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Dance of the Parallax

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A head heavy with sopping wet, midnight curls. Surprise-wide eyes under too-long lashes. Skin so bright he blurred at the edges like a distant, burning star.

Eight year old Atsumu Miya sinks like a stone and breathes in death until it fills his lungs to bursting. 

Then he lives to tell the tale.

 

*

 

Tucked away in a dark forest at the base of a northern mountain, along the banks of a sleepy spring-fed creek, the Moon Court quietly comes and goes. The traditional building—made of wood and love and not much else—stands outside the flow of time, untouched by beasts and storms and politics. Every spring it appears with the budding of the cherry blossoms, then it fades away before the last petal falls.

Atsumu has spent all twenty of his springs here. He knows these eaves, these posts, these lintels. 

Here: the main hall, where he would sniffle his goodbyes to Osamu through fat, ugly tears and where—weeks later—he’d nod tersely instead of saying, Hello or, I missed you.

Here: the veranda, where the maidens dragged him countless times to scold him for not following their teachings to the letter, where they’d sigh and say, Miya, think of your family.

Here: the garden, where the other candidates gathered to admire the ever-blue sky and spin gossip about Atsumu Miya, the problem child, and the great embarrassment he was to them all, to their traditions, and to their beloved ogre. 

Tonight, they gather in the garden for the last night—the Waning Night, after which the Moon Court will fade from this world once more, only to return when the next ogre spirit is born to the Beyond and must seek a mortal bride to light their way. Tonight, the Ogre who was born two decades ago will choose his bride from amongst the twelve sacred bloodlines. Tonight, eleven engagements will be broken, and Atsumu has every intention of ensuring his will be one of them.

Cuz if he’s honest? He’s read the stories and he’s seen the art and the statues and enough masks to know what an ogre spirit looks like, and he’s just not interested. Luck, protection, and prosperity for his family sound great, sure, but at what cost?

The other candidates cluster together, some speaking quietly amongst themselves while others keep their heads bowed in silent prayer (or, more likely, the guise of silent prayer). Every so often, they cast over-the-shoulder, snotty looks Atsumu’s way, and even with their faces obscured by their family masks it doesn’t take much to know they’re commenting on his unsuitableness as a candidate. It’s what they’ve been saying at every opportunity for the last twenty years, after all. 

If bein’ the most unsuitable candidate possible hadn’t been Atsumu’s plan all along, his pride’d be more hurt. As it is, he pushes his family mask—the face of a sly, laughing fox—up on his forehead, rubs his sleeve over his sweaty brow, and soaks up the scandalized whispers this blatant disregard for propriety earns him.

They’re served tea that he imperiously disregards—the garden air is thick with the bitter smell of it, a smell loaded with unpleasant memories he’s all but fully repressed. He’s half-afraid that tasting it now will bring everything back in a horrible, dizzying rush and he’ll end up ralphing all over Futakuchi’s haori. Not a great last impression, if a fittin' one.

Overhead, the sky has faded from that eerie ever-blue to a deep and fathomless black, a color Atsumu has only ever seen once before, in the cunning waters of the nearby creek that now cuts its path down the side of the mountain. He longs to tread its banks, to let it lead him away from the Moon Court and back to the real world. 

On the veranda, the parchment walls that separate the outside from the Beyond begin to rattle, and every head in the garden swivels towards them to watch them part. Through the growing space between them, Atsumu can see the moya in all its glory, filled to the brim with dancing shadows, the imprints of the Beyond in this world. 

Daishou moves first. He shoulders his way past Atsumu, who grunts and glares in return, and steps up onto the veranda—where he, being the two-faced teacher’s pet that he is, has spent significantly less time than Atsumu—and disappears into the moya with a flick of his wrist and a flirtatious flap of his enormous, ornate hand fan. 

The shadows swallow him whole. Just like that, he’s gone.

In his wake flow the others, all ten of them parting around Atsumu on their way up, unwilling to touch him, unsure if whatever personality defect he’s got is infectious and unwilling to risk it. Then he’s the only candidate left standing in the garden. He adjusts his mask to cover his face again as the maidens hover along the perimeter of the courtyard, watching him with beady, knowing eyes.

“I’m goin’, I’m goin’,” he says to both their stuffy silence and the moonless sky. 

He goes. On the other side of this night, he’ll either be taken into the Beyond as the unwilling bride of an ogre spirit, or he will finally, at long last, be set free. For the last twenty years, he’s done everything in his power to ensure he’s not marriage material. Now all that’s left is to step into the moya and let the shadows spirit him away one last time.

 

*

 

Atsumu was only an infant the first time he saw into the Beyond. 

He laid dazed and unmoving beneath the hanging mobile over his crib, lulled by the sounds of an otherworldly lullaby. Beside him, Osamu stopped gumming at his chubby fist and began to wail. When their mother came to investigate, she found Atsumu with his eyes a murky, tell-tale gray. Then, with joy and with heartbreak, she cried. 

She knew that one of her children would spend all of his springs in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, learning strange things. She’d known then that there was a chance he could eventually be taken from them forever. 

Just shy of eighteen months old, Atsumu was squirmy and fussy and content to be placated with pacifiers and bottles and being held. He couldn’t have known that the Waxing Sight had marked him as a good omen, as an opportunity for his family to obtain something more in this life.

Sometimes, when he’s feelin’ particularly self-pitying, he thinks about a world in which Osamu had been chosen instead. His brother was always the more docile of the two of ‘em; he never developed a petty disposition that’d empower him to suffer just to prove a point. Knowin’ him, he probably wouldn’t have let his pride get in the way of makin’ the most of getting engaged to an ugly ogre spirit. 

Hell, he might’ve even enjoyed himself—unlike Atsumu, who's made of crueler, uglier, shallower things but had been blessed with the Waxing Sight anyway.

 

*

 

The Beyond is much less impressive than the fanfare around it suggests. 

It’s a vibrant place filled with strange, ugly spirits boasting too-many eyes or hands or stomachs. Some of them have long, extending jaws to accommodate their monstrous incisors; others have boar legs and lizard tails and foot-long talons. They spew spittle when they talk in garbled, strange languages to one another and their bodies shake like gelatin when, on rare occasion, they toss their heads with hearty laughter.

All of this plays out on top of the real world, which is rendered hazy and mutable against the sharp otherness of the spirits. To someone who wasn’t forced to spend long, listless days in this in-between space for three weeks every spring, it might seem wondrous or awe-inspiring. Even Atsumu thought it was cool once, in a time so long ago it might as well have been another life.

Once he got over the novelty of it all and the spirits’ endless curiosity about him, Atsumu’s mind changed real quick. He’s suffered his visits here with little grace and no patience ever since.

Tonight, the ceiling and walls of the moya are draped in rich indigo fabrics that were punctured precisely to allow hazy starlight in, creating faux constellations. From a slightly elevated platform at the northernmost part of the room comes the forlorn song of a group of kotos being played in unison and, beyond that, a faint drumming. None of the other candidates look up from their intricate, well-practiced dance when Atsumu enters.

That suits him just fine, thanks. 

The spirits, though, are another story. He lingers along the edge of the room, inspecting those who have chosen not to dance as they inspect him right back. Their gazes settle on him like tangible things, heavy things, and make the hair on the back of his neck rise. Staring at the floor is really the only option he’s got for ignoring them, so that’s what he does.

Another candidate can’t be dancing—the traditional dances are all partners-only, and there’s exactly twelve of them—but Atsumu isn’t sure who until he all but walks into a preternaturally stoic, solid man sporting a mask with a comically large beak and feathers carved into every other inch of it.

“Miya.” Ushijima greets him with a stiff nod.

He’s intimidating, that’s for sure—even with his arms folded behind his back. Atsumu gives him a considering once-over before casting his gaze out to the sea of dancers where his eyes linger on the colorful splash of candidates moving in the middle of all those hideous, unnerving spirits. Their steps are elegant and flowing and, as Atsumu knows all too well, innate.

The music swells. The partners begin to spin. Atsumu tears his eyes away to size up Ushijima. He’s always been the maidens’ favorite. What he’s doing avoiding the dance floor is—and will probably stay—a mystery.

Atsumu says, “Yer mask is real pretty, y’know. Makes mine look cheap.”

It’s true, but he probably shouldn’t say it. Ushijima doesn’t show any signs of caring one way or the other though. He just says, “If you don’t dance, Miya, you won’t be noticed.”

“Are you propositionin’ me ?” Atsumu asks, a laugh startled out of him. “Toshi-kun, you flirt!”

Ushijima blinks, expressionless as ever (though Atsumu revels in his hunch that—maybe just maybe—he perplexed him a little).

“This is not flirting, Miya,” he says with as little intonation as humanly possible.

They’ve known each other for decades and Atsumu’s still not sure if it’s the weight of tradition that’s got him wound so tight or if the guy’s just like that. Not that it much matters; they won’t be seein’ each other again after tonight.

He rolls his eyes. “I didn’t really need ya to tell me that.” His pride isn’t wounded from that point blank denial. It’s not. “Alright. Are we gonna dance or—”

Silence descends upon the moya. An eerie, unfamiliar stillness seizes the Beyond and squeezes them all in its grip. One second, Atsumu is mid-blink and about to sulk out onto the dance floor; the next he cannot open his eyes or draw the breath he needs to say another word.

The moment passes. Everyone pushes towards the corner nearest to them out of fear or respect or a mix of both, effectively dividing the room into four segments with the ogre spirit at its epicenter.

Their betrothed has arrived.

Even slouching, he’s inhumanly tall. He holds his chin high, apparently unaffected by the weight of the dramatic ponytail atop his head. His clothes are traditional style in a shade of true, empty black. The bone white ogre mask he’s wearing has a distended jaw, too-many teeth, and two small horns protruding from a bulbous forehead. It’s hideous, and Atsumu’s too aware that it might be covering an even worse face. 

For a small eternity, everyone stares at the ogre spirit. The ogre spirit stares at no one. 

The kotos pick up again, but this time only the ten candidates return to the floor. All of them—Atsumu included, he’s sure—are doin’ a bad job of hiding just how shaken they are. In all his life, he’s never seen a spirit look so real or solid as this one before him. It’s unnerving.

“Wait your turn, then come,” Ushijima says before he moves onto the dance floor and towards the center of the room. 

With the addition of the ogre spirit, it’s expected that one candidate will step out one turn and be picked up again the next. There are some weird, idealistic reasons for this, but Atsumu figures he’ll make it easy on them all by sitting out the whole time.

The drumming begins again. It’s an otherworldly sound, unlike any instrument Atsumu’s ever heard outside the Beyond. The steady, sure beats guide the dancers’ feet as they divide into two lines—the Ogre spirit taller than all of them by at least a head, even Hyakuzawa—and begin to move together. The dance brings them hand-to-hand with the person opposite them, then it breaks them apart into three groups of four where they move in slow circles meant to symbolize… something. Atsumu hadn’t paid attention. 

And he’s still not paying attention as he inches towards the entrance to the moya. The verbiage around his family’s contract to the Moon Court is fuzzy, but he can say with some certainty that it only promises he’ll attend the joining ceremony. Nothin’ in there says he’s gotta suffer through the selection process or linger til dawn. 

Is he curious who this ogre spirit might pick? Absolutely. Is he willing to linger a moment longer than he has to in order to find out? 

Not on his life.

 

*

 

It’s much harder to leave the Beyond than it is to enter it. This is especially true when important ceremonies are causing spikes in the real world’s latent magic.

Weird-ass latent magic shit is what’s to blame for the neverending hallway Atsumu walks for the next hour. On his way in, he’d passed through in about a minute. Now the comparison rankles. It’s not like the thought he could step right through to the other side on a dang whim, but yeesh. He didn’t think he’d have to work this hard either. 

When he finally, finally manages to push through to reality, he stands alone on the veranda looking into the garden. The maidens have left their posts, so he stands alone beneath that impossibly black sky and listens to the locusts trilling, the torches on the walls burning, and the nearby creek rolling, rolling, rolling away.

A shiver runs along his spine. A memory threatens to surface. He sits on the edge of the veranda, shoulders hunched with his knees drawn to his chest, and shoves it back down. 

Dawn can’t be more than a few hours away. That’s all that stands between him and life—a real life. One where he’s not stolen away every spring. One where he’s not half-promised to a being from another world. One where he never has to see this mountain or that creek or the Moon Court ever again. 

“What is it about the traditions that you hate so much?” a voice asks, and Atsumu whips his head up and about, trying to place it. There’s no one else in the garden with him—not even a shadowy impression of a spirit. Briefly, he entertains the possibility that he’s going insane.

Only one way to find out, right? 

“What’s to like?” he asks. “Tradition’s what got me into this mess.”

A huff of breath. Soft footsteps on the grass. “Did you ever think,” that disembodied voice says, “that it’d be less of a mess if you just went along with everything?”

Atsumu bares his teeth at the garden’s centerpiece: a hulking stone that’s had ogres’ snarling faces carved into all four of its sides. 

“I don’t like bein’ told what to do,” he bites out. 

A listless breeze catches on the branches of the single cherry blossom tree on the premises. Atsumu hears its branches rattle and watches as its petals are carried, lethargically, over the perimeter of the Moon Court and into the garden. 

“Even for your family,” the voice says.

Atsumu straightens his back and grits his teeth. “Well,” he forces out, “that’s a pretty personal question, y’know? Not the sorta thing I talk about with just any stupid voice.”

After all, the truth is an ugly thing that, once revealed, he won’t be able to hide again. 

“Not even the stupid voice of your betrothed?” 

Atsumu grunts. “Especially not his.”

The wind picks up, bringing with it petrichor, cherry blossoms, and the faint sounds of koto strings being plucked. The blossoms swing about in wide, whimsical spirals and never quite touch the ground well after the breeze dies. They spin and spin and spin about, and then they flutter away, up and over the kawara. Atsumu watches them go with lazy interest, unaware that he’s been joined by another physical person until someone sits on the edge of the veranda beside him, startling him.

“Shit!” he squawks. He scrabbles backwards across the wooden floor to press his back to a post, chest heaving with his quick, panicked breaths. “Shit!

Perched on the edge of the deck—with one bare, horrible foot pressed to the cool damp earth of the garden—is his intended. The ogre spirit’s garments had appeared dark as night in the moya, but in the real world they are a rich, warm emerald green with crisp white accents. His hands are clad in white gloves, and he’s holding a wide, pearlescent hand fan in front of his face, over which Atsumu can make out the mangled, monstrous detailing of his mask.

“Warn a guy, Sakusa,” Atsumu hisses.

The name stills the night. The garden descends into eerie quiet. Behind his horrible mask, the ogre spirit regards him with cold, black eyes. 

“Atsumu,” he says with a heartbeat flutter of his fan. “Second child of the Miya family, bloodline of the Fox. You haven’t tried once in the last twenty years to earn the right to say my name.” 

Atsumu narrows his eyes. “I’m here, ain’t I?” he demands. “This time and every year before, if ya care so much. What more could ya want from a guy?”

Sakusa studies him a moment longer before snapping his fan shut and disappearing it. When he gets to his feet, he seems much smaller than he’d been in the moya. There, he’d been akin to a god. Here, he could be flesh and blood. Atsumu’s never seen such a solid spirit in the real world. If he didn’t know better, and if Sakusa weren’t so preternaturally quiet, Atsumu could almost mistake him for human.

Sakusa extends his hand down to where Atsumu’s still hunched against the post. “A dance,” he says.

Atsumu balks. “What part of I don’t like tradition—” he starts.

“Either you dance with me,” Sakusa warns, “or the ceremony never ends, trapping you and all the other candidates within the Moon Court when it returns to the Beyond. Which do you prefer, Miya?”

Dammit. What sort of a choice is that ?

Atsumu knocks aside Sakusa’s offered hand with the back of his fingers and gets up on his own. When he moves down into the garden, he pauses to look up—first at Sakusa, then to the fathomless black sky overhead. As a rule, he’s anti-prayer. Tonight he makes an exception. The wishes he has are half-formed things: pleases and don’ts and I’ll do anythings that are finished only by the idea of longing, something wholly intangible and impossible to capture in words.

Sakusa steps into the garden. Somewhere, drums begin to sound, and the koto sounds out clear and precise. Atsumu turns to face the ogre spirit, his intended, the end of the line. 

He offers his hand. Sakusa accepts. 

Dancing in the real world is a joyful, baudy affair that makes Atsumu’s lungs burn and his cheeks hurt and his body thrum with excitement. Dancing in the Moon Court is—like everything else—about rules and expectations. 

Beat one: Sakusa lifts their touching hands so they’re perpendicular to the ground. Their palms align. Beat two: they step out, away from each other, free hands offered palm-up to the sky. Beat three: they step in, facing each other once more, and touch their other palms together. Beat four: Atsumu grimaces as their fingers interlock and brings them in towards the center of their chests. 

Beat five: they raise their hands up, up, up while angling their bodies out to opposite sides. Beat six: they step back in and bring their hands down to either side in a wide, rainbow-like arc. Beat seven: Atsumu considers the appeal of spontaneously combusting as Sakusa releases one of his hands and guides him into a spin. Beat eight: Atsumu spins and spins, slipping silently under their still-linked hands in a whirl of blood red fabrics. 

They release hands. Atsumu’s chest heaves. Sakusa stands perfectly still, quiet, and unaffected. Then they do it all again.

The dance came to Atsumu much the way the Waxing Sight had: instinctually. He was born to this world knowing how to breathe, how to sneeze, and how to perform (what Atsumu has derisively coined) the Gibbous Waltz. This knowledge was the birthright of all of the Moon Court candidates. While the others committed themselves to practicing every step with single-minded focus, Atsumu contented himself with stumbling over his peers’ feet and enduring the maidens’ scolding.

On the fourth or fifth rotation, Sakusa says, “You’re bad at this.”

Atsumu promptly stomps on his foot. “Whoops,” he lies. Sakusa hisses through grit teeth, and the sound is loud enough to be heard through his awful mask. He doesn’t quite fall out of rhythm, but it’s a near thing. It’s still more satisfyin’ than it’s got any right to be. Atsumu asks, “How’re you so solid, anyway?”

Instead of answering, Sakusa jerks Atsumu into another spin—two beats too soon. “Why should I tell you?” he asks casually, like he didn’t just try to pop Atsumu’s arm out of socket. “Don’t pretend to care about anything I have to say.”

“Bastard,” Atsumu harrumphs. “Here I am tryin’a be nice—”

That’s your idea of nice?”

“—but fine. Have it yer way.”

Sakusa spins him again. Atsumu’s lost their place in the dance, but he’s pretty sure that they’re a few steps too early for spinning again. If he didn’t know better, he’d think this ogre spirit is tryin’ to make him dizzy. 

Well, that just won’t do. He bares his teeth behind his mask and the next time their hands push up, up, up, he deliberately jerks his wrist to knock Sakusa’s mask askew. It snaps back into place like it’s freakin’ magnetized; Atsumu’s not sure if he’s relieved or disappointed.

“Your manners need work,” Sakusa says, back on beat. “You hate tradition, you’re rude—what else should I know?”

“Why should I tell you?” Atsumu echoes Sakusa’s earlier question with a sneer. “‘S’not like we’ll be meetin’ up after tonight.” 

Sakusa laughs. It’s a strange sound made of locust song and wind-in-leaves and babbling brooks. Atsumu recoils from it with near-violence, jerking his hands from his and scrambling back several steps to boggle at him. Sakusa lets him go.

He’s so solid, it’d been easy—too easy—to forget he’s not part of this world. 

“Somethin’s not right,” Atsumu says. “Seriously. How can ya be so—” he gestures at all of him, “—real ?” 

Silence. 

Then: “Would you prefer it if I weren’t?” 

Sakusa’s voice is placid. Beyond his monstrous mask, his eyes are pitch. He tucks his gloved hands into his sleeves and stands absolutely, perfectly still waiting for Atsumu’s answer. 

Atsumu swallows. The sound is loud in the quiet between them. “What d’you care what I want?” he spits. “It’s never mattered before.” 

“I’m asking,” Sakusa says. “It matters.”

Before he can think twice about it, Atsumu says, “I wanna see yer face.” 

Sakusa—his betrothed, the so-called “great” ogre spirit himself—flinches like the words physically strike him. He raises his gloved fingers to the gnarled cheek of his mask. Instead of removing it, he presses it closer to his face.

“Ah,” he breathes, realization dawning and reshaped into a single, profound sound that Atsumu immediately resents. “You’re not resistant to the process because of some lofty noble ideal. You’re worried about your vanity.”  

A blush catches somewhere at the nape of Atsumu’s neck and burns all the way up to the tips of his ears. The only thing protecting his dignity is his own smelly mask, which is mercifully cool against his too-hot jaw and forehead. 

“What if I am?” he demands, furious and furiously embarrassed. “Is that so bad? Wantin’ to be able to look at yer—” he waves his hand to avoid saying anything weird like husband or god even though that’s all that comes to mind in that tense, horrible moment, “—without cringin’ yerself sick?” 

Atsumu’s a beautiful person built upon a latticework of ugly things; it only seems fair, he figures, that the awful truth of him be laid bare to his betrothed. Stripped down and exposed, he holds his chin high and awaits Sakusa’s judgment. 

Silence prevails again. It’s so much worse than ridicule, which Atsumu had come equipped for—is always equipped for, if he’s honest. 

“Say somethin’,” he demands when the quiet becomes too oppressive for him to stand. 

A cool wind blows. Cherry blossoms scatter and swirl in its hold. The roof’s tiles whistle.

Sakusa says, “I’m not a very good ogre spirit.”

Atsumu blinks at him, surprised. “Come again?” he asks.

“I’m incomplete,” Sakusa continues. He reaches back and tugs at a single blood red ribbon behind his head. “I’ve lost most of my connection to the Beyond. It’s hard for me to stay there when the moon is out.”

Suspicion rises like bile in Atsumu’s throat and spews out his mouth. “Is this some kinda joke? Cuz I’m not laughin’.” 

Sakusa plucks at another ribbon, this one midnight blue. “Years ago, I left a piece of myself here. It bound me to this world, which permanently changed me.”

Breathing is difficult. Atsumu has the distinct sense that he is standing on the precipice of something awful and immense. He can’t stand to watch; he can’t look away. 

“I can’t guarantee luck or protection or prosperity for my bride.” Sakusa’s voice has taken on a strange, whispery quality. The mask makes a sharp sound, like a single branch snapping underfoot, and begins to split nastily at the seams. Starlight bursts through the splintered wood. “Ironically, your vanity is a relief.” 

The mask falls away in two pieces, a waning crescent and its shadow, and the awful truth of Sakusa the ogre spirit is laid bare before Atsumu.

“Wait,” he splutters. “You—wait. Wait. You’re hot?” 

That’s an understatement. Sakusa the ogre spirit is ethereal. He is indescribable. He is, actually, kinda givin’ Atsumu a complex here. 

All Atsumu can do for a long, long time is stare. Then he drags his own mask up into his sweaty hair and squints at him. In all of a second, the world has shifted. It’s impossible to process everything all at once, so he narrows his focus down to the most unsettling detail: 

“Are you glowing?” 

Sakusa visibly bristles. “I said I’m not a good spirit. Not that I’m human. Have you ever met a spirit that didn’t glow?”

“What?” Atsumu’s face screws into a scowl. “All the spirits I see are dark’n shadowy unless I’m in your world.” He gestures emphatically. “There's been zero glowing til now. Negative glowing, even.” 

Sakusa looks extremely unimpressed. “Is your vanity satisfied, at least?” 

Atsumu considers this. “What good’s you bein’ so pretty if we gotta live around a bunch of monsters?” he asks. But something stops him up short, souring his improved mood. “Wait. Hold up. Yer not—yer not plannin’ on pickin’ me just cuz you’re damaged goods, right? Go marry someone who actually wants you!”

“They want a legend,” Sakusa snarls. 

It’s a sound made of felled trees falling and cruel crows calling and wildfires burning. It catches on a mangled thing in Atsumu’s chest and lights him the fuck up.

“What d’you want?” he asks. It’s only fair, he figures, since Sakusa sorta asked him first.

Sakusa’s full, furrowed brow smooths. He runs a hand through his hair, which is mostly the same pitch black of his eyes save for a scattering of starbright curls near his face. 

“All I want,” he says in a voice that sounds so much older than he looks, “is for you to take responsibility.”

 

*

 

One spring long ago, Atsumu—barely eight, too young to know the dangers of the world—had waded into the Moon Court’s sleepy creek and got caught in the grip of a hidden current. 

Towards the surface, the water was cold as ice and sharp enough to cut. As he was dragged deeper, it felt heavy as stone. He lost the will to fight too soon. Struggling gave way to acceptance, and he stared up through the swirling water to the pitch black, moonless sky beyond. It wasn’t so different from seeing the world from the Beyond. 

That, at least, had been comfort in those moments—the ones he was certain would be his last. 

Death came for him: hair and eyes like shadows, skin like starlight. It reached into those cruel, cold waters and plucked Atsumu from the creekbed and swaddled him in the quiet comfort of a night sweet with the smell of cherry blossoms. Atsumu, small and shivering and certain he was dead, had been too stunned even to cry.

Later the maidens found him soaked and sodden, blue lipped and trembling, on the bank of the creek. They scolded him at length while nursing him back to health with soft, warm, careful hands. 

On this they all agreed: Atsumu had the fox’s gift for finding and getting out of trouble.

 

*

 

Luck for findin’ trouble? Maybe. Gettin’ out of it? That’s a whole 'nother story.

Atsumu says, “What.”

Sakusa reaches out. His fingers, gloved in soft-looking white fabric, hover just over Atsumu’s cheekbone, and Atsumu’s too stubborn to flinch away. They regard each other: Atsumu with vague hostility, Sakusa with cool indifference. 

Then Sakusa drops his hand and presses his immense palm to Atsumu’s chest. “I left something here,” he says, “a long time ago.”

Atsumu draws a slow, shaking breath. His lungs swell with it and shiver in recognition—acknowledgment of a master’s touch. 

“I don’t know what yer talkin’ about,” he lies. Sakusa’s palm presses into him with more pressure. Atsumu’s heart drums hello, hello, hello, and the blood in his veins sings along. It is the single most uncomfortable experience he’s lived through since nearly dying twelve years ago. He insists, “I don’t owe you anything.”

“Only a life,” Sakusa agrees. He withdraws his hand. “I’m not interested in taking it back. But I’m not going to bind myself to someone else knowing a piece of me is already out in the world. In you.” 

Atsumu feels a little dirty. He rubs at his chest through his clothes and tries to imagine what a piece of an ogre spirit might look like in the home it’s made of his extremely mortal, fragile ribcage. 

“I didn’t ask for this,” he bites. “Not for none of it.”

“That makes two of us,” says Sakusa. “I was in my infancy when I saved you. I didn’t know what it meant, back then. If I had—”

He raises his eyes to meet Atsumu’s. He doesn’t say anything else. They both already know the terrible truth of how that sentence ends.

“Well you didn’t,” Atsumu snarls. His eyes sting, and his whole body feels raw. “You didn’t and now—and now—”

What now? 

He’s spent his whole life waiting for this night and the escape it promised. As he takes a seat on the veranda with his brow pinched, trying to fathom what comes next, a headache begins to thrum behind Atsumu’s eyes.

“For a long time I thought I dreamed most of it,” he confesses, eyes locked on the lush green grass of the garden. “The parts where I saw you, at least. It didn’t feel real. It still doesn’t feel real.” 

But it was, and it is. And reality is so much more complicated than any dream. 

They’re quiet for a long time after that. Atsumu sits on the veranda with his fingers curled over the edge of the wood. He drags his slippers over the cool, damp grass and heaves a deep, thoughtful sigh.

Sakusa moves closer. Every inch of him is beautiful except for his truly nightmarish feet. They’re human in form, but Atsumu’s never seen toes quite so long or knuckles quite so bulbous. He’s pretty sure toenails aren’t supposed to be shaped like that, either. 

“I hate yer feet,” Atsumu says.

“Marry me,” says Sakusa. “Would it really be so bad?”

Atsumu sighs again. He looks up to Sakusa and the empty night sky beyond. He’s engaged to an ethereal creature with eyes like pitch and skin that glows. Two hours ago, he was certain all of his suffering would be over come dawn. Now he’s got a sinking feeling that’s it’s only just begun, and Atsumu knows a thing or two about sinkin’. 

“It could be,” he says. 

“You can’t know without trying.”

Atsumu’s frown deepens. “I don’t want to live in the Beyond.”

“I can’t stay there most of the time anyway, thanks to you.” Sakusa clearly came prepared for this complaint, damn him. “I have a house in town.”

What?

What,” he wheezes. He feels dizzy. Nothing about this night was supposed to go like this. “You—what.”

“It was given to me.”

Atsumu wants to ask Who the fuck gave you a housebut instead he asks, “Doesn’t anyone notice the way you glow?”

Sakusa looks immensely unimpressed by this question. “Only those with the Sight.”

Atsumu slumps. What other objections could he have? He’s not a romantic. All he’s ever wanted was to get out of the strange little fairytale he’d been born into. Now he’s being offered a marriage of convenience, with someone who’s literally the prettiest person he’s ever seen. Who’s also—insanely—a homeowner. Whoever wrote all those scrolls on tradition must be turnin’ in their grave. Not to mention all’a Atsumu’s ancestors. 

The longer he thinks about it, the more his head hurts.

Sakusa looks down at him and, without warning, offers a smile. It’s awkward and tight-lipped but wide enough that dimples appear like little shadows in the hollows of his cheeks. Atsumu stares at them and feels the will to fight leave him. He always gives up too soon.

At least the other candidates will be pissed. There’s a silver linin’ for ya.

He sighs. “I want a long engagement.”

“I can give you a year.”

A year isn’t nearly enough, not by half. Atsumu’s gonna hafta spend the rest of his life rewritin’ what he thought he knew about the last twenty years. He’s half-tempted to tell Sakusa to shove his year-long engagement up his ass, but—

Sakusa strips the gloves from his fingers and interlocks their fingers together. Atsumu stares at the knobs of his knuckles, faintly relieved that they’re less awful than the ones on Sakusa’s feet. The touch of the ogre spirit is as cold as the cunning waters of the Moon Court’s creek, maybe even as cold as death itself. Atsumu feels them start to warm in his hold.

The wind rises. The cherry blossoms stir. From the ground at their feet, the ribbons of Sakusa’s mask slip from their grooves and ride the air up, up, up. 

“Try not to mess this part up,” Sakusa says in a tight voice.

Try not to mess this part up,” Atsumu mimics rudely, and he squeezes Sakusa’s fingers hard enough he hopes it hurts a little. “Don’t think you get to boss me around just cuz you saved my life once. That ain’t the sort of relationship we’re gonna have. Ya hear me?”

Sakusa looks like he just bit into a lemon. “Unfortunately.”

The wind wraps the ribbons around their joined hands, blood red and midnight blue. He can hear footsteps coming down the hallway behind him. That will be the candidates returning, pushed from the Beyond by the ending of the ceremony and the beginning of the joining. Atsumu straightens his shoulders and holds his chin a little higher. 

He wants to remember this moment—his moment of absolute victory which none of them, least of all Atsumu, saw coming.

Eugh,” groans Terushima. “Look how smug he is.”

“Don’t look at him,” Futakuchi snaps. “If you look, he wins. Let’s just get out of here.”

Atsumu might as well be the one glowing with how good that makes him feel. His smile is a feral thing, all teeth.

Sakusa grimaces at the sight of it. “Could you focus on getting engaged to me instead of on your ego?” he snaps.

“I could,” Atsumu agrees. “But I’m not gonna.”

 

*

 

That spring, like every spring before, the Moon Court fades away before the last cherry blossom settles. Dawn breaks, golden and new, through the trees, and Atsumu uses his newly-freed hand to pick at the ribbon still tying his other one to Sakusa’s. 

“It’ll fall when it falls,” Sakusa says for the millionth time. “Leave it alone.”

“But I’m hungry,” Atsumu complains. “I wanna get the hell outta here.”

He’s not sure if his family’s waitin’ for him or not. Would they have heard the news already? Ugh, Osamu is gonna roast him so hard when he finds out Atsumu actually went through with this. That’s somethin’ Atsumu’s definitely not lookin’ forward to. He digs the heels of his geta into the soft earth and decides not to worry about it ‘til he absolutely has to. Turns out he’s pretty good at that sorta thing sometimes.

Sakusa says nothing. He doesn’t glow in the sunlight which makes it easier to see the dark bags under his eyes. When he runs a hand through his hair, the curls near his face look less starbright and more gray. Atsumu is, inexplicably, obsessed with this. He gives up on the ribbons to poke at Sakusa’s cheek, which earns him a scowl.

“Show ‘em to me again,” Atsumu demands.

“What,” says Sakusa. 

“Your dimples." Obviously. Sakusa has to know what he means. He has to. “They’re a good half of the reason I said yes to this stupid idea, y’know.”

Sakusa raises a hand to the cheek Atsumu just poked and glares at him. “I don’t know,” he bites out. His voice sounds a lot less magical now. That's—interesting. “Shut up.”

It startles a laugh out of Atsumu. He lifts their joined hands and touches a knuckle to the hollow of Sakusa’s other cheek. 

“Fine,” he huffs. “Why dontcha tell me yer given name instead then, seein’ as we’re engaged’n all?” 

“My given name?” Sakusa asks in a strange, distant tone. While other elements of him have been rendered mortal by the morning, his eyes remain eerily dark. He turns them on Atsumu now with cool regard—and maybe, just maybe, a touch of amusement. 

A spirit’s given name is a sacred thing that not even the scrolls say much about. There’s power in all names, but that’s especially the case for given names. Atsumu never had the choice of withholding his, since Miya failed to differentiate between him and Osamu. 

“Only seems fair,” he says. “Since you know mine and all.”

Sakusa seems to think about this. He turns his cool, calculating gaze out towards the creek, filled to bursting with fallen cherry blossoms from a tree that’s no longer part of this world.  

A smile—wide, bright, and a little mean—stretches across Sakusa’s face. His dimples are harder to see now that he’s not glowing, but Atsumu gets lost looking at them just the same. 

“You want to know?” Sakusa asks, his voice containing all the warmth of summer but none of its lush comforts. “Then earn it.” 

 

*

 

Twenty year old Atsumu Miya meets the dark-eyed, grumpy, incomplete ogre spirit who saved his life once upon a time, and everything changes. 

Then, with all the inevitability of a slow-breaking dawn, he begins to fall in love.