That night, Nanami had a beautiful dream.
It was almost more of a memory: the first and only time Dad had taken her to a festival. She remembered the stretch and pull of her child-sized kimono, the bright fabric that hid her sneakers underneath. Dad had been so excited, happy and cheerful in one of his routine upswings. He must have just gotten a new job, and was excited by the waves of cash coming back in. He had wielded his wallet like a weapon, making a show of handing over the five hundred yen for a paper Inari mask and matching paper fan, buying her sticky takoyaki that smudged her fingers and burned hot on her tongue.
There had been plays, and music, and folklore exchanged, but she didn’t remember any of the details. The festival must have been to honor something or somebody, but if Dad passed on the folklore and culture of their region to her then she didn’t remember. All she remembered was the feeling of his hand in hers, of looking up and up and up at him, of the clack of her sandals against pavement.
She dreamed of the smudged, brightly colored lights, and of sweet fish bursting apart under her tongue. The mask had been hot and stifling, cutting off her peripheral vision, and she remembered taking hold of the muzzle and pushing it aside so she could look up at Dad better. She needed to see him, otherwise she would forget. Maybe he would forget her: sometimes, it seemed as if Nanami was the last thing on his mind, even when she was right next to him holding his hand.
But when she pushed her mask away from her eyes and looked up at Dad, she realized with a bone-cold shock that he looked different. His hair was white, swept neatly over his eyes, and instead of a t-shirt and jeans he was dressed up in a formal kimono. He was young, with the appearance of a teenager instead of the weathered body of a Dad who would always seem as old as an adult could be. He looked down at her, fox ears twitching, but instead of a lopsided drunken grin his expression was taut and stern.
“What did you wish for?” Tomoe asked.
And Nanami screamed, because Dad was gone and all that was left was this mysterious boy with fox ears who held onto her hand more tightly than Dad ever did, and when she cried out for Dad she found that she could not do anything but cry, and cry, and cry.
It had been a week since Nanami had been evicted and she dropped off the face of the Earth, and nobody had cared.
That wasn’t quite true. Three people...well, she really counted Onikiri and Kotetsu as one person, since they acted like it...two people cared quite deeply about where she was, what she was doing, and if she was safe every moment of the day. One of those people made it extremely explicit that he resented this, and that if he could get away with locking her in a closet all day with a dog bed and snacks in order to reduce the amount of her uselessness that was inflicted upon the world then he’d be ecstatic.
Personally, Nanami thought that the best cure for uselessness was experience, education, and trial and error, but try telling him that. Sometimes Nanami thought that her entire life was trial and error, just practice before the big show. She wondered if the big show had started a week ago, and she just hadn’t noticed because her life had changed genres so quickly.
But it was that morning, as Nanami blearily stuffed fish and rice in her mouth as Tomoe angrily beat futons in the courtyard, that she received a text on her phone. She was mildly surprised - guess they still had a few more weeks until their cell phone service was cut off. She doubted Dad was still paying the bill.
She read the text, chewing her rice as Kotetsu scraped the offering in front of the Buddha statue into the trash and Onikiri chuckled at the morning paper. Then she leaned backwards, sliding the door to the courtyard fully open so she could yell at Tomoe.
“My neighbor just texted me! She says she has my stuff! I have to go over and grab it! Also, don’t beat futons, it spreads allergens everywhere!”
“Do not presume to tell me how to take care of my shrine,” Tomoe...would growled be stereotyping him? But it was the only word for it. He growled at her, empathetically beating the futon. She had the sense he had some unchecked aggression to work out. “Don’t bother with your possessions, you don’t need them.”
Uh, yeah. Sure. Nanami was living off the contents of her backpack - her laptop (useless, no internet in Haunted Shrine, Middle of Nowhere, Tokyo, Japan, but it was still good for her otome games), some clothes, an extremely rumpled school uniform that was still stuffed in the bottom, and her toiletries. She wanted her stuff back .
She also wanted her life back, but she knew that wasn’t happening anytime soon.
Nanami clapped her hands and bowed at the meal before standing up, stretching slightly and letting Kotetsu sweep the plate away. It was...the weirdest thing in the world, to be waited upon. She had been cooking meals for her and Dad since she could reach the stove and push fish around in a pan with chopsticks. Before that, all she could remember was McDonald’s. It made her feel viscerally uncomfortable, but she bit down on the urge to help Kotetsu with the dishes. Last time she had insisted, Kotetsu had almost started crying at the insult.
“I’m going,” Nanami said, exhausted. “I have a lot of other stuff to deal with, besides. My school’s going to find out I’m homeless if I don’t register my address change with them, so I have to file that paperwork. I don’t suppose we have any utility bills I can show?”
Onikiri shook his head. “Our running water and power is provided by the blessings of the land god!”
Which...was her. Right now. Probably not for very long. But for now, she was...she thought of it as substitute teaching, just so she wouldn’t go crazy. Crazier. “Great. Well, I guess I should go figure that out...eventually…”
“Why.” Tomoe stepped back inside, scowling at her and tail lashing irritably. “What do you need to go to school for? You’re a god.”
“I’m a high schooler cosplaying as a deity,” Nanami said numbly, too tired to think too hard about it. Tomoe scoffed in agreement. “But I guess you’re right. I knew I’d have to drop out of school eventually, I just hoped...it would take a little more time, I guess. I almost made it.”
“Why?” Kotetsu asked sweetly. “Kids love going to school! We get prayers about it all the time! They love getting good grades. Do you get good grades?”
Nanami smiled weakly at her. “No. I...I’m not good for much, you know.”
Tomoe scoffed in quiet agreement. She couldn’t help but smile a little at him, despite everything. She was getting to be able to read his scoffs pretty well. She was proud of herself.
“Is your old apartment in civilization?” Tomoe asked long sufferingly, as if he had already resigned himself to tagging along with her. “Will we have to travel far?”
Huh. He had stopped putting up so much of a token fight recently. Maybe they were getting used to each other. “Not far. I didn’t really live in Shibuya, you know.”
“I don’t know what that is and I don’t care.”
Nanami sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”
It was a long, silent, and awkward walk to the bus station. Tomoe was stewing from Nanami cramming a baseball cap over his ears and forcing him to tuck his tail into his kimono. Nanami sensed a great deal of pride in him, which was put at strange odds with his aggressively servile and loyal attitude.
If she had been ditched by the person her life revolved around for twenty years, Nanami wouldn’t have had a lot of loyalty left. She wondered if it was something mystical, foreign and magical and divine, that she couldn’t hope to understand. Maybe yokai thought differently than she did, saw the world in a different light: where the wise and divine god of the land and a teenage girl was treated with equal obedience, and the position of servant was one with greatest honor and respect. More respect, it seemed, than the god.
Nanami hadn’t been raised very religious. Or religious at all. She didn’t understand loyalty to an idea or a concept. She had been raised with loyalty to money, and the schedule of bills to be paid, and the frantic pretenses of homework as her life crumbled down around her. With putting on a happy smile because nobody liked someone who brought everyone else down, with always remaining graceful and giving thanks, and with never letting the government put their fingers in family business.
Or maybe her and Tomoe weren’t so different after all.
It wasn’t rare for them to be stuck together in a small space, but Tomoe always found reason to make himself scarce. There were always chores to be done, landscaping to do, and maintenance work to take care of. As they sat in the rickety country bus, devoid of passengers except for a few serene grandmothers and Tomoe with his eyes screwed shut clutching onto the bus seat for dear life, she found herself prodding him a little.
“Tomoe? Can I talk to you?”
Tomoe didn’t open his eyes. “As my lady and mistress, my time and attention is yours to command.”
“Yeah, first question: how can you say stuff like that but then call me a useless waste of space in the same breath?”
“Because both are true.” Tomoe cracked open one eye, glaring at her balefully. “They are not contradictory sentiments. Besides, I cannot lie to my mistress.”
The grannies were staring at them, completely without shame, and Nanami colored a little bit. She hated it when Tomoe and the spirits were all...formal. It made her feel like she was in a period drama, and although she had always figured it would be romantic to be called a lady and mistress when she was a kid she was unfortunately finding that, in real life, it was awkward and weird.
“Can you not call me, uh, that? When we’re in public?” She asked, and Tomoe grunted in assent. The cap jammed over his ears shifted - were they twitching? She hadn’t realized how quickly she came to rely on his ears and tail for a cue into his mood until she couldn’t see them. He seemed almost naked without them. “Thanks. Anyway, Tomoe, I guess I wanted to say I’m sorry.”
The bus creaked and jostled over a pothole, making Tomoe start, and he narrowed his eyes further at her. “Good. We are not riding this contraption again.”
“Not about that, about the whole…” Nanami trailed off. “You know.”
“Know what? Be clear.”
Enslaving you against your will to save my own life thing?
But Nanami didn’t want to say it, or perhaps couldn’t say it, because she didn’t want to know what he would say back to her. If she never mentioned it, if she never brought it up, then he could never say what she was afraid to hear. That he hated working for her, and that he wanted Mikage back, and that she was a waste of space and breath, and that she was the worst kind of person. The kind of person who made other people serve her dinner and did nothing for them in return.
What did Nanami do for Tomoe, when Tomoe did everything for her? He said that he had no purpose when he wasn’t a familiar, that he was driftless and aimless and meaningless. But anybody could do that for him, couldn’t they? She wasn’t doing him a favor by just existing. What did it mean to hate your position in life, to be unhappy and stifled and forced to bow your head to people you didn’t choose and didn’t want, but to be utterly lost without that unhappiness?
“Nothing,” Nanami said, because she couldn’t be rejected by him again. Her heart was fragile and weak, broken and glued together back too many times, and if someone held it wrong it would shatter. And Tomoe’s nails were so sharp, and his grip was so rough. She crossed her arms, turning away from him. “I’m sorry you’re such a jerk, I guess.”
“I cry myself to sleep every night, not having the approval of a teenage girl.”
“I thought you said that you couldn’t lie to me!”
“Lying and sarcasm are different.”
“Who taught you sarcasm! You’re a fox!”
“Dear me,” one of the grannies said, “she’s a rude one.”
“Mikage did,” Tomoe sniffed, “he said he ‘thought it would be funny’. His words.”
“Well, then I guess Mikage is responsible for all the problems in my life,” Nanami sniffed right back.
“Same here,” Tomoe sniped, and Nanami fully intended for the both of them to sit the rest of the ride in pissy silence, except in twenty seconds Tomoe took umbrage with her posture, and they were both off again.
Her apartment building was exactly the same yet, somehow, irrevocably different.
Nanami trailed her hand over the familiar iron gate with the peeling paint, the same ribbed metal with flaking rust that she used to drag a stick over in rhythmic thump-thump-thumps in what passed for entertainment as a kid. She knew exactly the right back door to take to avoid the thugs that hung out in the front entrance, and she knew the right step to skip in the dimly lit and flickering stairwell littered with old condoms and reeking with an undefinable smell.
Tomoe physically pinched his nose shut, sneering at the condoms in the corner and the mold in the ceiling, and Nanami felt her cheeks burn. They had finally run out of petty, mean things to say to each other, and Nanami lead him to Ms. Watanabe’s door in silence. Tomoe hovered behind her, always behind her, tucking his hands into his sleeves and surveying the stained hallway carpet and the small gang of children running around kicking a football. Nanami smiled at the sight - she had used to kick around the football in these halls too, once upon a time. She didn’t vocalize the thought to Tomoe, who was scowling at the noise. He wouldn’t get it.
She knocked on the door, and waited anxiously for the sound of little Yahiro’s wailing to start up and then die down. A voice, stressed and strained, echoed from within the apartment, then the sound of shuffling slippers, and then finally the door opened to Ms. Watanabe’s face.
Ms. Watanabe was short and old, with more frown lines than laugh lines, and permanently harried but perpetually tolerant of Nanami constantly knocking on her door for favors. Something in her face uncreased in relief when she saw Nanami standing there. As usual, she was holding her grandson over her shoulder, patting his back gently. Her eyebrows rose when she saw Tomoe, but as he was the strangest looking boy even Nanami had ever met, that was no surprise.
“Nanami! Where have you been?”
“I got evicted, ma’am,” Nanami said. She had said the words so often, it felt like, but maybe this was the first time she had admitted them to somebody who knew what that meant. They stuck in her throat oddly, burning and hot. She bowed at her, ignoring Tomoe’s scandalized expression. “Thank you for holding onto my things for me.”
Ms. Watanabe huffed, standing aside. “You’re clogging up the hall. Come in. You’ll want to dump some of it, I expect. Who are you?”
The last phrase was clearly addressed to Tomoe, who looked hideously out of place in the simple and cluttered apartment as he glided in after Nanami. His kimono draped on juice stains, and when he took off his sandals they rested next to light-up sneakers.
Because she knew he would say something batshit like ‘I am the servant to my lady and mistress Miss Incompetent Who I Hate’, Nanami jumped in. “He’s my -”
Then she stopped, because she didn’t know how to describe Tomoe. Friend wasn’t right. Roommate was closer, but what roommate was as fanatic about her safety as he was? Something was indescribable in him, something foreign and strange but familiar. Maybe the only word was familiar, but Nanami didn’t know how to be a god to a familiar. All she knew how to be was Nanami, to Tomoe. She didn’t know if it was enough.
The pause stretched on. Ms. Watanabe settled the baby down in a playpen, looking suspicious. “Boyfriend? You didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout a boyfriend, Nanami. He looks like no good.”
“He’s very good,” Nanami said firmly. “Please, has my father stopped by?”
“If that bum came to my front door, I’d spit on him!” She spat on the ground demonstratively, making Tomoe’s lip curl. “That good for nothing is not welcome in my home! You sit right at the kotatsu, Nanami. I’ll get your things. You too, good for nothing boyfriend.”
“He’s not a -”
“All men are good for nothing,” Ms. Watanabe said, and Nanami could hardly argue. “Especially your men. No offence.”
“None taken,” Nanami said miserably.
“You live with him now? That is very unrespectable, Nanami!”
“Hmph! I will make tea. Sit down, sit down!”
So Nanami sat down, somewhat miserably and oddly abashed, and let Miss Watanabe make her tea exactly as she liked it and set it in front of her. Tomoe sat down next to her, effortlessly graceful even in the heavy kimono, and when he sat primly in perfect seiza not even a fold or wrinkle was out of place. He was more of a god than her, Nanami thought miserably. He was looking around the apartment, at the scattered toys of the elementary schoolers who were likely among the kids playing in the halls or the courtyard, and at the baby currently occupied shoving plastic keys in its mouth.
“How do you know this woman?” Tomoe demanded.
Nanami sighed. “She babysat me when I was little. We’ve been neighbors for a long time. She rescued my stuff when I was kicked out. Be polite, Tomoe.”
“Is that an order?” Tomoe asked, lip curled.
“Just a request.” Nanami was too tired for this. “I try not to give you orders you can’t refuse, Tomoe.”
“Why not?” Tomoe asked, as if that was a normal response. “It is your right.”
“This isn’t a good spot to talk about this,” Nanami said, as if there would ever be a right spot or right time. But there was no way the old woman wasn’t listening in, and she didn’t want to answer any inconvenient questions.
They were silent for a little while, as Tomoe drank his tea and made a grudgingly impressed face at the flavor. Nanami, in the apartment that was almost as familiar to her as her own, felt strange and displaced. An outsider, a stranger in a familiar land. Maybe that made sense - she had last stepped foot in here as a mortal, hadn’t she? And now she walked in it as a...mortal with some extra bits. Not a god. Not really. Substitute teacher.
Uncharacteristically, it was Tomoe who broke the silence. “You grew up here?”
“Kinda, yeah.” As if where he grew up was probably any better. He was a yokai...where did he grow up, Mount Inari? Oh, no. That was probably so cool. It wasn’t fair that the guy who was endlessly bragging about what a humble servant he was made her feel so inadequate. “You know, people who grow up in buildings like this tend to die in buildings like this. That was what Ms. Watanabe always told me.” Nanami sighed, slumping onto the table and propping her chin on her hand. She had done homework so many times at this table. Or avoided homework. After a while she had stopped caring. “I always figured that would be me. Go to school for a bit, drop out to work full time to support me and dad. If dad was around, I guess. This isn’t the first time he’s skipped out.”
Tomoe was silent. Nanami kept rambling, everything that she could have never said to the other kids at school pouring out of her. He could judge her for being human, or being a bad god, for being stupid, but he couldn’t judge her for something he knew nothing about. “Dad left for like, two months when I was ten. Found out later he was dodging some Yakuza guys who he owed money to. I had to learn to pay bills by myself. I guess this is the last time, though. This is really it. I always knew it was coming. I don’t know why I was so surprised.”
The cap on Tomoe’s head rustled, then lay still.
“I always figured...okay, I work shitty jobs until I’m an adult and I can afford to move out by myself. Then I lock myself down a cute guy who’ll work hard to support us and I’ll become a housewife. Me not having a high school degree won’t matter then, right? Pop out a few kids. I always wanted to be a mom. Maybe die in a building just like this. I always figured I’d be pretty happy. Or at least not unhappy. I wonder if that’s the same thing.” She laughed, somewhat self-consciously. “Pretty pathetic, huh?”
All those plans...if you could call them plans...were ruined now. If ruined was the right word. How was she going to score a guy when she had to be god of a shrine? Would he have to move in with her? Tomoe barely liked working for her, he’d mutiny if she introduced another human into their weird house. Oh, man, what if her spirits unionized? What if they asked for wages? She didn’t have any money!
“No,” Tomoe said, “I wouldn’t say that.”
Before she could ask him what that meant, Ms. Watanabe waddled back in with a box. Just one box. She thumped it on the kotatsu, and Nanami eagerly began poking through it. She almost cried when she saw the contents: her textbooks, her personal belongings and extra changes of clothing, and even some useless knick-knacks. They were useless, but they were hers . Importantly, she even found a manila envelope inside with her documents. She wanted to cry in thankfulness.
Instead, she bowed deeply to Ms. Watanabe, who huffed and brushed her off. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I never thought I’d see this stuff again.” She poked through the box again, and she found herself breaking into a broad grin when she saw what was inside. “Tomoe, take a look at this!”
It was her mask, from the festival. Had she dreamed of it last night? She felt as if she had. She had always kept it on top of her dresser, proudly looking over her little toys and hair ties. When she looked closer, she saw one detail that she had forgotten in the dream: that it was an Inari mask, just like Tomoe.
Out of a strange, childish habit, she held it up to her face and looked at Tomoe. He looked struck. “See? It’s you!” She tipped it to the side, exposing her smile. “And it’s me!” She angled her hand so it was in front of her face again. “Aaand it’s you!”
But Tomoe just looked frightened, as if he was seeing a ghost. And he wasn’t even scared of ghosts. The baby laughed, so at least someone found her funny.
“Nanami,” Ms. Watanabe said firmly, sitting down next to Nanami. She reached out and took one of Nanami’s hands, squeezing it tightly, and Nanami reluctantly tucked the mask back in the box. “What are you going to do now?”
She dredged up a smile for Ms. Watanabe, but even she knew it looked as plastic as her mask. “I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me. I - I guess you could say I got a job at the local shrine. As a - miko? Tomoe’s been kind enough to open his home to me, so I’m not lonely.” She forced her smile brighter. She hated worrying people. “Mikage Shrine! Ever heard of it?”
“That dump?” Ms. Watanabe asked, unimpressed. “Nobody works there. They say that even the god abandoned it long ago.”
“Tomoe and I work there,” Nanami said firmly, ignoring Tomoe’s flinch. “And we’re going to fix it up. Tomoe’s been working really hard, and teaching me a lot, and soon I’ll be able to help too! A shrine doesn’t need a god to be beautiful. It just needs a little love, right?”
“There’s no love in a shrine without its god,” Tomoe whispered harshly.
“It’s the people that make a shrine special,” Nanami said, more passionately than she intended. “It’s you and Kotetsu and Onikiri who put all that love in, and it’s obvious if you only look. We’ll make it a great place together, right? We’re going to make it into a home together. So don’t worry about me, Ms. Watanabe!”
But Ms. Watanabe just looked sad, even as the baby started sniffling, and Nanami started squirming under the attention. She hated it when people looked at her for too long. Nobody ever really did. It was uncomfortable. The only person who really just sat and stared at her was Tomoe, and she was mostly sure that was because he thought she would trip down a well like an errant toddler if she was left alone for five minutes.
“You were such a cheerful little girl,” Ms. Watanabe said. “Now all of your smiles look more like grimaces. What happened to you, Nanami? Did you really expect that bum of yours to stick around?”
Nanami was caught off-balance by that horrible bluntness, and she flushed. “No, I never really -”
“Then why do you seem so betrayed? Don’t lie to me with a brave face, Nanami. Cute smiles and promises of bravery without action is just placating an old woman.”
“I’m not betrayed, you old hag!” Nanami yelled, except for the fact that she was and had been irrevocably, and then maybe for the first time Nanami realized that this time her father wasn’t coming back this time.
She started sobbing.
Then the baby started crying, and Tomoe promptly began panicking and yelling at Ms. Watanabe for making Nanami cry, and Ms. Watanabe started yelling at him right back, and Nanami started crying harder because she had never been so alone and strange in her life.
She had never had anybody but herself, and now she didn’t even have herself. She had always known herself, had understood the world in a three meter diameter around her skinny and strange body. She was hardworking, and knew how to smile, and knew how to pretend. She could pay a bill and cook dinner and repair a busted light. She could do everything by herself, and nobody had ever helped her learn it.
But now she had all of these servants, and her own shrine, and some weird and useless superpowers, and the one thing that Nanami had always had - this self-reliance - had been taken from her.
Tomoe thought she was useless. Tomoe thought she needed a babysitter every second of the day. Tomoe hated her because she wasn’t self-reliant, like Dad had always hated her, and he was going to leave too and -
“Nanami? Nanami, I don’t know what to do with crying human children. Nanami, please.”
Nanami sniffled, and opened her eyes.
She found herself, unexpectedly, outside her apartment building. She was standing in the back parking lot, standing in front of Tomoe, who held the box of her belongings. He seemed somewhat frantic, or as frantic as Tomoe ever got.
When had she left the apartment? Did she say her goodbyes, and just not even notice? Did Tomoe shove her out of there very quickly? Yes, that sounded most right.
She would have to go back and apologize to Ms. Watanabe later. She still had to change her address with the school, or probably drop out, and she had to figure out what a miko even did , and she had to try to find out the duties of a god and how not to suck at them -
“Mistress, please tell me what I can do to make you stop crying.”
She hadn’t stopped crying. Somehow, she couldn’t stop. “Tell me how to make this stop hurting,” she hiccuped, as Tomoe looked even more distressed. “You’re some wise immortal yokai, right? Don’t you know ?”
But Tomoe just clutched the box to his chest. On top, the Inari mask smashed awkwardly against his chest. “I...I resent the implication that Mikage betrayed me -”
“You’re as bad a liar as me,” Nanami said dully, wrangling her feelings down, down, down. “You hate him for leaving like I hate Dad for leaving. Admit it.”
“I would never presume to hold a grudge on my god,” Tomoe snarled, but for the first time Nanami saw how weak and fragile his anger was. As fragile as her anger, or her heart.
“I thought you would never lie to your mistress.”
“...I lied about that.”
They stared at each other. Adrift and alone together.
Nanami, very slowly, found herself sitting down. She didn’t have the energy to keep standing up. With a rustle of fabric and the soft click of wooden sandals, Tomoe sat down in front of her. As royal and perfect sitting seiza in a parking lot as he did in a run-down apartment, as he did in an abandoned shrine, as he did in the magical and far-away world of yokai.
“Tomoe,” Nanami said, throat closed up and eyes hot, ashamed and embarrassed of losing her cool in public. That wasn’t behavior befitting of a god. Not that she was really a god, but - but Tomoe expected godly behavior from her now, and she couldn’t disappoint him. She had trapped him into this, she had to be the best she could be for him. “Tomoe, can I order you to do something?”
Tomoe stared at her, somewhat taken back. “...yes?”
Stupidly, insanely, weakly, she found herself reaching out and grabbing his kimono. He yelped, a strangely animal sound, as she embraced him. He was warm, she realized, inhumanly warm. It felt safe. It felt natural: like her and Tomoe were always meant to be like this, like the curve of their bodies fitting each other perfectly was the way of the world.
“You and I are the same,” she said, into the shoulder of his soft kimono. “We’ve both been...left. And betrayed. We’re all each other has now. You’re everything in my world, and - and I know I am in yours too. I’m sorry I can’t be better for you.”
“That’s not an order,” Tomoe said flatly.
“I’ll never leave you alone,” Nanami said, voice breaking, “so I order you, never leave me behind . Please…”
And slowly, with exacting care, as if she was something fragile that deserved to be protected instead of left alone to break, Tomoe hugged her back.
And if the language of gods and familiars was the only way they could say it, the words from the heart between the broken-hearted boy and girl as they painstakingly tried to build a family out of nothing but fractured pieces, then Nanami could live with that.
Tomoe was a little different after that.
Not really in any meaningful way, of course, since he didn’t stop yelling at her or threatening to put a child leash on her or passive aggressively ask why she produced so many dishes. But different, in some strange and undefinable way.
Often, late at night as Nanami walked in insomniac circles on creaking wooden floors, she could see him consulting tattered library books with an annoyed scowl and taking careful notes. Tragically, the books seemed to be on parenting - ‘Parenting a Teenage Girl’, ‘Queen Bees and Wannabes’, and ‘How To Discipline Your Unruly Cat’. It was the last one that struck fear through her heart.
Had the sight of her crying traumatized him so much? She should probably apologize. But she knew that Tomoe wouldn’t accept the apology, because he never accepted anything from her, and he would prefer it if they just never mentioned it again.
It was likely the fact that crying was an action he had no social script for. She couldn’t imagine Mikage had ever cried, or had ever reached out to Tomoe for comfort. Maybe the job of a familiar was more difficult than she had thought.
But maybe something did change: a few days after her uncomfortable breakdown, she noticed that her meals had started to consist of something other than grilled and slightly raw fish. Vegetables made an appearance on her plate, along with rice.
“Wow, Tomoe,” Nanami said, struggling to recall her own dog training books. Positive reinforcement! “This is really great. And very nutritious! Thank you so much!”
“I will not have your growth stunted in my shrine,” Tomoe said, oddly aggressively, as he poured her tea. “What will you be doing today?”
Went unsaid: absolutely nothing, just like the past week? Nanami shrank a little bit. “Is there anything you need help with? I can help weed the -”
“I do not need your help to do my job.”
“Well there’s nothing to do for my job!” Nanami cried, exasperated. “We don’t exactly get a lot of visitors, you know!”
That offended him. He drew back, tail stiffening and lip curling, and bowed sharply at her before leaving the room and crashing the sliding door shut with a slam. Nanami sighed. But she really didn’t know what to do.
Instead, she spent the day practicing her tags and trying to get her godly powers to just do something. But when her magical tags did work they were weak, not really good for much of anything at all. Guess they had something in common, then.
But that night Tomoe had seemed to come to a resolution. She was sitting at the kotatsu, miserably trying to read her textbooks out of a misplaced hope that the information would come in handy somehow, when she heard the sound of a clearing throat in front of her. She looked up, only to find Tomoe, Kotetsu and Onikiri, and...an easel with a poster pad on it?
“I have been considering my approach,” Tomoe said crisply, “to this unfortunate situation. Forced to use creative problem solving tactics, I have found that securing your physical safety is only step one of my duties. Step two, which hopefully should result in easier accomplishment of step one, is regarding your psychological well being.” He wrote something on the board in big, bold strokes. “Part one: enrichment.”
Nanami stared at him. Kotetsu and Onikiri made little jazz hands.
“...I’m not a cat, Tomoe.”
“Yes, my life would be a lot easier if you were a bakeneko, pay attention.” Tomoe flipped the page, to reveal a lot of writing within a table. It looked like a schedule. “I have taken the liberty of organizing your days. You will wake up at six am and partake in morning meditation and prayers. At seven am, you will engage in your hygiene routine and consume breakfast that I have prepared for you. At eight, you will attend your wretched school, which one of us shall supervise you doing. Once you return at four, you will engage in extracurricular tutoring in your godly powers with Kotetu or Onikiri. At six, we -”
“School?” Nanami cried. “What? Why do you want me to go to school?”
Tomoe scowled down at her, but his ears were twitching in an almost self-satisfied way. “I don’t. You, however, do, and I’ve determined that is more psychologically damaging for you not to be among your own kind than it is to be forced to learn arithmetic.”
“But…” Nanami’s head span. Tomoe hated it when she went outside to buy rice, how on earth was he alright with her disappearing for eight hours a day. “What’s the point? I can just drop out. If I register as working here as a miko they can’t punish me for it. I don’t exactly need a diploma to be a god…”
“I don’t know the point,” Tomoe said. “But it seemed important to you, so we will figure it out. Or did I misunderstand? I’m more than happy to make your spiritual tutoring ten hours a day.”
Maybe it was as simple as that, to Tomoe if not to her: it was important to her, so he would do what he could to provide it. She hadn’t even asked. He didn’t have to give it, but he did, freely and without a catch.
The fact of the matter was, Nanami did want to go to school. She wanted to be one of those carefree schoolgirls eating ice cream in cafes, taking pictures of each other with cell phones laden with dangling charms. She wanted to complain about cram school, and come home to a mom cleaning the kitchen and an exhausted dad cracking open a beer, and a nagging younger sibling.
It was normal. More than that, if she could just lock down that diploma maybe she could claw her way into dying in a different building. It wasn’t as if she could really go to college, could she, since she couldn’t leave the shrine...but Tokyo had more than a few community colleges, didn’t it? She could major in theology, just so she would finally know what Tomoe was talking about, and walk across that stage with her head held high...Mom would be so proud of her…
“Good grief. Forget it.” Tomoe turned to the spirits, who looked crestfallen. “Pack it up, you two, we have once again failed to predict our mistress’ whims. Chapter 7 of Raising A Teenger warned me that she would occasionally be overtaken by bouts of melancholia. I should have known.”
“I’ll do it!” Nanami cried, and she hurriedly stood up and bowed in gratitude to the spirits and Tomoe, whose tail stiffened ramrod straight. “Thank you for your hard work! I’ll abide by your schedule and I won’t let you down!”
“Don’t bow to me, that’s inappropriate!”
“Who’ll know?” Nanami asked, genuinely confused. “There’s nobody else here but us, isn’t there?”
For some reason, this made Tomoe flush, tail bristling, and he roughly bowed at her before picking up the easel - with the two house spirits still clinging onto it - and stalking away. Nanami watched him go, bemused and grateful and feeling just slightly hopeless.
Maybe it wasn’t Tomoe who had changed, but Nanami. Had she ever put this much thought into the future? Has she ever had hope for it? Nanami had never really looked forward to growing up, savoring the freedom of graduation or college or a nice middle class office job. She had always known that it wasn’t for her.
Maybe it was fate.
She broached the question cautiously to Tomoe on the night before her first morning of school, as he irritably ironed her uniform and she hovered around him in excitement. She had been a little worried that he wouldn’t know how an iron works, and had eagerly offered to do it herself, but then Tomoe got offended and they were both set off again.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Tomoe said crisply, nose wrinkling as steam hissed from the iron. Nanami dragged a hairbrush through her hair, one of the few items recovered from her apartment. “Fate’s a western import. The patterns of life are dependent upon luck, fortune, action, and tenacity.”
“So you don’t think that it’s fate that we met?”
Tomoe glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, smoothing out her jacket with quick and nimble hands. “Mikage has his reasons for everything he does. I’m certain that he chose you purposefully.” He huffed slightly. “Even if I have not divined the purpose yet.”
“Neither have I,” Nanami said dejectedly. She leaned against the shoji wall, before quickly moving away from it when Tomoe growled at her. Why was everything in this place so fragile ? “It’s kind of scary to live without a purpose, right? It’s really lonely. Like you’re just swimming in this big, dark ocean, and there’s no shore in sight…”
“Is that why you wish to go to school?”
“Is that why you like being a familiar?”
“I take pride in my job,” Tomoe informed her imperiously, “I do not take pleasure in it. There is a distinct difference.”
Ah. Nanami felt slightly rejected, although she wasn’t quite sure why. She had thought maybe that they were bonding, at least for a second there. Maybe she shouldn’t mistake a halfway civil conversation for friendship.
“I’m sorry for bothering you, then.” Nanami bowed at him, ignoring his bristled tail. “Thank you for your hard work. Goodnight.”
Then she stalked into her room, taking care not to slam the sliding door no matter how much she wanted to, and flopped onto her futon.
She had decorated her room a little, as much as she was able. The fox mask sat on top of the rickety wooden shelf that held her clothes for right now, grinning its sly grin at her. It was the first thing she saw when she woke up in the morning.
Behind that sly mask, who was Tomoe? Behind the human mask, who was Nanami? Sometimes she felt too big for her body, or much too small, flopping around in an ill-fitting suit that anybody could see.
Tomoe told her that other yokai could see the mark of the land god on her forehead, and that if she were to go to school she would have to cover it up. Mask on, human girl; mask off, land god. How long could she hide? Why was it so scary, to stand in front of the world without a mask, to be laid bare in front of people she only wanted to accept her?
She had no friends at school. Her teachers only knew her as a delinquent. She had no family. What she had was this shrine, and books on how to raise your teenager, and an irritable spirit. Was it enough? Could she live on that?
She fell into a fitful sleep, dreaming of bright lights and gentle kisses on the forehead by men whose faces blurred in her memory, and when she woke up again she found that her comforter was drawn up tightly around her and her slippers were laid neatly by her side.
School was a disaster.
Maybe she should have expected it: Nanami-the-God trying to step into the old sundress of Nanami-the-Human and finding that it didn’t fit quite right, that it was too tight in the waist and too loose in the shoulders. She had outgrown it, and now her thighs were exposed, and everyone could see her.
The other kids had been making fun of her for her daddy issues for years and guess what, Isobe! It still wasn’t funny! It had never been funny! And who bullies someone for being poor? It was just cartoonishly mean!
Nanami didn’t want to be friends with people who disrespected her for stupid shit. She only wanted to be friends with people who disrespected her for legitimate reasons. She didn’t want to be the girlfriend of a crow spirit who was definitely just lying to win a bet with his little crow buddies. This was Sota from 8th grade all over again.
She rose the jostling and jerking country bus home, humiliated, cheeks burning. Why had she thought this was a good idea? She was dropping out the next day. Tomoe was right. This was a waste of his valuable time, and her nonvaluable time, and - and everything.
Dinner was simple that night, as Tomoe hadn’t had a lot of time to prepare it. She ate it silently, the rice tasting like gravel in her mouth.
She was halfway through her rice cake when a mist of water sprayed over her face. Nanami yelped, startled, and mourned her now thoroughly wet rice cake. She looked up to see Tomoe, standing over her with a spray bottle.
“What was that for!” Nanami snarled, slamming her chopsticks on the table. “You are such a jerk!”
“The books recommended it,” Tomoe said flatly. “Are you done sulking?”
“I was eating my dinner , you ass!”
“You were sulking while doing it. That’s disrespectful to my food.” Tomoe narrowed his eyes at her, crossing his arms and tapping a finger threateningly on the spray bottle. She was stealing his cat behavior books from him. “Are you going to give up?”
“I thought you didn’t even want me to go.” Nanami wiped herself off with her napkin, trying hard not to look as if she was sulking, failing.
“I don’t. But I would be deeply ashamed for my mistress to lose to a dishonored and dishomed tengu’s bullying.”
Something about that caught Nanami’s attention, and she looked up. “What do you mean by that?”
Tomoe scoffed, looking away. “Your friend -”
“He’s not my friend -”
“My apologies, I forgot you didn’t have friends,” Tomoe lied.
“It’s not like you do either!”
“I don’t need friends, I have prostitutes.”
“You are forbidden from seeing any prostitutes!”
“Your priorities are idiotic.” Tomoe sighed. “A tengu’s powers are weak when apart from their mountain. And few leave it voluntarily. If I had to guess, I’d say that Kurama was kicked out about seventeen years ago. Rumor was going around - it’s not important.”
Oh no. Nanami felt a familiar pang of empathy. “He was evicted from his home? That’s so sad...”
Something in her face must have seemed very dangerous to Tomoe, because he blanched. “Oh no.”
Luckily for Tomoe, Nanami dismissed the idea of trying to help out Kurama pretty quickly. He was a pop star, surrounded by fans wherever he went. He was rich, successful, and devil may care. There was no way he was as lonely as she and Tomoe were. Nanami would never be sad if she had money.
Did Kurama have a Tomoe? Or did he have nobody?
After dinner, from sheer curiosity, Nanami sat down and leafed through the logbook of prayers that Tomoe had accumulated over the past twenty years. He had taught her how to write them down, so some of the newest entries were in her handwriting, but so far she hadn’t really been able to help with much of them. They were all wishes for healthy babies, or a good score on a test, or happiness. Many of them were matchmaking ones, which apparently Mikage was the god of or something, but Nanami didn’t know what to do about that either unless at least one of the people were in front of her.
The most she could do was set out a little box with her handwritten tags, written on pretty stationary with little flowers on it, that read out ‘LUCK’ or ‘FORTUNE’ with a neat little accompanying sign that welcomed visitors to take one. There was a little donation bowl next to it, which was how Nanami afforded school supplies. Tomoe still insisted on keeping her out of sight of the visitors, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped. Nanami usually passed herself off as a miko and, enthusiastic to see another human face no matter how elderly they usually were, prepared a pot of tea for their visitor and sat down and talked with them for a while.
It didn’t take long before Nanami realized that, really, all any visitor wanted was somebody to talk to. Many of them forgot to even make their prayers: they were just happy for a sympathetic ear. Old people liked to talk about themselves, and usually Nanami could even wrangle useful information about the shrine from them. That was all she had to do, just listen.
It almost felt a little stupid. Any teenage girl could listen to a grandmother’s issues and give her some tea. It didn’t exactly take a god. Tomoe had mentioned off-handedly that one of the unseen jobs of a monk was community therapist, but Nanami had never realized how true that was until she found herself dispensing life advice with frightening regularity. Maybe she should get her degree in psychology instead?
Maybe everybody was lonely, even if they didn’t show it. Old people, young people, kids without parents and kids with parents that worked all day and kids with parents who just didn’t understand. It took a very lonely and desperate person to come to a shrine that everybody swore was haunted, but somehow Nanami felt as if everybody was equally sad, and that all they did was pass it around to each other.
Maybe Kurama bullied her because he just wanted attention, and even the negative kind would work. She was the only person who knew who he really was, who saw through him into the feral animal inside. If there was only one person who really knew her - even if he was a jerk - she would do just about anything for his attention too.
Say what you like about Tomoe, Nanami figured, she had his attention. That was...the great thing about him. Even if he was mad at her, or irritated or peeved or gentle or supportive or protective, his attention was always 100% on her. Just her.
She waited a little bit, giving everybody time to cool down. Then she had to wait even longer, because she had gotten very distracted by the catfish goddess and the realization that humans and yokai could fall in love. Eventually, in complete secrecy, Nanami carefully penned an invitation and managed to find Kurama alone in the hallway so she could present it to him.
Of course, he was a dick about it. “Hah! A love letter? I never thought you’d return my feelings, Nanami!” He gleefully took the letter, ripping it open with one claw. “But I do have to warn you, I normally require my admirers to defeat their competitors in a jiu jitsu match before they can win my hand. Don’t worry, I have complete faith that you’ll - a dinner party?”
Nanami nodded eagerly, taking a second to look around the hallway and make sure that the coast was clear. She really hoped that nobody caught her talking to Kurama alone. The last thing she wanted was for people to accuse her of fangirling for the crow jerk. “I realized recently that part of the job of a you-know-what is to host other members of the...community and make them feel welcome, and that includes you! And I’ve always wanted to host a dinner party, so why not?” Kurama still looked at the invitation as if it was about to spontaneously light on fire and turn him into a grilled crow sandwich, so Nanami hurriedly followed up with, “And I’ll make sure that Tomoe is on his best behavior and that he doesn’t turn you into an ostrich again! It will be very formal! Tomoe loves it when things are formal, he’ll be very happy.”
Kurama just stared at her, then at the invitation, then at her again. Finally, he slowly said, “You really don’t know anything, do you?”
Okay. Well. She didn’t know what she expected. Nanami forced the rejection into a ball and fanned it into anger. “You could have just said you’re busy, you know!”
“No, wait, I accept, no take backs,” Kurama said hurriedly, bowing lowly to her. “Thank you for your invitation, I accept with honor. No take backs!”
Hm. Nanami had the sense that Tomoe was going to yell at her for this.
And, for once, she was right.
He yelled at her. For an hour. Onikiri and Kotetsu wrung their hands nervously and pleaded with Tomoe not to be so hard on her, but Nanami bore her scolding with a stiff upper lip and barely any crying at all, so take that , mean girls who made fun of her for not being able to take men yelling at her!
“ - fifth, it is not appropriate for the god to deliver the invitation, traditionally I would be the one to do so to your social equal, but sixth, Kurama is not a social equal -”
“You’ve said that point three times,” Nanami muttered.
“Because Kurama is a nobody,” Tomoe hissed, and Nanami flinched. “He is a yokai without a home, disowned and disenfranchised from his power. He has no guardian god, no shrine, and no honor.” He spat the last two words as if they were filthy - which, perhaps, they were. “He fooled you with his prestige in the human world, but I can assure you that in the world of yokai he is lower ranking than me .”
“Which is really saying something,” Onikiri muttered.
“At least I have a god,” Tomoe sniffed, “even if it is...you. I refuse to welcome Kurama into my ancestral shrine and serve him. He is a lazy, predatory good for nothing, and I don’t like you hanging out with him.”
Something snapped in Nanami. Tomoe was always doing that to her, but normally all it did was make her burn hot and yell and rage ineffectually at him. Which was safe, at least for her, because Tomoe always pushed back just as much. It was a delicate game, their legendary fights - how far could Nanami push before Tomoe stopped pushing back, which was always the signal to drop the conversation. He had no real authority over her no matter how much they both pretended, but as much as Nanami would like to forget the grotesque power imbalance between them Tomoe never did, and as a result Nanami couldn’t either.
But sometimes, when Nanami snapped, she snapped cold. She stood up, mouth set, and Tomoe abruptly shut up. “Sit down.”
Tomoe quietly sat down. He didn’t bow his head, but he did look away from her.
“I may not know very much about being a god,” Nanami said, and to her shame her voice was shaking. She fought to keep it still and steady, because Tomoe would never respect a god who couldn’t make her point without crying. “But I know something about being a good person. There is no point to worship and religion if we do not open our doors to those less fortunate than us. My home is welcome to all , even the dirt of society. Mikage opened his home to me when I was homeless and alone, and I will pay that kindness forward every day. He would be ashamed of you right now.” Tomoe flinched, and some part of Nanami congratulated herself on the hit as another part of her cringed harder. “You will treat Kurama with the utmost respect while he is a guest in our home. Am I clear?”
“Yes, mistress,” Tomoe said lowly, bowing, as if he didn’t think she was an idiot . What a liar. What a -
“And don’t call me that !” Nanami yelled, and turned on her heel and disappeared into her room. She crashed the sliding door shut, ignoring the way Tomoe yelled at her for damaging the wood, and collapsed onto her futon.
She would apologize tomorrow. She didn’t mean to humiliate him. Losing her temper was no excuse. Tomoe could scold her all he wanted, but she shouldn’t do the same to him. Even when he was objectively wrong and also a jerk.
In a brief, hot flash, Nanami wished that Tomoe was a human like her. They’d live here together, and they’d both work hard to keep the shrine in order and honor Mikage, and they’d fight and yell but she wouldn’t have to feel so guilty every time.
But if he was a human like her then none of this ever would have happened, and he would probably be sitting in his bedroom in Tokyo playing League of Legends and yelling slurs at a computer screen. If he wasn’t her familiar he wouldn’t lift a claw to stop her from getting eaten by evil yokai who liked teenage girl flesh, and she’d have her heart eaten by Kurama or something by now, and everything would be very different.
It seemed improbable that fate wasn’t real. Nanami knew that if things were just a hair different, if she had zigged instead of zagged, if she had ignored a man being chased by a dog in the park at night, then her and Tomoe’s lives would both be unrecognizably different.
Maybe she just wanted meaning out of her suffering. It shouldn’t be so wrong to want to make something good out of her awful life. To die in a different building. And if that something good was nothing more than a cup of tea to a lonely grandmother, if it was only a hand reaching out to a tengu in the dark - wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t the world better, with her in it, even if just a little?
And even if that wasn’t true, couldn’t she pretend?
“Rise, my lady.”
Nanami, as always, woke up to Tomoe ringing a singing bowl in her ear. She sleep walked her way through her prayers, meditation, and bows, and Tomoe served her breakfast silently with only a bow.
School was overwhelming and boring - she knew her school was shitty, which raised questions about what Kurama was doing in it, but even though the work was probably the easiest in the district she still had issues keeping up - and she silently bore the teasing as she quietly ate her lunch in the corner halfway through the day.
But, for some reason, Kurama dropped by. All he did was ask her if there was a dress code for their dinner later that week, and yet again make the platonic gesture uncomfortably sexual, but he did talk to her. All of his fangirls looked offended, but Nanami couldn’t help but laugh in anxious insanity. If only those girls knew that Kurama was, apparently, the dirt of yokai society! If only those girls who thought of her as the dirt of society knew she was a god!
Cosplaying as a god, anyway. Substitute teacher for a god. But...well, even if Mikage was probably coming back any day now to take his godhood back, shouldn’t she make the most of it while she had it?
Tomoe’s civility and politeness lasted, as usual, until they got into a fight over the TV remote - he had developed a fondness for game shows, especially the ones that involved politicians humiliating themselves - but he did not call her mistress again, sticking only to ‘my lady’.
She got up in the night to get a drink of water to find Tomoe sitting at the table, reading the cat behavioral books again. She couldn’t help but smile.
“Are you getting enough sleep, Tomoe?”
“I don’t need to sleep as much as you.” He flipped the page. “Go back to bed. I’ll bring you your water.”
“Alright.” She yawned. “You know, you can call me whatever you like, Tomoe.”
He didn’t smile, but his ears twitched in a satisfied way, which was all she had ever needed from him. Maybe it was a good thing he wasn’t human - she wouldn’t understand him at all, then. “As you say, mistress.” He paused, clearly thinking something over. Or, perhaps, hesitant to say something he had thought hard about. “However...strange I find your decisions...I am proud of you for making them.”
His words sparked something warm and ferocious in her, and she grinned widely at him, and he offered a half-smile back.
Maybe this meant they weren’t fighting anymore. Who the fuck knew. Not Nanami.
Their fragile peace lasted until the day of the dinner party. It was on a Sunday, which meant that Nanami was locked and barricaded inside her room with instructions to practice her calligraphy as Tomoe whipped the entire shrine into order. She felt bad about giving him so much work, but she couldn’t exactly walk back on her convictions now. He wouldn’t lose any respect for her if she made him do things, but he would if she didn’t commit to her decisions. Understanding Tomoe was a full time job, but she had the feeling that for him understanding her was a full time job, so maybe it was fair in that way.
She was only released from her prison by Kotetsu an hour before Kurama was due to arrive, who pushed her into the bath and spent a very long time doing her hair and sticking an alarming amount of ornaments in it. Onikiri was waiting outside with a kimono so heavy and thick that it looked like it belonged in a museum, and both spirits helped her into it. She really hoped she wasn’t wearing a sacred kimono from the sacred space that she wasn’t allowed to go into full of sacred things that she wasn’t allowed to touch, but seeing as Tomoe would have an aneurysm before he let her wear anything that Mikage had touched with his godly hands she figured it was a safe bet that it was just a nice kimono.
It really was nice. It was a rich, earthy green, patterned with bright white flowers and a white obi. When she looked at herself in the mirror wearing it, it took her breath away. This was clothing that every god before her had always worn. It was clothing that gods had been wearing in the 1400s, in the 1300s, when kimonos had been invented. For a second, just a brief second, she felt like the latest link in a long chain of history and tradition that had breathed life and spirit into Japan. That was the life and spirit of Japan: that was its rivers and valleys, that was its forests and trees. Every animal, every bug, every bird. Every human, every yokai, her and Onikiri and Kotetsu and Tomoe and Kurama.
Nanami didn’t really feel like a god of anything. She felt like a servant of everything: someone who lived to help other people, humans and yokai and the earth alike. Maybe that was what being a god was. Even the highest god on the tallest mountain reached down to guide a human down the path of their special and amazing life. Even the smallest god, the land god of the Mikage shrine, could push a human into action and into a better life. Even Nanami.
“Nanami! Get into the haiden!” Tomoe yelled from, presumably, the kitchen. “Have you purified yourself yet?”
“I’m still getting dressed!” She yelled back.
“Hurry up! You’re so slow!”
“You’re such a nag!”
“I wouldn’t have to nag if - no, Kotetsu, arrange the dishes counter-clockwise!”
Nanami sighed. So much for good intentions.
She drank the purified water (that she purified , Tomoe really needed to make up his mind on if she was filthy and unclean or pure and holy), washed her hands, and carefully sat down in the Haiden and spent five minutes frantically trying to straighten her robe. Did she look godly enough? Did she look regal enough? Why was she pretending, why was this so formal, he saw her whenever she bothered to show up at school! What was the big deal?
But it was a big deal to Tomoe, so she sat regally with her back straight and her hands in her lap on a zabuton against the far wall of the room. And waited. When her Hello Kitty watch hit eighteen she started hearing murmuring voices and the sliding of doors, and finally the door to the haiden slid open and revealed a kneeling Tomoe. He bowed, forehead almost touching the floor. “Mistress, your guest has arrived. May I introduce Kurama, Tengu.”
Suddenly, Nanami understood exactly what Tomoe’s game was. She fought the urge to rub the bridge of her nose. Be so polite and perfect and courteous that he would rub Kurama’s face in how inadequate and classless he was. Only Tomoe could weaponize being a butler .
Kurama walked in after Tomoe, dressed in a pure black kimono lined with golden and silver thread. The black was glittery and sparkly, slightly iridescent, and Nanami had to stifle a laugh. Like crow feathers with a little dash of sparkly goodness that would make any crow go wild. It was almost adorable.
He bowed at the door, walking to the center of the room as Tomoe stayed at the entrance. “Kurama of Mount Kurama,” he said, with just the barest hint of steel to his words. From behind him, Tomoe rolled his eyes. “Thank you for inviting me into your home, my lady.” He stepped forward, placing a jug of what looked like sake on the floor and bowing again. “I will honor your hospitality.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” Nanami bluffed desperately. “Please, make yourself at home.”
“We will adjourn in the receiving room,” Tomoe said, bowing again before standing up. “If our guest will follow me.”
She waited for Kurama to follow Tomoe out the door before Onikiri ducked his head in and gestured for her to follow them. She did, wincing as she had to massage feeling back into her legs, but managed to follow Onikiri into one of the rooms in the shrine that had always been used as a dusty storage room.
But now it was sparkling clean, tatami fresh and new, and a low table was placed on the ground covered in delicious looking dishes. Kurama was already sitting down as Tomoe was serving, and judging from the intense looks they were shooting each other they hadn’t noticed her enter yet.
“What’s wrong, fox? No snappy insults to throw at me today? You run out of spells to turn nice guys like me into flightless birds?”
“My mistress has requested complete and unwarranted hospitality,” Tomoe said smoothly. “So complete and unwarranted hospitality you shall receive.”
“Since when do you jump when a teen girl says so?” Kurama sneered. “Whatever happened to Tomoe, the untamable demon fox? Did Mikage strangle you with that leash that the girl now holds?”
“Bite your tongue, you miserable -”
“Thank you for coming,” Nanami said flatly, and although Tomoe was too professional to jump, but his ears flickered and his tail puffed in alarm. “You’re dismissed, Tomoe.”
“Busted,” Kurama whispered.
“I have yet to serve you your food, my lady,” Tomoe said stiffly.
“This teen girl knows how to work a pair of chopsticks,” Nanami said flatly. “You’re excused .”
To his...credit, as Tomoe quickly exited the room, Kurama looked somewhat sheepish as she sat down and began serving herself the gorgeous food that Tomoe had worked so hard on. “Your familiar’s a real jerk, huh? Bad luck there.”
Nanami gingerly ate some of the pickled vegetables, chewing carefully before swallowing. Tomoe had, almost literally, beat table manners into her several days ago, and at the very least she could do this. Finally and crisply she said, “I am very lucky to have Tomoe. He works very hard.”
Kurama huffed, taking a quick and bolstering swig from his cup of sake. “He’s a bastard demon fox, but he’s just a trumped up butler with some juju duties thrown in. I had tons of servants growing up, you know. You can’t let them walk all over you.”
“Is that so,” Nanami said flatly.
Maybe he wasn’t as good with people as he thought he was, because Kurama flipped his hair proudly. “Yeah! I was a total big name on Kurama Mountain before I bounced. I got guys now too. I got a guy to steam my clothes, and a guy who drives me around, and even a guy to schedule my appointments for me! You don’t even gotta get them in a mystical contract or nothin’ in the human world. All you gotta do is give ‘em money. And that’s easy.”
“Easy, huh?” Nanami carefully sipped some of her miso soup. Rich. “I thought you were kicked out of Kurama mountain.”
His wings weren’t out. Maybe they would have helped her understand him more. But Kurama, in many ways, was an open book, because the pain and anger that flashed across his face was unmistakable. “Is that how the shitty fox put it?”
“I am sorry that Tomoe attacked you.” Nanami took a deep breath, in and out, searching desperately for that center. Trying to find how she felt looking in the mirror only an hour ago, feeling like something far greater than herself. “I apologize for his rudeness. He is overzealous when it comes to protecting me. I take full responsibility for his actions.”
Kurama blinked at her, thrown. Somehow, Nanami knew that if Tomoe was here, he would be telling her that gods didn’t apologize to dishonored tengu. “I - uh, apology accepted. I mean, it was really my fault…” He took another sip of sake, perhaps too quickly, because he broke into coughing. “I mean, I was literally trying to kill you, and he would have been within his rights to...I guess I never thanked you for sparing my life.”
“You know I was evicted too. You probably heard it at school.” She fought the urge to wind a loose thread of her kimono around her finger, terrified that she would pull it apart with only a tug. “It’s hardly a secret...it’s embarrassing. But, you know, when I asked for help...I got it. I’m very lucky. I invited you here, Kurama, because I wanted you to know that if you ever need help, I would like to give it to you. I think...or maybe I decided...that it’s one of the duties of a god.” She smiled at him, and somehow it was even real. Kurama looked struck. “We’re all the same, right? You, me, and Tomoe? I think people like us have to stick together. Don’t we?”
Kurama opened his mouth, then closed it, then drank a great deal of sake very quickly. His cheeks were red, and Nanami didn’t exactly know what that meant, but she figured it was probably attributable to the sake.
“You can’t just decide what a god does, you know!” Kurama yelled.
But Nanami couldn’t help but laugh. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, Kurama, but I don’t know very much about anything!”
“Oh, gods.” Kurama abruptly looked a little sick. “You’re going to get killed in two weeks. Oh, gods. I’m going to have to stop you from getting killed. This is how Tomoe feels.”
“What do you mean by that! I’m not helpless, you know.”
“Fox!” Kurama cried. “Bring us more sake, I’m getting drunk!”
“Be polite to Tomoe!”
Tomoe slid the door open, smiling pleasantly, which was always a warning sign. “I’m sorry, legally I cannot get minors drunk.”
“I’m a yokai, you ass!”
“Could have fooled me, you -” then Tomoe’s eyes flickered to Nanami, and he abruptly sobered. “I will bring your sake right away.”
But, very abruptly, Nanami was tired: tired of the formality, the ritual, the careful distance. “You’re off the clock for the rest of tonight,” Nanami said, as firmly as she could, imagining that her tone brooked no argument. “Sit down and eat, please, you must be hungry.”
Tomoe stiffened. “This isn’t appropriate -”
But Nanami smiled at him, the particular smile that she used only for Tomoe, and his tail stiffened. “Just a dinner between friends? Please?”
“We aren’t friends,” Tomoe and Kurama said, in exact union, and Nanami laughed. But Tomoe sat down, and delicately ate from the pile of grilled fish, and Kurama promptly dug into how whipped Tomoe was, and Tomoe sniped back, and Nanami could do nothing but laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
That night, after far too much sake, after Kurama had shared a particularly bawdy story about him and three eagle yokai of different genders, after they had played a truly atrocious game of shogi that Kurama failed to turn into strip shogi after Tomoe assaulted him for the sheer suggestion, Tomoe carefully helped Nanami to bed.
He took off her kimono for her, leaving her in her white shift before turning around and letting her throw on a t-shirt and floppy pyjama pants. He took the decorations and accessories out of her hair, letting it fall over her shoulders, and carefully helped her into bed before drawing the covers around her.
But she didn’t want to let go of him. She kept her hand clenched to his kimono, refusing to remove her hand even when he drew away. Her head was fuzzy and the world was swimming, and only Tomoe was steady and still.
“Nanami, I must go clean up after dinner.”
She grunted dissent, pulling him closer. He let her, let her bury her face into the folds of his robe. “I ordered you not ta leave me b’hind…”
“I’m not,” Tomoe said soothingly, carefully prying her fingers off his kimono. But he clasped his hand in hers, anchoring her in a swimming world. “I’m just going into the next room, I promise.”
“P’lease don’t leave…”
“I can’t, Nanami. I can’t leave you.”
The figure in front of her was silent, before he sighed. He lay down next to her, about half a meter between them so he was on the tatami floor instead of the futon. But he kept their hands clasped, rough nails dragging on her skin, and that was all she needed. “I’m right here, Nanami. I won’t go.”
And she conked the fuck out.
The next day Tomoe was unflappable, Nanami was mortified, and Kurama was smug as hell.
It turns out that he had also been too drunk to go home, so he had crashed in their guest room. Nanami, already mortified from waking up to find a boy sleeping next to her in her bedroom, had been faced with the cheerful face of Japan’s hottest pop star eating breakfast at her table in nothing but loose pyjama pants that had to have been borrowed from Mikage the land god.
“Wow, Nanami, thanks so much for the great threesome last night!” Kurama said loudly, as Nanami blushed beet red. The door open and slid behind her, revealing that Tomoe had also woken up and left the room. “You really blew my mind, I’m kind of offended that you threw me out afterwards and let Tomoe stay though -”
Then Tomoe drop kicked him in the face, because apparently rules of hospitality didn’t apply the next morning, and Onikiri and Kotetsu barely managed to push the tangle of snarls and teeth into the courtyard. Nanami ate her corn flakes as if they could wash away her sins.
To make matters even worse, she had to walk to the bus stop with Kurama talking her ear off about how cool and sexy and popular he was, and then sit on the bus into the city and let all the grannies stare at them, and then she had to walk into class next to the hottest guy in school and famous pop star still loudly yammering about how great he was, while massively hung over .
“Don’t complain,” Tomoe said, for once not following her - apparently deciding that Kurama was enough protection for once in his life, which was such a stunning change she wondered that if they had a secret conversation that she wasn’t privy to again. “Nobody will notice who you enter a room with.”
Everyone noticed .
During lunch, when she went into the bathroom to try to fix her shitty makeup that she had never really properly learned how to apply, she was ambushed by a small horde of Kurama’s admirers.
“Blah blah blah,” the head girl blathered. Nanami, excruciatingly hung over, blinked blearily at her. What was her name? Satomi, or something dumb like that? “Blah blah, how long have you been dating Prince Kurama!”
“Oh.” Nanami wondered if it was socially acceptable to turn the lights in the public bathroom off. Why hadn’t she brought sunglasses. “We aren’t actually dating…”
“Don’t lie!” Satomi or whatever said imperiously. “We saw you walk in together this morning! Plus you’re, like, clearly hung over.”
Her friend behind her - Rui, had been nice to Nanami in middle school before realizing that she was poor - gasped. “You went out for drinks with him!”
“Yeah, sure, whatever. We broke into the sake at my house. He was too trashed to go home after, so he crashed on my couch.” Nanami yawned again. “It’s not a big deal. He’s more like a brother to me, you know?”
That seemed to cheer up the girls, because they all promptly started giving her advice on her makeup. Apparently, if she was going to hang out with Kurama Oujo-sama or whatever the fuck, and the appeal of being called -sama went straight down the toilet when Tomoe somehow managed to turn it into an insult, she needed to look her best.
But...it was nice, to have the other girls fuss over her, even if it was just for a little while. She answered questions about her living situation - she was staying with a friend of her family and helping take care of the local shrine as a part time job - and the girls genuinely seemed to find that kind of cool. Rui even asked if they could all visit it together and pray to it for good luck in finding dates. Mikage was the god of matchmaking, right?
“I can’t promise anything,” Nanami laughed, somewhat self-effacing. “But I find that praying to Mikage helps give me the courage to make my move, so why not give it a shot?”
A lie - the only guy Nanami had time to think about was Tomoe, who had the unique ability to take up all of her thoughts - but a harmless one.
“Oh, I would love some courage to ask Kurama out - eek, a snake!”
And then her day went downhill very quickly.
Shows her to do something nice for somebody.
Nanami didn’t know how rescuing a white snake from some frightened teenage girls ended up with the snake kidnapping her, trying to force her into becoming his bride, somehow be extremely adorable and harmless looking despite, again, trying to force her into becoming his bride, and somehow end up comforting him as he spilled his sob story.
It really was quite sad. Nanami would be more sympathetic if it wasn’t for, well…
But there was something in his eyes, this strange familiar with the white-gold irises, that reminded Nanami of what she saw each day in the mirror. This supreme desolation, this total abandonment, feeling as if the world had left you behind while it continued on its merry way. If she could have shut herself up in a memorial to her past, would she have? If she didn’t even have Tomoe, would she have turned into this?
No, she didn’t think so. Nanami had...well, she had quite a bit more social skills than the strange snake Mizuki did. But she was reminded forcibly of earlier ruminations on Tomoe, wondering if there was something in yokai’s mind that predisposed them to devotion and love above everything. If they understood the act of being a familiar to a god differently than she did, in a way that could not be bridged, and could not be understood.
She didn’t understand Tomoe, why he was so dedicated to her safety despite not even liking her. But maybe she didn’t have to. All she knew was that he was going to come and help her, because he had promised, and that was enough.
“Do you need someone?” Nanami asked Mizuki, as they sat in that desolate room suffocated by a thick miasma of evil and loneliness. He stirred the pot absently, mind clearly far away.
“Yes,” Mizuki said. He smiled at her - pale, and wan, and as fake as her own smiles. “A familiar such as me needs a god. A purpose. That’s you now, as my wife.”
“I can’t be that for you,” Nanami said. Taking a deep, steadying breath, she reached out and clasped Mizuki’s hand. She could tell that it was the first time anybody had touched him in a kind way in a very long time. “But I’m more than a human girl. I’m a god too. I can be your god, Mizuki.”
He stared at her, eyes wide, breath caught.
She forced a smile for him - just as fake as his, but maybe he would understand what she meant. “I’m lonely too. I think - I think a lot of people are, really. Wouldn’t it be nice to be lonely together?”
But he must have misunderstood her, because he leaned in to kiss her and Nanami’s heart jumped almost out of her chest, so loudly that she thought the crash of shouji walls outside in the thick miasma was her own thumping chest, but of course it was Tomoe instead.
“That is the last time,” Tomoe roared, “I let you go to school by yourself!”
And, of course, everything was just fine.
Did Tomoe know that he saved her life?
Not just when he walked her to school, and sat through classes just to keep an eye on her. Not even just when he stopped yokai from eating her or saved her from creepy familiars and upstart tengu. But when he woke her up in the morning, when he gave her what she needed without needing to ask, when he did everything that people who loved each other did without loving her.
Who couldn’t respond to that? What girl, always alone, could be the number one person in someone else’s life and not love them back?
She loved Tomoe, but she didn’t understand how or why. She had barely known him for a month, maybe a month and a half. That didn’t seem like enough time to love someone, did it? Her feelings didn’t make sense to her, and she knew they wouldn’t make sense to Tomoe. She didn’t even know if he was capable of such things, when he brushed off every girl who squealed over him in class and remained so utterly self-possessed.
One day, she even dared to ask. “Tomoe? Do you like girls?”
“As a general rule, I don’t like anyone,” Tomoe said flatly, leafing through her textbook. “What’s the answer to number three? This school keeps asking me to do things I don’t care about.”
“I ask you to do things you don’t care about,” Nanami pointed out.
“If it’s important to you it’s important to me,” Tomoe said flatly, as if that was a normal thing to say. “Why do you ask about women?”
“I mean, like…” Nanami faltered, not sure how to explain this. “Do you find women attractive? In a...you know, kind of way?”
Tomoe looked up from the book and narrowed his eyes at her. “Do you find dogs sexually attractive?”
Okay. That answered that question. Nanami colored, flipping rapidly and senselessly through her textbook. To her surprise, she found that she actually really could answer number three. Tomoe’s endless insistence that she spend two hours studying every night...helped. She had thought she was stupid, before him.
“Can you fall in love with a human?”
Tomoe was silent. She assumed he didn’t want to answer the question, so she went back to her worksheet instead of pushing.
“I do not know,” Tomoe said, “as I never have.”
“I’ve never been in love either,” Nanami said. “So same here, I guess.”
“Is there a difference between in love and love?”
There must be, but Nanami couldn’t think of one. “...I’m not sure.”
And that was all they spoke on that.
Maybe it was...god instincts, or something. Tomoe seemed to have a lot of familiar instincts towards her. Maybe this was the weird little add-on to her soul that wanted to protect Tomoe, and keep him safe. But she wasn’t really capable of that, and Tomoe never needed her, and Nanami continued feeling rather spectacularly as if everything that they felt for each other was rather one sided.
Maybe it wasn’t right or good, what she was feeling. This odd, rising thing, that choked her throat and made her always want him by her. Maybe it was bad. Even if she did feel that way, she couldn’t tell him. Even Nanami knew that it was the worst thing in the world to be able to control everything about someone with a word and then ask them to date you or whatever.
Is that what she wanted? Or did she just want him close? She had that. Did she just want him to always put her first, to always care about her wellbeing? She had that too. What was missing, that she wanted?
She couldn’t tell him. At best he’d wrinkle his nose and feel uncomfortable, at worst he’d feel like he couldn’t say no to her. It just wasn’t right.
All she wanted was to be Tomoe’s hero, the way he was hers.
Worshippers came to the shrine and Nanami received them gratefully, giving them a pot of tea and listening to their issues. People had such a wide variety of problems, but somehow they all seemed to be the same at the very root: anxiety not to let others down, sadness that they felt like their life was spinning out of control, a dark grief that spread its roots and infected an otherwise beautiful day.
“All you can do is your best,” she told anxious test-takers. “If you work your hardest, your parents will understand and be proud of you no matter what. Have you asked them about if they can get you some study books?”
“It’s okay to feel sad,” she told grieving widows. “You’re going through a very difficult thing. I feel your pain. Don’t be afraid to lean on your loved ones at a time like this. If you have people to support you, then they can help you be strong enough to support your children. I have the numbers of a few good therapists, if you want them.”
“Even if he doesn’t love you back, it’s not the end of the world,” she told distraught young boys. “It just wasn’t meant to be. You’ll love again, someone who’s right for you and who can love you back the way you deserve. Your love is a good and pure thing. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s not.”
It felt good to help people, and get nothing in return but gratitude. Maybe that was how Tomoe felt about her. But it didn’t mean that she didn’t dream embarrassing dreams about rescuing Tomoe from an evil villain, sweeping him into her arms the way he swept her into his, and having him tell her with starry eyes that he appreciated her so much and that she was really very good at her job and actually I’ll let you make dinner tonight -
Ugh. What was wrong with her. She was turning into a sap.
But maybe fate had its own way of working. The same fate that she knew wasn’t real, but believed in anyway. Maybe that was what faith was.
Time passed, finals bore down upon her, and life went on its merry way. Until, of course, a super bitchy god came and stole Nanami’s house and spirits and servants from her and threatened to kidnap Tomoe and turned him into a child for some stupid reason , which was fine , except now Nanami was homeless again which she always knew would happen except she didn’t expect it to be with toddler Tomoe next to her, being very cute but unexpectedly useless.
But, for some reason, this time she didn’t cry. You shouldn’t cry in front of kids. You should always look like you know what you’re doing, because they depend on you. And he was sick besides, and normally she was okay with sleeping in the park but he was really really sick, and she didn’t know what to do , and everything was bad, and she had just gotten this good life she wasn’t going to give it up to a bitchy, entitled Karen of a god!
She would fight for it! She decided ferociously, sitting on a bench being otherwise useless. She would protect Tomoe this time. He would rely on her. She would…
She didn’t know what to do.
Useless, by herself. Incapable of being self-reliant. Incapable of protecting the person who had always protected her. What good was she? What good was being a god?!
But she wasn’t a god right now. She was just a human girl, just Nanami. So why did she still feel too big for her skin?
She sat in the dark, desperately pressing a damp towel drenched in the park water fountain to his forehead, keeping him tucked close to her. She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that when a limo pulled in front of her on the street, she barely even noticed until Kurama poked his head out of the window.
“Get in,” he called, “you’re really easy to find, you know that?”
She was too tired to protest. She got in.
Kurama, of course, laughed his ass off when he saw Tomoe, but sobered when he saw how sick he was. Nanami explained the situation - thieving god, deaged Tomoe, lost shrine - to Kurama, who seemed to already know most of it. It seems as if gossip spreads fast in the yokai world.
“If you can drop me off at a shelter or something I’d be thankful,” she said miserably. She carried Tomoei, keeping him slung over her shoulder and rubbing him on his back as if that could physically help anything. “We can figure something out in the morning, I’m sure they have first aid there.”
“Are you joking? We’re going to my place.” Kurama leaned back in his seat, knocking on the separator between them and the driver as the limo made a left turn. “I’m not leaving a girl and a toddler alone in one of those places. You can crash at my place as long as you need, Nanami.”
“But…” Nanami blinked, caught off-balance. “I’m not a god anymore.”
Kurama just waved a hand. “You’ll fix that soon enough. Besides, you said it yourself. We gotta stick together, right? You and me?” He winked at her. “Never a bad idea to get a favor from a god.”
“She stole my mark,” Nanami repeated, as if he would understand more the second time.
But Kurama just crowed a laugh. “What makes you a god can’t be stolen by some trumped up witch.”
It occurred to her, for the first time, that she could have called Kurama and asked him for help. It had just never occurred to her - the same way that her first instinct had been to reach out her hand to him, it had never occurred to her that he would ever want to help her. That anybody would ever help her.
Nobody ever had, besides the little boy now burning up in her arms. And even he had been forced into it. Nobody had ever voluntarily…
She thanked Kurama until she was red in the face, too tired to even marvel at his luxurious apartment or taste the food she shoved in her face. She took care of Tomoe, lying on Kurama’s feather bed in silence, and talked with Kurama about their options and settled out a game plan, and eventually fell asleep next to him with Kurama on the other side, snoring up a storm.
The next day Tomoe seemed better, at least. Kurama was smugger than ever, but she figured that he was just happy to get a favor from her.
Nanami was...embarrassed, that she couldn’t help Tomoe by herself. Why was she so weak, as to constantly need somebody? Why couldn’t she stand on her own two feet?
But she knew that she would have been fine, without Kurama. She would have figured things out, could have crashed at the shelter and found a way to make things better by herself. As always, she could have scraped along, dragging herself by her fingernails into survival.
But she hadn’t had to. And she didn’t know what to do with that.
And when Tomoe changed back to normal, when he came to her to reseal their contract, when he kissed her on the forehead in the same spot that Mikage had once done, and he chose her -
Nobody had ever chosen her before.
Was it so simple? Was it as simple as that? That Tomoe chose her to be his god, and that he loved her in the same way, as deeply and profoundly and terribly as she loved him?
“Tomoe?” she asked, one late night a week after their stupid misadventure that had driven Tomoe and Kurama further apart then ever. She poured over books frantically trying to cram school in her mind but only being able to think about the nice old man that day who had wanted something to help him cope with the death of his grandson. “Do you think the minds of yokai and humans are different?”
“Yes.” He was fixing shide to a shimewana with deft, sharp twists, tying the paper to the coiled hand-made rope with steady hands.
“I mean, do we...think differently?”
“I’m centuries old and you’re seventeen, so I’d expect so.”
“You know what I mean,” Nanami complained. “Like with Mizuki! You remember his devotion to his god, right?”
“I drink to forget Mizuki.”
“What I mean is, he loves his god in a way that humans just can’t understand.” She shivered slightly. “I can’t imagine dedication to a master so intense that I’d keep up a sunken shrine after she died. It’s just unimaginable to me.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t understand keeping up a twenty year abandoned shrine either?” Tomoe asked frostily, and Nanami flinched.
“But Mikage’s still alive! And besides, you spent half the time hanging out in the yokai world anyway. And...Mikage meant a lot to you, personally. Didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Tomoe said, in the particular way that signalled the end of that branch of conversation. “But Mizuki’s god meant a lot to him too. Yokai, we...I would say that the difference between us and a human is that we love deeper, for longer. Our love is like scars or grooves on our hearts. You remember the catfish goddess: she saw him once, and never forgot him.” Nanami did remember that. She hoped they were doing well - sometimes she saw her and her new human boyfriend on dates in the boba shop, holding hands and enthusiastically infodumping to each other about puzzle toys and sea life. “Familiars choose their gods because they love them. Yokai love more than humans do.”
“You can’t know that,” Nanami argued, heart thumping as she remembered Tomoe choosing her the second time. “You’ve never been a human. Humans can love so much, it’s unbearable!”
“I doubt it.” Twist, twist, tie. Tomoe’s hands worked in deft and practiced time, completing a ritual as old as time as he argued with a teenager about love. “Humans are shallow creatures.”
“That’s not true!” Nanami said, and to her surprise she found herself yelling. Tomoe always brought that out in her. “I can love just as deeply as you! More, even!”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well,” Nanami yelled, “I love you more than you love me, don’t I?”
Silence settled over them like a heavy blanket.
Nanami was mortified. Why had she said that? Oh, god, Tomoe looked so uncomfortable. He had stopped tying his rope, and was just sitting there, eyes fixed on the rope and cloth.
Could words be unsaid? Was that one of her godly powers? She desperately wished it was so. It seemed as if all being a god did was make her unsuited for two worlds: just the slightest beat out of step with humanity, but always lagging behind in the world of yokai and spirits. Did she belong anywhere?
She belonged with Tomoe. Tomoe, and the Mikage shrine, and Onikiri and Kotetsu. Even with Kurama and Ami, the ditzy human girl who somehow always had smiles to spare for Nanami. Even if nothing else fit, they fit.
The whirring floor fan thumped and thumped in the silence. A single floor lamp bathed the table in a soft glow, illuminating Nanami and Tomoe’s figures and the table but almost nothing else. Outside, crickets chirped a lilting, lonely song. Gods and spirits and yokai teemed in the night, and Nanami was alone with Tomoe.
She loved him. In what way, or in what specifics, or in regards for possibilities and timeframes and species didn’t matter. How could that love ever be a bad thing?
“You take care of me,” Nanami said quietly, into the dark. “You want me to be happy. You said that you will always stay. Nobody’s ever stayed for me before. Mom and Dad and - nobody’s ever stayed. But you did. Nobody ever chose me, but you chose me. How can I not love you, for that?”
Tomoe looked up from his work, straight at her, holding her heart in his hands. “I will never love you.”
And he crushed it.
“Okay,” Nanami said, like an idiot.
“Glad that’s cleared up.” Tomoe went back to his work. “Would you like some tea before bed?”
“No, I think I’ll go for a walk, actually,” Nanami said, standing up.
“Wait five minutes and I’ll come with you, it’s dangerous at night.”
“You are not to follow me, and that’s an order,” Nanami said, before leaving the shrine, still in her pyjamas and with shoes roughly shoved onto her feet, and walked twenty minutes into the forest so she could sob her heart out.
That was what Tomoe said: I will never love you.
But this was what Tomoe did: kiss her, gently and softly, perfectly on the forehead where Mikage once kissed her to reseal their contract, to bind her wishes to his soul, to make them one person as completely as if they had been born this way.
This is what Tomoe said, in the dark: Yokai choose their gods because they love them.
This is what Nanami couldn’t help but hear, as he cooked her breakfast in the morning: I love you, I love you, I love you.
But of course it was never so simple.
For one thing, Tomoe was the biggest asshole she had ever met in her entire fucking life. For another, her friends found out very quickly what had happened and had started making a big deal about the guy she was in love with refusing to be her boyfriend.
Which made her want to scream . She didn’t want Tomoe to be her boyfriend. That was just weird and freakish and even if he had chosen her, two people couldn’t be in a relationship where one of them could command the other one with a word! Besides, Tomoe had so much baggage and so did she, and -
And that wasn’t what she wanted from him. She didn’t want anything to change. Everything was perfect as it was. All she had wanted was to hear him say it.
But he couldn’t even do that because he was the biggest dick on the planet .
Kurama found out very quickly what had happened and started teasing her mercilessly, but for some reason he was downright cruel to Tomoe about it. She even had to get him to lay off, because the entire grade was quickly learning about Nanami and Tomoe’s tragic love story and turning it into something it wasn’t.
Their lives weren’t a romance. She didn’t know what it was. It was just life, she supposed: messy and awful and mean and stupid. But somehow good, and kind, and worth living. Even if it didn’t feel like it right now.
Nobody understood that weird thing that kept Nanami and Tomoe circling around each other. Maybe not even Nanami. Definitely not Tomoe.
So she wasn’t going to be immature about this. She wasn’t . She wasn’t .
She just needed some space. And Tomoe wasn’t giving her that space.
“I’m going to the cafe with Ami and Kei after school,” she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder as Tomoe finally woke up from the last three periods he was napping through. She knew he had used his fox magic to hoodwink the teachers into letting him tag along into class despite not actually being enrolled, but he must be using his magic to get away with not doing any work too. “You should go home without me.”
“It’s safest if I tag along,” Tomoe said, standing up and stretching. He didn’t have a backpack or any materials, because why would he. “I’ll keep my distance if you wish.”
“No, you aren’t coming,” Nanami said firmly, and Tomoe blinked harshly at her. “I need some time with my friends.” Unsaid: away from you. “I’ll see you back at home.”
“Mi - Nanami, I don’t think -”
“Good for you.” She turned away from him, waving at Ami and Kei as they waited for her by the door. “Wait for me, guys!”
But when Ami linked arms with her and laughed, she couldn’t resist looking backwards like Lot’s wife, only to see Kurama standing in front of Tomoe and softly crowing about something she couldn’t hear. But what caught her attention was Tomoe: the way his fists were clenched, and the way that she somehow just knew that his tail was lashing in anger and irritation.
But then Kei wanted to show her a funny meme, and she turned away again, and she had a very nice afternoon in a cafe with her friends, eating ice cream and giggling about life.
They sat by a window looking out into the Tokyo street, and Nanami realized for the first time that she had always dreamed of this. Taking pictures of their pretty food, talking selfies with each other and making funny faces in Ami’s, chatting about boys and school and life and their future and their hopes and dreams. She had never had girl friends to do this with before. This, what she had always wanted, had opened like a flower in front of her, and she was afraid of it.
Why was it scary? These girls were not the safe harbor of her spirits. They said callous things to her, off-handedly mean, and they were all equals. They did not always do what she asked but they often looked out for her feelings, and they all had rich and full lives outside of her. None of their lives revolved around her, and Nanami found that she did not want them to.
What she and Tomoe had...they had been around each other almost 24/7 since she moved in. It had been intense, and serious, and frequently death defying. Broad proclamations of devotion, brave stands against enemies, and heartfelt sobbing jags in parking lots. No wonder what she felt was overwhelming. To Tomoe, this had been his entire life, but to Nanami it was as if her seventeen years before had just been a strange dream, and this was her reality.
Nanami realized, with a sinking feeling, that she had kind of imprinted on the only person to show her any personal affection, and when he started withholding the affection she had thrown a hissy fit.
Well, you know, she was seventeen. Between her and the centuries old yokai, she shouldn’t always have to be the mature one.
When she came home, she found Tomoe anxiously sweeping the stone pathway into the shrine. She waved at him, muttering that she was home, fully intending to collapse in her bed and sleep. Maybe Kotetsu would let her skip out on spirit training today.
“We need to talk,” Tomoe said flatly, putting his hands on his hips.
“Can it be after my nap?” Nanami asked miserably.
“No, I’m afraid not.”
And that was how Nanami knew that this was something she couldn’t avoid, and she quietly sat down at the kotatsu with Tomoe. His ears and tail were twitching, even as his face was carefully impassive, betraying his nervousness. He stood in front of her as she stretched her legs under the table, stomach uncomfortably full from the ice cream and head swimming with summer heat.
Every inch of him was stiff, brimming with repression and tension and a deep discomfort in his skin. Nanami watched, slightly bemused, as Tomoe carefully knelt and bowed lowly to her, not quite dogeza but close.
“I have been lead to believe that my words a few nights ago have caused you harm,” Tomoe said. It was clear, precise, and every word was carefully chosen. “I am ashamed that I have offended you so grievously. Please tell me what recompense I can make for my behavior.”
“Can you talk like a normal person, please?” Nanami said, utterly exhausted.
Tomoe straightened, mouth twisted into a familiar ugly shape. “I don’t know what that means. I believe...that is our problem.”
It was. And they both knew it.
“I just want you to tell the truth,” Nanami said finally.
“I am not lying now,” Tomoe said heatedly, “and I was not lying then. I apologize that I am not able to reciprocate your feelings.”
“It’s not that!” Nanami cried, and she realized that she was telling the truth too. “It’s the fact that you were such a dick about it!”
They stared at each other, both exhausted and confused and indescribably strange in each other’s world. But they were in the same world, now.
Nanami could not go back to that towering and empty apartment building, could not return to that moldy apartment. She would not die in it, because Tomoe would not let her. This shrine was the only home she had now, and she knew that she would never be happy anywhere else. Her world, Tomoe and the shrine’s world and the beautiful world of yokai and spirits, was all their own. Was it?
“I chose you,” Tomoe said. “Was that not good enough?”
“Stockholm Syndrome a thing,” Nanami said humorlessly.
“What is that?”
“It’s when...you know what, never mind.” Nanami sighed. “Tomoe, look. We’ve been kind of...attached at the hip the past few months. You know? I need some time to myself. Some time with other people. It’s...it’s not because you did a bad job. You’re a great familiar.” Almost too good. “I just need some space. Just for a little while. Can you do that for me?”
He stared at her, almost uncomprehending. “Such as allowing you to put yourself in danger without me.”
“Yes, Tomoe, such as allowing me to go outside by myself.”
He stared at her some more. “Such as leaving you alone with the crow or snake unsupervised. Or the...women.”
“Yes, Tomoe, such as letting me hang out with my friends who care a lot about me by myself.”
He stared at her. Blankly, and uncomprehending. But she saw a slow realization cross his features, slowly and then all at once. It looked like disappointment - but at her or himself, she couldn’t tell.
“Mistress, you will have to command me to do that.”
You know what. Fine. Fine. If Tomoe was hellbent on making their relationship color so neatly between the lines, if they were both going to be so bound and determined to cut themselves down until they fit the neat little boxes of whatever a god and a familiar were, then she could do that. For him, and for nobody else.
“Then it’s a command. Give me space until I’m ready.”
He bowed, and Tomoe’s world was back in neat and precise order as Nanami’s was thrown into ugly disarray. “Yes, Mistress.”
“Great.” Nanami stood up, taking her bag with her. “I’ll be doing homework in my room the rest of today. I’ll take a look at the offerings and prayers left after dinner. Leave me alone unless you need me until then.”
Great. Just great.
And, true to his word, he did. Nanami did her homework for the day alone, her dinner and the logbook left outside her door with a knock, and Onikiri and Kotetsu very politely did not say anything about the obvious tension.
She picked up the mask lying on her dresser, always smiling a sly grin at her. She had thought that she knew the real Tomoe, but maybe she had never really seen behind those formalities into the raw and aching person underneath. Maybe even Tomoe didn’t know what was underneath. Maybe he was too scared to find out.
The next day, it was Kotetsu who accompanied her to class, zipping around in invisible joy, as Kurama puffed himself up with joy at finally having unfettered access to Nanami. He barged in on her, Rei, and Ami arranging to go to the beach, thumping away at his cell phone the entire time.
“It’ll be nice to just get away,” Nanami sighed. “Just a vacation would be nice.”
Ami patted her on the shoulder sympathetically. “Still fighting with your friend?”
“Oh, boy, you got no idea.” Kurama said, eagerly tapping away on his phone. “Their tragic story is going into my next song, I swear. By the way, Nanami, Fox-face says that he’s going to the beach with you.”
“He is not!” Nanami screeched. “Are you texting him now?!”
“He’s very dead-set on it,” Kurama said, pseudo-apologetically. “He’ll buzz off most of the time, but he thinks beaches are the most dangerous places in Japan.”
“He doesn’t own a cell phone!”
“I gave him one so we could coordinate stalking you. We have a groupchat, see?” Kurama waved the phone at her as it dinged again. “Oh, Mizuki says he’s in. I can’t come, I have a show, but you crazy kids have fun!”
“Mizuki’s not coming!” How did Kurama even know Mizuki? Sometimes he popped up at the shrine and tried giving her flowers, but Tomoe usually threw him out on his ass.
“Nanami, why do you have three hot men stalking you at all times?” Ami asked. “Just curious.”
“God cursed me for my hubris and my work is never finished,” Nanami moaned, thumping her head on the table.
“Can I join this groupchat?” Rei asked, feeding Nanami a fry slowly without looking up from her phone. “I’ll supply hot pictures of her.”
“Deal and done!”
“Oh, me too,” Ami cried, “I like to be included!”
“Sure, why not!”
“Hate my life, hate my life, hate my life -”
But, of course, it wasn’t that simple, because life never was.
Mizuki was a good person. Probably. Nanami wasn’t sure. She wanted to like him, but she didn’t trust him. He helped them, had grabbed the precious robe and helped her use the Time Winder and had, ultimately, been instrumental in saving the day, but Nanami didn’t really trust anybody whose motives she didn’t know.
He told her as much, when he told her what he had done. When he kissed her as she lay asleep for the witch to take out the pearl in her stomach - and when had her life gotten so fucking weird - and sealed their contract, and the power of her words alone could now stop him in her tracks.
Well, she thought hysterically as Mizuki preened in pleasure at being under the thumb of a god once more, at least Tomoe no longer had to worry about her being left alone with him.
But if there was one reason why she knew that there was something deeply, irrevocably different between humans and yokai, it was Mizuki. He wasn’t just a boy who lived having someone to love and look after, he was someone who had a deeply empty chasm inside him without someone to serve. He had imprinted on her, as surely as she had imprinted on Tomoe, just desperate for the first person to come along to give him purpose. A human would have moved on, tried to find a new meaning or reason for life. But Mizuki reached and reached and reached, a hand stretching endlessly into the night, pleading for someone to take it.
And Nanami had. She had been just as desperate at him, in her own way. Despite Mizuki’s humble and servile attitude, he was surprisingly entitled and domineering over the lives of others. Maybe all yokai were like that, containing multitudes: Tomoe’s hard working humbleness contrasting sharply with his pride, Kurama’s braggadocio personality a thin veneer over his desperate need for a true friend, Mizkui’s servile attitude a polite mask for his complete self-centeredness.
Was that Nanami too? Did she contain a great contradiction within her, human and god? Or did the contradiction run deeper than that: someone who was completely independent and self-reliant, but who could not truly do anything on her own, who was reliant on everyone around her for basic happiness and safety?
Part of her deeply wished to be independent, to be on her own again. She almost missed it. But as Mizuki enthusiastically informed her that you, yes you , are my new mistress, aren’t I so lucky, this is going to be so much fun!, the heavy weight of responsibility bore down over her shoulders.
She was just as responsible for Mizuki as she was for Tomoe now. Oh, good lord, she had four servants now. This was a household . Maybe she could just - put Tomoe in charge of Mizuki? No, he had enough on her plate, she had to take charge - what about when Mizuki inevitably acted out and she had to think of a way to get him to stop acting like a creep? She couldn’t do that! Tomoe was perfect, she didn’t know how to handle someone who had more faults than just being very rude!
Tomoe was being eaten by a giant clam as they spoke and Mizuki was making her worry about him! This wasn’t the time !
“Mizuki,” Nanami said, voice surprisingly flat, “you have to stop kissing people as they’re sleeping.”
“Is that your first order?” Mizuki asked enthusiastically. “Understood, mistress! Oh, that’s so much fun to say. It’s so wonderful having a female god, you know, they’re so much more motherly and kind and soft than the male ones - I served a male god for a while, but he really sucked, I’m much happier with you now. This is going to be so much fun, mistress! Just the two of us against the world!”
“I have literally just had experimental magical surgery in a dirty cave to get this weird pearl out of my body to save Tomoe’s life,” Nanami said flatly, holding up the Dragon’s Eye, “and you’re saying it’s you and me against the world?”
“Well,” Mizuki drawled out, batting his eyes and doing his best to look very cute, “we don’t have to save Tomoe’s life -”
“We’ve saving Tomoe’s life!”
“I’m just saying he’s kind of annoying and I think the world would be better off if he was eaten by a giant clam -”
“I do not have time for this, but I guess I have to,” Nanami said, cutting him off directly. She held up a finger. “Ground rules, right now!”
Mizuki nodded eagerly, almost vibrating with excitement. “Give me the rules!”
“Rule one: my desires and my safety are your utmost priority, in that order!”
“Rule two: we avoid killing or harming others unless we have no other option!”
“Suck it up! Rule three: you do not act against other members of my household or my friends!”
Mizuki narrowed his eyes, pouting a little. “What if Rule three contradicts Rule one?”
“Case by case basis! Whatever!” Nanami exhaled, looking down at the tickets the hag had pressed into her hand before she had fled stage left, pursued by Mizuki. He had almost killed her. For her. Sure, she was a jerk, but - but killing was wrong, wasn’t it? “Let’s go, I have to go get an idiot out of a clam.”
They did. It was fine. As usual, the men had their dick-swinging grudge match while the women talked pleasantly and solved the problem. As usual.
Maybe, Nanami thought pleasantly as they escaped the bottom of the ocean and, in general, that annoying experience, if she ever got another familiar they’d be a girl. Maybe then her friends would stop accusing her of having a harem.
Which was just fucking stupid. Some harem - a repressed fox who said that he will never love her, an egotistical crow who just followed her around to piss off the fox, and a sly snake who imprinted on her like a baby duck and only ever flirted with her while Tomoe was around to get pissed off -
“Oh my god,” Nanami said as she sat in the sea turtle cab, sandwiched between a bickering Tomoe and Mizuki. “Tomoe, give me your phone.”
Tomoe sniffed, pushing his nose up in the air. “What makes you think I own one of those infernal contraptions.”
“Kurama gave it to you. Hand it over.”
He handed it over sulkily, as Nanami popped open the fabled groupchat that Kurama spoke of. Sure enough, she saw two: one ‘human friendly’ one with her friends, and one ‘yokais only!! ;P’ one.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most recent messages was…
NANAMIS NEW FAVORITE: FINALLY GOT MY GIRL DOWN ON LOCK XOXO GUESS WHO HAS A NEW GODDESS TO WORSHIP ;)))))
xxFallenAngelxx: did you kiss her while she was drunk or what lmfao
Simp: asleep! but yes :)
Simp: hey who changed my name
xxFallenAngelxx: wow you little creep I was joking but that’s so worrying!
xxFallenAngelxx: gross are you going to be hanging around even more now
xxFallenAngelxx: guess this means tomtom’s in last place huh
xxFallenAngelxx: tomtom respond coward i miss you
xxFallenAngelxx: i mean i hate you
xxFallenAngelxx: my finger slipped
NanamiHateJail: Hello guys it’s Nanami :). I just wanted to let you know that it’s 2012, love is love, and that none of you need to keep following me around just so you can have some special time with Tomoe! Just be honest about your feelings and he will shoot you down very bluntly :).
xxFallenAngelxx: YOU BASTARD WHY DID YOU GIVE HER YOUR FUCKING PHONE
“Mistress, you shouldn’t read male only conversations -”
“Do not talk to me,” Nanami said, ignoring Mizuki.
Tomoe just looked smug. “Guess we’re changing your name to Nanami Hate Jail.”
“I’m mad at you too!”
NanamiHateJail: In order to celebrate the new addition to my house we’re all getting together for a party! Be there or be square everyone!
In a fit of deviousness, she switched to the groupchat with the two humans, and sent a new message.
NanamiHateJail: Hey guys, it’s Nanami. Exciting news!! My friend Mizuki recently moved in with me and Tomoe due to Life Stuff (™), so we’re celebrating by having a bit of a party! I’d love it if you all could make it! :)
(Ai)mi: ur fabled house!! :D id love 2!!! Ill make cupcakes and bring them!!
Kei: why r u living with the creep
NanamiHateJail: wish I knew :)
Kei: is this like a polyamorous thing
Kei: is ur entire harem gonna move in w/u
NanamiHateJail: its not a fucking harem and its not a fucking polyamorous thing I am going to fucking kill you :)
Kei: I will bring petit fours.
Kei: Please don’t hurt me.
“This isn’t a good idea,” Tomoe said, reading over her shoulder.
She whirled on him, absolutely ready to go batshit. “Then maybe you should have thought of the consequences of your actions before you ran off to go jump inside an ocean and get yourself eaten by a giant clam!”
Tomoe shrank back, holding his hands up. “You asked me to save Ami -”
“Yeah, because I thought you didn’t like getting wet , not that the ocean god had a death grudge out on you!” Which wasn’t even mentioning the hot lady in the past - whatever, it was none of her business. She honestly didn’t care. “Why didn’t you tell me, so I could have asked Mizuki to do it, and we wouldn’t have had to go through all of this and I wouldn’t have had to rescue you from mean gods!”
“I didn’t ask you to rescue me!”
“Too bad!” Nanami yelled back. “I’m your god, that’s my job!”
“I can take care of myself! I had that handled!”
“But you didn’t need to take care of it yourself!” Nanami cried, and Tomoe stopped short in surprise. “I’m here! You’re my family, even if you aren’t mine, and - and I’ll always protect you!” She deflated a little, suddenly miserable. “Even if it’s from far away…”
Tomoe just stared at her, a little dumbfounded. Maybe nobody had ever saved him before - nobody, at least, since Mikage. Probably nobody but Mikage.
If that was what earned Tomoe’s trust...then...maybe…
When he finally spoke it was stiff, and prim, and horridly pained. “Mistress, have you - have you had enough time yet?”
“Yeah,” Nanami said, and she found that it was true. “Yeah, we’re good now. I’m sorry. Can we be friends again?”
If Tomoe had anything to say to that she didn’t know, because very suddenly he was crushing her in a tight hug, head buried in her shoulder, and Nanami was slowly hugging him back. Had they ever hugged before? Is this what it felt like? He smelled like sandalwood and incense and brine.
“You’re my family too,” Tomoe said.
In that moment, if only in that moment, nothing was missing. Everything was there, and good, and perfect, because it was her and Tomoe.
“Oh boy, does Mikage Shrine do group hugs? Let me in, I want a hug too -”
“You are forbidden from touching her -”
“No fair, why is Lady Nanami playing favorites -”
“She is not , but I refuse to touch your filthy -”
“You get a hug too, Mizuki,” Nanami sighed, reaching over to hug Mizuki lightly. He squeezed her, surprisingly desperately, as if he was afraid that she would disappear. She sighed, finding herself running her fingers through his hair. “Please don’t be too much trouble.”
“I won’t let you down!”
But as the sea turtle swam his cab in slow, easy routes through the endless deep ocean, Nanami found that she didn’t want to be anywhere else.
She woke up the next morning to yelling.
She blearily checked the flickering alarm clock next to her. At six am.
Back to sleep it was, then. It was a glorious two weeks of summer break that just began, and she was going to enjoy every moment.
At 6:30, she woke up to Tomoe yelling at Mizuki about being terrible at landscaping.
At seven, she woke up to Tomoe yelling at Mizuki about burning breakfast.
At 7:30, she distinctly heard Tomoe yelling at the top of his voice, “Go wake up the lady of the house! You are not allowed inside her bedroom!”
At 7:31, she heard a cautious tap at her door. “Rise and shine, mistress!”
“Too late for that,” Nanami muttered, cramming a pillow on her head.
The house was in a frenzy. Tomoe was on the warpath, directing Onikiri and Kotetsu with an imperious hand as Mezuki frantically attempted not to burn breakfast even worse. Tomoe had a vacuum slung over his shoulder, occasionally almost knocking Mezuki over with it, and Nanami couldn’t help but smile. It burst from her, pure and real and uncalled for, and she wondered when it had become so easy to smile from the heart.
“Tomoe, please stop bullying Mezuki,” Nanami said, and Tomoe growled as his tail lashed. “He’s a familiar just as competent as you, but you yelling is freaking him out.”
“Yeah, sempai , stop upsetting our mistress,” Mizuki called smugly from the kitchen.
“She’s not your mistress, snake!”
“I am,” Nanami said shortly, shutting Tomoe up. But she walked forward and gave him a quick one armed hug anyway. His body was touch and muscled, but soft too. “Good morning, everybody.”
“Good morning, Nanami,” Tomoe said.
“Good morning, Nanami!” Mizuki called.
“You don’t get to call her that!”
“Can I go back to bed?” Nanami asked.
“ You have spiritual duties to attend to. With two familiars, your responsibilities are greater than ever. Go write the tags for the prayers you missed while we were all gone, you’ve been slacking off enough already.”
She did, yawning as she gave Kotetsu a quick hug and smiled at Mizuki and high fived Onikiri, happy to be home, happy to be where she was.
Last night, basically half-asleep, in a feeble attempt to impose order on the house she had made Tomoe ‘Head Familiar’ - a title that she had rapidly made up on the spot but that seemed to mean something to everyone else - and told Mizuki to do as he said, within reason. Then she went to bed, content in the knowledge that her lovely friends would keep each other in check and that the house wouldn’t fall down on her ears and that she wouldn’t be woken up at six am by yelling.
It was not to be. The day barely sobered after that, the only change Tomoe keeping his yelling to slightly less loud than a jet plane so Nanami could focus on her tag writing. She really was getting better - she was getting people coming back to her shrine with extra coin and a new prayer, swearing up and down that her fortune tag really did work! It was wonderful. She was experimenting with more diverse ones - ‘LUCKY IN LOVE’ was the main one she was struggling with now, as she didn’t exactly know what it felt like, but she never stopped trying.
Today, when she carefully swept her brush over the paper, for the first time she felt a...slight tingle. Like a static current, travelling up and down her arm, she felt just the faintest touch of divine magic coursing through her.
Where did it come from? Was she pulling it from a big pool in the trees and forest, drawing her energy from nature? Or did it come from her, from something brave and strong and fiery in her heart, that was always overflowing?
As Nanami painted her dearest hope for a good future, she felt very lucky in love indeed. Her family had grown by one, and even if it was...well, a little weird and awkward and strange, so were most families. They would make it all theirs. She didn’t even need Dad for -
With a jolt, she smeared her brush on the paper. She cursed, crumpling the paper up and putting it on the scrap stack. She would reuse it for calligraphy practice.
She hadn’t thought about Dad in...weeks. Maybe a month. Between the drama with Tomoe, her ernest efforts to develop her spiritual powers, school, and the drama with everybody else, she had completely forgotten about him. Not forgotten, but - she just hadn’t thought of him.
She tried thinking of him now. His lopsided smile, his crooked teeth, the beer bottle always found in a hand. She felt...she felt…
Nanami felt nothing.
No love or fondness. But no hatred or bitterness too. Just nothing, as if she was thinking of a stranger.
As an experiment, she thought of...safety, and protection. Tomoe came to mind, his brave stance and glittering foxfire against every enemy. She thought of warmth and love and support, and Onikiri and Kotetsu popped in her mind, their endless support and good cheer. Affection freely given and favors handed out without a care - Kurama, passing over a feather from his own wing as if it was nothing. Endless, boundless loyalty and devotion - Mizuki, a coy smile hiding real and deep feelings.
That was more than most people ever got. And Nanami had it.
The tag under her was growing wet, so she set it aside and wiped her eyes before starting in on a new one.
Breakfast had been ruined so she had lunch with everybody instead, quietly suffering Tomoe pretending that they were having a formal dinner instead of literally just rice balls, soup, and juice. Nanami missed chips. She remembered chips. All of her meals were the meals that Tomoe had been making for Mikage for more than three hundred years, and as surprisingly little that Japanese cuisine had changed she wanted saturated fats, goddamnit.
“Hold it above your head, then bow. Sit down seiza, gently lower the tray, make sure not to pour it all over your lady’s head, then serve her the food. If you do it too fast with a boiling kettle you’ll pour boiling water all over your lady’s head. Too fast, Mizuki!”
“I know what I’m doing,” Mizuki snapped, dumping rice in her bowl. “I’ve been a familiar for hundreds of years, dickhead!”
“Not in a land god’s shrine, you haven’t!”
“What’s the difference!”
“We don’t kiss sleeping women here -”
“Will you let that go, that was so long ago -”
“It was yesterday!”
“Thank you, guys,” Nanami said, giggling slightly behind her hand. Hey, look at her laughing politely. She was becoming a real lady too. “You both did a great job. Want to take a break?”
“Our work is not nearly done,” Tomoe said imperiously. “Next I have to show Mizuki how to collect the prayer tags -”
“Yay, onigiri!” Mizuki said, promptly throwing himself down to sit next to her. He smiled cutely at Nanami, practically batting his eyelashes. “Have you had a nice day, mistress?”
“Ah, please just call me Nanami.”
“But I love -”
But Tomoe sat down too, reaching out with his fingers and cramming some fish in his mouth. “He’s not hopeless. But we’re going to have to work hard to get him shape enough to not freak out the humans when they come over. If we keep the number of ceremonies to a minimum it may be doable.”
“Actually,” Nanami said slowly, sipping her juice, “I was thinking that we have it be informal! For fun!”
Both familiars stared at her blankly.
“Balloons? Streamers? Beer? Music?” She hinted desperately. “Like teenagers do?”
Mizuki tilted his head, glancing between her and Tomoe. “But...Nanami, we aren’t teenagers. We’re spirits.”
“I think of myself as more of a part-time god,” Nanami said desperately. “On weekends!”
But Mizuki just laughed uproariously, as if she had said a very funny joke. “You’re so cute, Nanami! But that doesn’t quite work. You’re my god all day, every day.” He tilted his head at her, cold and slitted eyes glittering. “Unless you think that having a familiar isn’t a big deal.”
“Of course it’s a big deal,” Nanami said quickly, “I know it’s a very large responsibility -”
“That she didn’t choose when it came to you,” Tomoe muttered.
“If I remember my gossip right, you didn’t choose it when it came to her either!” Mizuki chirped, and Tomoe flinched. Nanami paled. They didn’t talk about that. “Oh, sorry, did I hit a nerve?”
“That’s not important now,” Tomoe said harshly. “I voluntarily renewed the contract.”
“I’m just saying! As those scary Christian missionaries I met in Tokyo told me, those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Mizuki winked at Nanami. “I think bygones should be bygones, don’t you?”
“I need some air,” Nanami said suddenly, standing up and fleeing the room. Except that wasn’t ladylike or godlike, and you likely shouldn’t flee in front of your subordinates, so she just walked very quickly. “Eat without me.”
But she knew Mizuki was smirking.
She sat in the courtyard, letting the wind tousle her hair, trying not to think about everywhere she had misstepped, failing. Nanami had made so many mistakes in her life. She was so imperfect that it burned. Maybe, if she had just waited to ask Tomoe first -
He wouldn’t have helped. She would have died. He would have left her to get eaten by that hag. Had he really changed so much? It seemed impossible, that someone as eternal and steadfast as Tomoe would ever change.
But he had. Was it egotistical, to think that it was because of her?
She withdrew some tags from her pocket, absentmindedly leafing through them. Good luck, good fortune, good love...did her tags work on herself? Was there a tag that could turn back time, that could change her into who she needed to be?
She glanced backwards and saw Tomoe, standing awkwardly behind her. He stepped forward and sat down next to her on the grass, as casual as she had ever seen him, watching the wind tousle the grass and trees. Birds chirped in the distance, and nature bloomed in bright sincerity.
She smiled weakly at him, holding out a tag. “Good fortune?”
“I make my own, thanks.” He looked straight ahead, speaking slowly and carefully. Tomoe rarely thought about his words, always acted without thinking, but when he did it was always when he spoke to her. As if he knew how easily they miscommunicated, and he couldn’t bear to be misconstrued. “I changed my mind about you when I saw your old apartment.”
She didn’t say anything, just reaching into the grass and running her fingers along the dirt.
“I...came from a filthy place too. A place I’m not proud of either. I thought that we had nothing in common, before I saw your old home. I had always thought…” He exhaled softly. “When I was young, I always thought that I would live and die in the filthy place where I was reared. That I would live and die a cruel person. I didn’t know you felt the same way, until then. For the first time...I thought you were someone who I could understand.”
She didn’t say anything. How could she?
“When you asked me not to go...I was upset, at your exertion of power. But after a while, I found myself saddened instead. You seemed...very lonely. I wondered if you were someone worth knowing. And things progressed very quickly after that.” He shifted uncomfortably. “I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. If you’ve been guilty for so long over that...I apologize for not saying it sooner.”
They sat in silence for a while longer, Tomoe deep in thought, Nanami letting him think.
“I don’t know how to love someone like you,” Tomoe said, “in the way that you want.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Nanami said.
Tomoe huffled lightly. “That makes two of us.”
“So…” Nanami trailed her finger through the dirt. “Can you just love me in whatever way you want, then?”
Tomoe smiled at her, as if he was peeling away a mask, and it could have been the sun. The source of all of her magic, of every godly attribute she had, within Tomoe. “I already have.”
She did not hug him so much as fall into his arms, and they clutched each other tightly, and Nanami had never felt so light and so rooted and so tethered and so free, not ever, never like this.
A crash echoed from the kitchen, and they silently separated, and rose from the grass to step back inside, home again.
Tomoe is on stage. The stage is old, and creaky, but it has the words ‘Mikage Shrine’ carefully inked over the top, and it is theirs. He looks over the audience. It’s only a few people - two human girls, licking ice cream cones and hollering wildly, a tengu with his phone out to record the show, and a yokai serenely sitting with a strange smile on his face. In the wings, two invisible spirits wave their hands and let the streamers blow in the breeze, let the pinwheels spin, let the fireworks spark. The audience claps.
“Welcome to the first kagura dance in twenty years of the Mikage festival,” Tomoe says smoothly. “Our audience is small, but full of friends. It is made, simply, from love. It is expressed in order to teach us about our culture and our history. Where we come from and where we are going. And it is expressed to show all of you how much the god of Mikage shrine loves you all, and how deep their happiness runs that you may all be present here today.” Tomoe bowed. “Presented and danced by Nanami, choreographed and orchestrated by Tomoe. Please enjoy.”
The courtyard has a table set up with punch, beer, and snacks. A picnic blanket is set out, for snacks to litter the fabric and wrappers to blow on the breeze. Prayers swing on their wooden blocks, tags drift on the breeze on their ropes, and trees are laden with prayers. Nature blooms in the summer, and the spirit of Mikage shrine is alive and well.
A girl steps cautiously into the center of the stage. Her costume is ornate, her hair and makeup intricate, and she is barely withholding a grimace. But she bows to the crowd, laughing at their catcalls and hollers, and as the music slowly begins from Tomoe’s hamishen she slowly begins to dance.
Far away, sitting just out of sight on the roof of the shrine, a god smiles.
“Yes,” Mikage said, “I think she’ll do just fine.”
The god of Mikage Shrine dances for her friends, and her love makes the flowers of her home bloom, and the world is set in motion.