going?" He could feel his throat starting to hurt.
Her fingers stroked down the side of his face. "I shall return to Inari-sama, whom I serve." Her fingers came away wet. "A cruel thing, for a mother to know her child's tears."
"You're never coming back."
She shook her head. "I can't. But if you truly need me, Dojimaru, call my name, Youko Kurama, and I will come." She sketched the characters in the air and they lingered for a moment, glowing. "Remember them, Dojimaru. If you call me by the name of that mountain, it won't work."
"Youko Kurama," he repeated, storing the name deep inside himself.
"Yes. I'll leave this with you, too." She reached into a sleeve and drew out her favorite wrapped thread ball. She passed her hand over it once and Dojimaru blinked, wondering how he had ever thought it was a temari. It was a round jewel as large as two hands could hold. "With this, you will understand the speech of the birds and the beasts." She passed her hand over it again and it resumed the appearance of a toy. If Dojimaru looked hard enough, though, he thought he could still see the shape of the gem. His mother pressed it into his hands. "I give this to you, my son."
"I shall treasure it and make good use of it, my mother," he replied, bowing. It felt no heavier in his hands than it ever had before, but there was a warmth to the sphere now.
"With this, I leave you."
A cloud passed before the moon and when it moved on a nine-tailed white fox stood where Dojimaru's mother had been.
Farewell, my son, a voice whispered, and the fox ran, leaping easily over the fence.
Dojimaru sat under the moon for a long time before his father came and sent him back to bed.
He slept with the temari ball clutched tightly in his arms.
"So, did you ever see him again?" asked Kuwabara, blowing on his noodles. He'd arrived while Kurama was reminiscing.
"A few times, long after he was grown and already going by the name Seimei. He was so different I wouldn't have thought he was the same little boy except that he had my name inside him."
"What do you mean?" Yuusuke asked.
"Because he was of mixed blood, he grew up alienated from the humans around him. It often happens--I wouldn't be surprised if your halfling ancestor was the same, Yuusuke."
"They couldn't have been that alienated from society," Kuwabara pointed out. "They did both get married and have descendants, didn't they?"
"True," Kurama admitted. "I spent half a century thanking the higher gods and goddesses that Seimei met Hiromasa."
"Minamoto no Hiromasa."
"Hiromasa, Hiromasa." Kuwabara seemed to be cudgelling his brain. "Um. The flute player?"
Kurama nodded. "He became Seimei's friend and humanized Seimei a bit, which I certainly wasn't capable of doing."
"Was Hiromasa's playing really worth its reputation?" a soft new voice asked.
Kurama turned to see his descendant standing behind them. "I've never heard its equal, Subaru-san," he replied, gesturing at the empty seat next to his own.
"Well, I'm off!" Kazuma declared cheerfully, standing up.
Urameshi, though, seemed to have other ideas and grabbed his arm across the counter, forcing him back into his seat. "If I gotta stay and watch, so do you!" the demon lord cum ramen stall owner hissed at his friend.
Glaring back at Urameshi, Kazuma delicately removed his arm from Urameshi's grasp and sat back down.
"A kitsune ramen, please," Sumeragi requested, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Kurama. "I like kitsune ramen," the onmyouji defended himself from his ancestor's amusement.
"So do I," Kurama mildly replied. "It's not a fault."
"One ramen, coming right up!" Yuusuke said, turning to his equipment but keeping an open ear pointed toward the two.
Sumeragi watched him. "Have I wandered into some area of Tokyo where demons congregate without knowing I was doing so?"
Urameshi laughed. "Long story. I used to be human, until I died twice. Kurama's got no such excuse."
"And at that, neither Hiei nor Yukina-chan are here," Kurama agreed. "It's only you and I tonight."
"We all work part-time as investigators for the Reikai," Kazuma informed the onmyouji.
"Ah." The man stared at his hands for a long moment. "I never thought it was real," he finally said, voice quiet. "I never thought that Seimei's mother really was a kitsune."
"Myobu," Kurama corrected. Three pairs of eyes fixed on the redhead. He smiled and shrugged a little. "Inari-sama's service is still important, after a thousand years. At least that explains why you bolted after dinner last night."
"I am sitting talking with a thousand-year-old fox spirit who happens to be my ancestor and refuses to get upset about anything," Subaru murmured to himself. "Somewhere in this, I am sure, there is an element of surreality."
"You'll get used to it," Yuusuke predicted. "You don't want to see him when he does get ticked off, trust me." He set a bowl of ramen before Subaru. "He scares me."
"That's because you're a nice person, Yuusuke," Kurama replied, still smiling. "I'm not."
Subaru resisted the urge to sigh as he broke his chopsticks apart. The friendly banter reminded him acutely of the few times Sorata and Yuzuriha had wrangled all seven of the Seals into having dinner together. He'd felt held apart from it then, as he did now. It was hard to say which social situation had been worse--the Seals, genuinely friendly and assertive people, except for himself and Kamui, all united in a single purpose, or this group of strangers with whom he had no connection save for his seat at the ramen stand.
Subaru looked up and found green eyes calmly regarding him while Kurama's two friends talked in the background.
"Seimei had problems with people, too," he said quietly.
"That's not mentioned in the Konjaku Monogatari."
Kurama shrugged. "A lot of things aren't. If you wanted, I could tell you about him."
Subaru looked at the surface of his ramen as though it might have answers for him on how to deal with his inhuman ancestor. He stirred it, then took a bite. The ramen was good. It would probably be filling.
He looked at his ancestor, and nodded. "I'd like that," Subaru said.Tales From a Ramen Stall page Send comments to author