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Among the Crows

Chapter Text

In a land far away where beast, man, and those in between thrive, we begin our tale amongst the lush foliage of Kabeki Forest (壁木森). It is so aptly named as the trees grow as tall and thick as the strongest castle walls, and sunlight rarely pierces the thick canopy of leaves above. Rare glimpses of life and light appear when one walks out into the uncommon open field, where the brush teems with all kinds of flora and fauna.


Here, in one of these little pockets of paradise, a hunter lifts his head to the sky above. Having travelled deep into the forest, he has yet to see any game worthy of his swift arrow. The skies are calm and clear with nary a cloud in sight. Within the trees he hears the quiet chitters of wary critters. Silence steadily falls. Then, as if in answer to his prayers, a large shadow glides by overhead and within a single breath he lets his arrow fly—and it hits the mark perfectly with a thud.


But the spear did not land a fatal blow, and the hunter watched as the large grey wings faltered and dove headfirst into the trees with a loud crash. Taking to his heels, he ran in the direction of his prey with a drawn bow.

This hunter was Daichi, a short-haired, skilful youth from a line of proficient hunters. He possessed great talent in the longbow and his hunts always ended quickly within a few well-placed shots. This creature, however, still had the strength to elude Daichi among the gloomy maze of trees, but not without leaving a trail of crimson behind. His heart pounded in excitement as he grasped and examined a large wing feather that was undoubtedly from the bird. It spanned over a metre in length, was sturdy but soft to the touch, and shone a brilliant silver when he crossed it with a ray of light. He wondered what kind of exquisite creature he managed to hunt down this time.

Now, we turn our story around to the unfortunate prey’s point of view. The bird was in fact a half-crow, half-human creature named Suga. They call themselves the Karas, and from such a high altitude, it is easy to mistake one as a large bird. In fact, a shot from such a distance was what saved Suga from instantaneous death, as the arrow pierced his side when it was actually after his heart.


With a torn and battered body, Suga painfully heaved himself from the ground and made haste toward the nest. There was a hunter about, and he wasn’t going to leave his children behind without warning them first. Every step he took made him wince and tear up in pain, and he clutched his bleeding side and clamped his mouth shut. He could not fly as the landing broke his wing, and the canopy made sure that one as large as he could not break through it.


Finally, he trudged into a clearing and collapsed, feeling his life and strength ebb away hopelessly into the green, green grass. ‘Ah… is it over for me?’ he thought, unable to muster any more power to stand. ‘Kageyama… Hinata… I’m sorry…’ Suga closed his eyes and his body went limp. Suddenly, two young Karas came gasping and panting from the bushes, who immediately stumbled to Suga’s side.


“Ma—mama!!” Hinata cried out with tears tumbling down his baby cheeks.


“Mama!” Kageyama grit his teeth and held back his own tears upon seeing the terrible state his parent was in. He stared in hatred at the bloodstained arrow that stuck out from the man’s body like a vile curse. The smaller, orange-haired crow wept and tried to rouse Suga, to no avail.

“Mama is… Mama is…!” he whimpered.

“Stop whining! We have to find the one who did this…!” The other raven growled and pulled a small blade from his hip. “The one who shot Mama out of the sky…”


“B-but Mama’s still alive, we have to do something!” Hinata shook his head.

“We can’t pull the arrow out, you dumbass! Mama’ll bleed out and die!” Kageyama snapped back.


Amid the arguing and emotions that ran high, Daichi had silently arrived onto the scene and was trying to peer over the tall shrubs unnoticed. He was startled upon hearing the voices of children, and even more so when he heard the word ‘mama’. Wasn’t what he shot down a mere bird? It couldn’t have been a human! He swallowed and braced himself.

Carefully, he raised his head above the leaves, but was instantly taken aback when he found himself at knifepoint. His wide eyes met the icy blue glare of a small boy, on whose back black wings flared up in defence.


“Don’t move!” the child yelled, his hands shaking. “You did this, didn’t you?”


It was then Daichi realized his grave mistake.

Chapter Text

Suga had never known a day of warmth in his life. Whether it was the icy, damp cellar that was his prison, or the townsfolks’ cold shoulders, it was decided that his world would be in perpetual isolation ever since the moment he was born.


The wings! They screeched in dismay. It was an unnatural, blood-muddled grey that was neither white as an albino nor black as a raven. Upon seeing them, the village priest declared it was an omen of doom.


‘This crow of the red twilight is a messenger of the demons! His existence will bring forth the demise of the Karas!’


After uttering those harsh words, he tried to tear off the infant’s tiny wings in a frenzied trance and demanded its execution, but the child’s parents intervened and could not bear to kill their own flesh and blood. A compromise was reached. Suga would be exiled and imprisoned away from the town until his dying day. In a remote, underground prison, Suga’s parents raised the child and wept each day for his wretched fate, and Suga would not see another Kara until he matured into a fine young man. It was on the day of his adulthood that his parents finally opened the door and draped a thick cloak around his shoulders that fell to his feet.


‘Suga, my child, you must never raise your wings in front of another. If you do, you must fly far away, and never return.’


Even though Suga did not live a normal life, his parents tried their very best to teach him all that they could throughout the years. And now, all they wanted to do was to walk hand-in-hand with their child through the town that was their home. And they did. As time passed, people had forgotten about the existence of the silver omen. No one recognised Suga as long as his wings were hidden, and for the first time he could walk on the open road, breathe in the fresh air of nature, and gaze at the deep blue sky without inhibition. For the first time, he could smile.


But, alas, that flicker of happiness was torn from him in an instant.


When night fell and Suga returned to his cellar, the demons attacked. Suga did not know who the demons were or where they came from, but when he woke in the morning and saw the destroyed remains of the town, a disgusting pang of guilt clawed at his heart. He ran desperately among the dead bodies and injured survivors, looking for a trace of his parents. But there was nothing. Not a feather, nor a scrap of cloth. Suga could not even mourn for his parents, the only ones who ever cared for him. He flew away without a single shred of longing for the town that day, and soared to wherever his wings would take him.


Suga perched silently in a tall tree for three days without want of food or water. He felt the warmth of the sun on his back and smelled the fragrance of the forest, but he remained a lost fragment of the world's mirror. Until one day. Two young, adolescent Karas emerged from the forest and walked into his vacant stare. One had a bright shock of messy orange hair, while the other had a smooth head of black. Suga quietly watched as they bumbled about the bushes looking for berries to eat, and it became clear that they couldn’t tell what was edible or not. The smaller Kara would cram random berries into his mouth and spit out the inedible ones at the serious-looking crow, who would then smack him with his wing. They made a lot of noise with their bickering, which eventually drew the attention of the predators that lurked in the darkness.


From up in the trees Suga saw a large boar with menacing tusks draw near, and against his better instincts he quickly leaped from the branches and scared it away by flapping his huge wings. The children were stunned at Suga’s sudden appearance. But they were immediately taken by his brilliant silver plumage, and they clamoured around him the moment they saw it.


‘So cool!’ ‘Can I touch them?’ ‘Uwaah! So pretty!’


It was another first for Suga.

Chapter Text

What surprised Daichi wasn’t the knife, but its wielder. In all his days he had never seen a Kara - much less a young hatchling - and now he had shot one.

Raising his arms in surrender and dropping his bow, he gazed in terrified disbelief at the dying young man on the ground, whose large grey wings were unmistakably the ones he saw in the sky. Was he dead? No, he wasn’t. The man’s chest still rose and fell.

“W-wait, it was a mistake! I didn’t know—“

“Shut up! You shot him, and that’s all I need to know!” The crowchild yelled and lunged at Daichi, who evaded him easily.

“Look, I’m sorry! I thought it was a huge bird, and I just shot him without thinking!” He explained, and dodged another stab from the small crow.

“You murderer!!” he cried and threw himself at his foe again and again, until he was finally caught in a tight hold by the much stronger hunter. “Let go of me, you--!” he growled and struggled to break free.

“I’m not a murderer. He’s still alive, I can save him,” Daichi said, to which the orange one heard and responded.

“You can?” he sniffed.

“Don’t listen to him, Hinata! He’s a bad man!” The trapped child flailed and scolded.

“But he…”

“No buts! Help me out already!”

Time was running out, and Daichi had to do something to convince the children. He let go of the kid and dropped to his knees, showing them his empty hands. The two crows backed away and stared warily at Daichi, who bowed his head in regret. “I’m very, very sorry for this. But I promise I’ll save him if you let me. Please, trust me.” The children glanced hesitantly at each other, then back at Daichi, who was now defenceless and at their eye level. The small child called Hinata took a step closer to the hunter, gripping his cape with his tiny hand.

“You mean it? You’ll save Mama?” he asked in a small voice.

“Oi, Hina…” the other barred his sibling with a protective arm.

Daichi looked back at Hinata’s moist, brown eyes and nodded. “I promise.” Wiping away all of his doubt, Hinata nudged away his brother's hand and quickly tugged Daichi to his feet. Dragging him over to Suga, he cried, “Hurry!”

At once, Daichi knelt by the man’s body and assessed the wound. The arrow had struck deep and was lodged within his flesh. Daichi couldn’t tell if any organs were injured, but he prayed for the best. “I need your knife,” he turned to his attacker, who reluctantly gave it up.

“I’m watching you,” the boy mumbled, and crouched down beside the grey crow.

Hinata quietly touched Mama’s pale cheek and rubbed his tear-stained face. “Don’t worry, Mama. You’ll be okay.”

Daichi cut away the cloth around the wound and exposed the skin. Unrolling some bandages from his bag, he carefully dabbed away the blood, but it wasn’t stopping by any means. Cursing inwardly, he bit his lip. “Fetch some water. We need to clean the wound afterwards.”

“I’ll go!” Hinata immediately volunteered and dashed off.

“Hey, what’s your name?” Daichi suddenly asked the crow left behind.

“Ka…Kageyama,” he replied.

“Alright, Kageyama. I need you to hold your mama down for a bit.”

“Huh?”

“I’m going to pull the arrow out.”

Kageyama turned pale and gulped dryly. Placing his trembling hands on Suga’s shoulders, he nodded and looked away. Swallowing nervously himself, Daichi pinched the base of the arrow and applied some pressure around the wound with his other palm. A grey wing twitched. But now was not the time for hesitation.

The first tug made Suga gasp in pain. The second made him yelp and push against Kageyama’s hold. The third almost freed the arrowhead, and made Suga tense up so much that he couldn’t scream anymore. Finally, the arrow dislodged and blood began flowing once more. Suga blacked out shortly after, and wasn’t there to feel the sting from his wound being cleansed.

Wiping off his anxious beads of sweat, Daichi heaved a great sigh of relief and fell back on his bum with a rustle. The tense situation had finally wrapped up neatly in a clean bandage, and it looked like Mama would make it. The young man's pained grimace now became a slight frown, but his sickly pallor remained as he had lost a lot of blood. Daichi would probably never forget those weak cries of pain, ones that made his heart twinge. But now he took the time to look carefully at his victim, and felt stupid for mistaking him for a bird. After all, the more he gazed upon the being's human body and grey wings, the more he felt a certain beauty creep into his heart.

“Mama’s okay now, right?” Hinata asked and poked Kageyama as they both crouched beside their mum.

“Mm.” He hadn’t quite recovered from that excruciating ordeal, and was kind of annoyed Hinata didn’t have to go through it.

“So, what should we do? We can’t leave Mama here,” Hinata mumbled.

“We can’t carry Mama either,” Kageyama replied.

Hinata huffed and smacked his chest. “Sure we can! We’ll both carry Mama back to the nest!”

“You can’t even carry yourself,” said Kageyama, and knocked the small crow over with his wing.

“Yes I can!” Hinata smacked him back angrily. Daichi couldn’t believe how easily those two could get into a fight, even after a traumatic experience like this. As the argument continued, he rubbed his head and thought that he might as well help out all the way. 

“Hey, you two,” he shouted over the din, which broke up the sparring match that had just begun.

“Where’s your nest?”

Chapter Text

Crows are hardy and intelligent creatures.

The same could not be said for Hinata. No, the boy was not stupid nor weak, but he had the tendency to do stupidly courageous things that Kageyama would be happy to slap him over the head for. On the other hand, Kageyama was a critical little youth who rarely opened up his heart to anyone. Despite their differences, the both of them had one precious thing in common.

Their love for Mama.

Mama was the one who saved them from the boar. Mama was the one who taught them which fruits and berries could be eaten. Mama was the one who held their hands and led them to a safe place where they could rest. Mama made Kageyama and Hinata happy again. But only Mama wasn’t happy.

 

‘Can we call you Mama?’

‘…Ma…ma?’

‘Yeah! Because mamas are pretty!’

 

Mama cried and cried when he heard that. But then he smiled through his tears and said, ‘Alright. I’ll be your Mama.’

Afterwards, the three of them found a tall, tall cliff with a large, spacious cave, and built a nest they could call their own. Mama chose this cliff as it kept the predators below and the vistas clear; a quiet little spot of heaven. Mama would hunt and gather food and fetch water for his little ones, and he wouldn’t let them out of the nest while he was gone. They would descend to the fields below together when the skies were gentle. Mama taught Kageyama and Hinata how to hunt. Kageyama and Hinata taught Mama how to play.

And all of them smiled.

But the children did not know about Mama’s past. They did not understand when Mama gazed at the moon and wept at night. They did not know why Mama kept his wings hidden under his cloak. They couldn’t ask Mama why he was sad.

 

‘Mama, are you hurt?’

‘No, Kageyama.’

‘Then why are you crying?’

‘…I’m not sad. Mama is crying because Mama is happy. Now, go to sleep.’

 

Because of this, they loved Mama even more.

 

‘Mama! Don’t hide your wings, let’s play!’

‘We… we can play without them, can’t we?’

‘But it’s no fun if we don’t have them out like *Bwaah*!!’

‘Well, I just cleaned them so I don’t want to.’

‘Aww, Mama’s no fun!’

 

Even if Mama wouldn’t tell them.

 

‘Does Mama have a Mama, too?’

‘I did.’

‘Un… Was she pretty like you?’

‘Prettier than I am.’

‘Did she have grey wings, too?’

‘No. Only I do.’

‘Then Mama must have been the prettiest in town!’

 

Because Mama only had them, and they only had Mama.

Chapter Text

Daichi was starting to regret all the decisions he had made up to this point. Their nest was on a cliff. A cliff! The crows could fly up there easily, but a mere human like him would have to scale a mountain to get there. Furthermore, he had an injured person on his back. Thankfully, Suga was surprisingly not all that heavy, even with those large wings that slacked and trailed behind him.

“So, you know Suga’s male, right?” Daichi said.

“Obviously,” Kageyama replied unwillingly. He was still sore about needing Daichi’s help.

“Then shouldn’t you call him ‘Papa’ instead?”

“Why don’t you get it? It’s because Mama’s like a Mama!” Hinata interjected excitedly.

“Like a Mama?” The human wondered if this was some strange Kara custom that he just couldn’t wrap his head around.

“Mama’s pretty, takes care of us, and teaches us many things. That’s why Mama’s Mama,” the small crow grinned proudly.

Kageyama smirked and poked Hinata with Daichi’s longbow, which he was helping to carry. “Do you only know the word ‘pretty’?”

“Like you know any more,” Hinata growled back.

“Beautiful, elegant, charming, lov-”

“Okay, okay!” Hinata shouted and gave up. “But it’s not like you know anything other than ‘dumbass’.”

Kageyama snorted at the challenge. “I don’t need other words to describe you. Dumbass.”

Once again Daichi was caught up in the childish spats of one-upping between the brothers. At least he managed to learn their names and race along the way, that the children were from different parents, and that they were orphaned until Suga came along. The trees gave ample shade from the boiling afternoon sun, and the party slowly trekked through the forest until they reached the foot of a tree-dotted mountain. Beyond it was a vast array of sprawling peaks and valleys that stretched into the horizon, each impossibly greener than the last. They sat down to catch their breath for a moment, and Daichi checked to make sure they weren’t in some predator’s territory.

“All right. Any of you need some water?” Daichi asked, taking his bottle off his belt.

“I need to pee!” Hinata raised his hand enthusiastically and announced.

“We don’t need to know that!” His brother groaned. “Hey, you. Daichi, right?” Kageyama pointed defiantly at the man, who nodded. The boy remembered his name, at least. “I think Mama should drink first,” he said, then grabbed Hinata by the wing. “Let’s go. Don’t tell me you have to poop afterwards.”

“I probably will. Ow!”

The hunter sighed and wondered if it was really okay to let them go off on their own. Turning his attention to Suga, who laid unconscious on the grass, Daichi recalled the feeling of the man’s light frame on his back. He lifted Suga’s thin, white wrist and felt another pang of guilt curl up inside. This man must have led a hard life, and he had just added on heavily to that burden. Popping open the bottle, Daichi slowly trickled some water between Suga’s parched lips and wiped away the drops that escaped. He noticed the softness of his skin on his fingertips, the long silver lashes that glimmered in the dark, and the beauty mark that rested just beneath his left eye. He naturally found himself thinking about the conversation before.

‘…pretty…’

A blush crept onto Daichi’s face and he reluctantly pulled his gaze away. The kids were right. Suga was a very beautiful creature. One that made Daichi think was almost ethereal. He would have kept admiring the grey Kara, had Hinata and Kageyama not returned from their pee break. Daichi couldn’t escape Kageyama’s keen eyes, however, and was completely called out.

“Ah! Daichi was staring at Mama!” Kageyama exclaimed in a loud voice.

“Eeeeeh!?” Hinata jumped.

“N-no I wasn’t! I was just giving him water to drink!” Daichi flushed and defended himself.

“Yes you were. Why are you lying, huh?” Kageyama gave an evil grin and cornered the man. Hinata’s eyes sparkled behind his brother and he held his breath.

“I… uh…hm,” he cleared his throat and gathered himself together. He was the adult here, not them. “I did look at him. But only because I had to feed him.”

“So you think Mama’s pretty too, right?” Hinata beamed and hopped in front of Daichi. His lies didn’t work in the least. Daichi finally relented and rubbed his neck.

“Yeah," he said simply.

“Especially his wings, right?” The boy continued.

Daichi nodded in agreement. “Why are they grey? Aren’t you all supposed to be crows?”

“Mama said that he was just born that way, and that nobody liked them. But all three of us do!” Hinata smiled happily.

“He never told us why. And he doesn’t like showing them in the open,” Kageyama added on.

“Maybe it’s because normal crows have black wings, and the others found it strange.” Daichi proposed.

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe… Mama was bullied.” The small orange crow tilted his head sadly and sat down beside Suga.

Kageyama did the same, feeling a similar sense of sorrow. “Karas can be mean,” he mumbled, and absentmindedly played with Suga’s fingers.

“You’d know. You always tease me about my height and hair.” Hinata pouted and hugged his parent’s arm. Kageyama rolled his eyes and didn’t answer. Daichi, the outsider, looked on at the small, broken family and sighed wistfully.

The more Daichi knew about Suga, the more his questions grew. It wasn’t just because of his alluring beauty; Daichi was inexplicably drawn to the man and he wanted to know more. More about the Karas, his past, his very being; everything. If they had met on better circumstances, perhaps such a strange guilt-filled tension would not exist between the two, and such earnest yearnings would not be seen as merely wanting to make amends.

The group finally reached the nest in the evening, when the sunset threw the sky into a warm blaze of pink and orange. It was a homely space that was simply furnished with three straw beds, a large floor mat, several bundles of food, and a jug of water. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough. After laying Suga down on his bed and tucking him with his tattered cloak as a blanket, Daichi readied himself for the journey back home. He had already decided where he needed to go next.

“I’ll be back tomorrow with some medicine,” he said, “So stay put and don’t go anywhere. Just take care of your Mama.”  

“You’ll really come back?” Hinata tugged at Daichi’s cuff, to which the man looked down and smiled.

“Definitely.” He ruffled the boy’s hair and spoke to Kageyama next. “I won’t let you down.” The blue-eyed boy squinted back at Daichi.

“You’d better not.”

Chapter Text

Suga was not a good hunter. You couldn't expect someone who spent his whole life in a cellar to be one. As all he could do in his prison was think, listen, and think some more, his mind's eye vividly imagined everything that his parents imparted him, including their teachings about the realm of hunting. The only thing he excelled at was visualizing and simulating what could be.

And so, despite his athletic shortcomings, he tried his very best to hunt for the sake of his new children. Using all of his smarts and the valuable words of wisdom that his parents left behind, Suga tried out various methods of hunting. He set traps around traces of animals and laid in wait for hours, if not days, on end. When that failed, he crafted a crude wooden spear and sought to hunt small game. Rarely did he manage to catch a pheasant or two, sometimes even a rabbit if he was quick enough. Often, he would run into more aggressive animals and return to the nest full of bruises and cuts, but not without a smile and the animal's carcass proudly in his hands. The forgotten Kara never gave up trying to survive. The world had been cruel to him all along, and he wasn't expecting that to change.

As the prey around the area became more wary and less in number, Suga was forced to enter another part of the forest to hunt. He did not know about things like territory or rules, and was simply looking to catch whatever he could find. He did not notice the tell-tale signs of claw-splintered bark, nor pay any attention to the scattered bones of devoured animals on the ground. It was inevitable that he was noticed by the ruler of the land that he trespassed upon.

Suga first heard an ominous rustle in the trees, which made his feathers ruffle in anxiety. Then, he slowly looked up and spotted a large shadow, which suddenly lunged forth and slashed at his wing as he bolted for safety. Panting heavily as he ran, Suga tried to gain some air but was clipped time and again by his pursuer. The enemy never overpowered Suga, even though it would have been easy to take down the weakened crow. It soon became clear that he was being toyed with, like a mouse trapped in a maze.

Finally, the beast cornered Suga into a large tree. It slowly rose from all fours as it sauntered out of the shadows, until it stood right in front of its shivering plaything. The masculine creature was a black-haired Nekomata with a long, messy fringe that hung over his face and covered the right of his piercing amber eyes. His body that was clad only in a pair of baggy pants was human, save for the feline ears and two-pronged tail that frizzed in agitation at Suga. Towering over the crow who pinned himself against the tree in fear, the black cat flashed his fangs and dug his claws into the bird's wing. Suga flinched and grit his teeth.

"Oya oya, what do we have here? A lost. Little. Birdie." He purred lazily and tightened his grip around the wing, which made Suga cry out. "Hm. Say, what kind of bird are you?"

"C...crow," the man eked out a reply.

"Crow? I've never seen a crow with grey feathers." The cat raised an eyebrow. "Well, actually, I don't really care about what kind of flimsy avian you are. You see, I don't like visitors very much. But since you were fun to play with, I'll let you go today." His sly grin dropped into a hard glare as he drew in menacingly close. Suga held his breath and stared timidly back, hearing the man's breathing right in his ear. "Don't come back. I won't be as nice next time."

And Suga didn't.

He returned empty-handed to the nest that day, and he smiled apologetically at his kids. "I'm sorry. I didn't manage to get any meat today."

But the children didn't care about that.

"Mama, what happened? You're hurt!" Hinata exclaimed and ran over to hug Suga, whose bleeding wing alarmed the small child.

"Nothing happened. It's alright," he said, and patted his head gently.

"No, it's not!" Kageyama cried angrily, having seen it too many times before. "It's fine if we don't have any meat. Don't get yourself hurt, Mama."

Hinata nodded quickly and squeezed him tightly. "That's right! We don't need it, Mama. We'll eat berries and fruits and veggies."

Suga blinked and looked with a troubled frown at the two Karas. "But you must eat meat to grow big and strong. Only then can you survive on your own."

"Then take us with you. We'll learn to hunt," Kageyama insisted.

"No," Suga immediately replied firmly, "You're both too young. You'll get hunted down out there."

Seeing the kids' worried faces that fell silent, Suga sighed softly and embraced them in his chest. "Mama... only wants the best for you two. If Mama can do it, Mama will. So there's no need to worry about me."

"...Okay." Hinata reluctantly accepted and pecked Suga on the cheek. Kageyama still wasn't happy about it, and he grunted in reply. He didn't like how Mama cared so little for himself. The meat always went to them first, sometimes never to Suga if there wasn't enough. Suga would stay up at night and watch for signs of danger, and wouldn't fall asleep until he was satisfied it was safe. The kids could only respect his wishes as Suga would always say, 'It's alright' .

But a time when Suga was not alright would soon arrive.

Chapter Text

"Good morning, Mama." Little Hinata greeted as usual, and kissed dear Suga on the cheek. Kageyama was never as soppy, but once in a while he deigned to do the same. The only difference today was that they didn't receive any kisses back.

Suga was lost to his deep slumber, where the only reassuring signs of life were the gradual breaths that he took. His complexion didn't improve much at all, and his hands were as cold as ever, if not colder. Hinata pouted in a weepy yet cute way and rubbed Suga's large hand between his smallish ones. "When is Mama going to get better?" he asked Kageyama, who had been staring quietly out of the cave for a while now. When the boy didn't reply, Hinata tiptoed and snuck up on him all of a sudden with a shout, which swiftly earned him another bruise on his noggin.

"Listen up, Hinata," Kageyama commanded and crossed his arms seriously, "I have decided on this after a whole lot of thinking."

"What?" Hinata grumbled and rubbed his aching head.

"We can't rely on Mama forever, especially not now. We have to learn to do things on our own," the boy said.

"Mama taught us how to," Hinata replied, "But always with him around."

"Exactly! So the two of us will go out and hunt today!" Kageyama pumped a determined fist in the air.

"Eeeeh? Really? We will?! B-But Mama said we can't do that!" Hinata couldn't decide if he was utterly excited or afraid at the prospect.

"Mama's not here to tell us no." A sly grin spread across Kageyama's face.

"Well... then I guess... but... aww, I really wanna!" The poor child was fighting some inner monologue and he pulled at his hair in frustration.

"What, you scared?" His brother sneered.

"No way!"

"Hmph. I'll catch the largest boar you've ever seen and give it to Mama." And of course, that set off Hinata as quickly as a firework.

"We'll see about that. Whoever brings home the best food wins!"

"I already know you're going to lose." Kageyama laughed and dashed ahead first, leaping off the cliff and soaring away above the treetops.

"Hey!!" Hinata yelled and ran after him on his tiny feet.

And so the nest, abruptly emptied, fell into an uneasy silence. It was the first time that only one warm body remained in its shelter.

A few hours passed by quietly.

A slow draft waltzed in and around the cave, bringing with it the cool, fresh air from below and stirring the sleeping crow. Suga opened his tired brown eyes and gazed at the rocky ceiling. How long had he been out, he wondered. Touching the spot where the arrow should have been, he was surprised to feel a soft bandage instead that wrapped around his waist. His wounds still ached, but it seemed that they had closed up already. Who could have done this? Surely not the kids.

He sat up with a jolt. The kids!

"Hi...nata? Kageyama?" Suga called out, his voice soft and strained. But no one was there to answer. Panic crawled up his scalp.

"Hinata! Kageyama! Where are you?!"

Suga scrambled to his feet and limped out the cave, down onto the cliffside. There were only a few hours of daylight left.

 

The brothers split up shortly after landing and headed in completely different directions. Neither of them wanted to work together; this was a competition, after all.

Hinata got lucky and stumbled upon a rabbit just minutes into his hunt, and he tried chasing after it like a madman. The boy most definitely had spunk and speed, but most of his energy was wasted by his unnecessary hollering. He was having fun all by his lonesome chasing down the rabbit, rather than seriously aiming for its capture.

But, it couldn't be helped! Rarely had Hinata the freedom of flying boundlessly through the forest after something that was faster than he. Each time he pounced onto the bunny, each time it fled in a frenzy of frightened fuzz. Yet, amid the sweat, breathlessness, and disappointment, how brightly the little Kara beamed!

Hinata's game of catch finally came to an end when he dove with all his might and caught the small creature smack between his palms. "Aaaall right! Gotcha!" He giggled and caught his breath as he slumped face first onto the ground, thoroughly exhausted from all the running and flying.

That was when he realized he wasn't alone.

 

Kageyama thought that gaining some height was the way to go. Climbing between the overgrown branches, he kept his eyes on the dim forest floor, hoping to see a stray animal or two. He was so serious about catching a boar that he tried wandering in the direction where Suga first saw them, and was so confident he could slay one as he had his knife.

That small knife of Kageyama's had its own story to tell. It was a well-crafted blade with a clip-point, mounted onto a polished wooden handle and wrapped with cured black leather. It wasn't of Kara workmanship or origin. Such a fine and dangerous weapon would not be trusted in the inexperienced hands of a child. On the night of the massacre as Kageyama fled with his family and Hinata's, he noticed a gleam of metal on the ground. He did not know what possessed him to do so - perhaps it was his fear, helplessness, and deep hatred for the demons - but he picked up the fallen, bloodstained knife and tucked it away on his belt. In Kageyama's hands it never took a life, but proved itself to be a useful tool.

The knife smoothly sliced through the net of rope-like vines blocking Kageyama's way. He panted and pressed forward, shoving the plants to the side. Peering at the long drop below, he noticed a strange overhang of creepers that draped off a small hill. They wavered slightly in the wind, which prompted Kageyama to glide down and investigate. Just as he thought, hidden behind the leaves was a cave that stretched down below the earth.

He gulped and stared anxiously at the darkness that yawned before him. Should he enter? What if this was some beast's home? What was he hoping to find here, anyway? His running thoughts finally rested on Suga, his dear Mama, who he knew would go any distance to raise him. Gripping his trusty knife, Kageyama bravely stepped forward.

It wasn't long before he saw traces of the animal that lived here. Large round footprints that ended with scrapings of claws longer than his arm padded the ground. Broken, raw bones from animals he couldn't tell were strewn along the sides of the cave. All light began to fade away the deeper he traveled. The less Kageyama could see, the more frightened he got. Sweating, he smacked his cheeks with his palms to calm his nerves. It's fine! The monster isn't home. And look, over there. Is that its stash? Sure enough, over in a corner lay stacks upon stacks of sweet, golden honeycombs. Kageyama's eyes widened in astonishment as he breathed in the cloying, honeyed scent. These honeycombs were a rare delicacy, especially wild ones that were as large as these. The monster sure knew how to pick them. Without a second thought, Kageyama grabbed the largest chunk he could carry and wrapped it up in his cloak, then bolted out of the cave as fast as he could.

But his exhilaration rapidly crumbled into an ashen stare. Waiting outside was the master of the house.

And he wasn't happy.

 

"I give, I give!! Ow, not my wing!" Hinata moaned and kicked the ground, pinned and helpless.

"That's three wins for me," said a flat, almost bored voice that carried just a tinge of pride.

Hinata laughed and rolled around in the mossy undergrowth with his new friend, whose brown-tipped yellow ears and forked tail twitched in excitement. Kenma, as the Nekomata was called, was only a year older than the young Kara. The cat had stealthily tailed the baby crow from the point he had crossed into his territory, and observed his energetic misadventures till the end. Hinata looked like a fun distraction, and Kenma was bored out of his mind just sitting in his tree.

The two easily warmed up to each other and began playing around the forest, to the long-forgotten rabbit's fortune. Hinata always lost at wrestling as Kenma was a much better predator than he was, while Kenma found it hard to keep up with the crow's speed and limitless energy. The cat wanted a playmate, but just an hour with Hinata was too much excitement for a whole week.

Tired and sleepy, Kenma yawned daintily and stretched his limbs with a purr. "Kenma, you're done already?" Hinata pouted. The cat nodded in reply and swiftly stood to leave.

"I'm gonna take a nap. See ya, Hinata."

"Ah, wait! Where are you going?" The boy hopped to his feet as well.

“Home,” came his monosyllabic reply.

“Where do you live? Can I come with?” Hinata grinned and trotted along behind Kenma’s lazy footsteps.

“Don’t you have something to do?” Kenma said, to which Hinata suddenly remembered his duty in a panic.

“Ah, the food! I’m gonna lose to Kageyama!” The boy exclaimed.

“Kageyama?” Kenma asked.

“Yeah, my brother. We’re having a competition to see who can bring the best food home!”

“Hmm… sounds tiring.” The cat yawned again.

“Don’t you hunt, too?” The crow darted his eyes about, frantically searching for something, anything at all.

“No. I’ve got someone who does that for me.”

And that certain someone was now pissed off and storming through the forest, yelling his name over and over again. “Kenma! Oi, Kenma!! That little brat must’ve gone off to play again.” He muttered under his breath and gripped his fist angrily. Suddenly, he halted mid-step and put his foot down carefully. He caught a familiar scent that wasn’t supposed to be here. Ruffling his already messy hair in irritation, he grumbled as his problems increased by one.

Suga wasn’t making any progress on his end, either. Out of breath and energy, he panted heavily and leaned on a tree for support. Cold sweat dripped off his chin and stained the shirt on his back. His legs ached and his head felt hazy, but armed with the singular thought of finding Hinata and Kageyama, Suga clutched his abdomen and pressed forward. He didn’t know how many times he had called out in futility for his children, but this time he heard the hopeful crackle of a branch in reply.

“H…Hina— Ggh!"

Alas, it wasn't his child at all.

"Didn't I tell you to keep out?" A low growl emanated from the chest of Suga's attacker.

The black cat he had met once before now appeared in front of him again, this time with his hand clamped firmly around Suga's thin neck and choking the air out of him. His helpless victim coughed and gasped and grabbed his arm in a feeble attempt to get free. "You've got a death wish? Want me to grant it?" He snarled, pushing his arm further.

"Ple...a...se...!" Suga struggled to speak and breathe, the pain and distress from suffocating dangerously closing in on his mind. The beast snorted and threw the crow onto the ground in annoyance. He didn't have time for this.

"Speak, before I end you."

"I'm sorry," Suga wheezed as he tried to stand, "I'm just looking for my children."

"Children?" The man huffed incredulously, resting his hand on his hip. "You don't look like a parent to me. You can't even take care of yourself ."

Suga didn't respond to that, knowing full well that it was true. He had failed to watch his kids, and was now paying the price. "There are two of them... and... I haven't seen them in hours."

The other one shrugged his shoulders indifferently. "Then they must be dead by now. Lots of wild monsters about these parts."

Suga gulped and his eyes stung. "You don't know that," he uttered. But the man continued.

"What are the odds, right? They’re just kids. If even an adult like you is half dead, what-"

"They're not like me!" Suga suddenly shouted at the Nekomata, who shut up in surprise and stared back at him curiously. He could clearly see tears swelling up in the Kara's brown eyes and the look on his face that spoke of his desperation. "They're still alive, I know it! They have to be… They have to..." Suga choked on his tears and cast his eyes downward. He gripped his trembling arm, at a loss of what to do.

The man looked quietly at the crying crow, whose presence seemed even smaller and more childlike than the young cat in his charge. Looking back, it was the same feeling as the first time he encountered him. Those wide, terrified eyes that one could see through, not unlike a frightened fawn. Part of him wanted to leave the man behind and get on with his search, but another part that had somehow creeped out wanted to help him. Help him? After all he had done to try chase him away? Perhaps because he was so used to looking after someone, his paternal instincts had kicked in the moment he saw those tears fall.

Rubbing the back of his neck in defeat, the black cat let out a long sigh. “Oi. What’s your name?”

“H-huh?” Suga uttered, confused, and wiped his face. He looked up with his red-tinged cheeks and watery pupils, which made the cat’s heart stutter and his throat tickle.

Why was he so… innocent?

“I won’t repeat myself,” the man coughed and looked away.

“Suga.” The crow replied.

“Suga, huh. I’m Kuroo.”

“Um… Can I call you Mister Kuroo, then?”

“No. That makes me sound like an old man. Just Kuroo, okay?” Kuroo demanded, to which Suga nodded obediently. Clapping his hands once, Kuroo exhaled, pleased with how things turned out. “Alright then! Let’s go find our troublemakers.”

Suga paused and gazed at Kuroo in disbelief. “You’re… helping me?”

“Don’t get it wrong. This doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you for trespassing,” the cat said matter-of-factly.

“Oh...okay.” Suga muttered, and his face fell again.

"Keep up. It seems they went this way."

Chapter Text

Kuroo and Suga paced briskly through the woods with the cat leading the way. The crow, however, was having difficulties keeping up with the man. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak, so to speak. His steadily deteriorating condition was a certain cause for alarm, and it was already unbelievable how far he had managed to come without rest. Kuroo noticed the man lagging way behind and merely gave a backward glance. He felt like he had already used up his kindness for the day and would be out of character if he showed any more. But little did he know that he would shortly be proved wrong.   

Hit with a splitting headache, Suga fell weakly to his elbows and fought to calm his erratic breathing. Hearing a soft rustle from behind, Kuroo groaned and swiveled back to hoist the Kara upright by his arm. That didn’t do the poor man any favors, and he slouched over on the man’s broad shoulders, dizzy from the sudden lift.

“Kuroo, wait…” he whispered, out of breath and in a thorough mess.

“I don’t think you can walk anymore.” Kuroo sighed.

“I’m sorry. I’ve never been like this before,” Suga replied softly and staggered to his heels.

“It’d be more troubling to hear that you did. Seriously…” the man sighed again, slightly annoyed. “Do you have no common sense? You shouldn’t be out here at all.”

“I’m sorry. I’m holding you back. You can go-”

“Not another word. You’re supposed to talk back to me here. What happened to that determination of yours?” Kuroo narrowed his eyes at Suga. He didn't know why he was encouraging this sick man.

“...You’re right,” the crow said, after a brief pause. “I’ll try to… follow.”

Satisfied, the beast grunted and let the man’s arm go. Climbing deftly onto the hillock before them, Kuroo picked up a strong, musky scent that smelled foreign. There was no doubt in his mind that a monster was up and about. First of all, he was peeved that some monster had wandered into his territory. But more importantly, its appearance was strange, which meant that it could have followed Kenma, and possibly the kids, into the plot. Pivoting his nimble black ears, he closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest.

Out of nowhere, he heard a crash sound off in the distance. In a flash, he rolled back down the hill and ran to Suga with the news. “I think we have a lead.”

“What did you find?” Suga asked.

“Not much, but I have a good hunch it might be dangerous.” Kuroo admitted with a wry grin. He wasn’t secretly pleased that there was finally some action or anything. No way. “Let’s go!” He beckoned and leapt away in the direction of the sound.

A great thud that made the ground tremor followed the crash, and then a deep, deafening roar rang out through the trees. “There’s our boy.” Kuroo grit his teeth and picked up the pace, darting expertly off the branches on his steady paws, until he saw the immediate danger that was before them.

A humongous hulk of a grizzly bear with fearsome claws and terrifying strength had appeared, and it upturned the soil in its wake as it pounded the earth. Pulverizing anything that blocked its path, be it tree, animal, or rock, its rage-tainted sights were locked onto three small and screaming children that were frantically escaping for all they were worth. Hinata’s face looked like it was going to fall off from shock. Kageyama was trying so hard to keep it together as he hugged his precious loot tightly to his chest. In stark contrast to the others, Kenma, who was being carried by Hinata as the crows flew, remained utterly unfazed by this development, despite the apparent threat to their lives. Catching a glimpse of Kuroo through the blur of leaves out of the corner of his eye, he waved.

“Yo. Kuroo.”

Kuroo felt a vein pop from his forehead. “Don’t ‘yo’, me, you bastard!” He roared and pounced fearlessly onto the bear’s back, claws and all. The bear tripped on its lumbering feet and stopped its rampage, and bellowed as it tried to bat at the cat that clung to its neck. “Split up and get out of here, all of you!” Kuroo shouted and held on to the thrashing creature that was thrice his size for dear life. Hinata, scared out of his wits, didn’t realize that they weren’t being chased anymore and continued to squeal away with Kenma, while Kageyama heard the man and dashed off in another direction. Suga finally caught up and heard the commotion that was happening, and the moment he caught sight of Kageyama running his way, he hurriedly called out to him.

“Kageyama!! Over here!”

The little crow’s eyes watered in a confusing mix of relief and fright when he saw his Mama, and he flew into his arms at once. “Mama!! Why are you here?! You’re supposed to be at home…!” He sobbed and hugged Suga tightly, dropping his bundle to the side.

“It’s okay now, Mama’s here…” Suga squeezed back and comforted the child.

“Where’s Hinata? Is he with you?”

“Yeah, we were running from the bear, and--”

“Bear?!” Suga exclaimed, and hurriedly stood to look at his surroundings. All he could hear was a fierce fight that was going on to his left.

“Wait, Mama! You can’t go back there!” Kageyama clung onto Suga’s wing and pulled him back.

“But Hinata is still there, right? I have to go!” He grit his teeth and started forward, but then immediately stepped back and looked up in sheer horror.

The bear had followed the scent of the honey, and now its towering form loomed before Suga and Kageyama. Sniffing, it got down on all fours with a rumble and growled as it inched closer. Suga swallowed and held his breath. He knew what he had to do.

“Kageyama… run.” He murmured and slowly raised his wings, shielding the boy and drawing the beast’s attention. The bear snorted hot breath and glared at the man.

“N-no, Mama!” Kageyama grabbed Suga’s shirt and refused to budge.

“Hurry.” The man commanded. Still the boy stubbornly shook his head. The bear got up on its hind legs and raised a heavy paw, ready to strike, and Suga clenched his eyes shut and flinched.

But the blow did not come, and the bear tumbled over onto the earth with a screech of pain and a thud. Fur flew and blood sprayed onto the grass. Kuroo had ambushed the creature and clawed out its eyes, and from under his thick fringe his yellow irises were burning with exhilaration. The other beast had rejoined the fray.

“Don’t stand around, you bastards!!” He bared his fangs and lunged at the bear’s throat, black fur blazing off his back and limbs. The sleeping Nekomata within had burst out to play, and it was here to have its fill of fun.

Suga gasped, astounded at the battle of brute force unfolding before him. At first, the two monsters evenly clashed paw to paw and wrestled for absolute dominance, with neither allowing the other to gain even an inch of leeway. The bear slashed at Kuroo with its long claws, but its swings were far too slow for the seasoned feline’s agility and wit. Kuroo’s own claws were not as lethal but indubitably sharp, and he tore at the beast’s thick hide again and again. In a few minutes, one could tell clearly which one was the superior fighter. At long last, Kuroo sprung from his feet and landed on the bear’s back once more. Having weakened the already bleeding skin at its throat, he sought to end it once and for all.

“It’s over!” He cackled and thrust his nails deep into tissue and muscle, and within a single heartbeat he magnificently ripped out his foe’s last breath in a cascade of blood, flesh, and death.

Somersaulting off the body as it fell, Kuroo drew the curtains on the battle neatly with a fine landing in the dust.

Shaking the blood from his hands, he made a face when the droplets didn’t all fly off, and wiped them instead on a large leaf nearby. At this point, Hinata and Kenma arrived panting onto the scene, after Kenma finally grew the heart to tell the poor crow that his friend was on the case and it was fine to turn back. With his face red and sweaty from exhaustion, Hinata took one look at the dead bear, Suga, Kageyama, and the scary black Nekomata, and fell backwards onto the floor with a shout.

“Haa!! Ha… ugh… I’m gonna throw up…” Then, he realized that Mama was there as well.

“Uwaagh! Mama!!” He got up again at once and waddled into Suga’s welcoming bosom, too tired to run any more. “Mama, you’re here! Aw, man… ha… you won’t believe… ha... what happened!” Hinata said between gasps of air and pressed his cheek on his mum’s leg. Suga sighed in immense relief and hugged his two children warmly, afraid to let go. They too, could finally feel safe in Mama's familiar arms. Truth to be told, they had enough of the wilderness for one day.

“Thank goodness you’re both okay. Are you hurt anywhere? Did you fall down?” He asked and patted them up and down worriedly, seeing how muddy and scruffy Hinata was.

“We’re both fine, Mama.” Kageyama responded and picked his bundle back up.

“Yeah, we’re okay! We just had to run away a whole lot from that bear.” Hinata grinned and peered over at said bear, who was now completely motionless.

Suga bit his lip and held onto their small hands. “I was so worried. I woke up and none of you were there in the nest. I looked everywhere, and I… I thought the both of you were…” He trailed off and hung his head. Hinata and Kageyama both gulped and looked at each other. They really messed up this time.

“We’re sorry, Mama. We just wanted to get you something to eat on our own, so we went off without your permission.” Hinata quickly apologized and bumped his brother’s shoulder, who seethed and glared back at him.

“Sorry, Mama. We won’t do it again.”

The silver crow looked up at them, his little crows that desperately wanted to fly on their own. Maybe it really was his fault that this happened. Maybe he’d put them in a cage for far too long. But for now, he shook away those thoughts and gulped down his tears, breaking into a small sigh instead. “Good.” He said quietly, and patted their soft heads. The kids sighed, too, happy to have gotten out of trouble.

Turning to stand, Suga walked over to Kuroo and Kenma, who were hotly engaged in a one-sided argument. Kenma, of course, was on the receiving end. “The next time you run off on your own like that, I’m not gonna come save you.” Kuroo huffed and licked his fangs irritatedly.

The yellow cat shrugged, unaffected, as he sat carefree on the ground. “It’s not like you can do that.” The older one glared back and stifled a shout. Then, he felt a tap on his shoulder, and he turned round to see Suga standing before him.

“What?” He growled.

“Uh... um… Mister Kuroo-”

Just. Kuroo.” He spat.

“Sorry. Kuroo,” Suga nodded meekly and suddenly held Kuroo’s hand between his palms. The cat startled at the contact as he felt the man’s smooth, cold hands on his skin.

“Wh-what?” Kuroo stuttered, slightly thrown off balance. Suga’s lips formed a small smile as he looked into his benefactor’s striking yellow eyes.

“Thank you. For all that you’ve done for me and my kids.”

Kuroo blinked and rubbed his kitty ear, feeling a little embarrassed. “You’re… welcome.”

“Also, I… I need to accept my punishment for trespassing,” Suga smiled at him again, “But you’re a nice person, so you’ll go easy on me, right?” Kenma covered his mouth and snorted. Kuroo scowled back and looked at the crow’s pale, innocent face that made his breath hitch.

As Kuroo opened his mouth to answer, he felt those cold fingers leave his and heard a dull thud as Suga dropped to the ground like dead weight.

He stared down at the fallen bird, whose waist was stained red with fresh blood. Suga’s wound had reopened. The children looked on in stunned silence. So that was why, huh. Kuroo thought to himself. This time, Suga was still barely conscious, although he couldn’t feel his limbs anymore. He fought with his palpitating lungs to breathe, and he rolled his heavy head to look at Kuroo, who was ripping off his shirt and bloodied bandages. “What are you…” Suga began, but then gagged and went into a coughing fit that convulsed throughout his body.

“Don’t talk.” Kuroo ordered, and bent over to scrutinize the wound. His eyes dilated and his lips parted instinctively from the smell of blood. Licking the drool from his fangs, he felt like he should. It would be a waste, otherwise.

Itadakimasu.

Suga flinched and grasped at a tuft of grass as soon as he realized what Kuroo was doing.

“Ah… Stop… Kuroo…!” He inhaled, too weak to resist.

Kenma sighed and went to stop the hysterical crows from lunging at Kuroo.

“Oi!! Don’t you dare eat Mama!” Hinata screamed, honestly believing that that was the case.

“What do you think you’re doing to Mama?!” Kageyama roared as well and flailed against Kenma’s hold.

“Stop it, guys, he’s just helping him.” And he sure was.

Kuroo slowly lapped up the blood from Suga’s soft, raw skin and gently sucked on the wound. It looked like he was relishing the taste, maybe even yearning for more, while the Kara winced in discomfort at the strange sensation. After a few tense moments, Kuroo exhaled his hot breath and gave a final, lingering lick before leaning back and smacking his lips. “Thanks for the meal.” He grinned slyly and bowed at Suga, who was utterly bewildered and weaker than ever. Unexpectedly, the bleeding did stop, and the wound had been cleaned out nicely from the thorough service. Stripping off a clean portion of Suga’s shirt, Kuroo tied a simple knot around the silver crow’s waist and picked him up like a wee babe in his arms.

“You know, your blood’s delicious,” Kuroo smirked. "I wonder if the rest of you tastes the same."

“I don’t know how to… respond to that...” Suga whimpered and drifted away, resting his head on the cat’s reassuring chest. Within a few heartbeats, he fell into a quiet slumber and melted in Kuroo’s hands. The black cat gazed pensively at the fragile man’s face. He wondered why the crow could trust him so easily, even though they were natural-born enemies. 

And so yet again, the crow family overcame another hurdle with the help of a stranger, and made their way back to the nest with two new guests in tow. However, their very first guest had already arrived as promised, and was waiting impatiently for their arrival.

Chapter Text

The nest felt very crowded. The cave was sufficiently large, of course. It was just a teensy little bit filled with the scarcely veiled animosity of two very, very calm men.

Daichi, all up in his hunter garb, didn’t appeal in the least to Kuroo, whose long claws similarly put the other man off. Introductions went off without a hitch, but all sorts of different thoughts ran through their heads as they amiably scanned each other up and down. And both of them shared a single, nagging thought.

What is this man doing here?

Producing a small tin container from his bag, Daichi knelt by Suga and applied the medicine within to his wound. When he was done, he covered it with a clean bandage. “Hey, what did you put on him?” Kuroo licked his fang.

“Some medicine I got for him.” Daichi replied.

Kuroo’s eyebrows raised in intrigue. “Oya? So you got it specially for him? Why is that?”

The hunter slid his gaze over to the cat and cleared his throat. “Because I owe him.”

“Owe him?”

“Daichi shot Mama down!” Hinata grinned and pitched in. The black cat stared dumbfounded at the small crow, who was strangely happy about it, then back at Daichi, who looked like a guilty kid.

“Hah?”

“Yeah, then he saved Mama and promised he’d come back with medicine. And he did!” The child beamed and elbowed a sulking Kageyama.

“That’s weird.” Kenma remarked and yawned.

Kuroo placed a thoughtful hand below his chin. “Ah, so that’s why the injury was so terrible. Only a great hunter could have made a wound that gruesome.”

If you’re insinuating something, just say it already, Daichi thought. “I had to ask an expert for help. I’m not a doctor, after all.”

“I’m not a doctor, either, but I could taste the depth of that wound.”

Daichi was taken aback at the weird verb Kuroo used.

T-taste ?”

The cat smirked and licked his upper lip. “Suga tastes real good, you know? Whether it’s his blood or his skin, it’s all sooo delicious.”

Daichi gulped and erased the unnecessary thoughts surfacing in his mind.

“You mean you… licked his wound?!”

Kuroo threw his head back and cackled at Daichi’s reaction, already picking up on the man’s real feelings underneath. He didn’t think the man would be that easy to play. Taking on an arrogant pose with his hands on his hips, he stepped closer to the human and flashed his fangs. “What’s wrong? It’s my way of helping out, and it really stopped the bleeding, you know. Just ask the kids.”

Hinata nodded furiously and agreed, “Yeah! We totally thought Kuroo was gonna eat Mama.”

“Only you thought that, dumbass.” Kageyama puffed.

“You tried to stop him, too.” Kenma said and stared at the crow with lazy eyes, which made the boy glare back in denial.

“There you have it,” Kuroo waggled his tails proudly, “Full consensus.”

“No normal person would think of doing that. Besides, what if it made the wound worse?” Daichi retorted. The cat dropped his shoulders and tapped his feet away to the side.

“That’s true, that’s true. But wouldn’t you agree it was a nice opportunity?” He took one last smug grin at the hunter, whose face turned a little red, and hopped out to the cave entrance. “Come, Kenma! We’re done here.” The yellow cat quietly followed and waved goodbye to his new friends.

“Come play again sometime, Kenma! With Kageyama, too!”

Kenma gave a small nod and said, “Uh huh. And without bears, next time.”

Hinata cheered and waved off the two Nekomata, who rolled off the cliff and back into the leaves below where they came from.

 

“Hey, Kuroo. What’s with you?”

“Hah?”

“Your smile’s weirding me out.”

 

With the cats finally gone, Daichi now had to deal with another problem. Suga didn’t know about his existence yet. “Oh, right.” The two boys quipped in unison. “How are we gonna explain this? Kageyama?” Hinata asked.

Kageyama rubbed his wing and shook his head. “Beats me. Either way, Mama’s going to be really weirded out.”

Daichi blowed his cheeks out and paced restlessly around the cave. Hello, I’m the one who shot you and drove your kids to get themselves almost killed by a bear. No dice. He could only imagine getting kicked off the cliff for that. But his time for thinking had run out as Suga began to awaken from his nap.

The grey crow groaned softly and lifted his arm to rub his eye.

Flustered, Daichi and the kids made eyes at each other, and the two hurriedly took their places beside Suga while Daichi tried to make himself inconspicuous. Hinata spoke first in the calmest manner he could, which is to say not calm at all.

“H-Heh-Ah- Bl- Good-!!”

“Mama, you’re awake?” Kageyama cut in and whacked his brother on the mouth.

Suga blinked and smiled at his children through half-lidded eyes. “Mm. I feel much better now.”

Daichi’s heart thumped upon hearing Suga’s tender voice for the first time. And no, it wasn’t just because he was nervous. “Did… Kuroo bring me back here?” He asked, lightly pinching Kageyama’s cheek.

“Uhn. They’ve left already. But Kenma can come back and play, right?” Said Hinata, as the sparkle returned to his eyes.

“I-I guess so.”

“Oi, that’s not the issue here.” Kageyama whispered sharply into Hinata’s ear.

“R-right.” The boy sucked in a deep breath. “Mama, don’t be alarmed at what’s going to happen, okay?”

Suga looked up, puzzled. “Uh… Okay?”

“Er… well… you see…” Hinata sweated profusely and simply couldn’t get the words out of his system.

Even Kageyama was becoming fidgety.

Eventually, the orange one gave up and screamed out in frustration.

“Aaaargh!! I can’t do it!”

Kageyama tried and failed to stop him. Hinata immediately shot to his feet and let the crouched over, nervous wreck of a Daichi into Suga’s view. Both men made eye contact, and Daichi felt like he was the one who had been shot through the heart. The man was even more breathtaking awake than he had ever imagined. Instantly captivated by those delicate sepia eyes, a blush rushed to his face and his flimsy script fell to pieces. Suga on the other hand did get alarmed and he grabbed his children to his chest, in fear of the stranger in the nest.

“Who are you?” Suga’s voice shook, and Daichi raised his palms and backed away. He seemed to be doing this a lot recently.

“Mfa-ma itf okay.” Hinata struggled to speak, his face tightly smushed against Suga’s cloak and body.

“Thif ip all yor faulf.” Kageyama grumbled and tried to free himself. Lord knows where the half-dead man got the strength to hold them in an iron grip.

“You know this man?” Suga asked, keeping his eye on Daichi.

“Yepph!” Hinata squealed.

“Uh- um, if I may speak…” Daichi spoke up, having regained his composure.

The grey Kara glanced warily at the hunter, then nodded.

“The truth is, I am the one who shot you. I am very sorry for what I did. It was an honest mistake,” he confessed and bowed, “Please accept my apology.”

Suga turned still and didn’t know how to react. The human who shot him was prostrating himself right in front of him. What’s more, Hinata and Kageyama were acquainted with the man and telling him that he later saved him from bleeding out, even going so far as to return with medicine. And all the way up this cliff, twice. He placed a vexed palm on his creased forehead and cast his gaze to the floor. The headache was surely returning.

What should I do? Mama, Papa… you’ve never taught me about something like this.

“Mama, won’t you forgive him? He’s a nice man too.” Hinata said.

I don’t care.” Kageyama humphed, and Daichi’s eye twitched. Suga slowly looked up at his boys.

“You really think so?” He asked, as if looking for help.

Hinata bobbed his head up and down. Kageyama, as he said, didn’t care.

 

Taking a deep breath, Suga nodded quietly.

 

Daichi exhaled all of his pent up tension and uttered, “Thank you.” That tiny nod meant so much to Daichi.

 

“What is your name?” Suga asked, avoiding the human’s eyes.

“It’s Daichi. And you are Suga, right?”

He nodded again.

“Suga, if there’s anything you need, please tell me. I’ll make sure to take-- um- do it for you until you recover fully.” For some reason, Daichi stopped himself from using certain words, and shyness peeked out from his determined speech. Suga didn’t feel like talking, and he nodded again with a soft hum.

But something did come to mind, and so he ventured to speak.

“You mean it?”

Wide, brown eyes.

“Yes.”

Hardly suppressed blushes.

“Then, let’s go to the lake.”

Chapter Text

"I could stab him for you, Mama. As payback."

"Thank you, Kageyama. But I’ll have to decline." Suga smiled. "Sorry for making you carry me again."

"N-no, I should."

"Come on, guys! You’re too slow!"

The party of four arrived at the lake without incident. Enclosed in a secluded area of the forest, the clear waters of the lake made it a favorite haunt for the crows. And no, it's not because birds like to take birdbaths. The sun peeked out of the horizon, making the ripples on the water shimmer in the sunset glow. Daichi took in the sights and felt a peaceful wave wash over him. He had never traveled this deep into the forest before, nor with anyone beside him. He'd been a one man show ever since he left his village to become a hunter.

"So, what are we doing here?"

His question was answered right away when he saw Hinata and Kageyama racing to strip off their clothes in a frenzy.

"Taking a bath. It’s been awhile since we’ve had one." Suga answered anyway.

A bath. The word lodged itself in Daichi's brain.

Does that mean…

"...you’ll be going, too?" Daichi completed his thought out loud. Suga nodded.

"Of course. I smell like blood."

Then the cute, oblivious man thought it would be polite to ask.

"Ah, will you join us?"

Daichi became acutely aware of the body heat mingling between his back and Suga's torso. This was bad. 

"I think I'll pass." He gulped and let Suga down onto the shore.

"Okay. We won't take long." Suga assured him and walked over to tidy the abandoned trail of clothes. The kids were already splashing about butt naked in the cool water.

Daichi found a dry spot to sit and stretched out his weary thighs. Climbing a mountain twice in a week really did a number on the legs. Even though he looked nonchalant on the outside, he was actually consciously trying hard not to look in Suga's direction, even though he really, really wanted to. If this battle of Daichi's inner demons were out in reality, it would be an all out war.

Keep it together, he said. You can't do this, he said. Not to him, he said.

And his eyes creaked just a little bit to the left.

Suga had peeled off his shirt and was in the midst of doing the same to his long pants. Daichi's brief gaze took in the Kara's bare white skin... and pale pink nipples. The sound of a brain exploding into dust could be heard. The grey crow glanced over at Daichi, who had receded into a fetal position.

"Daichi, is something wrong?"

Red from the tips of his ears to his neck, he dared to look at the source of the gentle voice and instantly felt like he was burning in hellfire and lying on the fluffiest cloud in heaven at the same time. Why, oh why did Suga have to be so kind? His kindness was going to kill Daichi at this rate.

"N...nothing's wrong..." Came a pained utter.

"...If you say so." Suga, though confused, left it as that and waded into the water.

He let out a soft sigh as he entered the chilly embrace of the lake.

The cleansing waters flowed over Suga's wings and body, carrying with it the soil and dust that marred his quiet but enchanting elegance. But to say he was flawless was delusional, as one would clearly see the faint scars and nicks on his otherwise pure skin up close. They were proof of the man's small but deep strides into the real world after escaping from his lonely prison. Each mark was a precious memory that he made on his own and carried close to his heart; even the most trivial of scratches from a sharp branch was an important lesson of the prickly nature of the forest. As his slightly flushed fingertips trailed over the scars on his naked chest and down to the bandage-covered wound on his waist, he smiled.

It wasn't a smile for anyone but himself.

But with that fragile smile soon came drops of sorrow that he hid away from view, drops of shame and profound loneliness. He couldn't stop these feelings that returned time and again. He had simply learned to live with them, and he would do so for as long as he could.

And now, Daichi had recovered from his massive hemorrhage and entirely lost the battle against propriety. Sighing and gazing out over the glistening, picturesque lake, his eyes rested easily upon the glowing form of the silver Kara. Thankfully for his heart, the water obscured the young man's lower half. He admired the crow's angelic wings and lithe curves, and Daichi blushed again and wondered for the thousandth time if this was reality.

“Mama! I’ll wash your wings for you.” Between Hinata’s cute grin and Kageyama’s intense stare, they both meant the same thing. Suga obliged and spread his wet wings, and each child took one side each.

“Did you wash your wings well, too?” Mama asked, and the children responded with a hearty yes.

When they were all done, they ran to shore and shook off the water like the birds they were. It was quite a sight, seeing those large, human-sized wings in action. Sniffing and combing through his feathers, Suga was pleased to have them fresh and bright again.

“Daichi, we’re going!” Hinata ran towards the man and tugged on his sleeve. He had taken a liking to the man.

“Oh, already?” He exclaimed, and yawned mid-sentence. Daichi had been spacing out for a while now.

“Mhm. Mama’s waiting for you to carry him back up, but he’s too shy to say it.”

“Hinata! No, I’m not.” Suga frowned at the boy.

“Yes, you are. How else are you gonna get back up?” The boy puffed his cheeks, certain that he was right.

“That’s true, but it’s not nice to say that.” Suga walked over and bopped him on the nose.

“Well, Daichi said he’d do anything.” Kageyama joined in with an evil grin. “So you should get him to do a lot of other things, too.”

Daichi didn’t like where this conversation was going. Or maybe he did.

“I… I should?” Suga tilted his head to the side.

“Yeah, like ask him to groom your wings, wash the laundry, oh- and catch a huuuge chicken!” Hinata drooled at his fantasy of roast chicken on a spit.

“Are you asking for Mama or yourself?” Kageyama chided.

“Everyone benefits.” The boy grinned.

“But I can do all of that on my own.” The grey crow said, not getting the concept at all.

“Well, then what about something that you can’t?” Kageyama suggested. Suga thought for a bit, but nothing came to mind.

He shook his head and said, “I don’t think I need any help other than getting back up the cliff.”

Groaning, it seemed that the boys had lost their fun. “Mama, you gotta think harder.”

Suga smiled, feeling sorry for some reason, and patted Hinata’s poufy hair. “I will.”

Now came the awkward moment. But Suga handled it well.

He stretched out his arms and smiled.

“Thank you, Daichi.”

Chapter Text

“Goodnight, Hinata,” Suga said and kissed him on the forehead.

“Goodnight!” Hinata kissed him back and scrambled into bed. Suga tucked Kageyama in next.

“Goodnight, Kageyama.”

“G’night.” Kageyama returned the kiss for once and slipped under the sheets.

Letting out a contented sigh, Suga glanced over at Daichi who was making himself comfortable further inside the cave. Or trying to, rather. “Um…” he began, and raised his hand.

“Hm?”

“I’m sorry there isn’t a bed for you.”

“No, of course there wouldn’t be. Don’t worry about it, I’ll be alright over here,” Daichi shook his hands and smiled.    

“If...If you want to, you can use my bed instead.”  

“You’re the one who needs the rest. Go ahead and sleep.”

Suga rubbed his arm slowly and nodded. “Okay. Goodnight,” he uttered, then pulled the covers over his shoulders. He made sure to gather his wings close to his back, not letting a single feather escape his notice. Curling up in the sheets, he shut his eyes and tried to sleep. Daichi leaned on the stony wall and exhaled a long breath of fine white mist. The nights were cold in this part of the world. He wondered if he should start a fire to warm up the cave, but decided against it in the end. If the Karas could survive this, he could, too.

Daichi snoozed for a few peaceful hours. The pearly round moon floated solemnly through the sparkling twilight sea. All was calm as the forest slept. The breeze itself was filled with a profound melancholy.

Kabeki Forest was a kind and mysterious host to all who entered.

The human soon stirred from his slumber. As he expected, sleeping on rocks could only get him so much rest. Feeling just slightly more refreshed, as one does after a power nap, he yawned and turned to look out of the cave.

And there he saw Suga in the moonlight.

Sitting by the cliff in solitude.  

Daichi was first startled by the crow, as the man’s single silhouette against the empty air was an unnerving sight. But as he gazed longer, he felt the loneliness that surrounded the man’s slight figure, which stared longingly at the full moon that hung in the darkness. Curious, Daichi tiptoed closer until he sat beside Suga with a soft thump. He kept the crow comfortable at an arm’s length.

Suga didn’t react to Daichi’s presence. The man peeked over at the silver crow, whose pale features glowed in the night. He could see nothing beyond the man’s soft, yet stony expression. It was as profound as the breeze that brought them together. They sat quietly in each others’ company for a few minutes, admiring the moon and the lands beyond.

The one who broke the silence first was Suga.

“Do you know why wolves howl at the moon?” he asked, with a childlike lilt in his voice.

“My father used to say that the moon represents a wolf’s spirit. They howl at it because it gives them strength… or something like that.”

Suga fell quiet again. After a few moments, he replied, with his eyes still fixated on the moon.

“My mother told me a tale about the moon and a wolf. Would you like to hear it?”

“Sure.”

“There was once a spirit that loved the moon very much. He would do anything for her if it would make the moon smile, and the both of them were happy together. But another spirit wanted the moon for himself, and he told the moon’s lover that she wanted some beautiful flowers from our world. He didn’t know that if he came to our world he would not be able to return.”

“So he couldn’t meet the moon again?” Daichi asked, filling in Suga’s long pause.

“No. Taking a wolf’s form, he could only look up to the moon at night and cry out in despair. He knew that he couldn’t hold her any more.”

Suga finished his story and dipped his head.

“My Mama told me this story one night. I think it’s better than yours, right?”

He gave Daichi a cheerless smile.

“It sounds sad.” The man couldn’t smile back.

“It is, isn’t it.” Suga sighed and hugged his knees. “She cried when she told me.”

“Why?”

“She said that the spirit was just like me. That I could only look at the moon and never feel it.”

Daichi’s gaze dropped. “What do you mean?”

Suga turned to look at Daichi, hesitation clearly showing in his brows. “It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me.” Daichi quickly added. The crow shook his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“But you know what? I told her that I felt more like the moon, and my parents, the spirit. No matter how they cried, they couldn’t reach out to touch me. I was stuck there, like the moon in the sky. But at least, I had a better ending. I got flowers.”

Suga smiled again. Daichi’s heart shrunk painfully in his chest.

He didn’t understand those smiles. They weren’t the same smiles that he gave to his children, or the smile that he received at the lake.

“Suga…” Daichi spoke, but didn’t know what to say. They were cold, lonely smiles that barred all from entering his heart.

“Yes?” Suga looked at the man from his knees.

“You aren’t… like the moon anymore, right? You’ve got Hinata and Kageyama.”

“Right…” he smiled at their names, “They are good children.”

Daichi paused and waited. But he was surprised to hear that that was all he had to say.

“How long have they been with you?” He pressed.

“Maybe a few months. Almost half a year.”

“They’ve really warmed up to you, then.”

“Yeah.”

Another dead end.

Daichi swallowed and thought to try one last time.

“What about you?”

Suga looked slightly puzzled at Daichi, and blinked.

“I like them,” he said simply.

Uneasy and mentally unprepared, Daichi held in his sigh and rubbed his face. “Yeah. They are lovable kids.” He didn’t want to leave this conversation. But Suga had other plans.

His quiet time disturbed, Suga felt it was time to return to bed. He stood up and patted the dust off his legs. “I’ll be going back to sleep. Daichi, you get some rest too.”

Daichi could only nod in reply. He didn’t feel like sleeping any more. He watched with a somber heart as Suga slipped back under the blanket, again making sure that he was all tucked in tight. In stark contrast were the slumbering children in bizarre sleeping positions, wings and limbs alike in a pointless fight for space.

The wall that stood before Daichi was taller and tougher than any tree in Kabeki Forest.

And he had to find the strength to knock it down.

Chapter Text

Daichi entered the dark wooden enclave. The moment he set one foot into that place, the pungent aroma of herbs and flowers assaulted his olfactory everything and caused his nose to wrinkle up instinctively. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell by any means, but it was so strong that every breath felt like a punch to the lungs. This anti-theft system (it was probably one) was the result of rows upon rows of colorful and foreign plants that lined the shelves in jars of all sizes, some dried and some potted. Creepers with fanned leaves that hung low crawled their way all over the beams and walls, and it was obvious that the owner wasn’t much of a gardener. But the most pertinent of all these details were the sounds of birds that greeted Daichi’s ears and made him feel that he had indeed come to the right place.

The keeper of the place heard the creaking footsteps of a customer and appeared from the side door with a bang and a small cherry-breasted pigeon on his shoulder. Clad in loose work clothes and a stained apron, he strode up to the counter with a chewed up stick between his jaws. Noticing the familiar hunter, his face lit up into a grin and he slapped the table once with his palm, sending some of the birds that were hiding among the creepers into a cooing mess.

"So, Daichi! What can I do for you today? Any game to sell?"

"Unfortunately not, sir. Today, I need some medicine from you."

The man raised an eyebrow and scanned him over. "Medicine? You don't look sick. Besides, this isn't a place for people medicine."

"It's not for me, it's for my... uh... bird."

"Huh. So you're keeping birds now? Learning from this old man, I see!"

"Yeah, something like that."

"What kind of bird is it?"

Daichi breathed and said in the most serious tone he could muster.

"A crow."

 

The man stared at Daichi.

And Daichi stared back at the man.

 

"Are you trying to mock me, boy?" The man, utterly unamused, tapped his fingers on the countertop and narrowed his eyes at Daichi.

"No, not at all,” Daichi shook his head, “You see, I kind of... injured it."

"How?"

"I shot it," Daichi said.

The man slowly inhaled and exhaled. "With your arrow,” he said, quietly.

"Yes," Daichi also said, quietly.

"Now I know you're shittin' me." The owner slammed his palm forcefully onto the table and a budgie flapped its way out of the house.

"No, I'm not! I really did!" The hunter pleaded and gripped the table with both hands.

"You trying to get some butter for your roasted crow dinner or something? What kind of zombie crow is that!?"

"It's a very, very big crow. And it's not dead. Why else would I be asking you for medicine?"

"I haven't seen crows bigger than the ones on my roof. You got some proof?" The man huffed and gnawed on the stick.

"Oh, I do. Here." Daichi took out the long, grey feather he had picked up while chasing Suga. Placing it on the counter, he watched as the whites of the man’s sleep-deprived eyes grew larger.

"It's a big one. Lovely silver,” he said as he twirled the feather round and smoothed his finger along its edge, “But this isn't crow black. Where'd you find it? In Kabeki?"

"Yeah." Daichi nodded.

"Hm. It does seem like a crow feather, but that color is really unnatural. You sure it's not a grey-beak?"

"I've hunted grey-beaks before, trust me. I even saw its children, and they had black wings."

"Hmph. What a rare sight. Show me this bird of yours when it's all healed, eh." The owner grinned and twiddled the feather some more between his fingers. The pigeon on his shoulder tried to peck at it as it whooshed by its face.

"Uh…” Daichi cleared his throat, “Of course." Not .  

"So , a crow, huh. I'll give you some cream for the wound. Let’s see... oh, was there a lot of blood?" The man asked as he stepped about the room, quickly choosing and taking down jars of herbs here and there.

"Yeah." Daichi remembered, and sighed.

"What am I asking? Of course there was,” the man smirked, “Make sure you feed it lots of meat. Boar's best. Dragsnouts aren't bad either, but they're mad tough to chew." Some of the birds reacted to ‘Dragsnout’ and began squawking and chirping loudly. “Shut up! There’s none for you!”

He went to the back and brewed up the medicine quickly. Daichi occupied himself with a funny-looking long-beaked bird that nosed about the man’s body, trying to find some morsels to eat.  

"Thanks. How much do I owe you?" Daichi reached for his coin pouch.

"Hm... I'll take this feather. And a good look at the bird." The man said and handed the tin of medicine to Daichi.  

"Right. I'll come back when you've got your greed back." Daichi beamed and gave a small bow.

"This is my greed, you brat. I’m being generous for once, so take it!"

"See you, Ukai!"

"Yeah. Damn brat."

Chapter Text

Today was the day Suga was going to fly. It had only taken a week for the broken bone to heal; not documented well in human scientific literature, a Kara’s wing held extraordinary regenerative cells that allowed for miraculous speeds of recovery.

“I’m going to try now, all right?” Suga stretched a foot over the cliff and flexed his wings.

“Yeah! We’ll catch you if you fall!” Hinata shouted.

With that, Suga gracefully dove headfirst off the edge without a second thought and swerved up into the air with a great unfurling of silver wings. Everything felt just right. Not a crack in a joint, nor a snag on a muscle. He was airborne once again!

He couldn’t stop the grin that spread over his flushed face. “It’s all right now!”

Everyone back in the cave cheered and whooped. Their beloved Mama was back in action. Somewhat. Suga’s wings whipped up a small gust as he closed in for a landing, but bungled up the approach. Teetering on one leg, he stumbled and got back his balance with Kageyama’s help. “Great flying, Mama.” The dark haired boy smiled, positively elated.

“Thank you. But it looks like I forgot how to land.” Suga chuckled.

“Yay! That means we can go play now!” Hinata squealed and jumped onto Suga and Kageyama, knocking all three Karas over into a pile of feathers.

“Let’s go play with Kuroo and Kenma! Can we? Can we??” His big round eyes gleamed at Suga, who nodded and sent the kid into another fit of excitement.

“Best. Day. Ever!!”

“Oi, what about lunch?” Kageyama grabbed the boy’s collar and stopped his hyperactive romp.

“Daichi’ll get us some, right?” The boy said naturally, at which swift justice came to his bum. “Ow, what now?”

“Whatever happened to us being independent just two days ago, dumbass?” Kageyama raged and felt absurdly disappointed in his brother for the nth time. “We can’t depend on Mama or Daichi forever.” The orange crow was beginning to grow fond of Daichi, he thought. There was no way that he would as well.

“But Daichi brought us that delicious chicken that we roasted with honey! Oh… I can smell it already… Sooo... juicy...” Hinata drooled, completely lost in his delusions.

“That… that’s true…” Kageyama caught a whiff of Hinata’s fantasy and swallowed his uncooperative saliva. “Wait-- that’s not the point!”

“Actually…” Suga broke into the conversation, “Remember when you asked me what I wanted Daichi to do?” Kageyama nodded at him.

“I want to ask him to teach you boys how to hunt.”

“Huh?” The two Karas exclaimed in unison. That was actually not a bad idea, Kageyama admitted inside. Daichi raised his eyebrows and uncrossed his arms.  

“Will that be alright, Daichi?” Suga asked with an eager smile. “I’m not a good hunter, so I can’t teach them very well. In fact, I’m sure I can learn a lot from you, too.”

“Of course, I’d be happy to.” Daichi smiled pleasantly back. How could he say no to that face?

“Ah, thank you! You hear that, boys?” The grey crow happily took the man’s hand, making him blush. “Why don’t we start right now and get our lunch at the same time?”  

“But I wanna play with Kenma!” Hinata whined and puffed his cheeks till they turned into face tomatoes.

“We can visit them afterwards, okay?” Suga said as he pulled Daichi over to the exit. He could be assertive when he wanted to be. Letting out his wings, he stepped behind Daichi and abruptly hugged his chest from behind. If the crow had been paying more attention, he would have felt the man’s rapidly quickening heartbeat.

“What are you doing?” Daichi froze.

“Could you bend down for a bit and piggyback me?” Suga requested politely, and Daichi obeyed at once.

“Ah,” Hinata pointed out with an amused shout, “A flying backpack!”

“We can’t have him run all the way now, can we? It’d be dinner by the time we ate.” Suga grinned.

“Well, sorry for not having wings.” Daichi smirked and held on tight to the man’s skinny legs that crossed around him. Overcoming the initial anxiety in his chest, he found his entire self absolutely looking forward to this fresh escapade. Flying was but an impossible dream for lowly earth-dwellers like him.

“Just tell me where to go and I’ll head there, alright?” The Kara spoke softly in the man’s ear.

“Alright.” Daichi nodded and a spark ran down his back.

“When you’re ready, just run off the cliff.”

Daichi laughed and felt his tension melt away at the carefree way Suga put it. “ Just run off the cliff? I don’t do this every day, you know.” That remark made Suga giggle as well. Now, this one has to be real, Daichi thought.

“What, you chicken?” Kageyama snickered beside the two adults and geared himself up.  

“Bet we can fly faster than you.” Daichi sneered back. He sure knew how to push these boys’ buttons by now, as Kageyama’s eyes fired up inside and Hinata jogged furiously on the spot.

“I don’t think so, Daichi. There’s two of us.” Suga advised calmly.

“You know what? I’d be happy to just not fall.” The man shrugged.

Suga made a face like he couldn’t guarantee that. “You can trust me. I hope.”

“No time for that. Let’s go!”

And he took a literal leap of faith.

The first few seconds of freefall made Daichi’s heart lurch skyward. The sudden upward lift that followed threw it back down and made his body soar. As the whipping winds in his ears died down into calm silence and his feet dangled unanchored in the emptiness below, a rush of adrenaline flooded his head and he gasped at the moving sight before him. It was truly...

“How is it?”

The gentle voice beside him spoke again. Daichi turned his head to the side to answer, and their cheeks lightly bumped against each other. They both blinked and the human blushed.

“... Amazing.”

“The winds are kind today. I would have dropped you already otherwise.” Suga smiled, completely serious.

“Why, thank you to the wind gods, then.” The man said in a jokingly reverent tone. “Ah, you Karas are so lucky, getting to see this view every day.”

“I think so too,” Suga agreed, "This still feels so new to me.”

“Really? Even after all this time?”

“I only started flying around the time I met Hinata and Kageyama.”

Daichi perked up in surprise. Then he remembered that moonlit conversation and added a stroke to the blank canvas in his mind.  

“Really?”

“Yeah. At first it was really awkward trying to fly. My wings weren’t strong enough to carry my weight. But after using them a whole lot more they got better.” Suga recalled.

"Why couldn't you fly? Did you have some kind of injury?" Daichi asked.

"Something like that," the Kara avoided the question and looked away, "I couldn't if I wanted to.” Then he noticed Kageyama and Hinata gaining on them and held on tight to his passenger. Daichi did the same reflexively, a little scared of what was about to come.

“Hold on tight now.” Suga said.

“Gotcha.” Daichi nodded.

Suga suddenly drew in his wings and two curved down headfirst like a speeding bullet. That weightless feeling instantly returned to Daichi’s chest as the wind began blasting his face. Just as he was sure that he was going to fall out of the man’s grasp and splatter onto the rocks below, the crow’s wings burst out like large silver sails and caught onto the invisible, rushing currents dead on. Surfing on the air, they left their rivals behind in a matter of seconds and couldn’t even hear their shouts over their overwhelming victory.


 

After an hour or so of hunting lessons, the four finally gathered around a fire that slowly roasted their kill. On the spit were three skewered and honeyed-up (there was too much honey) creatures; one fat rabbit, one small duck, and a frog. It is worth noting that the frog was of the quicker species, and was caught by hand by a particular small crow. It wasn’t a bad bounty for the boys’ first hunt, although the only one who really learned anything about a bow was Kageyama. Hinata, as Daichi kindly described, was more suited to a hands-on approach. Suga didn’t take part this time, tired out from carrying the muscle-heavy man, and stayed at the meeting place while the three of them went out into the forest.

Hinata stared at the crackling flames and trailed his hungry gaze up to the sizzling, deliciously charring meat above. Kageyama swallowed his drool and sat eagerly beside his brother. “Is it done yet?” The orange one whispered to the black one.

“Not yet,” the black one whispered back. Daichi absentmindedly turned the spit while Suga tended the fire, both equally entranced by the meat. One wondered if the four of them were having meat for once in a long time.

“Daichi.” Suga spoke.

“Hm?”

“Is it done yet?”

Daichi poked the rabbit with his knife and shook his head. The three Karas all sighed and fell over onto the grass simultaneously. One of their stomachs gurgled. “Patience, guys. We’ve only been at this for ten minutes,” the man chided.

“That’s ten too long.” Kageyama grumbled and rubbed his belly.

“Yeah, what he said.” Hinata chimed in.

“Hey, you can eat it raw if you want.” Daichi replied.

“Yuck! That’s so gross!” The boy made a face and stuck his tongue out.

“People actually like to eat things a little raw, you know. All bloody and stuff.” Daichi smirked at the kid’s reaction.

“People are weird.” Kageyama declared.

“I’m gonna pass out.” Suga closed his eyes and mumbled.

“Seriously?” Daichi looked over with a jolt.

“Maybe I really will,” the grey crow teased and grinned at how Daichi got genuinely concerned for a moment. His victim pouted and turned the spit some more. “Hey, Daichi.”

“Yeah?”

“You really don’t think Hinata can handle a bow?”

Hinata heard that and sat up at once. “I don’t need a bow! I’ll hunt like how Kenma does!”

“But you’re not a Nekomata, Hinata,” Suga said.

“I’m sure I can learn to hunt like one,” the crow puffed up and folded his arms proudly, “Kenma, who’s super fast and whooshy, couldn’t even keep up with me.”

“He is really fast, which is important when you’re chasing down your prey.” Daichi agreed.

“See? Daichi agreed!” Hinata grinned at his Mama, who smacked his lips and said, “If that’s what Daichi says, then okay.”

“I’m sure he’ll find his own style of hunting in time,” the seasoned hunter assured. Satisfied, Suga nodded and rolled back upright. “What about you, Kageyama?”

“Hn?” The boy wiped away his drool.

“Do you like the bow?”

Kageyama nodded quietly. Then, he added, “It was a little big for me, though.”

“But you still managed to shoot that duck, didn’t you? Great job.” Suga praised his little boy, who blushed deeply and nodded again. Hinata was obviously making a ‘praise me too’ face right next to Kageyama, and so Suga said, “You too, Hinata, on your first catch.”

Happy, the crow nodded furiously and exclaimed, “I’ll do better next time!”

“M-Me too!” Kageyama chipped in.

“It’s done!” Daichi announced loudly and jumped to his feet, and everyone perked up at once and pounced onto the meat.

 

Moments after, an unmistakable drawl arrived onto the scene.

“Oya oya oya, a feast without us?”

“Woah, Kuroo! Kenma! What are you doing here?” Hinata yelled between munches and his eyes shone at the sight of his friend. Hastily stuffing the rest of his piping hot share into his mouth, he waited no longer and flew into Kenma, who was totally unprepared for a body slam. “Genwah! Weds pway!”

“Finish your food first.” Kenma squinted at the chewed-up food that threatened to escape Hinata’s mouth.

“Hi, Kuroo. Want some?” Suga smiled and offered the cat, who had smoothly taken a seat beside him, a steaming hot duck leg. Daichi narrowed his eyes and bit into his cut of flesh.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he grinned and slurped the meat off the bone in one swift motion. “Mmm, juicy and sweet.”

“Kageyama caught it,” he told Kuroo with a parent’s pride. Kuroo raised his eyebrows and whistled.

“Oh, he did? Is this his first kill?”

Suga nodded and licked his sticky fingers. “Mm. Daichi was teaching them how to hunt just now, so we’re having their catch for lunch.”

“And what did the runt catch?” Kuroo asked, not taking his eyes off Suga.

“The frog,” he chuckled in reply, “And he was really proud of it, too.”

“I’ll bet.” The cat purred contentedly and lounged on the grass. He peered over to the kids, who were in the midst of introductions, and then to Daichi, who was busy chewing his food. He wondered what he was going to do today. “So, how are you feeling?”

“I’m much better now. My wing’s all healed up, and I could even fly with Daichi all the way here. Wait, I haven’t thanked you for then, have I?” Suga remembered and went a little pink. “Thank you, Kuroo.”

“Hey, should you be thanking the guy who drank your blood?” smirked Kuroo.

“Shouldn’t I?” Suga looked puzzled at the cat, who laughed gaily and smoothed back his thick fringe.

“If I were you, no. You almost became my meal, you know.”

Daichi choked on his own meal in the background.

“You wouldn’t do that. I know you’re a nice man.” Suga smiled genuinely at Kuroo, who looked back mischievously and sucked on his fang.

“Keep saying that and you’ll see, sugar.”

The hunter coughed loudly from behind.

“Hey Kuroo, you still hungry?” Daichi asked curtly and stabbed the rabbit with his knife while looking at the cat with a gleam in his eye. Kuroo looked boredly back and waved his hand.

“Nah, I’m good. I just came here to bother Suga.”

The man squinted and withdrew his blade. “Alright then.”

“Actually, Hinata wanted to play with Kenma afterwards, so it all worked out well,” Suga said.

“Ah, Kenma was interested in doing something for once, thanks to Hinata. Your orange runt has an effect on my runt,” Kuroo crossed his legs and grinned.

“Does Kenma play with others often?” Suga asked.

“Nah. It’s just me and him most of the time. We live out here on our own,” the cat explained.

“I see. Then it must be fun having someone else their age to play with,” Suga said, somewhat methodically.

“So you’re saying I’m no fun?” teased Kuroo.

“I don’t know,” Suga began, and thought about the times when he played with his kids. Usually, they had a lot of fun. But Suga didn’t always know how to ‘play’. “You might be,” he finished with a thoughtful look in his eyes.

Kuroo looked at Suga and got that strange vibe again. It was as if he was unsure about a lot of things, yet at the same time sure and earnest about others. Just like a kid. Being so close to the man, he had the sudden urge to pick him up and squeeze him like a plush toy. But he digressed.

“Wanna play?” Kuroo rolled over on his belly and looked up at Suga with his cheek resting on his palm. He flicked an ear and slowly curled up his tails in intrigue. “I’ll teach you the games young Nekomata play. I’ll warn you first, though, that wrestling’s one of them.”

“Is that what they’re doing over there?” Suga pointed over to the tangled, writhing pile of fur, limbs, and feathers. It seemed that no one was winning.

Kuroo sighed and facepalmed. “Yes. Sort of.”

“Then I’ll have to pass. Sorry.” The crow touched his waist and frowned slightly. “The wound might open up again.”

“That would be a problem.” The cat ears nodded.

“Why don’t you play with Daichi instead?” suggested Suga, which made both men go “Hah?” and glance with startled eyes at each other.

“You’re kidding, right?” Kuroo looked at Suga with a half smile, but it was clear that he wasn’t.

“You’ll be bored otherwise, won’t you?” said Suga, who cocked his head to the side.

Daichi pinched his furrowed brows and raised his hand to speak. “Suga, I’m sure he’ll be fine--”

“It’s a nice way to get to know each other, too. I’ll watch so I can join in next time, okay?”

His pure smile radiated so brightly that neither man wanted to make it go away.

 

And so began the most serious play-fight that had ever been fought.

Chapter Text

Kenma, the half-hearted referee of this so-called match, cleared his throat and raised his small voice to announce, “In wrestling there is only one rule. Whoever gets pinned down for five counts loses.”

“What about getting hurt and all?” asked Kageyama. The blonde cat shrugged with his entire body, and that was all that the crow was going to get for an answer. The spectators had gathered at the open field and were in a fairly pleasant mood. The combatants were sizing each other up in a very friendly manner that was non-confrontational at all.

Oh, no. Not at all.  

“So, what’s the largest thing you’ve taken down with your bare hands?” Crick, crack, went the black cat’s knuckles.

“I’m more of a bow and arrow person, really.” Pop, snap, went the man’s shoulders.

“Then this should be over quickly, eh?” A snide, fanged smirk.

Taking his shirt off, Daichi puffed out his cheeks and stretched his muscular arms over his head. His tanned and stocky but defined abdomen that had been hidden all this while finally graced his companions’ eyes. It was truly a body that belonged to a hunter. Kuroo, on the other hand, was always topless anyway. He had a slimmer and more shapely form that resembled a gymnast. Daichi’s thighs, however, were still unmatched.  

“We’ll see,” smiled Daichi benignly. He glanced over at Suga, who noticed and gave a small wave from his seat. “Do your best, both of you.” The crow cheered in his warm and gentle voice, and the two men gripped their chest in silent celebration. Shaking off the sparkly jitters, Kuroo and Daichi exhaled and readied themselves, assuming their battle stances.

“Ready…” yawned Kenma, “Set…”

“Go.”

Kuroo dropped down on all fours at once and lunged at Daichi like a panther after its prey. The man caught a mere glimpse of the feline’s flashing eyes and tumbled quickly to the side, then once more as the cat darted back for another strike. Finding an opening, Daichi kicked off the ground and slammed his shoulder into Kuroo’s torso, knocking him over into the grass with brute strength. But the Nekomata recovered instantly and deftly rolled out of the man’s reach.

“Oya, you’re not bad,” Kuroo remarked and licked his fang. Daichi grunted and grinned back.

Rushing forward to attack, Daichi instead found himself grabbing at air. Kuroo had vaulted over him with a light tap on his back. Striking back with a sweep of his leg, Daichi fell on his back with an oomph and the two caught each other in a deadlock. Muscle against muscle, they grit their teeth and tried to pry the other away. One could almost see the heat radiating off of their backs.

“Go, Daichi! Shake him off!!” Hinata yelled in excitement, way more into in the match than the referee was. Suga watched in curious awe, his mouth forming a small ‘o’ as he held onto Kageyama’s arm. Kenma flicked an ear and glanced at Kuroo. “You’re not done yet, aren’t you?” he said.

“Of course...not!”  

Kuroo gave way and let Daichi turn the tables and pin him down, then wrapped his legs around the man’s waist. Clenching his jaws, Kuroo twisted his entire body and brought Daichi along, slamming him back into the earth, then finished his combo with a vicious headbutt to the face. A collective ooh rose up from the side. Shaking off the daze and his bleeding nose, Daichi grabbed Kuroo’s shoulders and returned the favor with a resounding thunk. Now both of them had a great red mark and a malicious grin on their faces.

“That almost hurt, you bastard,” growled the cat. “You’ve got a thicker skull than I imagined,” replied the hunter.  

That brief lull quickly ended as Kuroo escaped Daichi’s grasp, and the two paced away and eyed each other again. Taking the initiative, Daichi ducked and charged forward, successfully catching Kuroo in a bear hug. Kuroo grabbed Daichi’s waist as well, then roared as he gathered his strength and lifted his opponent up. As his feet began to leave the ground, Daichi’s eyes widened in surprise. Where was this power coming from?! The crows’ jaws dropped as they watched the black beast hoist Daichi up till his legs went helplessly over Kuroo's shoulders.

“Body. Slam!” Kuroo cackled triumphantly and pounded his feet, easily jumping a metre off the ground. Daichi braced himself for impact and wondered how painful it was going to be.

The two made a perfect sandwich with the earth as Kuroo flipped over and smashed Daichi flat under his weight. The sandwich filling made an audible cough as the air got knocked out of his lungs entirely. His whole body groaned as Kuroo pinned him down with his knee and began locking his leg in a hold. “Yo, ref! Start counting already,” harrumphed Kuroo as Daichi struggled to break free under him. Kenma gave a thumbs up and began his countdown.  

“Five.”

“Not yet, Daichi! Get out of it!” Hinata clenched his fists and jumped up and down in agitation. Kageyama’s puffed up face was about to explode in anxiety.

“Four.”

Daichi panted and huffed, trying to roll out of the grip, but Kuroo wouldn’t let him.

“Three.”

“Man, can’t you count faster? Not like it matters, though,” said the cat, who mockingly made a yawning gesture.  

“Shut up, I’m the ref here,” Kenma meowed back, “Two.”

The grip on Kageyama’s arm tightened. Just as Kenma was about to lay down the final count, Suga followed Hinata’s cheering and gave a rather flustered, undecided shout.

“Um- don’t give up, Daichi!”

The small cat tipped his ear toward the grey crow and intentionally paused the countdown.

As if he had taken some miracle drug, Daichi found the strength to seize Kuroo with his free leg and roll him over face first off his back. Having lost his hold at the last moment, Kuroo grunted and his tail frazzled in irritation. He had noticed what Kenma did, but wasn’t about to bring it up now. Righting himself again, Daichi wiped off his bloodied face amid the crows’ applause and exhaled deeply. The cat smirked bitterly at his foe and licked his fang.

“Don’t start thinking you’ve won already,” he said.

“That was a win in my book,” grinned Daichi.

But even the power of burning passion could not win against the superior prowess of a warrior from the Nekomata tribe. Kuroo swiftly ended the bout with an expertly executed throw to hold transition, and not once did he need to awaken to emerge victorious. He had come close to it, though, when he strained to lift the hunk of meat that was Daichi. It definitely was the thighs, he thought.

“And the winner is Kuroo.” Kenma’s deadpan voice really didn’t reflect the situation very well.

“Hey, can’t you be happier for me? Geez, I’ve got no support here.”

“If you didn’t win, I’d have to strip you of your title,” Kenma’s eyes glinted. Kuroo’s eye twitched and he stalked off, mumbling some indescribable words between his teeth.

“Ah, I couldn’t win after all.” The loser sighed apologetically at the Karas from the grass that tickled his face. Hinata looked more crushed than Daichi did, while Kageyama gave a small sigh beside him. “Well, he did kill a bear,” said the black-haired boy. “But Daichi’s better than a dumb old bear. Well, there’s always next time, right?” Hinata smiled and pulled the man upright, which produced more groans of pain.    

“Are you alright?” Suga asked while staring at Daichi’s swollen nose. He reached out to touch it, half intrigued and half worried. Daichi let him, and he poked it ever so slightly, afraid of breaking it or something. “Rather than my nose, I think all my ribs are broken,” chuckled Daichi. “Eh? Really?” Suga’s brows furrowed more and he moved his hand over to poke at them. Why Suga thought that poking things would make them any better escaped Daichi’s understanding, but he found his way of fussing adorable nonetheless.

Feigning hurt, he thoroughly enjoyed teasing Suga and then seeing his annoyed, puffy face afterward. Sulking, the Kara stood to walk away but bumped into Kuroo instead. Leaning on his leg, the Nekomata waved his tails and stretched out an arm. Taking the offer, Daichi got up and then shook his hand strongly. It had been a duel between two gallant gentlemen, after all.

“Good match,” he nodded at Kuroo with a serious stare.

“Well played,” the cat nodded back. Then his eyes smiled as if to say, ‘now it’s my turn’. Daichi frowned back with a bad feeling in his throat.

“Did you enjoy it, Suga?” asked Kuroo, regarding the shorter grey-haired man. “Yes. It was a thrilling fight,” he replied, “and I learned a lot while watching.”

“There’s one more rule to this game, you know.”

“What’s that?” Suga leaned in closer.

“The winner gets a reward they choose. Isn’t that a great incentive?” Kuroo grinned and shot a glance at Daichi. He already knew where this was going.

“Is that true, Kenma?” Daichi asked, but realized immediately that his answer wasn’t going to help.

“Uh-huh. Usually it’s something like, ‘I get to have your dessert for tonight’,” the boy nodded.

“So, I’m going to ask you for my reward, Suga.”

That drew a blank from the grey Kara and a death stare from the slowly boiling hunter. Suga blinked in confusion and tilted his head to the side.

Kuroo smiled sweetly at the naive man. “All I want for my reward is…”

“A kiss from you.”

He said it. He really said it. What great leaps this man took, while the other crawled along like a limbless beetle.

A small pop went off in Suga’s head.

“That’s it?” He said.

“That’s it,” Kuroo said.

Suddenly, Daichi barged in between them and glared at Kuroo, eyes rumbling with spite inside. “I should be the one giving you the kiss, eh?”

“Hell no. I don’t want any kisses from you,” grimaced Kuroo, who then pushed the man aside and faced Suga again. “What about it? Will you grant me my wish?”

“I guess it’s alright. I give Kageyama and Hinata kisses all the time, so I don’t know what’s so special about them.”

“It’s not the same, Suga,” Daichi’s scary grin twitched as he pushed against Kuroo’s palm. “You don’t give kisses to just anybody.” Kuroo grinned as well and calmly pressed back, defending his space. “I’m not just anybody, am I, Suga?”

Suga shook his head. Then he nodded and said, “Okay. Bend down for a second, alright?”

Success! Kuroo happily obeyed and snuck a haughty, victorious look at Daichi. He couldn’t do anything more without making himself look strange in front of everyone. Daichi really wanted to throw a solid punch at the cat now, but he had clearly and utterly lost this battle.

Suga slowly leaned forward and carefully placed a chaste kiss on Kuroo’s cheek, and the black cat blushed a tad at the contact.

Daichi died inside. Not literally, of course, or else this story would be over where it stands.

“Um… well done, Kuroo?” Suga praised the man as if he were a child, not knowing if it was appropriate or not. “Thank you, mum,” he replied cheekily while looking into those doelike eyes, then walked away in high spirits. Ah, it was but a small kiss from mother (?) to child, but was construed so differently in each bystander’s eyes.

“Mama, are you adopting Kuroo, too?” Hinata exclaimed. “Of course not!” Kageyama yelled.

“No way,” Suga laughed at the thought. “He’s too old to be my child.”

And not too old to be something more.

Chapter Text

The day concluded after a lovely nap in the sun, another round of playing hide and hunt, and finally a glorious bloodfest of skinning and gutting a stag that Daichi and Kuroo had caught for dinner. Despite their unyielding differences, they cooperated surprisingly well. The Nekomata chased the deer into the archer’s sights, who finished off the wounded animal with a shot through the chest. Everyone helped carry a portion of the kill up to the nest, and they cooked up a fragrant and rich pot of meat stew with wild potatoes and herbs. The gang ate and ate till their stomachs bloated and cravings sated, and then it was time to bid adieu to the cats and the setting sun.

As was routine, goodnight kisses were in order before the Karas went to bed. First was little Hinata. Second was awkward Kageyama. And then no more kisses had to be given out. But tonight, Suga was having a hard time deciding if that would be the case. The quiet man rubbed his hands in contemplation as he scuttled over to Daichi’s makeshift bed of leaves. The human was busy padding the pile with more piles of vegetation. Sitting down beside Daichi with a troubled face, Suga waited for him to finish and turn around.

"Hey. Need something?" Said the man as he dusted off his palms.

"I wanted to ask you something," Suga said.

"Go ahead."

"What did you mean when you said ‘you don't give kisses to just anybody’?"

Daichi immediately recalled the afternoon’s events and died a little inside again. Looking at the completely oblivious Kara, he knew that he had some explaining to do, but he found it hard to accept that the grey crow didn't understand the notion of romance at all.

“You really don’t know?” He asked, hoping he didn’t come off as condescending. It seemed that didn’t matter at all to the Kara, as he shook his head and stared intently at Daichi, who gave a small sigh.

"Alright. Well, the kind of kisses you give to the kids are different from the one that you… gave Kuroo." This was some cruel joke. Why did he have to explain this, again?

"There are different kinds of kisses?" Suga leaned forward in surprise. "Then, what kind of kiss did I give?"

It was a very tough question to answer. Daichi wasn’t sure himself, since the crow did it without the right intentions behind it. He frowned and plopped his head on his palm with another dejected sigh. "It wasn’t from a parent to a child, definitely."

"Then what was it? I need to know." Suga urged. Looking up from his chin, the hunter pondered his answer.

"What makes you want to kiss Hinata and Kageyama?"

There was a long pause and a thoughtful rubbing of the chin. A small smile crept across Daichi’s face as he gazed at the heart-tickling way Suga was taking this so seriously.

"Um… The boys kiss me goodnight, so I return it," mumbled Suga.

"Is that all?" Daichi encouraged, tilting his head toward the man. Suga shook his head and pressed his palms together.

"Once, my parents gave me kisses and said they loved me. So I guess I kiss the kids back to let them know I care about them too," Suga said softly while scratching at his knuckles.

"Well… that kiss sent the same message with a different feeling, since Kuroo isn't your child."

The Kara still appeared lost, his brown pupils shaded by his wavering eyelids.

"Is that bad, then?" He asked.

"Bad?"

"Should I not have kissed him?"

The jealous devil on Daichi’s shoulder really wanted to say no, but it wasn’t an answer he could give.  

"You didn’t do anything wrong. I mean… if you really cared about him, then it’s fine."

Placing a hand on his heart, Suga looked away quietly. His fingers slowly closed around the fabric into a fist as he captured his thoughts alongside that one silent gesture. Daichi, both bummed out and tired, couldn’t quite read the expression on the man’s face. It was some parts determined and some parts…

"Daichi, I think I understand it better now. So I feel that I have to do this as well."

… shy.

Suga moved in front of the man and gave him a small peck on the cheek. It all happened so quickly that Daichi’s dulled down brain didn’t have time to process the lingering warmth on his skin, nor the rapidly reddening blush on his face.

"Thank you for telling me. Goodnight." Suga smiled, his cheeks a touch of pink.

“Uh… yeah…” Daichi uttered, stunned and out of words.

He wasn’t expecting this reward at all.

Oh, if only he knew that Suga gave him the kiss because he looked like a small grumpy child that didn’t get an equal share of dessert for supper. He still had a long way to go before he could truly understand what it meant to care for someone other than family. Nevertheless, the Kara felt a small stirring within when his lips met the man’s cheek. It was something different for sure, a new feeling that he kept safely away in the trove of his heart.   

For the few days Daichi had stayed in the crow’s nest as an honorary member, his heedful eyes had observed the three lives of this cozy family. By now he understood a little more about each Kara, having delved just enough beneath the surface of the caricatures one would mistake them for.

Hinata, although the scrawnier of the two brothers, was always the little burst of sunshine that the other Karas needed in their lives. He paid keen attention to others and their feelings, especially the uptight Kageyama - even if he was frequently bullied for his tomfoolery. It was Hinata’s way of getting the boy to interact in any way at all. Kageyama still held a deep grudge against Daichi, but it wasn’t a grudge that possessed any real meaning. It seemed like he was only rude and and grumbly toward the man because he felt like he had to. The boy couldn’t put his heart to his mouth like Hinata could.

However, the real enigma that was Suga still remained unbroken. The man could not be adequately described as reserved. Rather, he was a distant wanderer that paced back and forth, sometimes right up in one’s face, other times a mere spot on the horizon. An inexplicable heaviness hovered within Suga’s every gesture, and the longer one met his serene, half lidded eyes, the more they seemed to be painted with sorrow. Tonight, Daichi would see for himself why Suga sat alone in the moonlight each night. This was the third time he woke up to see the gleaming silver figure at the cave entrance. But something had changed from the last time.

Suga wasn’t looking up at the moon.

Instead, he sat curled up with his head buried in his knees. Daichi thought he heard a soft sound coming from the man, and an uncomfortable feeling settled in his chest. Sitting up stiffly from his bed, he gripped his fist and hesitated. He heard another sound, and this time he was certain it was a sniffle.

Taking small, halting steps, he approached the man. As soon as he stepped into his bubble, the crow flinched and went still. No one dared to breathe for a moment.

“Suga,” Daichi finally spoke in his gentle, deep voice, “is everything alright?” Suga slowly lifted his head and turned to look at the man, but his gaze darted away timidly as soon as he did so.

His fearful, tear-stained face was all Daichi needed to see.  

Daichi sat beside Suga and calmly wrapped an arm around his narrow shoulders, guiding his head to rest on his own shoulder. Suga didn’t resist, and as he felt the warmth envelop him, he trembled and let the tears flow in the overwhelming comfort of Daichi’s embrace. Daichi closed his eyes and soothed the sobbing man’s feeble heaving, gingerly running his hand up and down Suga’s arm.

A few hushed minutes went by, and not once did Suga stop crying.

Gradually, the rush of emotions fell back into the depths from where they came, and the crow calmed down. “Feeling better?” Daichi asked, peering over at the man’s grey head of hair. Suga made a small noise in acknowledgement as he stared listlessly at the valley below. Breathing out, Daichi tapped his fingers. Understandably, the Kara didn’t feel like talking, so he felt content to stay in the close heat of the man’s body. Just then, Suga came to his senses and broke away at once. He felt as if he had just done a terrible, terrible thing and was unsure of how to face Daichi. He looked down nervously and wrung his wrists, while Daichi’s hand hovered in confusion between them.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Suga uttered softly.

Daichi shook his head. “Why are you saying sorry?”

“I-- I...” Suga halted and looked distressed. “I don’t... know.”

“Suga, look at me.”

He looked up anxiously, not daring to look directly in the man’s eyes, but only saw a reassuring smile on the man’s rough but kind face.

“If you need to cry, you don’t have to do it alone. I’ll be here, alright?”

Daichi ruffled the man’s hair and patted his back, and the Kara swallowed the lump in his throat. Was this what it felt like to be with another person? Drying his tears and wiping his nose, he nodded and found the words he needed to say.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Morning came.

“Rise and shine,” someone whispered.

Who was this? It wasn’t Daichi.

Peering through tired, puffy eyes, Suga awoke. Reclining next to him in a naturally arrogant pose with an equally arrogant grin was the big black cat.

“Kuroo?”

“The one and only.”

Suga smiled in greeting, then yawned and snuggled back under the sheets. “Oi, don’t go back to sleep.” said Kuroo, who poked him with his tail. The crow made a soft grunt. Seeing that he wasn’t budging, the cat stealthily inched closer and purred quietly into Suga’s ear.

“If you don’t get up, I’ll eat you for breakfast.”

Tickled by his breath, Suga roused himself reluctantly and stared unhappily at Kuroo. Kuroo stared back and stuck out his tongue.

“Kuroo…” he yawned again mid-sentence, “why are you here?”

“I came to deliver breakfast.”

“I didn’t ask for any,” mumbled Suga as he rubbed his eyes for a long while with both hands. Grabbing Suga’s wrists, Kuroo pulled his hands away from his face and grinned.

“Special delivery! Come on, I’ll show you.”

The excited kitty led the half-awake Suga to the cave entrance, where a large bundle sat in the sun. There was no way of telling what was inside. Kneeling down, Suga placed his hands on the knot. “There’s nothing scary in here, is there?”

“Only one way to find out.” Kuroo wagged his tail.

Carefully untying the bundle, a sweet scent wafted out from within, and the matted cloth fell away to reveal a grand pile of colorful fruits. There were apples, mangoes, berries and a whole assortment of other juicy items that Suga didn’t recognise. The crow’s eyes grew wide as he looked back and forth between the pile and Kuroo.

“What… how did you… get this many?” he gasped and picked up an apple, turning it round in his gaze.

“That’s a secret.” Kuroo hummed. “You like it?”

Suga nodded. “You’re really giving all this to me?”

“Just for you, sugar.”

“It’s Suga, not sugar.” Suga corrected him precisely.

Kuroo laughed and shook his weary head. Real smooth there, kitty cat. You should have known that would happen with Suga over here.

“Thank you, Kuroo. I really like it.” Suga finally beamed at the black cat, who felt a spark go off in his chest. Playing it cool, he smoothed back his fluffy fringe and said, “Go on, dig in. I’ll wake the others up for you.”

The Kara perked up and nodded with an eager blush on his face, now completely enthralled by the fruits. A crow would take much more interest in these types of food than a cat, after all. His hand poked cautiously at each fruit, testing their firmness and texture, and by extension their potential deliciousness. He finally settled on a curious looking yellow-skinned tube, a fruit that we all acknowledge as a banana. Not knowing how to proceed, Suga examined the banana carefully. He turned it this way and that, until he found a slit at one end that revealed some of the white flesh inside. Peeling it open, he was amazed to find that it was so different on the inside.

By then, Hinata had popped up and he hugged his Mama from behind. “Whoa, so many fruits! Too many!”

“Look, it’s yellow on the outside but white on the inside,” Suga showed the child, his eyes positively gleaming. “Well, yeah, that’s how bananas are.” Hinata said.

“Bananas?” asked Suga. “What a strange name.”

Kageyama, who was quivering by the heavenly bounty, looked like his drool was going to flood his feet. “Kageyama, come eat.” Suga called out to the boy, who snapped out of it and responded with a happy grunt.

Over in a corner and away from the fruit party, Kuroo was in the midst of waking up Daichi. He didn’t really want to, but he knew that if he didn’t either Suga or the kids would do so anyway. Crouching beside the hunter, who slept like the dead, he rubbed his chin. Shrugging his shoulders, he decided to do it the normal way. Raising his palm, he breathed in deeply.

“Wake up, hunter boy!”

Kuroo gave Daichi a massive smack to the face, which instantly woke the man and placed the cat in a precarious situation. Apparently, the hunter slept with his knife.

“The hell are you-”

“Breakfast is served!” Kuroo sang in a loud voice, which stopped Daichi’s knife and caught Suga’s attention.

“Daichi! Kuroo brought us these wonderful fruits. Come join us!” The crow brightly beckoned, a sideways-eaten banana in hand. Dumbfounded, Daichi put away his knife and rubbed his throbbing cheek. “Fruits?”

“Yeah! Try the watermelon!” said Hinata, his face messy and dripping with the blood of his unfortunate green-skinned victim. “It’s good.” Kageyama agreed, crunching on a rosy apple. It seemed like the entire Kara family had been successfully bribed over by the cat. Things weren’t looking up for Daichi today.

“Wow. Uh, thanks.” Daichi uttered to Kuroo, who narrowed his eyes and snorted.

“Save it. I didn’t bring ‘em for you. But since Suga’s such a kind soul, I’ll allow it.”  

Daichi frowned back and got up. “I’ll enjoy it well. Hey, wait, did you just invite yourself in?”

Kuroo simply shrugged. “There isn’t a door to knock on. Besides, you don’t give me permission.”

“Suga was cool with that?”

“See for yourself,” he smirked and jerked his head in the Karas’ direction. “I think they’re totally into that.”

Stepping closer, Kuroo flashed his pupils at the hunter and drew back his cat ears.

“And if you don’t hurry, I’ll make sure they’re into me next.”

Unintimidated, Daichi stepped forward as well with a sharp gaze in his dark eyes. The lightheartedness between them vanished in a split second.

“You’re really serious about this, aren’t you?” Daichi spoke quietly.

“I’m always serious.” Kuroo’s smile dropped.

“But are you ?”

Chapter Text

Kuroo left Daichi with that chilling remark and a sullen feeling in his chest.

-are you ?’

He felt the need to prove himself, the same sting he endured on the day he embarked on his journey to become a fully fledged hunter. Dwelling on his actions, Daichi made his way to the group and picked up the nearest fruit. It was, most fittingly, an orange. Peeling away the tough skin, he bit into the fibrous pulp inside. He grimaced. Bittersweet and sour.

“Actually, I have a favor to ask.” Kuroo said as he popped a grape off a bunch.

“Mm?” Suga made a noise, his mouth full with another banana, this time eaten the right way up after Kageyama taught him so.

“Could you take care of Kenma for one night?”

“Eh?”  

“I have to go away for a day and he’ll be alone otherwise. You don’t have to worry about getting him food or anything, we have enough at home.” Kuroo continued, eyeing Suga intently.

Suga swallowed down the creamy mush and thought for a second. “Okay,” he nodded. “When are you going?”

The Nekomata smiled, pleased. “Today.”

“That’s sudden.” Suga remarked.

“Well, duty calls.”

Hinata, who had been listening ever since Kenma came into the picture, rolled his head over to Mama and mumbled his words upside down. “Does that mean Kenma is staying with us?”

“Nope. I need Suga look after the house, too.” said Kuroo.

“What? You’re stealing Mama, aren’t you!” cried Hinata, and he pointed accusingly at Kuroo. Kageyama looked equally alarmed but was completely out of context. “What? Hinata, who’s stealing Mama?”

“Kenma is!”

“Oh, you do?” A worried look passed over Suga’s face.

Daichi frowned and folded his arms. “I don’t think that’s a good arrangement. Just the two of them?”

“I’m sure Suga can take care of himself and Kenma for one night. Besides, it’s safe there.” Kuroo said in confidence and ate another grape. But Suga didn’t seem as eager as before. He twiddled the banana skin and looked outside. “Something bugging you, sugar?” probed the cat.

“Um…” he started, “I’m worried about leaving the kids here.”

All eyes went on Daichi at once, each pair piercing through him with varying degrees of scrutiny. The orange one gave a comforting smile. The black one had a small crease on his brow. The grey one’s lips pursed in worry, and the cat simply raised his eyebrows with interest.

“Whoa there, enough of the staring,” joked Daichi, who then gave Suga a pat on the back. “I’ll make sure to take care of them well.” The Kara’s gaze softened a little, and he uttered, “You sure?” Daichi nodded back. “No sweat. I’ve babysat my neighbour’s kids before, and they were a whole lot worse than these two.” Cries of unfounded protest rang out from the boys in the background.

Letting out a soft sigh, Suga relented and put away the banana peel. “Okay. Sorry to bother you.”

“That’s settled, then!” Kuroo smiled with a clap. “As soon as you’re done here, I’ll bring you over to Kenma and then I’ll be off.”

This was one of the times when Suga’s motherly nature would take over. Pottering about the nest, he checked that every little bit was in order, literally leaving no leaf unturned. After that, he patted each kid up and down like it was some security check, and at the end of it came a tight hug and a kiss on the forehead.

“Be good, okay?” Suga said quietly, the upturned brows never ceasing. The Kara didn’t want to let go of his babies for one second.

“Don’t worry, Mama, it’s just for one night,” said Hinata, who hugged him back. “Yeah. We’re not going anywhere.” Kageyama added.

“I know.” The man squeezed out a smile. “But I can’t help but worry.”

“You worry too much. Besides, there’s big, strong, Daichi here, right?” Hinata stressed those words with a flex of his skinny arm, which made Suga chuckle. “If you make trouble for Daichi, I’ll hear it from him, you hear?” The two put on their best angelic grins and nodded.

And so with a wave goodbye and several backward glances, Suga and Kuroo left the nest together. Slowly, Hinata and Kageyama looked at each other knowingly, and then at Daichi with a sly grin. Indeed, it was going to be a wildly different night of experiences for everyone.

 

Chapter Text

Looking at their prominent shirtlessness and long baggy pants with tribal embroidery, one would think that the Nekomata were a primitive species. That was, however, far from the truth. What they lacked in clothing, they made up in grandeur; if you took the time to observe the intricate threads of their pants, you would notice that gold weaving was the standard fashion. But no one did, because staring at someone else’s crotch would be rude.

And so when Kuroo introduced this lavishly constructed and fiercely decorated tree house as his loft, Suga stepped back in disbelief. Sure, the exterior did a good job of concealing itself among the tall branches, but the interior was a wholly different story. He couldn’t even fathom how such riches could exist, and needless to say he was hit with a confusing avalanche of intrigue and fear at the same time.

What are those golden things? What is this plush thing beneath my feet? Why is there so much cloth? Goodness, is that a whole tree?!  

Trembling at the large redwood door, he swallowed thickly.

“W-w-what… is this?” stammered Suga as he hid behind Kuroo. Pushing the petrified block of a man in, Kuroo closed the door behind them and cocked his head to the side. “What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?” It was a terrible joke, but he had to say it anyway. The Kara thought to flee, but the cat grabbed his shoulders and set him straight. “Kenma, I caught you a mother!” Kuroo exclaimed happily.

The small cat, who had been lounging on the huge, round and fluffy mass they called a bed, looked up and paused in mid air to assess the situation. After a few empty seconds, he plopped his head back onto the bed and grumbled.

“You really did it, huh.”

“Of course.”

“I said I’d be fine on my own.”

“This isn’t up for negotiation, sir. ” Kuroo squinted, then nudged Suga and sat him upon the bed. “Now, make yourself comfortable. If you need anything, ask Kenma. Gotta run!” And so as quickly as he had arrived, Kuroo hurriedly exited the house with just a backpack filled with some food and water, and left the two alone in the large room in an awkward silence.

Kenma slid his gaze toward Suga, who was clearly the opposite of calm.  

“Hey. Are you really okay with this?” he murmured lowly.  

Coming to his senses and deciding to ignore it for now, the adult nodded. “Mm.”

“What about Hinata and Kageyama?”

“Dai.. Daichi’s looking after them.”

“Are they... going to be okay?”

Suga smiled weakly and rubbed his arm. “I think Daichi can handle it. He told me not to worry.”

Kenma sighed and curled away into a ball. “You don’t have to be here, you know. I’ll be fine alone.”

“I promised Kuroo I would,” Suga said, “and I’d be worried too if you were left here all by yourself.”

Slowly rolling upright, Kenma blinked and looked at Suga with a dazed expression. It seemed like he wanted to say something in rebuttal, but he closed his tiny mouth and scratched his head. “You would?” he mumbled. The crow nodded with a soft smile. “Why? There’s no reason you should.” Kenma said. “Because I know you, that’s why.” Suga replied plainly. That was reason enough for him, but not for the little one that shifted his gaze to a corner and gave a small nod. He didn’t want to argue or anything, and so he left the conversation hanging. A slow crawl of unease began to coil up inside, and the tips of his tails noiselessly patted the bed in sync.  

Moving to sit beside Kenma, Suga breathed in and turned on his Mama mode. “So, um… what do you usually do around this time?” It was still early in the morning, when the crows would normally be out in the wide outdoors, soaking in the daylight. Kenma however, shrugged and said, “I take a nap for a few hours.”

“Are you tired, then?” asked Suga. The boy shook his head. “It’s just a Nekomata thing.” Then, he thought he should add, “But Kuroo does some exercises.”

“Oh. Like what?”

“Running a few miles and fighting some boars. There are lots of boars around these parts.” Kenma explained.

“That sounds tiring.” Suga smiled. “Don’t you join in, too?”

He shook his head again.

“Why not?”

“I don’t like… tiring things.” Kenma mumbled and let out a sigh. Puzzled, the Kara tilted his head to the side and said, “Well, you and the children played wrestling for a long while that day. It looked exhausting at the end of it.” Leaning on his arm, the cat nodded and a small smile involuntarily tugged at his lips. “That was okay. It was fun.” As if he had found a piece of the puzzle, something clicked in Suga’s head and his eyes gleamed. “Shall we do something fun?”

“Huh?” Startled at the sudden proposal, Kenma glanced at Suga.

“Hinata’s always saying I’m no fun.” The Kara grinned sheepishly. “But he has a lot of fun with you and Kageyama. Maybe you can teach me what fun is.”

“Uhm…” Kenma’s brows slowly drew into a frown, which made Suga a little flustered. “D-Did I say something wrong?” The cat thought quietly for a bit, wondering at the strange feeling he was getting from this man. He couldn’t comprehend it very well, and it wasn’t because he was a child. Was this what Kuroo was talking about? Kenma scratched his ear idly and decided to comply.

“No. I don’t know about Hinata or Kageyama, but what I find fun is… probably different.”

“Can you show me?”

“... Yeah.”

Chapter Text

Now that Mama was gone, it was time for…

An interrogation.

Daichi would learn why a murder of crows was labeled as such.

“Hey, Daichi. We know your secret.” Hinata said in a singsong tone and wiggled his eyebrows up and down at the hunter. “Secret?” Daichi asked. “Don’t play dumb. It’s been too obvious.” scoffed Kageyama. The two boys closed in and stared intently at Daichi, who folded his arms and looked down at their wide, curious eyes. “What are you guys talking about?”

“We’re talking about Mama.” Kageyama said firmly, and his brows furrowed. “You know what this means, right?”

Daichi gulped. He knew. The man foolishly thought that they wouldn’t notice all the times his face turned red in front of Suga, and even now when the thought of him came into his mind.

“What about him?” he coughed and started to get fidgety.

“We know you like Mama.” The stern boy said, going straight to the point. Daichi fought to contain his blush and he began to sweat. He really was hopeless when it came to love.

“O-Of course I do. I like Suga as much as anyone else,” stammered the man unconvincingly.

“Not that kind of like,” Hinata piped up, “Like, the Mama likes Papa kind of like.”

“Hey, now, what makes you think that?” Daichi tried to laugh it off, but was immediately shut down by Kageyama’s intense glare.

“Like I said, it’s been obvious. Hinata and I have seen it. The way you look at Mama a lot, how you take care of him--”

“And how your face turns red like a tomato!” Hinata grinned and squished his cheeks. “Especially when you and Mama get close. It’s so weird.” Daichi’s face turned even redder. Oh, the humanity!

“So, confess!” Kageyama suddenly shouted and puffed out his chest, which made Hinata jolt. “Is it true? Do you like Mama?”  

“Oi, you don’t have to shout!” squawked Hinata. “Now my ear hurts.”

“Well, I have to!” retorted Kageyama, slightly apologetic.    

Looking back into the little crow’s demanding blue eyes, Daichi felt even more pressure to confess than when Kuroo called him out just half an hour ago. He knew that they would definitely be concerned about this matter. It had to do with their dear Mama, and they had the right to know. But he dreaded to think what would happen if they knew.

Sighing, Daichi rubbed his head and knelt down to speak.

“Look… do you promise to keep it a secret?”

“But everyone kinda knows it already, except Mama.” shrugged Hinata. Kageyama pointed his shoulder at his brother in agreement.

“I still need you to promise me. This is… important to me.” Daichi pleaded.

Nodding slowly, the boys waited as the atmosphere gradually toned down. Taking a deep breath, the man placed a hand on both boys’ shoulders. The fleeting memories of him with the man he was mesmerised with trickled in like drops of sweet nectar as he started forming his words. He wasn’t very good with them, and even though he had many words he could have used to describe his innermost feelings, he chose the simplest ones that showed just how much of a fool he was for him.

“You’re right. I like Suga.” Daichi admitted quietly with a small smile. “I started liking him when I met him for the first time, and… ever since, I can’t stop thinking about him. He’s always there, somewhere in my mind.” When he shifted his gaze to look up at their eyes, he saw two rather grossed out faces. Embarrassed, he frowned at them. “Hey, don’t give me that face.”

“Kageyama, is this what they call mushy?” Hinata whispered hoarsely, and the disgusted boy said ‘yeah’ back.

“You guys asked for it. Don’t die from the grossness of it all just yet, or I’ll get beaten to death by Suga.” Daichi huffed with sarcasm, feeling betrayed already. “Man, I shouldn’t have told you boys.”

“But now we know for sure.” grinned Hinata. “And I’m happy!”

Daichi felt hope leap into his heart as he looked upon the precious ball of sunshine. “You are?”

“Mhm. Because I like you, and I think Mama will, too.” he smiled. “Then, you don’t have to leave after Mama gets better, right?”

“Not so fast.” Kageyama cut in and shook away Daichi’s hand, his expression a far cry from his brother’s. “Don’t you forget that Daichi was the one who hurt Mama.”

“Aw, come on, Kageyama, Mama’s already forgiven him! Why can’t you just forget about it?” Hinata rolled his eyes in exasperation. He had been through this so many times with the boy, but his stubbornness was absolute. Kageyama pressed his lips into a thin, displeased line and looked away sharply.

“You’re gonna make Daichi cry at this rate.”

“I’m not gonna cry.” Daichi assured.

Still the boy was a wordless figure of pent up rage, and he refused to listen to Hinata’s coaxing. A few moments tiptoed by, until an idea popped up in Hinata’s head.

“Hey! How about we go out now? The sky looks great today.”

Glancing at Kageyama, Daichi breathed out and nodded. “Sure. What do you want to do?”

Chapter Text

Kenma and Suga spent a lazy afternoon indoors and an even lazier lunch of fruit salad. The kitten pulled out a few wooden cases from his shelf and introduced the crow to the concept of board games. Finely crafted and polished with gold and silver trim, these game sets had been carefully handled over the years by intellectual masters and amateurs alike. They now graced the fingers of Kenma and his curious companion, where a friendly game of chess was in progress. It wasn’t really a game to Kenma, however, but more of a demonstration. Lightly pinching a pawn, Suga hovered his hand above the black and white board.

“Kenma, there’s nowhere for this piece to go.” he said, his face troubled.

“There is.” Kenma replied, and touched the man’s hand to place it down. “Here.”

“But that’s the end of the board.”

“Uh-huh. Now, your pawn can become a queen.”

“Really?” Suga said, amazed. “How come?” Kenma shrugged and picked out the extra queen piece from the case. “That’s how it is. Here you go.”

“Woah… but that means…” The crow wrinkled his nose at the board and replayed the moves in his head over and over again. “That means ‘checkmate’, right?” Kenma nodded and tipped over his king, and it fell onto the black marble tile with a clink. “I lose.” he said with a tiny smile in his voice. “You learn quickly.”

“That’s because I have a good master.” smiled Suga with a delighted glow on his face. Slightly affected by his praise, Kenma shyly lowered his ears and looked away. “It’s nothing.” he muttered quietly. “It’s not nothing,” Suga patted the cat’s fluffy head gently. “You’re a clever boy. I learned a lot today because of you, so thank you.” Kenma made a soft grunt and curled up his tails. He seemed happy, which made Suga happy as well.

“Do you want to play some more?” the Kara asked, noting through the window that it was late in the afternoon. Kenma shook his head and yawned. “Now’s time for a bath.” He smoothly slid off the bed and left Suga keeping the pieces back in the case. When the man didn’t follow, Kenma turned round and tugged lightly on his sleeve.

 

“Leave it.”

 

“Me too?”

 

The Nekomata nodded.

 


 

“You know, you’re actually quite muscular.” Suga remarked. Kenma gave a small grunt in reply and clenched his eyes shut.

The soap suds flowed down from his foamed up hair and onto his face as Suga scrubbed his locks clean. It was like a soothing head massage, but with the constant threat of having alkali assault one’s eyes. When Suga reached his cat ears and started rubbing them ever so gently, Kenma couldn’t help but relax his shoulders and purr into his touch. Amused at the soft rumbling that the boy emitted, Suga tweaked at the ears some more and the purring intensified like it was on a volume dial. The Kara chuckled at how adorable he was. Hearing that, Kenma snapped back to his senses and stopped.

“That’s cute. Do all Nekomata do that?” Suga asked as he moved his hands lower. Blushing, Kenma didn’t reply. His back was turned, so thankfully Suga couldn’t see his face. The man had gotten used to the cat’s quiet nature by now, so he continued washing him up while wondering how Kuroo’s purring would sound like.

“All done.” Suga said and rinsed off the last of the suds. Turning round, Kenma stared at the Kara for a while, thinking. Suga looked back with a questioning smile. The warm water in the tub bubbled slowly around them.

“I’ll do yours, too.” Kenma said, and pointed at Suga’s wings.

At once, a look of hesitation passed briefly on the crow’s face. To the less observant, one would not have noticed it; but the cat picked it up at once with his keen eyes and quickly said, “Nevermind.” A little surprised by the cat’s reaction, Suga opened his mouth and left it hanging for a second. But the cat caught that string of yarn as well.

“I shouldn’t have offered.” he muttered, and broke their gaze. Feeling lost, Suga shook his head and said, “No, that was nice of you.”

He bit his lip and glanced away nervously. It was still uncomfortable letting others near his wings; even his kids seldom did so.

“I just… don’t like others touching my wings.” he sighed at last. “I hope you’ll understand.”

Kenma quietly stared at Suga again, unblinking, until he gave a short nod. “Mm. What about your hair?”

The boy easily accepted the man’s words, as if in return for the kindness that he had showed him. And in response, the man smiled freely at the boy and gave him a nod of gratitude. Lowering his head, he let those small hands reach up and tousle his grey hair with shampoo; a clean end to a clean encounter.

 


 

Because they were supposedly nocturnal creatures, some Nekomata made turning in early an excuse for having long naps. Kenma was one of them, and Suga didn’t oppose this laid back culture of worshipping sleep at all. He needed the rest to recuperate anyway.

Settling onto the comfy pillow-bed, he laid down next to a slowly curling up Kenma. He looked the most at home on a bed, really, what with his peacefully content slits for eyes and limply flattened kitty ears. Not wanting to disturb his bliss, Suga lightly stroked Kenma’s head once and whispered a goodnight. Then, he himself curled into the sheets and tucked his wings away as usual. All was calm and cozy in the house, which made drifting to sleep a quick and effortless endeavour.

But in the middle of the night, Kenma woke up and felt a little restless. It was unlike him to have woken up from his slumber in this way. Peering over at Suga, who was snoring softly in his sleep, he crept over and sat at his side for a few moments in the darkness. He must have accidentally bumped into the man, as Suga stopped snoring and opened his eyes slowly to gaze at him.

“Kenma…?” he uttered.

The boy’s large yellow eyes that glowed eerily in the dark would have scared anyone, but not Suga.

“Do you need something?” the man asked softly. The child didn’t reply, and the crow saw the round pupils blink and turn away. Moving to sit up, he reached out carefully, unable to see, and touched the boy’s head. Suga rubbed it and asked again, “Kenma?”

This time, he spoke, so softly that Suga strained to hear him.

“Can I… sleep next to you?”

Even though Suga couldn’t see him, he could sense exactly what Kenma’s face was telling him. Maybe it was the power of motherly instinct that had blossomed within him, or maybe it was something much simpler. Wordlessly, Suga stretched out his arms and the small cat snuggled up to his chest.

Gently stroking his back, Suga kissed Kenma on his head, and the two passed back into their dreams with a renewed warmth for the night.



Chapter Text

Maybe it was the mood one got after being made to confess their deepest, darkest secret. The feeling that letting the sappy floodgates open was now absolutely fine, since there wasn’t anything else to lose. Daichi allowed his head to now drown in all kinds of pure and innocent hypothetical moments between him and Suga, a perfectly relatable situation many of us find ourselves in. Him, holding his hand. Him, smoothing back his hair. Him, wrapping his arms around his waist.

But he refused to go any further beyond their first kiss. No, that was uncharted territory that would sully his love’s good name; and so Daichi’s canvas became dotted and fringed with petite petals of pastel.

“Hey, when’s Suga’s birthday?” asked Daichi, as the trio strolled through the dim forest. “Dunno.” shrugged Hinata. “Then, what does he like?” came the next question.

“Like, food?” Hinata probed.

“Anything, really.”

“Well, Mama doesn’t really tell us. But he likes being clean, eating fruits, rubbing our heads, flowers--”

“Flowers?” Daichi perked up. Hinata nodded. “There are lots of pretty flowers around here. I always give Mama a big sunflower because it’s the best.” The boy said so with a straight face. An image of a sunflower, stem and all, nestled within Suga’s hair floated into Daichi’s head. It was more goofy than he had expected.

“No it’s not.” Kageyama argued. “It’s too big.”

“And bright yellow! Just like the sun.” gestured Hinata to the heavens, but only the thick canopy of leaves met their eyes. And just like you, Daichi thought.

“What would you give, Kageyama?” Daichi asked. He got a cold sideward glare, as if he had done something wrong just by talking to him. But the boy answered eventually. “A daisy.” Kageyama muttered quietly.

“That’s so small and uncool.” puffed Hinata. “Flowers aren’t meant to be cool. A daisy suits Mama better than a big dumb sunflower.” retorted the other crow.

“Hey! Sunflowers aren’t dumb!”

“Oi, no need to argue.” Daichu cut in and nudged Hinata’s snarl away from Kageyama. “It was just a simple question.”

“Kageyama’s the one who started it.” grumbled Hinata as he folded his arms and looked away. “No, you did.” Kageyama frowned. “ You’re the one who was being grumpy!” the small crow growled back, and Daichi’s vein popped.

“Enough.” the man suddenly said loudly and stopped his stride. The two boys flinched and warily turned their gaze toward him. A hard frown met their eyes; one that they had never seen before and was steadily bordering anger. “No more arguing from here on out, you hear?” Gulping, the boys nodded timidly and continued walking. Inside, Daichi felt as if these arguments were the only kind of interaction he could observe between the two, and he didn’t want that. He even thought that all this bickering was because of his presence. Relaxing his brows, he exhaled softly and followed behind them.

“S-so Daichi, you wanna give Mama a flower?” Hinata asked.

“Yeah, I guess.” he smiled. “It seems like this forest has a lot of different species.”

“Hey, Kageyama, wasn’t there that ?” the orange crow said, remembering something. “You mean that ?” the boy replied, with less force in his voice from before. “Yeah, that .” Hinata nodded. “You sure about that? Mama never let us.” Kageyama squinted.

“What’s that ?” Daichi asked, feeling left out.

“There’s a spooky place where really pretty roses grow.” Hinata explained.

“Yeah. Roses of all colors. Even blue.” Kageyama added, “But it’s super creepy and dangerous.”

Interest crept onto Daichi’s face as he listened. “What could be creepier than this dark forest?” Hinata gulped, as if aware for the first time that they were indeed living in a dark forest. “It was a really cold and foggy place. We only caught a glimpse of the roses while flying overhead, and Mama wouldn’t let us land because it didn’t feel right.”

“What, did you see a ghos--”

“-- No we didn’t!”

Daichi grinned at the Kara’s frightened mug. “You scared of ghosts, Hinata?”

“O-of course not. I’m a big boy.”

Kageyama would have liked to join in the teasing, but he quietly swallowed his saliva as well. “We didn’t see one, but we heard some weird growling from the trees.”

“So it’s really not a place we’d like to be, huh.” Daichi said, even more intrigued. “Mama would kill us if we went! Let’s not go, okay?” Hinata cried. Daichi seriously doubted he could, though, and he was really smitten with the idea of giving him flowers. Besides, what could there possibly be that he couldn’t deal with?

“Big boy? More like big baby.” scoffed Kageyama.

“Come on, it’ll be fine. If anything happens I’ll be there.” he assured, rubbing the boy’s head.

“...I’m telling Mama after this.”

“Hey, if you do that we can’t explore like this anymore.”

“Yeah, you scaredy-crow.”

The small child looked like he was going to burst into a puddle of tears at any moment.

 


 

Hinata’s face puffed up like a giant bun as he grabbed tightly onto Daichi’s sleeve. Making their way up the hill, they could see that the foliage here was very much different from those back home. Weird creepers and coiling tendrils snaked their way around the grass and trees, dyeing the scenery an unsettling mix of purple and turquoise. As they trekked on and crunched through the dry dirt, the trio didn’t notice the fog that was slowly pooling around their feet. It was only until Kageyama stopped and looked up to the sky did they realize how dim it had gotten. And it was noon already!

“Um… should I fly up and check where we are?” he said, feeling a chill graze his spine. “Good thinking. We don’t want to get lost here.” Daichi said, feeling his belt for his blade. It was right where it belonged. “Go with Hinata, just in case. I’ll be right here.” The both of them nodded, and Hinata quickly darted over to hold Kageyama’s hand. Kageyama made a slightly annoyed face as he felt the pressure around his hand. His brother’s wide, quivering eyes were so telling.

“Tch. Let’s go.”

Taking off, they vanished into the fog above. It must have been very thick, as Daichi didn’t hear a thing afterwards. Pacing around on edge, he waited for them to return. Rethinking his choices, he groaned and wiped his face. Maybe it was a bad idea after all. If Suga knew he put the kids in danger like this, he’d never hear from him again, and that was the last thing he wanted.

A few minutes passed. The boys hadn’t returned from their recon mission. It was supposed to be a simple task, and yet no inkling of their presence had been felt for so long.

“Kageyama! Hinata?” Daichi called out, but the fog absorbed his voice and threw it to the wind. He got more anxious by the second, but he knew that the rational thing to do was stay put and wait for their return. He couldn’t even begin to track them anyway, since they had flown off in completely obscured skies. He called out again hopelessly and grit his teeth. His legs were itching to move, and so he heeded their call and set out to find them.

Trudging upwards, Daichi hoped to find a high point above the fog from which to gather his bearings. As he ran past the endless array of confusingly familiar scenery, Daichi stuck to his instincts and listened out for anything, or anyone. He finally reached what seemed to be the peak of the hill, where the open air was warmer and most of the fog had dissipated. Looking up to the sky, he searched for any trace of the boys, but found no one. Sweating, he moved closer to the edge and darted his eyes down, but only saw the heavy fog swirling serenely through the trees below. Things were looking really, really bad.

Then, he felt a cold gust rush past his neck. Cupping the place where it stung, he turned around and held his breath.

An eerie, faint voice that seemed like a gruff child’s whistled through the woods and fell on Daichi’s ears.  

Who goes there?

The man froze to the ground and hovered his hand over his belt. He didn’t want to answer at all. Suddenly, a low growl came from the treetops, just like how Kageyama described. And then Daichi swore he saw a pair of glowing red eyes from the shadows.

He took a step back, but he had forgotten that behind him was nothing but air.

As the sickening vertigo took over, Daichi flailed his hands out toward the cliff and thought that he was a goner. But his fall was cut short by the feeling of tiny limbs around his arms, and then the painful tugging of fabric on his body that confirmed it; he was saved!

“Gaaaah!! A ghost!”

“Oi, Hinata, hold on--!!”

Hasty and weak as it was, a save was still a save; and the three crash landed onto the bed of bushes below, their fall broken by the twigs and leaves. The worst of it was borne by Daichi, however, being the one at the bottom with two not-so-small children slamming into him like cannonballs. Groaning in pain, they clambered out of the shrubbery and rubbed their various aching body parts. Out of breath, Daichi pointed a shaky finger at the cliff.

“Did you… did you guys see that?” he panted.

“It’s real… it’s real... !” Hinata squealed and immediately clung onto Daichi. Kageyama stood at attention and glared upward, but he couldn’t see anything. “Nope, nothing.” he said. “Don’t lie, you totally saw it! How could you miss it?” Hinata cried indignantly.

“I really didn’t! What the heck was it?”

“No one would have missed that !”

“I say I didn’t, and that’s that. I was actually trying to save Daichi and not getting all scared, you know?” Kageyama blurted out, and then instantly realized what he just said. The change in his expression was absolutely adorable - that is to say, he blushed deeply and flew into a stuttering frenzy.

“I-I-I was t-totally gonna let you drop too, okay?!” the boy snorted and looked away, his shoulders all stiff and prickly. Daichi took one look at Kageyama and held back a snort, and the boy glared awkwardly at the man.

“W-what’s so funny? I saved your life, y-you know?”

“I know.” Daichi grinned and took the boy’s hand, giving it a firm handshake. “Thank you!”

 

Chapter Text

In the dead of the night, when all is at rest, memories of the past float to the surface like floes of ice. The first of which we shall delve into briefly is that between a mother and child.

It is a pleasant memory in an otherwise cheerless place. Underground, the first beams of sunlight to touch the earth stream through a tiny, barred window. Beneath, a young boy eagerly awaits his visitors and the warmth of the sun. The stale air is cold, and he is bundled in layers upon layers of blankets, some new and some tattered from his childhood. Some time passes before the window begins to glow brightly, and a shadow passes by and stops. As the figure stoops down, the boy smiles as he recognizes his mother’s face.    

“Good morning, Mama. I was waiting for you,” he greets, leaving his blankets on the floor and walking up to the wall. He presses his hands onto the icy, damp stone and listens for her voice.

“Morning, darling.” she replies with a tired smile. “I’m sorry I took so long. Here’s your breakfast.” She lowers down a box wrapped in a thin cloth by means of a string tied around it. It is warm as the boy receives it with both hands.

“Thank you, Mama. Where did you go today?” he asks, putting aside the box.

“I was out in the field looking for this.” she says, producing a small but beautiful bud from her shawl. It is still wet with morning dew.   

“It’s pretty. What is it called?” he asks again, as he carefully takes the flower and feels its lightness in his palms.

“A red rose. Be careful, dear, the stem has thorns that can prick you.” his mother warns without temper, and takes a moment to observe her little boy.    

“The petals feel nice. And it smells lovely, too. Ah.” A tiny spot of red blooms from his finger.

“Oh, dear. What did I tell you? Are you hurt?” she says, worried, unable to see much in the darkness of the cellar. She moves to the side to try and let more light into the room.

“No, Mama.” the boy shakes his head and quietly licks his finger. It tastes sweet.

“You silly boy… smiling like that. Put it away and have your food before it gets cold.”

She tries her best to be a mother to him.

“Okay, Mama. Now I know what thorns are.”

He tries his best to be a good son for her.

 

Just like any other day.

 

And now we travel to another child’s memory, one that is more recent, but very much different in circumstance. Within the bedroom of a wealthy young master, there lies a child and his close friend in a one-sided argument.      

“I already said I wouldn’t be going.” the child says dismissively.

“They sent me specifically to get you off your ass, you know.” his friend replies, clearly annoyed at being stuck in this messy affair.

“So?”

“So unless you want my head to roll, get off your ass.”

“Whatever.” the boy shrugs and rolls onto his bed, toying with a strange wooden puzzle that is currently all the rage within the kingdom. The young man sighs and ruffles his thick hair in irritation.

“... you cold blooded feline. You really don’t care, do you?”

“No.” the boy replies easily, almost bored.

“Haa… it’s not really my place to say this, but this has gone on for a really long time now. The three of you need to have a proper talk.” his friend sighs again.

“I hate talking. And they’ve got no words for me, either.” the boy responds before his friend finishes his sentence.

“You’re right, sadly.” A forced laugh comes from the older one. Scribbling something on a piece of paper, the child rolls off the bed and passes it to his friend.

“Here. Take this to them. This’ll keep your head, at least.”

The young man raises a brow at the words and tucks it into his pocket.

“Why, thank you. You’re too kind.”

 

One more afternoon in this oppressive household.

 

On a less depressing note, the next memory is a lighthearted one that takes place in a bustling town full of people and life. There, two distinguished hunters and one sprightly youngling gather around the family table with a feast of meats, potatoes, and fruit. The warm mood of celebration and goodbyes fills the quaint living room that is lovingly adorned with hunting trophies of all sizes; each bearing the hunter’s name on its bottom.  

“I never thought I’d see this day.” the father’s voice crackles as he raises his mug.

“Come on, Pa, don’t get all sentimental now. What happened to all the scolding? And beating?” the son laughs and chides his old man, bumping him on the arm.

“Son, there’s a time for clobbering, and then there’s a time for sobbing. Even your Pa gets tears in his eyes, you know.” The man sniffs and takes a big swig from his mug. “I’m not such a heartless fiend.”

“Somehow, I can’t believe that.” the young man grins. “Oh no, Ma, not you too. I can’t leave like this now, can I?” His mother begins to wipe her tearful eyes daintily with her handkerchief. Even though she looks like a graceful lady, her son knows better than that.

“Dearie… you’d better come visit us once a year, you hear? Otherwise we’ll get Ukai to send his largest, most rabid greybeak after you.”

“Ma… I’ll just shoot it down.”

“That’s my boy.”

 

Finally, we catch a small glimpse into the lives of two youths before the tragedy of the village. It is after a long day at school, when the pursuit of education is momentarily put off their young minds, and friends come together and play. Two dusty and spirited friends are walking home on the beaten path, surrounded by a carefully manicured garden that stretches out onto the main road.   

“Hey, Kageyama! Come over to my house later, okay? Mama’s making pork buns.” the smaller boy cheerfully calls out to his friend and skips ahead of him.

“Again?”

“Yeah, I love pork buns!” he states the obvious, judging from the other boy’s unamused reaction.

“You need milk, not buns. The girls in class are all taller than you, you know.”

“It doesn’t matter. Mama says I’ll grow taller eventually. I just gotta wait.” The short one says, wholeheartedly believing in his mother’s words. His friend, however, begs to differ.

“My mum says you have to drink milk to grow tall. She even gave me your share of milk today.”

“Where is it?” the child demands, stretching out his hand.

His friend doesn’t answer, because he can’t.

“... you drank it, didn’t you.”

“You didn’t want it anyway.” he scoffs and walks on ahead briskly. He doesn’t look very apologetic at all.

“Says who?”

“Says me.”

“Meanie.”

 

As dawn breaks, all these memories will melt away and return to the deep ocean whence they came. They are dear reminders of what these people have since left behind, and are precious moments that may one day cease to remain hidden from those they hold dear.   

Chapter Text

Suga now knew the feeling of having a pet cat fall asleep on you. He had woken up bright and early, all ready to start the day; but he could not move an inch in fear of waking the soundly sleeping Kenma. The young kitten looked so blissful and defenseless as he curled up against the man’s body. Occasionally, soft grumbles would come from him in his sleep. Sighing, Suga stayed motionless for almost an hour until Kenma finally began to rouse.

The boy made a long, noiseless yawn, his ears and tails stretching themselves awake. Opening his eyes, he found his face snug against Suga’s chest. With his nose filled with the calming scent of the Kara, he remembered what happened the night before.

“Good morning.” Suga smiled. “It’s still early. Do you want to sleep some more?”

Kenma shook his head, fully rested and ready for the day. Feeling peckish, he batted an ear and sat up. “I’m hungry.”

“What do you want to eat?”

“Eggs.” the Nekomata said, followed by a small ‘ah’ of realization. “You don’t eat eggs, do you?”

“I do.” Suga replied, and a similar ‘ah’ followed his words. He thought Kenma was quite the sensitive child. “We may be half-bird, but it doesn’t mean we don’t eat eggs or chickens.”

Kenma nodded and tugged Suga’s sleeve over to the food store. Inside was the largest stockpile of food he had ever seen, grossly disproportionate to the number of mouths it had to feed. What was this, rations for an army? Picking out a basket of eggs and a heavy packet of meat, Kenma decided that that was enough.

Leaving the treehouse, they made their way back up to Suga’s nest to have breakfast with everyone. Suga flew up the mountain with Kenma on his back; not at the boy’s request. When they reached the cave entrance, they were surprised to see that no one was awake yet. The three of them were snoring in their respective beds, but with each person invading a little more so into another’s space than before. Kenma waited at the side and watched as Suga approached them.

Crouching over his boys, he lightly patted them and said, “Time to wake up.” Dead tired, it took them few shakes before they opened their bleary eyes and greeted their Mama with a great big yawn.

“Gooaaah-- good morning, Mama.” Hinata said, sleepy tears forming at his eyes.

“Mmmh… morning.” Kageyama slurred through his words.

Happy to see them again, Suga gave them a quick hug. “Good morning. Kenma’s here with breakfast for all of us.”

“Ah, the mama-stealer.” Hinata mumbled and peeped at Kenma. Kenma stuck out his tongue and his friend returned the gesture. “What’s for breakfast?”

“Eggs and bacon.” the cat replied, raising the basket of goodies. As if struck by lightning, Hinata and Kageyama bolted from their beds in a flash and clamored for Kenma to get the fire going at once. The promise of good food was something everyone could identify with, no matter how tired they were.

And then, Daichi was unwillingly stirred by a curious prodding on his cheek. He grunted and awoke to see Suga and his cautiously withdrawing finger beside him. “Good morning.” he smiled, “How are you feeling?”

“Hey, Suga. I’m great.” Daichi greeted cheerfully. “What’s with the poking?”

“Did something happen? You have a bump on your face.”

“Ah… it’s nothing.” he replied and rubbed his face. But he was wearing just his singlet and shorts, and all the bruises from yesterday’s fall could be seen at once. Slightly alarmed, Suga threw off Daichi’s blanket unceremoniously.

“This isn’t nothing. What happened?” he asked, concerned. “Did you get into trouble?”

“Hey, calm down. I just had a fall.”

Not convinced, Suga frowned at the man and called over to his child. “Kageyama.” Kageyama flinched. Daichi gulped. “What happened yesterday?”

The boy poked at the sizzling bacon and mumbled, “N-nothing much.”

“Nothing much? What did you all do?” Suga asked.

“We had lunch. Then dinner. Then a bath.” Kageyama sweated and peered at Daichi, who pinched his brows.

“Kageyama…” Suga said quietly under his breath. Alarm bells went flying off in Kageyama’s head. Flight was looking much better than fight right now. Thankfully for him, Daichi stepped in and placed a hand on Suga’s shoulder.

“I confess. We did get into trouble.”

“What?!” Suga exclaimed and almost jumped out of his seat, but Daichi pressed him back down in a hurry.

“--but no one got hurt, see?”

“What do you mean, no one got hurt? What’s this, then? And this?” said Suga as he grabbed Daichi’s bruised forearm and scratched leg, which made him wince. “This is nothing, really. Just a scratch!” Daichi insisted. “And what about the boys? Hinata, Kageyama. Come here.” The boys obeyed without a word of question, seeing the rarely furious state Mama was in. Performing the security check again, Suga confirmed his fears and found a few minute scuffs on his boys. Turning round to face Daichi, his lip trembled.

“You said you’d take care of them.”

“I did.” Daichi replied calmly.

“Then why are they injured?” Suga gripped his shirt tightly.

“Suga, hear me out for a second, okay?”

“...I’m listening.”

“They’re all right. It’s normal for children to get a few knocks here and there when they play outdoors. They trip, they fall over, they bump their knee. But it’s all right. They’ll heal in no time on their own.”

The Kara stared quietly with a stiff expression. Daichi continued, equally serious.

“I’m sorry. I took them out to a place you’d never approve. They told me so themselves.”

“Where was that?” Suga asked slowly, his voice constricted.

“The foggy mountain.” Daichi replied.

“There?”

The man nodded. Taking a deep breath, Suga ran his hand through his hair and sighed in exasperation.

“Why? I trusted you to take care of them.” His heart wilted a little at the end of his words.

“I won’t argue that I didn’t do a good job. To be honest, they saved me when I was about to fall to my death. But we all made it out without anything else happening. It wasn’t that dangerous.”

“Daichi.” Suga suddenly interrupted.

“Yes?” Daichi replied.

“Why did you bring them there?” he asked again softly. That wasn’t the answer he was looking for. Sighing, Daichi clasped his hands together and looked Suga straight in the eye.

“I wanted them to learn. They won’t learn anything by staying safe all the time,”

Speechless, Suga stared back. It was the same notion he had reached when his young crows decided to set out on their own that day. Daichi’s words were the final proof that this was true; observing Kenma and Kuroo served as the second piece of the puzzle. But he didn’t know whether to feel hurt because Daichi disregarded his trust and parenting, or relieved because he knew now it was right to let them have an adventure. It was too confusing and too painful to think about for Suga.

Closing his eyes, the weary Kara moved to stand.

“Suga.” Daichi quickly said and stood as well. “Are you mad at me?”

He couldn’t do his usual routine of shaking his head and saying it was fine. “I… I don’t want to talk right now.” he said, refusing to make eye contact.

“Suga…” Daichi pleaded.

“Please.” Suga uttered and left. Taking a place by the fire, he gazed solemnly at the frying eggs, which had lost all its flavour in his eyes. Kenma didn’t want to interfere in their quarrel, but seeing Suga’s unhappy face made him want to say something.

“I know where that is. It’s safest place around here.” he mumbled.

Suga looked up at the cat, his brows barely emoting.

“I think we should go there.”

Chapter Text

Kumoiyama (雲居山: lit. Cloud Mountain) may not be the tallest mountain in the region, but it is a mountain that is held with the highest of all regard. Constantly shrouded in mist, its tranquil appearance and name appears tame and apt. What most people don’t know is that it also holds a divine meaning. Atop Kumoiyama's cold and foggy peak lies a lone temple, where legend says that praying at its altar will bestow upon the devotee the blessing of the mountain. But getting to it is, might I say, an uphill task. The unforgiving terrain and the thick fog that settles throughout the mountain obscures the senses and fells the diligent; but no evil lurks in this sacred place that is protected by the Guardian Deity. Righteous and powerful, the Guardian seeks and saves the innocent while punishing the guilty. Step not on his toes, and only good will come from an encounter with this god.

 

That is why our heroes are now hastily on their way back to Kumoiyama. To tresspass upon sacred land and leave with such haste was 'mildly blasphemous', as Kenma put it. If they didn't want to get smited, they had better return and pay their respects to the Guardian.

"How do you know all this?" Daichi asked Kenma, who merely shrugged. "I thought it was common knowledge. Maybe not, then."

"There's no way that's common knowledge. I mean, we all think deities only exist in storybooks."

"Actually, it makes sense. If everyone knew they were real, the deities would have endless visitors trying to get their protection." Kenma said.

"And now, we're offering bacon and eggs to appease his wrath." Daichi said in disbelief as he sniffed the rich salty aroma that wafted tantalizingly from the basket.

"Well, we don't have the food he likes."

"You even know that?" Hinata asked, amazed. "What does he like to eat?"

"Ice cream."

While Daichi, Hinata, and Kenma were chatting up ahead, Kageyama accompanied his sulking Mama behind. It didn’t look like sulking, but the man hadn't said a word for a long while now.

"Mama." Kageyama tugged gently at Suga’s hand which was in his. "Are you angry at me?" Suga shook his head. "At Hinata?" He shook his head again. "Then, at Daichi?" He didn't respond to that. The two walked side by side in silence again, listening to the ambient sounds of the forest and the muffled chatter up ahead. Then, Kageyama spoke up again.

"You know, he's a dummy. He knew you'd hate him for it, but he took us here anyway." Kageyama kept his voice down, lest the topic of his scorn would overhear. Suga sighed a little and looked ahead, his eyes resting on Daichi's broad back. "Kageyama..." he finally said after a pause, "I don't want to hate him. I don't think Daichi is a bad man."

"So you don't hate him?" Kageyama asked with a puzzled look.

"... I don't know." Suga replied quietly.

"Even after all he's done?" he said.

Turning to the boy, Suga asked, "What about you? Do you think he's a bad man?" Kageyama pursed his lips and didn't reply for a while. "Not... really." He then mumbled. Suga rubbed the boy’s head and smiled. “You know, my Mama told me that sometimes, people do things that you don't like. But it doesn't mean that they're a bad person."

Kageyama nodded. His Mama told him that once, too.

"Then does that mean you like Daichi?"

Before his lips could form the words, Suga's thoughts were cut short by the nearby sound of a waterfall and a wholly surreal sight that lay before them.

 

What stunned them wasn't the beauty of the clear and rushing waterfall, nor the greenery that embellished it and painted the scene into an idyllic picture. It was the two figures that sat with stoic grace under the pounding water, their closed-eyed expressions seeming as if they were merely having a relaxing dip in the stream. They were both men who were dressed in only their undergarments, sitting cross-legged on large boulders with their arms at rest on their knees. One had a shaved head and looked rather buff, while the other had long brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail.

 

Mister crew cut first noticed the group and peeked out of one eye at them. Shocked, Hinata yelped and hid behind Daichi.

"The statue moved!"

"They're not statues, Hinata." Daichi whispered to the boy, then shouted over to the man. "Um, excuse me--"

"Who goes there?" The stranger spoke in a strong voice, calling out over the rush of the falls. His companion remained unmoved.

The same phrase, but not quite the same voice.

"We're travelers heading to Kumoiyama Temple--"  

"Huhhh?"

The stranger suddenly shouted, stood up, and leapt into the pool with a splash. Within a few seconds he resurfaced onto the bank and confronted the party of five, the water pouring off of his barely clothed body. His face was one of immediate displeasure carried and a somewhat menacing sneer, one that was more comical than intimidating. Slightly disturbed by the muscles and the nakedness, Daichi raised his hand in a friendly gesture and smiled.

"Hello, I'm Daichi. Sawamura Daichi."

"Hm. The name's Tanaka." The man replied and folded his arms, making sure to flex his biceps. "You said you were going to the temple?"

"Yeah. All five of us here." Daichi nodded and stepped to the side for Tanaka to see. He peered at all of them, and especially at Kenma, who gave him his usual poker face. "What are you here for? Kids don't usually come to visit." Tanaka questioned, his voice gruff and unwelcome.

"We're here to give an offering to the Guardian. We kind of... passed by yesterday without doing so."

A lightbulb plinked on in the baldy's head.

"Ahh, so you're the guys that met the Master yesterday, huh?" He nodded as he spoke.

Master? Daichi thought. The deity must have been the glowing red eyes from before, then.

"That's right, so today--"

"It's a good thing you came here on your own. Saves us a lot of time hunting you down, ya know? You guys think you can just come and go as you please, huh?" Tanaka growled and stepped closer, his frown deepening.

"We didn't know--"

"Didn't know? Then you don't know what you're in for, eh, showing such disrespect." He grabbed Daichi's collar and glared right into his eyes. "There's no excuse for angering the gods--"

"Tanaka! Stop it."

Tanaka was promptly pulled away by his friend, who gave a small sigh under his breath. Bowing at the group, the polite, long-haired man apologized.

"I'm sorry for his behaviour." He said with a sheepish smile as he restrained a twitchy-eyed Tanaka. He had the decency to put on his robe before meeting outsiders, and he now muffled Tanaka's scary face by throwing the man’s robes over him.

"No, it's all right. We did something wrong, after all." Daichi bowed back.

"Not to worry. I'm sure the Master doesn't mind." He smiled meekly. For a man with such stature, he sure had a gentle, timid voice. "My name is Asahi, and we are monks from Kumoiyama temple. Please follow us, and we will bring you to meet the Guardian."

 


 

The sun shone fairly well today and the mountain wasn't snowy, but the temperature steadily fell into overcoat territory as they traveled higher. While the kids had already begun to shiver and hide under Suga's warm wings, the still damp monks appeared infallible. Being yamabushi monks, as they explained along the way, meant that they were always training. Oftentimes in harsher conditions than these. That waterfall encounter was testament enough to their resistance.

As the party approached the temple, the first sight that greeted them was the very obvious gatekeeper; a huge scaly dragon roughly carved out of stone. Its powerfully sculpted jaws rose out of the earth and gaped in the face of anyone who passed by, but its ferocity had mellowed under the overgrowth and the single pink butterfly that perched on its brow. The temple itself, however, was not grand or remarkable. Built just like any other small temple but smaller, one could go so far as to call it an oversized shrine. Beyond the gate and courtyard of rugged stone, the building’s weathered tiles and mossy walls told of its age and longevity. It didn’t get many visitors other than monks, and even then the numbers were few and far between.

Despite its shortcomings, Kumoiyama Temple had one defining feature to its name - the towering statue of a Karasu Tengu within its hall. More crow than man, it was a striking figure that gave its home an oppressive aura of dominance. As the party knelt before the altar and presented their basket of offerings to the deity's stony stand-in, they wondered how precisely the sculptor had managed to capture his likeness. If that deathly gaze through hollowed pupils was anything to go by, they were divinely screwed.

"He should be back soon," Asahi said, "Please wait here while I bring you some robes."

But no sooner did he say those words than a sizzling bolt of lightning that suddenly exploded into the ground outside and made the earth shudder. Everyone except the monks jumped in their seats and turned around at once.

 

The Guardian had arrived.

 

"Welcome back, Master Nishinoya. We have some visitors." greeted Asahi.

"That was a brilliant entrance, Master Noya!" grinned Tanaka.

And the gruff voice with the spirit of a child rang out loud and clear in this tiny haven.

"Ahh, I know, right? I call it..."

 

"Rolling Thunder!!"

Chapter Text

No one could have guessed.

Cast in stone was a terrifying humanoid crow complete with beak and feathers, standing over two metres in height. What appeared proudly before them was an adorably short teen in flamboyant traditional garb who grinned till his teeth shone. His spiky hair, jet black wings, and fluffy tail were all identical in form to the statue, but the similarities ended there.

“S-so small?!” Hinata blurted out unwittingly, and Kageyama bonked him on the head. Tanaka’s eye twitched and he glared at the boy. “Oi, you’re smaller than me, shrimpy!” the Tengu shouted angrily and puffed up his round cheeks. “Asahi! Why did you bring people who’d call me small home!”

“They’re here to make an offering for crossing you yesterday, Master Nishinoya.” Asahi replied calmly in the face of more blasphemy.

“So it’s those guys, huh?” Nishinoya humphed and trotted up to the hunter. “I recognise you. What is your name?” Daichi wasn’t sure how to conduct himself in front of a god. Internally debating whether to stand or kneel, he went for the middle ground and knelt on one knee as he bowed in greeting. “My name is Daichi.” he replied. Suga and the kids bowed as well, except for Kenma, who stared intently at the deity.

“So, mortal Daichi.” Nishinoya spoke solemnly. “I have only one question for you. Why did you run from me that day?”

He wouldn’t call falling off a cliff running away, but arguing was not an option right now. “I heard a growl and thought a wild beast had appeared, so I backed away.” Daichi replied honestly.  

“W-Wild beast?!” The deity exclaimed, taking some offense at the word. But then he rubbed his flaming head of hair and nodded with a smug smile, easily turning his thoughts around. “Well, I am quite wild, aren’t I?”

“Of course, Master Noya!” Tanaka agreed readily from the side.

“Even my stomach is as wild as I am.”

Both monk and hunter blinked as they processed the ridiculous revelation and gawked in unison. “Your… stomach?”

“I was starving and I wanted to ask this good man here if he had any food, but then he just up and vanished. How rude!” Nishinoya explained as he rubbed his belly, which gurgled to add on to insult. “Speaking of which, I’m getting hungry.”

Daichi couldn’t believe he had been scared of a growling stomach, and he palmed his face in anguish as Hinata and Kageyama giggled at the side. On the contrary, Tanaka couldn’t be more reverent. “As expected of Master Noya… even the grumbling of his tummy strikes fear into the hearts of men!” he trembled with pride as he clenched his fist to the skies.

Clearing the chuckle from his throat, Asahi sought some order and nodded at Nishinoya to proceed. “Master Nishinoya, your offering.”

Bouncing over on his bare feet and tiny toes, Noya picked up the basket with both hands and sniffed at it. “What is it?” he asked, looking up to the much taller monk. Even though they were around the same age in human years, Nishinoya could easily be mistaken for Asahi’s younger brother. “I didn’t peek. It’s for you.” Asahi replied.

Lifting the cover, Nishinoya’s eyes glowed as his large pupils took in the beautiful sight of perfectly fried bacon and eggs. Even though they had long gone cold from the ascent and had lost their telling fragrance, his face was obviously terribly pleased with the offering. They were a rare sight and an even rarer flavor that he had only ever tasted once before. Clapping the lid back on, he thrust the basket into Asahi’s hands and whispered for him to heat it up later before declaring loudly; “You have been pardoned!!”

“W-wait, Master Noya! You can’t just pardon them like that!” protested Tanaka in a hurry, gesturing wildly.  

“Why not? I’m pleased with the offering.” Noya asked, wiping the drool off his chin.

“If you’re that easily bribed with food, then no one will fear you anymore!”

“H-huh?!”

The deity gasped gravely and looked as if the thought had never crossed his mind. Was it a sin to love food this much? Tugging on Asahi’s sleeve, he hurriedly asked, “Is that true? Does that mean I have to smite them?”

Suga instinctively grabbed his children and Daichi flinched.

Seeing their flustered reactions, Asahi nervously waved his hands and gave a shaky laugh. “No, no, you only smite the evildoers, not the common folk. If you say you’ll pardon them, it’s fine.”

“But you still have to punish them somehow,” Tanaka huffed. “You have to set an example for the others.”

No longer able to stay quiet, Suga suddenly spoke up nervously with his hands clasped tightly together. “Uh, um… Master… Nishinoya?”

Noticing the man properly for the first time, the Tengu nodded at him and grinned. “Noya is fine.” He was always telling Asahi and Tanaka the same, but they never did drop the formalities with him, saying that it was only natural. “What is it?”

“I...I’m sorry for what my children have done,” Suga stammered, shaking as he apologized, “I didn’t look after them well, so, it’s my fault this happened. I’ll take whatever punishment they must bear.” Wide-eyed, Daichi cut in at once, his chest aching at the man’s words and the thought of his own incompetence again.

“Suga, no. You didn’t do anything wrong at all.” Quickly turning toward Nishinoya, he pounded his chest and appealed sincerely to the deity. “This is all my fault, and I should be the only one being punished. The children were just following me and they didn’t do anything wrong. Please reconsider, Master Nishinoya.”     

Surprised at the turn of events, Nishinoya now took an interest in the innocent two of the group, wondering what their relations were to the rest of them. He peered especially at Kenma, who had said nothing all this while and looked the most out of place. Those large, unblinking eyes, however, he recognized as belonging to the Nekomata. Clicking his tongue, Noya began pacing around Asahi a few times and shaking his head as he went like some old man, until he made his final decision and turned his back to them.

“A mistake is a mistake. They must answer for their actions, even if they are children.” he concluded wisely, much to the monks’ delight, but not the others. Suga’s heart sank when he heard the verdict.   

“Therefore!” Noya shouted abruptly and flapped out his bushy wings assertively. Pointing at the boys, he began his divine punishment. “You two, shrimps!”

“Yes!” The two boys bristled and stood at attention at once.

“You’re not going to let him get punished in your stead, are you?” he questioned sternly..

“Of course not!” They responded with a determined shout and redness on their cheeks, which set a satisfied smile on the small god’s face.

“Good! The both of you will follow Tanaka to go smack down some trees.”

“Yes, sir!” Hinata saluted and nodded furiously, already chastened by his earlier gaffe.. “Uh, y-yes.” Kageyama stuttered and blinked at Tanaka, whose completely un-sage-like face was showing.

“You, Daichi. You’re going to follow me.” Noya commanded with a glint in his eye, to which Daichi responded with a strained grin. Although grateful for the deity’s benevolence, the feeling he got now was something worse than the thought of being smited.

“And as for you two…” he dropped his finger as he looked over at Suga and Kenma, his bubbly demeanour snapping back in an instant. “You can do whatever you like. Welcome to Kumoiyama!”

As he was carted away by a cackling Nishinoya, Daichi glanced back with a worried gaze at Suga, who appeared clearly troubled by the strange turn of events. With his knitted brows and tense fingers, Suga watched as his kids bravely reported to the fierce, bald monk, and then at Daichi who was powerless to resist the tiny Tengu’s talons. The situation was completely out of his hands, ones that were throbbing with pain from how tightly they had been pressed together. Then, a small hand gently rested on Suga’s wrist, and the man looked down at the child that remained beside him.

“It’s alright,” said Kenma softly, whose perpetual composure rubbed off on Suga and helped him breathe and relax his grip. Asahi cautiously approached the two, his mild face filled with understanding of what the poor man was going through. It’s not every day your children get punished by a god. Placing a warm hand on Suga’s back, he smiled and spoke gently.

“Please do not worry about your companions. Master Nishinoya is kind to those he likes.”

“Asahi… Can I… follow them?” Suga asked as his eyes trailed after the kids and Tanaka, their figures starting off into the forest.   

“Of course.”

Soon they would get to know the deity for who he was, and not the fable that everyone thought they knew.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, a very particular guest felt at peace on this very particular branch. It had chosen this perfect spot after circling the woods in utter dismay at the miserable selection of choice perches, but it was now glad it had taken its expendable time to do so. Ah, how easily its claws could encircle the cushy tree branch without needing too strong nor too lax a grip. Oh, what lovely shade lay above its head, such that it could sit hidden among the leaves in its private siesta. As its eyes began to close and its feathers began to settle, the bliss of long-forgone sleep started to trickle in like raindrops down one's window.

All of a sudden, Hinata's head popped through the branches with an unwelcome rustle. Snapping its eyes open in shock, the guest glared at the intruder and its hooked beak slowly opened with the coming of imminent rage.

"There's a bird that's tryin' ta sleep up here!"

"Then don't yell, you idiot!"

Shortly after, a shrill screech and the sound of flapping wings erupted from the leaves. As the falcon fled in a huff and Hinata laughed gaily, Tanaka reached out and plucked him off the tree by his collar. Suga, who had been observing at the side with Kenma and Asahi, tried to step forward. But he was halted by the monk's hand. Shaking his head, Asahi put a finger to his lips.

"Oi, kid! You're lucky your face didn't get mauled to shreds. Don't do that again!" Tanaka scolded, holding the child up like a cat by its neck.

"Okay, then how do I chase them away?"

"Just tell 'em nicely to go away. You're not at my level yet to be shouting at things."

Seriously doubting the wisdom of the bald monk, Suga stepped forward once again; but was stopped by Asahi for the second time. He turned his head round, and the poor monk flinched and instinctively dodged behind Kenma. Seeing Suga's perpetually pretty face crease into a frown was terrifying, but the absurdity of this manly man's reaction was arguably worse.

"Su-Suga, y-y-you musn't interfere in the p-punishment," he whimpered, crouching behind the short cat.

"But Hinata could've gotten injured right there. Am I supposed to just stand here and watch him get hurt?" Suga demanded, his frown deepening.

"Yes. I mean, no, no!" Asahi stumbled badly and hurriedly shook his head. "Tanaka will make sure nothing happens to them, so you don't have to worry."

"But he was just put in danger!" Suga exclaimed and threw his arm out, gesturing at Tanaka who was in the midst of barking orders at the boys. "That... that may be true." Asahi admitted. "But that, too, is part of the punishment. Master Noya has given them a sentence that is necessary."

"Necessary?" Suga questioned, getting more exasperated with each statement. "Are you... do you mean getting hurt is necessary?"

This time, Asahi's nervousness calmed down, and he paused before nodding with solemn certainty. "Yes."

Stunned, Suga panted, his eyes weary. He thought that he could count on the compassion of the monk. "How could you say such a thing?" he uttered, staring at Asahi’s calm face. "Nobody should wish for another person to get hurt."

Stepping away from Kenma, Asahi nodded and sighed. "You are absolutely right. No one should pray for evil to befall another. It is only human, and that is what our gods teach us." Then, he gently patted Suga's shoulder. "You are a kind being, Suga. I can see that you love your children very much."

"... Yes." Suga replied quietly. "I'm their mother. I have to protect them."

When Asahi turned a questioning eye at Kenma, the cat simply nodded. Leaving it there, he continued, "Even so, Master Noya has determined that they are strong boys."

"What do you mean?"

"Hinata and Kageyama are not your birth children, am I right?"

Suga nodded.

"How did they come to be under your care?" Asahi asked.

Suga hesitated, unwilling to dredge up the painful past from his memories. As simply and distant from the truth as he could, he explained, "They were orphaned, and I found them."

"Since they were born?"

"No. A few months ago."

Smiling, Asahi said, "Despite such an unfortunate thing happening to them, they seem like very lively children." Suga nodded again. Unlike he, who had been orphaned at the same time, his children had moved on. Whether it was their own tenacity or the affection from him that had pushed them along, Suga couldn't be sure. Deep down, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be sure.

"What has this got to do with the punishment?" Suga asked.

"I'm sure it has no relation at all." Asahi chuckled, waving his palms. "Not even Master Noya could have known this. But what he has seen and what you have done are one and the same, and I believe he wants both you and the kids to learn from this punishment."

"Seen? Done? What do you mean?" asked Suga, troubled by the monk's roundabout speech. Receiving nothing but a gentle smile in reply, Suga frowned again and startled Asahi into another nervous fit. "Please tell me, Asahi. What do you mean?" Suga pressed, relentless in his physical and verbal advance. Sweatdrops rolled down Asahi's brow as he backed away in surrender, and it took all he could to protest. "No, no, I can't say anything more!" he cried and cowered behind Kenma, grabbing his tiny shoulders and using him as a shield.

"Asahi!" Suga pleaded.

"Please don't ask me anymore!" Asahi pleaded, too.

"Suga." Kenma piped up, tired of being a wall in the conversation. Shaking his head, he said, "You mustn't ask him for answers. Otherwise, he'll be punished, too." As soon as he said that, the man in question nodded furiously beside him, utterly glad to have gotten backup.

Sighing, Suga surrendered reluctantly and drooped his head. "So I... I can't stop this no matter what?"

"If I'm correct, it won’t end until you find the answer.” Kenma said, to which Asahi nodded.

“What?” the crow said, bewildered at the thought of this terrible situation going on any longer than it already had. “Then what should I do?”

“What Asahi told you to do. Watch.”


 

“Mortal Daichi. You have been a very bad boy.”

It was strange hearing that from someone who was a head shorter than himself.

“Yeah, so… what are we doing here?”

Daichi looked around him, scratching his neck. Daichi and Noya were in an awfully secluded part of the woods, with a steep and jagged cliff face that stretched into the fluffy white puffs above. He didn’t think that anything higher than the temple existed, and it seemed like even more laid hidden within the clouds.

“Obviously, we’re here for your punishment. Listen up, now! This is important.” Noya proclaimed and pointed up at the cliff. “What you really want is up there.”

“What I… Hey, how do you know that?” Daichi asked, frowning at the man.

“I’m a god, haven’t you noticed?” the Tengu snorted and flapped his wings. “I know a lot.”

“Okay, whatever.” Daichi half-rolled his eyes, having let his guard down considerably around the deity already. He figured honorable speak wasn’t Noya’s style. “So, what’s the catch?”

“I told you to listen, didn’t I?” Noya folded his arms and tapped his foot impatiently. “Sheesh, no wonder he’s mad with you.”

Flushing, Daichi cleared his throat. “Sorry. Please continue.”

“Good boy!” Noya broke into a grin and patted Daichi’s arm. The hunter would have felt patronized, if not for the knowledge that the god was probably hundreds of years older than him. He was, in a relative sense of the word, a good boy.

“Now, see, there are two ways up this cliff. The first to climb it, but you’ll probably slip, fall, and die on the rocks below.”

“Thank you for the support, O Deity.” Daichi smiled benignly.

Ignoring Daichi’s sarcasm, Noya continued, “The second way is to wait.”

“Wait?” Daichi asked.

“Yes. Wait.” Nodded Noya sagely. “Now, whatever you choose to do is up to you.” He spread his wings and immediately prepared to take off, but was quickly met with the expected cries of protest. Oh, how many times had he heard that tone before? Countless, during his stint as the keeper of order.

“Hold on, stop! What do you mean, wait?” Daichi exclaimed, his hands outstretched. “The mountain isn’t going to move or something, is it?”

“Don’t be silly, the mountain isn’t alive.” Noya chuckled. With that, he left the man with a swift whoosh and barely a sense of comprehension. Even though Daichi knew that Noya was up to something, he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what he should do. Should he wait? Should he attempt the cliff?

Staring with resignation at the cliff, his lips pressed into a thin line, Daichi pondered his next action.

Chapter Text

Kumoiyama was once ruled by an old and powerful Tengu. The people simply called him the Old Tengu, for he had been there ever since Kumoiyama Temple came into existence. Like Nishinoya, he was also a crow. The Old Tengu was known for his terrifyingly large and scraggly black wings that heralded the coming of destruction. A passing glimpse would made one’s knees shake, and the boom from his flapping wings struck fear into the guilty. Everyone under his reign prospered in peace, their worries banished as evil was.   

But then one day, without warning, he vanished.

For three years, fiends roamed the land unchecked. People could no longer step outside freely without fear. The citizens prayed for a saviour, and the monks prayed for a message. A message that would tell them what to do. Yamabushi monks from all around the land gathered at Kumoiyama Temple day in and day out, wondering why the gods had not heeded their call. Had something happened to the balance of the world? Was the deity never coming back?

Until one day, the bolt out of the blue that was Nishinoya descended upon the temple. Overjoyed, the monks beseeched him to quickly destroy evil as his predecessor once did, but was disappointed when they learned that he knew nothing of being a Guardian. Indeed, at first glance, the boy was neither intimidating nor powerful. The monks thought that Noya could never fill the shadow of the Old Tengu. One by one, they left the temple in search of another solution. If the gods would not help them, they would take up arms and fight for the people themselves.

Only two monks remained at the end of the week, and the little Tengu felt miserable. Asahi and Tanaka, two friends who had wandered together since monkhood, decided without hesitation to stay at the temple. They believed that the gods had delivered on their part, and as followers it was now their turn to set things right.

They knocked on the doors and begged Nishinoya to open them. But he hid inside the temple and refused to come out, shutting his ears from the prayers of the people.

Save us, please…

O Deity, where are you?

Have the gods forsaken us?

“Master Nishinoya, please come out. Your people need you.” Asahi said.

“I can’t do anything for anyone,” Nishinoya said, “I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“That’s why we’ll help you!” Tanaka said.

Amid their words of encouragement, Nishinoya finally stepped out of the temple. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he sniffled and looked up at the monks. It was the first time the monks had seen a deity cry.

“We’ll teach you all about the previous Guardian.” Asahi said.

“We’ll train with you and make you big and strong!” Tanaka said.

“Really?” Nishinoya said, and the monks nodded.

From then on, the three of them worked together to help Kumoiyama regain its former glory. Wherever possible, they did everything together – be it training, eating, or sleeping - and they grew to become close companions. Asahi would look after the more boisterous two, and Tanaka would lend his strength to them whenever they needed it. Nishinoya became the child of the group, who would often get himself into situations too difficult for him to handle.

On the day of his first solo mission, Nishinoya’s heart trembled with trepidation. He didn’t feel ready enough, but armed with the thoughts of his friends and followers who believed in him, he grit his teeth and headed skyward without a second worry. As quickly as he had gone, he vanquished the evil beings with a single bolt of lightning and disappeared from the village in a blur of red and black. Even though they could not see the deity, the people knew and praised the gods for the return of the Tengu of Kumoiyama.  

“Asahi! Tanaka! I did it!!”

But the praise he yearned for the most came from his friends.

“Well done, Master Nishinoya!”

He beamed with pride and hugged his dear friends tightly, so much that Tanaka broke a rib from the force. It took weeks to heal. The small deity felt at last that he could fulfill his duty; that he was needed at Kumoiyama.

Gradually, the naysayers returned to visit the temple and greeted the deity with false smiles, hoping to regain his favour. But Nishinoya would have none of that. He chased out every single monk who had been present that day with a searing bolt of lightning. Tanaka agreed with his master’s actions, of course, growling after them as they fled like beasts. Despite Asahi's persuasions, Noya saw them unbefitting of their robes.

The Old Tengu's legacy would live on under Nishinoya’s wings. And he wouldn't have to do it alone.


Hours had passed since Daichi had been left behind.

As Nishinoya soared high through the thin air, the gusts from his strong wingbeats steadily echoed off the mountain. Like the sharp rap of an elegant dancer's folding fans, they exuded both power and finesse, and served as a warning to the denizens who prowled below. This fly-by patrol was a part of his routine, a tradition that the Old Tengu did in his days. Eyeing the clumps of trees, he noticed a distinct bald patch, and within it, an equally bald head beside a lone tree. Swooping down, he drew his sword from his waist.

Just as Tanaka was about to land the final blow from his axe, Noya slashed at the tree in a blinding flash and landed with a thud on the grass. Mere moments later, the great wooden creature collapsed into a pile of firewood-ready chunks with a loud clattering. The boys, who had been watching, were both stunned and amazed at the deity’s sudden display of power. They had been waiting for something like this.

“So… cool!” Hinata’s eyes sparkled.

“What was that?!” Kageyama gasped.

Nishinoya gave a knowing smirk and a thumbs up amid their cheers of admiration. “That was my special technique… Lightning Cut!”

“Eh? You had something else other than Rolling Thunder?” Tanaka said, putting down his axe.

“Of course! I have loads of special moves! But I never get to use them.”

“Show us more, please!” the boys exclaimed and clamored around the Tengu. Being up close with the slightly shorter kids, he suddenly felt a surge of annoyance. “No way!” he barked at them and flared up his wings, as birds did to make themselves seem larger. “You’re supposed to be serving your punishment. Tanaka, progress report!”

“Yes, sir!” The monk saluted and drew Nishinoya’s attention to the pile of twigs and logs beside them. “They have driven the critters out of the trees and are now gathering branches for the fire!”  

Nodding, he trotted around the place and inspected the work done. “Very good. Did they slack off?”

“No, sir, I made sure they didn’t.” Tanaka grinned. Then, he let out a hearty laugh and patted Kageyama’s back so hard that the boy almost tumbled over. “See how red and shiny their faces are? That’s what I call good work!”

The two Karas smiled sheepishly and wiped the sweat off their brow. One could tell at first glance that the state they were in was certified Kenma-disapproved. They had been busy flying up into trees here and there, picking and stripping branches of their leaves, and even helping Tanaka steady the logs for piling in a corner. They perspired, exerted all the strength they had in their little bodies, and groaned together at their aching bones and rumbling tummies. They brushed off the nicks and scratches from the rough bark, and picked their bumped knees up from the dirt. As a result, they had become quite dusty and muddy, and had relinquished their shirts in favor of the cool mountain air; partly because Tanaka had persuaded them to join him in his semi-nakedness. Hinata and Kageyama now looked up to this strange, scary, and strong man, who taught them his idea of what a man should be like. Even through the scolding and his sudden brash antics, they found him to be a reliable ally.

Seeing a new light in the boys’ eyes, Nishinoya felt that their punishment was about to come to an end.

But what about the other trapped soul?

He could feel the weight of a person’s eyes resting on his back. Turning his head, Nishinoya’s eyes met with Suga’s. From the man’s pained expression, it seemed that his wasn’t going to be over soon. The deity walked over to where the three were sitting on a log, and Asahi rose to greet him. Kenma had fallen asleep with his head on Suga’s lap. “Hello, Master Nishinoya. Is everything alright?” Asahi asked. Noya nodded and patted Asahi’s waist in reply, because reaching up to his back was a chore. Suga was silent, even though Nishinoya had expected him to say something. It was a little worrying.

“Suga,” he spoke, “how are you doing?”

Taking a breath, Suga furrowed his brows. Turning his gaze down onto the kitty lost in slumber, he said, “I’m fine.”

“Suga has been worrying about his children.” Asahi said in his stead.

“I’ll bet. But they’re doing great, aren’t they?” Noya replied and grinned, but Suga didn’t smile back.

After a long pause, the man parted his lips and spoke softly. “I understand what you’re trying to show me. It’s been on my mind for a while.” Sitting down in front of Suga, Noya looked up eagerly at the Kara’s face. He said nothing as he listened and rested his chin on his hands, like a child at story time. Suga’s long lashes hid his eyes as they quivered slightly and his nose stung. “I just thought that they shouldn’t have to go through what I did. I thought they deserved better. After all, I...I did something...”

Nishinoya saw the drops swell to the surface, and before they could fall, he cupped Suga’s face in his small palms and wiped away the tears from his wide eyes.

Even Asahi was surprised.

“We wouldn’t want to wake him up, right?” Noya whispered and grinned.

Stunned, Suga flushed and gave a small nod. Brushing his face on his sleeve, Suga uttered a thank you, and Nishinoya nodded for him to continue. Sniffing, the man spoke in a crackled voice. “Hinata and Kageyama have been through horrible things. I don’t ever want them to get hurt again.” He thought back to when they scolded him for coming home injured. “But that’s not what they want. They want to grow. They want to experience more. Even after all that has happened.” He thought back to their hunting lesson with Daichi, and their proud, though tired, smiles.

“What kind of Mama am I? I stopped my children for my own selfish reasons.” Suga uttered, the tears threatening to form again. “But Daichi was right. He knew what they wanted.”

“No, that idiot mortal was wrong.” Nishinoya cut in and declared in a haughty tone. Suga looked up at him slowly. “He’s really an idiot, now that I think about it. He cared too much about getting you to like him that now, he’s gone and messed everything up.”

Suga didn’t quite understand where Noya was coming from, and the deity could see it all over his face. Nishinoya broke into an exuberant laugh and jumped to his feet, waking Kenma from his cozy resting pillow. Grabbing Suga’s shoulders, he patted his back and grinned. “Hey, you’ll be a good Mama. Even though I don’t have a Mama, I know you’ll be a good one.”

“You don’t have a mother?” Suga asked.

“I don’t think so. Does Asahi count?”

“Is it over?” Kenma asked as he got up.

“Yes.” Nishinoya nodded. “And now you have something important to do, Suga.”

“Me?” he blinked.

“You have to go and save Daichi from being stupid.”

Chapter Text

Nishinoya led Suga to the spot where Daichi was last seen. Inevitably, the man was nowhere to be found. “Ah, the poor fool. He’s gone and gotten himself killed.” Noya sighed and shook his head with theatrical sorrow. “I thought the idiot mortal was better than that.”

“What do you mean by that?” Suga shook Noya’s arm worriedly, “Where did he go?”

Seeing Nishinoya point upwards to the sheer cliff beside them, the Kara’s eyes widened in dread. “Did you make him go up there?” he exclaimed. Noya glanced coolly at Suga, his devious little mouth upturned at the corners. “Hey, maybe he isn’t dead yet. Why don’t you go check it out?”

Taking a final wary glance at the deity, Suga began his climb into the air and travelled higher and higher into the clouds. Following the cliff face, he tried to spot Daichi, but failed to see anywhere that a man could stand on. The slats of rock folded over one another like a badly coated cake, and nary a cave opening was in sight. Suga flew back and forth through the mist, the condensation mixing in with his drops of anxiety. He couldn’t bear to think that Daichi had fallen to his death. Not again, he thought. No more of this!

Just before panic began to take root, Suga caught sight of a dark shadow against the smokey, grey cliff. Swiftly turning his course, Suga approached the figure, who turned his head at the sound of flapping wings. Sure enough, it was the idiot mortal. Daichi had somehow managed to scrape his way up the wall with only his bare hands and a knife. He now precariously rested on a part of the cliff, an edge that jutted out just enough for him to sit upon.

Surprised at Suga’s arrival, he exclaimed, “Suga? What are you--”

“What are you doing?!” Suga shouted aloud all of a sudden.

Daichi halted his movements at once. He had never heard this tone before. Staring hard at Daichi, Suga’s lips quivered, his chest heaved deeply, and his wingbeats quickened with his growing agitation. “This is no place for anyone to be. Don’t you know how dangerous it is? There’s nothing below you at all. Nothing!” He burst out, completely the opposite of his usual, calm self. Without giving Daichi a chance to speak, he inched forward and continued, his limbs and face awash with heat. “Maybe you can’t see it because of the fog, but you know we’re on a mountain. You don’t have wings. You can’t fly. No one would know if you fell!”

“You would.” Daichi smiled calmly.

“Daichi, I’m not joking.” Suga scolded.

“Neither am I. I’m glad I stopped to wait.”

“What?”

“I was waiting for you.”

Now, it was Suga’s turn to be dumbfounded. Not only at Daichi’s apparent nonsense, but at the way he was genuinely elated to see him. He smiled at him with such sincerity, even though he had just been lectured.

“After climbing for a good hour or so, I realized something. No matter how hard I tried, I was never going to make it to the top. This cliff here really takes you on a ride.” Daichi chuckled with a sigh. “It must be enchanted or something.”

“But why did you climb it? Did Master Nishinoya tell you to?”

“No, I was supposed to wait. But I found it stupid. And guess what? I’ve made a fool out of myself instead.” He laughed and gestured at his tiny seat. His legs hung over the edge and the rest of the ledge was barely adequate for grabbing onto. “Now I can’t even go back down if I wanted to.”

Peering at Suga, whose face was a mix of concern and anger, Daichi reached out his right hand and said, “Hey, Suga. Can you help me?”

Lifting his hand, Suga took Daichi’s dusty, rugged palm into his own and muttered, “I can’t help you down with just one hand.”

“No. One hand is enough.” Daichi said. Warmly squeezing Suga’s hand, grateful for this that he held, he apologized.

“Suga, I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”

Suga held his breath. For as long as he could remember, even though their time together had been short, Daichi was always saying sorry to him. Their first exchange was an apology. What could have been their last were more words of regret. Suga’s eyes mellowed and the raging fires whistled away into the hollow air. This wasn’t what he came here for.

“No, I… I have to say sorry, too.” he said at last. “I didn’t know better. You had Hinata and Kageyama in mind when you brought them here. I didn’t.”

“That’s not true. You’re always looking out for them.” Daichi replied.

Suga quietly shook his head. “I was looking out for myself . I wanted to take care of them, to make sure that they never got hurt. But because of that I didn’t listen to what they wanted to do.”

“It sounds like we came to the same conclusion,” Daichi smiled. “I’ve always had to do things on my own and in the way I thought was best. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” Suga nodded with a small grunt, as if to say ‘I know’.

“Are you still angry?” Daichi asked, and Suga quickly shook his head.

“Then, let’s call a truce.”

And so the two shook hands, each glad to have gained a newfound understanding for the other. There was no time nor energy left in them to stay fixated within their own wells; and safe to say, they didn’t want to either. Now, only one very pressing question remained. “So, Daichi… why did you climb up here?” Suga asked. “That’s a secret.” Daichi coughed, unable to hide his grin.

And then, a few seconds later with perfect timing, Nishinoya burst through the spiralling plumes of mist and snatched Daichi off the ledge like he was a scared puppy.

“The punishment has ended!” the deity declared between the two startled faces, “Now, I’ll fulfil my promise to Daichi.” Recovering from the shock, the hunter let out a sigh of relief and hung haplessly in the Tengu’s strong grip. “Suga! You can’t follow us, okay? The others are preparing to go back to the temple, so you can meet them there.”

“Okay, then. See you both.” Suga waved and snuck a peek at Daichi before he took off.

The moment they were alone, Nishinoya smirked and his wings began to fizzle with sparks of energy. “Rejoice, idiot mortal, for you are about to experience the power of Rolling Thunder firsthand.”

“Wait, what?”

In a literal flash, the two zapped out of the sky and crash landed on top of the cliff with a resonating boom. Slightly singed at the ears, Daichi’s eyes twitched as he tried to scoop up the shambles of whatever connection he had left to a normal human life. But those had been dashed to ashes by the might of Rolling Thunder, too.

“Wha… Hoo… tell me before you’re going to do that!” Daichi shouted at the smug Tengu.

“How was it? Awesome, right?”

“I thought I died back there! But okay, it was impressive.”

Nishinoya’s eyes gleamed at the praise and he tried to brush it off like it was nothing. “O-of course it was. I’m a Tengu born from the thunderclouds. Now, I’ll give you ten minutes. Any longer and I’m leaving you up here, you hear?” His stomach gurgled in approval.

Daichi swung his head round and was instantly amazed at the sight that blanketed the ground before him. It was just as the boys had described.

“Hey, Noya…” he gasped, slowly standing.

“Hm?”

“I can take as many as I want, right?”  


The day was almost over. After gathering all the firewood they needed, the crew returned to the temple for a well-deserved rest. Asahi handed out towels to everyone, and they’d soon make their way to the nearby falls for a bath. Suga returned in time to catch up to them, and the kids all ran out to meet him.

“Mama, where have you been?” Hinata asked.

“I went to see Daichi.”

“Is his punishment over, too?”

“Mm,” Suga assured him, then exhaled slowly. “Hinata, Kageyama, listen.” He knelt down and touched their sweaty little heads, liquid proof of their hard work. “From now on, Mama will listen to what you want, okay? If you have anything you want to do, anything at all, tell me.”

They looked at each other, then back at Mama.

“Does that mean we can come here again?” Hinata tried. Mama nodded. “And we can go hunting with you?” Kageyama asked. Mama kind of nodded.

“And you won’t go out and get hurt anymore?”

Hearing that, Suga’s eyes began to water. He nodded back with a smile.

“I promise.”

And his children hugged him all together. No spoken tongue could convey the heartwarming depth of emotions the way a hug could. It was kinda gross, kinda sticky, and rather stinky; but most of all, it was sweet. Kenma looked on longingly by the side, then wistfully lowered his gaze elsewhere. He touched his arm and felt only the warmth from his palm. He then felt a light pat on his head, which shook him out of his thoughts.

“Are you alright?” Suga’s calming voice met his ears. “Do you miss Kuroo?”

“... No.” He mumbled. Even though it was partly true.

“You must be tired, coming all the way here for our sake. Want to take a nap?”

“... No. I’ll do it after this.”

“After what?”

The cat pointed behind him. There stood Daichi, and right after him was Nishinoya. The man seemed to be hiding something behind his back, and he smiled when Suga turned around.

“Daichi? Back so soon?” Suga quipped.

“Uh-huh. Noya only gave me ten minutes.” he replied, as said deity marched past them to take a seat next to Tanaka. The deity whispered something into the monk’s ear, and the man cracked up in silent laughter. Curious, Asahi walked over to join them. Noya whispered the same into his ear, which made him cover his mouth in surprise. “So soon?” Asahi mouthed, and Noya nodded with a grin.

“Ten minutes? For what?” the Kara asked.

And the very moment Suga laid eyes on the answer, his whole face lit up in astonishment.

“This is…” he uttered, rendered speechless.

“For you.” Daichi said, as he tried hard not to slip and turn into a blushing pile of mashed potatoes. Seeing this vulnerable side of Daichi made Suga flush as well, his cheeks turning pink as he reached out to take it. “For… me?” he asked softly, and Daichi nodded.

Suga lifted the blossoming bouquet of iridescent roses to his chest. Each rose seemed to glow a different color, as if a rainbow had fallen out of the sky and nestled itself within his fingers. A sweet aroma wafted within their buds, and he took a fresh breath of their alluring scent. Unlike the first time he held a rose, Suga felt not a single thorn in the whole bouquet. Their stems had been stripped of their barbs, albeit hastily, by the edge of a knife. And unlike the flowers he received from Hinata and Kageyama, these in particular made his chest go a-flutter. It wasn’t something in the flowers. It was something else very, very strange.

“They’re beautiful.” Suga said in a hushed whisper, his pupils blooming as he traced his fingertips over the velvety petals.

You’re beautiful, Daichi thought, his eyes softening in front of the one and only delicate flower in his heart. If time was going to stand still, let it be at this precise moment, he prayed.

Coming back to his senses, Suga smiled shyly, “Thank you, Daichi. You went all the way up that cliff… and risked your life... just for this?”

“Don’t you like them?”

“I-I do! But putting yourself in danger like that is…”

Daichi stepped forward and held Suga’s hands.

“I know. But I really wanted to give them to you.”

Daichi spoke gently in his smooth baritone voice.

“Hey, Suga. Can I tell you something?”

Suga nodded slowly in a daze, his limpid eyes gazing back into Daichi’s determined stare.

“I like you.”

The man finally said it. Everyone else present understood what his confession meant; but even Suga wasn’t completely oblivious, unable to ignore the melding sensation where their fingers touched, and the slightly frightening way his heart ruffled up from his words. Undoubtedly, he was getting closer to the unknown that he so desired to discover, but this sudden spur of emotions he never knew existed within him scared him into silence. His lips parted to respond, but no words came.

Seeing Suga’s stunned expression, Daichi chuckled and lowered their hands. “Suga, it’s okay if you don’t give me an answer now. I don’t think you understand what I mean.”

Suga looked away, feeling troubled and sorry towards Daichi for not knowing how much weight his words really carried. After all, he went to such lengths to give him this wondrous gift. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said regrettably, and immediately added, “But I know that I like you too.” A big grin spread across Daichi’s face, and he smoothed his hand over Suga’s silver locks, looping them behind his ear. Despite his rough appearance, he could be quite gentle, Suga thought.

“I’m glad,” Daichi sighed happily. But this wasn’t the end of it. “Let’s go. We have a lot of explaining to do, don’t we?”

Chapter Text

Hot springs. A delightfully soothing way to relax the body by slowly cooking yourself in near boiling temperatures. It leaves the skin soft and the muscles tender; though what it does for wings, one could not fathom. Today, the Karas would find out. Over on one side of the pool, friendly banter was taking place between two burly men.

“Yo, mister Daichi.” Tanaka said as he sidled up to the man with a disturbing grin.

“What is it, Tanaka?” Daichi replied mid-strip. Tanaka was already naked, as if he had been yearning to get out of his clothes the whole day.

“I heard all about it from the Master. You’re quite the romantic, aren’t ya? Doing that for him.”

“Well, I do what I can.” the hunter chuckled awkwardly, unsure if the monk was complimenting him.

“‘ What you can?’ Come on, just admit that you’re crazy over him! No sane person would climb a damn mountain for some flowers.” Tanaka snorted, “I know that feeling very well. For there’s only one goddess who can move my celibate heart…”

“And who’s that?” Daichi smirked, intrigued.

And Tanaka began to wax lyrical about the love of his life that would never come to be, all the while in his excited, rough voice that made his words sound nothing like praise from afar, “Oh, she’s the most graceful woman I’ve ever laid eyes upon! Her flowing white robes-- her beautiful blue eyes-- that dainty little beauty mark below her lips… she’s perfection!”

“A beauty mark? That’s like what Suga has below his eye.” Daichi remarked.

“Looks like we have the same taste in women, eh? Oh, sorry-- I mean, partners, eh? Gahaha!” Tanaka guffawed and smacked his new friend on the back.

Over at the comparably less rowdy side of the pool, the children were getting undressed with the other adults. The great deity had gotten himself caught up in the racing tendencies of Hinata and Kageyama, and Asahi had to help him hang on to all of his layers of clothes lest they flew into the spring water. Kenma took the longest time anyone could slipping out of his only article of clothing - save his underwear - while glancing worriedly at the steam that puffed off of the bubbling surface. Once he was all done, he hovered hesitantly at the rocky edge, slowly lowering his stiffened hand to the water. Splashes soon began to draw near, and who else but Hinata appeared in front of him, full of glee in his cheeks. The Kara grabbed his hand, and the Nekomata’s face pleaded for mercy.

With a tumble and a splash, the cat plunged headfirst into the hot water, and within a few moments he was out, all drenched with his claws clinging onto Suga for dear life. Hinata laughed till his belly hurt, and he fell back into the water with his wings flailing in the air.

“Hinata! Look what you’ve done. Say sorry to Kenma.” Suga scolded while comforting the shivering boy, whose tails curled up between his legs. “Sorry, Kenma! Come on, the water’s great!” Hinata grinned and beckoned. But Kenma squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head vigorously. “Kenmaa--” he called again, to no avail. Suga sighed and sat the boy down, then covered him with his towel. “You can join us later, alright?” he said, and the boy nodded reluctantly.

As Suga took off his shirt, Asahi couldn’t help pointing out the bandage around his waist. “What happened?” he asked, and Suga tilted his head to the side sheepishly. “It’s a long story.”

Concentrating as he unraveled the cloth, he winced when the turn reached the wound - it was stuck. Carefully peeling away the final threads that clung to the moist skin, he sighed in relief at its release. The round gore of pale red flesh now looked considerably healthy thanks to the medicine, and no longer stained the bandage as much as before.

It still seemed visibly painful, however, and Asahi shrank away just looking at it. “It looks like a terrible wound. Did you see a doctor?” he asked and gulped. “No. I’ve been applying medicine on it.” Suga replied and showed him the tin of herbal cream. Scooping some with his fingers, he spread the cooling concoction carefully onto his skin. Asahi watched quietly with a growing crease on his brow.

“Is something wrong, Asahi?” Suga asked, noticing.

“Suga, is it still painful? I mean-- of course it must be, but, where do you feel it?”

“The medicine helps,” he replied simply, and tied the bandage back together tightly.

“Does it hurt below the skin?” Asahi probed.

Suga paused for a beat. “No.”

“Are you sure? It doesn’t look like a simple wound.” the monk asked again, and Suga smiled back. “Yes. The medicine really works.”

Eventually, Kenma slipped back into the pool and joined the boys, but not without snubbing Hinata first. Sticking to Kageyama, Kenma stuck his tongue out at Hinata and ignored his words, much to the crow’s chagrin. And once everyone took a dip into the hot spring, a chorus of liberating ‘ahhs’ escaped from their throats; even the restless ones fell quiet and soaked blissfully in the broth of minerals around them, so much that sleeping was but one wink away.

“This feels great,” Suga sighed as he immersed his wings into the water.

“Doesn’t it? It’s heated by a lava stream that passes through Kumoiyama.” Noya said as he floated on the water with his wings.

The round-shaped spring was a little cramped, and everyone sat no more than an arm’s length from each other. Daichi laid next to Suga, and all that separated them was a thick layer of steam that floated above the water’s surface. Unfortunately for Suga, as was the case for the past few baths, he couldn’t soak any lower than his waist. Fortunately for Daichi, Suga couldn’t soak any lower than his waist. From this angle and this distance from the Kara’s thigh, it was safe to say the color on his face wasn’t just from the hot water.

Suga asked, “Daichi, are you alright? Your face is--”

“Yeah, I’m fine! I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.” Daichi hurriedly replied.

“Maybe you’ve been soaking for too long. See, your head’s all hot.” he said as he touched the man’s forehead. If Daichi had a fever, it would have gone up a few degrees then.

Tanaka emitted a loud laugh. “Hah! Yeah, maybe you ought to get out of the springs. It’s way too steamy in here. Oh, but you can’t, can you?” Saying that, he wiggled his brows at Daichi. “Tanaka…” Daichi growled at him and cracked his knuckles. Stifling a chuckle, Asahi couldn’t resist adding on, “It would be bad if he fainted, wouldn’t it?” Sitting up and making a splash, Daichi bemoaned, “Not you too, Asahi!”

“What are you guys talking about? The heat’s fine.” Noya cut in and yawned.

“Hey, Kenma, what are they talking about? You know, right?” Hinata whispered to the cat, but he just shrugged and flipped a tail full of water in the crow’s face, sparking off another water fight. Instantly embroiled in the battle, Noya got his wing stepped on and his entire head submerged in the process. Sputtering and shaking off his wet hair, the side of his mouth twitched.

“Oi, shrimps! You’re asking for it!”

Churning up waves with his powerful wings, Nishinoya flushed them all out of the pool in one stroke, emptying out nearly half of the water. But the kids jumped right back in and got revenge by overwhelming him from all sides. Shouting and laughing as they frolicked, the innocent bystanders swept up in the crossfire either joined in or tried to shield themselves from the onslaught; until Asahi stood up and declared bath time was over for the sake of peace.

“Alright, kids, out of the pool.” he said, and ushered the sopping wet boys out. “Aww, but I was winning!” Noya moaned along with the boys’ cries of protest. “Any longer and there won’t be any water left. Come along now, and I’ll get your offering all heated up.” And so the deity obliged, much like a child lured by food. “Extra crispy, okay?” he licked his lips, then scampered off with the others, some half-dressed, some nude.

Seeing all his responsibilities tumble out of pool one by one, Suga rose as well and said, “Asahi, I’ll come with you.”

“Ah, it’s alright. Don’t get up--”

“Wh-”

“Suga!”

With a yelp, Suga’s legs gave way and he stumbled backwards into the pool with a great splash - but was saved in the nick of time by Daichi’s nice receive. Thanks to the earlier ruckus, the mossy, slippery rocks inside the pool had gotten exposed, making it ripe for the stumblin’. As the initial shock wore off, so did the tension in Asahi’s throat.

“Oh, dear! Are you alright?” Asahi asked in a fluster.

“Y-yes.” the man uttered as his agitated feathers slowly settled. Breathing hard, Suga’s hand clung stiffly onto Daichi’s arm as the droplets trickled off their skin, his heart beating against the other man’s chest. It seemed like there was something other than fright in his grip.

“Okay, um… then I’ll see you two later at dinner. Just... take your time and enjoy what’s left of the hot spring.” Asahi smiled awkwardly.

The Kara grunted softly in reply, his face turned away. Once Asahi had left (rather hastily) and the chattering faded off into the distance, the two realized that they had been left behind.

All alone.

With one on top of the other.

But now wasn’t the time for those thoughts. Sensing that Suga wasn’t moving, Daichi cleared his throat and asked, “Suga, you alright? Did you bump into anything?”

“... No.” Suga eked out in a whisper.

Touching the bandage, he noticed the dampness at once and lifted the man’s shoulders. Suga’s pained expression told Daichi everything he wouldn’t. “Suga, you have to tell me if it hurts. The water got in, didn’t it?” he said, but the Kara stayed quiet, his grip unceasing. With a quiet grunt, Daichi easily carried him out of the water and onto the dry grass.

“Suga, let me see it.” Daichi asked, unable to budge. From the corner of his eye, he could tell that the wound hadn’t reopened, at least.  

“No. It’s okay.” Suga breathed, unmoving.

“We have to change the bandage.”

“No,” he repeated, and shook his head obstinately.

“Suga, come on--”

“No.” Suga cried, his shoulders trembling. Gasping, he hiccupped as he cried into Daichi’s shoulder, and the man who held him was utterly bewildered at his sudden reaction.  

“Why won’t you listen to me? I said it doesn’t hurt… it doesn't hurt…” he insisted over and over again, as if he was talking to himself in the mirror. Daichi swallowed the lump forming in his throat. This wasn’t like Suga at all.

“You’re obviously in pain, Suga. So why--”

“I’m fine, so just-- please-- it doesn’t hurt anymore, it really doesn’t...” he begged.

“If it’s this bad, I can’t leave you like this. We have to go see--”

“No!”

This time, Suga looked up at Daichi with stark desperation and grasped his arms tightly. He saw an insurmountable fear glaze over his eyes as he pleaded for all he was worth.

“No, Daichi, it’s fine! The medicine will work, it will! You gave it to me, see? It’s working!”

“The medicine isn’t enough, Suga. I got it from a doctor, and only he would know how to heal you completely. We have to go see him.” Daichi said, anxiety building up in his chest.

“No, we don’t.” Suga shook his head sadly, his voice crackling. “You can just get more. It’ll be fine.”

“Suga, why?” Daichi asked, holding on to the frail Kara’s shoulders. “Please, tell me what’s wrong. I want to know.”

Choking on his tears, Suga took a while to catch his breath. In between his gasping and the pain, he tried and failed to form his words, always stopping as soon as he started. Seeing him struggle to speak hurt Daichi as much as Suga did, and even though it felt like he was going to fall apart at any moment, Daichi knew he had to press on for his sake. As the seconds ticked by with Suga’s strained coughing, he nearly gave up trying; until Suga finally managed to say these heartrending words:

“Please don’t make me go.”

Chapter Text

Suga had been hiding the full extent of his injuries. To some, it might be unthinkable that one’s will could go so far as to suppress the feeling of pain. But to select few, it was understandable that the depth of one Kara’s despair could manage to overwhelm his sense of rationality, and bloat his companions’ fallacious optimism.

Ever since the first time Daichi had dressed his wound, Suga had taken care of it by himself. Being discreet was nothing new to him.

If Daichi tried to offer his help, Suga would reassure him and divert his attention to the kids. If anyone asked him about it, he would never fail to smile and say that it was fine. This was all part of the routine, the daily grind. Afterwards? A simple turn of the back; a solitary walk in the shade; as long as his suffering did not see the light of day, his worst fears would not come true.

It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.

The medicine will work. The medicine will work.

I must not go. I must not go.

Or so he thought.

No matter how much he implored himself to endure, he had reached his limit. He could no longer suppress the pain that spread, its roots burrowing, clawing, and threshing deep into places where the medicine could not reach. Try as he might to laugh with the others and put on his calmest face, it soon became clear that his faltering delusions were no longer enough to convince them nor keep him afloat.

But still he fought.

Back at the altar, in the cold, still air, Asahi closed the heavily creaking doors with a thunk and turned around with fidgety feet. “Did something happen?” he asked in a quick whisper. Daichi had quietly signaled to Asahi upon his return with Suga on his back, and merely told the rest that the Kara was tired and needed a nap.

As soon as he let Suga down onto the futon, he curled away from him in discomfort and clutched his abdomen. “Suga, I’m going to change it.” said Daichi, but Suga shook his head silently.

“We have to change it before it gets infected,” he repeated sternly.

“Leave me… alone…” he replied, and groaned as another throb of pain hit him.

Daichi exhaled sharply. “Suga--”

“Calm down, Daichi. Let’s relieve his pain, first.” Asahi said, diffusing him. Daichi sighed in frustration. Nothing was getting through to this stubborn man. “Do you have any firewort? Or lendencap?” the man asked, searching his brain. “I’ve seen some growing near the falls. Firewort tea would be good.” Asahi nodded, well-versed with nature’s remedies. “Thank you.” Daichi replied, and the monk quietly left the room with hushed footsteps. But the tea wouldn’t be of any use if the patient wasn’t going to drink it.

Holding onto the arms that blocked his way, Daichi lifted. He halted when he felt Suga trying to resist, but the Kara held not a fraction of the strength the hunter had.

“Please, Suga. I want to help.”

“Leave it.” he muttered.

“I know you don’t want us to worry. But if the children see you like this…”

Suga clutched Daichi’s hand weakly and said at once, “Don’t tell them.”

“There’s no way they wouldn’t be able to tell.”

“You said you’d… you’d do anything for me.” he panted, on the edge of delirium.

Conflicted, Daichi’s brows furrowed. “Suga…”

“You promised. You can’t b… break a promise, so...” he said, his voice winding to a bare whisper.

“Alright, alright, I won’t.” Daichi quickly replied, afraid the man would pass out before he could do anything. “So let me look at it, okay?”

Persuaded by a self-compelled threat, he yielded and released his grip. Pulling up his shirt, it looked like the Kara had become thinner and paler. Despite making sure that his meals were nutrient-rich - especially in iron, to replenish his blood - it was not difficult to conclude that the stress from keeping his secret had hungered his body. Tossing the wet strip of cloth aside, Daichi stared in solemn awe at the wound. Undoubtedly, it looked much healthier than before; but what lurked beneath the innocuous patch of flesh, he could not tell from a simple glance.

“Where does it hurt?” he asked, then lightly tapped on Suga’s skin. It felt soft from swelling, although the color wasn’t apparent. The crow winced and shut his eyes, refusing to speak. “Are you bleeding anywhere else? Like, in your stools?” he probed, but was met with silence again.

Sighing, Daichi leaned back on his fists and gazed, forlorn, at the man’s distress. The disturbing reality that Suga was hiding a great trauma sank in, and it deflated his will to prise any more words out of him. Maybe it was too soon to start asking questions, he thought, even though the same could have been said of his week-made confession. But he didn’t need a reason to love him - nor would it take one to despise him.

Suga’s damp grey wings twitched ever so slightly with each passing moment. Like going to bed with wet hair, it must have been uncomfortable leaving his feathers like so, Daichi perceived, especially in the chill. Taking a clean towel from a stack in the corner, Daichi sat down on Suga’s left and asked quietly, “Do you want me to dry your wings?”

The crow opened his eyes.

“My… wings…” he mouthed.

“It’s not good to leave them wet, right?”

“... Mm,” Suga grunted positively, but his heart grew nervous.

And Daichi knew.

“Tell me if it’s uncomfortable. I’ll stop.”

The moment his hand brushed against his silver feathers, they bristled and retracted a little. The Kara held his breath. He spread the wing onto his lap gingerly, as if tending to a small, injured bird - except that it was as large and heavy as a limb, which made him wonder how light his body alone must be.

Suga felt all sorts of unease, letting another person handle his wings. The neurons in his brain fired to scream no, no, and more nos; but it only took an aberrant one to change his mind. It snuck away and tapped onto another, peculiar transmission - a weak, pulsating one that flowed through a barren sensory highway. His feathers picked up the heat and coarseness left behind by Daichi’s strong hands. The steady pressure from the soft towel that glided over his wing gently forced his jittery nerves to relax. Like a maestro pulling sweet melodies from his violin, the feeling came and went, swayed back and forth, and slowly lulled the Kara into a calm stupor.

He liked it.

And Daichi could tell.

With each successive stroke, Suga’s muscles became less and less tense, until they relaxed into his motion. When he reached between the layers of down to get at the moisture, Suga’s face melted into a sigh, as if a great itch had been scratched. An airy moan escaped his throat as he settled himself into Daichi’s rhythm, drifting toward sleep’s embrace. Once he was satisfied with the left wing, Daichi moved on to the right and did the same thing. This time, he faced no resistance at all.  

Asahi later arrived with a steaming pot of tea and fresh bandages. Noticing that his customer had fallen asleep, he tiptoed in on his sandals and quietly knelt beside Daichi. Grimacing at the exposed wound, he sighed and handed the roll of cloth to the hunter.

“What happened back there?” he asked, keeping his voice down.

“Suga, he…” Daichi hesitated in his reply. “He was hurting. And he didn’t want to let anyone know.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. And I’ve got a bad feeling that the wound has gotten worse. Look,” he pointed out, “It’s swelling.”

Asahi dared not scrutinize further. “You’re taking him to a doctor, yes?”

“He doesn’t want to. He’s afraid of something.”

“Afraid?” Asahi’s brows pinched upwards with the word. “I suppose going to the doctor’s is scary.”

“I don’t think it’s that simple. He won’t say why, and he doesn’t want me to tell the kids.” Daichi rubbed his creased forehead. He turned to the monk, sincerely asking for advice. “What should I do, Asahi?”

The robed man rubbed his forehead too, tousling his long bangs in the process. If he hadn’t such timid mannerisms, Daichi observed, he’d look like a fearsome adversary to anyone. “The kids were the best option, weren’t they?” Asahi finally sighed, and Daichi nodded.

“I think then, that we should believe in them. They wouldn’t turn a blind eye to their Mama-- especially the cat-eared one. He’s an intelligent boy. ”

“Ah, Kenma isn’t Suga’s.” clarified Daichi with a small smile, to Asahi’s surprise.

“Really? I just assumed so because he seemed quite attached to him.”

“That’s his charm at work,” he joked, and Asahi joked back, “Is that how you fell for him?”

“Maybe,” Daichi exhaled, his breath caught by his upturned lips. He then threw his head back and stared wistfully at the old, rickety ceiling. His mouth gaped and let out another puff of air that barreled through his windpipe and emptied his chest.

 

“I feel so useless.”

 


 

“It must be nice being a mortal.”

 

Nishinoya sighed and squished his cheeks between his alulas and the paved floor.

“Why do you say that?” Hinata asked as he picked idly at the deity’s wings, his wet orange head resting on his back. “Yeah, why? You get cool powers and stuff.” Kageyama said as well, lying down next to them. Kenma had chosen a prime spot on Noya’s fluffy tail, and kneaded it here and there with his small claws before lying down for a nap. The newly appointed bed seemed to have no objections to any of the things happening around him. In fact, he rather liked being bothered.

“Well, you get a mother,” he mumbled enviously, pouting, “I don’t have a mum.”

“Then why don’t you adopt one?” Hinata suggested nonchalantly.

“Eh? You can do that?” Noya perked up.

“Uh-huh. We called Suga our Mama, and he became our mother. Hey, can I pluck this white one?” he said as he tugged at a fat, greying feather. Noya quickly pulled his wing out of Hinata’s grasp. “Don’t pluck it! Asahi says more white ones will grow if you do,” he warned. “That’s just like what my mum used to say.” Hinata giggled. “Hey, why don’t you get Asahi to be your mum?” Kageyama casually suggested.

Unexpectedly, Nishinoya’s cheeks turned bright crimson.

“No way, no way! Asahi’s younger than me, and you can’t have a child that’s older than their mother!” He shouted and shook his head feverishly. His palms grew sweaty and his feathers fluffed up, tickling the Nekomata’s face. “Who cares. Mama’s not that much older than us. Besides, you look younger than Asahi.” Kageyama scoffed, meaning well but failing at controlling his tone once again. “Oi… you tryin’ to say something back there?” growled Noya. “Dummyama’s right,” the small Kara grinned and grabbed at the Tengu’s wing. His deft fingers found the white feather again, and he quickly yanked it out, eliciting a frazzled yelp from the deity.

“Hey, what did I say?!” Noya leapt to his feet at once with a start, bowling the three kids over. “Now there’s going to be more of them!”

“What, are you going to go tell your mum?” Kageyama always had a snarky comment ready, of course, even for gods. The cheekiness of a child knew no boundaries. Hinata laughed merrily and ran off with the feather clutched tightly in his hand, chanting that he’d stolen a deity’s feather over and over again. Infuriated by this display of insolence and his cobbled-together thoughts, Noya roared with perplexing rage and chased after the boy on foot, kicking up dust as he went.

They ran round and round the temple, making a great fuss and hullabaloo over - supposedly - a single white feather. They didn’t stop until Hinata made a beeline for the temple doors, and Nishinoya lunged at the wide-mouthed boy who ducked, crashing majestically through the rotting wood with the splinters scattering and clattering about everywhere.     

In the seconds that it took for the exhilaration wear off and his breathless lungs to fill with air again, the darkness within his nightmares unfurled itself before him in cold, hard reality.

 

As the light threw itself onto the silver Kara’s pale face, so did it fall from the sun child’s bright eyes.

 

"Mama?"

Chapter Text

What was it like, knowing that one mistake could jeopardize so many lives?

Daichi leaned onto the cold stone dragon and dropped his gaze to the wisps of dry grass at his feet. A tiny, black ant crawled its way round his boot and disappeared into the sparse undergrowth.

Like a clumsy giant, he had trampled all over the Karas’ lives with just one step, not knowing if he had crumbled a nest underfoot. He had always been careful, always ambitious, and ever ready to prove that he was an excellent hunter. And now, he almost wished he hadn’t been a hunter at all. It wasn’t the first time he’d had these thoughts.

It pained him to think that Suga wouldn’t make it. What would happen to Hinata and Kageyama? If he did survive, would Suga truly forgive him?

Countless doubts pained his mind, and he wrung his scalp in anguish as the worst came to the surface.

Was it all just pity?

No. To have such a thought was unforgivable.

Asahi found Daichi behind the temple, and he scratched his arm in worry.

“Suga’s fast asleep,” he reported quietly, and an awkward silence ensued. The air was thick with not just the fog that was settling in for the night. As the sky fell into a dim, lush purple, the glow of the yellow lamps that Asahi had put on shone brightly in the dark. Fidgeting for a moment, Asahi then cleared his throat and asked, “Can I join you?”

Daichi merely nodded.

He took his place beside the man and sighed quietly.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I’m fine.” Daichi replied, his voice a low croak.

“You’re not.”

Daichi paused. Then blurted out. “Did you know that I shot him?”

Asahi jumped in surprise. “What?”

“Yes. I shot him.” Daichi exhaled bitterly, his brows locked in a grimace. “Even if it was a mistake.”

Asahi’s jaw hung open, his face becoming a speechless, confused portrait as he pointed back and forth between the temple and the man. Daichi folded his arms and looked away, eyelids heavy.

“But you and him… the kids... he… he accepted your confession.” he spoke slowly.

“He did.”

“You’re not kidding?” Asahi half-laughed with a lopsided smile.

“I’m not.” Saying that, Daichi stretched out his hand and clenched his fingers tightly into his palm. “I aimed right for the heart and let my arrow fly. And I saw him as he fell from the sky and crashed into the forest.”

“Dreadful…” Asahi muttered under his breath and stared with dismay at the hunter.

“It was.” Daichi lamented.

“And yet, you fell in love with him...” he gasped quietly.

Daichi fell silent. Thinking about what to say, Asahi twiddled with his fringe and glanced at him, a shadow of the energetic young man he saw today. “Daichi, you’re feeling awfully guilty about this, aren’t you?” he said. Exhaling a puff of white mist, Daichi muttered, “Awful’s right.”

“Hey, pull yourself together,” Asahi encouraged and patted his shoulder, “What’s happened has happened.”

Daichi leaned his head back onto the statue. “Asahi, I can’t just forget what I did.”

“I’m not asking you to. But he needs you now, Daichi, and you can’t let yourself fall apart now.” said Asahi, who looked earnestly at the man. Daichi gave another long sigh and rubbed his head, messing up his growing fringe. He knew Asahi meant well. Looking up, he glanced at the monk and let his brows go.

“I know.” he said at last.

Thumping his shoulder twice, Asahi smiled and left Daichi with his thoughts. All that accompanied him in the calm breeze was the ever stoic gatekeeper. Daichi looked back into its fierce, unyielding eyes and patted the old faithful dragon on its neck. “No offense, but I don’t want to be like you,” he chuckled, then sighed at himself for talking to a statue.

And then came the crash.

Instantly alarmed, Daichi dashed back to the temple in seconds. His heart racing, he saw the door in splinters, Nishinoya clambering out of the mess, and Hinata.

Hinata, who stood where his Mama had fallen.

“Mama?” he whispered again with a childlike lilt, and Daichi’s chest went tight with realization.

“Mama, wake up. You can’t be sick again.” Hinata knelt down and shook Suga’s shoulder. Sedated by the firewort tea, the Kara slept soundly and wouldn’t stir. It was the most peaceful he had slept in days.

Both Nishinoya and Daichi’s legs glued to the floor and wouldn’t budge. Asahi joined them at the entrance in a hurry, and he covered his mouth at once.

“Mama, come on. Mama, Mama…”

And Hinata started to cry, his tears muddling his small face. He tried hard to stifle his emotions, wiping the drops as soon as they formed and forcing his quivering mouth to close. But he couldn’t. All that passed through his mind reached back into the clearing-- the pool of blood-- the shrieks of his parents that silenced themselves abruptly in the distance. And everything came rushing back in a disgusting, horrifying whirlpool of death, and he wailed and bawled to drive the reapers from his mind.

Suddenly, Kageyama roughly shoved his way past all of the adults and flew hastily into the temple. Taking one glance at the scene, he immediately called out to his brother.

“Hinata!”

Without hesitation, he dashed forward and threw his arms and wings around Hinata, burying him face first into his chest. The others watched in surprise as his muffled cries slowly quieted into small sobs under Kageyama’s protective gaze. The child hugged back, stuttering and gasping as he called for his mother over and over.

Just then, Suga awoke.

Through faded lenses, he looked up at the blurry, huddled figures before him, until he locked eyes with Kageyama’s frightened blues. The ringing in his ears went, and he heard the faint cries that came from Hinata.

“Kageyama…” he whispered, and the boy grit his teeth. “Mama, what happened? You look so white. Hinata’s crying.” Kageyama asked, his voice breaking as well.

Suga felt the pain seep in as his body woke up. His breathing fell slow and heavy, and he couldn’t talk. Reaching out with his hand, he lightly caressed Kageyama’s wing and beckoned for him to let Hinata out. Hinata then turned around and saw his Mama, still alive but not well at all. “Mama… Mama!” he exclaimed and hugged Suga tightly, and Suga couldn’t find the strength to hold him back. His arm slipped off the boy’s back and landed with a weak thud on the floor.

Daichi and Asahi rushed forward in response. Daichi lifted Suga’s head upon his arm and checked his vitals, while Asahi fumbled with the teapot. “Suga, talk to me. Stay awake.” Daichi urged and lightly patted his cheeks. The Kara’s face drew into distress as he clenched his eyes shut and took deep breaths. Feeling his chords work again, he said, “I’m… I’m here.” Taking the warm tea from Asahi’s shaking hands, Daichi fed Suga slowly until he had enough to soothe the pain.

“This isn’t going to work.” Daichi muttered and put away the tea cup.

“What’s wrong? What isn’t going to work?” Kageyama demanded, leaning forward on his palms. Hinata sniffled and held onto Suga’s hand.

“I’ll say it simply. Suga has to see a doctor.” he replied. Suga turned away.

“Then let’s go! What are we waiting for?!” the crow shouted, and immediately heard a soft ‘no’ from the ground. Dumbfounded, Kageyama looked at Suga and said, “Mama, why not?”

“I can’t.” he replied, the same answer again. But Kageyama was different. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer. “What are saying, Mama? You have to! The doctor will make you all better again, and you won’t feel painful anymore.” Even as he said this, Suga refused to listen and shook his head at every word. Hurt by the man’s stubbornness, Kageyama felt his eyes sting and he gripped his fists.

“Mama, you’re always doing this!” he yelled, and his cheeks burned with anger. Hinata’s eyes watered as well as he listened to his brother. “You never tell us when you’re hurt, and you never listen to what we say. So many times before… you kept getting yourself hurt. Didn’t you just promise us you’d listen?”

Kageyama wiped his eyes roughly and his voice broke. “So listen to us already!”

Suga didn’t want to see the children cry like this over him. He swore that wouldn’t allow any more sadness to befall them. And to do that, he knew had to tell the truth.

For his sake, and theirs.

Suga took a deep breath, and made one of the hardest decisions of his life.

 

“If I go, everyone will die.”

 

“I killed them. I killed them all.”

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe it . How could you, before me?! You!” Kuroo pulled at his hair in disbelief, making a strangled, unintelligible noise filled with jealousy. “It was nothing,” Kenma yawned, and Kuroo stared at the boy like he was the densest thing he’d ever laid eyes upon.

The black Nekomata had returned to the treehouse all sweaty and weary from his journey, to find Kenma alone at his usual spot on the bed all comfy and clean. Nishinoya had brought his guests back to their homes with Rolling Thunder, but he left before Kuroo had a chance to greet him. And so the boy recounted the past two days’ events in his usual deadpan tone, which infuriated the hell out of Kuroo, who so desperately wanted to be in his claws. He didn’t really care about their excursion to Kumoiyama nor the fact that they had met Nishinoya, but that was only because Kenma had left out all the important parts for later.

“Nothing.” Kuroo repeated Kenma’s words flatly and raised up his hands, then dropped them down with a smack upon his legs. Kenma stared back and shrugged as he always did. “You mean to tell me that you spent the whole day with Suga, bathing naked in a bubble bath, sleeping together huddled up on that bed-- and thought it was all nothing?!”

“I’m eleven.” Kenma said matter-of-factly.

“No, you just don’t know how to appreciate this. God, I should have just snuck away from that damn boring conference and kicked you out of the tree.” Kuroo groaned loudly and landed face first onto the bed, causing Kenma to bounce on his spot. The small cat rolled his eyes and flipped the page of his book.

“Anyway, I should probably tell you this.” said Kenma, his eyes crawling lazily along the tiny print.

“What?” came the annoyed reply.

“Suga’s condition got worse.”

“What? Oh f-- How bad is it?” Kuroo jolted from his seat and immediately leaned over the boy, casting his large shadow over the print. Kenma frowned and reluctantly put the book away. “Quite bad. He can’t stand on his own,” he said. Hearing that, the man grit his fangs and seethed. “The hell is that idiot hunter doing? Where are they now, at the nest?”

“What do you plan on doing?” Kenma asked, his ears perking up.

“I’m gonna see Suga for myself, of course. And then take him to a doctor.” Kuroo replied.  

Kenma shook his head. “That's a bad idea. And he doesn’t want to.”

Puzzled, he questioned, “I know, but I've got my sources. And why not?” But Kenma didn’t have the answer to the latter. Shaking his head, Kuroo brushed it off. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll bring him there anyway.”

As Kuroo stood to make for the door, Kenma pulled on his tails and stopped him. The man turned round and gave him a strange look, and the boy said, “Don’t. You’ll only make him feel worse.”

“I’m going there to help him, you know?”

“Suga’s been pressured enough. If you go, he’ll withdraw back into his shell again.” Kenma explained, a twinge of concern in his small frown. Kuroo looked pensively at the cat for a while, knowing that he couldn’t pass off the child’s words as nonsense. Even he couldn’t read others as well as Kenma could, and part of his job was to do so. Sighing, he sat back down obediently by Kenma’s side and gave a nod.

“Okay, wise guy. You’re the one who knows what happened. So is there anything else I need to know?”

“Yeah.” Kenma nodded. “Daichi confessed.”


 

Back at the nest, Nishinoya stood at the cave entrance with a grave expression on his face. He looked upon his subjects as the cold moonlight showered them all in a fine white light. Even though the skies were clear tonight, the air weighed on them in an unspeakable heaviness. The little family who worried for Suga could not comprehend what his chilling words meant. The deity who could only protect and destroy could not heal what was broken. This was a job not meant for a guardian, but for the mortals who cared for one another on this realm. With a resigned sigh, Nishinoya shook his head and prepared his wings for takeoff.

“I can’t do anything more for Suga,” he said, “It’s now all up to you.”

“Thank you, Noya.” Daichi replied, grateful for the god’s assistance. Noya gave a firm nod, then disappeared like dust into the night sky, leaving nothing behind but a crackle of thunder.  

Suga lay silently in his bed, shaken by the past and his injuries. He wouldn’t respond to Hinata’s soft pleas, nor Kageyama’s biting urges. He wouldn’t react to Daichi’s gentle hands, who tucked the covers around his shoulders. He stared listlessly at the floor beside him, and it broke Daichi’s heart to see his once lively eyes morph into a dark, hollow shell. Those eyes, which made him fall more for the man every time he saw them. If only, he thought, he could speak through those windows that barred all else from entering his soul.

“Suga.” Daichi said his name quietly, and picked up his cold hand. As much as Suga needed someone to guide him, Daichi too felt lost when it came to Suga. Covering it with his palms, he let his hands slowly warm up his love’s. “We’re all here for you. I don’t know what happened in the past, but it won’t make us change what we feel about you.” He took a moment to breathe, and swallowed the lump in his throat. “We need you here, Suga.”

Feeling sorrow rise in his chest, Hinata sucked back his tears and nodded. “Tell us, Mama.” Kageyama looked on anxiously, his wings trembling as much as his brother’s.

After a few tense moments, the only words that fell out of Suga’s barely moving mouth were, “I… killed them.” He kept his stare on the ground, his eyes half lidded and absent.

“Mama, we have to go to the doctor.” Hinata pleaded, and Suga inhaled slowly.

“The town will… you’ll all… die.”

“Why? It doesn’t make any sense.” Kageyama said, and Suga hushed up again.

Asking wasn’t the answer. Silence wasn’t making progress.

And then, Daichi remembered that moonlit night, where neither of those things happened.

“Hinata, Kageyama. Let me speak with Suga for a while.” he said, and the two obliged. Cradling him in his arms, Daichi carried Suga over to the cliffside and sat with him under the moonlight. As Suga felt the familiar tenderness fall onto his face, he slowly turned to gaze at the floating white globe in the sky. His eyes took in the life the moon gave to the creatures of the night, and it seemed that he, too, was remembering that emotional night. Daichi, who didn’t say anything at all; Suga, who felt the calming warmth of the man’s embrace; and the few words they shared with one another.

It didn’t take long for Suga’s tears to run over.

This time, he turned his head to Daichi’s chest and clutched at the man’s shirt as he wept. Daichi leaned forward and held him closer, blocking out all of the terrible, terrible words and fears that roiled in Suga’s head. They stayed entwined in each other’s arms for what seemed like forever, and when the worst was over, all Suga could think about was that he didn’t want Daichi to let go.

“Daichi,” he cried softly, and looked up shakily into the man’s upset eyes. “Yes, Suga.” Daichi responded quietly, not wanting to speak over him.

“I’m scared. Of what happened before, of the people.” Suga panted.

Daichi took his hand and squeezed it tightly. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

The Kara, riddled with scars within, shook his head. “You don’t know what will happen.”

“And you don’t, either.” Daichi said with stark determination in his voice, chipping away at Suga’s resolute faith in his belief of the past. “I’m here for you, Suga. I won’t let the past happen again. Even if I don’t know what happened, I know for sure that I’ll never let anyone else hurt you.” Suga didn’t know how Daichi could say such absurd things. If he knew what really happened, he thought, surely he would never make such wild promises. But Suga was touched by the sincerity that came from him, and it was just enough to make him think twice about his fears. If it was this hand, then maybe, just maybe , history would not repeat itself.

Taking a brief moment away from his gaze, Suga swallowed and gripped Daichi’s hand back.

“Please promise me something, Daichi. Promise me this, and I'll listen to you.” he pleaded with all the courage he had.

Daichi held his breath. “I’ll promise,” he said.

The most honest words Suga had ever said came tumbling from his heart.

“Don’t let go.”

Chapter Text

The small town of Hanomachi (葉の街: lit. Leaf Town) lay half a day’s hike from the nest. While it didn’t have much, it had what other towns rarely did. A doctor. The Karas woke up bright and early and set off with haste after a light breakfast. Suga couldn’t eat a thing, having lost his strength entirely during the night. Getting up from his bed by himself was next to impossible. And so upon Daichi’s back did he lie as they descended the cliff.

The skies were dim and it seemed that dark clouds were fast approaching. The trees swayed erratically, their branches disturbed by the howling skies overhead.

“Suga, you cold?” Daichi asked, worried that the two capes on the Kara’s back were not enough. Suga grunted softly in reply. Daichi was deathly afraid at this point that something would happen to him, and he wasn’t going to take any chances. There was no time to waste.

But never did he expect a confrontation this early in the morning, as the shadowy figure of Kuroo dropped down without warning from a tree up ahead.

The cat stepped forward silently, his heels barely grazing the ground. His claws hung outstretched on either side, and their long, sharp silhouettes filled Daichi with a prickly premonition. Thankfully, Kuroo’s lips moved before his claws did. “Yo, Daichi. I’ve heard it all from Kenma.” Kuroo said in a low voice and glowered at Daichi. Shifting his gaze, he saw the state the silver Kara was in and cursed inwardly. He walked closer, and Daichi took a step back, unsure of the feline’s intentions.

Narrowing his eyes, Kuroo hissed, “Why didn’t you notice it sooner? Are you blind ?”

So, he wanted a fight. “Kuroo, there’s no time to be arguing here.” said Daichi firmly.

“And to think you track down prey for a living, eh, hunter boy?” he snorted and circled the man.

“He didn’t want us to know.”

“Don’t even give me that crap that Suga lied to you all!” he cut in and glared at Daichi. “What are you, a baby? If he’s a fool, then you can’t afford to be an idiot .”

Daichi frowned, but took no offense. “I’m not going to argue with you. Move aside.”

Kuroo continued to inch closer, grinding his thumb over his knuckles. “You know, I would have smelt it coming a mile away. I would have brought him to a doctor the second I knew.” Almost chest to chest, Daichi stared down the Nekomata’s livid, shrinking irises. The carnivorous, bestial wrath behind those feline eyes reminded him of his mere humanity - but even humans were feared for a reason. “What do you want?” said the hunter. Kuroo bared his fang in a sideways grit and grasped Daichi by the collar.

“You don’t understand. I didn’t come all the way here to stand around and chat. I’d love to rip your throat out and take Suga myself. But I can’t.”

Frightened by the Nekomata’s aggression, Hinata hid behind his brother and mumbled, “Kuroo’s scary.” Even Suga made a soft noise, having been disturbed from his sleep. Making a pained expression, Kuroo let go roughly and turned his back to them. He took a moment to breathe, and his fuzzed up tails swung stiffly behind him.

“You went one step ahead of me, didn’t you?” Kuroo gave a forced laugh, then faced the man with a wry grin. “Never thought you had the balls to do so.”

Daichi stared grimly back, not in the mood for jokes. Kuroo wasn’t expecting a reply, anyway.

“If you dared confess, then take up the damn responsibility. Ah, but don’t start thinking he’s yours yet. The moment you slip up, I’ll be there.” he warned and flashed his claws.

“Suit yourself.” Daichi replied gruffly.

Kuroo snorted in annoyance and flicked his head back. He hated that his hands were tied. That he had no choice but to leave Suga to Daichi. He hated it so much he had to see for himself that the damn human had woken up, both to the sun and to his responsibilities. But beyond that hate was really care, something that Kuroo would never reveal to his rival.

“Tch. Kenma! Get up before they leave!” Kuroo spat loudly and the kitten fell out of the same tree he was just in with a splat. Kenma’s finesse was underwhelming in the morning. The cat got up quickly and jogged over to where Suga was.

He was the only reason he’d woken up this early. Kenma looked up at Daichi with his large, moist eyes and made his pleas known. Bending down, he yielded to the kitten’s ultimate weapon and let him have a closer look at Suga. Kenma reached out and retracted his claws, resting his hand on Suga’s. Suga opened his eyes and recognized the pale yellow child.

“Get well soon.” The child said, his blank face never betraying the thoughts within. Suga lightly squeezed his small hand, another palm that his heart had since familiarized. “Thank you,” he whispered, before fatigue won out and pulled him back into a slumber.

Although it wasn’t farewell forever, it would be a long time before the Karas and the Nekomatas met again. Saying their final greetings and goodbyes - some tearful and some with spite - they scattered knowing that one day, they would return to the forest when their beloved Kara could stand amongst them once more. As the travellers left and the stray cats sat on the grass, watching them go, the youth elbowed the sulking adult and said, “Why don’t you follow them? I’ll allow it.”

The black cat pulled on the kitten’s ear and he swiped at his face.

“You’ll get all of us killed one day, I swear.” Kuroo exclaimed with a nonchalant sigh. Kids say the darndest things.

“But Suga’s important to you.” said Kenma.

“He is. But so are you, and everyone back home. When you grow up, you’ll understand, kit.”

Kenma sighed and hugged his knees to his chest. Those adult things didn’t matter to him at all. “I just want Suga to get better.”

“Me too, kit. Me too.”

Darker and darker did the heavens color, and the churning clouds lowed from the weight within their bellies. A light drizzle began to fall, and Daichi kept the kids close and Suga closer. He knew that the forest’s predators would never pass up an easy target they could smell, and he hoped that the imminent rain would drown out their scent. They only stopped to rest when it was absolutely necessary, but neither one wanted to slow their footsteps at all.

At last, the skies poured down heavily upon the plains, the forest, and the Karas. Lightning struck and illuminated the towering, ghastly trees in stunning flashes of blue and white. The elements outside jostled and crashed against the Kabekis’ impenetrable canopy, keeping them safe from the brunt of the storm. It was eerily quiet despite the thunderous display, and the dense foliage made them feel as if they were trapped in a soundless bubble. It was nerve-wrecking, to say the least.

Then all of a sudden, Daichi felt the hairs on his neck raise and he swiveled his head round. It was exceedingly hard to tell anything apart in the darkness and the constant stirring of leaves, but his eyes definitely caught a blur in the branches.

“Boys, stay ahead of me.” Daichi commanded at once, and they hurried to the front.

“Is something following us?” Kageyama asked worriedly. Hinata gulped and looked about nervously, his wings ready to shoot off at a moment’s notice.

“Don’t panic. We’re almost out.” he replied calmly, and kept the pace going.

But a few minutes passed, and Daichi just couldn’t shake off the feeling of being stalked. He had to do something. “Kageyama, my bow,” he said, and let Suga down onto the moss.

Hinata exclaimed, “Are you going to shoot?”

“Yes. Before it gets to us.” Daichi breathed and swiftly drew his bow, aiming his sights upwards at seemingly nothing. He held his breath for a second and steadied his hands.

A flash of lightning flickered through the leaves and he let go the instant he saw the glimmer of the beast’s eye. But he missed his mark amid the turbulence, and the arrow only served to anger the creature. Hearing its shrill cry, Daichi realized in dread that he was up against a big cat.

Fleeing would be certain death in this maze of trees where the beasts set the rules. Fighting back was going to be a nightmare, for Daichi had to protect three defenseless Karas in a place where his arrows would not fly true. And backup, it seemed, was nowhere to be found. Nothing at all was working in his favour. For the first time, he was the hunted, driven into a corner by a monster twice his size.

Drenched, tired, and sorely beaten down, Daichi breathed deeply and lifted his bow once more.

All of that didn’t matter.

What mattered was what he needed to do to survive.

The behemoth dashed nimbly between the treetops and Daichi’s aim followed. It darted and halted amid its climb several times, trying to throw the hunter off its trail. The beast finally revealed itself when it clambered down a trunk with its huge curved claws, digging into the bark like it was paper. It was a giant lynx, a fearsome predator brimming with power and agility - and so the moment it appeared, Daichi fired. There was no time for doubt.

The arrow landed with a thunk on the trunk and the lynx scampered back into the forest.

Seconds later, it swerved back again and was met with yet another arrow; and another miss. Daichi cursed. He wasn’t just off his game. The cat knew the sting of an arrow.

The third time, it rushed at the man like a runaway carriage - and it was almost point blank as Daichi shot the fiend in the shoulder. Growling in pain, it backed off and shook its shaggy, slicked fur. It pawed at the arrow and snapped it off easily, for its hide had hardened with age and misery. The cat lifted its dark gaze to meet Daichi’s and pulled back its jaw in a menacing snarl. The kids dared not even breathe as they huddled in terror around Suga.

Facing off the lynx which prowled just metres away, Daichi glanced at its bold, magnificent stripes and the countless scars amid them. He drew his knife cautiously and hoped he wouldn’t end up like its victims. It reclined, ready to pounce, and Daichi braced himself.

Without warning the beast lunged forth and pinned him to the ground with a splash. A brawl in the damp grass erupted between the hunters. Daichi yelled and struggled to keep the lynx’s thrashing jaws away from his neck, all while its claws marked painfully into his skin. Hot saliva and blood splattered off the monster’s rabid muzzle as he thrust the knife between its teeth and resisted the onslaught with all his might.

Suddenly, huge, pounding footsteps emerged quickly from the forest, and a loud, throaty squawk followed. In what could only be described as a miracle, the unexpected intruder swiftly bulldozed the lynx off of the man in one mighty swing of its head and sent it flying.

 

Lo! The unlikely savior Daichi had been waiting for!

 

The fat feathered hero chased the mewling lynx angrily back into the woods with its boulder of a beak, bucking and shoving over and over. It wouldn’t let up and was visibly upset as it screeched and stomped its thick legs about, making a great racket in the otherwise quiet forest.    

The gigantic bird stopped only when it heard its name.

“Debu!”

Completely docile, its curious throat bobbed as it cooed motherly and cocked its heavy head towards Daichi. “God, Debu, you’re a lifesaver!” Daichi heaved a great sigh of relief and laughed as he ran to hug the bird’s neck, and Debu squawked happily in reply. It seemed that the worst was over, thanks to the bird’s smashing debut.

Built like a feathered raptor with a round, fluffy body and tiny wings, Debu towered over the man at nearly twice his height. It closely resembled a Physornis, but was arguably its dumpier, cuter cousin with a short temper. Nuzzling affectionately up to Daichi, it tried to sit on him, stepping awkwardly this way and that around him as he panted and tried not to get crushed. It didn’t register to Debu that she was no longer the tiny chick she thought she was, but she would never forget a dear old friend.

Hinata and Kageyama immediately scrambled to Daichi’s side and burst into all manner of ‘are you okays’ and ‘oh no you’re bleedings’, and the man assuaged their fears by introducing them to their new friend. Both a stroke of luck and a calculated move, Daichi knew that Debu frequented the outskirts of Kabeki Forest every day in the afternoon. He knew all this and more, for she belonged to the very person he was searching for.

Determined not to waste the precious time Debu gave them, they made their way out of the forest as fast as they could on birdback.

 

When they finally came crashing into the pen beside a lonely house in the fields, the man of the hour got a rude awakening from his afternoon nap and slammed through the back door in a right fit. With his bloodshot eyes, messed up bed head, and rumpled clothes, he clearly couldn’t handle anymore nonsense for the day - hell, even for the rest of his life.

“Oi, Debu!! What the heck are you--” he blurted out, but lost his raging spirit in the split second he saw who his bird had brought home. Daichi wasn’t the problem. Never in his worst hallucinations did he expect to witness the luridly real sight in the gushing rain before him.

“Daichi? Who are--” The man’s jaw came unhinged and he grasped at his long hair, oblivious to the rain that was rapidly soaking his body. His eyes fixed themselves onto the children and their black wings, and the wrapped up man that lay hidden in his friend’s son’s arms.

“Ukai, I don’t have time to explain. I need your help.” Daichi said as he barged his way through. The blonde staggered backwards in shock, reaching his arm out to the doorframe to steady himself. “Only you can help us, so please, save him!” he pleaded and bowed his head, shouting over the rain.

Ukai darted his eyes back and forth between Daichi and the sick man’s face. For him to have travelled all the way from the forest in this harsh weather, even looking like he had just been mauled, it looked really serious.

At his wit’s end, Ukai ruffled up his hair and yelled, “All of you, just-- just get your asses in first! Debu, get back to the shed!”

He swung the door wide open and they all dashed in, thankful to be out of the rain. They tried to be careful walking in as the inside was a frankly shocking clutter of papers, boxes, and bottles of all sorts - but Ukai could care less as he shoved away at them to make space for his unexpected guests, crashing and tumbling the items about.

“Put him down here. Get all that wet clothing off at once,” he instructed, dusting away a spot right in front of the fireplace. Daichi did as he was told, and as Ukai hurried back from finding clean towels for everyone, he stared dumbfounded with stark realization at the Kara’s silver wings.

“Daichi, you don’t mean…” he breathed and tossed a towel at Hinata, who caught it with his face.

 

“Yes. This is the crow I shot.”

 

“Oh, fuckin’ hell. ”  

Chapter Text

Ukai sat with his palm pressed over his forehead. He chewed roughly on a piece of gummy bark, then spat it out into the fire. After inhaling long and hard, he let it all out in a sunken sigh.

“You are a bloody idiot, you know that?” he muttered at the boy.

“I know. I’m sorry.” replied Daichi, his head hung low. He gripped his fists on his knees and gazed at Suga, who had started to wake. “Mama!” the kids exclaimed, and Ukai made another face.

Mama ? No, never mind, I don’t want to hear it.”

“Sir, I know it’s really sudden, but you have to help him. I’ll pay you. I’ll do anything!” Daichi said and grabbed Ukai’s arms in earnest, shaking the poor man who had been thrown headlong into this dire situation. “Whoa, stop, stop! I don’t need your damn money, so calm down. Geez, it’s like you’re a complete stranger.” The older man shook his head and pushed the boy’s arms away with both hands. He always knew Daichi to be a calm and steady person, not this blubbering mess.

“So you’ll help him?”

“The question is if I can help him. I’ve only stitched up birds for the past decade, you know?”

A groan interrupted them and Hinata tugged at Daichi’s arm. “Mama’s shivering!” he cried, and looked ready to burst into tears again. Daichi quickly ruffled his head and calmed him down, saying, “Don’t cry. The doctor’s here to help.”

Ukai flicked his tongue. “Like I said--”

Another moan arose, and the Kara’s chest stuttered with his shallow breathing. Every time he woke up an intense pain would greet him and drag him back into unconsciousness, and sometimes he wished he’d never have to wake up again. Panting, he opened his eyes and searched for Daichi’s hand, who found his first in a tight squeeze.

“Suga, can you hear me? We’re at the doctor’s house now.” Daichi said, and Suga looked around hazily at the foreign walls. When his eyes landed on the stern-faced stranger, he instinctively gasped and reclined, keeping his wings far from Ukai’s reach. His heart beated quickly and he trembled under the blanket, refusing to acknowledge the doctor.

“Suga, don’t worry. He’s a friend.” said Daichi gently and patted his shoulder.

Ukai raised an eyebrow and rested an elbow on his knee. There was something besides Daichi’s obvious affection going on here. “What, is there something on my face?”  

“No, he’s just… scared.” Daichi didn’t know how to explain it either.

“Well, I can’t treat him if I can’t examine him, yeah?”

Ukai tried reaching out to draw back the blanket, but Suga flinched and turned his shoulder away. “It’s alright, Suga. He won’t hurt you.” Daichi persuaded. Still, he hesitated and wouldn’t budge. Ukai scratched his head and sighed miserably again. Dealing with difficult patients was a part of his job, except that most of the time they couldn’t speak and were less human.

“Oi, Suga. I won’t touch your wings.” Ukai said out of the blue and in a gentler tone than usual. “So let me see that, alright?”

Suga seemed confused at first, as if something didn’t click. But then a small change in his gaze came forth, stemming from a new piece of knowledge he had gained from his senses. Nodding, he slowly took the blanket off himself and laid his wounds bare for the doctor to see. Even when Ukai came closer and began taking his pulse and tapping on his skin, he held onto his nerves and didn’t resist.  

 

The doctor narrowed his eyes grimly as he checked the wound, rattling off bits of his observations at each step.

“There’s no infection. Good, the medicine took care of that.”

He touched the swelling skin lightly and prodded as far as he could without hurting Suga.

“The wound’s somewhat closed. The arrowhead made it out, yes?” he asked, trusting that the boy wasn’t that dumb. Daichi nodded, of course.

Looking up, he then probed, “How far did it go?” The hunter took out an arrow and placed two fingers above the arrowhead. Ukai frowned and snatched the arrow from him, then turned the small flinthead over in his fingers. “You weren’t hunting big game that day,” he remarked.

“No.”

“Well thank goodness, eh?” he mocked, then tossed the arrow to one side and dropped his grin immediately. “Internal bleeding. Bad. The arrow probably lacerated his intestines and it didn’t heal properly.”

Daichi swallowed. “What will you do?”

Standing up, Ukai’s frown deepened as he rubbed his mouth and mumbled quietly, “We need to operate.”

Hinata fainted and Kageyama slapped him awake.

“Can you do it?” asked Daichi, and Ukai pinched his thick brows. He didn’t look ready at all, and a sweatdrop rolled down his neck.

“I have to try, or he’ll definitely die when morning comes.”

Hinata fainted again and this time Kageyama let him be.

“Then we’ll do it now. What do you need?” Even though Daichi’s voice was steady, his hands gave away his true composure. Strangely, the calmest person in the room was the patient himself. Suga held the man’s shaking hand and kneaded his warm, thick fingers, giving him whatever comfort he could.

“I need blood. He’ll bleed out the moment I cut him open.”

“Take mine, then.” Daichi offered, but was immediately slammed into his place by Ukai. “You moron! You’re a human, and he’s a Kara. Blood from two different species can’t mix, they’ll just clump up his arteries and kill him.”

“Then what about us? We’ll give Mama our blood--” Kageyama spoke up, but was instantly shut down as well.

“Stop it right there. The both of you are kids, and if I take any blood from your tiny little bodies we’ll have two more problems on our hands.”

“Then how can we…” Daichi trailed off and grit his teeth, losing hope once more. Hinata and Kageyama’s grave faces looked a far cry from the likes of other children their age. Seeing all of their dejected expressions, Ukai felt at once their love for this Kara and a horrible pang in his chest.

What went on next in his mind nobody could fathom, for he had told not a single soul about his memories.

Fate must be having a real laugh right about now, he thought, pleased at itself for playing this perfectly cruel joke on him. It took everything about his wretched past and placed it in the hands of this young man he doted upon - then handed him the judge’s gavel.

 

Now that the choice lies with you , Fate whispered, will you save Suga ?

No one saved him , so why should you?

 

He felt angry with himself for having those second thoughts. Daichi shouldn’t have to bear the consequences of the deep grudge he still held. Having watched the boy grow up since he was a young lad of ten, Daichi was like a son to him. He would never dream of letting the boy down, for the bonds he and his family had forged over the years were far too precious. In fact, they were the ones who accepted him and helped him walk away from his past, even though they knew nothing at all.

Returning to the present, Ukai clenched his jaw and stood up. Suga was different, he thought, justifying against his wicked impulses. This one must have been a victim as well.

 

And he would empathize with that.

 

He made up his mind and grabbed two needles and a bowl.

Piercing the needle under his skin, he watched with dark eyes as the cylinder filled with red liquid. Taking Suga’s arm, he did the same with the other needle, but drew just a bit.

He wouldn’t let Fate have the last laugh.

With stiff but steady hands, he pushed down and emptied the vials together into the bowl. As the dark liquids swirled into one, Ukai waited a few seconds with bated breath. When he saw what was left inside, he let out a bitter smirk.

It seemed like he would have the pleasure of handing Fate back its punchline.

 

Settled there in the bowl, without a single clump or blemish, was a perfectly homogenous layer of blood.

Chapter Text

Ukai Keishin’s wooden cottage was not the textbook definition of a home. When viewed from the front, it certainly looked commonplace enough in terms of design choice. One redwood door. Two large framed windows. Faded maroon tiles. And then an alarming amount of overgrowth that spilled from the open windows and slipped between the cracks on the roof. If one took the time to step around the property, one would notice that the house was more like a collection of rooms. Old and new planks had been cobbled together in a worrying frankenstein of structural integrity, but still it stood well and good over the years.

Not much care went into beautifying the house as it wasn’t practical to do so at all. Every day, something was going to be broken by either Debu or another bird, so any attention to detail went towards mending that. The last time the roof had been fixed was never, and the creepers seemed to be doing a good job at keeping out the rain anyway. The floorboards were basically non-existent at this point, but having grass for the floor made more sense as the house was always full of vegetation. There wasn’t a proper bedroom, but he did have a proper bed. There wasn’t an actual library, and his parcels of papers and books stacked themselves in tall towers about the place. The storefront could only be termed so by virtue of the countertop that was set up in the living room. By any other standards it would be a glorified warehouse, with shelves upon shelves of his goods adorning the walls.

However crippled and mismanaged the house was, it was what Ukai and his dozens of birds called home. It was where he made an honest living brewing medicine and healing birds, having decided to follow his family’s tradition. Injured avians of all kinds would hobble and flap their way to his shack, and Ukai concluded that it must have been word-of-beak which brought them here.

They trusted the man with their broken wings, open wounds, and oftentimes terrible illnesses from which death was certain. After nursing them back to health, the birds would fly off and return with offerings of thanks. Sometimes they brought back their friends, which was not a help at all. Other times they brought what Ukai asked of them, usually a rare herb where only their wings could travel. Some chose to make his nest their own, which was how one palm-sized chick grew into a lumbering, lovable Debu.

That was how Ukai lived his life for the past ten years, among his growing family of birds.

And that was all Daichi and his family knew about him.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” said Daichi. It was a question that had many answers, and Ukai had a reply that would only spur more uncertainty. Sighing, the man lit up a large candle and snuffed out the match. He thought he would never have to tell his tale.

“Since it’s come down to this, I’ll tell you everything after the op.” he said. Rolling up his shirt, he paused and glanced at the boy, adding, “Don’t start making wild guesses.”

Daichi had never seen the older man unclothed, and for good reason.

It was painfully obvious.

In the gloom and the hushed sounds of the heavy rain pelting the window, the pale candlelight shone onto the tan and rugged back of the doctor. Long, mauve-colored streaks ran up either side of his spine; and as Daichi’s eyes trailed upwards they widened, aghast at the gut-wrenching sight before him. Each terrible scar terminated in a dark, mangled notch of bone that jutted out by his shoulder blades. They were relics of what used to be, and the hunter could imagine how messily they had been torn to have left such a ragged mark.

Ukai ignored the boys’ stunned looks and slipped on a clean set of clothes. He rolled out a tray of silver instruments and bottles of medicine next to his bed where Suga rested. The clinic didn’t have an actual operating table, but he wasn’t going to do it on the floor like he did for the beasts.

“All right, all of you. Get out of the way.” he said as he shuffled about here and there, preparing the place for surgery.

“But--” Hinata began, looking up at Ukai.

“No buts. It’ll be too crowded in here,” he shooed him off like one of his birds and frowned. “And you don’t want to see me cut your Mama open.”

“Then what about Daichi?”

“He has to go, too.”

But Suga clutched Daichi’s hand when he heard that and mumbled feebly, “Stay, please.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” he assured.

“Yes, you are.” Ukai said firmly and tied up his unruly hair, finishing off the stray strands with a hairband.

“Ukai, please.”

The blonde glared at Daichi for a few seconds, then grunted and waved his hand dismissively. Daichi took that as a yes, and he led the reluctant kids out of the area and next to the crackling fireplace.

Kageyama didn’t feel good about this at all, and his silent frown told the whole story. Hinata moped at the side and fiddled with his feathers, which had frayed from all the touching. Daichi knew they had been under a lot of stress lately, and it wasn’t easy for them to just leave everything to the adults. Daichi patted their shoulders and they looked up at him.

“Go warm up by the fire, alright? I’ll come get you two when it’s over.”

“Are you sure it’ll be alright?” Kageyama asked.

“I trust him.” he replied.

Hinata moved forward and hugged Daichi’s legs, and he said softly, “I believe you.”

Daichi hugged him back, always grateful. “Thank you,” he replied, and rubbed both of their heads.

With quick steps, he walked back to the bed. Ukai didn’t look up once, a scarf around his nose as he focused on sterilizing a scalpel over the candle’s flame.  

“If you’re staying, you’re helping. There’s no room for error here.” he muttered, turning the blade over, then setting it aside to cool.

“Yes, sir. Just tell me what to do.” Daichi responded.

“You can start by arranging the towels. Make sure he’s warm.”

Daichi covered Suga’s legs and torso with layers of towels, exposing his belly for the surgery. “Comfortable?” he asked while smoothing them over his body gently, and Suga nodded, amazed by a new sensation even at this juncture. He touched the pillow filled with down under his head and felt the softness of the mattress underneath. It was unlike anything he had ever slept upon before; a far better host than the stone cold floor of his cell, the thin leaf bedding of the nest, and even the large beanbag at Kenma’s.

“This is a…proper bed, right?” Suga croaked, and Daichi nodded without question.

The Kara smiled faintly. “It’s nice.”

He picked up Suga’s cold hand and warmed it between his palms. “I’ll get you one.” he said quietly.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Oi, lovebirds. Let’s begin.” Ukai interrupted and clapped once.

All the preparations were ready, and he needed to make sure the other two were as well. Although it wasn’t a complicated procedure, he couldn’t be certain of the patient’s condition - an important factor that would severely tip the scales. If anything, he was counting on the Kara’s resilience, already astounded that he had made it this far without dying.

Ukai spoke in a much more reserved tone as he took control of the operation. “Now, just relax, and try not to look. I need you to be calm.” he instructed. Suga nodded in understanding. He closed his eyes and tried to purge his fears, breathing deeply in and out.

“I’m giving you something to numb the pain. You won’t feel anything for the next hour.” Ukai said, and drew a slender glass vial filled with an anesthetic. He carefully pierced through the abdomen with the needle, eliciting a wince from the Kara. Slight discomfort soon turned into numbness, and within minutes he couldn’t feel the lower half of his body. Without the pain Suga felt much more at ease and his grimace dissipated.

After taking his pulse, Ukai nodded and swabbed his belly and arm with alcohol. He took out a home-made blood transfusion apparatus, a simple device of two needles joined by a tube with a clamp in between.

“Is this really okay?” Daichi swallowed, staring at the sharp point as it disappeared into Ukai’s arm.

“You saw it yourself,” the man replied factually.

“No, I mean, you giving your blood…”

“I’ll be fine, Daichi. Just focus on Suga.” Ukai tied the needle securely to his arm, careful not to restrict the blood flow, then inserted the other end into Suga’s vein. The clamp was shut, and he would wait until the time came to open it.

He tossed Daichi another bunch of towels - there seemed to be no end to them - and picked up the scalpel.

“It’s going to get messy, and I need you to soak up the blood. Ready?”

“Yes, sir.”

 

Ukai breathed and made the first incision.

It wasn’t the same as cutting through a bird’s skin. It was tender and smooth without feathers and bumps; but the real difference here was the weight of four lives that rested upon his shoulders.

Ukai worked quickly through the skin, under the thin layer of subcutaneous fat, and beneath the abdominal muscles. Suga felt a strange pressure within him as he was being sliced open, and he kept his wavering eyes on the oil lamp that hung above their heads. He tried not to think about it.

Ukai squinted grimly as blood began to pool and spill over the side. The peritoneum had been compromised. Daichi held his composure and mopped up the dark red liquid as told.

Ukai didn’t flinch, and he pressed on.

Clamping the cavity open with retractors, he reached in with two pairs of tongs and searched carefully through the viscera. Everything was red, red, and more red, and panic began to creep in. The longer he took to find the problem, the worse the toll on the patient’s body.

A few minutes passed in tense silence. Ukai grit his teeth until they hurt, frustrated with himself.

“Ukai, Suga’s…!” Daichi suddenly cried out in alarm as he felt Suga’s pulse ebb away. His breathing quickened and dipped into shallow gasps, and his lips drained of their color. “Shit.” Ukai cursed, glancing briefly at his patient. He was running out of time.

“Open the clamp. Warm up his limbs, quickly. He can’t get cold.”  

With a twist of the clamp, warm, living blood started to trickle into Suga’s exhausted veins. Daichi rubbed his palms together and massaged Suga’s arms and legs, helping his beating heart circulate what was left. Suga’s head didn’t feel like his own and he fought to make his lungs work, breathless and terrified. Even though nothing made sense anymore and he feared the devil would come, he felt a tight, hot grasp on his hand which pulled him through the fog and into the light.

“Suga, hang in there,” he heard Daichi say, and he turned his head limply towards his voice. That was all the response he could give.

When Ukai finally found the tear on one of the intestinal walls, he blinked for the first time in a while and heaved, steadying his scared stiff hands.

“Found it. Treating the tear now.”

Switching over to a tiny curved needle that had been strung with catgut, he began suturing the tear one stitch at a time. His forehead wrinkled with intense concentration as he teased the needle delicately between the injured folds. Suga wouldn’t survive another operation, so it had to be perfect. After finishing the final loop, he checked for any other injuries until he was satisfied, then placed everything back in order. Then came the last steps of cauterizing and flushing the blood and impurities out, and making sure no air pockets remained in his belly. Everything had taken him just over fifteen minutes.

“Everything’s out. No other complications. Bleeding’s stopped.” Ukai fired off his mental checklist, then exhaled deeply.

“We’ll stitch him up now.”

The worst had passed and it seemed like Suga’s breathing had stabilized, owing to the fresh oxygen he received with Ukai’s blood. A faint glow returned to his cheeks -  not quite healthy, but far from death. Daichi sighed and as the adrenaline died down, he loosened his grip on Suga’s hand, deeply aware and afraid of the man’s fragility.

Ukai finished suturing the wound with ease, quickly and expertly sewn. The moment he snipped off the thread, he tossed his tongs aside with a metallic clatter of finality and panted heavily. He had been holding his breath, and now he could breathe without inhibition.

“It’s done. Ah, fuckin’ hell...” he groaned. After plucking out the transfusion needles, he huffed and slumped with a great rumble onto his chair. Slightly light-headed from the stress and loss of blood, he whipped off his scarf and rubbed his worn-out face.

The ordeal was finally over. Now, only time could tell.

Tossing the scarf into the messy pile of bloodied towels, he groaned in dread of the exponentially growing laundry list. At least, he figured, he had some help now.

“Oi, Daichi. Bandage him up for me and take the towels to the back. I’m going to hit the hay.” he yawned, abruptly standing to leave.

“Ukai, wait.”

“Ah?”

Daichi hugged him tightly and Ukai stumbled in surprise as he felt like he was being mauled by a bear. When was the last time he’d been hugged by his little boy? Gone were the short, skinny arms that reached up to his waist, replaced by strong hands that locked around his back. But despite everything that happened, Daichi was still Daichi, and that would never change.

“Thank you,” the boy whispered.

Ukai smirked and patted his back. This was what family felt like.

“Go on now, boy. Take care of him.”

Ukai left with a lighter heart than he had entered and cozied up next to Debu in the shed, now that his bed had been occupied by his godson’s sweetheart. He lit up a cigarette and puffed out a long stream of smoke, causing Debu to warble and snort through her beak in annoyance. Ukai shushed her and flicked the ashes off.

“Let me have this, okay? I haven’t scolded you yet for breaking the fence today.” he muttered tiredly and exhaled another plume with a sigh.

“You’re just like him. Always telling me not to smoke.”

Nary a sound floated through the dark shed as the sleeping birds on the rafters and nests below rested in harmonious peace. With nowhere else for his mind to wander, he travelled alone back to those days when he was just as young and foolish as Daichi was. This unwarranted reminiscing troubled him, but he couldn’t deny the shining pieces that would sometimes fall through the cracks. They always lit up his hardened heart and gave him the most delightful feeling, a natural high that couldn’t be replicated.

 

As he thought back to the sight of Suga’s hand clasped within Daichi’s, he remembered the first time he experienced that magical moment for himself.

He smiled, holding a bittersweet throb in his chest, and he spoke out loud as if he was reliving that moment.

“I did well today, right? I want to hear you praise me…”

His hands ached for a touch that he had long forgotten.

“Sensei.”




Chapter Text

 

Suga awoke when night fell.

He opened his eyes to darkness and the faded smell of rust in the air. Within his drowsy mind he remembered bits and pieces of the hours before and wondered if he was in the land of the living. He slowly moved his hand under the covers and touched his belly, feeling the bandage. The effects of the anesthetic had worn off and a dull pain took its place.

Ah, he was still alive.

Then he noticed a lying figure beside him, a head of spiky black hair resting on an arm. It was Daichi, and Suga felt the urge to pat the man’s fluffy head.

And so he did.

It was calming to feel his short hair between his fingers, like as if he had a pet by his side. But his quiet amusement soon came to an end when Daichi woke with a grumble. He reached around his head to find the source of the petting, and as soon as he recognised the slender hand as Suga’s, he looked up, and saw his dear Kara smiling back at him.

Daichi broke into a smile and held the endearingly offending hand, looking into Suga’s clear eyes and silver lashes that glittered serenely in the moonlight.

“Good, um… morning.” he spoke in a hushed whisper, for the boys were sleeping just opposite them on the floor. “How are you feeling?”

“Better.” Suga replied softly, his voice cracked and dry. He licked his chapped lips, and Daichi asked, “Should I get you some water?”

He shook his head.

“What about the pain?”

“A little.”

“That’s good. I don’t know if you remember it, but the surgery was a success. Ukai really did his best.”

“Amazing.” Suga smiled, his voice still a little groggy from sleep. Daichi chuckled. The man was cute even when he was half dead.

“Daichi… your shoulder.” Suga said, noticing the man’s dried-up wounds. Everyone had forgotten about it in the hectic rush to save Suga; even the mauled one himself had taken it completely off his mind. Daichi shrugged it off and said, “It’s nothing.”

“What happened?”

“Ah… you… weren’t conscious then.” Daichi recalled. “We were attacked by a lynx when we were almost out of the forest. It clawed me while I was fending it off.”

The Kara’s brows slowly furrowed and Daichi flinched. That face never meant good news. Suga slipped his hand out of Daichi’s and touched the scars, staring intently at them as if in a trance.

“I didn’t know.” he uttered, and his face fell.

“You couldn’t have. You fainted.”

Suga looked down and tried to remember, but it was all a blank space in the timeline to him. “You made it out with all three of us… all by yourself?” he mumbled.

“Debu saved us at the last moment. Oh, did you know…?”

“No.” Suga said as his face turned even more morose than before. Daichi panicked and his shoulders tensed up.

“I-it’s okay, you’ll meet her in the morning and we’ll explain everything that happened.”

Suga’s face didn’t look comforted in the least.

“You won’t miss a thing, okay?”

He looked like he was going to cry.

“Everything’s fine now, there’s nothing to worry about.”

His lip trembled just a bit as he said quietly, “It must have been terrible.”

Daichi seemed to have realized how Suga felt at that moment. He calmly lowered his profile and nodded with a glum look on his face. “Yeah, it was really scary. I honestly thought we weren’t going to make it.”

“You’re very brave, Daichi.”

“I almost peed my pants,” he chuckled.  

Suga’s expression changed to that of concern in a heartbeat. “Really?”

“It was two times my size, you know? Ahh, I’m going to have nightmares just thinking about it.” Daichi lamented with a sigh and plopped his chin onto the bed. It wasn’t far from the truth, but he might have made too pitiful a face.

“Daichi, come here.”

“Eh?”

Suga lightly smoothed his fingers down Daichi’s jaw, sending a shiver down his spine. He guided the man’s chin to his chest and folded his arms tenderly around his neck, making Daichi’s pulse race. He blushed, hearing Suga’s heartbeat throb against his ear as his lungs filled with his calming and alluring scent. Closing his eyes, he felt like a child again when Suga stroked his head gently. All he needed now was a lullaby.

“The bed’s too small,” the Kara murmured, and Daichi’s overthinking mind sputtered and coughed.

“S-small?”

“Your neck’s going to ache in the morning.”

“No, this is very comfortable.” he smiled.

Suga’s fingers brushed against his neck and another shiver rolled down his back. Daichi wondered if Suga knew what he was doing to him, because he was hitting all the right buttons with a sledgehammer.

“I’ll wake you up if you get a nightmare,” promised Suga as his eyelids drooped.

“I’m not a kid.”

“Even adults… get nightmares.”

And they fell back into slumberland, catching up the few hours of darkness left before daybreak.

That night, Daichi had the sweetest dream he’d ever had with Suga in it. The details of which have since been lost to some higher power, for the fickleness of dream remembrance dictates that it shall not be known. But that was not the most interesting feature of his dream tonight; nay, he’d had several dreams before regarding the saccharine Suga.

In the few minutes before he woke up, Daichi met a Suga he’d never seen before.

 

The two were in a dark room, just like the one their waking selves were in. They were lying all snug and cozy in a large bed, and Suga was getting a little too handsy.

“Hey, Daichi… you know… I like strong men.” he said in a sultry murmur, giving Daichi those bedroom eyes.

“Suga, you…” Daichi gasped, feeling Suga’s hand slide under his shirt and roam around his chest. His eyes blazed with desire as he lifted the cloth, revealing the delicious pecs underneath.

“Wow… look at all that. I just want to take a bite…”

And then the Suga that existed only in his dreams opened his dainty mouth.

 

But as he bit down, the sensation was far from sensual and way too large, like a vice clamped around his torso.

 

It was obvious why that was so when Daichi awakened with startled eyes, finding himself stuck between Debu’s huge, breath-filled beak. With a jerk and a yelp she lifted him into the air and gave a friendly squawk, accompanied by Ukai’s angry voice and the peaceful chittering of birds in the morning air.

“What the hell are you doing, sleeping on his chest like that? He’s got enough trouble breathing as it is!” he scolded and thwacked him across the bum with a duster. He was quite used to getting disciplined from his elders, especially from whatever cleaning aid Ukai had on hand.

“Gah, that hurts! Debu, put me down!” he yelled and tried to prise himself out of this very literal sticky situation. Her saliva-coated tongue lolled about in her beak as she squawked a no, completely on her master’s side.

“Debu, you hold him up there until he learns his lesson.”

“Ukai…” Daichi groaned and frowned at him, but Ukai wasn’t there to see his displeasure.

He was there to see his patient.

Suga was still fast asleep, unfazed by the commotion that was happening right by his ear. He slept all the way through Ukai’s inspections and only woke up after the bandage had been changed. Sleepily blinking to life, he saw the blonde first, then the fat bird, and lastly the fat bird’s breakfast. His brain took a few seconds to process this strange collection of events, but he didn’t bat an eyelid as he mumbled a morning greeting.

“Ah, you’re up.” Ukai greeted back, then brought over a glass of water. “Here, drink. Can you move?”

Suga nodded and reached for the glass, but Ukai felt his weak grip and shook his head.

“It’s okay. I’ll do it.”

Moving closer, he held up Suga’s head and carefully tilted the glass.

Debu and Daichi battled for dominance in the background until, at long last, the human managed to slip out of the bird’s beak by virtue of superior intelligence. He blanched at the smell of bird slobber all over him and he moaned at Debu.

“Ugh. See what you did?”

Disgusted, he stripped his singlet off hastily and flung the horrid thing into a pile of laundry. Debu snorted indignantly, having finished her fun with Daichi. She trod round to bump Ukai with her head, asking for her real breakfast. But the slightest nudge from her was like a miniscule earthquake, and Ukai fought to steady the glass before it spilled all over Suga’s face.

“Oi, easy there! You’ll get your grub as soon as I’m done.” he said and patted Debu’s clingy nose away, then resumed his doctorly duties. Daichi sat down by the bed to listen in as well. “Are you feeling any pain? Any discomfort?”

“A little bit.” Suga replied.

“If you want to, I’ll give you some soothing herbs to curb the pain.”

“Can I have tea?” he requested.

“Sure, I’ve got all sorts. But you’re not allowed to eat anything else or move about for at least a week. That means you stay in that bed, don’t move an inch, and get plenty of sleep.”

Suga looked concerned, first and foremost bothered by the fact that he had taken such a luxurious form of bedding away from his savior. The lack of mobility was but a secondary thought. “But this is your bed,” he said.  

“Don’t worry about me-- I can deal with the floor for a week.” Ukai folded his arms and scratched his elbow, thinking about his disrupted routine. “But I won’t be around all the time, so I’ll have to trust Daichi to take care of you.”

“Daichi’s a good nurse.” Suga smiled reassuringly, and when he heard that Ukai laughed gaily and slapped Daichi on the back. “Well he’d better be, since you’re that very big crow he shot down.”

“That’s what he told you?” The Kara looked surprised at Daichi, and the man blushed while trying to explain himself out of this awkward situation.

“I thought that revealing you were a Kara would be bad because-- you know-- so I went with the next best thing. I still managed to get my point across anyway.”   

Ukai snorted. “You got that right. I would have flipped all my tables seeing you cradle a crow the size of Debu in here.”

Suga giggled at the thought, but sadly had to stop because the pain came jabbing back. It was then that Ukai saw the way Daichi looked at Suga and the infectious jubilance the Kara possessed. What sweet young love, he thought, knowing that Daichi had never been this way with another person before. He was too much of a dork and a hunting fanatic in his teenage years to have courted someone. Ukai sighed and ruffled his tangled hair, chiding himself for having the musings of an old man at the age of thirty.

“Mister Ukai,” Suga spoke, cementing the fact that he was ancient to him.

“Hm?”

“Can I call you Sensei?”

Ukai’s heart jittered for a second - but it regained its footing shortly afterwards.

“No.” he said in a low voice, “Mister Ukai will do.”

Suga smiled brightly at him. “Thank you, Mister Ukai. I wouldn’t have survived without you.”

Ukai had to blink twice before remembering to respond. Rarely did he get a word of thanks from his patients, and this one in particular was special to him. “That’s alright. I can’t say no to my boy and his lover,” he quipped, smiling back.

“Lover?” asked Suga innocently, “You mean me?”

“What, aren’t you?”

Daichi immediately dragged Ukai off to the side in a hurry and the older man frowned suspiciously at him.

“What’s going on here, some kind of coercion?” he accused in a fierce whisper, setting off a furious exchange of hushed arguments. The boy shook his head fervently while making a cross with his arms.

“It’s not like that! God, do you think so terribly of me now?”

“Well, you did shoot down a person. And as a Kara, I am offended.” Ukai shrugged.

“Fair point--” Daichi nodded-- “But that’s not the point! Suga doesn’t have a concept of romantic love.”

Ukai raised his thick brows and opened his mouth in an exaggerated, silent, ‘huh?’. Daichi nodded back in all seriousness. It then somehow turned into a mime as they gestured back and forth in animated displays of disbelief and reasoning, smacking on their palms here and there and contorting their faces as they argued.

“Um, is something wrong?” Suga asked from his bed as he got acquainted with Debu, stroking her fuzzy head as she sniffed him.

“No, no, we’re just-- um-- chatting!”

You suck at lying, ” Ukai muttered, and Daichi narrowed his eyes at him. “So, what have you done so far? Held hands? Kissed? Had--”

“--we’ve held hands. He’s kissed my cheek. And I’ve seen…everything.”

The uncle figure sputtered and raised his hapless shoulders at his nephew. “And he didn’t react at all?”

“No. He’s cute in that way.” Daichi flushed.

“You sure he likes you?”

“He does, but… I’m not sure it’s romance.”

Ukai sighed and smiled wryly. Looks like this old dog needed to teach the pup a thing or two. “There’s only one way to find out, yeah? You’ve got a whole week to be right by his side, and heaven help me if by the end of it, you don’t get a smidgen of his feelings. There has to be something in there, you just gotta tease it out.”

Daichi nodded, feeling like a determined warrior equipped with the most basic wooden stick. Needless to say, it wasn’t enough to slay a dragon. “I’ll do my best,” he uttered.

Ukai tapped his chin and glanced over to the side. His voice dropped to a low murmur as he spoke in Daichi’s ear. “By the way, I’m guessing this has something to do with his grey wings.”

The man perked up. This might be an important clue. “What do you mean?”

“Karas don’t like abnormality, I can tell you that. He might have gone through something terrible, something far worse than bullying.” he said, putting out his thoughts. “You’ll have to ask him about it one day.” This worried Daichi a little, hearing it straight from another Kara. He would have pressed Ukai further, but he knew he had his own scars from being in that community.

“I understand. Thank you, Ukai.”

Clearing their throats, they put on their best poker faces and strode back to the bed together as allies. Suga peered doubtfully at them, set off by how they avoided his question and had to discuss it in a corner. Daichi sweated and smiled at him, starting up the conversation again.

“So, where were we?”

“Mister Ukai was talking about lovers.” Suga replied.

“Ah, right. I think Daichi has an answer for that.” Ukai smirked, pushing him into the fray already. But loverboy here wasn’t mentally prepared, and he deflected the question right back at him.

“No, Ukai has far more experience than I do. Right, old man?”

Ukai’s eye twitched and he grit his teeth at Daichi.  

“You do? Do you have one?” Suga asked.

“Yeah. I did. Sort of.”

They noticed the past tense, and looked at each other.

“Did?” they said in unison, and Ukai sighed and rubbed his fatigued face. He hunched over on his chair and clasped his hands together.

“Well, it’s not a great story. But if you really want to know, his name was Takeda Ittetsu.”

Suga swallowed. “What happened?”

Ukai looked up with an unsmiling gaze. “I think you already know.”

 

“He died twelve years ago.”  

Chapter Text

Every day in Ukai’s droll sixteen-year-old existence was a chore.

On the outside, he looked just like any of the other boys his age; young and energetic, with a beautiful set of glossy, black crow wings. And just like the angst that so dwelled within every teenager, the onset of a perpetual frown had fused itself with his darkly handsome face - and for good reason.

Ukai lived in a strict household with his dull parents and a cranky grandfather. The family business of a clinic welcoming birds of all kinds was forced upon him the moment he turned of intelligent age. They always explained to him that it was tradition and their means of scraping by in this world - but to him, all of that was just an excuse not to hire a worker. Along with the passing of the ropes was the knowledge that they weren’t living in poverty - maybe even well above the average - for they were one of the only doctors in their community of Karas.

To say he hated his job was putting it lightly. He loathed it to the marrow of his bones and abhorred it to last dimension of hell and back. He would rather bathe in a whole tub of bird droppings than get up early to tend to the place.

Speaking of bird droppings, there was a lot of the stuff.

The clinic was full of never ending things to take care of besides the patients. Peppered among the menial tasks - like taking out the trash and getting food - was wrangling stressed out birds and performing first aid. But he never progressed past being an errand boy, for he never saw the benefit in exerting himself. If anything, it meant more work on top of his already miserable and endangered social life.

The only time he felt alive was away from that accursed clinic, which was why he took forever whenever he was sent out to hunt game. It wasn’t quite a fun night with his buddies, but being out there in the empty wilderness was a huge breath of fresh air for his stifled soul. Whenever he rode the high winds and felt the frigid air nibble his face, all the pent up rage within the boy would drift away in the breeze. No more ‘Ukai do this’, or ‘Ukai do that’-- he was the boss of himself out here, all alone in the white snowy peaks with his trusty bloodhawk Akkuro.

Ukai’s usual hunting spot was a dense pine forest south of the village, where deer and numerous furry critters gathered. But it was close to condor territory, which meant they had to cross the connecting plain on foot or risk pursuit. As they exited the evergreen forest, Ukai’s snow boots crunched noisily across the freshly frosted ground. Akkuro strode beside him on full alert, its amber reptilian eyes blinking every now and then as it scanned the horizon for life. Half the boy’s size, the male bird made for a great hunting companion as one of the swiftest predators on the plains. Their modus operandi was simple; catch, kill, and carry. Because they were both capable of flight, everything was much more efficient than a hunter and his dog on foot.

Ukai was hoping to snag a nice fat stag that would last for a few weeks, and it seemed like Akkuro was optimistic today. The hawk prowled steadily forward like a bloodhound, its bullet-shaped body pointed low to the ground.

Ukai’s deep voice sounded through his wooly muffler, “Got something?”

Akkuro chirped sharply but softly, as if he was shushing the boy up. Ukai clicked his tongue and rubbed the bird’s head roughly. If birds could roll their eyes, it would have there and then. Turning his eyes toward the mountain range, Ukai noticed a part where the thick snow had slipped off and piled up below.

“An avalanche, huh?” he remarked, “Let’s hope some condors got trapped in there. Less things to worry about.”

Akkuro screeched in reply.

“What?”

The hawk repeated its screech, thinking the boy’s ears needed a good swabbing.

“You serious? Hell, let’s go see what’s under, then.” Ukai took off, flying low towards the dump site as Akkuro followed cautiously behind.

When they arrived, the hawk began pecking about the place, searching for the thing it had noticed earlier. Ukai waited until Akkuro lifted its head and clawed at a spot - then started shoveling out snow with his gloved hands. It took a while to get a glimpse of anything, for the avalanche had poured deeply onto the plains. Eventually, he uncovered a sand-colored tuft of fur, and he raised an eyebrow at Akkuro.

“This isn’t a condor.”

Akkuro tittered back to say, ‘I never said it was’.

After clearing out more of the snow, Ukai’s hands met cloth - and he jumped back in surprise when it moved. Breathing hard, he blinked and stayed frozen on the spot for a good few seconds while Akkuro began pecking at the thing. It gave a long screech and urged Ukai to hurry over and pull out their dinner, but he knew that it was no beast. Leaping back to his feet, he continued shoving back the snow while his heart palpitated.

When he finally uncovered the trapped being and dragged it out of the hole, his face darkened as he recognized what it was.

A human.

Clad in a dark blue coat with a furred hood, the black-haired human man looked older than the boy, but his soft features and smooth skin made him seem younger in contrast. His pair of black-rimmed glasses dropped to the side as he lay motionless on the snow, probably bitten by the frost serpent - what the Karas called hypothermia.

Ukai stared in distaste and wondered if he was dead. But the question that bugged him the most was this: what was a human doing here ?

Akkuro continued to peck at the man’s coat, as if trying to undo it. Suddenly, something began moving underneath his chest, and the hawk called for Ukai’s assistance.

Once the boy unlatched the front of the coat, the head of a small, flame-colored bird popped out and started chirping in fright at the sight of Akkuro. The hawk licked his beak and thought to make it its appetizer, but Ukai nudged his head away and carefully lifted it out of the coat with both hands. As the tiny bird kept fidgeting about, he noticed that it wasn’t trying to fly away. Or rather, it couldn’t, for its left wing was broken.

Just then, the human sputtered to life and coughed for air, and Ukai stumbled backwards in shock.

“Ah, I’m saved!” he gasped weakly, then immediately opened his eyes and felt around his chest. Feeling nothing, he then turned his head to see a blurry image of Ukai and the chick in his hands, his horrendous eyesight capturing only a bright red blob against a larger, brown blob.

Relieved, he heaved a sigh. “You’re a-a-alright. Thank goodness.” he mumbled shakily at them and broke into a grin.

The boy wasn’t expecting this at all - not just the fact that he was alive. He swallowed and thought to engage in conversation with the human, against his better instincts. “You… saved this bird?” Ukai asked in a low mutter.

The man regarded the boy, though he couldn’t make out much of his features. “T-the Brilliant Pine-thrush, yes. It was about to be smothered by the avalanche.” he explained. He tried to heave himself upright amid his shivering, but failed.

“That’s stupid. You would have died if we weren’t here.” Ukai frowned and replied blatantly, ignoring his struggling.

The human smiled knowingly, as if he’d been told that many times before. “But if I had left it alone, it would have perished for sure. Betting on one makes more sense than betting on zero, don’t you think?”

Ukai stared blankly back, the words passing right through his simplistic brain.

“Aha, sorry, I’m rambling again,” he apologized and rubbed his arm sheepishly, “What I’m trying to say is, thank you for digging us out.”

“Whatever.” Ukai scoffed and stood up, intending to leave. He’d done enough already, saving the damn human. He put the pine-thrush away inside a cloth bag, one that was used specially for rescues like these.

“W-wait!” the man called out quickly, “What’s your name? I’m Takeda.”

Ukai narrowed his eyes at him. He could care less about the man’s name, and it slipped out his ears the same moment it went in.

“You don’t need to know.”

“But I must! I must repay you somehow.”

“You’d do me a great favor by leaving me alone.” he replied curtly, and the man’s smile drooped a little.

“Is… is that so? Then, may I ask one question before you go?”

“Shoot.”

“Do you happen to know where the Kara village is?”

Utterly taken aback, Ukai’s eyes flew open and he clenched his fist. The human knew about the village. Nobody else but the Karas themselves should have this knowledge.

“What do want with that place?” he asked cautiously with some ferocity behind his voice.

Takeda fumbled in the snow for his spectacles, until he finally touched the half-buried metal frame.

“You see, I…”

He brushed off the white specks and slipped them over his ears.

“I’m researching birds, and--”

When he finally saw with startling clarity that the boy before him was what he’d always dreamed of meeting, he lost all his words and gaped in wonder at the young Kara.

Takeda’s eyes widened and sparkled in sheer exhilaration as his mind went into overdrive and blasted off its rocker. To hell with frostbite and near death--

It was a Kara! A real, live, Kara!

“You!!” Takeda exclaimed loudly with a huge smile, sending Ukai into a defensive stance.

“You’re a Kara! Oh, god, how was I so blind? You’re really a Kara! A real one!”

“Answer the question!” Ukai barked, annoyed from being shouted at and getting so utterly confused by this human.

“I-- Yes, of course! I’ve come all this way to visit a Kara village and further my studies on birds. You wouldn’t believe how far I’ve traveled! I just have to see it now!” He nodded eagerly and tried to stand up, but was immediately let down by his wobbly legs - and he ploughed into the snow with a puff. He burst his head out again only to promptly bring it back down in a deep bow, smothering his face with snow as he shouted.

“Please, take me back to your village!”

Ukai snapped back, “Why the hell should I? You’re a human!”

“Eh? What does it matter?” Takeda replied honestly and turned his small brows up in confusion, the wet snow dripping off his chin.

“I-- I don’t know , who knows what you’ll do to us?”

“I won’t do anything bad at all, I promise. I’d never hurt a chick! I’m only going to observe and learn everything about your ways.” he swore and raised his palm straight up. Then, he added in a small voice, “Sp-speaking of which, can I touch those?”

The man stared with such yearning at Ukai’s wings, and they shrank back at once as if they had a mind of their own. The boy shuddered, completely weirded out.

“The heck? Are you that fascinated with Karas?” he cringed.

Embarrassed, Takeda laughed and checked himself. But who could control themselves when they were finally in front of their elusive idol? His emotions were just bursting at the seams, and every single minute interaction they had had up until now had been seared into his memory. Everything, even the tiniest hair that strayed from his blonde fringe, was precious data.

“I’m sorry. I just met you and I’m already asking for such impossible things.” he chuckled.

“You bet.” Ukai snorted and relaxed a little.

Looking up, Takeda breathed deeply and reasserted himself with determination. “What can I do to make you change your mind?”

Ukai scratched his head and glanced at the man, careful not to seem like he was giving off any positive vibes. He wasn’t keen on bringing a human back at all. What would his parents say? What would everyone else think? They had always described the fiends as liars, exploiters, and bloodthirsty beings - but everything they had said about humans hadn’t been true up to this point. Those vicious stories didn’t match up at all with the timid man before him, one that risked his life to save an injured bird. And no matter how hard his heart had grown, he wasn’t going to leave this sick man out in the snow by himself. He would, at the very least, start a fire to warm him up.  

“Look.” The Kara began and folded his arms. “I need assurance that you’re a good person.”

Takeda nodded readily.

“And you did say you wouldn’t hurt a chick.”

He nodded again, this time with a scrunched up smile.

“So let’s have a little test, yeah? Akkuro.” he called and waved his hand with a steely look on his face. The hawk sauntered over from behind, talons outstretched with impatience for the kill. Takeda gulped and his gaze flitted nervously between the Kara and the bird, who was getting unnervingly close.

Then, Ukai flipped two fingers toward the human.

“Kill.”

With a soft chirp, Akkuro acknowledged his master’s command and inched closer and closer towards Takeda. Its yellow pupils flashed as it took in the man’s frightened stare, which was almost like a rabbit’s. Weak and timid, the perfect snack, and an easy kill.

Suddenly, the hawk let out a shrill screech and pounced with widespread wings onto Takeda, digging its talons onto his coat with a grip so strong that it would take a grown man to pry it off. It pushed him backwards into the snow and made a huge ruckus, flapping wildly and making a whole lot of noise.

But then, as abruptly as the assault began, it stopped.

Akkuro gently released Takeda and stepped to the side, revealing the truth about the human to Ukai. He hadn’t moved an inch to defend himself - not even to try and push the hawk away, who had every last bit of killing intent in its eyes. His eyelids still clenched tightly shut as he trembled and braced for impact, and Ukai didn’t know whether to think he was a fool or a saint. Either way, he was as harmless as a newborn babe.

The hawk apologized by nudging its beak tenderly against Takeda’s cheek, and the man snapped to his senses.

“I-i-is it over?” he stammered, and Ukai sighed with a soft look on his face.

He stretched out his hand and Takeda took it willingly.

 

“The name’s Ukai. I’ll bring you home.”  

 

 

Chapter Text

Throughout generations of Karas, the choice to nestle within the treetops of giant forests was more than instinctual and certainly for practicality. Rarely did they choose to erect houses upon the ground, for they preferred the seclusion and safety of the high branches.

Ukai’s village was one of several sprinkled around the great lands, where their dwellings were often remote and hidden from one another. Here, the villagers made their homes one within an ancient forest of massive pine trees. These behemoths had existed for thousands of years before the Karas came, when the first seeds washed upon the mountaintops and took root underneath the rich soil. Reaching over hundreds and thousands of metres in height, the pines’ thick and gnarled bodies stretched ever upwards into the sky, and they towered over like lords of the land below. For all their lives these hungry, humongous trees fought for space, and the losers of the battle for the sun’s favor had long dwindled away, forming wide, open enclosures below the thick canopy.

It was within these hollows that their community of hundreds of Karas lived. Some carved out cavities and fashioned rooms inside tree trunks, while others built their homes around the sturdy branches. Birds and Karas alike emerged from their wooden abodes and soared freely in the forest’s glow, a mysterious yet sensible harmony that made the differences between them a fascinating subject.

Takeda saw all this and more from the comfort of his stretcher as he peeked his nose out from under the hood. Although it reeked of the blood from countless carcasses, he couldn’t be happier with the position he was in right now.

“This is all I’ve imagined it to be. No, even better!” he gasped and held onto his glasses which were dangerously drooping over his nose.

“Oi, get your head back in. Don’t let anyone see you.” Ukai urged. He and Akkuro each had a sling around their bodies that held the stretcher - and Takeda - aloft. “Sorry, sorry.” Takeda slipped back into hiding and Ukai sighed loudly. What had he gotten himself into? He just wanted to hurry up and get the inevitable scolding ahead over with. What happens after that didn’t matter to him at all; he said he’d bring him home, not make sure he stayed.

When they touched down onto the home’s patio with a heavy thump, Ukai forgot that the cargo was not their usual fare - and he hurriedly lifted the cover to see Takeda rubbing his back in strained anguish.

Sorry .” he whispered quickly, a tad embarrassed, and helped him up.

“Ah ha, it’s okay. I’m sturdier than I look.” Takeda chuckled, and Akkuro snorted and promptly left, essentially telling Ukai that he was on his own now. They were mates to the end, but to a bird the end was more than a bitter lecture and less important than lunch. The boy stared at the heavy wooden doors in front of him and gulped dryly.

They looked more oppressive than usual.

Warily, he swung them open and peeked inside, with Takeda hanging excitedly over his shoulder.

“Looks like they’re at the clinic…” he muttered, and the human’s eyes lit up.

“Clinic? Your family runs a clinic?” he quipped.

“Yeah, so what?”

“That’s excellent! There’ll be so many opportunities for research-- and to study Karas up close. My, I couldn’t have found a better place to begin with!”

“You’re way too optimistic about this. They could throw you out the moment they see you.” he scoffed.

Takeda grinned giddily. ”If it does come to that, I’ll go it alone, then. You’ve helped me a lot already.”

And so with a petulant frown Ukai leapt down to the clinic below with Takeda in tow, and he rapped his knuckles on the countertop to summon the final boss.

 

Grandpa Ukai .

 

The two heard him before they saw him. The old man’s heavy footsteps thudded against the squeaky floorboards, announcing His Grumpiness’s arrival. When Takeda first laid eyes upon the Kara, he immediately thought that he was just like Ukai, down to the squinty eyes and thick brows - but his wrathful aura had been magnified several times over by the deep wrinkles of age around his eyes. Grandpa Ukai however carried himself tall when he walked, his huge wings kept fast and strong on his back, unlike the hunched-over men of his age. And his piercing glance was still as sharp as it was fifty years ago, bearing a blazing spirit within.

“Who’s that? Ah, Keishin.” he spoke, a deep voice grated over by age. He noticed the mild-looking man who hid behind him and remarked, “You brought your friend over?”

“Nope. I picked him up while out hunting.” Ukai replied simply and stepped to the side, and Takeda started to sweat profusely. Right off the bat, he had thrown him into the ring with a murderous beast and zero preparation.

“What? Picked him up?” Grandpa Ukai raised his brow and stared for a few seconds at the man, until he finally saw the truth. That moment was just like when Takeda saw a Kara for the first time, except that it swerved down a completely different direction on the emotional highway. Takeda couldn’t say he wasn’t expecting this reaction.

“A human !!” the old Kara roared and slammed the table, frightening the poor, sick birds all around the clinic. “Keishin, are you out of your mind?! Bringing a human into the village-- you’d better explain yourself right now!”

“He got caught in an avalanche. Akkuro and I dug him out.” Ukai replied coolly.

“I don’t want to know how you got him. I want to know why he’s here!”

The boy snorted and folded his arms. “Because I saved him, that’s why.”

“You little--”

“Sir, If I may--!” Takeda stepped forward bravely, but his legs trembled with the fear and excitement of everything.

“No, you may not . Get out of this place, now!” he shouted in the poor man’s face, clearly incensed.

Ukai kept quiet and smirked. He hadn’t had this much entertainment in ages.

“Please, give me a chance to--”

“Don’t make me come out there and drag you out myself. I won’t say this again. Get. Out.” The elder’s wings began to flare up, and Takeda could see some sparse streaks of white feathers within them.

Wow, so Karas’ feathers turn white like hair? Wait, now’s not the time.

Takeda breathed in deeply and steeled himself. His hands shook and his feet wouldn’t budge, but he would do what he’d always done and hope for the best. That was all he could do; and he would do anything to grasp his dreams that were so suddenly running away, right in front of him.

He sharply bowed down low and almost hit his head on the countertop.

“Sir, I’m begging you. Please give me a chance like your grandson did.” said Takeda.

“You think bowing your head will get you your way? My grandson doesn’t know a thing about this. And he’s next, right after you.” he scoffed dismissively, tossing a glare at the boy, who then rolled his eyes.

“I don’t think that’s true,” Takeda spoke under his breath, “Ukai decided to save me when he could have let me die in the snow.”

“And he should have. No humans should ever be allowed to set foot in Kara territory.”

He blinked quickly and brushed away those biting words. Although he still dared not face the Kara, he did dare to speak from his heart and for his savior. “I don’t quite know what happened between humans and the Karas. But Ukai judged me for who I was and made that decision. Sir, I implore you to do the same before you dismiss my intentions.”

 

Grandpa Ukai’s frown deepened at his words, and young Ukai seemed somewhat impressed and surprised at Takeda’s boldness. No one had ever spoken to the old man like that, not even his equally overbearing parents.

With a low humph, the old Kara slowly stepped out from behind the counter. “You don’t understand the position you’re in, do you?” he muttered, the loud rage replaced by simmering contempt. The floor creaked as he inched closer towards the human, and he cracked his knuckles loudly for all to hear. “I-I do, very much.” Takeda stammered and kept his head down. He saw a slipper-clad foot appear from the corner of his eye, and he held his breath.

“Now, why should I listen to an intruder in my house? You’re not welcome here, and you never will be.” said Grandpa Ukai as he stared down at the human’s head.

Takeda kept quiet, unsure of what to say.

“You can give me all the reasons you want, but none of that will change the fact that you’re a human. If you don’t know why Karas and humans don’t mix, I’ll tell you.” he said. “It’s because humans are violent, greedy, deceptive creatures that leave nothing but destruction in their wake. No good ever comes from dealing with them.”

“But what if-- what if I’m not the human you think I am?” Takeda blurted out.

The old man narrowed his eyes grimly.

“I know that humans can be horrible beings. But not all humans are like that, and… and even though I haven’t studied Karas yet, they seem quite similar in nature. It’s not impossible to conclude that they can be malicious, too.” the man said calmly.

“You trying to start something?”

“No, not at all. Although, it would prove my point.”

 

Hearing that, Grandpa Ukai smirked. Then, he grabbed Takeda by his hood and easily pulled him upright to face him in the eyes. Behind those heavy glasses and a trembling mouth, the Kara saw the start of something stir within the human that pleased him greatly.

“You’ve got guts, kid. Now face me and speak.” he commanded, then let go of the man.

Takeda exhaled through his lips and stood up straight as he looked back at the Kara, whose angry face had been replaced by an amused expression. Now, he felt like he could finally take on the boss.

“I am, first and foremost, a researcher. I have searched all my life for a Kara village to study this little-known race, and now that I am here, I have no intention whatsoever to leave empty-handed. So please, let me stay and prove to you -  no, every Kara here - that humans are not the beasts you think they are.” he exclaimed with a recharged vigor, filling the gaps where his initial nervousness had worn off.

Grandpa Ukai fell silent for a few moments, and he crossed his arms tightly against his chest. Ukai peered at his grandfather, as if he was looking at a stranger.

“You talk big. And why should I let you stay in my house?” he eventually said, uncrossing his arms.

“That is, I think, a simple answer.” Takeda replied. “You are also a man of science, are you not?”

The Kara nodded. “I’m a bird doctor.”

“I believe we can help each other. Look--” he smiled and fumbled with his backpack, pulling out a leathery book filled with walls of text, anatomical diagrams, and drawings of birds. Inside his bag were many more of such tomes, but it contained only a fraction of his research. In every place he travelled to he left behind some of his precious material, only because he had no arms to carry more and enough brains to store them.

“I’ve studied all sorts of birds and diseases from all across the land. But somehow, just somehow, you guys are too good at hiding from the world. If there’s anything at all that I can bring to you, it’s knowledge.”

Grandpa Ukai took the book from the human’s hands and studied them with a pensive gaze. His eyes crawled slowly over the small scribbles and the delicate ink lines, for his vision had started to fail him. But one thing was for sure. His face lit up the more he read and dove into the words, and so did Takeda’s as he felt the old man’s changing air. Ukai, however, was as disinterested as ever. Books? Not his thing.

Then, Grandpa Ukai made a remark and pressed his finger onto a page.

“I didn’t know you could treat feather mites with Terranic bark.”

Takeda nodded enthusiastically with a bright gleam in his eye.

“I know, right? It’s amazing how when treated with Bog grass and powdered, it releases this chemical and odor that drives them all out from the skin. And the birds don’t hate the smell, either - a perfect solution!”

The old man looked at him curiously and closed the book.

“You really love birds, don’t you?”

“Yes. They’re all I’ve ever known.”

As he returned the book to its rightful owner, he nodded and made up his mind.

“Two days.” he declared.

Takeda blinked and clutched his book. “Pardon?”

“If I catch you doing anything stupid in two days, you’re out. Understand?”

With an insuppressible grin on his young face, he threw himself into another deep bow and exclaimed loudly, “Thank you!! I won’t let you down!”

 

And so, began the life of Takeda Ittetsu with the Ukai family.

 

Chapter Text

What was a human to do in a Kara household? That was the question everyone had on their minds at the dinner table when Ma and Pa Ukai returned from a house visit. It was getting old seeing expressions of shock and outrage at the sight of a human, but it was something Takeda was going to have to deal with for a long time. The elders of the house fought, shouted, and almost flipped over the table with the fine china. But everyone knew that the dust had to settle either way, willingly or not.

And so by Grandpa Ukai’s hand, Takeda and Keishin’s fates were decided right in time for dinner.

Takeda, at the very least, would be treated as their guest for the promised two days. What happened next would be up for debate at another time.

Since Keishin had brought the problem back, he would be in charge of monitoring the human at all times. Unsurprisingly, the boy had a lot to say about gaining a new roommate; and so the Memorandum of Ukai’s Room was thus formed between the two youngsters and Akkuro who had a perch inside the adequately spacious room. Ukai as the self-appointed room master declared that there would be no touching of each other’s ‘stuff’ and no crossing over into the other person’s ‘territory’. And on no account should anyone touch the hawk’s food, or they shall risk involuntary amputation of one’s finger.

But despite the initial shock and horror, the young invader surprised the rest of the family with his humble - and most frankly, harmless - demeanour.

At dinner Takeda warmly thanked everyone for showing him such kind hospitality, even tearing up halfway as he related his long and arduous journey. And once Grandpa Ukai started him off on his research, Takeda readily shared his wealth of knowledge - and the rest slowly began to warm up to his infectious enthusiasm. Even though their prejudices remained and they found it oddly suspicious that a human would be interested in studying Karas, they recognized that he certainly had a lot to offer to the clinic.

Thus, on the first day, they felt a notch better about letting Takeda do as he pleased. He awoke bright and early before the birds began to sing, which was way before Ukai usually did. One could imagine how dark his face was when he opened his eyes to barely a shred of sunlight.

As agreed upon, Takeda followed the sleep-deprived boy everywhere - wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? - and could be seen carrying a notebook with a quill on his ear, taking notes of seemingly trivial things now and then. Nothing escaped his notice; especially not the slightest movements of everyone’s beautiful, ethereal, black wings. Takeda would often request Keishin for a closer look, but would immediately be denied by the creeped-out boy.  

And when he wasn’t bothering Ukai, he would go up to each and every sick bird in the clinic and examine them all, earning himself several pecks and scratches along the way. With boundless energy he offered his help to everyone in any way he could, although he was hopelessly clumsy when it came to doing anything manual. That was Ukai’s forte - and the boy felt like he was babysitting a man who was three years older than him.

But everything, Takeda thought to himself, was so new, so fresh, and so exciting! He wished this blessed day would not end, and he still felt as if he were dreaming.

Winter’s night soon crept upon the forest, plunging the village into a deep darkness where only glimmers of starlight peeped through the holes in the canopy. And where everyone in the Ukai family had gone to bed, Takeda alone scribbled with fervor under the dim light of a candle and his dusty blanket. He propped his book open upon his bag and dipped his quill often into an ink pot beside him. His eyes followed the nib closely as he tried to capture the form of a Kara within its pages.

Like a human with wings, yet not quite so. There was more to them than that for sure, and his inquisitive mind would not let him rest until he knew what it was. Oftentimes, insomnia spawned from this vice of his and left him unbearably groggy and unproductive the next day.

Suddenly, the subject of his musings emitted a low grumble beside him and turned around blearily.

“Hey, turn out the lights.” Ukai mumbled, and his heavy eye bags became visible in the flame’s glow.  

“Sorry. I’m almost done.” Takeda whispered and nodded in apology.

Squinting, the boy rolled away and muttered quietly, “...this is getting added to the rules.”

A few minutes passed, and still the candle burned.

After a long day, Ukai was at the end of his patience and energy. He turned round again with a groan and hissed. “ Oi, I’m trying to sleep here. Can’t it wait till tomorrow?”

“Sorry, sorry. Just a minute.”

“Uh-uh. You’re just going to ask for another minute,” he shook his head and tumbled out of bed towards Takeda, who became flustered and tried to hide the page. But the ink hadn’t dried and he couldn’t put it away without smudging it. The moment Ukai saw what he was drawing he flinched and his eye twitched.

“Is that… me?”

“Yes.” Takeda flushed and scratched his cheek timidly. The boy frowned and held up the book to scrutinize his image closely, and the man sorely wanted to crawl into a hole right there and then.

“Why me?” Ukai asked.

“Well, um, when I begin studying a species I always pick the one I get to observe the most closely for the diagrams, so…” he mumbled.

Ukai stared at Takeda, then back at the book.

“I guess it makes sense.” he said, then handed him back his work and crawled with a big yawn back into bed. “Make sure you draw me well.”  

“Y...yeah.” Takeda nodded, slightly stunned, for he was expecting some form of rough retort. Ukai had been quite annoyed with him the whole day, and the young man could understand why. He knew he’d caused a lot of trouble for him just by being here, let alone his ineptitude with chores. Looking upon the boy’s back, his eyes faltered and trailed down to his half-finished drawing.

In that moment, it looked nothing like the Kara before him.

Takeda gave a small sigh and closed the book.

 

“Thank you, Ukai. For bringing me here.” he said softly.

 

“Mm.” Ukai grunted.

 

Picking up the candle, he took a short breath. “Goodnight.”

 

“‘Night.”

 

 

Chapter Text

On the second morning, Ukai prepared to hunt game again. It was to make up for coming home empty-handed the day before.

But he took one look at the eagerly awaiting human and couldn’t see how Takeda would be of any help, if not straight up burdensome on a hunt. Did he really have to bring him around everywhere?

Yes. The answer was yes.

Back onto the white plains they went - and Takeda seemed like a toothless puppy following a pair of hulking, predatory birds. The frown on Ukai’s face was now accompanied by a symphony of sighs, and he trudged on ahead without looking back. Akkuro didn’t seem to mind Takeda’s inclusion as much, and it would often nudge the man forward with its head if he lagged behind.

“Ahh, I can’t believe I’m getting to observe Kara hunting behaviour! I’ve reserved an entirely new book just for this section.” Takeda exclaimed and held on fast to his quill which tried to escape in the strong wind.

Ukai rolled his eyes and tightened the sling bag on his shoulder.

“Do you always hunt with Akkuro?” Takeda asked quickly and readied his ink pot.

“Yeah.”

“And what kind of game do you guys hunt around here?”

“Whatever there is.”

“Such as?”

“Deer.”

“Anything else?”

The boy threw a backward glance and said, “Are you gonna keep asking questions?”

“Yes. It’s necessary.” Takeda replied.

“--But not helpful . We can’t get close to anything if you keep on yapping like this. Can’t it wait?”

The researcher grinned and nodded readily. “No problem! I’ll try my best not to get in your way.”

“Good.” The Kara’s ocular equipment swiveled in their sockets again. He then stopped to stretch his wings and give a command to the hawk. “Akkuro. Scout up ahead first and I’ll join you.”

Akkuro chirped in acknowledgement and took off with loud wingbeats into the air. With breathtaking speed it was soon a mere speck in the skies, and its eyes trained on the sparser areas of the otherwise closely knit forest.

When hunting with a beast, the Karas used a variety of tools that enabled their otherwise weaponless selves to fight alongside them. With Akkuro, Ukai matched its talons with metal ones of his own. They were crafted to resemble nature’s own, but enhanced for fatality with a tapered and serrated blade at the end. Bound to each hand, the wielder would swoop in and dig the claws into prey just like a hawk could, finishing off larger prey where their companion could not.

Once they noticed that Akkuro was beginning to dive, Ukai spread his wings and clenched his fists.

 

“He’s got something. Wait.”

 

The boy squinted.

 

“Why’s he coming back?”

 

The hawk returned with a rolling chirp and Ukai’s eye twitched like a broken clock when he heard it. “You can’t be serious,” he exclaimed at the bird.

Akkuro then turned to screech at Takeda, frightening him.

“W-what’s he saying?” the befuddled man asked, and Ukai wished he could facepalm - heck, even with the stabby claws of death on his hands.  

“Akkuro, please, he’s not your chick. Or even a chick, for that matter.” he moaned, but the hawk ignored the Kara and clambered onto Takeda’s back.

“Ukai, what’s going on?” The man yelped as he staggered, trying to hold himself up with the bird which was more than a third of his weight. Its talons gripped his coat and it roosted itself nicely on his back - then it gave another screech, this time directed at Ukai.

“Tell him what? I’m not going to do all the hunting myself.” he replied crossly.

Akkuro didn’t respond and looked away.

“Akkuro!” shouted Ukai, but was ignored again. He grit his teeth and his forehead steamed with anger.

“What’s he saying? You understand him, right?” Takeda asked.

“He wants to bring you along. ‘Cause apparently, you’re a little flightless chick who doesn’t know how to survive in the wild and needs to be taught how to hunt.”

The man’s eyes brightened instantly upon hearing the stiffly sarcastic way Ukai delivered those lines, and he burst into laughter. “Is that so? Akkuro, you’re a wonderful bird!”

“No, he’s being a real pain in the ass again. And if we don’t get a stag because of this, it’s your fault.” Ukai barked and took off without another word, having lost all of his patience for the day in the last five minutes. As he flew, he couldn’t feel the same joy he usually got from his lonely expeditions with Akkuro. The wind still whipped and the frost still nipped; but now a third party had come to mess everything up, and he felt like a jilted lover.

Akkuro liked the human. But Akkuro didn’t like anybody ! It took Ukai months before the hawk would perch on his arm, and now it was resting all cozy-like on the human’s back like it was a second home. The man had first taken away his freedom, and now his pal.

And this was all because he showed some kindness that day. It doesn’t pay to be kind, does it?

His curses fell only to the wind’s ears, carrying naught to Akkuro and Takeda who followed far behind. The man dangled precariously in the air, held up only by his sturdy coat, and he hung on to his tools in sheer exhilaration.

As soon as Ukai spotted the herd of deer below, his riled up mind threw away all care and protocol and made him barrel headfirst towards the largest buck.

Akkuro tried to warn him, but it was too late; he had quickly dropped out of earshot with his talons outstretched and out for blood.

The buck sensed the bloodlust from above, and the herd began scattering and dashing away into the woods. Ukai swooped down and clanged the talons sharply against each other, chasing the creature out into the open field. He had lost the element of surprise and the freefalling momentum that would have felled the buck in a single strike, but a Kara’s abilities were not limited to the arsenal of a hawk.

He glided closer and closer to the ground as he tried to close the gap between them, and he could hear the frantic thumping of its hooves against the stone cold ground.

Then, with a yell Ukai pumped his wings hard and caught up to the buck, crashing into the beast with his talons and goring its flesh. They tumbled violently onto the ground and skidded with immense force onto the icy plains, and droplets of red sprayed onto white. The two only stopped when the buck recovered in one swift motion and threw Ukai off its back, for the talons had only caught its shoulders and it still had the strength to escape.

Groaning, Ukai lay battered on the snow and held his pounding head for a few moments. His recklessness had bruised not only his body but also his pride. Hearing the hoofbeats die off into the distance, he looked up at the rapidly receding figure and bit his lip.

 

Just then, a shadow whooshed overhead in pursuit and Ukai heard a thud behind him.

“Ukai! Are you okay?” Takeda yelled worriedly as he, too, scuffled upright after being dropped off abruptly. He helped Ukai up and held onto his shoulders, but the boy brushed him off as soon as he was standing.

“That looked really dangerous. Did you hurt yourself? Anything broken?”

“I’m fine.” Keishin said and rearranged his wings and combed back his messy hair. He didn’t look at Takeda as he talked.

“Shouldn’t you sit for a while? I mean, that was quite a fall.”

“Akkuro needs backup. He’s useless on the ground.” he said simply, then leaped into the air again and left the man behind. Takeda could only sigh and run after him, having lost his ride.

Sure enough, as stout as Akkuro was the bird was still smaller than the buck - and it had a hard time trying to grasp the struggling beast’s throat with its claws. It flapped around the bleating deer and blocked its path into the forest, snatching at its body whenever it could. At last Ukai arrived onto the scene and pounced in from rear, sinking the cold steel into the stag’s neck and puncturing its windpipe. Blood sprayed as it brayed its last breath and collapsed weakly onto the floor along with the Kara.

 

As quickly as the hunt began, it was over.  

 

Panting, Ukai rolled off the carcass and hastily unbuckled his talons, throwing them to the side with a clatter. He sighed and rubbed his sore head, thinking he might have hit it hard somewhere as it still ached.

“Bloody hell… it’s done.” he muttered under his breath, and Akkuro congratulated him with a short screech.

Huffing lightly after his jog, Takeda approached the two birds with a big smile and nothing but words full of praise. “That was amazing! The two of you working together - I’ve never seen such a high level of interspecies coordination before. Even though Ukai botched up the approach at the start, Akkuro - such a strong hunter, I must say - managed to keep the buck at bay and give you enough time to strike unnoticed. Perfect!”

Akkuro chirped as if to say ‘of course’ and held its beak up high. Ukai grunted and sat up while massaging his neck. “Yeah, it was my fault, okay. Now stop talking for a second, please.” he said, feeling a headache coming on.

“Oh dear. You did hurt yourself, didn’t you?” Takeda looked at the boy’s tightly clenched brows and knelt down beside him. Producing a salve from his bag, he dabbed some onto his fingers and said, “Let me.”

Ukai glared at him and for the first time, Takeda felt the aura of a wild beast emanate from the boy’s piercing eyes.

His hand backed away instinctively, and the Kara snorted quietly and looked away.

“Don’t need it.” the boy said.

Takeda gulped and tilted his head timidly. “This will help with the pain. It won’t sting.”   

 

Ukai glanced up at the bluish tinted salve for a second and dropped his gaze again.

“What’s it made of?”

“Mint and glow tree oil.”

Another throb muscled its way into his scalp and he flinched.

“Give it here.”

Takeda handed the tin over and Ukai carefully smoothed some over the slowly swelling bump. Its cool glaze eased some of the pain, which made him less worried.

“Ah, here, too.” Takeda said and carelessly touched the boy’s cheek where a bruise was starting to form. Ukai instantly recoiled from his touch and Takeda flew into a great sweat, afraid that he had offended the boy.

 

“S-sorry! I just-- it works well for bruises too, and--”

 

Don’t touch me .” Ukai murmured darkly and clamped the tin shut.

 

“Yes.” Takeda shivered and replied softly, dipping his head.

 

The Kara dropped the salve into the human’s hands and stood up. Wordlessly, he took hold of the buck’s hind leg and clicked his tongue at Akkuro, who walked over and did the same. Takeda slowly peered upwards to see the boy’s shadowy back that blocked out the bright winter’s sun - and any trace of his emotions.

 

“Keep up.” he merely said.

 

And that was the last thing he said to Takeda for the rest of the day.

Not a single word nor a passing notice did he give to the man, all the way until bedtime. Even though today had been a fruitful day for his scientific mind, Takeda felt as if he had taken two steps backward instead.

The lights went out punctually this time.

Takeda couldn’t sleep. He fiddled with his glasses and set them aside after a few minutes. He stared at the ceiling and gazed out the window into the suffocating darkness. The uncomfortable silence that hung in the air was too much for him to bear, and he just needed to clear things up with Ukai.

“Um...Ukai?” Takeda spoke softly, knowing that the boy was still awake.

He didn’t get a response, but he continued anyway.

“Are you angry with me?”

A long pause ensued.

“I won’t do that again. I promise.”

Silence.

 

The man knew that at this point, the other party wasn’t going to say anything more. Still, he had to say it, if only for his own sake.  

 

And so the night marched on patiently with the coming of a new dawn.   

 

 

Chapter Text

Takeda had passed the test.

The first hurdle was always the easiest. After living with him for a while the Ukais concluded that malice could not even begin to settle within the young man. He had defied all of their preconceived expectations, so much that he would astonish even a member of his own kind.

As the months went by and the first snow of the year fell, Takeda became less of a guest and more of a family friend to his wonderful hosts. Little by little the nagging feeling of the human’s winglessness faded away into the periphery, and his unassuming form blended easily with the others inside the Karas’ humble abode. In the mornings he tended to the birds and the flower garden with Ma. In the afternoons he worked the clinic with Keishin and broke for tea with Pa and Grandpa, chatting about his discoveries from the days before. In the evenings he sat at the desk by candlelight and poured his soul into his books while the boy snoozed the night away beside him.

But Takeda’s greatest achievement of all was becoming fast friends with Keishin.

Despite the initial hostility, the two boys grew comfortable being around one another, whether by virtue of being in the same age group or forced proximity. Truthfully, it was likely the latter. They had come to realize that one was not a simple rage-fuelled teen and the other was not an air-headed bookworm. In fact, they shared similar interests that manifested themselves in different ways, be it nurturing birds or having a glass of cider or two. Such small but delightful discoveries came with each passing interaction, until the silly Memorandum of yonder eroded away into the dust where it belonged.  

But while Takeda could touch the minds of this small family of three generations, changing that of a thousand others would take a renaissance. He was still just one man, even if that man was filled to the brim with pure optimism.

Many times, the clinic’s frequent customers would balk at the sight of Takeda and ignore his presence, only to whisper among themselves when they returned to the safety of their nests. Takeda didn’t take any of that to heart, and he always made the effort to approach them anyway. It was kind of his job at this point. Word of the human spread throughout the village quickly, sometimes of truth and other times of lies. He wondered for a while if he had brought the Ukais a bad name, but it seemed that that was not the case.

The more open-minded Karas let him tend to their birds and occasionally their own ailments. They showed some interest in him and his human ways, and they reminded Takeda of the nice country folk he knew back at home. Ukai’s group of buddies even thought it was ‘freakin’ awesome’ having a human as a friend, and they would sometimes invite him to hang out and bring him around their homes to brag. Takeda didn’t mind it one bit – it only meant more data for his mind to consume!

But by far, their neighbours were the kindest and most genteel old couple that ever existed in his life. They would often pop by to chat with him and Grandpa Ukai over tea, and the old lady would never fail to proclaim each time ‘how delightful his round face’ was. Once, they brought their toddler granddaughter over and she wouldn’t stop staring at Takeda’s back with her innocent eyes. Not only did he learn that Kara babies grew to independency much faster than humans – she was crawling at the age of 3 months! – but also that they loved biting fingers as much as human babies did.

And in quiet times when the house was filled with a calm breeze, Takeda contemplated the stunning view of the forest that sat right at his window.

 

Life among the crows.

 

Such an absurd dream, and now, such an absurd reality.

 

If Takeda had not been the obsessive scribe he was, he probably couldn’t convince even himself that he wasn’t hallucinating. And each time Ukai looked over his shoulder to see what he was writing, his interest would get lost within the scientific jargon and shrug the knowledge away.

“Don’t you want to learn medicine?” Takeda remarked.

“Nah. Too boring. I’m not like you, sensei.” The boy spread himself upon his bed and yawned deeply. Ukai gave him that fitting nickname and would often address him that way instead of the mouthful that was ‘Takeda’. One syllable took up energy, too, especially when the chill had begun to set in and seeking the warmth of the fireplace was everyone’s prime directive.

“But you’ll have to someday. You’re taking over the clinic, aren’t you?” he said and looked at the boy.

Ukai sighed and rolled his head to the window. “Everyone assumes I will. But I don’t want to.”

“Why not? You’d do a good job at it.” said Takeda, puzzled. He’d often teach Ukai how to make medicines and diagnoses one day and he would be able to do it himself the next.

“Doesn’t mean I like it.”

“So… is there anything you want to do, then?” 

The boy thought about it for a while, but nothing good came to mind. His hobbies weren’t exactly career choices, but he’d surely make a living out of drinking if he could-- not that his elders knew anything about that, of course.

“Dunno.” He shrugged, and Takeda smiled and returned to his book.

“You’ll find your answer one day. You’re still young.”

“Not young enough, apparently. They want me to start getting into the surgical stuff next year. Like I don’t have enough to do already.” Ukai complained.

“They’re very good parents, I must say.”

The boy sat up and narrowed his eyes at Takeda. “Hey, whose side are you on?”

Amused, the man replied unabashedly, “Why, yours of course. Just like them, I would love to see such a talented young man like you become a fine doctor. It would be an utter waste of your brains otherwise.”

“Shut up.” Ukai scoffed and rolled back onto his bed.

“What? It’s true.” Takeda grinned, finding joy in teasing him.

Ukai wasn’t used to praise like this, but thanks to Takeda’s constant words of adoration he’d gotten better at taking them. Perhaps he felt that the human’s words had no hidden agenda behind them the way family did. The teen was convinced that his parents were trying to brainwash him into thinking he enjoyed his work.

“Anyway,” he changed the topic, “the winter festival’s next week.”

“Festival?!” Takeda jumped at the word and his glasses nearly slipped off his nose. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?’

Ukai blinked and said, “’Cause everyone knows—“, but the man gave him that perplexed look again, and he sighed. “--Right.” Some things, he’d never get used to.

“Tell me everything, now.” Takeda commanded and whipped out his half-finished book on Kara culture.

 

The week before the winter solstice was a time for giving thanks to the earth and loved ones during the harshest time of the year. Though the mountains were always severe and blizzards often whipped across the lands, the ever-stoic forest never failed to give the Karas food and shelter.

On the first day, the Karas would put out fruit and seeds on their porches to welcome the birds of the forest to the festival. On the second day, they would paint the great tree trunks in a dazzling array of colors and motifs to brighten up the village and guide their ancestors’ spirits home. On the third till the sixth day, families and friends would gather for feasts and neighbours would exchange dishes and gifts with blessings for the next year. Finally, on the day of the winter solstice, the village square would light up with a grand celebration beneath the gloom of the trees, and the crows would dance and drink with warm spirits till morning.

It was an exciting season that everyone looked forward to; not only because it was one of few Kara traditions, but also because it was the season for love. Many love-struck Karas took the opportunity to profess their feelings and hopefully secure themselves a mate for spring.

The longest feather plucked from the tip of one's wing symbolized both self-sacrifice and devotion. By offering it to another Kara, it was akin to saying 'I can't fly the world without you' - and one could tell from a glance at their wings if the suitor had been faithful to their word. There was no way a Casanova would give every mate a feather, lest he ended up fulfilling the empty promise he made!

Some found the courage to confess within their emptied glasses and left happy. Others struggled to give their most sincere speeches but left empty-handed.

Unfortunately for Ukai, a burgeoning youth in search of love, he belonged to the latter.

 

“Oh, man he’s wasted!” One of Ukai’s friends laughed and dumped the unintelligible drunkard onto his couch. Drowsy and heartbroken, Ukai slurred through his expletives and managed to give him the finger in return. His friend responded in kind by slapping him on the ass and walking out of the house.

“Takeda, you can deal with him, right? We’re gonna continue for the night.”

“Of course. I’ll take care of the rest.” Takeda smiled and nodded. Sighing, he sat down next to Ukai who was muttering something into the pillows. Thankfully, the elders were still out at the celebration and weren’t here to see the state their pride and joy was in.

“Hey, don’t take it too hard.” he said, consoling the boy.

Ukai made a long grunt and flapped his wings, nearly hitting Takeda in the face. It seemed like he was throwing a tantrum.

“You’ll find someone else next year, yeah?”

“l… li…liked her for sss-ooo long, you know?” he whined, and he sounded so pitiful that Takeda didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Remembering he was the mature one, he cleared his throat.

“How long?”

“Like… three monthsss…”

The man shrugged. “You’re got many more three months.”

“Nnnmm… that darn… she… I said everyfiing!”

“I know. I was there.” Takeda chuckled.

Suddenly, Ukai sat up straight and the pillows tumbled off the couch. His face looked more peeved than upset now. “What’s wrong with me? I’m a decent guy, yeah? So why’d she laugh, huh?” Then, he roughly grabbed Takeda by his collar and looked him in the eyes, startling the poor man. “Why’d you laugh, huh? Huh?”

He could smell the alcohol and desperation in his breath.

“You’re a good catch, alright? I know you are. She just couldn’t see that.” Takeda sweated and patted the boy’s head, trying to calm the beast. That seemed to work as Ukai’s eyes softened and he slumped back onto the couch with a puff.

“Hmph. Darn… right.” Ukai grumbled and burped. Then, he grasped the very end of the longest feather on his right wing and yanked hard – causing Takeda to wince. It came off cleanly, however, and the boy didn’t feel a thing through all that booze.  

“Here.” he tossed it to the man.

“Eh?”

“I’d rather give it to you than that…bittchh.” he stressed the word while gritting his teeth.  

Takeda paused to look at the thing in his hands, then back at Ukai.

“You’re really giving this to me?” he said in a dumbfounded stare.

Ukai grunted softly and simply waved his hand in reply. He then curled up onto the couch and tucked his wings snugly behind his back to settle in for the night. Within minutes the boy was snoring peacefully, but Takeda hadn’t moved a hair from his spot.

When realization finally dawned upon him – even though he knew Ukai couldn’t have meant it that way in the slightest – he felt a sudden heat rise up to his cheeks. Between his fingers was a black Kara feather as long as his arm, and in front of him was a sleeping Keishin with a visible gap in his wings.

 

“…No way.” he shook his head sadly and whispered as if he was reacting to a joke.

 

But he couldn’t stop a smile from breaking out on his face.

Chapter Text

Ukai awoke the next day to a terrible hangover and no memory of what he had done. All he heard about the previous night from his friends was how he had failed miserably at appealing to his dream girl and got absolutely smashed afterwards. He didn’t pay much attention to his wings, either, for he was busy enough with his aching head to care.

 

In the coldest days leading up to spring, the Ukais closed the clinic and spent their waking hours in the warm indoors. They gathered round the fireplace and sipped hot tea to heat up their bellies, and this year they enjoyed a special blend concocted by Takeda. The man himself, however, had taken ill and sneezed constantly as he hobbled listlessly about his duties. He assured them that there was nothing to worry about as this happened to him every year, particularly when there was a cold spell; but his cheeks and nose which coloured themselves an alarming shade of red did little to allay their concerns.

“Sensei, won’t you come sit by the fire?” Ma beckoned and stood to hand him a cup of tea. Takeda graciously accepted it and tugged his coat tightly around his shoulders. 

“No, I wouldn’t want to pass the cold to everyone. Who knows what dangers exist when a human virus gets transmitted to a Kara.” he sniffled.

“Then at least stop doing whatever it is you’re doing and get some rest. I won’t let you do any chores for the next few days.” She said and pushed him towards his room.

“Ah, but I—“

“No buts. Keishin can handle it for you.”

The boy's head popped up from in front of the fire. “Hey, I heard that.”

“Good! And I shouldn’t need to remind you that you’re supposed to be taking care of him.” Ma said straightforwardly, and the boy groaned and wiped his face. “Yes, I know.”

“No, you don’t have to trouble—!“ Takeda began but sneezed and wobbled, and Ma tut-tutted in dismay.

“Keishin, let Sensei take your bed for a while.”

Ukai leapt from his seat and was about to protest - but he cowered at once when he saw Ma’s deathly glare. With a reluctant nod he followed Takeda into the room and cleared out the clothes and coats on his bed. Not knowing where to place them, he dumped them all onto the floor and shoved them into an inconspicuous corner.

“Sorry ‘bout that.” Takeda said quietly, but Ukai shook his head. “S’fine. I like sleeping on the couch anyway.”

Takeda sighed, awfully tired from and of being sick. He couldn't breathe right, his nose ran like a broken faucet, and his throat was sore from coughing. He carefully sat down on the bed which was uncharted territory to him, and started to take off his coat. Ukai saw that and said, “You can keep it on.”

“Thank you.” Takeda nodded. He slowly tucked himself into bed and pulled the covers over his head.

Ukai heard the muffled sneezing and coughing soon after as he stood awkwardly at the side. Showing concern wasn’t his strong point, even though he was good at taking care of everything else.

“Um… you need anything?” he asked and scratched his head.

Takeda shook his head and grunted softly.

“You sure?”

A few moments of thinking passed. Then, his glasses peeped out shyly from under the blanket, and Ukai took them. “I’ll wake you up for lunch.” he finished, and left the room quietly with a click on the doorknob. Only Akkuro, who was snoozing noiselessly on its perch above, remained in the room with Takeda.

The man sighed, feeling a little more comfortable knowing that the boy had left. His chest pounded in shame as he knew that the warmth on his face and his feelings of guilt did not just stem from the fact that he had troubled his junior for his sake. Even through his woefully blocked nose, he was a hundred percent aware that every breath he took was filled with Keishin’s scent. He caught himself wondering if he would ever get a chance to experience this again, only healthier – and quickly tossed all those mortifying thoughts out of the window and forced himself to sleep.

 

Hours later, Ukai knocked on the door and entered the room with a steaming bowl of porridge cooked by Ma. Seeing that the lump on his bed hadn't moved an inch, he called out, "Sensei, wake up. Lunch is ready."

When Takeda didn't respond, he plonked the bowl down onto the table and sat down by the bed. Unsure which part was what, he patted around the blanket until he felt a shoulder and shook it.

"Sensei?" he said, and he heard a soft, unwilling grumble. "Come on, don't be lazy now. Ma cooked some porridge for your sick ass."

"...'m not hungry." Takeda mumbled.

"Ma! Sensei's not eating!" Ukai threw his head backwards and yelled into the living room. "Tell him he has to eat!" Ma hollered back. The boy quickly turned back to the man and said, "Ma says you have to eat."

Takeda made another noise and Ukai yelled back again, "He's still not eating!"

"Well make him, then!"

"Sensei, if you don't get up and eat I'll feed this to Akkuro and let him upchuck it into your mouth."

The hawk joined in with a well-meaning, affirmative screech.

That certainly did the trick as the dishevelled and sickly man peeled away the blanket, yawning as he balanced himself on his arm.

"Whoa. You look terrible." Ukai blurted out and Takeda nodded sleepily. The nap didn't seem to have done him any good.

"Uhm... I really don't have an appetite..."

"It's either you eat or Ma kills the both of us." The boy shrugged and got up to bring the bowl over-- and in the span of those few seconds Takeda had closed his eyes again and drifted away. "Oi, Sensei." Ukai sighed in exasperation. He watched with a grimace as Takeda's head bobbed about on the verge of toppling over. Normally, he wouldn't push the issue any further, but the threat of a punishment from Ma (who had taken a liking to the young man) commanded his full attention.

So, what was he supposed to do now? Force the damn food down Takeda’s throat? Or force the damn food down his own throat and be rid of it?

Then, amid Ukai's tumultuous thoughts, Takeda drooped dangerously forward and the Kara reflexively caught him on his wing. The man sniffed his feathers and muttered, "… Y'were smoking again."

Ukai sniffed his shoulder. "Is it obvious?"

"Don't smoke... it's bad for you."

 “Yeah, yeah. Come on.”

Ukai moved his wing and nudged Takeda’s head onto his shoulder. He felt warm.

Taking a spoonful of the porridge, he blew on it a little and raised it near the man’s mouth. Takeda sensed the wafting heat from under his nose, and he opened his eyes. It didn’t smell appetizing, and it wasn’t because he doubted Ma’s culinary skills. He parted his lips, and in the spoon went.

Takeda swallowed and said, “Can’t taste it.”

“Too bad,” Ukai said, feeling like he was feeding one of the birds. “You’ve got a whole bowl waiting for you.”

Scoop by scoop the porridge emptied out of the bowl and into Takeda’s belly. It took a while for him to finish it, and by the time the last scoop went down, half an hour had passed. He felt ready to fall asleep again, and Ukai was quick to lay him back onto the bed.

Keishin sighed and scratched his head as he picked up the empty bowl and spoon. He gazed at Takeda’s pallid face and wondered how long he’d stay ill this time. For the past few months the human had a cough here and there, but it was never as draining on the man as it was now. Maybe he just wasn’t used to the food and the weather here, he thought. Karas had wings to keep themselves warmer than most, but all humans had were their clothes.

Then, he noticed a grain of rice that had been overlooked.

Ukai cautiously moved his hand forward and brushed it away as gently as he could with his thumb. His lips felt soft.

Something felt a little strange inside. Since when did he start treating Takeda with such care? It was just yesterday that they were smacking each other on the shoulders for a laugh.

 

That same funny feeling in his chest reawakened when he got his bed back a week later. As he snuggled up in the welcoming embrace of his personal nest that night, he thought it felt a little different. He couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was, until he took a deep breath to yawn.

 

Ah.

 

This is Sensei’s smell.

 

It’s nice.

 

 

Chapter Text

Spring!

It was the one word everyone had on their minds when they awoke to fresh flowers blooming at their doorstep and the clear blue skies overhead. Although winter’s footprints seemed indelible to these lands, all the signs that pointed to spring had arrived. The winds carried the sweet fragrances of the flower fields to greet their noses from miles away, and the birds were all aflutter with songs and dances. Akkuro, too, had flown early to mingle with the single ladies. He had become a fine, strapping hawk at the age of three, and was well and ready to find a mate to spend his life with.

But what about the hawk master?

 

Well, he was in for one of the weirdest days of his life.

It all began at a gathering with his friends where they were getting ready to court their respective mates. The courtship ritual from the winter solstice continued in spring, where the one who gave their feather would take their mate out on a date in hopes of impressing them. While everyone else was discussing their grand plans for wooing their partners, they noticed that Ukai was being strangely quiet. That, despite what they observed.   

“So, Keishin, who’s the lucky lay-day? You haven’t told us yet.”

“Huh? What’re you talking about?” Ukai frowned at his friend, “I didn’t give a feather to anyone.”

“Sure you did. See?” The gang unfurled his wing against his confused protests, and sure enough, in place of where the longest wing feather should be was a tiny growing bud. Ukai stared at the gap in dumbfounded silence, then hurriedly snapped his wings away.

“The heck? Oi, did one of you assholes pluck it out when I was dead drunk?” he growled.

“No way. You definitely gave it to someone when we were gone,” one grinned.

“Yeah! But who else could he have given it to? Surely not her?” Another said.

Ukai gave a snarky humph and folded his arms tightly. “You guys just won’t own up to a prank. Either way, I’m not taking anyone out this year.”

But even at home, the questions would not end.

“God, please stop asking me who it is when I have no idea.” he groaned in sheer disdain at his parents, who wouldn’t let go of the fact that a single feather was missing from their precious son’s wings.

It would grow back anyway, so what was the huge fuss?

Ukai sighed loudly and took a seat next to Takeda at the dining table. He grabbed his glass and downed a long gulp of water from it. Then, he noticed that Takeda was clearly hesitating about something, and he side eyed him to spill it.

It was then that everyone got an answer.

“A...actually…” Takeda gulped and trailed off into a tiny whisper, “Ukai… gave it… to me.”

And all the water exploded out from Ukai’s mouth.

“I-- What?!” he sputtered and coughed vigorously, and Pa, Ma, and Grandpa Ukai all took turns staring with barely concealed astonishment at both the boy and the man.

“B-but it was when you were drunk, and you weren’t exactly in a clear state of mind, so--”

“Drunk?!” Ma’s eyes flew open like an enraged bull. “Ukai Keishin, what did we agree about drinking before the festival?”

Sensei!” Ukai’s eye twitched.

Takeda chuckled sheepishly.

“Ukai!” Ma called again, and Ukai sighed loudly.

“Ma, can we get back to the feather? I think that’s more earth-shattering right now than me being drunk.”

Ma turned away to mutter something about ‘where did I go wrong’ under her breath and pinched her brows. Pa, the only voice of reason at the table, sighed and said calmly, “We’ll talk about the drink later. Sensei, if that’s true, could you show us the feather?”

“O-of course.” Takeda replied, and quickly retrieved it from his coat in the room.

The crows all stared at the lone feather in his hand with such intensity that once more, Takeda drew a strong connection between Kara and bird behavior.

After a pregnant pause and a whole lot of silent contemplation, Grandpa Ukai cleared his throat.

“Well, tradition’s tradition,” he said.

Ukai swallowed thickly. “Gramps?”

“Take it as practice for next year. Besides, I’m sure Sensei would want to experience this part of our culture. Now go make your plans.”

And that was the story of how Ukai had to go on a date with Sensei.

 

The boy wracked his brains trying to think of what could possibly impress Takeda. The man had everything he didn’t – brains, skills, and a good attitude – which was why he called him Sensei in the first place. And then he remembered the one very obvious thing that Sensei couldn’t do.

Kneeling on the porch, Ukai said, “Sensei, get on.”

Takeda, who was suitably flabbergasted, could hardly contain his excitement. “U-Ukai? Are we really…?”

“Duh,” he smirked, glad that his plan was already working. “I’ll bring you somewhere nice.”

Takeda had never ridden on a Kara’s back before. Whenever he had to travel around the village, he would always seek Akkuro’s help; the hawk was happy to do so for a treat and a lovely head rub. But where the two were going, no other bird had any business being there.

As they took off, Takeda circled his arms round Ukai’s shoulders and leaned onto his back. His heart thumped. Ukai felt warm, and his feathers brushed against his sides as he flapped his wings.

“You scared, Sensei? I can feel your heartbeat, y’know.” Ukai grinned and hoisted him further up his back. They wobbled about in the air at first, but Ukai managed to balance themselves with his wings. Takeda blushed and held on tightly. “Of course not! I’ve flown with Akkuro so many times before.”

“But not like this.

 

Up and over the treetops, they soared; far away from the ancient forest, they travelled.

The sun shone warmly on their backs and cast a single grey speck onto the vivid green plains below. They sped past the sparkling, meandering river that trickled down the deep canyon, and then flew in graceful tandem with a flock of swallows. They drifted through the misty clouds which dampened their feathers and hair, and left a trail in the skies for only the keen-eyed to see. The higher they ascended, the farther the lands stretched beneath them, until the very concept of a horizon seemed but a land-dweller’s delusion.

If there ever was a more breath-taking sensation than being able to fly, Takeda could not imagine it. He had never felt so free and so frightened altogether at once, and this feeling happened every time he looked down. Ukai could only tell so much from Sensei’s stunned silence and tight grasp, and so he said, “You alright?”

“More than alright.” Takeda sighed in awe, gazing longingly at the blooming fields strolling by.

“Good.” Ukai smiled.

“It’s a shame I can’t jot down what I’m seeing right now. But I don’t think I could even describe it in words.”

“You could let go. I’ll hold on to your legs.” The Kara said in jest.

Takeda chuckled. "You never fail to surprise me."

"Do I?"

"Mhm. Everything you do is always so new, and-- and so fascinating to me."

Ukai laughed. "Hey, don't turn me into one of your test subjects. Next thing I know, you're poking needles into me.

Sensei laughed as well. "I would if it'd help me understand how you do it."

"I think it's mostly the drink. I get all my great ideas from there." He then remembered that they hadn't cleared this whole situation up. "Oh, right. Sensei, about the feather, I..."

Takeda smiled and shook his head. "You don't have to explain. I think I know more than you do about that night."

Ukai shrugged. "You do. That's for sure. But I just wanna say that... even though it kinda doesn't count, it doesn't mean that I... um...ugh." he sighed hopelessly and frowned. The teen took a while to gather his thoughts and place words to them, and Takeda waited patiently.

"What I'm trying to say is… I'm really grateful that you're here with us. So I don't want you thinking that I'm only doing this because Grandpa told me to." Ukai huffed and turned a little red, and he hoped that Takeda didn’t notice. An awkward pause followed, and his chest fizzled with anxiety for a reply. Then, he heard the man stifle a giggle by his ear and he turned even redder.

“W-what?” he growled indignantly.

“Our Ukai’s growing up.” Takeda said gently, and smiled.

“Idiot.”

 

No more needed to be said, for all was understood. They fell back into a peaceful glide, content to wander the lands alone in each other’s silent company.

The only thing that disturbed their sanctuary of thoughts was a flock of raptors that began to draw in behind them. At first they paid no mind to their presence, and didn’t know if they had been following them the entire time. But when Takeda turned to glance at them, he noticed that the one leading the pack looked unexpectedly familiar.

“Ukai, isn’t that…”

The raptor looked back at Takeda with a gurgle in its throat and steely eyes.

“The Onodas’ hunting bird?”

“What?”

All of a sudden, the leader shrieked and the flock snapped into action. At least ten raptors hurtled towards them in a flurry of black feathers and claws, grasping at the two of them as Ukai struggled to fly away and fend them off. Takeda held on for dear life – they were so high up off the ground – as the Kara’s wings started to falter under the attack. They overwhelmed him on all sides and it looked like staying airborne was going to be impossible.

And then, in a horrible turn of events, the raptors prised Takeda off of Ukai’s back—

“—Ukai!!”

And he plummeted down into the sprawling nothingness below.

“Sensei!!” Ukai screamed out, and he felt his heart stop in that split second.

He needed to do something—now!

He swept back his wings and tore through the air towards Takeda, and all the raptors fluttered away from him as quickly as they came. The upward wind whipped fiercely against him as he clashed with its immense force. All he could see through his panic-stricken eyes was the falling silhouette of the man who was fast approaching the ground.

I need more speed. I can almost…!

Pushing his wings to the limit, he finally caught up to Takeda in the nick of time and snatched his body out of the sky in a bear hug.

But they were moving far too fast and too close to the ground, and Ukai could only swerve away so much before inertia took over. Like dead weight they crashed onto the hill below on their sides and broke apart, tumbling briskly down into the tall grass.

When they finally came to a stop, Ukai panted heavily and clambered over to where Takeda fell, stumbling from his sore bruises and hurting wings. It was a miracle that he hadn’t broken anything. He took one look at the man’s limp expression and felt an unsavoury chill shoot up his spine.

“Sensei?” he called out, afraid, and shook Takeda’s shoulders. “Sensei, oi.”  

Ukai put his ear to the man’s chest, and felt relieved when he heard a steady beat. He was breathing normally as well, so he must have merely fainted from the shock.

He paused to catch his breath and looked up to where the raptors were. They had spread out and were still circling around the area, searching the ground for signs of their target. It seemed like they were only out for Takeda, for they left the Kara alone the moment the human fell from his back. Ukai cursed. He knew now that there was something going on.

He crouched over Takeda and covered him up with his black wings, and waited in the shade of the tall grass. It took a long while before the raptors started to lose interest, and in that time Takeda had begun to rouse himself. He awoke to the feeling of Ukai on top of him and the sight of his scratched up face.

“Ukai…” he uttered softly, his head spinning.

“Sensei.” Ukai responded in a murmur and shushed him. “They’re still here.”

They laid low in tense silence for a few more minutes. Once the last one had gone for sure, Ukai slowly got off of Takeda and exhaled deeply. His heart still pounded rapidly from the adrenaline.

 

“Fuck, man. You okay?” he asked.

Takeda nodded and sat upright, feeling the aches all over his body. “Ow. And you?”

“Yeah, I… I just need a second.” Ukai replied and rubbed his wing where it hurt. “Fuck… that wasn’t an accident.”

Takeda concurred with furrowed brows. “That was definitely the Onodas’ bird. I treated her last week.”  

“They really don’t like you, do they?”

He sighed and rubbed his neck. “I don’t know.”

“Did they do anything to you before this?” Ukai asked.

Takeda darted his eyes away and shook his head. The Kara frowned. “Sensei, I know when you’re lying.” And when he kept quiet, Ukai moved in close, right up to his face where he couldn’t run. Takeda squeezed his eyes and mouth shut.  

“What did they do?” Ukai demanded, and the man winced.

“Sensei!” he pressed. Takeda then whimpered, “U-Ukai, it’s honestly nothing you should worry about.”

“When they’re sending their goddamn bird to kill you, it is!” he exclaimed. “They clearly planned this out. Why won’t you say something? It’s like you’re defending them.”

“No, it’s just… I don’t blame them for acting this way.”

Ukai seethed and narrowed his eyes when he heard that. “Whatever. I’ll find out myself.” he muttered darkly. That wild aura of his showed itself again, and Takeda couldn’t help but feel a tinge of worry. “Ukai, this is why I didn’t want to say anything. I don’t want to complicate things.”

“I won’t take this like a bitch. If they want to start something, I’ll end it.”

Takeda gulped dryly, and his chest felt like it was going to burst from all the emotions running through his soul. Suddenly, he hugged the boy and begged, “Ukai, please. Don’t do it. I don’t want to see you get hurt or ruin your relationship with the others for my sake. I’m the one who caused this.”

Ukai’s eyes softened with concern and his shoulders sagged. He understood what Sensei was saying, and he truly didn’t know if he was ready to fight for that.

He slowly returned the hug and for once, he realized how lithe sensei was when compared to him. He really wasn’t born a fighter.

Which was why he needed to be one for him.

“Sensei.” he whispered. “I just want to protect you. That’s all.”

Chapter Text

The next time the Onodas came over, Ukai gripped his fists, but did not swing. He would respect Sensei’s wishes.

He merely stared at them with bitter, unceasing contempt, and everyone else thought that he was just having another episode.

But that day had undoubtedly changed him forever.

It had shocked him into realizing things he’d never even dreamed to think about, and it forced him to put his world under a glaring spotlight. In once familiar faces he saw a lingering shadow behind, and his mind dissected every word that came from their mouths with a tainted scalpel.

Nothing he thought he knew made sense anymore; and so little by little, Ukai’s thoughts trickled into a new, warped reality.

He became more distant and took to drinking more often whenever he wasn’t working. He wouldn't let Takeda go out for any house visits or errands, taking those jobs for himself. If he had to step out of the house, he would get Akkuro to keep an eye on him. No one, not even his friends, were spared from his odd behaviour. They saw Takeda less and less often, and if they mentioned the slightest thing about him, Ukai would get strangely uptight. They couldn't understand why, and they stopped bringing up the matter when he wouldn’t explain.

 

It came to a point when Takeda’s research was becoming hindered by Ukai’s obstinacy. One downcast afternoon, Takeda was about to go visit a nearby nursery to collect some plant samples. But as soon as he set one foot out of the door, Akkuro landed in front of him. It was as if it had a Sensei sensor or something, for he just couldn’t escape the bird’s notice. Takeda sighed and kept going, but was blocked once again by the bird.

“Akkuro, let me go.” he said, but it only screeched at him and wouldn’t budge. “I need to get there before they leave. Come on.”

Then, as if on cue, Ukai landed beside them with a stony expression and asked, “Sensei, where are you going?”

“The nursery.” He replied calmly, but looked at the Kara with troubled eyes.

“I’ll get whatever it is you need from there.”

“No, Ukai, I can do it myself.”

Ukai swiftly moved forward and took Takeda’s arm. “Just tell me what it is. I’ll do it.”

He smelled of alcohol and smoke.

Sensei, who was always so considerate, had his limits, too. He brushed the boy’s hand away and said firmly, “You can’t keep doing this, Ukai.”

The Kara frowned. “Doing what?”

“Keeping me in the house! I have so many things I need to do, but you keep stopping me from going out.” Takeda exclaimed.

“I’m helping you do them.”

“It’s not helping,” he sighed. “You and Akkuro are just… isolating me from the rest of the world. I have to be out there, speaking to people and conducting my studies.”

“Then just teach me how to do it. I can learn.” Ukai said, his blank stare unchanging as he replaced his hand.

“Ukai, let go.”

But he didn’t, and he started pulling Takeda back into the house.

“Ukai!” Takeda protested, powerless in his endeavours to escape. Akkuro followed behind and nudged the door closed with a slam. For once, the man felt inexplicably afraid of what the Kara was capable of. It was like those times when his aura began to show, but this was a different facet of his personality that he had not observed before.

Ukai said he wanted to protect him back then; but now, he felt more like a chained pet.

The Kara brought him to his bed and murmured, “Sensei, you should rest. You’ve been sick lately.”

“I’m not sick. I don’t need to rest,” Takeda insisted.

Ukai seemed deaf to his words. His movements were almost mechanical as he lifted the man onto the bed and pinned him down with a thud, all the while staring at Takeda with dispassionate eyes.

“Get off of me!” Takeda demanded, appalled at the boy’s unheard-of brazenness. Surely he wasn’t drunk? “What’s gotten into you? Why are you doing this to me?”

“I want to help you, Sensei.” Ukai said, and his grip tightened around the man’s wrist. “You’re safer staying in here."

Takeda winced. He couldn’t escape.

“I need to go.”

“Sensei—“

“Ukai, you're hurting me.”

 

Hearing that, Ukai’s eyes slowly mellowed and his mouth opened as if to say something. He swallowed dryly and darted his unfocused gaze about Takeda’s face, searching for answers to the doubts that were mushrooming in his head. When he finally saw the distress he was causing Sensei, his chest throbbed painfully and he loosened his fingers.

“Sensei, I…” he gasped, full of remorse. Then, he lost his edge and embraced Takeda tightly, saying nothing for a few moments. A pang of worry came over the man as the silence settled in.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and pressed him again when he didn’t answer. When Ukai spoke again, his voice carried the frightened tone of a lost and upset child.

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I have all these terrible thoughts I don’t understand, and all these stupid things I’m doing-- I’m so afraid that somebody will do something to you, and— and— I don’t want that to happen again.”

“Ukai…” Takeda quietly said and patted his back. “Is this about that day?”

Ukai grunted in reply.

“It’s alright. It won’t happen again.”

“You don’t know that. The fuckin’ Onodas, all these people... They’re all the same. I can’t trust them. I can’t trust anyone.”

“Ukai, listen to what you’re saying. This isn’t like you at all. If there’s something bothering you, please, tell me.”

Ukai paused, and gulped. He could always tell Sensei anything, but he didn’t know if now was the right time. And yet, now was a better time than ever, lest he went insane.

“Then I’ll tell you.” he decided.

“I’m listening.”

“Sensei, this is your fault.”

“My… fault?”

Ukai breathed into a sigh and nuzzled against Takeda’s neck. The man froze and his heart jittered from the abrupt affection.

“The moment you fell, I suddenly realized something, but I didn’t know what it was. I knew it was really, really important, though. So I kept thinking, and thinking, and thinking, and then it came to me.”

Takeda held his breath. It couldn’t be.

“I can’t bear losing you. I really like you, Sensei.”

Ukai lifted his head to look at Takeda. With wavering fingers he took off the man’s glasses, and as they gazed uninhibited into each other’s eyes, their thoughts connected, and they felt one and the same for a fleeting moment.  

And then it felt right.

 

Keishin leaned in and kissed Takeda.

It was a short, chaste kiss that left their lips tingling for more, but when they broke apart and Ukai moved forward again, Takeda stopped him.

“Sensei,” the boy flushed. Gone was the moody look on his face, and he exuded the air of an eager, love-struck puppy. A handsome one, at that. Takeda looked away in hesitation, his face also burning with an unmistakable blush.

“Ukai… we can’t do this.” he said quietly.

“Why? You don’t like me?”

Takeda closed his eyes. “That’s not it.”

Ukai wove his fingers between Takeda’s and kissed his neck tenderly. Takeda could feel the sinful sensation of the Kara’s hot breath on his skin, which made his nerves shiver and his words fail.

“So you do like me.” Ukai murmured deeply, and smiled.

“Ukai, I—“

“What, is it because you’re still a virgin?”

If Takeda could get any redder, he would have.

“T-that’s not it either!” he blurted out and pushed Ukai’s face away. The boy grinned to himself. He thought Sensei’s angry face was more adorable than intimidating. He planted another kiss on his hand and approached once more.

“Sensei, I mean it. I like you, and I want you. Do I have to spell everything out for you like a good student?”

It seemed like the walls that Takeda had so carefully built over the years were crumbling down in the face of this one Kara. The logical side of him knew very well that if he caved in to his limbic system now, he would regret his decision for the rest of his life. It wasn’t just about him, and it wasn’t just about Ukai, even though this moment was truly and solely theirs.

But perhaps because Takeda had learned a thing or two about living from being with Ukai, he thought it might be okay to respond to his burning impulses for once.

Just this once.

 

The instant Akkuro realized what was happening, he waddled out the door and closed it gently with a click.

Chapter Text

The morning after, Takeda made a speech at breakfast.

 

“It’s about time for me to leave.”

 

Those were the words the Ukais knew would come one day from Takeda’s mouth, but they never expected it to be so soon.

“I truly appreciate everything you’ve given me this past year or so. I will never be able to thank you all enough.”

Keishin looked visibly shaken as his eyes slowly widened in disbelief, but Takeda was immensely calm and gracious as he spoke.

“I’ve made arrangements to live with our neighbours for a while more before I leave the village. They have so kindly allowed me to continue my research with them as I move on to studying the next stage of the Kara life cycle.”

It was if yesterday didn’t happen at all.

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll pack up all my belongings.”

Once the two were alone, Ukai grabbed Takeda by the hand and led him out back.

“This is the first time I'm hearing this," he said, absolutely fuming.

"Of course. It's the first time I’m talking about this." Takeda replied coolly.

"What the fuck? Sensei, are you being serious right now?"

"I am."

"Then what was yesterday?"

Takeda smiled, apathetic. "Research."

 

Ukai grasped him roughly by the collar and glared straight into his cold, bespectacled eyes. Takeda didn't even flinch.

"You'd better tell me this is a sick joke right now," he seethed. His head began to hurt.

"I learned a lot from you from my time here. None of this would have been possible without you, so, thank you."

Ukai stayed his trembling fists.

"'Thank you?'" he whispered, utterly baffled by everything this man was spouting. It was like he didn’t know him at all. "' Thank you?!' I can't fucking believe this. I'm not your bloody guinea pig."

"I believe I made it very clear the moment I met you. I'm here to study Karas."

"So you screw all your test subjects, then?"

Takeda's mouth opened and paused, before emitting a light-hearted chuckle.

"Did you really think I liked you?"

The boy stared speechlessly at him. He felt like his world had lurched itself sideways and was about to drop off the edge of a cliff. And the one who had put it there was the one who had raised it in the first place.

Takeda’s patronizing look was too much to bear.

“Ukai, you should know by now that all I care about is my research. And now, I know everything I need to know about you. Your thoughts, your habits, your family, even your body. I don’t need you anymore.”

Ukai swung.

His whitened knuckles stopped a hair’s breadth away from the man’s cheek.

Breathing hard, his jaw ached as hot blood rushed through his tensed up muscles. He clenched and unclenched his eyes, and when he opened them again and saw Takeda’s face, he felt nothing but hatred in that instant.  

“Don’t fuck with me.” he yelled. “Everything we’ve done until now, everything you’ve been--”

“It was only to get the information I needed. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.” Takeda said solemnly.

“So this is the real you?”

He didn’t respond, and glanced away.

Ukai grit his teeth and his feathers ruffled. He couldn’t accept it. He didn’t want to. And yet, it seemed like the only tangible thing of Takeda right now was the cloth that he gripped tightly in his hand. How did everything go so wrong, so quickly?

“You must be a damn good actor, then. I should have left you under the snow like they told me.” he muttered bitterly. Shoving his collar away, he turned his back on Takeda and spread his wings.

“Fuck off. And don’t ever come back.”

 

Takeda left without a trace the next morning. He took all his possessions away - all the books, papers, and ink - along with the last shreds of the Kara’s feelings for him.

It was all just empty now. Empty, with nothing more and nothing less. Not hatred, nor sorrow. It was a cruel blessing that Takeda had left nothing behind, for Ukai couldn’t bring himself to think about him. He blocked out everything that reminded him of the man, even the fundamental feeling of joy, and his polluted thoughts never received closure.

Alas, life had to go on.

As the household returned to normalcy without a human in their midst, so did Ukai’s heart begin to mend, piece by shattered piece. Those around him could tell that the fissure had certainly cut deep, for his eyes had lost some of its rambunctious vigour. Even his harsh frown had mellowed with an abstruse sadness, and it seemed like the old Ukai had gone with time. At the very least, along the way he had regained a little more faith in the Karas and a smidgen of maturity, if anything were to be celebrated at all.

As much as Fate was known to be a cruel master and a benevolent god, what was often forgotten was the way it delighted in creating twisted concoctions with the two. What mattered was how high the peaks rose and how low the valleys dipped.

And so on one fateful evening, when the Ukais had not heard a single word about nor glimpsed the human for weeks on end, a frantic messenger came pounding at their door. Keishin answered the door then, and when he opened it, the terrified face of the old lady next door greeted him.  

“Oh, my darling boy, where are your parents?” she panted and sighed meekly, her old bones unable to keep up with her haste.

“They’re inside. What’s wrong?” he asked.

“He’s-- oh, dear me—come quickly, he’s dying!”

“The old man?” He prepared to dash back inside the house, but she held onto his arm.

“No, the young human!”

Ah, nothing in this world made sense.

At that very moment in time, he should have told her to go back, and closed the door. He should have cared zero times out of ten. He should have forgotten about how much Sensei meant to him.

But he didn’t do any of those things, for an intelligent mind is an irrational one.

 

Ukai bolted out the door and headed straight for the old couple’s house. He arrived in half the time it took to get there, and the elderly man who had been waiting anxiously by the door ushered him into the room quickly with an exclamation of dismay.

Once Ukai entered the dimly lit scene, the air stood still. The old man shook the boy’s stiffened arm and urged him to move, but all Ukai heard was a muffled cry. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the man who had collapsed onto the floor, and the mess of ink and paper that had cascaded along with his fall. Takeda’s blood-stained shirt, hands, and mouth told Ukai enough of the story; he just hoped that he would be alive to tell him the rest of it.

Picking Takeda up in his arms, Ukai returned to the clinic and kicked open the doors.

The next time Takeda woke up, he found himself surrounded by a familiar smell. He was back on Ukai’s bed again, and he couldn’t fathom why; but knowing the reason was not important right now. Despite feeling like his lungs were about to collapse on him at any moment – no, precisely because they were – he had to leave. As he gathered his strength to get up, he clutched his chest tightly and took slow, careful breaths.

He pushed away the thick blankets and took one step out of the bed. But then, he heard Akkuro screech sharply above him, and he flinched. Footsteps began to approach. Shortly after, Ukai walked into the room with a stern look on his face.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Ukai murmured.

Takeda said nothing and walked past him, but Ukai caught him by the shoulder.

“I’m leaving.” The man uttered softly. It seemed like that was the loudest he could muster.

“The old lady busted her ass to get here and tell us you almost died. What the hell happened?” Ukai pressed. Takeda coughed and winced, as if bracing himself for something. Covering his mouth, he shook his head and said, “I have to go.”

Although his stubbornness had once moved Ukai, it wouldn’t be the same this time.

“You’re not leaving till I get an answer. The old gramps said you were coughing up blood. Often. How long has it been?”

The man looked down. How did the old man know? “It’s none of your business.”

“It became my business the moment I had to pick your ass up and save you. Tell me.”

Then, Takeda began coughing, and he hunched over from the pain. Ukai frowned, and he guided the man to sit on the bed. When he stopped and could breathe normally again, Ukai took his palm. The boy saw the red stains and grimaced.

He knew now. The one being protected was him.

Ukai hugged Takeda and closed his eyes. He had truly missed this.

“Sensei, you’re a bad liar. But you almost fooled me there.”

Takeda’s eyes watered.

“Ukai…”

“Is this why you wanted to leave?”

He broke away from his embrace and Ukai’s arms hovered sadly at his sides. “Enough. We’re through.”

“We were . I can’t leave you like this.”

“Just forget about me. This was all a mistake—that day, was a mistake.” He uttered as his tears fell. “I shouldn’t have—“

Ukai shut his lips with a kiss.

It felt like falling in love all over again.

The first kiss led to a hesitant second, then quickly a third, and slowly a fourth. Ukai held Takeda’s hand and slipped his tongue through the man’s parched lips, then sealed them with a long, deep, and intimate kiss. They broke apart and panted for air, and Ukai’s brooding eyes filled with tears as he gazed longingly at Takeda.

“Are you leaving me again?” he asked, and the droplets trickled down his cheek as he blinked. Each one bore a deep hole into Takeda’s aching heart, and he squeezed the Kara’s hand tightly.

“I’m sorry, Ukai. I've dragged you into this mess, and I didn't mean for us to turn out this way. But I won’t lie to you anymore.” Takeda said. He never wanted things to turn out this way, but he knew from the very beginning that it wouldn’t work out.

“I don’t have much longer to live.”

The boy’s eyes widened. “What? Why?”

“My family carries an incurable disease. My father died from it, and so did his mother before him. The symptoms always appear once the person reaches adulthood, and no one survives in the year it starts.”

Ukai’s heart sank.

“The first signs are when common illnesses become more frequent.”

That happened.

“Then, haemorrhaging of the lungs.”

That happened, too.

“Finally…” Takeda took a breath, “The lungs will fail altogether, and I will either die from blood loss or asphyxiation, whichever comes first.”  

Takeda dipped his head.

Ukai held him close. He was still here.

“I don’t know when it’ll happen. I thought it did, just now," he admitted. Ukai shook his head as he forced his brain to think. “There must be a way.”

“We’ve been travelling for generations to find a cure. There hasn’t been a single lead for almost a century.” Takeda lamented.

“No. I won’t let you die.” Ukai cried.

“Ukai..."

"There's nothing out there that can't be cured. Maybe you've just been looking in the wrong places."

"Ukai, it’s been so long," Takeda sighed softly, “When my mother told me why my father died, she also told me to go and live my life like every day was going to be my last. She didn’t want me to have the same regrets my father did. So I left home to devote my life to pursuing the only thing I loved more than her. It’s better this way, that I end a bloodline of suffering.”

Still the boy refused to give up as Takeda had done years ago.

"Maybe the humans don't have the knowledge. But the Karas--" he perked up and became filled with agitation-- "The Karas know things that humans don’t. Grandpa knows a lot of other doctors out there. Surely one of them will know what to do.”

Once they broke the news to the rest of the family, Grandpa Ukai immediately unfurled a dusty old map and charted the path that he and his grandson would take. They would visit the greatest doctors among the Kara settlements across and return within a month, hopefully with an answer by then. Takeda tried to persuade them not to go, but the old man would not give up on him either.

He gave the man a big hug and said, “Sensei, if this is where your journey ends, then I must say this now. You are an amazing person who has brought many gifts to us and this world. It has been a great honour working with you, Kara or not.”

“Sir…” Takeda held back his tears.

“Which is why I must not let your efforts be in vain.”

Ukai hugged Sensei one last time.

Wait for me, he said, and it took everything within Takeda to nod.

And with their final goodbyes, the two Karas left on swift wings.

They reached their first destination without incident, a small town hidden within a deep valley. The medicine master readily heard their pleas, but the moment the word ‘human’ appeared in their conversation, she shied away and declared that she would be of no help. Whether it was a matter of pure skill or outright rejection, the muddy waters soon cleared to reveal the shuddering depths below as they continued on their quest.

Time and again, the other doctors turned Ukai and his grandfather down, even if they had known the old man for most of his life, and even if Keishin begged them for their help. They would put on a face of apprehension or even ridicule, and then kindly remind him of his position.

‘Ukai, haven’t you heard from the Capital? Maybe your village is too far away after all.’

Grandpa Ukai would become increasingly frustrated with each passing Kara. ‘I know the Capital’s stand, but I have my reasons.’

‘You know what they’ll do.’

‘If you won’t deign to help me, then so be it.’

The flame of hope looked so far away in the darkness that the two Ukais began to wonder if it had been only a figment of their imagination from the very beginning. Had things always been this way? Had they, too, been such hostile parties to outsiders before Takeda? Slowly, Keishin descended back down the path whence he had begun to turn away from, and his disgust for his kind resurfaced.

When they reached the end of their route with nobody and nothing to bring home, Grandpa Ukai solemnly addressed Keishin with a grave heart.

"We've tried our best, Keishin. Let’s go home."

"They're all useless." The boy spat, trembling with rage and despair.

"They have their reasons, too. All we can do now is try whatever we can for him.”

But back at home, the news that awaited them was the last thing they wanted to hear.

“The Capital came to look for him days after you two had left. Thankfully, he hid next door and they didn’t find him.” Ma said, saddened.

“Then where is he?” Ukai demanded, his heart pounding out of his chest.

“He left behind all his things and vanished the next day. Akkuro brought him out without us knowing and we tried to find him - believe me, we did--!”

Ukai didn’t want to hear any of it.

“But even Akkuro didn’t know, because he rode off on a rhea afterwards into the forest. Oh, why, Sensei…” she mourned and wrung her wrists.  

Why?

Yes, Why?

“Why…” Ukai hissed, a hopeless anger overcoming him. “Why didn’t you keep an eye on him?”

“Keishin… I’m sorry.” Ma began, but the boy kicked over a chair and heaved, “All of you... even fucking Akkuro!”

“Keishin. It’s not her fault.” Grandpa Ukai said, and moved to hold his shoulder, but he brushed it off roughly with his wing. He took deep, shaky breaths and clenched his fists.

“Then whose fault is it? What the hell are we supposed to do now? He could be dead already!”

The family fell silent.

Ukai charged into his room and grabbed Akkuro off his perch, and the poor hawk screeched as it tried to escape.

“Keishin! Don’t bring this out on Akkuro!” Grandpa Ukai reprimanded harshly and pulled the boy away, who shouted as he flapped his wings and struggled to break free from the old man’s grasp.

Where is he?! Where did you bring him?”

Akkuro calmed his frazzled feathers and flew onto the windowsill, frightened at the boy’s aggression.

“Don’t you dare fly off! Tell me now, you fucking traitor!”

“Keishin! Calm down!”

The hawk chirped twice and fled the scene.

“How the fuck do I calm down?! He’s gone! He’s fucking gone. Sensei is… gone... ” Ukai panted and broke down into tears, weary and desolate of heart. He didn’t know what to do anymore. He felt so helpless, so alone, and so lost.

Why didn’t you wait for me?

Did you have no faith in me?

Was I not good enough for you?

 

That was the final swing of the hammer on his shattered psyche.

He couldn’t trust anyone. Not his family, not his friends.

Not even Sensei.

 

Ukai eventually left the nest with Sensei’s precious belongings in tow. Fifteen books tied up neatly in order, three quills, two ink pots, one eyeglass cloth, one ink-stained blotting cloth, a ream of scattered papers, a spool of binding thread with a needle, a pair of silver scissors, and a small set of precision instruments. It seemed like that was all. All that he had to remember him by. He kept them all shut away inside a bag and slung the heavy load over his shoulders.

Before the boy disappeared, Akkuro greeted him with a final nuzzle and Sensei’s parting words.

I’m sorry. I hope you find peace from my words.

The only way he knew how to find peace, however, was to see the man himself. Ukai flew from town to town, not caring if he was in Kara or human territory, and looked. He looked and looked for any trace of Sensei at all. Sometimes he’d swear he saw a fleeting shadow or a book that looked just like one of his. Other times he thought he heard his voice in the back of his head, or felt his haunting presence disturb his dreams.

But when the destined year had passed and Ukai found himself as lost as he was when he started, he sat down and held his head.

Where did it all go wrong?

He was in a foreign land where he had neither kin nor kith - he had pushed them all out of his life - and he had nothing left to his name but Takeda’s belongings and the clothes on his back.  

Takeda’s belongings.

He then remembered Sensei’s words.

Slowly, he unravelled the bag with his calloused hands, the knot untouched since the day he left; one could almost see the smudged fingerprints left behind by their true master. As he untied the fraying string that bound the stacks of tomes together, he felt a tide of raw nostalgia wash gently over him. It was unpleasant. He wanted to leaf through them again and relive the memories of looking over Takeda’s shoulder, yet he didn’t want to experience the pang of loss  at the same time.

But Sensei had never said anything without meaning.

Taking a deep breath, he opened the first book titled ‘Kara Biology and Epidemiology’.

It was filed with scientific rubbish. What a surprise.

Flipping carefully through the fragile pages, he trailed his eyes over the scrawls and strokes, and remembered the way Sensei looked when he was absurdly engrossed in his writing. Those furrowed brows and black-rimmed spectacles resting on the edge of his nose.

Ukai took the next book titled ‘Kara Culture, Food, and Habitats’ and flipped through that, too. More nonsense he could understand a little better.

And so was the next book, and the next, and the next-- until he came upon four books that had no labels and were tied up tightly with strings of their own. He pondered their meaning as he cut them loose with the scissors, but the moment he saw their contents, he knew exactly why.

These were meant only for his eyes.

Countless drawings of Ukai Keishin, the Kara, etched themselves into the pages, some of graphite and some of ink.

Eyes, faces, hands, wings, bodies, smiles, frowns, and laughter-- they had them all. Each sketch had been drawn so carefully that one could almost see the time trapped within them. As the drawings progressed they grew more elaborate and true-to-life, but none of them were really finished. Ukai kept flipping through each book, and he saw more and more of himself till he felt like putting everything away again.

But he persevered to the final book, and on the very last filled page was the only drawing that could be considered complete. It was a portrait of himself gazing faraway into the distance, with every eyelash, strand of hair, and scar painstakingly detailed.

Ukai stared at the picture for a long time.

When he came to his senses, the first thought he had was, ‘I’m not that pretty’. He had seen himself in the mirror lately, and it was a haggard mess. The next was that he realized how much Takeda had thought about him, even when they had been apart.

And then, he flipped to the next page and saw a few lines of text.

As he read them in Sensei’s gentle voice, the tears fell.

-----

To my dear Ukai,

I’m sorry that things had to end this way. I wanted to leave quietly without ever hurting you, but fate had other plans for me. I was blessed to have met you, and you’ve made all my dreams come true.

Now that I know how much it hurts to say goodbye, please forget me.

I love you.

-----

Ukai wept and clutched the book dearly to his chest.

“... Sensei, you idiot…”

For how could he forget the only person he had ever truly cherished?

 

Thus ended the tale of the Kara who loved a human, and the human who loved a Kara.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“But what about your wings?”

The kids had woken up halfway through the story and were, as kids do, asking the darndest things adults wouldn’t. Ukai squinted at Hinata and turned to Suga.

“Should they be hearing this?”

“I think everyone wants to know,” he replied softly.

“Alright. I won’t mince my words then.” The man shrugged off all his cares – though he didn’t have many in the first place. “I tore them out with a knife and my bare hands, then buried them somewhere I don’t remember anymore. I really was a dumbass back then-- no one can escape the body they’re born into, and yet, I tried to live like a human.”

Suga and the boys gulped as their wing joints tingled involuntarily.

“I still hate Karas to this day. I can’t forgive the fact that they didn’t even try to help. And because of that… well, you know the rest.” he sighed, and finished.

A downtrodden silence filled the room. Ukai glanced up at all of their blank faces and took on a bemused expression. He chuckled, “Hey, you three are alright with me. Come on, don’t look so down.” But telling them not to feel sad after listening to his harrowing tale was quite a useless venture. He was really the only one in the mood for light-hearted banter, and, well, this morning had been thoroughly ruined for sure. Sighing, Ukai stood up and stretched his whole body.

“If any of you want breakfast, there’s bread and jam in the kitchen,” he said simply, and left.

Daichi stared after him and then exhaled a long, dejected sigh. “What a story,” he muttered to Suga. The man seemed deep in thought, however, his mellow eyes frowning ever so slightly. Not wanting to disturb him, he patted the Kara’s shoulder and led the kids out to get some food. They appeared much livelier now, knowing that their Mama was safe and in good hands. It was the first in a while since they had such a normal breakfast, and so they dug in like ravenous beasts at a buffet.

“How long are we staying here?” Hinata asked between mouthfuls of fluffy bread.

“At least a week. Suga needs to stay in bed for a while.” Daichi replied.

“And after that?”

“I was thinking we could go to my house.”

The kids gasped in unison when they heard that. “You have a house?!”

Hinata quickly added on, “I thought you were homeless. Like, a lone wanderer who has to brave the dangers of the forest and survive only on his own pee and raw meat, all while battling bloodthirsty creatures all around him!” The boy swept his arm dramatically across the table as if painting the scene before him. Daichi laughed and said, “Is that what you think hunters are like? It’s actually my parents’ home but they’re not living there anymore. It’s not too far away from this town, either.”

Kageyama swallowed his food and pointed out, “That means it’s a human town, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Mama won’t like that.”

Daichi nodded, “I’ll have to talk to him. It’s not near the busy markets like Ukai’s home here, so it shouldn’t be too bad. Besides, the folks there are nice, and the food’s great. Don’t you guys miss having a nice, warm bed and delicious food?”

Hinata’s eyes glowed as he leaned in to listen. “Can it fit all of us? One bed each?”

“Of course. We have lots of room there.” he smiled.

“And do they have pork buns? Oh, and egg with rice?”

“All that, and more.”

The boy was positively salivating at this point, but seconds later, his shoulders drooped and he sank back into his chair. A gloomy air settled over him as he mumbled, “My mother used to make pork buns for us every morning. They were the best in our town.” His nose stung, but he rubbed it away and refused to give in to his tears. Daichi looked sadly at Hinata and ruffled his hair.

“Hey, how about we make some for lunch?” he suggested.

Hinata looked up dolefully. “We can?”

The man nodded with a smile. “What about you, Kageyama? What do you want to eat?”

Kageyama thought for a bit, then said, “Curry,” with excited pupils.

“Then curry and meat buns it is! Let’s see if Ukai’s got the ingredients, first.”

The three scavengers rummaged high and low through Ukai’s dismally messy and very specifically-stocked kitchen. It seemed like the place catered more to bird than man. Sacks of bird feed, vegetables, and roots took up most of the space, while a variety of gamey meats lined the cold section. Surprisingly, none of the stuff ever went bad. Ukai knew where everything was by heart and would use them up within days of their arrival.

After a good half hour of searching and unintentional sorting, there was no doubt that they would have to go grocery shopping. Ukai left for town with Debu, a pouch full of gold, and a much needed shopping list. Daichi stayed behind to tend to Suga as Hinata and Kageyama went outside to play.

“Is there anything you want to do?” he asked the silver Kara, who gazed out the window at his frolicking children. Suga shook his head quietly at first, content to admire the view. Then, he asked for a glass of water, and after drinking it all he realized something.

“Um, Daichi.”

“Yeah?” the man gave a nod.

“I need to pee.”

Daichi stood up hastily, almost knocking his chair over. “Uh—well, I’ll have to carry you to the outhouse, then.”

“Is it far?”

“No, it’s a short walk.”

Suga smiled sheepishly and blushed. “I’m counting on you, then, nurse.”

This was going to be a very frequent and awkward experience for the next few days. What made it even more embarrassing was that the outhouse had a squat design; which is, to the adequately keen observer, not conducive to a patient with abdominal perforations. We shall now preserve the dignity of the two involved, and not describe the arrangement of which they had to configure themselves into in order to complete the act. One is, however, invited to exercise their own imagination as to why they emerged from the outhouse with red faces.

 

But the worst had yet to come for Daichi.

 

When Ukai returned with huge bags full of food on Debu’s back, the young crows mobbed them and began digging through the goods excitedly. “Oi, there’s glass in there.” the man warned as he heard loud clinking amid the rustling. Then, he took out a small paper bag and tossed it at the boys. “Here ya go.” Their faces lit up when they opened the bag.

“Candy! Thank you, uncle Ukai!” Hinata beamed and ran over to hug the man. “Thanks, uncle Ukai!” Kageyama shouted as well. Ukai felt provoked and full of butterflies at the same time. “You’re welcome, kids,” he sighed. “Don’t eat them yet. We gotta have lunch, first.” Daichi said, right before Kageyama tried to sneak one into his mouth. “I see you, Hinata,” he added sternly, seeing the boy try to cover it up with his wing. Ukai grinned and punched the man on his shoulder. “Just like you, eh?”

The four of them made lunch together, turning the kitchen floor into the aftermath of a cyclone made from flour, vegetable bits, and splashes of water. Ukai was a surprisingly good cook, and the rest became his bungling kitchen hands by comparison. Several misshapen pork buns and a few perfectly round ones later, the meaty fruits of their labour came out of the steamers all toasty and tasty, including a great, big pot of pheasant curry that smelled up the whole house with its spicy aroma. It was a shame that Suga couldn’t eat any of it, but the rest made sure he joined in the laughs as they ate and chatted around him.

“Mama, when you get better, we’ll make more for you. Extra big ones!” Hinata grinned, and Suga felt heartened at the return of his radiant smile. “Sounds great. I’ll eat all the ones that fall apart, too.” he replied and patted his head.

Kageyama grimaced at the sloppy bun on his plate, undoubtedly made by his highly skilled brother. Hinata took that mess off of Kageyama’s hands and gave him another bun. “I’m gonna go out for a while!” he exclaimed, and scurried outside. Kageyama shrugged and dug in gladly.

The day passed peacefully afterwards. Ukai returned to his duties with the curious kids in tow. Suga spent most of his time sleeping, and Daichi helped out with the chores that were slowly piling up. Night fell quickly, as it tended to in languid afternoons.

Now, remember ‘the worst that had yet to come’?

 

“Make sure to give him a proper wipe-down. The wings, around the stitches, everything. Don’t want to risk an infection.” Ukai instructed and placed a bucket of water and some towels in front of Daichi. The man gulped and kept a straight face. “Yeah. Will do.”

“Alright boys, don’t come in here until Daichi says so.” Ukai announced vaguely and left. They shouted back in acknowledgement from the living room, and Daichi exhaled thinly and looked at Suga's sleeping face. Ah, he wanted to pinch those cheeks so badly.

He woke him gently and Suga yawned like a cat.

"The doctor says it's time for your bath, sir."

Suga rubbed his eyes. "That'd be nice. I've been lying here all day."  

"But there's no getting in the bathtub for you, so... is it okay if I wipe you down?"

"Everywhere?"

"Yeah.”

Suga flushed a little and blinked. It couldn't he helped, he thought, for if he had to go for days without a single bath, he'd go mad from the itching.

Besides, Daichi was the one doing it.

"Okay." The Kara said calmly, and stretched out his wings. "Could you start from here?"

"As you wish." Whew.

 

Daichi worked diligently on Suga’s wings, and they began to talk.

 

"How do you like it here?" the man asked.

"It’s nice and quiet. And warm.” Suga replied. He closed his eyes, as if enjoying a relaxing massage.

“What about Ukai?”

“I think he’s a kind and sweet person.”

Daichi chuckled. “That’s the first time I’ve heard someone describe him like that.”

“Don’t you think so? He’s kind of rough-looking on the outside, but on the inside, he cares for others.”

“Yeah, well, I got smacked around a lot by him and his duster when I was little. He didn’t strike me as caring back then.”

Suga smiled at the thought of a young Daichi. “Hey, Daichi. How were you like when you were a child?”

“Hmm…” the man paused the towel to ponder. What was he like?

“Back then, I was a skinny boy who liked to go out into the woods behind our house and play. I didn’t like school all that much, so I’d skip classes to follow my parents out hunting sometimes. I still managed to pass all my tests, though, and all my friends hated me for that.”

Suga looked at Daichi, seemingly amazed at several things in that sentence. “Skinny?”

Daichi shrugged and resumed washing. “I just couldn’t put on weight back then, no matter how much I ate.”

“I bet you looked cute like Hinata. He’s also skinny, even though he eats more than Kageyama.”

“Naw, my face hasn’t changed much. No one thinks I’m cute except for my mum.”

“And your parents were hunters, too?”

“Yeah. They’re the whole reason I became one myself. They’re really skilful hunters, and I’ve always wanted to be as cool as them. Though, they took one look at my skinny arms and wondered how in the world they were going to train me to wield the bow.”

“It must have been difficult.” Suga remarked.

“It was.” Daichi nodded, memories of the spartan training from before flashing past his eyes. He shook his head to clear them away before he got PTSD. “What about you?”

Suga peered to the side. There wasn’t much to say about his childhood. “It’s not as interesting as yours,” he said.

“Anything about you is interesting to me.”

That made the Kara feel a tad shy. “What’s there to know?” he uttered.

“I don’t know. You tell me.” Daichi coaxed.

“Well… I…Okay.” Suga tried putting his thoughts into words, though they sounded flimsy in comparison to Daichi’s story. “I was alone most of the time, and, I didn’t have friends. It was just my parents and a squirrel.”

“A squirrel?”

Suga nodded. “It accidentally dropped one of its seeds through my window while trying to bury it. I gave it back to him, and it came to visit me often afterwards.”

“That’s cute.” Daichi said, but found something about that sentence strange. He couldn't put his finger on it, however.

“It was,” he said, remembering its fluffy tail and tiny, twitchy nose, “It even gave me some of its stash and would sit on my hand as it ate. But after a few years it never came back.”

“Then, what about your parents? Are they…?”

He nodded silently. Daichi had guessed as much, and a slight discomfort settled in his stomach.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“… It’s okay. I still miss them, but it’s okay.” Suga said quietly. He looked up at Daichi and felt like it was alright to talk a little while longer. “You want to… know more?” he asked.

Of course, Daichi nodded. “What was your mother like?”

“She was a frail woman who spoke with a soft voice. I remember that she was pale and had long, brown hair, with bright blue eyes and long lashes."

Must be where your looks came from, Daichi thought.

"She taught me everything she knew and brought me books, home-cooked food, and the most peculiar things she could find. She did everything she could to make me happy.”

“She sounds like a kind person.” said the man.

“Yes. She was.” Suga smiled, a small curve on his lips.

“And your father?” Daichi probed, caught up in the gentle tides that nudged them ever closer.

“I didn’t see him as often. But I know he was as gentle as my mother was.”

“Just like you,” said Daichi. Suga flushed at the way he said it and became keenly aware of how the man looked at him. His gaze was warm and full of affection, and it rested around the Kara’s eyes and mouth. It wasn’t new or disturbing in any way, but tonight it felt plain embarrassing and confusing. He broke eye contact and changed the topic back to Ukai and his birds.

And then, after the wings were all nice and clean, Daichi took off the blankets and felt unbelievably dirty as he did the same to Suga’s shirt and pants. The fabric glided over Suga’s body and revealed an inch of pale skin at a time, and he tried his hardest not to stare. The briefs were left untouched. The powers above wonder if Daichi will ever get over his chronic discomposure towards barely-clothed Suga; and the short answer is no. Now, touching said barely-clothed Suga? That's a different story altogether.

One hand held the cloth, and the other supported the Kara onto his shoulder. He felt his bony frame under his smooth, warm back, and he shivered when Suga’s cold fingers touched his neck. The crow was nervous as well, for as much as his wings were sensitive to him, his body was much dearer. No one, not even his own mother, had touched him so intimately after he was old enough to walk.

“Um, Daichi…” he suddenly asked in a low whisper, “You’re not going to wash… there … right?”

Daichi stopped. Ukai did say everything .

“Can you do it yourself?” he whispered back.

“Mm.”

 

Crisis, averted.

 

Chapter Text

The next day, the silver Kara asked the older Kara a question.

“Can I read them?”

The doctor continued to apply a salve onto his patient’s stitches. Suga clarified, although he didn’t need to.

“Takeda-sensei’s books.”

Ukai slowly looked up and corked the glass bottle tightly.

“What for?” he asked.

Suga looked back with a determined stare.

“I want to know something.”

Ukai raised his eyebrow.

“Something?”

The young man nodded quietly, his lips pressed into a thin line.

Ukai combed through his unruly blonde hair and sighed, thinking about whether it was a good idea. Truthfully, he had no reason to refuse the crow, and he had no right to keep all that knowledge to himself. If anything, Takeda would have wanted to spread the word to anyone who would hear it. Thus, he retrieved six of Sensei’s precious books from a tightly locked chest and stacked them onto a chair beside Suga.

Loverboy here didn’t tell the rest about the other four, of course.

“Here you go. I’ll warn you first, though, that you probably won’t understand half of the words in there.” Ukai advised.

“Thank you.” Suga said gratefully.

His arms swayed downwards as he slid the heavy book off of the chair. Before opening it, he took the time to admire the care that went into the well-handled tome. Bound to each end of the book were brown leather covers, carefully oiled and hemmed discreetly at the edges with fine string. Embossed neatly by hand on the front cover was the title, its letters raised just enough to make out the words. Inside, the pages had yellowed with age and become fragile, but the ink was as black as the day they were scrawled into history.

It was there and then that Suga immersed himself within the writings of a man he never knew, but who knew his kind far more than he did himself.

 

A while later, Kageyama walked in to accompany his Mama. He noticed the books and asked him what they were about. Suga nearly didn’t hear the boy.

“Ah, sorry. These are Sensei’s books. Ukai lent them to me.”

The small crow picked one up. “Be careful, they’re fragile.” Suga cautioned, and Kageyama grunted affirmatively. He sat on the bed next to Suga and flipped it open to a random page. The moment he saw the first word, his face scrunched up in puzzlement.

“How do you read this? Uh-ro—You-rop—“

Suga leaned over and put his arm round his child’s waist. “Uropygial.”

“What’s it mean?” asked Kageyama.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s written further down.” Suga suggested. The boy then scrutinized the text that followed and reported back, “It says that it’s the name of a gland that produces oil for birds to preen themselves with. Karas don’t have one even though they have wings, so they use plant oils instead. Why are you reading all this, Mama?”

“Why not?” he smiled, “I’ve got nothing else to do.”

The boy shrugged, agreeing, and laid down on the man’s shoulder. They read quietly for a spell, where the only sounds about them were of birds twittering in the morning sun and the occasional flip of a page. It took a long while for either of them to digest a single paragraph. Thankfully, Takeda’s penchant for adding drawings here and there gave them a place to pause in case they burned out. Kageyama appreciated those much more than passages about ‘the significance of preen oil on symbiotic bacteria and ectoparasites’, and so decided to search for them instead.

Suga noticed his newfound quest and chuckled. “Too much?”

“Too boring. Eww, look at this.” Kageyama grinned in amusement and showed him a finely-detailed cross-sectional diagram of a tick.

“You think he had to cut apart one of those to draw it?” Suga peered at the page and rubbed his chin.

“Gross. Wait, does that mean…” the boy said, and quickly flipped to a page with a skeletal diagram of a Kara. “This one, too?”

Suga grinned mischievously, “Who knows? Maybe we should open you up and find out.”

Kageyama later asked Ukai if Sensei was a serial killer, and got a sound noogie for that.

 

A few hours later, Ukai took a break from his chores and returned to see Suga’s head still buried in a book.

“Still at it?” he asked. The young man glanced up from his book and nodded. He seemed to be rather engrossed in the text, judging from his intense expression. “What are you looking for, anyway? Maybe I can help.” Ukai offered. Suga shook his head and said politely, “I can manage.”  

Just then, Hinata followed in behind Ukai and tugged at his sleeve urgently. “Uncle Ukai! Do you have any food?”

“What? Didn’t you just eat some bread?” he exclaimed, desperation creeping into his voice. He could have sworn the boy had inhaled two rolls just five minutes ago.

“Yeah, but, I want meat. I’m super hungry right now.” The boy grinned brightly and rubbed his tummy. “Go ask Daichi to make you something. I’m busy.” Ukai groaned and shooed him away by pushing him out of the room.

“But your cooking’s better!” Hinata insisted.

The small crow easily got what he wanted because of that. Ukai’s prideful fire was quite easy to stoke. The moment the meat was done, he merely took a few bites and then carried the plate outside while yelling, “I’m going out for a bit!”

“Oi, stay near the house, you hear?” Ukai called after him, “It’s not safe near the woods.”

 

And then it struck him. He was becoming a nagging parent, just like his parents were.

 

Finding his godson, who was hard at work chopping firewood outside the shed, Ukai sighed a long sigh and deflated against the creeper-covered wall. Daichi wiped the sweat glistening off his neck and forehead with a towel and remarked, “You keep sighing lately.”

Ukai rolled his eyes and rummaged around his pockets for a smoke. “Yeah, well, all this youth around me is making me feel horrible.”

Daichi laughed, seeing the man look so uncharacteristically down. “Hey, you know, I always meant to ask.”

“About?” Drat. All out of smokes.

“About—well, why you didn’t get married or had a partner or something,” Daichi said and swung the axe, lodging it into the tree stump on the ground with a loud thunk. “The question’s still valid.”

“Do I look like an eligible bachelor to you? I probably smell like one to the hens, anyway.” Ukai took a whiff of his freshly-laundered shirt. It still didn’t smell very encouraging, despite the amount of soap he used.

“Come on, I’ve seen plenty of women take second glances at you. Don’t know about men, though.” The hunter grinned cheekily.

Ukai scoffed loudly and folded his arms. “ Please.

“I’m serious, man.”  

“They must have really low standards, then,” he laughed self-deprecatingly and shook his head. At least, he still had Daichi to talk to to cheer him up. “Anyway, enough about this old codger. How did it go?”

Daichi blushed instantly.

Ukai grinned widely and playfully punched the man’s shoulder. “I presume it went well?”

“Well… yeah. He was comfortable with it.” Daichi replied, scratching his ear shyly. The Kara found his sudden shift in mannerisms wholly interesting and perfect teasing material.    

“Even the wings?” he probed.

“Uh-huh.”

Ukai broke into a proud, lopsided grin and gave Daichi a hearty slap on the back, making the man puff out an ‘oof’ from the sheer force of his arm. “You’re a special one, aren’t ya! God, what does he see in you?”

“I heard that. Anyway, what’s so special about the wings? Aren’t wings just like... more limbs?” Daichi asked honestly, for he had never gotten an explanation from any of the Karas. Ukai tsked several times and waggled his finger.

“They’re far more than just limbs. The wings are a Kara’s whole life and identity. They can’t afford to have anything happen to them for tons of reasons, including survival, so they take care of them very carefully.”

Daichi nodded and gulped. “So they usually don’t let anyone else touch them?”

“Not at all. It’s like touching someone else’s privates, just less sexy. Hey, did you also--”

“--No!”

The Kara smirked gleefully at his reaction. “So, yeah, it’s a big deal. Even more so because he should be really sensitive about them. Remember what I told you about abnormality?”

“Yes. I still don’t know what went down.” Daichi said.

“It’ll take a while. Don’t rush him.”

“I know. But has there ever been another Kara like him? Maybe they’ve gone through the same thing.”

Ukai rubbed his chin, harkening back to the village. “We’ve never had an albino Kara, much less a grey one. From what I’ve heard from my old gramps, there are rarely any records on white-winged crows being born; and not one has lived to see the next day.”

Seeing how Suga had managed to reach adulthood, the man found it strange. White or grey, neither should have been spared, going by Kara logic. He continued with a caveat, “Well, not all news travels to our village. If there was ever another grey crow, the Capital would definitely know.”

“The Capital?” Daichi asked, his brows creasing as his interest grew.

“The central command of all Karas. The rulers there determine the laws Karas must abide by, and no one can escape their notice. Well, that is, unless you are no longer one.”

“So they are the ones who enforce this… cruel practice?”

Ukai genuinely shrugged. “Who knows? It’s likely something that all Karas are inclined to do from birth, and they’re just making sure it stays that way. White doesn’t go well with dark forests - you should know.”

“But the white ones can still survive, can’t they? They don’t have to kill them.” Daichi said.

“Not many are willing to take the risk. Just one outlier can lead the rest of the predators into the village.”

Suddenly, an epiphany hit Daichi like a wayward spark.

He recalled the strange phrase that Suga kept repeating over and over that day.

I killed them. I killed them all.

And then, a terrible feeling of realization and doubt passed over him.

“Has that… ever happened before?” he asked slowly, and Ukai quickly picked up on what Daichi was thinking.

“You think that’s the case?” Ukai replied.

Daichi nodded solemnly. “It’s likely.”

The Kara folded his arms and exhaled deeply into a frown. “If that’s so, you’ve just got a lot more piled onto your plate, kid. I’d say you’d better find an answer before running wild with that idea.”

 

But Daichi wasn’t the only one with more questions than answers.

“Did you find what you were looking for?”

Suga shook his head. He looked rather disappointed.

“Sensei wrote down a lot of things, but he couldn’t have captured everything .”

He nodded silently in response.

“So… you got any questions for me?”

He took a few moments, visibly hesitant in his reply. But because Ukai was the only other Kara he knew, he decided to ask.

“Have you heard of… the red twilight?”

Ukai tilted his head.

“No, can’t say I have. What’s that? A legend?”

Suga shook his head and smiled.

“It’s nothing. Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Just a few days into the week, and trouble was already beginning to brew.

Alright , who’s been stealing the food?” Ukai demanded loudly while brandishing his trusty old duster. He had lined up all the usual feathered suspects plus the three boys in front of the kitchen, and was circling them with the aura of an enraged beast. You could probably steam your face just by going near him.

“Just the other day, I bought some jam rolls. After a few hours, they were all gone.”

No one dared to move or make a sound each time he walked past them.

“And then yesterday, I had a whole new package of meats from the butcher. Now, it’s disappeared to the high heavens.”

Ukai turned around and suddenly rapped the duster with a loud – thunk! – onto the countertop, making everyone flinch and the birds’ feathers fluff up.

“Unless one of you is having a hundred babies all at once, you’d better fess up now.”

The birds all began to squawk and clamour to claim that it wasn’t them, including Debu who was usually prime culprit number one. Kageyama slid his suspicious gaze towards his brother, who was very obviously sweating in his pants. Daichi noticed that and asked quietly, “Hinata… are you hiding something?”

“N-no.” the crow stammered with his hands fast behind his back. But there was no hiding from the ol’ keen-eyed Kara. Ukai strode up to the frightened boy with slow, ominous steps while tapping the duster on his palm. Hinata looked up and swallowed dryly as the man’s half-lidded eyes and heavy-set brows pressurized him into a confession.

“Hinata. Shouyou. You got something to say?”

“I… er... I’ve been very hungry?” the boy tried, with a sheepish smile.

Ukai took a long, hard breath before sighing and dropping the pretence. Rubbing his temples, he muttered, “Look, I’m not going to beat you. Just tell me where it’s been going.”

The boy heaved a sigh of relief. “I’ve, um, been feeding the dog.”

They all turned to look at him in confusion at once.

“The dog? I don’t own a dog. There aren’t any stray dogs around here.” Ukai said and scratched his head with the wooden end of the duster.

“There is one! It’s really big and fluffy, and it hides out in the woods right outside the house.” Hinata exclaimed with sparkling eyes, pointing in the direction he spoke of. Ukai took another deep breath and closed his eyes.

“So all this time you’ve been sneaking out there to feed it? And going into the woods?” The man was just one sentence away from saying ‘you’re grounded’.

“Not into, just nearby. Want me to show you?”

The three of them followed Hinata out of house, across the short plain, and right to the edge of the woods. Nothing seemed out of place to the men, for there were no tell-tale signs of a large creature having been around the area.

“You sure this is the place?” Daichi asked, dusting his palms of dirt.

The little Kara nodded with surety, and began calling out for his big buddy in a sweet voice.

“Here, Snowball!”

“Snowball?” Kageyama remarked incredulously. “Really?”

“Duh, ‘cause he’s white. You’ll know when you see him.” Hinata shot back, then continued to shout. “Snowball, come meet my friends! I’ll give you more food, okay?”

“Oi, who said anything about food?” interjected Ukai, not about to let him misuse any more of his stock.

And when they saw what appeared after a rustling in the bushes, there was no goddamned way it was a ‘Snowball’.

Larger than a grown man, the creature’s hulking shoulders and sleek form closely resembled a wolf. White fur covered its body from head to toe, and its wing-shaped ears, tail, limbs, and a pair of leathery wings on its back were black with some kind of armour. Two short fangs hung down from its mouth like a sabertooth’s, and bony spikes protruded from its elbows and ran down his forelegs, culminating in huge claws that better suited a bear. What disturbed them the most among all these features, however, was its glowing red pupils which stared unwaveringly into theirs.

This was no dog.

“Snowb—“ Hinata moved forward, but was immediately pulled back by Daichi. Kageyama hid behind the man, but didn’t take his eyes off the hound.

“What the hell kind of dog did you find?” The hunter exclaimed and took out his dagger, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. Snowball, however, sat down quietly on its hind legs and kept its gaze on the blade, its ears straight up at attention. Despite having such a fearsome appearance, it moved with a mild, reserved air and was rather still.

“He’s not dangerous, I swear! Snowball’s a good dog.” Hinata protested, and slipped away from Daichi. He walked up to the dog without fear and, to everyone else’s teeming anxiety, petted its fluffy back. To Hinata’s delight it didn’t try to move away like last time, and its tail began to wag a tiny bit.

“You’re a good dog, aren’t you? See? He’s fine.”

The rest gulped, simultaneously amazed at how daring the crow was and how tame the dog was behaving. “Come on, Kageyama!” Hinata beckoned with a grin.

Kageyama inched cautiously towards Snowball, and it turned its muzzle to regard the boy. It wouldn’t stop staring at him like how a predator does to its prey, which made Kageyama feel very unwelcome. “I don’t think it likes me,” he said, and decided he would pet a less deadly dog another day.

Ukai stepped around the creature and scratched his head even more, threatening the lifespan of his luscious locks. “I’ve never seen this breed before. What’s with the armour plating? The spikes? And those wings… I mean, I’ve heard of chimeras, like griffins, but this…?”

“Beats me.” Daichi replied, and approached Snowball with his hand outstretched. The dog emitted a low growl, however, and he backed away. “Seems like it doesn’t like me, either.”

“If you feed him, he’ll warm up to you.” Hinata said while petting its head.

“Okay, enough about feeding. He probably belongs to someone, right? That coat of his looks well groomed, and he’s pretty well behaved.” Ukai said.

The boy rifled through the layers of thick fur around Snowball’s neck, and it got annoyed and tried to paw his meddling little hands away. He uncovered what looked and felt like a black metal collar, which was smooth except for two triangular extrusions along the edge - one facing up, and the other facing down. The entire collar was stuck fast in a seamless loop around the dog’s neck, and it didn’t have a name on it.  

“Aw, he’s taken. And I thought we could keep him…” The boy pouted, sad at their inevitable parting.

A collective sigh of relief rose from the two men.

“Hinata, if you want a dog, at least pick a norrmal one.” Daichi said.

“But Snowball’s so cool. We’ll never see another one like him.” Hinata moped.

And then, on a beast’s whim, Snowball got up to leave for the forest. It had had its fun being around these curious people. The child said a final goodbye, and after warning him not to wander off again by himself, they all thought they had seen the last of the strange hound.

 

“Mama, can we keep a pet?” Hinata later asked Suga.

“What kind of pet?”

“A big, fluffy one. One that you can hug, and comes over when you call for him.” He mumbled into the bed sheets and traced the folds absentmindedly. He already missed the big fella.

Just then, Daichi walked in and Suga waved him over. He asked the man to bend down for a bit, and then began smoothing his hand through his hair.

“We have one right here,” he grinned, much to Daichi’s confusion and Hinata’s amusement.

 

The next morning, Ukai received some bad news from town.

“One of the townsfolk was attacked by a Carcama last night. She’s alright, thankfully. Got away with some gashes.”

Kageyama raised his hand and Ukai nodded at him. “What’s a Carcama?” he asked.

“They’re vicious felines with the eyes and claws of a reptile. They’ve been coming and going sporadically for over a month now, and their attacks are getting bolder and further into the town. They almost always attack at night, too.” He replied. Hinata raised his hand next. “Will they attack us?”

Ukai ruffled his hair out of stress. “I don’t think they’ll pass up the buffet of birds over here, once they catch wind of it. I’ve been taking precautions and asking the hunter-birds to keep an eye out, but if the pack comes all at once, we’re done for.”

“Just you and I won’t be enough to get rid of them,” Daichi said, “There’s bound to be ten or more in one pack.”

Ukai nodded in agreement. “The town hasn’t gathered enough fighting power, but once we do, we’ll have to chase them off before they get to us. In the meantime, no one should be out after dark, even if you have to go pee really bad. Just use the bucket. Understood?”

Everyone responded with a loud ‘yes’.

 

But no one expected Snowball to show up later in the afternoon, sitting right at their doorstep with a vigilant eye. Only Hinata was thrilled to see him again, of course.

“Snowball! Why’d you come back? Did you miss me?” he squealed ecstatically and gave the dog a big hug. It didn’t react, however, and stared in the direction of the road to town with its ears upright. No one could move it from the entryway, either, for it was as stoic and heavy as a boulder.

“This is why you don’t feed stray dogs, Hinata. Remember that.” Ukai grumbled and stepped around Snowball to get out of the house. Life had to go on, dog or no dog.

As he walked out onto the field, he noticed a figure approaching from the road. He thought it might be a customer. As the person got closer, however, it didn’t seem like that would be the case.

He was a tall, lanky man with windswept brown hair, the longer strands tied in a simple ponytail at the base of his head. Dressed in a rather outlandish coat-and-pants outfit with a black collar around his neck, anyone could see that he was undoubtedly foreign. On his sleeve-gloves were motifs of the sun and the moon, and his boots were white and clean of any dirt. He carried only a whip and a pouch of gold on his belt.

The moment he recognized Ukai, he waved at him with a keen smile.

“Hello! You must be the doctor?” he asked cheerfully and shook the man’s hand.

“Yes, I am. What brings you all the way out here?” Ukai replied genially.

“My name is Oikawa Tooru, and I am here to offer my help. I have heard about the Carcamas that are terrorizing the village,” he smiled, and smoothed back his long fringe. He had the sparkling air of a handsome, proper, and well-to-do man, which irked Ukai a little at the onset. Those types were usually the insufferable sort, but he was interested in what the stranger had to say.

“I see you’ve spoken to the villagers. I was worried they might target my clinic next, given all the birds that live here.” Ukai said, and led them towards the clinic.

“I was thinking the same thing, too, so I had to come over and have a discussion with you. In fact, I’ve had a very reliable source tell me that there’s been Carcama activity in the forests around your area.”

“Really? That’s not good.” The Kara grimaced.

Oikawa nodded. “Definitely not.” Then, a sly smile crept across his face. “My source also told me that there are a few… winged individuals living at your house.”

“Excuse me?”

The young man patted his shoulder and chuckled lightly. “Oh, please don’t try to feign ignorance. I’m not going to harm them or anything.”

“I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about. If you realize, there are tons of ‘winged individuals’ at my house.” Ukai said, and kept a straight face.

Oikawa gave a flippant shrug. “That’s alright. I’m here to solve your problem, so that can wait. Now come, you’ve already met my companion.”

“I—what?”

But Ukai had no time to react, for they had already reached the front door. Even though the crows had their wings hidden under their capes – as they always did when customers came over – that wasn’t fooling the mage. He took a quick glance at them and noticed in particular the more friendly-looking orange-haired one which was touching the dog.

Then, he greeted everyone at the door with a bright smile and a cutesy pose—with one hand on his hips and the other flashing a victory sign.

“Hello, everyone! I’m Oikawa Tooru, a beast tamer from the Guild of Mages, and this puppy here is my familiar, Iwa-chan~!”

Ukai’s ear twitched upon hearing the Guild being mentioned. Stunned and out of suitable reactions other than dead silence, everyone ‘ohh’-ed in response to the knowledge that Snowball was in fact this man’s ‘Iwa-chan’.

“So you’re Snowball’s owner?” Hinata exclaimed - and it took a poignant second before Oikawa’s grand entrance crumbled and he burst out laughing.

“You call him Snowball ? That’s so cute, Iwa-chan! Let’s call you that from now on!” he joked. The dog huffed through its nostrils and got up, leaving the crow behind to stand beside his true master. Together, they looked right in each other’s company; a beast master and his beast.

And then, to everyone’s horror of horrors, the hound opened its mouth.

“Keep laughing and I’ll burn your hair off.”

It was a deep voice that reverberated within its big chest, completely unlike anything they’d ever imagined. To be fair, no one imagined that it would talk in the first place.

“He talks?!” They cried out together at this unholy event. This always happened wherever the two went, but to Oikawa, it never got old.

“Yes, of course he does. Want to see what else he can do?”

He didn’t wait for a reply – it might as well have been a rhetorical question. He snapped his fingers and a bright red spark zapped into the air and into Iwa-chan’s collar.  

The next thing they knew, the fluffy dog burst into billowing, fiery plumes of smoke, and a scowling human-like creature with rippling muscles took its place. He looked exceedingly similar to his beast form, having kept the ears, tail, and armoured limbs. His black, spiky hair and sharp tattoos on his face and collarbone gave off a less than friendly look, and he wore nothing but a pair of black leather shorts. Hinata couldn’t believe that the docile puppy he just cuddled was this scary human-dog hybrid, and he felt like his dreams had been dashed against several rocks.

“I… Snowball is…” he gasped in disbelief, and his bewildered look tickled the mage so. Crouching down, Oikawa patted Hinata’s head and smiled sympathetically, as one does to a disappointed child.

“Sorry, but Snowball isn’t an ordinary dog, and we’re not here to play, either.”


“We’re here to exterminate the Carcamas.”

Chapter Text

To meet someone from the Guild of Mages was a very rare occasion. Not because it was a clandestine group – their righteous exploits were often heard, and not seen – but because it had very few members.

It is believed that mages are chosen at birth and given the ability to manifest what was known as magic by the spirit of the Guild’s founder. He was the very first mage that ever came into existence hundreds of years ago, and was known as the Grand Invoker Reylaysius. He, too, was chosen by a divine presence to bring strength to the weak and humility to the strong, a binding creed which the Guild carries on till this day.

Thus, Ukai was secretly overjoyed to have Oikawa’s help, who was no doubt a member of that powerful society. He would have given the mage anything he asked for during their discussion about the Carcamas, even the clothes on his back if that would help in any way. But when a request for temporary shelter in the clinic came, he hesitated.

It was a sensible thing to do given how unpredictable the monsters’ movements were. They needed to monitor the forest and be close enough to spring into action anytime; that was why last night’s surprise attack did not turn fatal. However, the moment it was revealed that Iwa-chan could speak, Ukai had caught on that Oikawa knew about the young crows. No matter how trustworthy the Guild appeared, he couldn’t risk having this information leak out to the rest of the town - or worse.

“It is a great honour of mine to have you here – truly, it is. But I simply do not have any space for you and your dog—“ Ukai glanced at Iwa-chan across the dining table, who was in human form -  “I mean, familiar , to rest.”

Oikawa sipped from his teacup as he crossed his legs languidly. “I don’t need a fancy bed or silken sheets. Even the floor is fine as long as there’s a roof over my head.”

“I’m gonna be honest. I don’t even think there’s enough floor, either. Just look down, and you’ll understand.” Ukai joked.

The mage glanced up and put down the cup with a clink. His hazelnut eyes seemed unamused. “I’m perfectly fine with a grass patch, too.”

“I’m telling you, there really isn’t-“

“Doctor.” Oikawa interrupted curtly and leaned forward with his chin on the back of his hand. The atmosphere soured quickly. “Do you want my help, or not?”

The Kara exhaled and pursed his lips, staring firmly back into Oikawa’s eyes. Seeing how he had gone silent, the mage stood up and said coolly, “I know what you’re trying to hide. Didn’t you hear me say that I wouldn’t harm them?”

Now that it had come to this, making more excuses would just be a sorry sight, and refusing his help could very well mean death to everyone in this house.

Knitting his fingers together under his chin, Ukai asked in a grim voice, “Then tell me your intentions towards them.”

Bingo. Oikawa smiled triumphantly.

“I knew you’d come round,” he said, and Daichi started to get a worrisome feeling.

“I’ll be honest. I’m just curious, that’s all. It’s my business to know all about the beasts of this world, since I am a beast tamer.” Oikawa mused and sauntered around the table, walking in time to his words. He then stopped beside the Kara and tilted his head. “So, about these winged beasts - what are they called?”

“They’re not beasts.” Ukai couldn’t stand his use of that word. “They’re Karas.”

The mage’s face lit up as he heard the name. “Karas? As in, crows?”

Ukai nodded in reply.

“Ooh... And do the children have parents? Are they hiding in here, too?”

Excited, Oikawa started walking towards the bedroom, but was stopped in his tracks by a very concerned Daichi. Oikawa raised a questioning eyebrow at him, and Ukai and Iwa-chan got off their chairs, sensing the tension in the air.

“Excuse me, I’m walking here.” Oikawa said.

“You can’t go in there.” Daichi replied.

“As long as the master of the house says so, I can.” The mage stuck his tongue out at him and whipped round to face Ukai. “What do you say, doctor?”

Ukai intervened and took Daichi’s place calmly, placing a hand on his boy’s shoulder. He just needed some assurance.

“Oikawa, I’ll let you stay. But you have to promise me that you won’t say a word about them.”

“Why?” he asked, and cocked his head childishly.

“Because this concerns their lives .”

Then, Oikawa’s cheerful demeanour shifted entirely in a split second, and Ukai heard these chilling words loud and clear, ones that revealed the deeper currents lurking beneath that carefree face.

“Your lives are in our hands. On Reylaysius’ name, I will not fail you.”

After a weighty pause, Ukai gazed at him and nodded knowingly.

“I understand. I’ll believe you.”

But Daichi didn’t feel comfortable about this. Pulling the man aside quickly with a frown, he whispered, “Ukai, you know how Suga feels about strangers. This isn’t a good idea.”

“I know, I know. But sooner or later he’ll see him, whether by chance or not. Is Suga asleep right now?”

“No. It’s not time for his medicine yet.”

The Kara pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed out sharply. “Okay. We’ll talk to him first.”

 

Oikawa and Iwa-chan waited outside the bedroom, which was really just a part of the hall that was recently cordoned off with thick and heavy curtains. Hinata and Kageyama were sitting anxiously beside the bed, and Suga had heard bits of the commotion from inside. Daichi knelt down to speak to the Kara, whose upturned brows and fidgeting eyes sought his reassurance.

“Suga, we’ll be having some guests for a while. They’re here to help us fight off the Carcamas.” He said calmly.

Suga nodded.

“They also want to meet you and the boys.”

His face changed and his voice quivered. “Why? I don’t want to.”

“I know. It seems like he just wants to have a look, and he promised to keep it to himself.”

Suga looked down at his hands and went quiet. His frightened gaze didn’t cease, and his fingers clenched tightly together as if in fervent prayer. Seeing him constantly trapped with his demons made Daichi’s chest ache for him, and he wanted to know more than ever about what was going on inside his head. But instead, he would offer him his support in his time of need.

Daichi brought his arm round Suga and soothed him, and the Kara leaned willingly onto his shoulder.

“I won’t make you to do anything you’re not comfortable with. We’ll just tell them no.” he said quietly.

“Will they still help us?” Suga asked.

“They have no reason to refuse.” Daichi replied. He was hoping Oikawa wasn’t that kind of person, anyway. So when Suga fell silent again, he persuaded him from thinking otherwise. “You don’t have to do anything, Suga.”

“But what if they don’t? Then we’ll all…” he uttered, afraid of thinking any farther.

“It’s not necessary. You don’t have to force yourself for our sake.”

But what happened before might happen again, and there was no room for his selfish reasons when so much more was at stake.

He breathed shakily and closed his eyes.

“If it’s… if it’s just a look.”

“Are you sure?” asked Daichi.

“Just one look.” He said, resigned.

Daichi didn’t like his decision one bit. “Suga—“

“It’s fine.” Suga said firmly, and Daichi let it rest. He knew how stubborn the man got once he made up his mind. Ukai took that as confirmation, and nodded at them. He stepped outside quietly and drew back the curtain.

“You can come in for a short while. Please be mindful, he’s recovering from an injury.”

“Thank you.” Oikawa said graciously, then stepped forth through the curtains with great anticipation.

And then, when he finally saw the silver Kara, he thought he was the most delicately astonishing being he had ever seen in his life. Never before had Oikawa met a humanlike species with wings, and to see one with such mesmerizing silver feathers was a generous treat. The crow’s pale and tired face told stories of his ill condition, but still he found an indomitable beauty in his feminine features and wilful eyes. The two boys that accompanied him were just as fascinating as he, and the only thing that spoiled the picture was the unimportant human standing beside the bed.

Not forgetting his pleasantries, he took a bow and introduced himself.

“Good afternoon. I am Oikawa Tooru from the Guild of Mages. May I have your name?”

“Suga,” the Kara replied softly, while looking over the well-mannered stranger. He glanced especially so at Iwa-chan and his otherworldly appearance, which worried him far more.

“Nice to meet you, Suga. Your wings are very lovely.” He said, with an unassuming smile. Suga’s wings instinctively shrunk away, and Oikawa took a step closer with his hands behind his back.

“Why do you hide them? They’re too beautiful to be kept from this dreary world.” The mage asked, his gaze low and coy.

“I don’t like showing them.” Suga replied, and the mage casually took another step.

“Then I’m honoured to have had your permission,” he bowed again, then tipped his imaginary hat. “Well, it looks like I’m disturbing your rest with my presence. Even though my stay here will be short, I hope we can become good friends, Suga.”

And then in one smooth motion, Oikawa slipped his hand under Suga’s palm and brought it to his lips.

He smiled and winked at him.

“Adieu.”

Trotting out of the room with a whistle in his step, he left the Kara to blink confusedly at what just happened. Suga looked at the back of his hand and asked Daichi innocently, “What was that?”

The hunter’s eye twitched with the intensity of a thousand suns as he glowered after the mage. “That was unnecessary.”

“That was another kind of kiss, wasn’t it? What does it mean?”

Oh boy. It was Kuroo and the cheek-kiss all over again.

Kageyama poked Suga’s back and whispered, “ It means he likes you.

“It doesn’t mean that, boy. He’s just playing with him.” Ukai rolled his eyes. He’d seen too many of the sort way back when. “I wouldn’t think too much about it. In any case, that went over just fine. I’m gonna go prepare a spot for them before they start sitting on the floor. Give me a hand, boys.”

“Okay,” they said in unison, and left promptly with Ukai.

 

But Suga wasn’t going to let it go without an explanation. He nudged Daichi’s arm, asking the growling man to look at him. “Daichi, come on. What does it mean?”

He really, most definitely, wasn’t in his right mind when he replied, “It means you’re too attractive.”  

“What?” blinked Suga.

“What?” blinked Daichi.

And then they both stared at each other, equally surprised.

The hunter’s face turned beet red as he fumbled with his words, trying to worm his way out of this embarrassing spot he jammed himself into.

“Uh, what I meant to say was—you are— the others are— you’re just—!”

But he failed miserably, and he shielded his eyes with his hand and gave a hapless sigh. Suga looked curiously at him with wide eyes, waiting for his internal implosion to tide over.

It already happened, Daichi, he told himself. Just man up and say it, you wimp.

“I think you’re cute,” he finally said after taking a deep breath, and he glanced nervously at Suga’s face for his reaction.

The Kara had only ever been complimented by his parents and children before, and the earlier conversation with Oikawa didn’t even faze him. Hearing it from Daichi, however, was somehow a bit more special.

Suga looked away shyly and kept his hand on the man’s arm. “What makes you think that?”

Daichi didn’t even need to think this time.

“Your smile.”

Once again the unknown came back to trouble Suga’s distant heart, morphing it into a fluffy cloud of rose-tinted cotton candy. How queer this mysterious feeling was, for each time it happened to him his heart beat a little faster and his cheeks glowed a little redder. Going by the symptoms, he thought that this must be what Daichi was feeling at the moment as well-- except on a more severe level.

But he couldn’t be sure that it was the same definition of ‘like’ that Daichi had in mind.

Blushing, Suga went quiet, and Daichi tilted his head to try and look at him. When the crow averted his gaze and turned away from him, the man asked, “Did I say something wrong?”

Suga wanted to say ‘no’, but it seemed like he had gone momentarily mute.

Now, this was another thing about Suga that Daichi thought was especially endearing. The man smiled to himself and covered Suga’s hand with his own. He didn’t pull away.

“Should I say more?”

Suga’s wings ruffled and he shook his head quickly.

“I’ll… save it for next time, then.” Daichi grinned bashfully, and gently squeezed the crow’s hand.

There would be plenty of next times, for sure.

Chapter Text

Let us turn back the clock on our story a while,

And look through the eyes of Iwa the hound.

The ghastly white creature; oh, he never did smile!

For no soul on earth who could do so was found.

 

Not even his master – oh, heavens, don’t play -

Could make his pup grin or brighten his day.

But if you were pulled from your home and beyond,

It would be strange to feel rather fond.


 

When Oikawa and Iwa-chan heeded the villagers' calls for help and arrived in Hanomachi, the first thing the mage tasked his familiar to do was scout out the area.

The hound followed the trail of carnage the Carcamas left behind. It was his job, after all. He sniffed - just once - at where the creatures descended upon the town, and tracked them all the way to the outskirts of Kabeki Forest. He walked on all fours among the shadows of the trees, taking care to evade all notice, lest his targets threw him off their trail. But as he stalked and roamed closer to the doctor’s abode, he picked up another scent so unique, one that his nose could not ignore.

Iwa-chan peered from the bushes to see what it was that drew his attention, and there in the middle of the wide open fields was one young Hinata picking flowers for his Mama.

At once, he knew that his master would want to know of this bird-boy’s existence. But to approach the boy and make himself known was a risk that could jeopardize the mission, so he thought to make the child come to him instead. He made a lure by picking the biggest, brightest flower he could find within the forest, and then tossing it near the bushes where he hid. There, he waited patiently for the boy to take the bait.

Once he heard the rustling of small feet beside him, he poked his snout out from under the leaves, startling the child into dropping his flowers. The boy froze to the ground when he saw the hound in all his glory, and he did not scream nor run for help. Iwa-chan had hoped that this would happen, for he could then take his time to silently sniff and examine the winged child. But he got more than what he asked for when Hinata, bold as ten men, began touching his pelt and fawning over his amazing appearance.

Iwa-chan didn’t like to be touched - even more so by his annoying master who would take any chance he got to cuddle him. He couldn’t simply run off and abandon this chance, however, so he endured the boy’s small hands and showed his displeasure by pacing around and snorting at him. Hinata shrank away at Iwa-chan’s resistance, and after a while someone called out loudly for him. He ran off hastily into the house, and Iwa-chan hid himself again behind the bushes.

When the boy didn’t return for a long time, Iwa-chan thought he had busted it all.

But to his relief, Hinata came back with a sloppy bun on a plate in an attempt to appease him, and he ate it without much hesitation. Who could resist free food? Not him. In exchange, he let the child pet him just a little bit more, which put a silly grin on the young creature’s face. The hound left shortly after and told his master of the curious little one. Oikawa was very pleased with this knowledge, and declared that they would soon pay a visit to the doctor’s.

The next day when Iwa-chan returned to the same spot in the bushes at the same time, he noticed a speck of orange peeking out from one of the cottage’s windows. He thought the boy was looking out for him, and so he lifted his white tail above the leaves for a brief moment. That was enough to get Hinata’s attention, and minutes later he came dashing through the fields with a steaming plate of grilled meat in his hands. Iwa-chan drooled at the sight and fought to calm his excited tail, relegating it to a twitchy wag. It was hard saying no to that juicy hunk of flesh and the boy this time; he even ignored the fact that he was now christened ‘Snowball’.

When he licked his lips and whined for more, the boy delivered faithfully with a basket of jam rolls and raw meats. Iwa-chan feasted and was nearly hugged upon many times that day.

Sadly, the fun had to end on their next date.

Iwa-chan waited at their usual spot, but he sensed the presence of three strangers accompanying the boy. Two of them smelled very similar to the child - one was sharper, and the other was muted. Hinata began calling out for him, and he hesitated to walk out. But since he and his master would come to meet them eventually, he thought it better to do so sooner than later. After all, not everyone would accept a killing machine as quickly as Hinata did.

So when Iwa-chan revealed himself and looked upon the startled faces of the strangers, he kept a close eye on their movements and appeared as unintimidating as he could. He took interest in the other bird-boy, who seemed more mature and less likeable at first glance. At the hunter with the knife he growled, and he nodded to himself when he backed away. He didn’t bother about the other man, whom he guessed was the doctor from the lingering smell of herbs.

More importantly, he didn’t get driven away, which was a good sign for what was to come.

And thus he left, satisfied with his work – which brings us back to the present, where Oikawa and Iwa-chan have just left the house for a breather after meeting Suga.

The skies are dim and cloudy, and the heavy dampness of the air foretells the coming of rain. The Kabeki trees look like giant umbrellas in the distance, and more so than ever, a sinister glade for the enemy. There was always time for calm and banter with these two, however, a sure-footedness that had been forged between them over the years.

“He’s quite a fine specimen, don’t you think?” Oikawa remarked as he rubbed his chin gleefully. Iwa-chan begged to differ and folded his arms crossly.

“He’s weak.” he snorted.

“Obviously.”

“Not just his body.”

Oikawa rolled his eyes at him. “You’ve only seen him for like, what, ten seconds? And he said two things.”

Iwa-chan ignored him and stared at the murky green forest, his tail twitching stiffly in irritation at the side.

“In any case, I suppose the boys belong to him, since he’s the only adult Kara. You’ve gotten quite chummy with the orange one, haven’t you? He was even hugging you when I got here,” Oikawa remarked and peered at him. The hound glanced at his master briefly, wholly disinterested at what he was going to say next, and then looked away.

Annoyed, the man-child pouted and began to throw a tantrum.

“That’s no fair! I’m your master, and I wanna hug the fluffy puppy, too! You always run away from me like I’m the plague!” He then tackled his stone-faced familiar and pleaded in a sing-song voice, “Come on, Snowball! Change into a puppy for me, okay~?”   

Just then, Hinata poked his head out from the front door warily.

His big round eyes looked like he wanted something as he glanced longingly at Iwa-chan, who had his back turned, then back at Oikawa. The mage had a pleasant face and a rather approachable air about him, but the child was still hesitant about talking to strangers.

Oikawa saw him from the corner of his eye and said without missing a beat, “Yes, Hinata?”

“Mister Oikawa?” Hinata gulped.

“Go on.”

“Why can Snowball turn into a man?”

The mage let go of Iwa-chan and squatted down to face him. He beckoned Hinata to come closer with his hand, and spoke softly. “I can tell you the reason why. But you gotta keep it a secret, okay?”

“Okay.” Hinata nodded, and leaned in eagerly. Whispering into his ear so Iwa-chan couldn’t hear, the mage told him, “ He’s a cute demon puppy from hell .”

But Iwa-chan’s eye still twitched, because dogs from the underworld had good hearing, too.

The boy’s eyes widened, and it was quite plain to see that he was the complete opposite of terrified. “Really?” he whispered back in a gasp.

“Really. Isn’t that cool?” Oikawa grinned. He felt like an older brother. “Now, since I told you, you gotta tell me a secret, too.”

“What kind of secret?”

“How did you get Iwa-chan to let you pet him?”

The hound gave his master a sound kick in the posterior and sent him tumbling flat onto the ground.

“Ow, that actually hurt, Iwa-chan! See how mean he is to me?!” Oikawa exclaimed, and Hinata couldn’t help but giggle.

“I just fed him some food, that’s all.”

“But I feed him all the time. That can’t be it! Don’t lie to me, Hina-chan.” Oikawa said indignantly,

“I’m not! I gave him a lot of meat and bread, and then he let me pet him.” Hinata insisted.

The man then gave an exaggerated sigh and cupped his cheek. “Okay, I believe you. Maybe he just likes kids like you, or when someone calls for him in a cutesy voice. I’ve had this feeling for a long time, you know, that maybe he’s a perv-“

Oikawa got another flying kick to the ass which put him squarely out of commission this time.

Iwa-chan huffed once and an angry puff of black smoke shot out from his nostrils, and the hair and fur on his tail frazzled up like a static storm had just passed by. Laughing out loud at their violent but silly antics, Hinata warmed up quickly to this larger-than-life duo. They reminded him of how he, Kageyama, and his friends used to play, what with their boyish sparring and uninhibited loudness.

“You two are funny,” he giggled, “I like you two.”

And then, as if shot through the heart, Oikawa slowly lifted his head from the grass. With soil and all manner of dirt stuck to his face, he quietly wept tears of pure happiness as the pristine innocence of youth positively shimmered off the crow child’s body.  

“Oh. My. Goodness. Iwa-chan, can we keep him?” he whispered.

“You nuts?” Iwa-chan barked, unaffected by this mortal madness.

“But he’s such a precious child! You heartless demon-- why can’t you be more like him?”

Then, Hinata walked up to Iwa-chan and tugged at his hand, which were really claws. The hound glared down with his blood red irises at the boy, who didn’t flinch at all as he stated his hopeful request.

“Can I still call you Snowball?”

“…No.” he spoke to the boy in a low but unthreatening voice.

If Hinata had puppy ears, they would have drooped then.

“Okay. Then can I still pet you?”

“No.”

If Hinata had puppy dog eyes, they would have moistened then.

“… Okay.” The boy mumbled dejectedly and took away his hand. It was like seeing a flower wilt through a time lapse, all that glimmer in his face dimmed down in mere moments. Oikawa tut-tutted in disapproval and shook his head at the demon. “Don’t be such a meanie, Iwa-chan. Let him have another go.”

It was at this moment that Iwa-chan’s inner monologue was one of exasperation and his abysmally dismal understanding of the human world.

Specifically, why the hell was everyone trying to pet him?

For Hades’ sake—he was a feared and respected demon in hell, not a lop-eared, snot-nosed, cuddle-seeking puppy on the streets! But he might as well have been one, for as long as he felt that pulsing ring of warm metal on his neck, he would never walk this realm as a real hellhound. He would always be the ‘ cute demon puppy from hell ’.

Grinding his teeth, Iwa-chan reluctantly morphed back into his canine self. Oikawa smirked, “Good boy,” and nudged Hinata closer. “Go on, before he changes his mind.”

The young crow peeped at the demon’s never-absent frown, a deep valley on his furry forehead, and reached out to pat it. Iwa-chan squinted as the boy’s hand drew closer and became an impending brown blur between his eyes. When the thin barrier of air between fur and palm was finally breached, he closed his eyes and waited for the feeling of revulsion to pass.

But it never came.

It was only a gentle nuzzle on his brows that respected the rest of his face—and that was all.

Iwa-chan opened his eyes once the small spot of warmth left him. His frown creased a little less and turned slightly upwards at the boy, who was smiling again.

“You look nicer when you don’t frown,” he said, “You should do that more often.”


Stumped, the demon dropped his gaze.

The mortal heart was such a maze.

Every last thing he would set ablaze,

But not the thought of this little face.

Chapter Text

Dinner at Ukai’s was always scrumptious and plentiful.

Blending together the nuances of Kara and human cuisine, his dishes often resulted in pleasing combinations of flavours that suited everyone’s palate. Today, the table was spread with a heaping serving of twelve-herb grilled pork, a huge bowl of fresh greens from the market, a pot of savoury potato and vegetable soup, and a tall bottle of aged apple cider.  

Ukai liked to start off his meals with soup. He loudly slurped down the creamy broth and the softened tubers altogether, draining his bowl cleanly to the last drop. Afterwards, he carved out a thick cut of meat from the bone and sliced it effortlessly into large chunks to chew on. Finally, he washed it all down with a mouthful of cider.

Hinata and Kageyama scarfed down their food with gusto like ravenous hyenas – it didn’t matter what it was they put in their mouths, for it was all delicious – and burned their tongues on the piping hot soup. They never did learn to slow down and cool off their food.

Daichi ate modestly and alternated eating meat with vegetables, sometimes taking a swig of soup in between when he needed more flavour. He often reminded the kids to eat their greens and helped them cut up their steaks when it got too tough to chew.

Oikawa behaved like a proper gentleman as he ate. He made no uncouth clinks or clangs with his cutlery, carefully portioned his food into bite-sized mouthfuls, and chewed with his mouth closed. He dabbed his mouth with a napkin to banish any stray droplets from his flawless appearance, and finished his plate of whatever food he had taken.  

Iwa-chan sat on the floor beside Oikawa in beast form, decimating a whole pork leg with his crushing jaws and making a whole lot of cracking noises in the process. He gobbled the leg up in a matter of minutes, and cleanly licked his paws and fur clean of grease when he was done.

“Oh, right. Is Suga not eating?” asked Oikawa when he noticed the Kara’s absence.

“No, he’s on a strictly fluid diet.” Ukai replied while chewing.

“Ah, that’s a shame,” he sighed regretfully, ignoring Daichi’s dagger-like glares. “I wanted to chat a little more with him.”

“Is the food to your liking? Nothing fancy, I’m afraid.” The Kara asked.

“Certainly. Your cooking is exquisite - nothing like the food you get in this town.”

“Ah, I’m an alright cook. We get the ingredients fresh, that’s why.”

Hinata forked a piece of meat and quietly hovered it below the table. Iwa-chan noticed, and snatched it up in one well-aimed bite.

“You humble yourself. Most restaurateurs here can’t hold a candle to you.”

Tickled, the boy lowered down another piece.

“I’ll set up my own diner when I get sick of birds, then,” Ukai laughed, “It’ll be much more profitable, for sure.”

And another.

“So, how did you become a doctor?” Oikawa asked.

And another.

“Long story. My folks were doctors, so I carried on the family trade.”

And another, until Kageyama ratted them out.

“Daichi, Hinata’s feeding the dog his food,” he complained.

Daichi looked over at Iwa-chan, whose canine expression was remorseless.

“Hinata, finish your share before you give it away, okay?” he said, then cut another chunk of meat and placed it on the boy’s plate.

“Okay. He likes it, though.” Hinata grinned happily and swung his legs. Oikawa ruffled the pup’s head and chided, “Let the growing kid have his food, Iwa-chan. You’ll get fat at this rate.”

“Oikawa, what is Iwa-chan, anyway?” Ukai asked the man.

“He’s a kind of werewolf.” Oikawa said, and then winked at Hinata.

Skeptical, the man took a few extra bites on his food. “Werewolf? Huh. I’ve never seen one, but the books don’t draw them like that.”

The mage shrugged and continued scratching Iwa-chan’s chin lazily. The hound obliged to his master’s whim, giving in to his sweet spot. “He’s a rare kind. Not every member of a race is the same, after all. Just like a grey Kara, yes?”

“Of course.” Ukai shrugged back. Except that he didn’t recall werewolves having black, leathery wings. “Do all mages have familiars like you do?”

“No, only beast tamers do. There are many kinds of mages, you see, not only those who command familiars.”

Hinata then asked, “Like what? Can they shoot lightning out of their hands?”

Oikawa laughed gaily and smoothed back his fringe. “No, silly! In theory we could, but that level of magic is too powerful for mortals to control.”

“So they’d fry themselves if they tried?” The child giggled at the thought, and the man grinned and booped his nose.

“Even the Grand Invoker himself couldn’t, you know. And he could do almost anything! You’d have to be a god, for sure.”

“Hey, we know someone who can.” Kageyama said, and Oikawa looked at him with interest. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to this crow yet.

“Oh? And who is that?” he asked.

“He’s called Nishinoya.”

“Yeah, he’s a really short deity.” Hinata added.

Suddenly, a booming roll of thunder roared off in the distance, and everyone stared out the window at once.

“Is that him?” asked the mage, amused.

“Must be. I’m only telling the truth, so don’t get mad!” Hinata yelled upwards, and Daichi covered the boy’s mouth with a sigh. “Don’t say that, or we’re gonna have to pay him a visit again.” He wondered if he had to re-explain the word ‘blasphemy’ to him.

And of course, Ukai hadn’t been briefed about their encounter with the short Tengu, so they had to tell the both of them the whole tale. Hinata and Kageyama were rather enthusiastic to do most of the talking, so Daichi let them and occasionally stepped in to clarify. They started right from when Daichi fell down the cliff, and acted out their utter surprise when they first met the deity. But right when they were getting to the interesting bits, a faint chime of a bell came from the bedroom, and Daichi excused himself from the table to answer it.

“He’s better trained than you.” Oikawa remarked snarkily to Iwa-chan, who rolled his eyes.

 

Entering through the curtains, Daichi looked at Suga with a smile and said, “You called?”

The Kara seemed more tired than usual, but it couldn't be helped. Having to drink honeyed tea alone for the past few days didn't give him a lot of energy to work with.

"Sorry," Suga spoke quietly, "You haven't finished your dinner, right?"

"It's alright." Daichi replied. He noticed the empty glass, and took it. "I'll get you some more water. Anything else?"

He shook his head.

Returning with a full glass, Daichi set it back down and asked for Suga's wrist. His skin felt cold, but his pulse was normal. His forehead felt fine, too, but it looked like he was shivering a little every now and then.

“Do feel uncomfortable? Are you cold?” he asked.

“A little,” replied Suga.

“I’ll see if there are more blankets.” Daichi said and closed the windows, shutting out the draft. The sky was almost pitch black by now as the rumbling clouds clustered together in a island of grey. They weren’t a by-product of Nishinoya’s wrath, to be sure - just nature’s.

Alas, though towels were in abundant supply, there weren’t any more blankets to be found. Fortunately, Ukai had a much better solution. From the crowded shed he picked up a small round ball of black feathers from a pile of similar-looking ones. The creature retained its fuzzy, globular shape as he held it, and it fit snugly in his palm like a lump of coal.

“This little buddy here’s a coalbird. It’s obvious why they’re called that – c’mon, just look at it – and also because they’re naturally very warm.” he explained to Daichi and Suga.

Nudging the top of its head with his finger, Ukai woke the bird. It gave the tiniest of sneezes upon being disturbed, and then chirped angrily at him and tried to fly off—but the man held it fast between his cupped hands.

“Hey, hey, sorry to wake you, bud. I just need a quick favour.” said Ukai to the bird.

It tweeted once in a questioning tone and calmed down.

“Could you sleep here with this man for a while?”

The coalbird looked at Suga, blinking rapidly and cocking its head this way and that. It then chirruped something lengthy back at Ukai which sounded like a very unthreatening interrogation. Every single time Daichi observed Ukai conversing with a bird, it was like watching him talk to himself like a madman.  

“Yes, yes, you don’t have to worry. All you have to do is sit under that nice, comfy blanket, and be yourself. Just get your friend to replace you when you’re done.”

As if in agreement it wiggled its short tail, then hopped out of his hands and walked slowly up to Suga’s chest.

Suga watched it intently and a small rush of delight came over him. “It’s so tiny,” he whispered, and the bird tried saying something to Suga. When he didn’t respond, the bird repeated its chirp twice, then looked confusedly up at Ukai. The doctor shrugged at the coalbird and translated its words for him.

“She’s asking you if you’ve cleaned your feathers already. She’s very particular about hygiene.”

Suga nodded and replied to the coalbird, “Yes, Daichi helped me earlier.”

Satisfied with his answer, it nestled on top of his chest and poked its walnut-sized head out from under the blanket. It closed its beady yellow eyes and rested its head on him, a movement so insignificant that he barely felt it. Its little body radiated warmth like a portable heater, and soon it felt all cozy and warm underneath the sheets. Suga dared not touch it - though he very much yearned to as he found it immeasurably adorable. It was so small, soft, and light that it seemed like the slightest nudge would bruise it, much like a strawberry.

“You can’t understand what it’s saying? I thought all Karas could.” Daichi asked and Suga shook his head, his gaze transfixed on the bird.

“It’s just like any other language. You have to learn it.” Ukai said. “I think they’ll get along fine anyway, even if they don’t understand each other.”

Smiling, Suga closed his eyes alongside the bird and sighed peacefully, “She’s so warm.”

“See?” the blonde grinned and gestured at the heart-warming scene, “No problem.”

 

And having one less thing to worry about was important, for tonight it seemed like trouble would stir at a moment’s notice. The brewing storm hit the house shortly after dinner, and the rain began pouring down heavily in droves. Thunder crackled across the sky, and lightning split the heavens into brilliant white fissures. Soon, Oikawa foretold, the Carcamas would take advantage of the confusion and darkness of this wretched night and strike. Iwa-chan had already sensed a large gathering of beings within Kabeki Forest, but that was the only point of certainty.   

Lying in wait in the cold and wet, Daichi, Oikawa, and Iwa-chan hid themselves behind the barricaded fence that was erected a few metres away from the house. The rest took shelter inside and turned out all the lights except for the oil lamps hanging from the front porch, making the entrance look like a shining lighthouse in the middle of a sea of black.

Just what the mage wanted.

“You really don’t have to do anything, Daichi. We’ll take care of it.” Oikawa yelled over while taking cover from the rain underneath Iwa-chan. The hound was wholly focused on detecting the enemy, his ears swivelling about as he sat unperturbed by the rain pelting his coat.

“I’m not going to sit around and do nothing when I can defend this place.” Daichi replied and docked his arrow. The hood pulled over his brows kept the water out and his sight clear.

“With that thing? In this weather?” Oikawa scoffed.

Level-headed, Daichi cricked his neck and loosened his shoulders. “Don’t worry about me.”

The mage snorted, unconvinced, and took out his whip. “Suit yourself. Just don’t get in my way.”

“Silence.” Iwa-chan commanded with his deep voice and got off his hind legs. “They’re making a move.”

The two humans tensed up at once and peered out from cover. They could barely see or hear anything through the blasted torrent.

“How many of them are there?” Oikawa asked and squinted his eyes.

“I’m not sure. Twenty, maybe thirty,” he replied. Daichi gulped and clutched his bow tightly. That number was far above their estimates.

Then, Iwa-chan’s ears pointed at attention and his eyes glowed red. “Something’s coming.”

Far off in the fields, he heard the swift thumping of a heart that drew closer and closer.

“One.” he murmured, and took a step forward.

“Only one?” The hunter said, and stood up to draw his bow.

Oikawa frowned and stood as well. “Stand down. Iwa-chan’s got this.”

“Why don’t we save the best for last?” Daichi replied calmly and took aim. The mage couldn’t argue with that. He clicked his tongue and sulked on top of the fence, and Iwa-chan took that as confirmation to yield. A job was still a job, however, and he would assist where Daichi was lacking.

“It’s halfway through the field and straight ahead. When will you shoot?” the hound asked.

“A hundred metres.” Daichi said, accepting his help. He could almost make out a moving object in the blurring rain, and he adjusted his arm.

“Understood. At this speed, about fifteen seconds until it arrives.”

Daichi breathed out and closed his eyes briefly.

He couldn’t kill the lynx back then in the forest, but this time would be different.

“Ten seconds.”

A wide open field was child’s play to someone like him. All the times he skipped school really paid off.

“Five.”

What was a little rain and wind but distractions in the hunt?

“Four.”

He even had someone telling him where the target was.

“Three.”

All he had to do was pull back the string—

“Two.”

Take a good, hard look at the cat’s eyes—

“One.”

And let his arrow fly.

The spear sliced through the air with a short whistle, and after a few seconds of suspense, the strangled cry of a Carcama sounded off in the distance.

“It’s dead.” Iwa-chan reported after a moment, no longer hearing the beating of its heart. Yet another soul bound for the underworld, he thought.

“Are there more?” asked Daichi, already ready for the next one. But Iwa-chan shook his head and jogged off beyond the fence. Dragging the heavy carcass into the compound between his jaws, he dropped it off between the two men with a muddy splash and spat out the foul-tasting blood. There, they saw the Carcama’s ghastly face which was locked in eternal surprise, undoubtedly at the arrow that drove itself right between its eyes. The arrowhead emerged from the base of its skull, and whatever brain matter that had burst from the hole had long been washed away.

“Well, well, that was a clean kill.” Oikawa remarked, seemingly unimpressed.

“They’re retreating,” Iwa-chan said with a flick of his tail, “I can’t detect them anymore.”

Pulling out the arrow with a hard tug, Daichi frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. Carcamas don’t attack one by one, and they won’t just leave their friend here.”

“But that was the case last night, and so were the attacks from before. This strange behaviour must have an explanation.” Oikawa said and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, toying with an idea in his mind. “Let’s discuss that indoors, shall we? My socks are getting all soggy.”

No one argued with that.

 

Once inside, Ukai had many towels but no clues to give.

“I don’t know what to say. They should have destroyed this place a long time ago, but they haven’t. They’ve just come and gone in different places, picking people at random to maul.”

“But is it really, as you say, random?” Oikawa suggested while drying off his wet hair. With just his undershirt and long pants on, the mage’s appearance was a departure from his usually prim and proper self; but still no fault could be found in his enduring charisma.

Hinata took joy in chasing Iwa-chan around with a dry towel, and Kageyama had turned in for the day. The fireplace smouldered with a fresh log that was just beginning to catch the continuing flame.

“What do you mean?” the Kara asked and lit up a cigarette. He looked like he needed three of those.

“Well, what if all they’re doing is in preparation for something bigger?”

Daichi raised an eyebrow. “You mean, they’re planning for a huge attack?”

“They’re not that smart,” Ukai frowned, brushing off the idea.

Oikawa pointed a tentative finger upwards and leaned onto the dining table. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, gentlemen. They have, despite their odd behaviour, been moving in a definite direction. If we were to plot out their attacks and apply logic to the situation—“ he took out a rolled-up map of the town from inside his coat, “—we can see what they’re trying to do.”

Ukai spread the parchment out onto the table and took a closer look at the crosses marked onto it. Then, he realized what Oikawa was trying to say. Every single attack had happened on the outskirts of town, and the crosses were forming what resembled a ring around the entire settlement. The only spot where a glaring space was left was the clinic, right on the other side of town where the first kill occurred.

“Are you saying… they’re testing us?” Ukai concluded.

“Either that, or they’re just playing with you. Cats, am I right?” Oikawa replied jokingly, then waltzed around the table as he spoke. “Every assault so far has been simple. One or two Carcamas sneak into a house in the middle of the night – they did it once during the day, actually – then kill a few people, and leave without the villagers putting up much of a fight.”

Ukai looked up grimly, his palms flat on the map. “Yes. We haven’t managed to take down a single Carcama, and they always run away after making a kill. They don’t eat the bodies.”

Oikawa continued, “It makes sense to say that they’ve been poking around to see where town’s defences are at. They could have come all at once, but they decided to cover their bases and gauge the strength of their enemies. But, even if we don’t know what their real strategy is, we can be sure that they’re not here for food or for fun. So, it can only be—“

“For territory.” Daichi finished his sentence.

“Bingo.” He snapped his fingers. “You’re smarter than you look.”

The doctor combed through his hair and puffed out a long breath of smoke. He left his unruly fringe hanging over his face, and then stubbed out his cigarette on the table. “Fine. Let’s say they are here to take over. Then, what’s causing them to do so? A human settlement isn’t a home for Carcamas.” he murmured.

“You’re asking the right questions, doctor.” Oikawa smiled and tapped his fingers on the table. “That brings us back to their unnaturally organized behaviour.”

Oikawa then caught Hinata in his tracks and pinched his cheeks, stopping the assault on his poor puppy.

“Someone - or some thing - is leading them,” declared the mage.  

“And now that they know there’s someone capable of stopping them, they won’t sit idly by.”

But who could lead a battalion of bloodthirsty cats?

 

Chapter Text

Things winded down a notch after last night. Not a single movement would come from the enemy while the sun still shone. The dwellers of the clinic could rest easy for another day.

Come morning, all fifteen of the coalbirds had made their way onto Suga’s bed.

It became unbearably hot as a result of their collective warmth, and Suga had to pull off the covers to prevent himself from overheating. Nonetheless, he was positively thrilled by the mass of fuzzy friends that had gathered on top of him, and was sad to see them go when Ukai called for breakfast.

Oikawa had spent the night in the living room curling up on Iwa-chan’s perfect pillowy fur. They were used to camping out and relying on one another for warmth, but that was mostly on Oikawa’s part; Iwa-chan always had one ear out for any nasties that dared approach. Yawning, the man stretched his arms to the ceiling and slumped back down onto the hound’s body.

“Iwa-chan, what time is it?” he mumbled, clearly not a morning person.

“Morning.” Iwa-chan replied, his chin resting on the ground.

“Did you hear anything?”

“No.”

“Good. I’m gonna sleep some more.” Oikawa yawned and snuggled up to him, but the demon had other plans. Standing up, he left his master to complain futilely on the floor, thus forcing the slob to get up and be civilized. Iwa-chan followed his nose to the dining table, and his tail wagged more vigorously the closer he got.

The first one to greet him was Hinata, who had been up early to help Ukai with breakfast.

“Good morning!” he smiled brightly, and that intimidated Iwa-chan more than any other horrifying creature. He kept mum and stopped in his tracks, not wanting to advance.

“What do you want to eat? We have fried eggs and sausages.”

Fried eggs and sausages? Everything a demon could appreciate.

Iwa-chan gave a small nod which was supposed to mean ‘both’. Hinata understood anyway and doled out a full plate of the good stuff for him. It was so loaded with food that a plump, oily sausage couldn’t help but somersault off of it, and the hound skilfully caught it in mid-air with an audible snap. Delicious.

“Nice catch!” Hinata praised and set the plate down, and Iwa-chan quietly dug in. His speechlessness made things a little awkward between them, but Hinata didn’t mind. It simply felt the same as when Snowball was still alive in his heart. The hound did appreciate the boy’s unconditional kindness towards him—he just didn’t know how to react.

 

Back in the bedroom with Suga, Daichi, and Kageyama, Mama was having his routine morning check-up. The stitches were healing nicely and Suga could sit up by himself now, much to his delight. Daichi taught Kageyama how to tie and wash a bandage properly, and he let the small crow try it out for himself. With stiff hands and an intensely scary face – he was really just trying to concentrate – Kageyama wrapped Suga’s waist up neatly and earned himself a pat on the back. It wasn’t as nerve-wrecking as the time he had to witness the arrow being pulled out, but it was much more personal.

Then, a cheery-faced Oikawa came to pay Suga a visit, and he bid everyone in the bedroom a good morning.

“My, Suga, you look livelier today! How are your injuries?” he asked, leaning on one leg.

“They’re okay.” Suga replied softly, but calmly.

“Can I help in any way? I didn’t choose to learn healing magic, but I’ve dabbled in it for a spell.” Oikawa grinned, not taking his eyes off of the crow.

“Healing magic?” asked Daichi, ever the interferer.

“It can’t bring back the dead, but it sure can close up some wounds.” He then lowered his sultry gaze to meet Suga’s, his long lashes hiding the many, many secrets inside that head. “I’ll take good care of your body, my dear.”

But his fun was abruptly stopped by Daichi, who smiled and patted him roughly on the back in a display of friendly discourse. “Thank you very much, but that won’t be necessary. Wouldn’t want to leave such a huge burden on an amateur , now would we?”

The edge of Oikawa’s mouth twitched back in kind. That damn hunter needed to keep his strength in check. It hurt, damn it!

“Of course, how foolish of me! My paltry magic certainly can’t make up for what you and Doctor Ukai can do.” he replied with a laugh and jabbed his elbow into Daichi’s side for emphasis. It was like hitting a rock, but he got a flinch out of the man anyway.

“Hey, what happened last night?” Kageyama spoke up after rolling his eyes at the two men. “Me and Mama were sleeping, and Hinata’s horrible at explaining.”

“Oh, right. One of the Carcamas came towards the house. I shot it before it reached us.” Daichi explained, and the boy’s eyes and wings perked up.

“You managed to shoot it in that storm?”

Daichi felt for once a sense of admiration from the boy. “Well, I had help,” he said humbly, and Oikawa chuckled in his usual smugness. “If not for Iwa-chan, he wouldn’t have been able to aim at all through the rain and darkness.”

“He could sense it coming?” Kageyama exclaimed.

“Yes! He has a very good nose, and very shiny eyes.”

“It took just one arrow–“ Daichi said, drawing an imaginary bow towards the sky, “—and whoosh! It landed right between the beast’s eyes, just like I wanted.”

“Woah… I wanna see that,” the crow gasped, playing out the action in his head.

“Ukai brought the body out back. You should go see the damage before he cuts it up.” he grinned, pleased at Kageyama’s excited expression. It was a rare sight after all, one which Suga always looked forward to as well.

“Hey, I’m going to go see it right now. Let’s go together, yeah?” said Oikawa, and Kageyama grunted excitedly in reply.

“Mama, you coming?”

Suga smiled and patted his head. “Later.”

They then ran out to find Hinata so they could marvel at the grossness together.

He needed to stay a while longer, because he hadn’t praised this big child of his.

“How did you do that?”

“Do what?” Daichi blinked.

“You know. Shoot.”

“Oh, that. Well, lots of training, I guess.” Daichi shrugged and rubbed his head.

Suga smiled up at him and touched his arm. “You’re an amazing hunter. No wonder Kageyama looks up to you.”

That was news to Daichi and something to be happy about, for sure.

But still his heart would not let him take those words of praise as they were.

Along came the same sullen feelings of irony and unresolved regret, and all of that showed subtly on his face in the tiniest of creases as he said his thanks. They didn’t escape Suga’s notice, and he tilted his head to the side in question.

“Did I say something wrong?” he asked softly.

“No.” Daichi sighed. “You didn’t.”

The man couldn’t fake a smile right now, and he hoped he came off as just tired. But that wasn’t going to work on Suga.

“Then, why do you look sad?”

“I’m not… sad. I just have some things on my mind.”

“Won’t you tell me?”

The man looked uneasily at the Kara, and the words got stuck in his throat. He didn’t want to lie to him, but he wasn’t ready for a heart-to-heart either. He seldom discussed his feelings with anyone, save for the times he confided in his mother when he was younger. It just wasn’t done.

Seeing that expression, Suga motioned for Daichi to sit down next to him, and he obliged. Refusing wouldn’t make things better.

Daichi went silent for a minute as he crossed his fingers and gathered his thoughts.

When he was ready, he spoke quietly as he looked down into his lap.

“Suga, I… I feel like all that I’m doing isn’t enough.”

“What do you mean?” asked Suga.

“I mean, I can’t do anything for you like Ukai can. He’s the one who saved your life, and, he even gave you his blood. All I know how to do is shoot to kill.”

The Kara’s eyes softened and he lowered his hand onto Daichi’s. “That’s not true.”

“It is.”

“You’ve been taking care of me all this time.”

“Because I hurt you in the first place.”

“And, because you’re such a wonderful archer, you could protect us.”

Daichi shook his head. “You’re suffering like this because of me , because of my mistake. You could have died, and nothing can make up for that.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Daichi. It’s alright.” Suga smiled gently, but that wasn’t what the man was looking for.

He sighed and covered his eyes.

“You’re too kind, Suga.”

That sounded like a silly statement to the Kara. “Should I not be?”

“It was such a serious mistake. You can’t just—“ he paused, gesturing with his hands, then dropped them and exhaled drearily. “You should have scolded me. Hit me. Taken revenge .”

Suga shook his head in certain disagreement, and felt Daichi’s fingers clench together. “Why would I do any of that?” he said.

“Because—because any normal person would be mad!” he blurted out, unable to control his exasperation at the need to explain such a forgone conclusion.

It wasn’t loud enough to be considered a shout, but the moment he saw Suga’s eyes widen in fright, he knew he messed up.

“I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to speak that way.” he quickly apologized.

Fright soon turned to sadness in the crow's gaze, and he spoke with calm resignation. “No, you’re right. Anyone would feel angry. There’s something wrong with me.”

“Suga, no. It’s not your fault. I just lost it for a moment there. I shouldn’t have.” Daichi uttered hurriedly, trying to take back his words.

As the Kara’s eyes watered, he felt like the most horrible person alive.

“I didn’t… I just didn’t feel…” Suga trailed off and blinked, his tears falling like petals from a wilting rose.

At a loss, Daichi held onto the man's shoulders and pleaded for mercy on his soul. “Please don’t cry, Suga. This is all my fault.”

"I can't get angry at you," the crow sniffed, clutching the blanket.

"But you did, that time on the mountain." he said gently, fearful of his stupid mouth.

"That was because you almost killed yourself."

"But this is worse."

A long pause filled the room, and the sounds of Suga's intermittent sniffles only served to worsen the feeling of guilt inside. He swore he'd never hurt him again, and yet, he made him cry. He only wanted to clear things up, and now he wished he had just shut up and screwed the cork on tight; but the conversation had already reached a point where leaving this issue unresolved was not an option for either of them. The impasse had to be broken.

And Suga would be the one to do it.

Taking a deep breath, the Kara dried his tears and readied himself.

“Daichi.” he said straightforwardly, his eyes tinged with red. “Would you feel better if I hit you?”

Surprised, Daichi looked up at him and stammered, “I—I would.”

Then, Suga gulped and raised his palm as steadily as he could, and the both of them held their breaths.

 

Slap!

 

Apparently, he had more strength left than everyone thought.

“Ah—I—I’m sorry! Did that hurt?!” Suga raised his hands in fright and touched Daichi’s left cheek, which was blooming into a tepid red.

Stunned, the hunter’s mouth gaped open for a few seconds, and he had to shake himself sober.

“Ouch.” Daichi said flatly, as if reading from a script. In response the Kara smothered his embarrassed face with both hands, terribly shocked at himself.

“Oh no-- I wasn't going to--!” he whimpered and shrank away. But there was nowhere to hide!

"So you are angry with me." Daichi chuckled out of relief.

"No, I'm not!"

Neither of them could believe that really happened. Suga, the gentlest being alive, slapping someone? My, oh, my, Daichi needed to be doubly sure.

Quickly turning to the crow, Daichi took hold of his wrists and demanded, “Suga, could you do that again?”

“W-why?!” Suga exclaimed, flabbergasted.

“Please, I need it,” he replied earnestly, frowning into his startled eyes.

“I don’t want to.”

“Just to even it out. One more on the other side.” Daichi said and pointed at his good cheek.

“No.” Suga said firmly.

“You’re making me feel better, remember?”

It all sounded like crazy talk to Suga, and his reddened face looked like it was going to explode at any moment. He couldn’t bring himself to hit that face. Heavens, it would be like hitting darling Hinata, and that was a crime punishable by death!

He’d already acceded to Daichi’s unreasonable request once, so now he would do things his way.

In one fell swoop, Suga grabbed the man’s shirt, pulled him over, and pressed a kiss onto his boo-boo to make it better.

“T-there,” he pouted angrily, his lips trembling from the aftereffects of slapping someone , “It’s all better now.”

Of course Mama knew best, and Daichi did feel better. He blushed and cupped his cheek, holding the kiss close to his skin. He really, absolutely, overwhelmingly wanted to hold this beautiful, heart-achingly adorable man right now, and his mouth moved before his mind did.

“Can I hug you?”

Suga opened up without question, and Daichi took him in a warm hug. He needed the hug as much as Daichi did. The Kara sighed into the man's shoulder, glad he wasn’t asking to be hit anymore.

Patting his back to soothe him, he said, “Daichi, I want you to know that I’ve forgiven you. I'm really thankful for all that you’ve done for all of us, and Hinata and Kageyama are, too. Don’t feel bad anymore, okay?”

To call Suga an angel was not far from the truth, and Daichi felt like an undeserving peasant at his feet. With those words, he finally felt like he could put the past away and embrace the future.

“Thank you.” Daichi whispered, grateful towards Suga for the umpteenth time. "Sorry for making you cry."

“Mm.” Suga replied, glad to hear the comfort in his voice.

After a momentary solace in each other's arms, Daichi said quietly, “Suga, it’s okay if you hit me.”

Suga frowned immediately, wondering why this was up for debate again. “No it isn’t.”

“It is,” he insisted, “You have to when I do something stupid. Otherwise, I’ll never learn.”

The Kara sighed and covered the man’s mouth, ending this foolish thought.  

“Enough. Can we go join the others?”

Smiling again, Daichi held Suga’s hand and placed it around his waist. “Of course.”

 

The shed was abuzz with activity and curious onlookers. The smell of blood and musk wafted into the nose of anyone who came near, and only those who were determined enough to stay got a free anatomy lesson from Uncle Ukai.

“See the hole here?” the doctor pointed at the grisly wound. “That’s where the arrow was. It struck the ridge right here on the skull,” he said as he leafed away the flesh with a knife, revealing the shattered bone underneath, “and went all the way through the squishy brain matter and out the back of its head.”

Several birds squawked in dismay and left. The corners of Hinata’s mouth wrung down towards his chin as he cringed at the skin-crawling sight. The only thing missing that would make him throw up was a swarm of fat, white maggots burrowing through the red, meaty flesh.

“You can imagine how much force that arrow had just by looking at how clean the shot was. It lost a lot of its brain too. Died instantly, no doubt about it.”

“Eugh,” The orange one groaned and scurried to the side, “I’m done here.”

Kageyama, on the other hand, was totally down with this. “Uncle Ukai, what are you going to do with the body?” he asked, touching the hideous reptilian claws and feeling its thick, rough scales. He definitely didn’t want to meet a live one.

Ukai sighed and puffed on his cigarette. “I’m gonna skin it and toss the meat.”

“Can’t we eat it?”

“No. It’s disgusting.”

Kageyama squinted. “That means you’ve eaten it before.”

“Desperate times,” was all Ukai would say.

The doctor tied the Carcama’s hind legs up and suspended it from a metal bar. Just for good measure, he sharpened his skinning knife a few more times, then started slicing through its fur like paper.

“Oh. Looks like we made it to the fun part!” Oikawa beamed and strolled up to the doctor at once to observe his technique.

“Doctor, did you find anything?” the mage asked excitedly, and Ukai shook his head.

“Nothing out of the ordinary. No brands, no stitches, no drugs.”

“Aww, that’s boooring. Not a single thing?” he drooped, his spark fizzling out in an instant.

“Nope. Maybe whoever’s controlling them doesn’t need any of that. Hey, would your dog—I mean, Iwa-chan, eat this?” Ukai asked.

Oikawa shrugged his shoulders and turned to leave, having lost interest in the carcass. “He eats almost everything, honestly. Just give it to him.”

“Good. ‘Least it won’t go to waste.” He huffed, and stripped the skin off its back in one mighty tug. It would fetch a good price at the market tomorrow.

That is, if they lived to see it.

 

When night fell again and the demon’s eyes glowed crimson, they knew that they had to rise to arms once more – hopefully, for the last time.

Chapter Text

Before the three of them left for the battlefield, Ukai shook their hands firmly with a sombre frown. He tried not to think like he was sending them off to their doom, but he just couldn’t shake off the pessimism that was growing out of his ears. Telling himself that these young men were far more equipped to deal with this crisis than they looked, he relaxed his grimace and breathed out calmly.

“Stay sharp out there. We’re counting on you.” he said, and Oikawa returned the handshake with a confident grip. “Rest assured, doctor. We won’t let a single one near the house.”

“I don’t doubt your abilities at all. Just—just be careful, alright?” Ukai cautioned. They really were like the bunch of nephews he never had.

After (successfully!) giving puppy Iwa-chan a good luck hug, Hinata put out his fist and Daichi bumped it back. “Go get ‘em,” the crow said, as Kageyama gave a determined nod. “I won’t let you down,” Daichi promised his boys.

Suga sat up from his bed, not wanting to miss his chance to say something as well. Daichi urged him to lie down and rest, but the crow hugged his brave fighter instead and pressed his ear to his chest.

The man’s heart beat steadily and quickly like a drum. 

“Are you scared?” asked Suga.

“No,” Daichi flushed. With the Kara’s arms around him, he wasn’t.

“Come back to us safely.” Suga said, trying not to show his worry. But his upturned brows and ruffled feathers were too obvious to ignore, and Daichi diffused his fears with his trademark smile.

”I will.”

 

The moon shone like a big, ghastly mirror upon the plains. In this eerie moment it looked like a chasmal portal in the sky that yawned into the underworld, one from which the Carcamas’ ravenous, visceral snarls drifted forth as they gathered again in full force. But their yowling was privy to the hellhound’s ears, and he would surely scoff at the thought that such brutes could be compared to demons. For tonight, everyone would witness the true power of a denizen from hell, whether they realized it or not.

Oikawa pulled his whip taut between his fingers and raised it to his chest. He murmured an incantation beneath his breath, and strange angular runes began to slowly spiral and glow with an electrifying blue light all over the instrument. They resonated with a hollow, high-pitched buzz, as if pure energy itself had been condensed to form these ethereal scriptures. His words invoked the spell that all beast masters knew from day one of their journey.  

Under the Oath I command thee,

Release the shackles and let the spirit run free,

Return the power it wields, untame the beast within,

As master and ally, grant my strength to its whim,

So I invoke—upon Reylaysius’ name!

With a fierce swing he cracked the whip in mid-air, sending the runes shooting into Iwa-chan’s collar like sparks from a firecracker. The metal gleamed under his fur with a short but intense light, and Iwa-chan shook his entire body awake, as if a jolt of lightning had coursed through him and rattled his very bones. Smoke puffed from his nostrils like an engine had started inside of him, and he lowered his snout to the ground. 

Daichi lifted his trusty longbow and shook his gloved fingers out, keeping them nimble. He would be their support for today—that is, if they even needed his help. While he had his arrows, he had also slipped a borrowed machete onto his belt. It would be much more useful than that small hunter’s knife he always carried around. A ranger had to be just as adept in close combat if he wanted to survive.

The quiet rustling within the forest soon became loud enough to reach the ears of the humans.

It was time to engage.

“I’m going in,” said Iwa-chan, and Oikawa nodded with a calm smile.

Break them.”

With that, the hound burst off its feet.

He streaked across the plain at such a blinding clip that he left a flurry of shorn grass in his wake, and a gust of wind blasted past the two men.

“The hell?” Daichi exclaimed out loud as he quickly followed along on foot with Oikawa.

“Surprised? You haven’t seen the rest of him yet.”

Iwa-chan reached the forest’s edge within a matter of seconds. There, he saw the Carcamas emerging from the gloom like ants pouring out of a disturbed nest, and as soon as the first ones revealed themselves, he leaped into the air and clamped his mouth shut.

With a great surge of energy fizzling through his teeth, he belched a belly full of scorching blue fire at their dumbstruck faces—and how the fiends burned!

The swathe of demonic flames consumed whoever was unfortunate enough to be caught in it, turning their bones into blackened ash within seconds. The Carcamas scattered from the source of the fire in a frenzy, terrified at this strange new threat. Iwa-chan immediately turned to lunge at the next Carcama, pinning the frightened beast with his huge claws and ripping out its throat like a fork through tofu. Its life depleted itself onto his white fur, and he growled menacingly with a muzzle full of blood at the others that had now surrounded him.

Countless green reptilian eyes gleamed eerily at him in the darkness, and from all around they hissed and spit hysterically, no doubt incensed at his audacity. The air itself was ready to explode from the animosity—but everything was kept in line by a singular low growl that sounded vastly different from the rest.

It was a growl that did not carry the venomous tongue of a Carcama, but was nonetheless a feline voice. Upon hearing it, two of the Carcamas left the ring to join a mysterious creature from behind the group, and Iwa-chan darted his eyes about to see what it was. He couldn’t see over the horde that was slowly closing in on him, however, and he cursed.

Then, the creature gave the signal to attack.

All at once the Carcamas flew at Iwa-chan in a mess of clawing, biting, and screeching, but their meagre teeth could not break through the hound’s steely armour. Iwa-chan shrugged them off with all his strength and slipped out of the horde, running back into the fields where he stood a better chance.

It was at this moment Daichi and Oikawa caught up to him, and the hunter quickly fired off arrows in swift succession at his pursuers. It took at least three shots to kill one of them, for there were just too many of them moving around too quickly, making it hard to focus.

Turning around sharply to face the horde again, Iwa-chan barked at Oikawa and the mage took his battle stance.

Except, he wasn’t the one doing the fighting.

When Iwa-chan raised his paw to strike his foe, Oikawa lifted his arm to swing his whip.

As his blow connected with the Carcama’s skull, the whip cracked alongside with a resounding timbre, and his claws tore right through flesh and bone in an explosive burst of power.

The next swipe to a leg shattered it completely and turned it to mush, and the following crunch on a shoulder pulverized the bones beneath with a loud crack. Iwa-chan’s every lunge, bite, and slash synergized with his master’s movements and became imbued with destructive magic, the likes of which far surpassed the hellhound’s own abilities.

Bodies fell left and right, leaving a trail of bloody carnage fit for a demon. It was difficult to tell who the one in control was, for like dancers in a duet their steps matched up perfectly in rhythm and flair. Daichi had no time to be amazed, however, for the cats realized soon enough that Iwa-chan wasn’t the only threat around. He picked off those who tried to approach with straight shots to the skull; but as more of them began to break away from the crowd, he knew his arrows alone would not suffice.  

That breaking point came when one Carcama barrelled straight for Oikawa, lunging at him with its fangs on full display. Daichi shouted a warning and was about to run to his side, but the mage didn’t bat a single eyelid as he tumbled lithely out of the way and lashed it severely with his whip - which glowed a bright red - causing it to roar and scamper backwards in pain.

So the mage could defend himself. Who would have thought?

The beast looked like it had suffered a deep cut, and as blood spurted from its neck, it rushed at them again in a last ditch attempt at revenge. Daichi unsheathed his machete and put it down for good with a sound stab through its throat, and he winced at the brutality that unfolded on the other end of the blade. Blood gurgled and frothed out of the gaping hole as the life went out of the Carcama’s eyes, and the cat staggered to the ground with one final, pathetic whimper.

Because the archer was too used to ending things with one well-aimed shot, witnessing the desperation in the death throes of his prey was something he seldom dealt with.

Then, as if nothing had happened, Oikawa patted Daichi’s shoulder coldly before going off into battle again.

And within that simple gesture, Daichi realized that they were vastly different beings on the same plane of existence.

It wasn’t just the terrifying power that the mage held; within the time it took to finish breakfast, only seven Carcamas remained. It wasn’t just the way he carried himself; calm and prideful, even in a situation like this.

It was the way he saw everything.

The remaining stragglers showed no signs of yielding, coming at them as viciously as ever as their numbers dwindled. Some even found their way towards Daichi with their arrow-riddled bodies, forcing him to cut them down with his own hands. They weren’t as smart as lynxes, but they certainly had the stamina of bulls.

Then, when it appeared that a clear winner was emerging, three shadows that had been hidden all this while hurtled out past the skirmish. One of them seemed larger than a regular Carcama and was much quicker on its feet, and the moment it laid eyes on Oikawa it lunged—

—but was stopped by an arrow to its shoulder.

The assailant roared in pain and stumbled, and it sent the other two Carcamas beside him to destroy the hunter. Oikawa had dodged out of the way in time, and he quickly righted himself to see what manner of creature it was. It was difficult to discern what it was under the moonlight, so he flipped his whip and lit up its jewelled end with a light spell.

Under the glow of the wand he made out what looked like a dark grey panther, but its body had a monstrous feel to it. Something about it seemed off. Was it the huge claws? The disproportionately long limbs? Or maybe the way it looked at him with a fury unlike any other?

Oh, but it all became clear when the beast swished its tail.

Both tails.

“What in the world…” Oikawa gasped breathlessly, and he gripped the handle tightly. His beast master instincts immediately started spinning wildly off the charts, and his surprise turned to exhilaration as his eyes readjusted to the creature’s form in the darkness.

Grasping the arrow like a human would, the beast pulled it out of its skin and tossed it away like a twig.

Oikawa took a step back and raised his whip. “Iwa-chan!”

But the demon had finished off the rest and was already on his way, and he body slammed into the side of the monster with a loud, meaty thud. Unexpectedly, it managed to stand its ground, and it returned a solid punch to Iwa-chan’s head with its huge paws.

“Iwa-chan! Are you alright?” Oikawa exclaimed, seeing his familiar stagger from the blow.

He shook it off quickly and barked, “Yeah!”

“Hold back now—we’re taking it alive!”

The demon blasted the panther point blank with a regular ball of orange fire, making it holler and roll into the grass to put the flames out. It sprinted off and tried to gain some distance between them, but Iwa-chan chased after it and dragged it into battle.

This time, Oikawa wasn’t going to help; he needed time to prepare the spell for capture.

The monster was extremely agile and had far superior reflexes than the hound did. Time and again it dodged and escaped Iwa-chan’s fire and bites, frustrating the demon to no end. It seemed inexperienced in combat and had much less power behind its strikes, however, and it couldn’t get past the hound’s blocks nor pierce through his armour. The difference in might between them became all too clear when Iwa-chan tripped it with a swift kick to its ankles and ended the bout by catching the monster’s neck in its jaws.

“Give up, beast.” he growled.

Biting down hard – but not hard enough to pierce flesh – the feline froze and dared not move another inch. It could feel its fangs right next to its windpipe.

Seeing his chance, Oikawa stepped forth and cast the binding spell, securing chains of magic around all four of its ankles. When the monster yielded and struggled no more, Iwa-chan released his hold, panting, and sat heavily onto the floor.

At the same time, Daichi finished off the two Carcamas on his end, and the final shriek of the feline menace rang out into the night.

 

It was over.

 

Thirty eight bodies littered the landscape.

Iwa-chan had scratches and bites and Carcama blood all over his body, but no serious injuries had been inflicted upon him. Daichi was a little roughed up as well, with a few claw marks here and there on his arms. In contrast to the bloodied two, Oikawa was completely clean. 

The three men had fought for their lives and earned the right to live.

 

“We did it.” Daichi heaved a great sigh as he trudged over to re-join them, letting the adrenaline die down.

“Quite. The deed is done, and the village will be safe for another day.” Oikawa muttered solemnly. He didn’t seem as relieved as Daichi was. He looked down at the monster and tapped on his wand expectantly, and its green eyes glared with hatred at the mage as it breathed heavily from its wounds.

“What do you plan to do with the leader?” asked Iwa-chan, licking his wounds.

“I must find out what it is,” Oikawa replied, but he didn’t need to wait any longer for an answer once Daichi took a closer look.

“Wait, is that a…?” he frowned, and the mage grabbed his collar immediately.

“Is that a what? A what?”

“A Nekomata.”

Hearing that, the monster swivelled its ears upwards and spoke.

“So you know?” it snarled, and Iwa-chan growled at it. Oikawa jumped and hid behind Daichi without warning, and the hunter held back a laugh and waved his hand at the beast.

“Why are you so surprised? You have a talking dog.”

“Sh-shut up! That’s different.” Oikawa uttered, then cleared his throat unsuccessfully.

“How do you know what it is?”

“Those tails,” Daichi pointed out. “I met two others recently, and they both had forked tails.”

The monster narrowed his eyes and flashed his teeth at Daichi. “You’ve met others from our kind? How are you still alive?”

He found that reaction very telling of Nekomatas’ attitudes towards others, and he folded his arms and stared back.

“Why are you trying to wipe out this village?”

It made a gruff snort. “Not even my corpse will tell you.”

Oikawa stepped forward while twirling his whip, and a bitter growl rumbled in its throat.

Mage.”

“Oh, did I foil the poor kitty’s plans? I’m soo sorry,” he sneered mockingly, and its growl intensified under its breath. If the man’s face was in snapping range, he would have bitten it right off.

“Let’s not make this painful for everyone and just confess, okay? What were you planning to do with the village?”

“I’d rather die,” it spat vehemently, “I will not disgrace the clan any further.”  

Iwa-chan humphed. “At least the thing has honor.”

Holstering his weapon, Oikawa snapped his fingers and the hound’s collar flashed blue again.

“Take it back to the shed.”

Lowering his body, he leaned his palms on his knees and matched the monster’s unflinching gaze with his own.

Suddenly, it didn’t feel like biting his face off anymore.

 

“Let’s have a little chat, first, shall we? Then, I’ll grant your wish.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The ones who stayed behind had troubles of their own to deal with. Not life-threatening troubles, per se, but still troubles worth mentioning.

Debu was supposed to be Ukai’s backup if a Carcama ever approached the house. Given her stellar performance at bucking things with her beak and legs, he thought that that was a fairly reasonable request. Hell, she’d fearlessly chase away a lynx any day – she said so herself!

But however strong and fat she was, a bird was still a bird against an army of cats. As man and bird stood on the porch and watched the battle unfold, she huddled behind him and made pitiful cooing noises, begging to be let back into the shed. “God, you’re such a useless turkey,” Ukai groaned in despair and smacked her rump, “What’s the use of all this fat, huh? All you have to do is sit on them and they’re dead!”

Enraged, Debu did exactly that to him.

And that was the end of it.

Inside, Hinata and Kageyama crammed together with a very quiet Suga on the bed. He held a child in each arm as he peered worriedly out of the window, though he couldn’t see much over the two boys’ heads. They bobbed up and down in excitement at the windowsill, blocking him this way and that as he craned his neck out to look.

And what a show it was! The boys swooned over the flashes of fire and magic, cheered on Snowball’s (yes, Snowball’s) badassery, and gasped when they thought a Carcama had gotten the drop on them. It was a very grisly affair, no doubt. Their sporadic and oftentimes hyperbolic commentary didn’t help Suga’s understanding of the situation, either, and eventually he could stand his anxiety no longer. Squeezing in between them, he foolishly thought that seeing things for himself would reassure him.

While the darkness did helpfully filter out all the blood and gore, it also made it difficult to make out anything at all - much less discern if anyone had been injured. To him it was just a whole lot of scuffling, tumbling about, and freakishly terrifying noises, which made Suga realize that the real enemy was not the threat of disturbing imagery. It was the inner workings of his paranoid mind. In order make sense of what was going on, Suga’s brain filled in the gaps with the absolute worst scenarios, like the world’s worst choose-your-own-adventure storybook. All of the endings were pitch dark, and none of them made any rational sense. 

It was safe to say that if the children were watching an action movie, Suga had walked into the wrong theatre.

Thankfully for him, the film didn’t last very long.

The instant they heard the final cry, the Karas’ shoulders perked up in anticipation. Then, after a tense minute, Oikawa’s glowing wand waved triumphantly over his head, and they knew for sure that it was over.

 

They did it! They saved the town!

Oh, the villagers would not know of this victory until the next light, but the ones who did would celebrate their valiant feats with pride bursting out of their chests.

The lights were all lit, the doors were wide open, and on everyone’s faces were joyous, wide smiles. The boys couldn’t wait a second longer to welcome them back, and they bounced off the bed and flew out the window to meet them.

The first one to arrive was the fastest one– Hinata catapulted himself into Daichi and bowled him off his feet with a crash. He didn’t pause once to make sure that they didn’t break any bones, and with great affection he babbled on and on about how awesome Daichi was, his wings flapping and trembling with energy as he sputtered. Never mind the fact that the man was bleeding from all those cuts and gashes—he needed to know that he was amazing! Absolutely fantastic! And super buff! And to everyone’s surprise Kageyama, too, praised the man with a reluctant and poorly executed ‘good job’, which sounded more like ‘goof job’ as his mouth refused to enunciate. Those two words alone were enough to bring a proud tear to Daichi’s eye and a terrified gasp from Hinata. Surrounded with such positivity and warmth, Daichi’s grin sprouted into a merry laugh, and he picked them both up in a sweeping hug.  

Oikawa got his fair share of praises as well, exclusively from the orange kid. Why, he didn’t need any confirmation of his greatness, but he sure was pleased at such enthusiastic flattery. Iwa-chan would never do something like that! He was also met with a smattering of small hands begging to take a closer look at his whip, and he was more than happy to oblige his new fans. They couldn’t possibly spoil or cast anything with it, he thought, so he let them play as they wished. However, the young man realized the veracity of inter-child violence that day, and he promptly took back his whip without another word.

Oikawa was also the first to notice that Ukai had vanished somewhere. When Iwa-chan returned from shutting their captive in the shed, he helpfully pointed at Debu’s roosting posture and nodded slowly at Oikawa’s grave expression. He quickly shooed the bird away, and he jumped at the sight of the doctor pressed flat upon the floor.

The men hastily helped Ukai onto a chair and straightened out his bent limbs like a doll, but it looked like a boulder had squashed the very life out of him. Half-dead and a hundred percent incensed, the Kara staggered miraculously to his feet, and Debu ran off squawking into the shed at the spectacle. Cursing and swearing at the bird, Daichi had to calm him down before the kids’ vocabularies became unnecessarily colourful. Debu’s punishment could wait – what they needed now was a good rest to mend their wounds.

But no matter how battered and tired he was, Daichi would never forget about his beloved Kara.

With bated breath he ran into the house to tell Suga about the great news. As he pulled back the curtains, he saw that the man had been waiting all along for his return.

Suga’s eyes brightened when he saw Daichi, and the weariness hanging on his face fell away like autumn leaves in that single moment. His exuberant smile leapt forth and showed a just sliver of his pearly whites as he called his name, and he moved to the edge of the bed to beckon the man into his embrace. It was more than Daichi could ever ask for.

Falling into his arms, they held each other and felt a wave of relief course through their bodies.

“We did it. The town is safe now.” said Daichi simply through his smile. And that was all Suga needed to know. The Kara hugged him closer and Daichi felt his narrow waist bump against his.

“Thank goodness,” Suga sighed, and one could hear the tension in his throat, “We watched it all and it looked really dangerous. There were so many of them!”

Oh, no, Daichi thought, he was so worried.

“Yeah. We didn’t expect so many at all.” he said.

“It was… it was scary.” Suga admitted quietly and leaned onto his shoulder. “I couldn’t see you.”

“Did you think I died?” he chuckled. Suga kept mum and twiddled his thumbs, and Daichi watched his grey feathers ruffle up. That part of him was easy to read.

“I thought you had faith in my skills,” he joked, “Aren’t I reliable enough?”

“No, you are! I just…”

The Kara couldn’t explain it himself.

“Were the kids scared?”

Suga blinked and mumbled his reply slowly, embarrassed. “Nn… no.”

Daichi pushed away gently, for he just had to see his face right now—and what a treat it was. Suga’s pursed, wobbling lips and reddened face looked so temptingly soft to the touch, and his heart thumped. He couldn’t resist that timid look of his. Reaching up with his right hand, he lightly brushed his thumb across Suga’s cheek.

It was just as tender as he had imagined.

Suga’s blush deepened and he glanced away, feeling the heat of Daichi’s gaze.

“J-just forget it. It was silly of me to worry that much. You all came back in one piece, and you’re all such good fighters.” He chided himself and hugged his arm. He knew he was a worrywart, and he knew how Daichi felt about that.

Or so he thought.

In answer, Daichi cradled Suga’s face in his palm and pecked his cheek. The Kara’s eyelids fluttered in surprise and confusion, and he looked back at a bashful grin on the man’s face.

“Thanks, mum.”

Ah, it felt so nice to be fussed over. Getting hugs, smooches, and pats on the head – if this was how it would be like being with him, he would gladly plough through another horde of Carcamas again. Being treated so tenderly was a privilege that Daichi could get only from Suga, and it was a privilege that many others would fight to keep - especially so when you grew up with a doctor like Ukai. Treatment time was the worst time, arguably more so than the actual ordeal.

 

Ow!! Ukai!”

“Whoops, poured too much.” Ukai said as he nonchalantly mopped up the alcohol dripping off Daichi’s arm. Probably half the damn bottle spilled all over his wounds, and he seethed sharply and braced against his knees as the pain sizzled under his skin and set his wounds on fire.

“Could you please try not to kill me? I just came back from not dying.”

“Try getting sat on by Debu and tell me how it feels.”

He proceeded to slap the soaking wet towel onto Daichi’s scarred thighs, making the young man contemplate his relations with his godfather for the twentieth time. He treated Suga with such care, so why couldn’t he do the same with him?! There was one silver lining to this agony, however, one which made Daichi feel so touched he could cry.

“Mister Ukai, could you be a little more… um… gentle with him?” Suga requested politely as he watched from his bed. His hand rested on Daichi’s back, and sometimes it would smooth along his shoulders and leave a fuzzy feeling in his chest.

“He’s fine, don’t worry about it.” Ukai replied.

“But he’s crying from the pain, how can I not worry?” he said, becoming genuinely startled as turned his gaze towards Daichi. He’d never seen Daichi in such distress before, with tears running down his cheek—although said tears were actually of pure, unbridled happiness.

As if calming down a pet, Suga rubbed Daichi’s head gently and cooed, “Oh, don’t cry, Daichi. Does it hurt?”

Looking at the Kara, Daichi couldn’t decide which one was more important. His manly ego, or his basic need to be petted. He’s slowly accepting his fate as a dog, isn’t he?

In the end his choice didn’t matter, because his awkwardness answered for him.

“I’m—I’m okay,” Daichi blushed with a fidgety frown, trying not to look in Ukai’s direction. He was being coddled by Suga right now, and sitting right next to him was the last person who should see it.

Maybe it was because he couldn’t stand the cloying sweetness that was being thrust in his face, or maybe a sneaky thought just crawled out from the back of his brain. Whichever the reason, Ukai deliberately tightened a bandage around the man’s arm, wrangling an interesting noise from his throat in the process.

“Mister Ukai!” Suga exclaimed in dismay.

“Sorry, my arm slipped. Hoo, Debu really did a number on me.” He didn’t sound apologetic in the least, and his poker face game was in top condition today.

Right next to them, Oikawa snickered as he tended to Iwa-chan with his healing magic. The small crows watched with open mouths as the small scars zipped themselves up and healed within moments, while the larger ones took a longer time and shrank from the inside out. The mage thoroughly looked him over from every possible angle, lifting his arms, fluffing his tail, and holding his chin up. Iwa-chan’s stony expression didn’t change in the slightest as he let Oikawa manhandle him, and he occasionally licked away the blood that remained on his limbs from the healing process.

“Wow, magic really can do anything,” Hinata marvelled and poked at a cleanly healed spot. Iwa-chan’s tail twitched. “Could you heal Daichi and Mama too?”

“If Suga asks, I’d gladly do it for him.” Oikawa smiled sweetly.

“Not Daichi?”

He turned up his nose at the name and declared, “I’ve got no interest using my mana on that brute. It’d take up all of my energy, because he’s got as much mana as a weed.”

“I’m not interested either. And what do you mean by that?” Daichi replied coolly, somewhat insulted. He’d take Ukai’s torture any day than owe that condescending mage anything.  

“Oh, don’t you know? Every living being has some mana in them.”

Hinata pointed at himself. “Even me?”

Oikawa nodded. “Even you. Why, now that I take a closer look, you’ve got more mana than Daichi does!”

“Yeah—so what exactly does that mean?” The hunter’s eyebrow twitched.

“It means that you’re not a very magical being, and I would have to use some of my own mana to heal you. Because you don’t have enough for me to manipulate.”

“Eh? So we can use magic, too?” Hinata blinked.

“In very small ways, yes. Like how Karas can talk to birds.”

Ukai’s grin twitched. This mage wasn’t a joke at all. “So you found out.”

“Naturally.” Oikawa smiled craftily. “Normal beings just don’t have the ability to control their mana, that’s all. And some beings have more mana than others, like Iwa-chan here.”

The mage felt like his work was almost done, and he clapped his hands once and beamed brightly at the hound. There was just one last place to check. “Alright, Iwa-chan, now take off your pants!”

Let’s just say what happened next gave Oikawa a taste of the doctor’s medicine.

Everyone had a good laugh over his yelping, lifting the mood in the room along with their smiles. They had nothing more to worry about, it seemed, for everything was going so well. The town was safe, Suga was energetic again, and the people in this shambling old house were getting along like bread and butter.  

But there was one last piece of unfinished business.

 

Oikawa took it upon himself to straighten it out. When all was said and done, Oikawa and Iwa-chan entered the shed and barred everyone else from entering. He merely told them that he was going to get some answers from the monster, in that carefree manner that he always behaved in. Judging from the way he trailed his whip by his side, it didn’t take a genius to guess how he was going to do it.

His will was absolute. No one argued with him, and the curiosity of the children could wait.

Although nobody wanted to admit it, it was made known there and then that the most frightening creature in the house wasn’t Iwa-chan, nor the captive.

For hours on end and into the deepest night, the sounds of the cracking of a whip and the roaring of a defiant beast echoed ominously outside the shed. The disquiet instilled a graveness within every being in the house, and no one could sleep peacefully knowing what was happening behind those heavy doors. It was a terrible thing to do - even to an enemy of theirs which had orchestrated such a vicious attack and left several dead.

But deep down they understood that Oikawa was doing this for the sake of the village, and to bear such a burden on their shoulders was beyond any of them.

The question of whether his method was the only way, however, would be answered in the morning over a sombre breakfast.

Chapter Text

Oikawa Tooru became a mage on his fourth birthday.

It was the day his parents witnessed him playing with the buds of fire from his birthday cake. The child had taken them from their wicks by his fingertips, and as he held the flames in his palms it glowed like liquid gold. The fire burned nothing but the oxygen around it, and when he threw it into the air it burst into a brilliant conflagration that singed the rafters above. They understood at once that something truly astounding had happened. Days later, a mage from the Guild came to take him away. She told them that Oikawa was a special child, and that Grand Invoker Reylaysius himself had chosen him to carry on the Guild’s will, as all mages were. Without resistance they parted with their child, for they knew it was his destiny to stand among the greats of their time.

Thus, Oikawa was groomed into a life of chivalry, raised in a faraway castle that touched the skies. This cultural sanctuary was where all the mages from across the world would gather to teach, learn, and grow. Although Oikawa’s natural talent in magic was not the greatest, his gift of perception and dedication to his art made him one of the most capable pupils among his peers. He dabbled in everything from healing to combat, and he was tireless in his pursuit of excellence. This unparalleled ferocity unveiled itself to his teachers at the age of seven, when Oikawa was forced to defend himself against a bear by wielding only the most basic of spells. The difference between him and his peers, as they described, was in the way he used the spells. Anyone could cast a fireball and blast it at their foe; but Oikawa would condense the flames into a white-hot bullet instead and finish it off in one blow. When asked how he arrived to this method, he replied, ‘If I hit someone, I want to make sure they break.’

His magnetic charisma blanketed over his terrifying nature, however, which made sure that he was popular with everyone even as a child. Obedient, a sweet talker, and a hard worker, no one doubted that he would become a fine mage in the future. And so when Initiation came around, many were eager to know which Path he had chosen to take. Once a pupil was initiated into a Path, they would train wholeheartedly in that Path’s magic and under its Master. There were so many options for one as outstanding as he, and all the Pathmasters wanted him for a disciple. Would he seek to hone his destructiveness and vanquish his enemies? Commit his life to healing the sick and feeble? Or perhaps uncover a higher knowledge in the realm of magic?

It came as a surprise, then, when Oikawa announced that he wanted to become a beast tamer. It was unprecedented for one who had the makings of a strong mage. Only the weak needed a familiar to fight for them. Many of his teachers tried to change his mind, but he could not be persuaded. His friends asked him countless times for the reason why, but he would not answer.

And so, when he was but a young boy of ten, the Pathmaster of the Beasts led him before the summoning circle.

“Are you sure about your choice, Oikawa?” The master asked.

“I’m sure!” Oikawa responded with a face full of glee, “I’ve been waiting for so long to meet my familiar!”

“Then take this whip, and envision your partner in your mind’s eye. Concentrate, and recite the spell loudly and clearly. Do not waver, and the beast will come to your call.”

Holding the wand to his chest, Oikawa closed his eyes and took in a deep breath.

 

In Reylaysius' Name I take the Oath of the Beast,

Under his watchful Eye, I command thee--

Ascend to my call, Creature from beyond,

Fulfil the duty that binds us both.

In blood, in soul, by the collar entwining,

The Mark of the Oath, eternal as time,

Till our two realms collide shall our fates be sealed,

And our powers combine—

Arise!

 

In answer, a fragmented bolt of black lightning struck the magic circle and made the runes burst into bright blue flames. A dark chill settled over the crowd as the ground began to shake, and Oikawa smiled eerily to himself. Sensing something was wrong, the master cried out to Oikawa and tried to stop the spell, but it was too late. The Mark had already formed around the boy’s neck. Then, with one final tremor the circle collapsed into a bottomless abyss, and from it floated out a beast unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

"Ah! It really came!" His eyes sparkled as he admired his new familiar. "Cerberus!"

The white-haired hound flared its ragged, leathery wings and landed heavily onto the reformed ground. The crowd shuddered. A deep growl vibrated within its chest.

Sleek, demonic markings glowed fiery red all along its head and body, which quickly cooled and disappeared into its pitch black armour. It slowly lifted its muzzle and opened its blood-red eyes, striking fear into the ones who saw them, except the little summoner before him. His smile could not have been brighter, and as the beast regarded the boy he spoke in a deep, raspy voice.

“Are you the one who called for me?”

 “Yes! You’re Cerberus, right?” he beamed.

The creature frowned.

“No.” 

“Huh? Then you’re a fake?” Oikawa’s smile turned upside down in a flash. “Maaan, what a rip off. And I was wishing really hard for Cerberus to come out, too.”

The demon's eye twitched. The Pathmaster’s eye twitched as well. He could not afford to stand idly by in shock any longer, and so he hurriedly pulled Oikawa away from the creature. Raising his wand, he exclaimed, “Stand back, demon. Do not move!”

But the hound ignored the master entirely and growled at the young mage.

"Did you really think you'd be able to summon Lord Cerberus and make him your familiar? Not even your precious Reylaysius would be able to perform such a feat."

"I guess I was only good enough to summon a fake." Oikawa sighed sarcastically.

“Oikawa! Stop this at once!” The master commanded, to no avail.

"I am not a fake. I am of the 1212th generation of Lord Cerberus' bloodline, the hellhound Iwazemerius."

"That name's too difficult. I'll call you Iwa-chan instead, okay?"

"What? 'Iwa-chan'?" The demon's eyes widened, set aflame by the human’s impudence. "You shall call me Iwazemerius!" He gave a thunderous roar and stomped his paw into the ground, causing a rumble all around him. Oikawa stuck his tongue out at him and folded his arms. "I, Oikawa, am your master now. And I will call you as I please." Gritting his fangs, Iwa-chan restrained himself from biting off his arrogant master's face.

"That is enough!” The Pathmaster reprimanded and roughly grabbed the boy's shoulder. “How did you even… summon a demon like this? And one from Cerberus’ lineage, as well! This could land you in exile, do you understand?”

"What? You told me to think of what kind of familiar I wanted. I just did like you said." said the boy.

“What did you do? Did you read a forbidden spell?”

“No, I just thought of Cerberus. What’s wrong with that?”

Exasperated, the Pathmaster looked the boy in eyes, but saw no remorse. "Demons aren’t supposed to enter our realm! If you can’t control him, who knows what he’ll do. It’ll be a disaster!"

"It'll be fine. I'm a beast tamer now and he’s my beast, so I believe in Iwa-chan."

The hellhound flicked his ear at his words.

But the man wouldn't have any more of this. "Enough of your nonsense. We'll deal with the demon and discuss your punishment later. Headmasters, capture the beast!" He grabbed the boy's arm and started dragging him away from the field, and he struggled to break free as he watched the mages close in on his familiar.

"Wait, no! I only want Iwa-chan!"

"He's a threat to all of us!"

"Stop! Iwa-chan!"

Iwa-chan glared at the mages and their puny familiars, and muttered a single word.

“Fools.”

All of a sudden, the Pathmaster was knocked over by a hard blow. Stunned, he gasped as he looked up from the floor to see the demon towering over him in human form, with irises that burned bright with hellfire. He grasped the Pathmaster’s collar and lifted him up to his face, and he sneered at the man’s frightened gaze.

"You’re right about one thing.”

"You..." The Pathmaster breathed and gripped his wand.

"Don't even try. You pitiful mages living on borrowed power can’t do anything against me." Iwa-chan said in a deadened tone.  Alarmed, Oikawa got up hastily and tugged at the demon’s arm. “Iwa-chan, don’t hurt him.” he cried out, and the beast turned to glare at his master. Tossing his victim aside, he cracked his knuckles by flexing his claws, and Oikawa frowned back.

“You’re my familiar now, so you have to do as I say.”

“I could just kill you and be done with this nonsense.”

“If you kill me, you’ll die too,” smirked the boy, and he pointed to his collar, “This thing will make sure of that.”

Iwa-chan’s eyes narrowed. “And If I get killed?”

Oikawa nodded. “I’ll die.”

Snorting, he scratched at his own collar. “What a meddlesome curse. Remove it.”

“I don’t wanna. I want you to be my familiar.”

“Then prove yourself a worthy master, and I might follow you.”

Iwa-chan couldn’t prepare himself for what happened next. As the Spell of Taming left Oikawa’s lips, he felt like his limbs had been chained down by some immeasurable power, and his demonic strength was taken away in an instant. Forced back into his hound form, he became no stronger than a wolf, and all he could do was accept his fate. It was humiliating, to say the least, for a demon of his stature to be suppressed by a mortal child. But as time went by and he grew to know his master at great length, he understood that he couldn’t have asked for a better one.

It was said that the beast tamer will always summon a beast that gelled with his anima—but what dark desires for ruination and power Oikawa held which allowed him pull a demon out from Hell itself, Iwa-chan did not know. He did not wish to know either, for as long as Oikawa allowed him to wreak havoc on the evils of this earth, he would not ask.

Ever since Oikawa and Iwa-chan began embarking on official missions, the other mages began to stay away from him. Rumour spread of the duo’s devastating effectiveness, of enemies decimated into ash and monster colonies brutally vanquished. In this way Oikawa became notorious despite his ever-pleasant personality, so much so that even his teachers expressed their concerns over his methods. He was doing a fine job, they said, but he should take care not to frighten whoever he was trying to save, more so than the threat itself. What assured them of his allegiance to the Guild, however, was the way he always responded with all seriousness: ‘On Reylaysius’ name, I will not fail you.’

But Oikawa was still only human, and there were moments when he did fail. Ironically and inevitably, these moments happened because he always gave his all to avoid failure at all costs. In time it became clear that he was pushing himself to the brim, as his reflexes dulled and his consequent injuries became more and more severe. Iwa-chan had to pick up after him and scold him for refusing to rest, and in one particular incident where Oikawa almost perished, he became so furious with him that he broke his rule of not asking.

“If you want to die, don’t drag me along with you.” He barked.

“Sorry, Iwa-chan. I won’t do it again.” Oikawa said as he lay all bandaged up and out of mana on Iwa-chan’s fluffy back. The demon wasn’t convinced by his words, however, for he had heard him say the same line so many times before.

“Are these ungrateful mortals worth dying for? Do you just want to ruin yourself? If you keep doing this, I won’t fight for you anymore.”

“Can you do that?” The mage muttered.

“I can’t fight anyway if you’re half dead all the time. Do you know how hard it is to save you while I’m fighting? And without your magic?”

Oikawa paused, then reached out to scratch the hound’s belly. “Aww, I said I’m sorry, don’t be mad anymore—“

But Iwa-chan batted his hand away and glared angrily at him. “Don’t start.”

Oikawa blinked, somewhat stunned. “Iwa-chan…”

“I don’t give a damn about the Guild’s mission or your quest for power. You and I can’t keep this up.”

The mage paused again, for the medicine made his mind groggy.

“I wonder if the other tamers have this problem.” He said. Iwa-chan snorted. “Then again, I’m the only one with a talking familiar.”

“You get what you wish for.”

“… Do you hate me for summoning you?”

It was Iwa-chan’s turn to pause. Oikawa took that as consent. He continued as he stared listlessly at the rickety wooden ceiling of their host’s home.

“You hate it when I call you Iwa-chan. Or when I try to hug you. Or when I fluff up your fur. Make jokes about you. Talk to other people. Flirt with girls. Make you eat vegetables. Give you baths. Make you scout by yourself. Stop you from eating everything you see. Try to get you to mate with a dog—“

“I could have killed you a long time ago.”

Oikawa tilted his gaze.

“Pardon?”

“You heard me.” Iwa-chan crossed his front paws. “Where am I from?”

“Hell.”

“Where do mortals go when they die?”

“He...ll?”

 “Yes. The Oath would just send me back.”

Oikawa let out a soft ‘ah’ in realization. “What a loophole.” Then, he frowned as he thought a little farther back. “Then why are you so hung up on getting killed? You don’t… die… over here. And you get to go home, even.”

“Like I said, I could have killed you a long time ago.” Iwa-chan replied.

“That doesn’t answer the question.”

“You’re smart. Figure it out.”

The man fell into quiet thought. When he took a long while to respond, Iwa-chan added, “Don’t get me wrong. You’re annoying as hell and I hate all the things you do to me.”

“Yeah. I know.” Oikawa smiled and chuckled – but he didn’t have a good answer. “No, I don’t know. I just know that I was so happy when you came out of that hole. I really, really, really wanted a puppy, so I was thinking of Cerberus when I did the rites.”

The demon rolled his eyes. “Of course that was your reason. And the best way was to have a lord of the underworld as your familiar.”

“A normal dog wouldn’t do for me. But it worked out anyway, ‘cause you’re a Mini Cerberus.”

“You haven’t forgotten my real name, have you?”

“Of course not. It’s Iwa-chan.”

Iwa-chan kicked the man’s thigh, making him seethe and slowly reach down to hug his aching leg. The hound huffed and rested its head on its paws. “Shittykawa.”

Grinning, Oikawa turned and hugged Iwa-chan’s sturdy neck, burying himself in his shaggy fur. Iwa-chan needed a good grooming, he thought. He deserved one.

“I don’t care what you really think of me. You’re my best friend, and I want to keep fighting, and killing, and breaking shit with you.”

Best friend? Iwa-chan mused to himself, half surprised and half not. For all the time he had spent with Oikawa, he had seen plenty of fair-weather friends come and go. He was the closest to the definition of a best friend, and he could see why. The man’s eyes would pick apart anyone if they came too close – anyone, except immortals like himself.

Perhaps that was why only he could fill this void and sate his master’s thirst for blood.

“So I’ll listen to you this once.”

 

For only demons could find comfort in other demons.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“It won’t talk.”

Oikawa’s plate, which sat untouched in front of him, was as barren as his appetite. Leaning back calmly on his chair with his arms crossed, the dark circles around his baggy eyes expressed all the tiredness and frustration he himself would not. After all, a mage should never show any sign of weakness; the common folk should feel secure with him around. With those tiresome thoughts in mind, Oikawa sighed and touched his temple. “I tried everything I could. I even had to heal it over and over again to make sure it didn’t die so quickly, and yet...”

He sighed again with the insipid air of an aristocrat troubled by a broken plate. “That monster’s resilient. I’ll give it that.”

The others at the table heard him, but continued to eat their food quietly. Seeing that no one else was talking, Ukai replied to the mage. “So it’s still alive?”

“Yes. Fruitful interrogations don’t end after one night.”

“Well— I agree,” the Kara put down his fork, “But when can I have my shed back?”

“When we dispose of the monster.” Oikawa said matter-of-factly.

It was Ukai’s turn to sigh. “I need it to run my clinic. All my tools and birds are in there.”

Nodding slowly, the young man tried to show some semblance of empathy. “Oh, I understand fully, doctor. It is a terrible inconvenience by all standards. I can’t imagine the cleaning up you’ll have to do afterwards when I’m done.”

“Hah, well, I handle all kinds of shit every day so that’s not an issue. It’s more about my birds—“

“Right. The birds.” Oikawa sniffed. “They were rather panicky last night. Could you kindly relocate them? It really isn’t conducive for asking questions when they chirp up the place.”

The Kara wiped his face drearily. Never again would he make the acquaintance of a mage, even if his life depended on it.

“The house isn’t big enough for all of them, and that’s why I had a shed built in the first place. Look, how about we try something else?” he offered. Oikawa slowly raised an eyebrow at Ukai, his eyes flat and disinterested. “I hope you aren’t referring to my methods.”

Ukai shrugged frankly and nodded. “Yes. I am.”

Tapping his finger on his arm, the mage said, “This is my responsibility. You can trust me to do my job.” Thinking he had offended him, Ukai raised his hands by his shoulders and laughed light-heartedly. He felt like he was treading on the edge of a razor blade as he spoke - and the more he looked at the man’s dark, steely eyes, the more he shuddered on the inside.

“Oh no, no, no, I’m not telling you how to do your job. I’m just trying to figure out a way that’ll get me my shed back sooner. Maybe there’s something else that can convince—“

“Pray tell.” Oikawa shot back calmly as he stared straight ahead.

He waited for an answer, but as he expected, he didn’t get one from Ukai. Daichi took the lead from there. “I’ve been thinking about this last night. Since that creature really is a Nekomata, maybe the two we’ve met before would know something about him. ”

The mage snapped his murderous sights onto the hunter, who immediately felt the same suffocating pressure Ukai did. “Are you suggesting we contact your Nekomata friends?” he asked, ending the last word in a sneer.

“Yes?” Daichi couldn’t understand the man’s hostility, which jutted out more than usual. Maybe he was just cranky from a lack of sleep, he surmised.

“Didn’t you hear what the monster said? Or did you forget about the whole town-massacring thing?” Oikawa glowered at him like he was an idiot. “The Nekomata are bent on killing humans. How can we be sure the ones you met aren’t the same?”

Hinata raised his hand and exclaimed in their defence, “Kuroo and Kenma are nice! They played with us and gave us food!”

“What good terms you all must be on, then. The beast wouldn’t even give me its name.” Oikawa snorted.

“Look, Oikawa, if they wanted to kill us they would have done so a long time ago. Right when we first met. And if they really are involved in this plot, then maybe we could get them to call it off. Even if they’re not, there’s no harm asking if they know anything about it.”

All the while as Daichi was speaking, Oikawa was shaking his head slowly with his chin down. If only he could tell them all about his travels, he thought, and how many times making peace with the monsters never worked. It always, always ended in blood; not just owing to the fact that he was better at ending them that way. He gave a short, weary sigh and muttered to himself, “So naïve.” Having heard that, Daichi frowned, similarly tired of Oikawa’s high-and-mighty attitude. He just wanted to cooperate with him, but it looked like that wasn’t going to happen.

“If they are related, we’ve just killed thirty-eight of their soldiers. Would they listen to you?”

“We have their leader.” Daichi replied calmly.

Oikawa smirked, but the smile dropped as soon as it appeared. “You’re thinking. Admirable. Then, riddle me this—even if we do manage to make a trade, what’s to stop them from coming back here again?”

The hunter gestured towards the shed. “You’ve seen it for yourself. They have honour.”

“Placing trust in a monster’s honour is the most foolish way to die. The only reason their plan failed is because I came to the town’s aid. Once I leave, the villagers will be defenceless again, and ripe for the picking.”  

Daichi found it difficult to rebut, having witnessed Oikawa’s prowess up close for himself. If they were in a team fight, the man would definitely be the MVP by a huge margin. What’s worse, Oikawa’s harshly sensible words were beginning to seed doubts in Daichi’s mind, so much that he found himself re-evaluating his own convictions. The more he thought about it, the less sure he was of Kuroo and Kenma; and now that the boxes he’d placed them into had been tossed unceremoniously to the ground, he realized that they actually knew nothing at all about them. Nothing about where they came from. Nothing about what they were doing in a lavish treehouse in the middle of Kabeki Forest. And nothing about why it was just the two of them, when they weren’t orphaned brothers making it out on their own, nor father and son.

They were both just… Nekomata.

Surely there were thousands of perfectly normal reasons behind those uncertainties, but the suspicious veil that now fell over them made nothing seem innocent. As the table fell silent again, Oikawa knew he had made his point. He moved to excuse himself from his chair, and he pushed it back into place neatly with a squeak. Facing them with an icy gaze and a rigid stance, he assured them, “Do not trouble yourself to think of solutions. I intend to get to the bottom of this matter, one way or another. If you still insist on consulting your friends, however, I will take the necessary precautions on my own.”

With that, he left with Iwa-chan to get a breath of fresh air.

Iwa-chan followed at his master’s heels as they strolled out onto the windy fields. Oikawa’s brows knitted in displeasure as he stared at the mangled carcasses that laid still in the scorched and blood-soaked earth. Taking out his whip, he released the seal on Iwa-chan’s power and commanded, “Burn them all. They’re ruining the view.”

“Oikawa.” The hound spoke.

“What?” he replied curtly.

“You should be resting.”

“I’ll rest once you get rid of this eyesore.”

“… Understood.”

 

And Oikawa did rest, taking refuge in his familiar’s warm, comforting fluff as usual. But what rest he got was short-lived, for one part of the several theories he had had come true.

Someone came for the captive.

The rescuers’ entrance, however, was far from what he had expected. He thought that another army would arrive to exact revenge upon them - but only two persons came, and one was even a child that rode on the other’s back. And it wasn’t grand by any means, for they simply walked out of the forest and into full view, completely unarmed and without fanfare.

They were, of course, Kuroo and Kenma.

When Kenma saw his friends far off in the distance at the front door, he waved to them with his lazy arm - and they waved back with much excitement. Daichi jogged out to greet them first – but the hunter wasn’t as enthusiastic as the kids were. The cats’ arrival only meant that their suspicions had been confirmed, and the wariness within him grew yet darker. He just had to know who they really were, and so Daichi requested to talk to them first before the mage did. Oikawa agreed to let him do as he pleased for five minutes. He could tell the mage was raring to go.

Judging from Kuroo’s solemn face and twitchy tails, it was a good idea on his part. If things were going to go down with a fight, he hoped he could at least soften the blows.

 

As their paths crossed once again, the two men stared each other down like on the day they first met. Though nothing had changed about their appearances – Kuroo still in his dark red pants and Daichi as always in his human garb – it felt a little different this time. The animosity between them still existed, no doubt, but it bubbled gently beneath them like a pot over a dampened flame.    

“Daichi.” Kuroo muttered simply, his voice scratchy and low.

“Kuroo.” Daichi nodded, a muted frown on his face.

The cat licked his fang. “You know why I’m here, don’t you?”

The hunter paused. “Yes.”

The black cat snorted lightly, then let Kenma down from his back. Crouching down, he wiped the kitten’s sleepy face with his hands. “How’s Suga doing?” he asked, his back turned towards Daichi.

“He’s recovering fine.” Daichi watched them closely, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Kenma was the same sleepy child with the same droopy ears – how could this kitten be part of this horrendous assault?

“Hmm…” Kuroo slowly combed through Kenma’s hair. “It’s a good thing you all could fend off the attack, eh?”

“You—you’re really part of this?” Daichi exclaimed, even though he had expected this.

Ignoring his question, Kuroo muttered, “Oya oya, you’ve caught a beetle in your hair, Kenma. Now how did that happen?”

Kenma yawned with a shrug, “Dunno. Aah.” Kuroo popped the wriggling beetle in the boy’s mouth, and he crunched on it like a tasty cracker. Daichi cringed. Looking up at the human, Kenma’s round yellow irises blinked as he stepped forward. He licked his lips and from them came a small demand, “I want to see Suga.”

Until now, that wasn’t a request Daichi would think twice about.

“I need to know something first.” He said, directing his words at Kuroo. The black ears twitched. “Were you the ones who ordered the attack?”

Kuroo’s tails fuzzed up and hovered low to the ground. “And if we did?” he murmured.

“Why did you do it?”

Kenma looked back at Kuroo, whose black ear twitched. Standing up, he stared dispassionately at Daichi and tucked his hands into his pockets.

“I’m not talking to you. I’m here for the mage.”

“I need an answer. Suga was in danger because of you.” retorted the man.

Rolling his eyes, Kuroo seemed to be getting impatient. “How the hell was I supposed to know you’d pick this place?”

“So you did order this, didn’t you?”

“I said, I’m not talking to you.”

Even Daichi was losing his cool as well.

“Either you talk to me, or that mage will kill the both of you. He’s not someone you can bargain with. You’ve seen the field – almost all of that was him.”

“I know. And I’m not here to bargain, either. I’m here to finish this mess.” Kuroo brushed past him, but Daichi reached out and caught his arm.  

“Call it off.”

The cat’s head haltingly turned towards the man, his pupils shrinking dangerously into black daggers. “Remove your hand.” he hissed lowly, but Daichi refused. He needed to stop this.

“Kuroo, I don’t know what’s going on between you and this town, but I don’t want to see any more bloodshed – especially not with you two. If you’d just explain it to me—”

Suddenly, Kuroo swiped at Daichi, shoving him off and leaving a thin streak of red on his forearm. Startled, the man stepped back and held onto his arm. A look of revulsion and ridicule smeared itself across the Nekomata’s face, his fangs bared themselves like warning signs, and his ears flattened sharply against his scalp.

“You think you’re a saint now, eh?” he spat, his voice tinged with anger.

Daichi blinked blankly at this sudden statement. “What?”

“You saved Suga by bringing him to a doctor, and while you were at it you killed a bunch of evildoers and saved the fucking town. Oh, you must be feeling on top of the goddamned world right now! You think you can do anything, make everything better again, and now you want to try your hand at making peace.” Kuroo snarled, the sarcasm not lost on Daichi.

“I was just doing what I had to. Your people started attacking us in the first place!” Daichi asserted.  

“Good for you, saviour. What a heroic thing you did, slaying those poor bastards. I’m sure Suga loves you sooo much more now.”

“What—you’re bringing up Suga?” he scoffed, “If you haven’t given up on him, then why the hell would you try to kill him?”

Enraged, Kuroo marched briskly forward and grasped Daichi’s shirt, his claws ripping through the cloth and jerking him to his face. The man grasped the cat’s wrist firmly in reaction, and their arms trembled as they fought to move the other away.

“I’m warning you, Daichi. Don’t. Test me. he huffed, his tails swishing angrily from left to right.

Why, Kuroo. Make me understand.” Daichi insisted, his tone harsh but well-meant. It seemed then that Kuroo finally buckled, tired of his persistent nagging and triggered by the nonsense Daichi was spewing. He sounded frustrated as he spoke, and eager to move on.

“Did you really think I’d try to kill him, you moron? Just because he’s with you doesn’t mean he’s dead to me.”

“Good for you. But why didn’t you know we were there?”

“I only knew after it all ended. I wasn’t the one who executed the attack.”

The man frowned. “Then, was it that other Nekomata we captured?”

Kuroo growled at the mention. “He was in charge of it, and he did a terrible job.”

“If that’s the case, you’re still the cause of all this. You… ordered him to wipe out the town.” Daichi’s chest sank. He finally heard it straight from the horse’s mouth.

It was all true. Even though they weren’t the best of friends by a long shot, he had been hoping for a different outcome from the very beginning. This affirmation alluded to a greater conflict beyond them all—and Daichi, a simple man with a simple wish—had to accept again that achieving harmony was not as simple as talking it out. He’d had it with Kageyama, Suga, and now Kuroo – but the last one was proving to be a far more violent affair than the rest.    

Kuroo noticed Daichi’s slight dejection. It was impossible to know what was on the cat’s mind, but as he let go of the man and turned his back on him again, what he said next echoed the human’s thoughts.

“I had to.”

Looking at his slouched shoulders, Daichi said hopefully, “You can’t stop this?”

Kuroo fell silent. Tucking his hands back into his pockets, he breathed out slowly.

 

“We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

Five minutes had come and gone. Oikawa, Iwa-chan, and Ukai made their way in great strides to meet the fabled Nekomata at last. In tow was their unconscious captive, dragged along by a rope between the hound’s jaws. Nervous was not the mood of the day. Resolve was.

As both sides looked upon their once faceless enemy with their own eyes, a grim sense of foreboding settled in their gut.

Oikawa, with his arms folded and chin high, stared down at the Nekomata before him. He scrutinized their feline appearances from head to toe and compared them to his victim, concluding that the feral form was some sort of transformation. He further deduced that the black cat was the one in charge, whose resting pose was as domineering as his. He did not write off the young one, however, for he was sure that he was here for a reason as well.   

Kuroo’s face showed nothing but stony indifference. This, despite seeing his subordinate covered in wounds and knocked out cold. He kept his eyes on the mage and his hands, and particularly on the whip attached to his belt. The wolf-dog beside him was another thing to contend with, for after seeing its strangeness, Kuroo’s hands were just itching for a fight.

The mage stole a sideways glance at Daichi, who gave him a look that said ‘don’t do it’.

“Greetings. You two must be Kuroo and Kenma.” Said Oikawa, affable even when dealing with the enemy.

”And you must be the mage who killed the Carcamas,” replied Kuroo coolly.

“Straight to the point, I see.” Oikawa remarked, “Indeed, that is I, Oikawa Tooru. I assume that your being here means that you are the mastermind behind the attack, not this Nekomata we captured.” He gestured to the grey panther on the grass. Kuroo’s ear flicked.  

“Oh, that good-for-nothing? He’s just taking orders,” he growled.

“Good-for-nothing, you say? Hm.” The mage smirked. “You should give him some credit. I tried getting some information out of him – trust me, I really did – but he said he’d rather die than give anything up.” Sighing dramatically, he lamented, “The poor soul… he sacrificed so much to keep his clan a secret, but his boss came to get him anyway.”

Bristling, Kuroo grit his teeth, but only the tips of his canines poked out from his downturned lips. “Enough chatter. Hand him over.”

“Just like that?” Oikawa shook his head slowly. “Negotiations are in order, Nekomata.”

“If you don’t want to lose your head, you’d better hand him over now.” Kuroo murmured and flashed his claws. Daichi had thought that this would be what Kuroo meant by ‘talking’. It didn’t help that Oikawa was being such a prick, too.

“Calm down. There’s no need to fight.”

“Move aside. I’ve been holding back on you too, just so you know.” He hissed at Daichi.

“Kuroo, we talked about this. It hasn’t even been a minute.” Daichi urged, but Oikawa’s slight, condescending smile only fuelled the cat’s rage further. He just didn’t have it within himself to play nice this time – not with that fiend and his insufferable attitude. Iwa-chan growled low and stepped between Kuroo and his master, and the cat shifted his attention towards him. The more he looked at the hound, the more it didn’t feel right.

“If you’re looking for a fight, I’ll gladly oblige,” Oikawa said calmly and flipped his wrist, “I’m only talking to you because your friend here won’t give me anything.”

“I would have killed him myself if he said anything.” Kuroo replied. The mage raised his eyebrows.

“My, how barbaric. I was hoping you’d be a reasonable man. You have pants, after all.”

Ukai sighed, having been a bystander for long enough. “Can I say something?”

Oikawa gestured to say ‘it’s all yours’. Clearly, he was giving up already; taking his chance, the Kara spoke his mind.

“Look, the only reason we—or at least, I—am not holding a pitchfork right now is because Daichi knows you. We’re all giving you a chance to explain here. We want to know why we’re being targeted, because we’ve lost people even though we haven’t done anything to deserve this. This village doesn’t make enemies.”

“It’s just like he says.” Oikawa added on, “If you tell us, then maybe I won’t have to kill any more of your kind.”

Alas, their words fell on deaf ears as Kuroo pushed Daichi aside and cracked his knuckles. He looked more pissed than ever, in fact, and he lowered his body into a battle stance. “That’s a lot of big talk. If you think you can mess with the Nekomata, I’ll prove you wrong right now.”

Oikawa breathed in and dropped his shoulders in a short sigh. Turning towards Daichi, he raised his palms and shrugged, “I tried.” Daichi screamed internally, If throwing kindling to a fire is— heck, this doesn’t need a metaphor, because no, you really didn’t!

And so in a final, grasping-at-straws attempt, Daichi chose to appeal to the one last person who had any say in this.

“Kenma, say something. He’ll listen to you, right?”

But the boy did not deliver, and he shook his head. The man’s chest sank.

Iwa-chan snorted. The time for talk was over. “These fools don’t know what’s good for them.”  The hound muttered.

“The same goes for you.” Kuroo huffed.

 

And then, with a swift leap off the ground, Kuroo pushed forward and slashed viciously at Iwa-chan. The demon dodged to the side and hopped backwards as he avoided the cat’s strikes in succession. They were easy enough to avoid as he had learned from his previous fight with a Nekomata – an advantage Kuroo didn’t care one bit about. Rolling forward in an unexpected move, Kuroo’s leg swooped out and landed a hard kick to Iwa-chan’s jaw, causing the hound to flinch. That split second gave him the chance to get in another solid punch, throwing Iwa-chan off balance.

Narrowing his eyes, Oikawa knew what he had to do.

“What’s the matter? Can’t handle a fool?” Kuroo taunted, his fur prickling with energy. As soon as he said that, the demon’s collar shone a brilliant blue. Glaring at the Nekomata with his fangs bared and blue flames streaming between them, Iwa-chan growled, “I’ll make you regret this.”

A huge blast of fire burst forth and exploded on the ground where Kuroo stood, leaving a blackened crater in the earth. The cat had scrambled away just in time, but he had no time to be shocked at the hound’s firepower. Volley after volley of flaming death came relentlessly at him, sending dirt and grass shooting into the air and peppering the field with burning holes. Kuroo could only run from the assault without recourse, up until Iwa-chan ceased fire and dashed through the smoke with his fangs in full draw.

Chomping down on air, he felt his canines nick skin to his right— and when he jerked round and snapped again, his teeth found their mark on Kuroo’s ribs. Something cracked.

Now stuck fast and in great pain, Kuroo clawed at Iwa-chan’s neck in an attempt to break free. With a growl gurgling in his throat, Iwa-chan clamped down harder like a spring-loaded bear trap, and blood began oozing and dripping from the holes. Flesh was surely rending and turning to mash from the force, and Kuroo understood then that he had to pull out all the stops with this guy.

Kuroo let out a deafening roar, and like shockwaves running through him to the tips of his tails, his entire body blazed and rippled with shaggy, jet-black fur. His body began growing so much that Iwa-chan had no choice but to loosen his jaws, and he jumped back and watched as the Nekomata filled out into his true form. His huge claws became curved like talons, his torso and limbs bulged with muscles, and his feline head drew back in a jagged snarl. A hideously beautiful creature to behold, Kuroo was now more panther than human.

Although larger than both the other Nekomata and Iwa-chan, the demon’s confidence in his roots did not waver.

Iwa-chan bolted fearlessly at Kuroo and sharply dodged the heavy swipe that came head-on, feeling the air compress beside him from the sheer force.

The real fight was only now beginning.

Iwa-chan snapped at the cat’s legs, but only grazed them. He swiped at its large body, but touched nothing more than fur. When they clashed and grappled with each other, thrashing in the grass like wild animals, Iwa-chan realized that he had dreadfully underestimated this mortal. He found himself bearing blows that should not have escaped his reflexes, and he couldn’t muster enough strength to break the deadlock between them. For the first time in a while, he was forced to admit that he had met his match. If only he had Oikawa’s magic - he cursed - and if only he was a fully grown hellhound!

The final straw came when Kuroo grabbed the hound with both paws and slammed him into the ground. Iwa-chan choked as the air was knocked from his lungs, and the cat’s claws drew blood as they dug sharply into his abdomen. Unable to break free, the demon had one last thing up his sleeve; feeling the fire stoke again in his belly, he geared up for a blast at point blank - but was shut down immediately as Kuroo quickly shoved his muzzle into the dirt. With a vice grip around his mouth and the weight of a boulder immobilising him, it seemed like Iwa-chan was at the end of his rope.

Leaning down to his helpless prey, Kuroo’s hot breath clouded Iwa-chan’s vision as he flashed his long, sharp fangs. “Done so soon? I’ll give you a quick death if you ask nicely,” he growled deeply. Then, he paused to chuckle devilishly.

”Oh, wait. You can’t.”

But before he could break the hound’s neck with a simple twist of his wrist--  

“Iwa-chan!”

Oikawa emerged swiftly from Kuroo’s blind spot and cracked his whip, splitting the Nekomata’s back with a fiery gash. The pain was far worse than the demon’s bite, and so as Kuroo’s grasp faltered from the blow, Iwa-chan managed to squirm out of his claws and flee to Oikawa’s side.

“Is your mana back yet?” Iwa-chan asked, panting and gasping for air.

“No...” Oikawa tsked. “That was the last of it.”

Breathing raggedly with blood dripping down his stinging back, Kuroo took a few moments to recover. Raising his head, he licked his fangs clean of blood, tasting the familiar tang of death. So this is the power of a mage, he thought, and yet he hides behind his dog.

 “This fight is between him and me. You’ll get your turn later,” Kuroo declared.  

Unsurprisingly, the mage wasn’t having that. Raising his whip, he said, “Iwa-chan’s my familiar. If you’re fighting him, you’re fighting me.”  

“Hmph. Then, the both of you can die together--!

 

“Stop.”

Halting mid-motion, everyone turned to the source of the voice.

When they saw who it was, Oikawa lowered his whip and Kuroo’s eyes narrowed into slits.

Kenma stood between them with his ears at rest, his hands balled into fists by his sides.

“That’s enough, Kuroo.” He said calmly.

“I’m not done yet.”  Kuroo protested.

But Kenma raised his palm to him. Unwilling, Kuroo shouted again, “Kenma!”

“Stand down and return to form.”

“I almost have him, and you know it!”

Kenma turned to look him in the eye. “That’s an order.”

Seeing that, the black cat froze, then reluctantly clenched his fists and righted himself. Releasing the effects of awakening, Kuroo shrunk back into his humanoid self as Kenma walked up to Oikawa with his hands behind his back. The kitten’s half-moon eyes appeared bored and relaxed, but what he had to say was immensely interesting to the mage. 

“You can’t win against us.”

“Oh? A bold statement, wouldn’t you say?” Oikawa said, resting his hand on his waist.

“Kuroo is one of the strongest warriors of our tribe. If you hadn’t interfered, your familiar would have died for sure.” Kenma said coldly, and Iwa-chan silently looked away.

“I’ll have you know that we come in a pair, thank you. That’s what a beast master and his familiar are.” Humphed the mage.

“Whatever.” Kenma mumbled, “You still won’t be able to stop us. What you fought last night was the weakest unit, by the way.”

Oikawa’s eyes flashed at the delicious morsels of information coming his way - this Nekomata was more useful than he had thought. Peering over at Kuroo’s visible anxiety, he knew the kitten wasn’t lying to him.

“How do you know all this? You’re not just a child, are you?” he questioned.

Kenma blinked at him. “I’m eleven.”

“That’s not what I meant. If your friend’s a warrior—”

“—you said you wanted to know why we attacked this village, right?”

The mage squinted. “Yes, I did.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“So that I can stop it from happening again.”

Without hesitation, Kenma replied, “I can promise you that. In return, you have to give Lev back to us.”

“Lev? That’s his name?” the man quipped.

“Yes. He’s my friend.”Kenma answered, then thrust his palm out. “Do we have a deal?”

“My, my, you sure are more cooperative than your friend over there.” He sneered, and squatted down to meet the boy at his level. “But not so fast.”

“What’s wrong?”

“How can I trust the word of an eleven-year-old? I need some kind of… proof that you can make that happen.”

Tucking his hands back into his pockets, Kenma’s ears and tails slowly lowered. What a troublesome man, he thought. But I guess it doesn’t matter. Mages don’t choose sides.  

“Lev will give it to you.”

 

Tied to a tree before the fight began, Lev had slowly begun to rouse from his terrible ordeal. Needless to say he felt awful upon waking, as if every cell in his body needed a bandage. The mage did heal the cat like he claimed - but only enough to keep him from breathing his last. He wasn’t running a charity here.

Lev squinted at the sunlight as he glanced around blearily at his surroundings, his vision a sea of floating, blurry colours. When his eyes eventually refocused themselves, he noticed the small crowd that had gathered around him, and a familiar black silhouette. His first thought was that he had died and was hallucinating in the afterlife, for there was no way that person would be here.

But once he came to his senses, all the moisture receded from his throat. His body stiffened like a statue. His green eyes wobbled in fear in their sockets.

He had escaped death once, but he wished he hadn’t now.

General Kuroo!” he gave a sudden, unmanly squeak, his lips trembling weakly from saying that name. Kuroo’s glare upon him was full of disdain, and when Lev lowered his gaze, he saw that the man was badly wounded.

How could this be? He thought, First of all the General’s out here, and… he’s been defeated?!

“Shut up, Lev.” The black cat coughed, “I’ll deal with you when we’re done here.”

Then, he stepped aside for the important reveal – the one thing everyone had been waiting for.

Lev’s worst nightmare, and the truth that sealed the deal.

 

P-P-P--”

 

“Prince Kenma?!!”

 

 

Chapter Text

To be perfectly honest, the only reason why Kenma wanted to tag along was to meet Suga again. Oh, and Hinata, too. Not so much Kageyama.

He had faith that Kuroo would be able to handle the situation by himself, so he thought that he wouldn’t have to step in and reveal his secret. He wouldn’t have to interact with people for today, it wouldn’t be a tiresome affair, and he would get to see bird mum.

It was supposed to be a good day. It would be just fine.

But then, things just had to go south.

 

And so, he had to talk.

He didn’t like talking. It was tiring trying to feign interest in subjects that were immaterial to him.

 

And now, people were staring at him.

He didn’t like people staring at him. It was tiring knowing someone was watching his every move.

 

Ah, how he wished he was at home right now. Curling up on his warm bed with his favourite book. Falling asleep to the sound of the rustling leaves.

He really should have stayed home.

But if he did, he wouldn’t get to see Suga.

 

Then again, now that everyone knew who he was… now that Suga knew who he was…

 

Would Suga still…want to see him?

 

Prince?” Oikawa said as his mouth slanted open in disbelief and surprise. He took a good five seconds to be done being amazed – then he quickly clamped his jaw shut and resumed his orderly self. “Well! That explains your confidence, despite looking like a runt. And also why the big bad kitty listens to you.”

Ignoring him, Kenma broke away from the rest and walked up to Lev.

“A prince?” Daichi gawked in awe, his hands on his head as if to keep his mind from blowing. “You guys never told us anything.”

“Tch. You think we’d let the whole world know a prince is running about in the woods?” Kuroo spat, his ear twitching like a broken antenna.

“But what’s a prince doing out here?” The mage rubbed his chin, and Daichi echoed his thoughts. Then, while the rest started launching question after question at Kuroo – and he in turn deflecting them like a martial artist – Lev shivered and backed up against the tree as Kenma stepped closer. Slowly, the kitten reached out with his small hand, and the grey one pinched his eyes shut instinctively.

“Lev?” Kenma blinked twice, and stopped his hand.

Lev stuttered as he spoke, his nerves all caught up in a twisted bundle, “I— I can’t face you, Prince Kenma! I’ve f-failed you terribly, and I’ve failed the clan. I deserve to die!”

The boy’s eyelids lowered.

“P-Please grant me a swift death, my prince!”

Kenma made a small sigh. He touched Lev’s forehead, and the warrior took what would be his final breath. Bracing himself on his paws, he was ready now; for his demise, for the redemption of his honour, and for the fulfilment of his duty at the hands of his prince—!

And all that pressure culminated in a gentle pat on his head.

Kenma didn’t even extend his claws for that. Although he should have executed Lev in the name of the clan, he chose to say the cruellest words he could find instead as punishment.

“Lev, I know you suck. Do better next time.”

With tears welling in his eyes, Lev sniffled and looked up at Kenma, his chest filled with immense gratitude towards him. “P-prince Kenma…!”

“Don’t cry.” the blonde ordered.

“Y-yes sir!”

With that taken care of, Kenma turned back to the group and broke up the conversation that was quickly becoming heated. “Are you satisfied, mage? Can you let him go now?”

“Oh, yes,” The mage whipped around as if nothing had happened, and gave him his full attention, “I’m glad to have met such a peace-loving prince. It’s a first for me, you know; to have a situation end with mutual understanding.”

Kenma rolled his eyes. How could a person talk so much and not get tired?

Oikawa tapped his cheek and said, “Now, if I remember correctly, the last thing we need to do is to make it official.”

The cat stared at him blankly for the second time today. “What?”

“You know, like signing a peace treaty? Making a contract? The Guild says to follow the law of the party I’m making an agreement with, so, please enlighten me with your clan’s method of making promises.”

“Isn’t my word enough?” Kenma muttered under his breath and peered over at Kuroo for help. Kuroo sighed and ran his fingers through his fringe. Although Kenma was a prince, he had never done anything related to diplomacy in his whole life. Why? Because – well – he was always staying in his damn room! To think he knew about so many things, but not the workings of his own people.

“Within the clan, it is. With outsiders, you have to drink each other’s blood.” Kuroo replied.

Both Oikawa and Kenma stared at him. “What?” they exclaimed in unison, one voice more agitated than the other.

“How much you drink depends on how serious the promise is. For something like this, a spoonful will do.”

“Nonono, hold on—I don’t think the amount is the problem here--” Oikawa’s smile twitched, and Kuroo stared at him humourlessly.

“You asked how it was done. Unless, you want to back out of the deal.”

“Of-of course not!” the mage retorted, getting flustered. “I’ll do whatever it is that ensures the village’s protection, but--” he gestured at Kenma, “--aren’t you worried about him? I mean, you don’t want to see the prince get hurt, do you?”

“It is the prince’s decision, and it is my duty to see it through.” Kuroo firmly replied.

Inside, Oikawa prayed fervently that the boy would settle for a pinky promise. He was the prince, right? Surely he could change the law to something more age appropriate? But on the other hand, Kenma gulped, his pointy ears flattening nervously as he knew what Kuroo was up to. It had come to a point where he was going to lose either way; but he wasn’t going to let Kuroo have the satisfaction of knowing that. As he gathered his courage, Kenma stared indignantly back into Kuroo’s dark amber eyes, ones which silently challenged him with every look.

“I’ll do it.” he said quietly, and clenched his fist.

“Prince Kenma, are you sure about this?” Lev whimpered from behind him, “I can’t bear watching you get hurt because of me.”

“Then close your eyes.” replied Kenma, and Oikawa sighed and took a deep, deep, breath.

Oh, boy. Drinking a cat-boy-prince’s blood. It’s really happening, isn’t it?

I’m pretty sure this is an offence somewhere in the world.

Well, at least I’ll have a great story to tell when I’m back. I guess.

Having mentally prepared himself for this ordeal, the mage untied his sleeve and roughly wiped his arm clean. “Alright. Does anyone have a knife?”

“Wait,” Kenma interrupted, and Oikawa’s eyebrow twitched.

“What now? Do I have to drink something else?”

“Before we do this, I have a request.”

 

Never before had curtains looked so intimidating to Kenma.

He had seen and conquered many of them in his old home, back when he was but a wee kitten with teeny, tiny claws. In his mind he remembered the Tough Linen Cliffs in the great halls, the tallest drapes of all which he braved and left countless, irreparable marks upon. He reminisced about the Slippery Silk Mountains, the smoothest shrouds which shredded delightfully into fine ribbons and swept like the sea all over the floor.

Ah, those were the good times. Times when he had not a care in the world.

But today, his paws stopped inches short of the old, tattered cloth before him, as if it were an impenetrable wall.

He knew who was behind the curtain. He knew what he wanted to do. But he wasn’t the cat in this Schrӧdinger’s box.

Kuroo leaned onto the wall beside Kenma, his arms folded, and eyes closed in rest. Ukai had graciously bandaged his torso for him – he was a doctor, after all – but he wasn’t too pleased about letting them into his house. The troupe had entered the cottage in a silent procession, a momentary ceasefire that instituted itself before the final act of peace. Within themselves they knew that end of this confrontation would be nothing more than an obligation, and it would be long before any of them stopped seeing the other as an enemy.

After a while, when neither movement nor sound came from the blonde cat, Kuroo opened his eyes and murmured quietly, “Are you going in or not?”

Kenma lowered his hand and looked down, his shoulders sagging a little. Hinata stood beside him and looked worriedly at his friend’s hesitation. He had heard the truth about Kenma’s princehood, but he still believed in the Kenma he knew; and he was certain his Mama would as well. Nudging the kitten’s shoulder, Hinata said, “Hey. Weren’t you looking forward to seeing Mama?”

After a long, weighty pause, Kenma nodded.

“Let’s go in together, okay?” Hinata encouraged, and he held the boy’s hand, intending to take him through the curtains. Kenma faltered from his sudden gesture, and he pulled the crow back at once.

“D-don’t,” he hushed.

“What’s wrong?” asked Hinata, and a soft frown formed on his face. The cat looked uneasily back at him, then darted his gaze away again. He couldn’t face the orange crow, either.

Smiling at Kenma, Hinata promised with all his heart, “Don’t worry, Mama wants to see you too. Come on.”

With that, Kenma let Hinata lead him through the cloth - and as he pushed the weighty drapes away and saw those warm grey feathers trailing on the floor, his chest squeezed into a tight ball of anxiety. All the ‘what ifs’ that had been suppressed before this moment now flooded into his mind, and he couldn’t bear to raise his head and meet Suga in the eyes. Before he even tried he had already regretted everything, and his feet wanted him to run away from this room at once—but when he heard that gentle, motherly voice call his name, he couldn’t not respond.

“Kenma.”

The boy lifted his eyes.

And there at last was Suga’s kind smile, filled with the frailty of a delicate compassion born from strength.

“Come here.”

Wordlessly, Kenma stepped forward as if in a trance, and his head and ears tingled as Suga petted them gently with his cold hands. The kitten’s chest moved with his airy breaths, his tails waved slowly from side to side, and he stared with wide pupils at the silver crow. Suga was alright.

“It’s been a while. How are you?”

Kenma merely nodded in reply, his eyes craving attention, and Suga chuckled warmly at him. In that single moment the Nekomata felt as if all the sins on his back had been washed away – but that felt too good to be true. He knew he needed to open the box, whatever its insides may contain – and he would rather do it sooner than prolong his suffering at the hands of the unknown.

Kenma’s ears lowered as he observed Suga’s face. Quietly, he asked, “Did you… did you hear about everything?”

“Yes, I did.” replied Suga, “I know why you came here.”

“I wanted to see you.” The cat said honestly, but his eyes drooped to the ground. It sounded like an excuse.

“I know you did.” Suga rested his hands on Kenma’s shoulders. “I wanted to see you, too. I’m glad you didn’t get hurt in the fight.”

The boy’s lips wriggled, and his impatience won out. He had to know now.

“Do you hate me now?”

Taken aback, Suga furrowed his brows, but his voice remained calm. “Why would I?”

“They all do. Once they know I’m the prince.” Kenma mumbled, and his tails curled around his leg.

Suga shook his head. “That doesn’t matter to me at all.”

“Me neither!” Hinata exclaimed.

Kenma paused to reorganize his thoughts, and he swallowed the lump in his throat. He had been so ready to be rejected that, while he felt grateful for this unconditional kindness, a part of him doubted it as well.

“My family is the cause of all this. Father wanted to kill all the humans here. Because of his plans, everyone in here could have…” He trailed off, feeling downright awful talking about it with Suga, knowing the man could have perished in that very attack. As a prince of his clan he shouldn’t even be having this conversation – much less with a Kara – and his relief at Lev’s failure would be unthinkable to his parents. These Karas were just so strange and so unlike the Nekomata that he found himself awkwardly explaining why he was a terrible friend.

“Yes. It was a terrible thing. Many died because of this.” Suga replied thoughtfully, and the cat’s body stiffened up as he prepared for the worst.

Then, the crow lifted Kenma’s chin, raising his gaze to meet his.

“But nobody blames you for what happened, Kenma. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

The boy’s nose stung. “But if I only… maybe if I… did something…”

“Oh, Kenma…” Suga quickly hugged Kenma close to his chest, and he felt the child’s sniffling begin. Gently stroking his little head, he sighed and soothed him quietly with his words.

“Don’t cry, now. It’s alright. We’re all safe.”

The Nekomata made not a sound as he wept, and he clung desperately to the Kara, not wanting to let go of this precious person he had found. At that moment, Kuroo walked in, and he glanced with sombre eyes at their embrace. Suga looked up at the black cat, his expression changing to concern as he saw the state the man’s body was in. Knowing what he wanted to say, Kuroo sighed once and sat down on the floor beside them, resting his elbows on his knees.

 

“Yo.” He greeted.

“Hey.” Suga replied softly.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m okay. What about you?” Suga asked, looking at the bandages.

“I’ll live.” Kuroo then sighed and bunched up his long fringe, holding it up as his palm pressed against his skull. His frown sliced a thin crease into his forehead, and his eyelids fell low over his gaze. Pausing for a moment, he let his thoughts settle, then spoke in a thin voice. It was the most sincere he’d ever been to Suga.

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t do anything for you. And I put you in danger.”

Suga’s gaze wandered back to the ground. “It’s okay. Daichi was here.”

Those words, although said so lightly and without malice, pierced deeply into Kuroo’s chest. It only cemented the ruminations he’d had for the past few days to the base of his skull, and he knew exactly when he was defeated. Lev wasn’t wrong about him after all.

“Yeah,” he muttered bitterly. “I hate to admit it, but that idiot did well. I really have no right to be here.”

“Kuroo…”

The cat’s ears fell. “You know, Suga. I’ve been thinking.”

“About?”

“About us. I realize now that it was stupid of me to think a Nekomata and a Kara could be together.”

“Why not?” Suga asked innocently, “We get along, don’t we? Hinata and Kenma like each other, too.”

Kuroo silently glanced at the crow, then grunted with effort as he stood up. He closed his eyes as he steadied himself, his head tilting backwards from the feeling of his wounds stretching out again. It was very, very unpleasant. “There’s a lot that you don’t know about this world, Suga,” he sighed, his back turned to the Kara. “That’s why you make me so nervous.”

“Nervous?”

Kuroo smirked to himself. “Some things are better left unsaid.”

And other things, necessary.

 

“This is goodbye.”

Chapter Text

Kuroo’s thoughts toward Suga were ignoble at best. To say he helped the bird out of compassion would be a self-righteous lie.

He had relished that anxious and frightened expression on Suga’s face from their very first encounter, for the way the Kara’s meekly delicate features trembled made him truly feel like the apex predator he was. It aroused within Kuroo a primal urge; a desire to tarnish that glowing innocence with his bare hands.

While at first he drove Suga away out of necessity, he began to want more than just a passing feeling; more of those delightful, transparent eyes; more of that adorable, gullible smile. And each time the taste of the bird’s tender flesh surfaced from memory, he licked his fangs of drool—but the rest of his salacious yearnings ached beneath a glossy coat of Nekomata civility.

He wasn’t a saint, for sure. But neither was he the devil.

For at this moment, the unnerving look that Suga gave Kuroo was enough to make him desperate to take back his words. He wanted to say that it was all a joke. That it was just for laughs.

But to do that would end their tale in a tragedy far worse than the misery of the present.

 

“What do you mean by goodbye?” Suga quivered, his tone unbelieving.

“We won’t see each other again.” Kuroo said as he folded his arms, lowering his chin to his chest.

“But that’s… but why?”

“It’s better this way. So that this sort of thing… won’t happen again.”

Then, Kenma’s tails fuzzed up in agitation, and he turned around quickly. The child’s eyes and cheeks were still wet with tears, marking his face where the stoppered emotions had leaked through the cracks. “I don’t want to leave. We just got here,” the boy whimpered, but the older cat was long immune to the tactics of kittens.

“Kenma, you’ve already defied the King enough today.”

“So?”

“So we’d better return before he kills Lev and I for further insubordination.”

“This was my decision, not yours.” Kenma retorted. Kuroo’s frown darkened immediately.

“And you think he’ll just accept that?”

Kenma’s lips pursed defiantly, and Kuroo snorted knowingly. “Don’t forget that I’m the General. I have to answer to him for the people under my charge, and that includes you. You may be the prince, but this is my job.”

“But this is—this is just a small part of the plan. He won’t--”

“A failure is still a failure. He’ll start investigating, and if he ever learns about the Karas, god knows what he’ll do to them.”

Kenma shook his head, “He won’t know. Lev won’t tell.”

“It’s not about Lev. It’s about the informants.”

“They’ll listen to you.”

“He’s the King. He has his own pawns.” Kuroo murmured, and the tips of his tails twitched.

“Then get rid of them!”

Annoyed, the black cat flicked his ears and growled, “Stop being difficult, Kenma. Once we’re done here we’re leaving, and that’s that!”

Then, as if something snapped within Kenma, the hairs on the boy’s neck bristled and his irises shrank into thin slits. An uncomfortable heat rose to his forehead—he’d never been this angry at anything or anyone before, much less at his best friend. Why couldn’t Kuroo see that he had gained someone worth fighting for? Why was he making excuse after excuse?

And the more he thought about it, the more he understood that there could only be one reason.

You’re just running away!” Kenma suddenly shouted out loud, surprising everyone who heard him—but even his shout was no match for Hinata’s talking voice. Kuroo’s lip twitched as he returned the kitten’s furious glare. The man’s voice tingled with undertones of confusion and incredulity as he murmured lowly in reply, “What did you say?”

Breathing in sharply, Kenma’s tails scrunched up as he shot back, “You’re running away from all of this—no, from Suga, because you can’t stand losing to Daichi.”

Oh.

Kuroo rolled his eyes. “That has nothing to do with this.”

“It does.”

“It does not.”

Breaking up the argument, Suga interjected, “—what’s this about Daichi?”

The crow had been diligently following Kuroo’s rationale up until this point, and he couldn’t see how Daichi fit into the rest of the story. The black cat woefully breathed out through his mouth and scratched his head. Things were getting out of hand.

“It’s nothing,” he sighed.

“It’s not nothing.” Kenma stamped his foot, “He’s not telling the truth.”

“Calm—calm down, Kenma.” said Suga as he held the boy’s small, angry shoulders, “I’m sure Kuroo has his reasons.”

Kenma’s fang poked out as he frowned, “As if. He’s just a sore loser.”

“Lose? What did he lose?”

Oh, boy.

Kuroo kept mum and closed his eyes, counting to infinity in his head. The man’s tails dangled limply by his legs, his scraggly ears deflated on his head, and his fringe hung thickly over his face. Staring hard at Kuroo’s apparent indifference, Kenma threatened, “If you’re not going to say it, I will.”

From his serene expression it was impossible to tell whether he was thinking hard about his answer, or whether he was simply too tired to argue. But after a good few seconds his head tilted to the side, and without opening his eyes, he said, “Go ahead. Say whatever you want.”   

 

Even if it was sarcasm, Kenma took it as a yes. Looking straight into Suga’s eyes, he said one word.

 

“You.”

 

The Kara frowned and re-frowned several times.

“Me?”

The kitten nodded.

“Yes. You.”

“But I’m still here. We reunited.” Suga said, and after a short pause, a throaty chuckle rose from Kuroo’s chest. He chuckled twice more as he relaxed his neck on his shoulders, and his ears lifted high at attention. Kenma peered at him, unamused, while the crow felt a little hurt at the man’s sardonic reaction.

 “You can tell him all you want. He won’t understand it that way.” Kuroo purred snidely and slowly opened his eyes, thinking he had won – but unexpectedly, the one he had to contend with now wasn’t Kenma, but the man he sought.

“This is about ‘liking’, right?” said Suga as he gripped the blankets, and a light bulb flickered to life in Kuroo’s head.

Oya oya oya… what’s this?” Kuroo replied languidly as he gazed at the crow’s unyielding brown eyes. Even those, he thought, weren’t bad at all.

“I underestimated you, sugar.”

The Kara exhaled, mustering the confidence to respond with his heart. He was tired of being treated like he didn’t know anything, and he would show what pittances of understanding he had - even if it was a laughable amount.

“I… I understand what it means a little better now.”

“Is that so?” Kuroo uncrossed his arms slowly, and his tails swayed in interest.

“Yes. I realize that the way I like people aren’t quite the same.”

“How aren’t they the same?”

He sauntered closer, the floorboards creaking with every step. Suga glanced away, unable to shake the feeling of being stalked in plain sight. It was almost chilling.

“It’s the way they make me feel. The kinds of feelings I get when they’re around,” Suga uttered, and he flinched as he felt the bed sag beneath the weight of Kuroo’s arms at his sides. His bare chest stopped right in front of Suga.

“What kinds of… feelings?” Kuroo asked.

The Kara dared not look up. Even though it was just Kuroo, his heart thumped anxiously – maybe even in alarm - for the heat and scent exuding off Kuroo’s body reminded him of their terrifying first meeting. Still, his mouth worked just fine, and he blushed as he thought carefully about his answer.

“When I’m with Daichi… my heart beats faster, and… it’s kind of embarrassing.”

“Are you feeling it now?” Kuroo breathed, his voice dipping smoothly into a baritone whisper.

Suga gulped. His heart was going out of order. It did feel rather awkward.

But…

 

“It’s not… the same.”

 

The cat fell silent for a few moments. With barely an inch between him and the Kara, Kuroo hated the fact that he was so close. So goddamned close. It was infuriating-- frustrating-- for sometimes, he felt as if he could have tried harder. He felt that maybe he had just missed an opportunity. But then, it would always boil down to one question, no matter where his regrets led him.

Could all of that make up for being a Nekomata?

No.

He had truly sobered from a dream that should never have been dreamt.

 

“Oi, Kenma.” He spoke softly.

“What?”

“If I convince you that I’m done with them, will you listen to me?”

Kenma stared at his friend. He sounded serious.

“…yes.” The boy replied reluctantly.

“Good.”

Kuroo gently took Suga by the shoulders. Facing the Kara, he knelt down in front of him - as if prostrating himself before a god - and slipped his hands down the man’s arms. Suga looked sadly back at Kuroo, whose downcast eyes seemed so resigned and mellow.

“Kuroo…” he said, lightly squeezing the cat’s hands, “Do you really have to go?”

“Yes.”

“But we’ll see each other again, won’t we? And we’ll always be friends?”

“I’m not a friend anymore.”

Suga shook his head. “You are. And I don’t want to lose a friend.”

Looking up, Kuroo smiled forlornly, and a small chuckle escaped his throat. “You won’t miss this one.”

“Don’t say that,” frowned Suga at once, and he blinked rapidly.

“Okay, okay. I won’t.” hushed Kuroo, and he grinned widely at the Kara. “I’ll say something else, then.”

Man, he thought, I’m gonna miss teasing him.

 

Slowly, Kuroo rose from his heels and leaned in. Closer and closer, their heads aligned perfectly with one another against the sunlight, and it seemed as if their chins would touch at any moment. But at the last second, Kuroo closed his eyes and shared a tiny nuzzle with Suga on the nose, a soft bump that was filled with the warmth of a lingering firefly.

“I like you.” Kuroo smiled, opening his amber eyes. It came so naturally to him that he wondered if he was saying it with enough heart at all. “You, too, make my heart beat faster, and it’s a little embarrassing. But I know I’m not the one for you.”

“I…” Suga flushed, not knowing what to say. He wanted to apologize, but somehow, somewhere, it didn’t feel right to.

“You’ll be happier with Daichi.” The cat said. Kenma’s chest sank, both for himself and his friend.

“I’d be happier if you didn’t leave,” The Kara’s voice broke, and he quickly corrected himself. Something told him that he wasn’t the only one hurting from this decision. “But I’ll understand.”

The Nekomata stood up and patted the crow’s head.

 

“Great.”

 

He was smiling again.

 

“Now, let’s get this show on the road.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Traditionally, Nekomata chieftains from warring clans entered into blood vows as a gesture of peace. The ceremony would take place in either clan’s throne room, where hundreds of citizens would gather to witness the act. The chiefs would slit each other’s wrists with their claws, an act which signified trust, and the blood would be collected in ceremonial dishes made of silver. After making their vows and exchanging dishes, the blood would be drunk in one mouthful, and the ceremony would end with an honourable bow. The blood vow gradually spread to the masses and became popularized for other important rituals such as marriage and coming-of-age ceremonies. It was, however, toned down and adapted to suit the common Nekomata, such that drinking blood itself became one of the less preferred styles. But no matter the method, it is certain that the importance of blood to their culture runs deep in every Nekomata’s veins.

 

Kenma and Oikawa sat across each other with a small table between them. For today’s ceremony, steel dishes were prepared in place of silver ones, and Oikawa was handed a scalpel to make do. Having been told only now of how he was going to extract the blood, the mage started kneading his eyebrows feverishly as he thumbed the back of the scalpel.

Kenma licked his claws clean while waiting for Oikawa to finish his mental breakdown. Though his tails were a little twitchy, he seemed much calmer than before.

Nudging Oikawa with his paw, Iwa-chan said, “Oi. They’re waiting for you.”

The mage breathed in. “Iwa-chan.”

“What.”

“I don’t think you understand. You know I’m probably the worst human out there—“

“Definitely.”

“—but even I have standards. And this man here is telling me to cut a child’s wrist.”

They looked up at said child, and got an unconcerned stare. It was Iwa-chan’s turn to roll his eyes. “You’ve already agreed to drink his blood, so cutting him isn’t even an issue.”

“But—I can’t close my eyes to do this one, you know? And what if I cut too deep?!”

Kuroo sighed wearily from behind Kenma. He sat down heavily at the table with a thud and glared at Oikawa, “Can we get on with it?”

“Okay, okay! Geez.” The man acceded, “It’s not like I won’t do it.”

“Good. From this point on, no one is allowed to interfere with the ceremony. We will now begin with the blood-letting.”

Oikawa offered his arm. Anything to delay the inevitable. “How about you go first?”

“Okay.” Kenma replied and brandished his pointy, inch-long claws. This was supposed to be the lesser of the two evils, somehow. Kenma prodded around the flesh to find a good spot, his nails lightly pricking the man’s skin as he went. Once he settled on a particularly blue vein, he raised his claws and peered up at the mage.

“Don’t move, okay?”

“Yes, I kno-O-OHhhwch-!!”

As soon as the first drops fell, Kuroo quickly pulled Oikawa’s dish over, and a steady stream of red soon began pitter-pattering on the metal. Once there was enough, he raised his palm to signal so, and Oikawa healed up the scratch without delay. Peering into the dish, the small pool of blood didn’t look like much, but it definitely amounted to a mouthful or so.

Well, Oikawa thought, that wasn’t too bad.

“Kenma,” Kuroo motioned, and the boy calmly stretched out his arm. Swallowing dryly, Oikawa rested the scalpel ever so slightly on the child’s soft skin, and Kenma looked away when he felt the sting of the cold metal. Hinata covered his eyes with his wings. Surprisingly, Kageyama did the same. Suga shied away but still trained his eyes on the blade, and Ukai squinted with bandages at the ready.

“Do it properly, or you’ll have to do it again.” Kuroo murmured a warning to the man.

“I know, I know.” Oikawa twitched, “Don’t rush me.”

Sighing, he lifted the scalpel, poised to cut. Kenma squeezed his eyes shut and wondered how much it would hurt. Then, in one swift stroke the blade glided over his skin, and he felt nothing at first. Only after a few seconds did beads of blood start to form at the seams, and along with them came a stinging pain that grew deeper at an alarming rate. Frightened, Kenma stiffened and curled up on the chair as the blood collected, and Oikawa looked genuinely afraid at the boy’s reaction.

“D-does it hurt? I didn’t cut too far, did I?” he asked, but Kenma didn’t answer.

Suga sorely wanted to pick up and comfort the poor baby, and Hinata regretted peeking. The instant it was done, however, Kuroo took Kenma’s arm and licked away the blood. And just like what happened with Suga’s wound, it ceased to bleed like as if he had used healing magic.

Ukai squinted and put away the bandages.

“Ready?” asked Kuroo, and the boy grunted softly. He took that as a yes. “Representatives of the clans, present the blood to each other with both hands and say your vows.”

“I, Oikawa Tooru from the Guild of Mages, promise not to harm any member of the Nekomata clan if they do not harm Hanomachi and its citizens in any way.”

“I… Kozume Kenma, Prince of Kizunotani Clan, promise that Hanomachi and its people will not be harmed by our clan.”

“Now drink, and remember today as surely as the blood flows through you.”

Kenma took a whiff of the blood, then drank it without much difficulty. It had a weird human-flavoured tang to it.  

Oikawa paused for a second as he tried not to gag, then held his breath, closed his eyes, and gulped it down while thinking of happy thoughts. It didn’t help that it was lukewarm, and the metallic aftertaste reminded him again of what he had just consumed.

Finally, they stood and bowed deeply to each other, and when they raised their heads Oikawa eked, “We’re done here, right?”

Kuroo nodded.

Thank Reylaysius!”

With that exclamation, Oikawa bolted into the kitchen, and Kenma ran to Suga like a kitten mewling for its mother.

Kuroo watched absently as the grey crow soothed the child, telling him how brave a boy he was, and tuned out as Hinata and Kageyama started talking about something else to cheer him up.

A long sigh rolled out of his chest. All of that should have been him.

Then, his ear flicked as someone sat down at the table. Knowing who it was without turning to look, Kuroo mumbled, “What do you want?”

“Nothing,” replied Daichi.

“Yeah, right. Not here to gloat?”

“That’s you, not me.”

“Right. Bastard.” The cat muttered, then laid his head on the table.

“Are you two… really leaving?” asked Daichi carefully.

“… Yeah.”

“Back home?”

“… Uh-huh.”

“Treehouse?”

“No. The clan.”

“Oh. Why were you two living alone there, anyway?”

“Long story.” Kuroo shrugged. “Parents. Royal duties. Neglect. He just hates people.”

“He is a quiet kid.”

“Makes you wonder how he managed to make two friends and a mum.”

Daichi glanced over to see what Kuroo was talking about. He was right. It was quite something. Only after a considerable pause did they catch each other staring at the same person, and when they turned at the same time to give an accusatory look, they smirked knowingly to themselves. Fools were the same anywhere.

“He’s gonna miss Suga,” Daichi said.

Kuroo simply sighed in response.

“Maybe he can sneak a peek every now and then?”

“No. It’s too risky.”

Daichi crossed his fingers and twiddled his thumbs. “Is it really that serious?”

Sitting up slowly, Kuroo tapped his nails rhythmically on the table and glanced at Daichi. It was a stretch to say that he had the intent to kill, but he certainly was thinking about how much he could say without needing to terminate the human. Keeping his voice low, he relented, “There’s some history between us and the Karas. Our orders are to kill on sight.”

“Why?”

“There was a war between a whole bunch of tribes hundreds of years ago. The Karas didn’t take part—they weren’t a warring race. But they did piss off the Nekomata King by breaking their promise to become allies. He started killing them for this betrayal, and apparently the other tribes had it in for them too. The Karas had also tried to ally with everyone else, and they broke all those promises, too. So a lot of killing and fighting happened, and whatever was left of the Karas went into hiding. They hid so well that their existence was almost forgotten.”

Daichi swallowed the saliva stuck in his throat. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t heard of such a huge conflict happening, and it wasn’t because he skipped school those few times. “And no one knows where they are now?”

“Well, they started appearing again a few decades ago.”

 “Are they still being hunted?”

“I don’t know about the other tribes, but we’re searching for them. Not much news yet, though.”

“But it’s been so long since this happened, and you said they didn’t take part. Why are they still under fire?” frowned the hunter. The Nekomata shook his head.

“I’ll be frank with you, Daichi. War is brewing between the tribes again, and whoever isn’t on our side is against us. Especially not old enemies.”

A chill came over Daichi. War. It seemed so surreal in these peaceful times.

“Then Suga and the kids aren’t safe. Hell, no one is.” said Daichi.

“There is a place that’s safe. From us, anyway.” Kuroo replied.

“Where?”

He pointed to the floor.

“Because of the vow?”

“The King’s a stickler for tradition. He’ll uphold it.”

“Then—“

But the conversation was interrupted when Oikawa returned gasping and coughing, having poured water down the wrong pipe in his haste. Perhaps he was feeling a tad light-headed, for when he blew out his cheeks and slumped dramatically onto the chair, he blurted out something that should never even have crossed his mind.

Hoo! The taste finally got out. At least everything’s sorted now. Gosh, that was more nerve-wracking than the time I summoned a demon dog.”

 

Oikawa froze.

 

“Ah.”

 

Everyone stopped whatever they were doing.

Iwa-chan facepalmed so hard, he turned into his human form.

 

Jumping ecstatically from his seat, Kuroo pointed at the mage, “Ha! I knew werewolves didn’t breathe fire!”, but regretted it seconds later as he clutched his abdomen. Oikawa had the audacity to blink innocently and give a flippant laugh.

“Ha ha, what was that? Nothing? Good!” Swiftly swivelling for the door, he announced, “Our work here is done! Time to go, Iwa-chan—”

 

“Wait!”

 

Oikawa slowly turned around at the sound of that thin voice. He saw Suga staring at him strangely, and Kageyama’s mouth was slightly ajar.

“A demon?” Suga asked, “Is that true?”

The only one unaffected by this was Hinata, who exclaimed, “It’s true, Mama, he told me so!”

Hina-chan!” Oikawa squeaked in dismay, “Shush!”

Hearing that, Kageyama grabbed Hinata’s arm angrily and shouted, “You knew all along? Why didn’t you tell us?!”

The boy shoved him off in confusion, “Duh, it was a secret. What are you mad for?”

“What— you know why!”

“No, why?”

“Really? You dumbass—“

“Boys.” Suga hushed them, and they quietened down at once. Kageyama ran off to get something in a huff as Suga’s gaze hovered onto Iwa-chan. He asked again, this time a little louder. “Is that true?”

Iwa-chan looked back at him calmly. He sensed some form of desperation in the Kara’s eyes, but it wasn’t in his interests to answer. Turning to leave, he muttered, “Let’s go, Oikawa.”

But Kageyama suddenly appeared in front of him, blocking his path—and to everyone’s horror he pulled out his knife and thrust it in the demon’s face. “Stop,” he commanded, “I won’t let you leave!” Surprised at this impudence, Iwa-chan’s red eyes flashed as he stared menacingly down the blade’s rim, clashing with the boy’s indignant glare.

“Are you looking for death, kid?” he growled and stepped forward.

Terrified, Suga yelped, “Kageyama, don’t!”, and tried to leap to his feet, but his legs failed him as he stumbled and fell. Hinata and Kenma tried to catch him, but it all happened too quickly.

Mama!

Suga!

Daichi and Kuroo rushed to his side. Oikawa tugged at his ponytail, internally shrieking.

Kageyama noticed the commotion from the corner of his eye, and he flinched. His heart wanted to make sure Suga was alright, but he had gone this far already.

“Do you recognise this knife?” he demanded, and Iwa-chan raised an eyebrow.   

“Why would I?”

“Just answer me!”

Deciding to humour the boy, the demon snorted and snatched away the knife with his hand on the blade. Turning it around in his palm, he examined the black leather carefully and tapped on the metal. Then, he flipped it around and rammed it into the wall beside them, leaving it stuck between the splintered wood fibres.

“No, I don’t.” Iwa-chan replied coolly.

“R…really?” Kageyama said, taken aback. “D-don’t lie to me!”

“I have no reason to lie to a brat.”

“But that’s from—“

Laughing nervously, Oikawa barged in and pushed Iwa-chan by his shoulders. He needed to exit, now. “O—kay, that’s enough questions now. We’re just going to go—“

“Oikawa, please!” begged Suga from behind them, and the mage halted in his tracks again with a strained sigh. Daichi had to stop the crow from trying to chase Oikawa, and all Suga could do was repeat himself in vain.

“Please, tell me. I have to know…!”

Concerned at Suga’s unusual agitation, Daichi held him close, feeling the man struggle to stand. “Suga, calm down. You’ll hurt yourself.”

“Oi, mage,” Kuroo frowned, “There’s no point hiding it already. Just tell the truth.”

 

Even if the others hadn’t spoken up, Oikawa couldn’t bring himself to leave the Kara just like that. How could he, a chivalrous knight of the Guild of Mages, depart when a plea from a destitute soul was right in front of him? And from a fallen bird, no less? What righteousness could he speak of himself, if he wrongs the ones he protects?

Oh, his teachers always told him that his stupid pride would lead to his downfall.

“Alright. Yes. Iwa-chan is a demon.” Oikawa said with utmost composure, and turned to face Suga. “But why are you...so bent on knowing?”

 

The silver Kara’s anxiety turned to sorrow.

 

“Because they were the ones who came for me.”

 

Chapter Text

“Came for you?” Oikawa asked.

 

“They came... to the village.” Suga replied. He paused and looked uneasily at his children.

 

And within that fleeting, fretful glimpse, Kageyama realized something.

 

“Mama… you were there, too?” he gasped in surprise.

“No way.” Hinata said, stunned to a whisper, “We never saw Mama in the village. He just appeared out of nowhere.”

The older Kara dipped his head. Of course they were surprised. He had said nothing.

“I’m sorry.”

Then, overwhelmed by a sudden sadness that surged forth from his grieving heart, tears began to fall.

“I’m so sorry.”

Suga wept and drew his wings around him, unable to hold back the emotions swirling within. His boys knelt quietly beside him, anxious and unsure of this apology, and all Oikawa could do was stand around awkwardly. He fumbled with the history lessons in his head for some clue to this sad mystery, and once he had exhausted his mental facilities, he elbowed Iwa-chan for an answer.

“What?” the hound frowned, unfazed by the upsetting mood.

“What’s he talking about?” Oikawa whispered.

“I don’t know.”

Kageyama shot a glare at them. “Aren’t you a demon? Don’t you know what happened?”

“No.”

The boy clenched his fist. It was high time the truth was told.

 

“You guys destroyed our village!”

 

A startled look passed over Hinata and Daichi, changing one face to confusion and the other to grave realization.

“H-hey, what are you saying?” the orange crow tugged at his brother’s wing.

“That’s not possible.” Iwa-chan replied firmly, but Kageyama persisted.

“It’s the truth. I saw the attackers with my own eyes. They had huge, ugly wings, and were black all over like you. And their eyes glowed red in the dark. Just like yours!”

He then turned to Hinata and demanded, “You remember that, right?”

The boy nodded slowly. “I know that. But Iwa-chan looks so cool. They can’t be the same.”

Kageyama rolled his eyes. “They are, okay? I know so.”

“What? How?”

“I heard it from the Very Old geezer by accident. It was late at night and I was supposed to be sleeping, but I heard him talking to Dad in the hall. He said something about demons that would come for us if he didn’t listen to him. I couldn’t make out the rest.”

Iwa-chan snorted. “The fact still stands. It’s impossible that it was us.”

“Why not?” Kageyama questioned.

“Because the only occasion that would see demons ascend to this realm, is when we commence the elimination of all mortals. It wouldn’t have been just your puny village. All of you would be dead.”

Silently, the children gulped and shuffled behind Daichi. Iwa-chan looked upon Hinata’s frightened face and thought he saw Snowball vanish.

That’s right, he thought. This is how it should be. It’s about time they stopped taking me so lightly.

“It is a purge. We are responsible for punishing mortals for their insolence. The gate to hell will open under the light that shines between the morning and the evening stars, and then the sky will turn red from the miasma of the wretched that seeps into and decays all. That is what we call--”

 

“The red twilight.”

 

The demon’s eyes narrowed.

 

“…Yes.”

 

Suga dried his eyes. That strange, trance-like look of his returned as he raised his head.

 

“How do you know this?” Iwa-chan asked, but the Kara did not care to answer that.

“Is it true? The ones who came… weren’t demons?” Suga sounded hopeful, almost.

“Impossible.” Iwa-chan replied.

Suga swallowed shallowly, feeling his tongue stuck in his throat. He clutched his side as he spoke. His body was beginning to revolt.

“But I am—I am the messenger. I brought about the red twilight.”

“Impossible.” Iwa-chan repeated himself. “Hell needs no messenger.”

Suga’s wings shivered at the tips.

“They said I had to be killed, or else everyone would die.”

“Nonsense. No one is spared in the purge.”

Suga felt sick to the stomach as the room began to collapse around him, sinking into a black hole that was ripping the earth to shreds. This was what he had been waiting to hear. He had heard one story all his life, and while he had long accepted it as his truth, he still asked himself the same question every night in his sleep.

 

Why. Why? Why?

Why was he the messenger? Why did he kill the ones he loved the most? Why did he have to be all alone?

And yet, if it were humanly possible, he felt as if his life had become more meaningless than ever.

“It was a lie…?” he breathed. “All this time… they were all lies?”

Iwa-chan had nothing else to say.

 

“Then why did everyone…

have to die?”

 

What happened afterwards threw the house into another state of panic. It was obvious that learning the truth had been too disturbing for the silver Kara. For several hours he could not be roused, once again a prisoner to the bed. But beneath his peaceful exterior was anything but silence, and it showed on the perspiration that trickled down his head.

Meanwhile, Hinata and Kageyama retold the tragedy of their village to the others with broken hearts. They mourned again for their friends and family, and they worried deeply for Mama, whose smile appeared more unreachable by day. Faced with a new, incomplete reality, they wanted to know more about Mama. So did Daichi, the Kara’s faithful sentinel, who contemplated Ukai’s advice as he watched Suga sleep.

By the time Suga awoke, night had fallen. His fever had not subsided, and he felt as if he were floating within his body. He stared blankly at the ceiling, registering not the light from the rusted tin lamp, and nothing of creepers that clung like spindly tentacles to the boards. He did not notice Daichi and the boys talking, and did not feel the cold towel on his skin.

He closed his eyes.

When he did so, however, the voices became clearer.

Mama.

Suga.

And he opened them again.

 

“Can you hear us?”

Suga shifted his eyes from the ceiling to Daichi. Oh, Daichi, who looked like a scary man but was as sweet as an apple. This one confused him from the very beginning.

He made a soft noise, and Daichi sighed.

“Mama… are you okay?”

That was Hinata. Hinata, whose sweetness rivalled Daichi, for the boy’s cheeks became as red as roses when he smiled. This one feared nothing, and gave him his heart.

Suga felt a small hand on his arm.

It belonged to Kageyama. Kageyama’s mouth rarely moved, but every little gesture of his spoke volumes to Suga. This one fought for him out of unspoken love.

They weren’t Mother and Father.

But they were here.

 

“Don’t push yourself too hard. You’re still recovering.” Daichi said gently, relieving Suga’s head with the towel.

“We were worried you wouldn’t wake up again.” Hinata moped, his lower lip wobbling.  

Suga looked dazed as he responded, “Sorry, for making you worried.”

“It’s okay. You woke up.”

They always forgave him, no matter what he did.

“Hinata, Kageyama.” Suga hesitated. “Mama’s sorry… for always keeping things from you.”

The boys shook their heads. Hinata replied for the two of them, “It really surprised us. That you were the same as us.”

“I always wondered.” Kageyama mumbled. “But Mama didn’t want to talk about it, so we didn’t ask.”

And then, Suga decided that he would hesitate no more, for it was pointless hiding what had already been revealed. He owed them this, too. They deserved to know more than anyone else in the room.

“Ask me anything you want. I’ll tell you everything.” He said at last.

But Daichi frowned, saying, “I think we all want to know, Suga, but I don’t think you should do it now. You need the rest.”

“It’s alright.” He replied calmly, even though his weak voice said otherwise. Daichi rubbed his head and sighed. He made him drink some water first, at least. Suga then asked his child, “What do you want to know, Kageyama?”

 

The boy fidgeted with his fingers. Where to begin?

 

“Did you know us from before? Like, saw us in the village?”

“No.”

“Then, how come we never saw you? We know everyone in our village ‘cause it’s so small. We’d definitely notice a white-wing – erm – grey-wing, too.”

“That’s because…” Suga paused, remembering that tiny rectangle of light in the darkness, split into three by two metal bars. “I didn’t live there.”

Hinata and Kageyama’s eyebrows furrowed to the tops of their heads.

“I lived far away from the village in a field somewhere. I don’t remember where it is anymore.”

“And you didn’t come to visit?” Hinata asked.

“I couldn’t. The door was always locked.” Suga traced the edges of the rusty trapdoor in his mind, feeling the sting of the rough, cold metal on his fingers. 

“Eh? Your parents didn’t let you out?”

“They couldn’t. I was locked in there… alone.”

He saw himself huddled in the corner again, beneath layers and layers of blankets, shivering from the cold winter’s gale that gusted through the opening. Whenever the snow started piling up and blocking the air from flowing in, he’d quickly clear it away with a long stick, then hide from the cold again in the blankets.

“Since I was born, I wasn’t allowed to be let out. My parents couldn’t come in, either, but when I was very little I remember being held by Mama. My Mama. It was only for a while. She stopped when I could move about on my own.”

Although the memories of himself as a toddler were the closest he’d ever been with Mother, those had regrettably faded with time.

“All those years? By yourself?” Daichi said, shocked.

Suga nodded.

“How did you take care of yourself growing up?”

“Every day, Mama brought me food, blankets, toys, and clothes through the window. Papa came sometimes, too, but he had to work hard for all of us.”

He did, however, make one precious memory to replace the rest; it was the day he saw his parents fully in the flesh for the first time. His eyes took several minutes to adjust to the painfully bright sky, and the warmth from the sun and their hands burned through his skin, for he had been starved of such intense feelings for too long.

“If it weren’t for Mama, I would have died long ago. She told me I was supposed to, that the elders ordered my death. Because if I ever stepped into the village, the demons would come.”

He told himself never to forget what Mother and Father looked like, for not even a single feather had been left behind to remember them by.

Suga wiped his eyes. “And on the day after I was freed, after I… finally saw the village… they came.”

“But that doesn’t make sense! Mama—you—didn’t do anything wrong!” Kageyama huffed, feeling unjust.

“She said they were scared of my grey wings. It meant I was chosen to be the messenger of the red twilight. But she told me they were beautiful.”

“She’s right. They’re the prettiest! It’s the old geezers who are dumb. They always say such weird things.” said Hinata with the most serious face he had. Suga smiled a small bit. The boy reminded him of his mother’s humour.

“But I believed them. I thought I had killed everyone.”

Daichi recalled the Kara’s fright and stubbornness back at Kumoiyama. He knew now that Suga wasn’t simply scared of others—he was scared of himself.

“Even though Iwa-chan said it wasn’t me, I…” Suga paused, his eyes wavering. “I can’t really accept that.”

His hands were clutching the blanket again. To Daichi it was such a lonely gesture, for it told him that Suga had no one else to turn to but his blanket. He didn’t have a mother’s hand to hold when he needed comfort. He had nobody but the walls to speak to for most of his life. The depths of this man’s loneliness was something Daichi thought he would never be able to grasp, but he would try. He would try even harder than before, so long as he still had a breath left in him.

Daichi took Suga’s hands away from the blanket and held them, saying, “We can. Suga is Suga, and Mama is Mama. Isn’t that right?”

“Of course!” Hinata exclaimed, still seriously serious, “Mama is Mama! And Mama will al—ways be Mama!”

Kageyama flushed, embarrassed by the abrupt candor. “It- it wasn’t your fault at all. Mama’s t-t-the best. Ever.”

“See, Suga?” Daichi smiled, “Even Kageyama said something.”  

 

No, they weren’t Mother and Father at all.

But in the memory of that sunny day, Mother and Father felt farther away now, their heads slightly turned to the road behind them, as they travelled together down the path that led to home.

 

 

Chapter Text

The boys had so many questions. They wanted to know all about Mama, and were especially curious about the time when he was their age. Mama wanted to answer them as best as he could, too, but he found it difficult to say anything at all. What could one say about a window in a dark room?

Troubled and tired, he asked for some time alone, and so the others left him to his thoughts.

Ukai let the travellers stay for the night, seeing how nobody wanted to leave just yet. That they hadn’t said their proper goodbyes was the excuse – and once again the good doctor troubled over dinner and the extra mouths to feed.

Tonight, he decided, he needed the extra help.

 

“The carrots are going soft.” Ukai said, stirring the huge pot of thick broth. It bubbled gently over a charcoal fire outside the house, suspended on a makeshift spit of Ukai’s own design. As with his house, it did not look sturdy at all, but still got the job done. Daichi sat on the grass opposite him, peeling potatoes and swishing them clean in a pail of water.

“Here.” Daichi replied a minute later, and brought the peeled potatoes over in a basket. Some were rather chunky and still had bits of brown left on them.

“About time.”

Ukai deftly sliced off the imperfections and cut them into cubes, throwing them into the broth as he went. He glanced over at Daichi occasionally, who was clearly spacing out while watching the potatoes bobble. After letting the broth boil a while more, he said, “Get the meat.”

Daichi nodded obediently and plodded into the house.

He returned minutes later with a gigantic slab of frozen meat in his hands.

“The ones we chopped already,” Ukai sighed patiently.

“Oh. Right.” Daichi muttered absentmindedly, then went back in and brought the correct basket.

“Put ‘em in.” Ukai waved, and the man started dropping the pieces in slowly, one by one.

Pinch. Release. Pinch. Release.

Oi, we’ll be having supper at the rate you’re going. Just dump the whole lot in.” Ukai said, getting fed up just watching him do it.

And then, the entire basket fell into the pot.

Ukai’s face did a double take before he quickly fished it out of the scalding water. Bonking Daichi on the head, he yelled, “The hell’s wrong with you? Something’s always up when you go quiet, so stop moping around and just tell me already!”

Daichi sighed a long sigh and plonked his bum onto the grass. “You know what it’s about.”

Ukai huffed and continued stirring. “I know who it’s about.”

“Yeah. I just…” Daichi sighed again, grappling with his words. “It’s just so… unimaginable, you know?”

“Yeah?” Ukai took a sip and smacked his lips. Not enough flavour.

“And it wasn’t just him. Even the kids lost their parents just like that, right in front of their eyes. At least… at the very least… Suga didn’t have to see his go.”

Ukai sprinkled more salt into the pot. He took another sip and nodded, then slid the cover on with a clang. Joining Daichi on the grass, he lit a cigarette with the fire from the spit and took a short puff.

“Someone like you would never understand.” He muttered.

Daichi pursed his lips. “I know that.”

“It’s a good thing, though.”

“What?” The man looked at him like he was mad, and then without explanation, Ukai offered him his cigarette. Daichi declined and exclaimed, “What do you mean, it’s a good thing?”

 

“Why’d you refuse?” Ukai asked suddenly.

 

Confused, Daichi replied, “What’s this got to do with—“

“Just answer me,” he interrupted.

“Because… I don’t smoke…?” Daichi raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, why not?” Ukai waggled the cigarette.

“It smells bad, and I choke on the gas.”

Ukai laughed heartily at his reply. “It’s ‘cause you’re a novice. Man, these little guys are like heaven in a roll to me. You’d agree if you tried it.”

“Really.” Daichi’s stony expression said it all, which made the old man grin.

“Between you and me, they’re the only thing keeping me sane around here. Oh, if you knew what I put in these…”

The hunter sniffed. “Is that vorweed?”

Ukai shrugged. “Maybe.”

“That kills people!”

“It doesn’t in small amounts, okay?”

As if for emphasis, Ukai coughed loudly several times, then went right back to sucking in a fresh cloud of smoke.

“You’re a doctor!” Daichi frowned, “You know it’s bad for you, so why won’t you stop?”

“Like I said, it’s keeping me sane.”

“You can try other things, can’t you?”

Ukai crossed his feet and relaxed onto the ground, letting out a long, satisfied sigh. “Nothing else works. There’s a lot of bad stuff in my head that can’t be gotten rid of that easily.”

Then, he looked at Daichi and said, “You wouldn’t understand.”

The memory of seeing Ukai’s scars still burned freshly in his mind. “I know,” Daichi frowned back, and paused. “But I don’t want to see anything bad happen to you.”

Getting up silently, Ukai stubbed the cigarette out with his shoe and uncovered the steaming pot. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes, tending to the stew as the fire’s bright flare cast a harsh shadow onto his back. The crackling embers subsided just as the pot was done, and Ukai scooped a ladleful of the piping hot soup into a bowl. Holding it in front of Daichi, he grunted once, and the seated man took it from him slowly.

“If you were me, you wouldn’t care either.” He said in a low voice. “But because you’re not, you can do something about people like me.”

“People… like you.” Daichi muttered thoughtfully.

“Take that to him. See if he can stomach it. If he can’t, just give him the regular.”

“Ukai…”

“What?”

“What should I do?”

Ukai’s brow twitched. “I just told you.”

“I don’t mean that.” Daichi said, becoming flustered as a blush burned at his cheeks. Out of all of the emotions he was feeling right now, this one was surging past the others like a charging bull, barging its way to the surface and making him blurt out the most awkward and heartfelt of confessions.

 

“I just really, really want to love him.”

 

Ukai didn’t even flinch as he replied, “Well, you’re gonna have to wait or you’ll tear him a new one.”

“Th-that’s not what I meant!” Daichi exploded, his head steaming like a hot bun. He gestured wildly with his free hand as he stuttered, as if trying to conjure the words into existence. “I want to—I want to make him happy. I want to care for him, and make sure he never gets hurt again.”

“That’s a promise you can’t keep.” Ukai said matter-of-factly.

“I’ll do my best. For him.”

“So you won’t hurt him? Not even a little bit?”

Daichi shook his head with naïve determination, and Ukai grinned slyly.

“Well, you’ll be a virgin forever, then.”

“What?” he blinked.

“It hurts when you put it in, you know?”

While it was entirely beside the point that was trying to be made, it was a significant point nonetheless; and the effect it had on the poor boy was obvious from his gravely shocked face. Ukai pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed despairingly for his godson. He feared that he would have to teach him everything - even about doing the nasty - for both Daichi and Suga’s sakes.

He prayed that he wouldn’t need to.

“Look, I get it. You want to make up for his past, and he’s your first love. You’re ready and up for anything and everything that comes your way.”

“Y-yes sir.”

“But just calm down and take it slow, alright? He might not be as ready as you are. The last thing he needs now is stress from you.”

“Got it.” Daichi gulped, embarrassed.

“Now, if you want to start caring for him, then go give him the damn soup already!”

Yes!

 

 

Being nervous before entering Suga’s room was fast becoming a thing.

 

“Suga, can I come in?” Daichi called from outside, and entered only when he heard a soft grunt. The Kara was gazing out the window as always, watching the bluish clouds coast by the brightly lit moon.

Daichi set down the bowl and made himself comfortable beside the bed. “How’s your fever?”

Suga turned slowly and shook his head slightly. Daichi felt the man’s forehead and agreed.

“I brought some soup for you.” He said, but Suga’s head shook again.

“I don’t feel like eating,” he mumbled.

“Just a bit, mm?” Daichi smiled and lifted the spoon. Suga pursed his lips and turned away as he made a small, annoyed noise. Only after some coaxing did Daichi convince him to take a sip, and to his relief, the Kara seemed to like it. He drank it slowly, sip by sip, and as he did so Daichi took the chance to ask him something very important; for that day would be coming soon.

“Where do you want to go after you get better?”

Suga replied without much hesitation, “The nest.”

“Well, it’s… not a very comfortable place to live.”

“There’s nowhere else to go.”

Daichi put down the spoon. “Actually, Suga, I was thinking about this for the past few days.”

The Kara looked at him questioningly, putting a chip in the man’s resolve.

“Do you remember what I promised you? Before the surgery?” he asked. Suga thought hard for a few moments, until that night became clear to him again.

“A… bed, right?”

Daichi nodded. “I want to fulfil that promise to you. But it won’t just be a bed. I mean—I can’t just give you a bed to put in the nest. That wouldn’t make sense.”

“Then… what do you mean?”

He placed his hand over Suga’s and felt the blush coming back. Keep it cool, Daichi, he thought. One step at a time.

“I want to give you a home.”

Suga stared at Daichi wordlessly, but his eyes widened slightly as he felt the warmth from the man’s hand.

“We’ll have our own house to stay in. A proper one, like the one we’re in, but nicer. We’ll build it from the ground up, and everyone can have their own room, and their own bed. Kageyama, Hinata…” he paused and gulped, “You and me.”

Then, he looked hopefully at Suga. “It’ll be a home of our own. Would you like that?”

The man looked stunned, as if Daichi’s description had beamed a startling image into his mind. He had never seen a proper house before - the flat pictures from storybooks did those magnificent structures no justice - and yet it was so vivid and there. He could almost feel the grain of its wooden walls from Daichi’s rough calluses, and see its sparkling windows through Daichi’s eyes.

“A home… for the four of us?” Suga said.

“Yes. The four of us.”

“We’d live together in the house? Like in the nest?” His voice quickened.

“Mhm.”

“And we can wake up and have breakfast together? And read books to one another? And then kiss each other goodnight?”

“Definitely.”

 

“Just like… a family?”

 

Daichi smiled bashfully and rubbed his head. “Maybe I should have started with that first.”

Suga hadn’t given him a reply yet, after all.

“I know you’re a strong person, Suga. You’ve survived through all this on your own for so long, but I’ve cared for you and the kids for a while now, and... I want to keep doing that. That is…”

He squeezed his hand.

“…if you want me to.”

Somewhere in there was an answer, one that had taken shape over the days they had been together, and it was just waiting to be said. For him, it was like a dream come true, ripped right from the stories he used to read over and over again. A happy family. Together.

Suga’s eyes quivered. “Can I… really?”

“Of course.” Daichi said gently.

“But where will it be?” he asked.

“Here.”

“But there are… people here…” Suga looked anxiously away.

“They’re all good people, just like Ukai. They won’t hurt you, or the children.” assured Daichi.

“But we’re not like them. They won’t like us.” He insisted, his enthusiasm faltering.

Today’s revelations of the past could have been the catalyst, the demolisher of that last bit of doubt that remained inside him. Alas, it was ingrained within him that dreams never came true for Suga.

Only nightmares.

 

“Let’s just… let’s just go back to the nest.” Suga said quietly.

“Suga, it’s…” Daichi began, but saw that the man needed more time. He might have given up at the last moment, but he was getting there, for sure. Slowly, said the Ukai in his head. Slowly.

Placing Suga’s hand back onto the blanket, he picked up the spoon again.

“It’s okay. We’ll talk about it when you’re better.”

Suga looked down. “Sorry,” he mumbled. He realized he had done it to Daichi again.

“No, it’s my bad.” Daichi sighed into a smile.

 

“Let’s finish the soup, okay?”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Mornings in Hanomachi began before the sun rose over the mountains.

 

When the skies were still coloured a deep purple, and the moon still bathed in its borrowed light, Oikawa stepped through the front door to find Ukai already out smoking on the porch. The man’s blonde hair and back were dripping wet, and a towel was carelessly thrown around his bare shoulders. He didn’t seem to mind the cold breeze at all, his face the picture of serenity as he watched the sky turn orange.

“Leaving already?” Ukai croaked, his first words of the day.

“Yes. I’m afraid we have overstayed our welcome.” Oikawa replied.

“I thought you wanted to say goodbye,” he quipped. He rubbed his head with the towel, finally revealing the scars to the curious young man—but Oikawa stopped short of saying anything.

“Well, I realized I was bad at them when I woke up.”

“They’ll be sad if you leave like that. Especially Suga.”

The mage smiled. “I think that’s too optimistic.”

“Why not ask him yourself?”

Shortly after, Iwa-chan trotted up to them. “He’s awake,” he said, yawning and baring his black-gummed fangs.

Oikawa sighed wearily. “I guess we don’t have a choice, then.”

But before they walked off, Ukai shook Oikawa’s hand firmly and patted him on the back.

 

As the duo approached Suga’s window, the Kara sat up slowly and held onto the windowsill, greeting them with a small frown. Oikawa was smiling brightly, the same charismatic smile he had when they first met. Iwa-chan was frowning as he always did— but Suga remembered he had one other expression, which showed whenever Hinata hugged him.

The mage bowed and said, “Good morning, Suga. Are you feeling well today?”

Suga nodded and replied quietly, not wanting to wake the others. “Are you two going?”

“Yes.”

“But the rest…”

“Unfortunately, we must be on our way to the Guild.” Oikawa shrugged. “At least, I can leave knowing that everything is in order now. It’s good to see the pink back in your cheeks after last night.”

Then he paused, feeling the need to drop the niceties. This was farewell, after all.

Adjusting his collar, he cleared his throat and began to say his piece. “Suga, it’s been a pleasure to have met you and your children. Karas are such a fascinating species, and I can’t believe I’ve never come across them in my studies—I’ve already read all of Ukai’s books. Well, that aside, I’m sorry to hear what happened to your brethren. I should not have tried to keep such an important truth from you, but you must understand that a demon has no place in this world.”

Suga looked down. “It’s okay. I understand.”

“At least now you know where not to look. Will you travel to find the answers you seek?”

“I’m… I’m not sure.” Suga said, and Oikawa’s smile mellowed.

“If you do, I hope you’ll find them - wherever your wings may take you.”

“Will you… come back?” asked Suga.

“Someday, my dear,” Oikawa promised, “As long as Hanomachi is under my watch.”  

And as he did with all the beautiful women and men he came across, he lifted Suga’s hand to his lips, leaving him with yet another enigmatic wink. But unlike all the beautiful women and men he bid goodbye to, this one had one last question for him.

“What does this mean?”

Oikawa chuckled and smiled one more time at the Kara’s innocence.

Je t’adore.

 

With that, the mage and the hellhound walked off into the dawn and over the hills, without the word ‘goodbye’ ever leaving their lips.

 

Hinata had wanted to hug Iwa-chan before he went, and was saddened upon waking to find no trace of the hound; not even a single hair. He was even sadder, however, when Kuroo said they had to leave right away, too. The crisp white bandages did nothing to hide Kuroo’s sluggish posture and drooping tails, and Lev – who had since returned to human form – still behaved rather disoriented and clumsy. It was unanimous that the both of them needed to get home as soon as possible.

 

When it was time, they all gathered together by the fence to see the Nekomata off.

The weather was fair without a cloud in sight; it seemed the journey home would be just fine.

The orange crow hugged the life out of the little prince and made him promise that they would meet again. Kageyama awkwardly hugged him too, and Kenma gave him a knowing nod when they parted. Suga called for Kuroo, and his heart winced at the black cat’s unsteady gait. Kuroo said nothing as he knelt down in front of him, his downcast eyes focused on keeping himself together.

Suga didn’t want to ask if he was okay.

Instead, he raised his hand and gently touched the Nekomata’s head, feeling his fluffy hair and fuzzy ears.

Kuroo closed his eyes as Suga scratched slowly behind his ears, his fingers kneading them to a relaxing rhythm. The Kara kept doing so until he heard a very soft sound emanating from the cat; a deep, humming vibration that travelled to the tips of the cat’s ears, and right through his fingertips.

Suga finally knew what a purring Kuroo sounded like. He wished he had found out sooner.

“So you do that too,” Suga said.

The purring stopped. Kuroo looked up at him with an eyebrow raised.

“Kenma.” Suga explained.

The Nekomata chuckled. He put the man’s hands back onto his lap. “We all do.”

Then, Kenma brushed past Kuroo and hugged Suga tightly, and the black cat sighed and stood aside. Suga sighed, too, and petted Kenma’s head. He already missed the child and his affectionate little gestures.

“Be careful on your way home,” Suga said softly, “And don’t be mad at Kuroo anymore, okay?”

Kenma didn’t respond as he pressed his face onto Suga’s chest.

“Kenma,” Suga cooed.

“… No.” Kenma mumbled in reply.

“He just wants the best for you.”

Changing the topic, he looked up at Suga and asked, “Can I have something from you?”

“What kind of thing?”

“Anything.” Kenma replied, fumbling about in his pockets. Empty. Then, without a second thought, he ripped a patch of his pants off - the part where the gold embroidery was the most obvious - and presented it to Suga. “Here.”

Suga flustered at the gaping hole the child created and rolled up his pant legs evenly, but accepted the cloth anyway. “You shouldn’t spoil your nice pants like that,” he said.

“It’s okay. I have more at home.”

Thinking of what to give in return, Suga glanced upon his wing. Kenma’s eyes lit up.

“Just a small one?” the kitten pleaded, and the Kara nodded.

He plucked a single grey feather from the outer layer of his wing, and pressed it into Kenma’s palm. The boy looked at the small, soft object for a few seconds, then tucked it safely away in his pocket.

“I won’t lose it,” he swore.

Suga smiled back and raised the cloth. “I won’t lose this, too.”

 

In his final farewell to Suga and Daichi, Kuroo walked up to them with his chest raised and shoulders wide. His gaze was strong as he peered through his thick fringe, and for a few moments he was back to his old self again.

He saw the poorly-hidden flickers of worry on their expectant faces, and he bit his lip.

“Even though this is what it is now… what I said before still stands.”

Kuroo glanced at Daichi. The hunter’s brow stiffened.

“Take care of them,” he said at last, and Daichi released a short sigh.

“I will. You take care, Kuroo.”

Kuroo huffed. He then looked at Suga, and his tough aura softened in the moment their eyes met.

And in the mildest voice he had, he said just two words, complete with a smirk.

“Goodbye, sugar.”

Suga reached out and held Kuroo’s hand. He gave him the best smile he could.

“It’s Suga.”

 

And so they parted, their bodies shrouded in the whirling winds that carried the Nekomata far across the bright plains, until they disappeared quietly, vanishing like shadows into the gloomy depths of Kabeki forest. When they were gone it felt as if a hollowness now sat upon the empty land, as if these clandestine creatures had never been, and all that remained of them was the shimmering red cloth that Suga held in his hands.

 

Nobody said a word on the way back. The Karas went quietly to their unmade beds, each more morose than the last.

Hinata sat hunched over with his pillow in his arms, and Kageyama laid down and stared listlessly at the wall.

Suga seemed as distant as his children as he sat beside the bed.

It was only after a long silence that Hinata wiped his nose and mumbled, “I thought we found some new friends.” He sounded crushed.

Daichi gave him a comforting pat on his back and said softly, “We did, Hinata. They may be far away, but they’re still our friends.” He paused and added, “Didn’t Kenma promise you that?”

“He did.” Hinata sniffed.

“And a prince has to keep his promises, doesn’t he?”

The child spaced out as he thought about that. “Yeah,” he answered eventually, “He’ll be punished if he breaks his promises.”

“You’ll be the one who makes sure of that.” The man chuckled.

Hinata hugged him for a bit and dried his face on the man’s shirt, then scampered off to the shed with brighter eyes than before. Daichi sighed at the wet patch. A worthy sacrifice.

Peering at Kageyama, he tried, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.” Kageyama replied instantly, as if he had been waiting for it.

“You might feel better.”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you want to talk to Suga instead?”

Kageyama grumbled and made a face. “I just don’t feel like talking.” Then, he stood up abruptly and said, “I’m leaving.”

“Alright. Whenever—” Daichi started, but the boy left before he could finish. Another sigh.

Turning to Suga, he moved in beside him until their arms touched. They stayed like that for minutes, letting the quiet morning wash over their tired souls – Daichi was quite sure that Suga was not up for a talk.

 

Then, unexpectedly, Suga dropped his head softly onto Daichi’s shoulder. He closed his eyes and set the red cloth on his lap.

 

“Could you… stay for while?”

 

Daichi replied with a stroke of his grey fringe. “As long as you need.”

 

 

Chapter Text

It had taken a while for Suga to get back on his feet – literally – and the first thing he did was to return Ukai his bed. Even though Ukai said he was fine sleeping with Debu, Suga insisted otherwise and wouldn’t let him use the ‘you’re a patient’ excuse anymore. A polite argument started between the two stubborn Karas with seemingly no end in sight, until Daichi declared he’d get everyone a new bed. While they were at it, he figured they could get new clothes, shoes, and whatever they wanted at the local market.

Now, this meant everyone had to go in order to pick out what they liked.

On one hand, the children were excited to be out of the house for once, and were eager to see what a human village was like. On the other hand, Suga was still fidgety at the idea of meeting strangers, and it took a suspiciously coordinated effort from the boys to convince him to step outside. After much hesitation, deliberation, and anxious wing-scratching, he agreed to do it—on one condition.

A condition Daichi had negative problems with.

 

The five of them followed the hardened dirt path into town, passing small fields of crop, lazily grazing sheep, and billowing chimneys. Built from Kabeki wood, chiselled stone, and painted over with a rich ochre, Hanomachi’s quaint cottages dotted the hilly landscape in earthy hues of beige and brown. The town was a popular resting spot for passing travellers and merchants, who brought with them exquisite wares from beyond the mountains to trade.

Once the morning’s chores were done, the villagers liked to flock to the market and spend their time catching up at the inn. It was not the best time for a shy Kara to explore the place, but it was the best time to buy anything before the merchants moved on. Pulling his cape around himself, Suga wished he had a hood to hide the rest of him. Perhaps he could get one at the market, he thought.

The market.

 As soon as they reached the end of the road and saw the bustling, colourful stalls, Suga darted behind Daichi like a frightened hamster. “I-is that the place?” he asked.

“Yes.” Daichi replied. Even though they were still a distance away, the muffled chatter from the crowd was enough to make Suga’s heart hammer.

“I think- I think I’ll go back now.”

“Mama, come ooon! It’ll be fun!” Hinata tugged at Suga’s other hand with a huge grin on his face. He looked ready to bounce off his feet and into the crowd.

“But t-there’re so many people,” Suga trembled, his hand grasping Daichi’s, “We’ll get lost in all the pushing and shoving, and—and someone might take you or Kageyama away!”

Kageyama groaned and made the ‘I told you so’ face. Turning around, Daichi put his hands reassuringly on Suga’s arms and said, “Don’t worry, Suga. Ukai’s here to keep an eye on the kids, too, and no bad guys would dare do anything with him around. Roll those sleeves up higher, will ya?”

Ukai shoved his sleeves so far up his shoulders that the seams threatened to explode.

Suga took one look, sighed wearily, and looked down. “Sorry. I know you’re all excited about this.”

“Hey.” Daichi tilted his head, catching the man’s gaze. "I know it’s scary, but I promise it’ll be fine. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, tell me and we’ll go home right away. Okay?”

Eventually, the Kara pursed his lips and nodded. “Remember…”

Daichi raised their interlocked hands and smiled. “Not to let go.”

 

Alas, the market was an introvert’s nightmare.

It was suffocating on so many levels all at once, what with the stuffiness, the body heat, the glances from strangers, and all sorts of yelling about goods and bargains over the constant din. Never mind all the interesting things Suga had never seen before; he couldn’t focus when his whole body was tensing up, so much that he felt like his very guts were shrinking. Keeping his head down and firmly holding onto Daichi, he prayed they would reach their first stop soon.

Then, the inevitable happened. Someone bumped into Suga’s shoulder.

Daichi heard a tiny squeak from the Kara, and he quickly put his arm around him. “Hey, watch it,” the hunter frowned at the stranger, who uttered an apology and hurried off. A second later, Suga stopped in his tracks and hid himself in the man’s chest – shaking – and Ukai stopped Kageyama from going after the person with his knife.

“Are you alright?” Daichi asked worriedly. He was starting to think it was a bad idea after all.

“I don’t like this place.” Suga whimpered.

While Daichi rubbed his back to calm him down, a few curious passers-by turned to stare at them, but stopped once they noticed Ukai and his impressive arms.

“Do you want to leave?”

The crow took a moment to breathe. He really wanted to say yes.

“Are we there yet?”

“We’re almost there.”

He slowly stepped away, feeling a little braver. “Okay. Let’s go.”

 

They reached the cloth-seller without further incident, and the shopkeeper and his daughter met them with welcoming smiles. On display were long bundles of dyed cloth, coloured in nature’s hues and made from various fibres. Ranging from mild yellows to striking blues, some had simple floral patterns embroidered along the edges, while others seemed plain and drab. They traded more than cloth as well, and Ukai was one of their regulars for bandages and bedding.

“Afternoon, Oda.” The doctor greeted with a simple salute.

“Afternoon, doc. And I see Daichi and some new faces, too. What’s the occasion?” the shopkeeper chuckled, his bespectacled eyes wrinkling as he smiled.

“We’re getting some new clothes and bed-bags. This is Suga, Kageyama, and Hinata.”

Squinting through his glasses, Oda bent forward from behind his stall to look closer. The boys said hello and waved, but Suga shied away behind Daichi. Taking no offense, the old man nodded contentedly and replied, “Well, hello, boys. I’m Oda, and this is my daughter, Yukiko. Take your time looking through the fabric and choose something you like. Yukiko’ll help you with the measurements.”

“How many can we choose?” Hinata asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Who’s paying?” Oda quipped.

“Daichi.” Kageyama replied, to which Oda flashed a grin that would make a capitalist proud.

“Then it’s as many as you want. Hoh ho ho!”

“Three, okay?” Daichi laughed, “I’ve been living off my savings!”

They started running their little hands through the array of fabric, exclaiming along the way how comfy or rough each one of them was, and pointing out the colours they didn’t like. While Yukiko steered them towards the more expensive fabrics – as any good salesperson would – Oda was busy discussing a trade with Ukai about some feathers. Then, seeing how the grey-haired man hadn’t moved an inch despite Daichi’s coaxing, Yukiko tilted her head and asked him directly, “Hey, what colour do you like?”

Startled, Suga disappeared behind Daichi, and the man smiled with a sigh.

“Sorry, he’s quite shy.”

“That’s okay.” She twirled her long braid as her nimble eyes searched through the colours. Then, she picked up a roll of deep blue linen. “How about this?”

Slowly, Suga peered out from under Daichi’s arm and looked at the cloth. He glanced at her briefly, then back at the cloth, and shook his head.

“Too dark?” she remarked, and picked up a sky blue one instead. “What about this one? It’s made from better stuff than the other one.”

Daichi took it from Yukiko and brought it to Suga. “Yeah, it’s very soft. Here.”

A hesitant hand reached out and rested on the fabric. It did feel very comfortable indeed, much like the one Ukai used for his blanket. Keenly looking at Suga’s arm, the girl leaned on her elbow and remarked, “Wow, he’s very fair, isn’t he? I bet it’d look good on him.”

“I think so too.” Daichi agreed, “Do you like it?”

With a slight blush, Suga retreated again. This time, however, he made an affirmatory noise.

“We’ll take this one then.”

Yukiko beamed, and one could practically see the dollar signs – if they had been invented yet – roll into her eyes. “And the other tops? How about green? We’ll use these dark ones for the pants, because they go with the rest.”

But before she could hawk any more, Suga whispered into Daichi’s ear, “J-just one is enough.”

“No, I’m getting you three, remember?” he turned around.

“But—“

“Oh, we should get you a new cloak, too. It’s starting to wear out.”

Suga shook his head quickly. “No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s from my parents.”

Daichi nodded knowingly. “Okay, we won’t. But we will get you three sets of clothes.”

“But one’s enough.” He insisted.

“But I want to get you more than one.” Daichi said with a slight pout, and Suga frowned back.

That face was just unfair. A complete deal-breaker.

But as tenacious was his middle name, he refused to give in to that move so easily. Shifting his gaze an inch to the left, Suga hoped to escape Daichi’s look—but was instead mortified by Yukiko’s intrigued smile, where the corners of her lips squeezed right against her peachy cheekbones. His blush intensified alongside his yearning to get this over and done with, and so he pushed Daichi forward and let him choose the rest of the colours.

 

After Daichi’s pockets were sufficiently emptied, Yukiko led them into the house to take their measurements. As she scurried to find her tools, Daichi stepped forward calmly as the boys huddled around Suga.

Now was the moment of truth.

“Yukiko, before we begin, there’s something you need to know.”

Measuring tape in hand, the girl had a smug look on her face as she spun around on her heels. “Oh, I know there’s something going on.”

“You do?”

“And I know it’s about your friends.”

“Uh… yeah. That’s right.” Daichi replied warily as Yukiko strutted up to him with her hands on her hips. Breaking into a sneaky grin, she poked him on the shoulder and whispered into his ear.

You like grey boy over there, don’t you?

Daichi’s palm met his face.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. You’re like a children’s book.” she shook her head.

“Easy to read?” he groaned. Hinata and Kageyama nodded sagely behind him, and Yukiko nodded in tandem. He sighed haplessly. “Anyway— that’s not the point here—“

“I always knew you weren’t interested in girls.”

“—what I wanted to say is, the three of them have something to show you. And I need you to not freak out.”

Yukiko thumped her chest proudly. “Pshh! I never freak out. Not even when I stepped on the biggest, hairiest spider yesterday.”

“Right. Okay, here goes.” Daichi breathed in. Beckoning the children to join him, they slowly stepped away from Mama, and Yukiko cocked her head at them. Hinata and Kageyama exchanged looks, each urging the other to go first. Then, Hinata rolled his eyes and grabbed the edge of his cape—

And out fanned his wing with a loud whoosh, feathers extended to the fullest like an outstretched hand. He flapped it a few times to show it was real, and upon seeing Yukiko’s dumbstruck face, he quickly kept it under his cloak again.

He fiddled with his fingers and looked unsure of himself as he said, “You don’t like it?”

Yukiko smacked her cheeks with both hands in disbelief. Kageyama poked his own wings out for good measure, and when reality finally set in, she took a great gasp of air.   

“Are you kidding?! That’s awesome!”

Hinata’s face lit up like the first fizzle of a match. “You mean it?”

“Can you fly with them? Can you?” she asked excitedly, and the boy flapped his wings and hovered off the ground. A high-pitched squeal erupted from Yukiko as her fingers trembled, and Daichi hurriedly shushed her up before it got any worse.

You said you wouldn’t freak out!

Pushing his arm aside, she exclaimed, “How can I not? That’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in my life! What are you guys called??”

“Kara.” Hinata replied with a red-faced grin.

“Kara, huh? I’m called a human. We don’t have wings, so we’re kinda meh.” Yukiko said cheekily, and he giggled.

“So you’re okay with us, big sis?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”

Daichi replied, “There’s some history with the Karas and humans that I – won’t – go into right now, so they’re afraid of letting others know they’re different.”

“Oh, phooey. History schmistory.” She brushed off her sleeves and slid the measuring tape from her shoulders. “What’s important is that we get along now. And it always starts with trade. So, who wants to go first?”

The boys went ahead and let Yukiko take their measurements, and she noticed the wing-holes in the back of their shirts. They took them off for her to have a closer look, and she asked to look at Suga’s as well while she scribbled down some designs.

Although the silver Kara was a little relieved at Yukiko’s positive reaction, he wasn’t comfortable enough to let a stranger see or go near his wings. And so, Yukiko found a solution. She brought Suga and Daichi to her room, drew the curtains together, and let him change as she stood outside. After acquiring the shirt she ran off and left them alone in the room— but not before winking at Daichi, who responded by narrowing his eyes and pursing his lips.

He closed the door and the room dimmed considerably into a dark blue hue, shutting out the drone from the streets, and giving Suga some much-needed respite. Now shirtless, the Kara wrapped his cloak around him like a bat, and sat on the floor with his knees to his chest. He seemed deep in thought again, and Daichi gave him a small nudge.

“Doing okay?” he asked.

“Mm.”

“So… What do you think about Yukiko?”

Suga looked up at him. “She’s nice.”

“Yeah. She’s kinda loud sometimes, but it’s just because she’s full of energy. The boys seem to like her too.”

The crow sighed and curled up into a ball. Daichi knew something was up.

“What’s wrong?”

 

“I’m… tiresome, aren’t I?”

 

With a slight frown, Daichi wrapped him in a warm hug. “Not at all,” he assured, but that only made Suga feel more dreadful inside.

“The boys are fine, so… why can’t I do the same?”

“It’s okay, Suga. You just need some time to get used to being around others.”

When Suga didn’t respond, Daichi continued, “Actually, I think you did great today. It wasn’t easy for you to go through that crowd, yeah?”

He shook his head.

“We’ll do something less terrifying next time. Like… talking to our neighbours.”

“That’s scary.” Suga mumbled.

“Then… visiting them?”

He shook his head again.

Daichi scratched his head. “What about talking to Yukiko?”

Suga paused for a long while, then uttered a reluctant maybe.

“Take it easy, Suga.” he sighed contentedly, and the crow hugged him back.  

 

At the end of the day, Hinata and Kageyama felt the same way about Mama, and they let him know through their body-slamming hugs. They had picked out a few presents for him – a brush for his feathers, a mysterious azure apple, and a pretty lace handkerchief – because they knew he wouldn’t have gotten anything for himself. And they were right.

They then put together their new mattresses by stuffing the bed-bags with layers of feathers, fibres, and wool. When it came to sewing up the end, Ukai tried to give them a crash course on stitching – but they ended up pricking themselves several times, and the expert had to re-do their frankly appalling needlework.

After the four of them fell sound asleep, side by side on their comfy beds, Suga stirred in the middle of the night as he usually did. Alone in his waking, he stared at his hand in the darkness, feeling as though some strange sensation was missing from it. No—it wasn’t the skin that he had lost to the needle.

Turning his head to the right, he saw what it was.

He reached for it.

When he did, he felt at peace with the world and himself, and he didn’t want this feeling to go away.

Maybe this was the answer.

Had it been so simple all this time?

 

And so there and then, he made up his mind.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sleeping next to someone felt nice, even if it wasn’t shoulder-to-shoulder.

Chilly on one side, and warm on the other.

When they moved in their sleep, their arm or leg would brush against you and stay there—and it would feel like a circuit had connected. Your heart would jump, discreetly shocked. But you would not move away.

Not until they did.

When Daichi awoke, however, the warm feeling on his palm still remained. In his half-awake state, he slowly closed his hand and was surprised to feel another. It could only belong to one person, of course, and he blushed when he saw him sleeping peacefully on his side.

His fine grey hair fell over his closed eyes, and his pale pink lips parted slightly with his quiet snoozing. Below his unpronounced chin was his slender neck, which naturally drew Daichi’s gaze down to his distinct collarbones— and loosely-draped shirt. There was just something about the way it slipped off his shoulder which made him stare unabashedly for a long while, even though he had seen what was underneath many times by now. It wasn’t his fault. Ukai’s shirts were just too big.

But Daichi’s voyeuristic adventure came to a halt when Suga turned to lie on his back. In a small panic he followed Suga’s hand as it moved, ending up in an awkward position on top of the Kara; and making matters worse was the shirt that cared nothing for Suga’s modesty, or Daichi’s sanity.

He prayed Ukai wouldn’t walk past them right now.

Then, of course, Suga had to wake up.

 

Upon seeing Daichi, he blinked and said casually, “Morning.”

“This—this isn’t what it looks like.” Daichi coughed.

“What…” Suga looked around himself, finding nothing wrong, “…do you mean?”

“Um – you were holding my hand and you moved, but I didn’t want to wake you up. So…”

The both of them went red to the tips of their ears.

“Oh, I…” Suga looked away and covered his mouth, embarrassed. “It was… cold last night.”

Daichi gulped and willed himself to calm down. If he died someday from a weak heart, everyone would agree that it was Suga’s fault. “I don’t mind,” he replied, not knowing what words were anymore.

The Kara sat up, blushing. This wasn’t how he wanted to start the day. “Um… shall we go for a walk?”

Daichi nodded. Anything to get out of this situation.

 

They started taking walks to get Suga used to moving about again. Sometimes it would just be the two of them, and sometimes the kids would tag along too. Venturing beyond the house, they took in the fresh air as they strolled along the verdant grassland, walking hand in hand whenever they traversed its high slopes. It was only because the hillocks left Suga wanting for breath, and he needed the extra help—but today he held onto Daichi right at the beginning, and seemed particularly demure and unresponsive.

It made Daichi curious, and he pondered if something had escaped his notice. Maybe something about yesterday had affected him, but nothing came to mind. The man was so caught up in his own thoughts that he didn’t notice the wind pick up, nor the fact that he was shivering in his shorts. It was his fault for neglecting to change, really. Then, he felt Suga’s wing slide over his shoulder, and it was like a fluffy heat shield had formed around him.

“Thanks.” He smiled at the Kara, who nodded and moved closer.

“You should’ve changed out of your shorts. Your singlet, too. You know it gets cold in the morning,”

There. Someone else said it too.

In response, Daichi mimicked Hinata’s begrudging face— protruding lip and all. “Yes, Mama.”

That made Suga chuckle, and he punched Daichi playfully on the arm.

“Was that a good impression?” the hunter grinned.

“Quite.”

“I can do Kageyama too.” He proceeded to fold his arms and sulk silently with a grouchy face.

Giggling, Suga added, “He does the funny thing with his wings, too.”

“Oh, yeah. Man, if had wings, I’d do it all day just to annoy him,” Daichi laughed.

 

They chatted a while about the kids and their habits, and before they knew it, they had reached the old stump where their trail usually ended. They paused to stretch out their limbs, and when Suga spread his wings to the sky, the way the morning sun glowed through the feathers reminded Daichi of that time at the lake. He was still as beautiful as he was back then, like an angel from afar. No—he was even more dazzling up close, and it was clear to him how his heart had been stolen by this songless siren. All the silver Kara needed to do was smile and offer his hand, and the love-struck human would follow; for he believed he would not be led astray.

“Ready to head back?” said Daichi with a contented sigh.

Suga scratched his chin thoughtfully as he turned around. “Actually, I was wondering if… we could go see your home.”

Daichi hadn’t been expecting that. “Oh, it’s a long walk from here. You sure?”

“Yeah,” he smiled brightly, “Lead the way.”

Thus they travelled northward into the woods, following a crude dirt path that could barely be seen through the undergrowth. They soon came upon a large log cabin that was covered with fallen leaves and moss. Virtually unnoticeable through the trees, one would not know it existed unless one pried.

Nailed above the front door were three animal skulls – two big and one small – each representing a member of the family. Daichi had always thought they were tacky, but his father wanted to commemorate his child’s first hunt in the only way he knew how. Think of it as the ‘ye olde’ equivalent of displaying your kid’s drawing on the fridge.

Inside the tastefully furnished house, Daichi told Suga stories about each place as they went. That one time he got kicked by a horse in the stable. The way they sharpened their tools and kept them in the shed. And the year they had such a massive bounty, the smoke-house nearly collapsed from the weight of all the meat. Suga laughed as he listened to his tales, and everything he saw sparked off his curiosity– the trophies on the walls, the furs on the floor, and even the pile of jumbled-up bones in the corner. Daichi had been afraid the place would seem uncomfortable or even creepy (living with an abundance of mutilated carcasses takes some getting used to), but was relieved to see that Suga felt nothing of the sort. In fact, he described his mother’s display of artistically arranged pheasant skulls as ‘lovely’.

Finally, there was Daichi’s room. It was a simple, spacious room that was less decorated than the rest of the house, save for a collection of fangs and claws that were strung up on a wall in rows. Then, a bunch of old hunting tools, chests filled with clothes and furs, and a bed next to a wide open window. That was all—and Daichi and Suga sighed happily as they sat down together on the bed, bushed from all the walking.

“So, you like our house?” Daichi asked, feeling a little light-headed with euphoria.

“Yes! I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so big and full of things, and it’s in a nice and quiet spot out here in the woods.” Suga replied. And the hunter realized all of a sudden that it was just the two of them. In the middle of the woods. With no one around for a good mile or two.

“I can see why you’d rather go exploring than stay in class. It’s right outside your window,” he continued, and patted the mattress. “Can I lie down?”

Stay calm.

“It’s all yours,” Daichi gestured coolly. Suga took off his shoes and laid down slowly, letting out a long breath as he settled in.

“Hmm, it’s a bit hard. But still comfy.”

You know what else is—never mind.

“Yeah, it can’t compare to our new ones. We didn’t put feathers in the stuffing.” He replied and turned around, but immediately went back to staring at the wall. The situation was more dangerous than facing a pack of rabid wolves with knives.

“I used to keep the feathers I shed for bedding. We should do that when we start moulting, then.” Suga mused.

“Right.”

 

A long pause. The sounds of birds twittering.

 

“Hey, Daichi.”

“Yeah?”

He felt some movement behind him.

Then, a careful hug around his waist. And when Suga leaned onto him, all the blood rushed to his head at once.

 

“Suga?” The light-headedness was back. “Is something wrong?”

“No. Does there have to be?” Suga mumbled, equally red-faced.

“W-well, that’s usually the case, so…”

The Kara’s chest thumped. “I know. You’re always looking after me.”

 

Another pause.

 

“Maybe… that’s why I feel comfortable around you.”

Daichi’s heart sang hallelujah. But Suga wasn’t finished yet.

“The same goes for Hinata and Kageyama. They don’t tell me everything, but sometimes they talk to me about you. They really like having you around. They must miss having a father to play with… and I wouldn’t be surprised if they thought of you as one.”

“That would be nice.” Daichi said carefully.

 

“I think it would be nice, too.”

 

A million butterflies flooded into Daichi’s stomach like the coming of spring.

This is it, he thought. It’s finally happening.

And he didn’t want to miss one moment of it. Gently taking the crow’s arms away, he turned around and gazed intently at him, his pressed lips simply bursting with anticipation.

“I’ve—I’ve been thinking about what you said.” Suga gulped as he came face-to-face with Daichi.

“Yeah?” That eager puppy was back. Blushing profusely, Suga looked away and his chest pounded in shame. How many more detours would it take before he found the courage to speak?

Seeing he needed some help, Daichi cleared his throat and played it cool.

“Do you want me to look away? Like, I’ll turn my head—“

“N-no,” Suga pulled him back, “That won’t do.”

“You mean it’s not enough?”

“That’s not what—”

“Then I’ll stand over there by the door, how ‘bout that?”

His pink cheeks puffed up. “I want to say it properly, you dummy!”

Breathing in deeply, Suga took a good look at the selfless, brave, and silly man he so adored. As much as Daichi cared for him, he cared too—and he didn’t want to keep him waiting any longer.

And though it wasn’t perfect, the words finally came to him.

The words he needed this man to hear.

 

“If it wasn’t for you… if you hadn’t pushed me… I would have given up a long time ago.” He teared up at the thought. “I wanted to, so many times. I thought I could leave it all behind. Even the kids. It wouldn’t have been right, but I don’t believe I can ever have a normal family like normal people do.”

He took his hand, and they were one.

“But you make me want to try. When I’m with you… I feel if… if it were with you, then maybe…”

He smiled hopefully up at him. “It’ll work out.”

Daichi’s mouth teetered into a lopsided smile. “You really think so?”

Suga smiled back, “There’s one more thing.”

 

He said it as perfectly as his heart told his head.

“I like you, too.”

 

His love’s exuberant joy was so plain to see that he wished he had said so earlier.

 

Taking Suga into a tight hug, Daichi felt so relieved and ecstatic at the same time that he laughed at his own reaction, making Suga burst out laughing as well. They broke apart, looking at each other like they had never seen before, and it became clear that something had changed between them. Something more; something unfamiliar; something new.

 “I can’t tell you how happy I am right now.” Daichi said, though his flushed cheeks told Suga everything.

“Me too,” Suga replied and dried his eyes.  

They shared a chuckle with each other.

“And I want you to always be that way,” said Daichi in earnest, though lacking in eloquence, “I want you and the boys to have the best things, to never go hungry, cold, or feel terrible, ever again.”

“Me too,” Suga said again, “You’re always giving me things, and I want to do the same for you.”

“You don’t have to—” he stopped himself right there. “I’d like that.”

The Kara beamed, and even his wings raised with his spirits. “I just don’t know what to do. I can’t do much.”

“Well… you being by my side is amazing enough already.”

“But that’s nothing different from now,” he said and leaned forward. He recalled the last time they were this close, and shyly pecked him on the cheek. “How about… something like that?”

As if a switch had been flipped, Daichi’s eyelids lowered, and his hand moved to Suga’s waist as he leaned in closer. Stunned, the Kara held his breath and waited. The man’s imposing body was almost upon his, and he closed his eyes as he felt his hot breath on his cheek.

Gently, their lips touched; a soft kiss that lasted for the briefest of moments.

It was unlike any kiss Suga could ever imagine, for the tenderness of Daichi’s lips lingered like tingling sparks over the surface of his own.

Suga was not prepared for such a kiss, and he turned scarlet with astonishment.

“Before you ask—that was a kiss between two people who like each other.” Daichi said, surprisingly calm. One would have thought he would be the first to freak out over such intimacy. But no matter how prepared he was, Suga had never failed to destroy him completely in a contest of reason. And you can bet that he was going to do the same here.

 

“What else… do people who like each other… do?”

 


 

“Kageyama, Hinata. There’s something I want to ask you two.”

Suga paused, and chided himself with a chuckle. He should have asked this sooner.

“What is it, Mama?” asked Hinata.

“It’s about Daichi.”

“Did he do something wrong again?” Kageyama said, ready to frown.

“No, not at all. I wanted to know what you two think about living together with him. Like a family.”

 

The boys looked at each other, then back at Suga.

 

“So he’ll be our new Papa,” said Hinata slowly, rocking back and forth on his seat, “It’ll be weird calling him Papa, ‘cuz we always call him Daichi.”

Kageyama looked down and fidgeted with his feet. “Yeah,” he muttered in agreement.

“You can still call him Daichi.” Suga replied, “I’m sure he won’t mind.”

“Then that’s okay. I like Daichi.” Hinata grinned, putting a sigh of relief in the man’s chest. Alas, the sharper of the two boys had a sudden epiphany, and he snapped his gaze onto Suga with his mouth wide open in swelling disbelief.

“Mama, you—you like, like him?”

An unshakeable blush crept onto the man’s face.

“Ah! Did you tell him? Did you?” exclaimed Hinata, who laughed gaily when Suga nodded sheepishly. “No wonder he had that stupid look on his face!” In contrast, Kageyama’s face looked like a constipated cross between reluctance and celebration.   

“Don’t you like him, Kageyama?” Suga asked softly, but Hinata already had an answer for that.  

“He’s just afraid you’ll give Daichi more attention over him,” he sneered, and instantly got punched in the gut by his brother, who looked positively livid. But he could not explain his anger, and his inability to speak frustrated him into a scowl. Whether that was truly the case or not, Suga reassured him anyway with a hug.

“All of you are just as important to me. You don’t have to worry, Kageyama.”

“I wasn’t.” Kageyama mumbled and hugged him back.

“And I won’t be the only one taking care of you. Daichi will be there, too. Would you like that?”

After a few seconds, he said in a small voice, “If Mama wants it, then I won’t say no.”

 

“Thank you,” Suga sighed into a smile, “Both of you.”

 


 

“Oi, where’d the two of you run off to?” Ukai asked while flipping a pancake onto a plate.

“Ah, we went for a walk.” Daichi replied, scratching his neck.

“For so long?”

The hunter swallowed and his cheeks coloured. Squinting, Ukai pointed the steaming hot pan at him.

“Speak,” he ordered.

“He…” Daichi said unsteadily, as if still in shock, “…gave me an answer.”

And…?” The old man had gotten the hint, but he wanted to hear him say it all embarrassed-like.

“He likes me back.” Daichi blushed like a schoolgirl, and Ukai smirked. With a loud clang he slammed the pan onto the stove and powerfully smacked Daichi on the back—the universal gesture of commending someone, with added muscle.

“Congrats, kid! You did it!” he shouted triumphantly, then added, quieter, “With my help, but still.”

“Thanks,” Daichi heaved, getting the air back in his lungs. That was going to leave a bruise for sure.

“Ah, I never thought I’d see this day. But talking doesn’t take so long. Were you guys—”

Ukai’s eyes suddenly burst into flames and a vein popped from his neck. Daichi immediately raised his arms in an X.

“We did not! Why are you always accusing me of these things?!”

“Because I was young once, okay? And you’ve never gotten any.”

The young man’s eye twitched. Never missed an opportunity to mention that, did he?

“Well, your damn face appeared in my head and immediately turned me off.”

“Good.” Ukai huffed. He wouldn’t need to deal with any complications. “So, what’s next?”

“Well… we’ll need a place to call our own.”

“And I’m guessing you need my help.”

Daichi grinned in reply, and Ukai snorted.

 

“Let’s get you four a home.”

 

 

Chapter Text

On the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, history was made in a small human village. As the observer knows from records of the past, it was not the first time that love had blossomed between a Human and a Kara. Rather, it was the first time both races came together to form a family. No one knew the significance of this event, not even Ukai, who feared at first that revealing the Karas to the humans would bring about unwanted attention. It was only after their visit to the market that he was convinced the world had forgotten about them. And so, he gave the couple his blessings to set root in Hanomachi.

As for the new family, all that mattered was that they were together at last. Perhaps they could feel whole again now that they had each other in their lives. The future looked brighter than ever. Invigorated with the excitement of a new beginning, they set out on their first daunting task.

Building a home.

Compared to finding an empty cave, hammering a house together from scratch was no easy feat. It would take months of hard work, even with help from the locals, and finding the right spot for it was a headache. It couldn’t be too far from town, the forest, or the river, and the ground had to be suitably stable for a foundation. After days of planning and scouting, they eventually found a good location near Daichi’s old home (as near as one could get without needing a horse) and took it right away.

In the meantime, they would stay at the log cabin. Ukai’s bachelor life had been imposed upon for long enough, and besides, the cabin could provide for whatever they needed. It was in much better shape than the clinic or the nest, and, suffice to say, no one missed living in the rocky cave at all. Hinata and Kageyama would share Daichi’s room, and Mama and Daichi would take the parents’ room. The two knew beforehand that it was a single bed, of course.

When asked if he was okay about the idea of sleeping on the same bed, Suga replied, “It’s what parents do, right?”

And that was the sound of a door opening into a whole new reality—of crossing boundaries where no man had gone before. Before today, Daichi had consciously toed the line between him and Suga. It was not hard to do, for there laid an impenetrable wall; but every time they touched and spoke freely to one another, a part of it crumbled. Now that the riches beyond laid bare and ripe for the plundering at Daichi’s feet, it would have been easy for him to take what he wanted.

But we all know he wasn’t that kind of person.

Even if the opportunity socked him in the face.

 

After a long day of cleaning the dusty old house, it was time to have an equally long bath.

Normally, the options were either the river or the bathhouse. Daichi’s parents, however, had the splendid idea to construct a bathtub of their own. It was like an oversized wooden bucket with a stone base, placed strategically behind the house and near the pipes that tapped upstream. All they had to do was turn a handle to fill the tub, fire up the charcoal below, and the bath would be ready for soaking.

The tub wasn’t big enough for everyone, so the crows went first. Suga gave the boys a good scrubbing from head to toe before letting them in the tub, and boy did he get his clothes wet! He should have taken them off at the start, really. But he didn’t want to catch a cold before his turn. Hinata and Kageyama could hardly stay still in the tub, too, and their wings threw out more water than the average elephant in a water fight. When they were done the tub needed to be filled and heated again, and the embers were starting to wane. Ushering out the squeaky clean kids, Suga called from outside, “Daichi, the fire’s going out.”

“Coming,” Daichi called back, grabbing a handful of dried coalbird feathers. They made for good kindling once dried – too good, in fact, that Ukai’s shed nearly burned down after that one time he forgot it was moulting season. Daichi passed the towelled kids on his way out, stopping to dust the dirt off their feet-- and then nearly died on the spot when he saw Suga stripping off his pants. The other pants.

“I think some of it got wet,” the crow said, referring to the charcoal. He flapped out his drenched clothes, then noticed that the hunter hadn’t moved from the doorway for a while now. “Daichi?” he said, turning to face him, and the man could hardly stop staring with a dumb expression on his face. Suga wasn’t one to be bothered by nakedness, but he felt self-conscious at that moment, and covered himself with his wings.

“What?” he shrunk away, and Daichi walked up to him with a deep breath.

“Sorry,” he said, “I just can’t believe I’m with someone so beautiful.”

Suga turned red and bopped him on the arm. “Stop it.”

“But I mean it.”

“Come on, before the water gets cold.”

 

Daichi’s rose-tinted fantasies were slowly coming true one by one. They were pretty tame and mundane to the common man, but just having his back scrubbed by his loved one made him happier than most. It was these simple things that he looked forward to, for he considered himself a simple man without lofty ambition.

Suga, too, wondered immensely about how life would be like with a partner. He learned very little about this from his parents, for they were never in the mood to talk about it. He gleaned bits and pieces from the stories he read, but his hardships made him realize that they were caricatures purely for children’s eyes. Even Takeda’s highly descriptive writings could not relay the intimacies of such a relationship, but that was not the manuscript’s purpose in the first place. Indeed, Suga was afraid of relying on what came naturally to him; or perhaps it was more accurate to say that few things came naturally at all.

But being with others had made him more discerning, and he felt, right now, that taking a bath with a loved one was something natural. He liked feeling the bouncy muscles under Daichi’s skin, and admired the grooves they moulded onto his back. Daichi enjoyed every second of it; of Suga’s gentle hands exploring his back, and his soft humming as he worked. It was a slow, light-footed melody that made him fall into a mild daze, and he wished the Kara hadn’t stopped to say he was done washing.

“Your turn,” Daichi said, and Suga turned around, parting his wings to unveil his smooth back, narrow waist, and… pert bottom.

Heavens above, he prayed, grant me the fortitude to survive this day.

He touched Suga’s soft, pale skin, and gulped. It felt way different without a washcloth, and he could notice exactly how lean the Kara had become. There wasn’t much between skin and bone; someone like him could easily snap his arm in two. Daichi put aside this morbid thought and carefully kneaded out the knots in Suga’s shoulders.

As Daichi’s thumb rubbed into a pressure point, Suga let out a soft moan.

He stopped.

Suga looked over his shoulder. “No more?” he asked innocently.

“Uh… sure.”

The hunter’s strong fingers massaged the Kara’s stiffened joints. Suga braced himself on his arms as his shoulders squirmed together in pleasure.

“Ah—not so hard…”

When the poor sod could withstand that sweet voice no longer, he dashed off and leapt into the bathtub with a big splash. Daichi ducked underwater to cool himself off, but immediately resurfaced when he saw a leg step in. Coming face-to-face with a very confused Suga in a very small tub, he had no idea where to look—making matters worse, they ended up sitting with their legs over each other, and were almost touching in places unsuitable for the rating of this story.

“You’re acting weird today,” the crow said, letting his wings hang out over the edge to dry.

“Ah, I’m a bit woozy from the work today.” Daichi coughed and admired the scenery.

Suga frowned and scooted forward. Now they were touching in places unsuitable for the rating of this story.

“That’s not it. What is it, Daichi?”

“T-there’s nothing, honest!”

“You even used the word ‘honest.’”

“Because I mean it.”

Pouting, the crow sat back down and lowered his chin to the water.  

“Hey, Suga…” Daichi leaned in, and Suga turned away with a huff. “Come on, I’m not hiding anything,” he tried again. When Suga still refused to look at him, Daichi inched closer and blew bubbles on the water like a petulant child, until the crow splashed him in the face and yielded.

Suga muttered, “It’s my body, right?”

“Your body?”

“It’s ugly.”

It was Daichi’s turn to be baffled.

“Of course not! Who said that?”

Suga lifted his bony arm, “Look. I’m all skin and bones.”

“So what if you’re a little skinny?”

“I hate it. Compared to you, I’m just…”

A horrific image of an impeccably muscular Suga came into Daichi’s consciousness.

“I like you the way you are,” he replied quickly.

“You’re just saying that.” Suga moped.

“I mean it.”

“Even when I look like this?”

“Even if you triple in size,” Daichi smiled.

 

Suga accepted Daichi’s words with a small sigh. He said nothing more about the matter throughout dinner, and was quiet all the way till bedtime. But from the way the Kara fiddled with his sleeves and pinched at his skin, Daichi could tell that it still bothered him. For although Suga had always been slim, he had never lost so much weight in such a short time.

He was not vain; he simply didn’t want to look and feel like a walking skeleton. Was that too much to ask?

Suga stuffed away those troublesome thoughts as he tucked in the kids and kissed them goodnight. Following the dim corridors, he returned to the bed where Daichi was waiting and carefully rolled in. He tried to keep his wings as neatly as possible under the warm blanket, and decided that lying on his side would be more comfortable for the both of them.

“Sorry, are my wings taking up space?” Suga asked, rustling the sheets as he turned. Daichi turned, too, and their noses nearly bumped. Their faces were just a hair’s width away, but they couldn’t see each other in the darkness.

Feeling brave, Daichi touched his palm to Suga’s waist. When Suga didn’t move away, he smoothed his hand along the Kara’s back and under his wings, and slowly hugged him to his chest. Startled, the Kara’s heart pounded, and his feathers prickled when Daichi’s fingers brushed against them. Rapidly, his senses became muddled by Daichi’s presence, and he found himself blushing harder than his partner. The scent coming off his skin, his warm body pressed against his, the sound of his deep breathing—

“Is this okay?” Daichi murmured.

“Mm.” Suga grunted quietly, grateful that the room was nearly pitch-black.

It was more than okay. Those muscles made for the most wonderful pillows, and he was convinced that a single involuntary twitch would crush him at any moment. Yet he felt safe in those arms, for when they were around him, they were as gentle as down.

Suga moved his legs to snuggle up against Daichi, and they fit in like two birds in a nest.

“Ah…” Daichi, the spoiled child, yawned happily, “Finally, I have a bolster to hug to sleep.”

“Is that what I am now? A bolster?” the crow puffed.

“A very comfortable bolster.”

Suga pinched Daichi’s cheek, and Daichi smooched his forehead in response.

 

“Goodnight, bolster.”

 

“Goodnight. Dummy.”

 

That was the first night of many; nights where the crickets’ lullaby carried them away into a deep sleep, and nights which belonged to the two of them. They would wake up in the morning to an awkward situation, beset upon by the kids’ nosiness, and they would laugh it off together.

 

Like a family.

Chapter Text

Of all the things that happened during the time the house was being built, one episode stood out memorably against the rest.

It was the time Suga and Daichi got themselves trapped on a mountain.

One might scoff at the idea that something as preposterous as that could happen. Why, one was an excellent hunter who grew up on said mountain, and the other has wings to travel with! Despite the obvious, it happened anyway, and it was on one of those days where the kids were at Uncle Ukai’s while the adults went hunting and gathering.

Walking along their usual route with baskets on their backs, Suga and Daichi slowly scaled the mountainside amid a pleasant breeze. Thereupon the open field, Suga foraged through the shrubs for berries and herbs, and Daichi collected his traps. Food was getting scarce as the first signs of winter were steadily arriving, and they needed all that they could get. So, when Daichi picked up a trail which belonged to a passing herd of deer, they followed it without a moment’s hesitation.

Hiding behind some bushes, the two peered at the peacefully grazing deer. It was a small herd numbering no more than fourteen, and their shiny coats had a healthy glow. They ducked when the lookout’s sharp head swivelled round, and Daichi picked a large arrow from his quiver.

“Which one?” Suga whispered.

“I’m thinking that fat doe in the front.”

The crow peeped through the leaves. “Aw, but she’s a pretty one.”

“We’ll keep the pelt,” Daichi smooched him on the head, then popped out of the leaves and pulled the bowstring taut against his cheek.

The lookout heard a faint rustle, but in the instant its beady eyes caught sight of Daichi, it was too late. The arrow whizzed through the air and struck the doe through its shoulder, and the herd immediately sprinted away in panic. Daichi quickly leapt after them while Suga followed behind on foot. Seeing how the doe was limping and bleeding, the hunter knew it was not long for this world.

He chased it away from the herd while dodging the enraged bucks, steering it down a steep hill that led towards a deep chasm. He was hoping to corner the doe there, thinking that there was no chance it could jump the gap – much less with its injured leg. Sliding on the damp grass to speed up, he glanced back to make sure Suga was following; and there he was, gliding leisurely in the sky. When the ravine came into view, however, Daichi realized he had forgotten about one small thing.

The old bridge.

Abandoned and rotting from disuse, no one had crossed it since the other side became infested with monsters. Even the trees holding it up had hollowed from decay, and it would’ve been easy to just kick it down and be rid of it. But no one dared return to the place, not after the last incident where an entire family went missing.

Daichi prayed the doe would get frightened and just stop at the edge. But in two quick bounds it crossed the bridge with ease, dashing one of the boards to pieces in its haste.

He cursed. It was almost at death’s door.

“Suga! I’m going after it!”

“What—it’s dangerous!”

Alas, Daichi charged across the bridge. The planks snapped precariously beneath his every step, and he had almost made it when a terrible crackling noise erupted from the other side. He jumped as a rotten tree crashed behind him and ripped apart the ropes, sending the ill-fated bridge to its splintery demise on the rocks below.

Daichi heard its final throes as he clung tightly to the edge, digging his boots into the cliff and struggling to stay on. Fortunately, Suga landed quickly on the other side and grabbed onto him. They heaved and pulled until Daichi tumbled safely onto land.

“Tha—ha—that was close.” Suga panted, his hand still grasping Daichi’s shirt, “Don’t do that!”

“Sorry, I thought the bridge would hold.”

“Well, you thought wrong.” Suga stared at the abyss that stretched off lengthways into the horizon. “Now how are we going to get back?”

Daichi scratched his head. “Think you can fly over?”

“Gliding only, remember?”

“Shoot. Guess we’ll have to take the long way around.”

“Is it far?”

“Yeah. Let’s pick up the doe first.” He helped Suga onto his feet and kissed him. “Thanks for the save.”

A firm pinch on the cheek later, and they were back on the trail of the fallen doe. It didn’t manage to get very far. Collapsed in a pool of blood, its heart had ruptured from the arrowhead and its earlier exertion. Daichi took a while to skin and clean the carcass, and by the time he was done the sky had turned a greyish-green. Fearing rain, they set off for home.

 

With the sun obscured, it was hard to tell how long they had been walking. Their legs were getting sore and the loads on their backs made their shoulders ache. It was but a happy problem, for the meat would keep their bellies full for days.

Following the edge of the ravine, they eventually reached a narrow section that could be hopped over. There they continued on through an unfamiliar forest, and Daichi started to feel peckish. He munched on some berries that Suga had collected, but the crow didn’t have any. He was too anxious to swallow even water.

Tall, thin trees surrounded them like a wooden maze. Off in the distant fog, low, rumbling reverberations travelled through the earth and disturbed their senses. The crow locked his arm around Daichi’s, and the man assured him that there was nothing to worry about. He seemed to know where he was going; he had to. But after they passed by the same gnarled-up tree for the third time, Suga felt something was wrong.

“Are you sure you know where we’re going?”

“Yeah, aren’t we there already?” Daichi replied with a slight slur.

“No, we’re still in the same place.”

“Nn… no? This is the path back home, yeah?”

“What are you saying? And what’s wrong with your… voice…”

When Suga looked closely at Daichi’s face, it all became clear.

Apart from the obvious redness on his cheeks, a purplish-blue tint was visible on his lower eyelids. His pupils were dilated, too, and he was beginning to wobble like a drunkard who had had too much mead. Hurriedly taking out the berries from his basket, Suga realized he had made a rookie mistake.

“Oh, no.”

“Hmmm?” Daichi slowly put his arms around the Kara’s waist.

“These are Nemuta berries.”

“Nemu… oh.” he blinked at the speed of a crippled snail. “They’re just a… tiny shade darker than Belomie.”

“I know.” Suga groaned and covered his face.

“It’s okay, darlin’, they’re not poisonous.”

“How are we going to get home now?”

“What do you mean…? We’re almost there.” Daichi said and pointed at thin air.

“We’re nowhere near!”

 

Suddenly, a fist-sized ball of some clear substance smashed onto the ground beside them.

 

“What.” Suga gulped hoarsely. Daichi stared dreamily at him, oblivious to what happened.

 

Then, more and more balls and shards came roaring down from the sky, spreading across the land in a growing storm. Frightened out of his wits, Suga covered the both of them with his wings and immediately dragged his stupefied partner towards shelter. It felt as if they were being pelted by spikes and rocks, and the ground became slippery as the fragments melted into the soil.

Seeing a small root-cave through the blinding chaos, he pushed Daichi headfirst into it. He then scrambled in after him, horrified, and gazed fearfully up at the eerie green sky. It didn’t look like the storm would pass anytime soon. The heavy barrage it was sending down was nigh unpassable. But—what was this stuff?

Reaching out warily, he picked up a fallen shard with his cape around his fingers. It felt cold and had no smell or colour—and as it shrank and wet the cloth, he realized that the mysterious substance was merely ice. He knew what rain and snow was; but he had never encountered hail.

“Suga…?” Daichi mumbled, shifting himself into a less neck-breaking position. Suga quickly turned around and helped him up.

“Daichi, are you okay?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Did you hit your head?”

“Mm-hmm.” Daichi gave him a groggy, dusty-cheeked smile, and Suga sighed. He wasn’t going to get through to him in this state. Seething as the pain kicked in, he sat down and stretched out his bruised wings. Although the marks were invisible beneath his feathers, the sharper pellets had cut through his skin. Noticing the bloodstains, Daichi carefully touched one to confirm his fears.

“You’re hurt, Suga,” he gasped, and the more looked, the more unsettled he became. “You’re hurt all over! Who did this to you?”

“Calm down, Daichi—”

Daichi hugged him tightly and Suga fell onto him with an ‘oof’.

“I’ll kill ‘em. Tell me who it is.” He growled.

“That’s… going to be difficult.” Suga sighed helplessly.

“What, was it a bear? I’ll kill the bear. All the bears.”

“No, Daichi. It was the sky.”

“That’s his name? Sky?”

“No, it’s…”

Suga paused and started to sniffle. At once, Daichi slowly patted Suga’s head as if he was soothing a child.

“Oh, poor Suga… Is it painful? Do you want me to take a look?” he cooed.

“This is all my fault,” Suga wept, but Daichi didn’t quite understand what he was saying.

He fumbled about in Suga’s basket, took out some herbs, and chewed on them like a cow at pasture. He then spat the mulch into his hand and smeared it sloppily on the crow’s wounds – those that he could see, anyway – and unwittingly wiped the residue on Suga’s shirt when he rubbed his back.

“There. Better?”

“I can’t do anything right.”

“You need some more?”

The Kara burst into tears again. “Because of me we’re lost, and you’ve gone all silly!”

“Shh, shh… it’s okay, baby. Go to sleep. It’ll all be better in the morning.”

“But…”

Reaffirming the fact that he was indeed ‘all silly’, Daichi started to hum a lullaby and pat Suga on the bum. A blush popped onto Suga’s face in record speed. Mind you, the farthest they’d gone was touching above the waist. Looking past the initial awkwardness, however, it actually felt very calming. That slow, rhythmic motion reminded him of his mother, of when he was just a small bundle in her loving lap. Within a few more pats he thought no more about the perils outside, and he fell asleep with Daichi.

 

It was hours later when the ice stopped falling.

 

Suga’s eyes opened at the stroke of midnight. A strange chill and a stuffy, claustrophobic feeling had roused him from his slumber.

The feeling… of being watched.

He slowly turned his head to look outside, daring not to open his eyes until the last moment.

And when he did, his soul almost left him.

Suga came eye-to-eye with a gigantic, unblinking eyeball that covered the entrance of the root-cave. The interweaving strands on its blue iris glowed and pulsated as it focused on Suga’s movements, as if waiting for something to happen. Stifling a shout, Suga broke into a cold sweat as his heart pounded.

Should he wake Daichi? Should he pretend to be dead? Even if the monster didn’t kill him, he was certain he would die from a heart attack first.

Then, the eyeball moved away—and so did the ginormous, clunky beak attached to it.

It was a bird!

The creature made a short chirp. It sounded like it said ‘moved’ in a very thick northern-raptor accent. Kind of like Debu’s, but with much more gurgle in the throat. It poked its head back in and blinked intently at Suga, who trembled and covered Daichi with his wing.

Bird?” it squawked. Suga didn’t make a sound. “Come, bird,” it squawked again, then reached its frighteningly huge beak into the cave and nipped at Suga. Managing to snag his leg, it slowly dragged him onto the wet grass to get a better look. The poor Kara was too petrified to run away or call out to Daichi – who was still snoring like a pig, by the way.

In the open air and under the pale moonlight, Suga finally saw for himself what the creature was. It was a distant relative of Debu’s, for sure, but with wings capable of flight and a more reptilian appearance. Its jet-black feathers and shining eyes were like a spectre’s, save for its clunky feet. It waggled its head back and forth over Suga curiously, then peered at Daichi.

Human.” It murmured dismissively to itself. Prodding Suga with its beak, it asked, “Can you sing, bird? Can you?

It hadn’t eaten him yet, so Suga thought it would be okay to answer. Gulping, he replied in a small voice, “Yes.”

Oh, I’ does. I’ s’ a bird.” It sat down and the ground shook. “Where from?”

“F-f-from Hanomachi,”

Whass’at? Is --- --- --- human --- n’?”

Once it got comfortable talking to Suga, it became way harder to understand its accent. This, on top of the vocabulary that was too advanced for him.

Um, yes. It’s a human town.”

Musv’ --- --- --- --- saw roun’ ere. But --- --- fo’ --- mountn’, av’ you seen i’?”

Sweating, Suga scratched his head as the bird eyed him expectantly.

“Sorry, I don’t really know what you’re saying,” he said at last.

Gurgling thoughtfully, it tapped its claw and spoke slowly. “You… know… mountn’?”

“A mountain?”

“A’, home.”

Suga gasped. “Oh! Your home’s at a mountain?”

A’,” it nodded, “I, lost. Which ways’ --- mountn’?”

“Oh, dear. I’m afraid I don’t know where that is.”

Disappointed, the bird lowered its head. “I been walkn’, an’ no findn’. Many moons now.”

“I’m sorry,” Suga rubbed his hands, “I wish I could help.”

I’ fine, bird, I’ fine. I… go.”

As Suga watched it claw at the ground, wondering what to do next, he felt sad for the big guy. They were both lost in this godforsaken forest and desperate to find a way out. Suga’s situation was comparably worse, for he knew far less about this region than the bird did. Daichi probably knew, but he couldn’t speak bird. Was there someone else who did know?

Oh, right. There was.

“Um… I know someone who might be able to help.” Suga offered.

A’?

“But he lives in Hanomachi.”

The bird frowned. “Bird?

“Uh… yeah. Bird.” Suga nodded carefully.

Then, come.”

 Without hesitation it picked Suga up by his collar and plopped him onto its back. When it spread its wings, the Kara scrambled to its head and shouted, “W-wait! Take him, too!”

Human?” it clicked its tongue unhappily, “No.”

Hearing that, Suga promptly leapt off and folded his arms. “I won’t leave without him.”

“Why?”

“He’s my mate.”

Dumbfounded, it flashed its eyes at Daichi again. Assessing that he was harmless in that state, it shrugged and grabbed him out of the hole with its claws.

“Don’t hurt him!”

No. I --- hold ‘im, so ‘e won’t fall.”

“Okay. Thank you.” Suga sighed. After wrapping Daichi up with his cape, he climbed on. “Let’s go home.”

 

Up, up and away they went, soaring high above the trees and through the clouds. They reached Hanomachi in no time—so fast, that it made one wonder how the two got lost at all.

The kids had been up all night waiting for their parents to return, and were relieved to see them safely home. Ukai smeared some strong medicinal oil on Daichi’s face, and gave Suga an ointment for his bruises. As for the Night Raptor (whose species Ukai recognised), it received the directions it needed to fly home. It thanked the doctor and let him scrape the moss off its legs – it was apparently valuable – then took off into the night.

Everything was back to normal again. But there was one last thing to wrap up.

The fate of Daichi the drunk. It had taken a while for the oil to chase off the effects of the Nemuta berries, and by the time the excruciating stinging started, everyone had gone to bed already. He could only find respite in the person next to him, and that was – of course – Suga.

“Suga, help meee…” he whispered and rubbed his face all over the back of Suga’s shirt. Tired and annoyed, the Kara groaned and batted his grabby hands away.

“Nnmm… stop it…”

“My eyes… I can’t see…”

“Wipe it yourself…”

“It huurts—” Daichi then made the fatal mistake of getting it in his eye. “Owowowow—”

“Wh-what did you do?”

“My eyeee—”

 

Ukai barged in and hollered, “Go to sleep!!”

 

And that was the end of it.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“Good morning, Yukiko.”

“Oh, mornin’ Suga. Not with Daichi today?”

The girl’s dark eyes scanned the area within a five metre radius of Suga. Sure enough, the target was right behind him, at another stall. “Never mind, there he is,” she sighed.

Nowadays, Yukiko could speak face-to-face with the Kara. Whenever she did, she would admire his otherworldly face with unabashed abandon. His features were decidedly human-looking and prettier than most girls in the village-- but the real mystery was his complexion. His cheeks and ears were flush from the cold, but his snow-white skin remained dewy and soft in the dry air. In contrast, her skin was already flaking. The first snow hadn’t even arrived yet.

“Um, we wanted to get some coats for winter.” Suga said quietly.

Even his timid speech was somehow beautiful. Darn these beautiful creatures! Her only respite was in teasing him.

“Naw, you don’t need a coat, you’ve got Daichi.”

Yukiko,” Suga whined, embarrassed. She always made fun of how he stuck to the hunter like glue.

“Alright, alright, it’s too early for jokes. Did you bring furs?”

The Kara nodded and slung his basket around. “Could you take a look?”

 

Yukiko took her time to inspect the workmanship of the furs. It was no secret that the Sawamuras were a wealthy lot because of them. Furs of any creature that walked the land—you name it, you got it. Although Daichi was the only Sawamura left in Hanomachi, the family’s regulars treated him just as well as his parents, often preferring to trade with him over others. It was no wonder, for the Sawamuras were masterful in the art of tanning hides.

From Suga’s basket came skins from hares, weasels, two beautifully complete deerskins, and some unrecognizable pieces of fur. “Erm, what’s with these?” Yukiko said and picked up what looked like half a hare. It was stretched unevenly and thinning in some places.

“Ah, those are the ones the kids and I made.” Suga smiled sheepishly. “We need practice.”

Yukiko giggled and sorted them out. “Well, I can’t make coats with these. We can still use them for trimmings, though.”

Just then, Daichi sidled up to Suga with a grin. “Everything okay?” he asked. The Kara nodded and slipped his hand into Daichi’s automatically.

“Hey, Dai-chan,” Yukiko pointed at the deerskin, “Who’s getting these?”

“One for Suga, the other for the boys.”

“What about you?”

“Mine still fits me well. How much for everything?”

As the two negotiated, Suga noticed that the man’s nose had become awfully red at some point. It was even leaking. He took out his handkerchief and wiped Daichi’s nose mid-sentence.

“Daichi, are you feeling cold?” he asked, “Your nose is running.”

“Ah, I guess it is,” Daichi sniffed. He suddenly sneezed.

“Hey, watch the goods!” Yukiko dusted off her wares, “Anyway, two gold it is. I’ll throw in some extra belts.”

“Thanks. Here you go,” Daichi stifled another sneeze, and Suga led them home as soon as they were done trading for the day. Fearing it would develop into something serious, he put Daichi to bed at once (despite his protests) and brewed up a remedy for colds. It made the entire house smell strongly of herbs and flowers, and it forced Kageyama to find out what was going on.

“Mama, what in the world are you boiling?” he exclaimed while pinching his nose.

“It’s for Daichi.”

“Is he sick?”

Suga nodded and poured a bowlful of the hot tea. “Could you pass this to him?”

Unwillingly, Kageyama released his fingers and he caught a whiff of the pungent drink. “Phwoar.”

“I know, dear. Be careful, don’t spill it.”

Holding his breath and carefully cradling the bowl with a cloth, he walked to Mama and Daichi’s room. He placed the bowl onto a stool, then quickly pinched his nose shut again.

“Mama says you have to drink this,” Kageyama said with his nasally voice.

Sighing, Daichi rolled out of the covers and contemplated the bowl. It smelt and looked foul. “I just have a runny nose, though.”

“Tell that to Mama.”

“Put in a good word for me?”

Kageyama stuck out his tongue. “Enjoy!” he grinned, then ran off to get some fresh air outside. Afterwards, it was Hinata’s turn to peer in – and he, too, took one whiff of the tea and ran for cover. Betrayed by his allies, the future looked bleak for Daichi. How was he going to convince Suga that he just needed some rest and not—this?

 

Suddenly, he heard footsteps approaching. Diving back under the covers, he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

“Daichi?” Suga spoke, seeing the lump on the bed and the untouched bowl. He sat down on the bed and leaned over to see if Daichi was sleeping. Sure enough, he ‘was’. Complete with soft snoring. Sighing, Suga covered the bowl with a lid, then crawled into bed with him. Daichi held his breath as he felt the Kara envelop him with his body and wings.

Ah, warmth. So this was how it felt like being the little spoon.

Suga stroked the man’s head lovingly, and as he did, Daichi started to remember something odd. Something he had done quite recently. He couldn’t quite place a finger on what it was.

“Daichi… are you awake?” cooed Suga.

Darn.

Daichi grunted in reply.

“I made you medicine.”

“Do I have to?” he mumbled.

“Yes.” Suga replied firmly. It was that gentle, you’d-better-do-what-I-say tone. Daichi turned around with a groan and a sulk.

“But I’m not sick.”                                                                                         

“Of course you are. Look at you.”

“It’s nothing. I can just sleep it off.” As he said that, a drop of watery snot dribbled from his nose, and Suga clicked his tongue. Instinctively, Daichi grabbed onto the crow’s arm before he could get up to take the medicine.

“Come on, it’s really nothing!”

“I know it smells bad, Daichi, but it’s good for you. You’ll feel better in no time.”

“Well, um—other things can do the same thing too, you know?”

Have we mentioned how bad Daichi was at making excuses?

“Like what?” Suga raised an eyebrow.

The hunter wracked his brain for something, anything that sounded believable.

“Like…mead! Everyone drinks that when they catch a cold.” He said confidently.

“Really?” Suga questioned, and Daichi nodded fervently. “If I ask Ukai, he’ll say the same?”

“Sure!”

“But if you drink mead, you’ll get drunk, and—”

 Suga paused and turned scarlet.

“What?” Daichi asked, intrigued by the Kara’s reaction.

“Nothing.” He said quickly.

“Did I do… something?” Daichi asked carefully and moved closer.

“I-it’s nothing. Just drink your tea, okay?”

“If you don’t tell me, I won’t.”

Suga puffed his cheeks and stared at Daichi with…

Anger?

 

“If I tell you, do you promise to drink it?”

Daichi agreed readily, and somehow found himself heating up from head to toe already. It was as if his body remembered what had happened and was pre-empting his brain for the truth. Suga thumbed his hand shyly and looked away.

“You touched my… butt.”

 

No matter how explosively Daichi forced his neurons to fire, he could not for the life of him remember doing so. How could he have forgotten such an important breakthrough?!

But among all the other uncertainties surrounding the events that led to this incident, only one question needed to be answered right now.

 

How did it feel like?

 

Red-faced, Daichi boldly asked, “Can I do it again?”

To his surprise, Suga didn’t immediately recoil or run away. Instead, the crow sat quietly with a blush on his face—as if waiting for him to do it.

“Suga, you—you’re okay with this?” he gulped.

And then Suga did it. He dropped the ultimate line.

 

“If it’s Daichi…”

 

Simply translated, if green lights were a thing in this world, they would be flashing neon in huge ‘GO’ signs all over Daichi’s brain.

Moving closer, Daichi slowly placed his hands on Suga’s waist.

His fingers were about to cross the invisible line between back and bum.

All he had to do was move them before—

 

“Mama, do we have any more salt? We ran out over here.”

Darn Kageyama.

“Ah, I’ll get it for you,” Suga snapped out of his trance and started to leave.

Daichi reached out and exclaimed, “Wait, Suga—!”

“Finish the tea, okay? You promised.”

And out he went.

Daichi fell onto the bed with a dejected sigh. Well, it wasn’t so bad, he thought. Maybe afterwards. For now, he would be placated with the thought of Suga’s cute confession—and the more he replayed the scene in his mind, the giddier he felt inside.

Frankly, to say any more about what he was feeling would unfairly brand him a pervert, for as a healthy young man with raging hormones, it was quite the forgone conclusion. Unfortunately for him, Suga spoke no more about the matter after that day. Making things worse, Daichi wasn’t sure how to raise the subject—and he wasn’t about to touch him out of the blue.

But he wanted so badly to know how it felt like. The anticipation was just killing him! With nowhere to turn, he decided to consult everyone’s favourite love doctor.

 

“So, what did you tell him that time?”

“Which time?” Daichi muttered, his face pressed onto the kitchen table.

“When he confessed and – what did you say he said – asked what lovers do?”

“Oh. I didn’t… say anything.”

Ukai sighed and rubbed his face. “Actually, I don’t blame ya. You can’t really explain these things. Especially to someone who knows less about it than his kids.”

“Wait, what—?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“Um… I was thinking you could… talk to him.”

 

From the distance between Ukai’s eyelids as he stared at him, Daichi already knew it wasn’t going to end well.

 

But here they were anyway, three men seated at the table with a lovely pot of green tea. Ukai had managed to keep the kids busy with Debu—you see, she needed to be brushed, even though she had just been brushed yesterday. Her noble sacrifice would be duly paid in bushels of blueberries.

Ukai and Daichi eyed each other across the table nervously. Suga sipped on his teacup, blissfully unaware of what was in store for him. Clearing his throat, Ukai tried to act casual.

“So, Suga. How have you and Daichi been doing?”

That was the worst line to start with. They saw each other on a regular basis, for crying out loud.

“Hm? Everything’s good. Why do you ask?” Suga replied with a bright smile.

“Oh, I was just curious. You’re each other’s first partner, after all.” Ukai smiled back calmly.

“Ah, yes. Daichi’s been great at taking care of all of us.”

“I’m sure he has, but there’s more to being a partner than that, you know?”

Suga tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

“You know, um…” Ukai scratched his head, “You know how birds find a mate?”

Daichi pressed face into his palms. Of course. It had to be birds.

“Yes. It’s different for different birds, but they go through some form of mating ritual, then lay their eggs and have a family.” said Suga.

“Right. That’s the gist of it.” Ukai sweated, rolling with the avalanche he started, “So, what I’m talking about is the ritual. You, uh… you two… kinda skipped that part and ended up with a family anyway.”

“But we’re not birds.”

“It’s the same thing for us.”

The silver crow blinked. “Oh. Is that important?”

Daichi wanted to scream ‘yes’. Ukai rubbed his temples. Seeing their scarcely veiled reactions, Suga frowned and fidgeted with his fingers uncomfortably. “I didn’t know. I read Sensei’s books and thought that it was just something male and female Karas did to find a mate.”

“No, no, you’re absolutely right—it’s what comes after finding a mate that’s the thing.” Ukai said.

“Mating?”

Right. Mating.

“Did… Sensei write about that too?” Ukai squinted, and to his relief Suga shook his head. Well, Sensei would have been too embarrassed to write about it anyway.

And then, in the sweetest, purest voice, it arrived.

“What is it?”

 

Ukai coughed several times and downed the rest of the boiling hot tea in one shot. He barely felt it in his throat.

“You see, it’s… it’s what… animals do… when they want to have babies.”

“What do they do?”

Ukai ransacked his brain to find a way to tastefully explain the birds and the bees to this man. The trouble was that the more he gazed into Suga’s innocent eyes, the more his ability to form coherent thoughts crumbled.

It felt wrong. Morally wrong. This precious innocence, this unblemished mind—who was he to sully it with the perverse realities of this world?!

Under duress, he fell back on the one thing that he knew would work for sure.

 

A demonstration.

No, it would not be performed by him, nor any other humanoid. It had to be the birds.

And of all the birds, it had to be the coalbirds.

 

So began the most awkwardly traumatic minute of Suga’s life, where he bore witness to the making of one of nature’s miracles, courtesy of two very energetic birds no bigger than the size of his palm.

He would never look at a cute little coalbird the same way again.

 

After the ordeal, Suga returned home in stunned silence and hid himself in his room. Daichi let him be. He didn’t dare disturb the mourning—the mourning of innocence lost. Pacing around the house in obvious panic, he was eventually stopped by a very confused Hinata.

“Daichi, what happened to Mama?”

“E-eh? Nothing. Nothing happened.”

“He looked like he’d seen a ghost. What were you and uncle Ukai talking about?” the boy peered suspiciously.

“It’s… grown-up stuff.”

“Oh. Is it serious?”

“No, it’s not. It’s just… don’t worry about Mama, yeah? I’ll go talk to him soon.” Daichi patted the boy’s head and sighed.

“Okay,” Hinata shrugged. “We’ll go peel the potatoes for dinner.”

“Thanks, champ. Don’t forget the eyes.”

 

Daichi took another long sigh before knocking on the door. No response.

Entering cautiously, he saw Suga on the bed. He was all wrapped up in a bundle, reminiscent of a cocoon.

Daichi closed the door gently behind him and sat on the bed.

“Suga?”

Suga sat upright slowly, letting the sheets fall off his wings. He stared at his hands and spoke softly.

“Daichi… you’ve always… wanted to… do that?”

Turning red, Daichi admitted it with a grunt.

Suga’s wings trembled as he looked up at Daichi with moist, defenceless eyes. “If Daichi wants to… then I’ll do it.”

Alarmed, Daichi shook his head.

“No, Suga. I won’t unless you want to. It’s not something I can decide on my own.” He sighed haplessly and held Suga’s hands. “I... I just wanted to know how you feel about these things. I didn’t mean to scare you like that. Sorry.”

The crow pursed his lips. His fingers closed around Daichi’s and he darted his gaze away, embarrassed.

“It looks like it hurts.”

Daichi gulped.

“I… um… I’ll be gentle.”

“I know you will. You’re always gentle with me. It’s just that…” Suga glanced down, and Daichi swore it was at his crotch.

“We’ll… take it one step at a time.”

“Have you done it before?”

Daichi shook his head vehemently.

“So I really am your first mate,” Suga blushed, particularly at the mushiness coming from his mouth.

Daichi smiled. “The first, and the last.”

 

With that part cleared up, life resumed its onward march. Suga returned to the fold a little less innocent, and Daichi emerged a little braver. But the observer knows that what really mattered was if Daichi reached enlightenment on the singular matter that set the rest of his (and Suga’s) awkward love life in motion.

The answer is both yes and no.

No, Daichi did not get to touch the butt that day.

But when he finally did, it was soft.

 

Chapter Text

A sea of shimmering white crystals.

A trail of large footprints, sunk deep into the snow.

At the end, a man moves slowly. His long strides carve a path through the unknown. Following behind him is a dark-haired boy with a long cape, who steps in the hollows the man leaves behind.

The travellers tread up the frozen hill in silence. When they reach the top, the boy wipes his brow and drinks from his bottle. The man is focused, however, and he watches the land as the boy recovers.

“Ready to move?” Daichi asks. He bends down to tighten the string on the boy’s cape.

“Yeah,” Kageyama nods.

“The den should be around here. We’re looking for a tree burrow.”

“That could be anywhere. There’re trees all over this place.”

“As soon as we find a trail, it’ll lead us right to it.”

The boy raises his fluffy wings – his winter coat has grown well.  “I’ll take a look.”

“Not too high, yeah?” Daichi pats his back. Kageyama nods and pulls up his bandana, then takes off into the chilling air.

 

This was Kageyama’s second winter as Daichi’s apprentice. For the aspiring hunter, the unforgiving winter was yet another training ground.

Another way to die meant another way to survive.

As Kageyama’s mentor, Daichi would never put him through the horrible training he endured – but neither would he sugar-coat the toughness demanded by his profession. He told the boy very little and showed him everything he knew, hoping that the Kara would one day find his roots and hunt as Ukai once did.

 

Up in the sky, Kageyama shivered. He clutched his cloak around him as the cold wind seeped into his skin. Below him, a disorienting pattern of trees, trees, and more trees. The occasional rock or stump jutted out from the earth like bumps on an unhealthy scalp, but that was all this featureless land had to offer.

Oh, how he wished he was at home with a nice cup of warm milk! Hinata was surely gloating over his suffering right now. But he had to focus. They had a mission to fulfil.

At long last he noticed something peculiar and landed on a nearby tree to investigate. From afar he could see a path of disturbed snow, as if something had been dragged through it. They were old tracks for some sections had faded, no doubt under last night’s snowfall. Thinking it might be a clue, he tied a scrap of red cloth onto a branch and whistled thrice.

A distance away, Daichi heard Kageyama’s signal and whistled once. He waited for the boy’s return, and asked what he had seen.

“Old tracks. It looked drag marks, but I’m not sure.”

“This could be it. Lead the way!”

When they arrived at the site, Daichi confirmed Kageyama’s suspicions with a quick dig under the snow. Lying beneath were large depressions in the soil, surely from some monstrous creature.

“This might be our girl. Good job, Kageyama,” he praised, and the boy nodded quietly. “It looks like it leads down the side of the ridge over there. Let’s go.”

The signs became more obvious as they continued tracking it down. Dried blood on a tree - the creature had stopped for a snack. An inexplicably warm stench on another - it had marked its territory a while after. Once the tree burrow was in sight, Daichi and Kageyama hid behind a tree and took out their bows.

The entrance was completely dark. It was like looking into a bottomless well with no way of knowing what foul beast lurked in its depths.

Daichi picked up a stone and tossed it into the burrow. They heard a short clatter and a bump.

Minutes passed.

Nothing stirred.

“What if it’s not in there?” Kageyama whispered.

“It’s hard to tell, but… you see the fibrous roots at the top?” Daichi pointed.

“Yeah?”

“They’re all bent inward.”

The boy understood. “It hasn’t left.”

 

Suddenly, a long shard of bone shot out of the hole in a puff of green smoke. The two snapped upright and readied their arrows. Awoken from its slumber, the creature’s head emerged slowly into view. Dark blue scales that shone purple under the light plated its triangular face. It licked its small beady eyes with its fat black tongue as it bobbed its head about.

Daichi counted down quietly. Kageyama drew his arrow.

 

Three.

Two.

One.

 

The Kara pivoted swiftly on his heel. Startled, the reptile flinched. Before it could retreat, Kageyama fired his steel-tipped arrow—and it struck the side of its head, shaving off several scales. Angered, it emitted a high-pitched hiss and charged out of the burrow.

“Go!” Daichi yelled, and Kageyama took off on his wings.

Surprisingly speedy for its size, it snapped at the man’s heels as he ran with haste against the snow. Daichi knew he would be outrun if he didn’t do something soon. Finding a low branch, he quickly hoisted himself into a tree and climbed to a safe spot, leaving the furious reptile to circle helplessly below. Now in plain sight, Kageyama shuddered at the length of the thing. Thrice the size of a grown man. Feet and nails the size of a bear's. He likened it to a scaly, overgrown weasel with deceivingly harmless eyes.

That’s a dragon?” he gulped.

“More precisely, a lesser marsh dragon of the northern swamps.”

“I thought dragons had wings.”

Daichi laughed, “Not all dragons are made equal.”

He kicked the side of the tree to draw the reptile’s attention. When it started trying to claw its way up, he took aim.

Point blank.

Releasing a powerful shot, the arrow gored through the dragon’s open mouth and caused it to fall backwards. It thrashed and twisted upon itself in pain like a worm, struggling to dislodge the arrow from its throat. Seeing his chance, Daichi jumped onto the dragon’s back and grabbed onto the shaft. He jerked it upright and forced its head to be still.

With one firm stab through the skull its slithery body collapsed for good—and blood spilled all over the pristine snow from its gaping jaws.

 

“Mission complete!” Daichi clambered off the carcass and gave Kageyama a high-five. “Good work, Kageyama.”

“Nice stab.”

“Couldn’t have done it without you.”

Moving closer, the Kara stared at the dragon and the putrid-smelling blood. It was even sizzling. “Woah. Green.”

“It might be toxic,” Daichi replied and pulled out the arrow. The metal tip had partially corroded and was dripping a mixture of blood and saliva. “Okay, it’s definitely toxic.”

“Cool. Can we use that for something? Like, dip our arrows in the stuff?”

“If we can find a material that doesn’t get dissolved by it, yeah.”

The boy rubbed his chin. “Well, the dragon can’t dissolve itself. How ‘bout the skin?”

“Only one way to find out.”

 

And Kageyama’s hypothesis worked! The dragon’s skin and scales withstood the blood perfectly. After skinning the whole dragon, Daichi fashioned a makeshift pouch out of the tail piece and packed it with the green snow. Kageyama wrapped up the head for transport, and they left the rest of the carcass for another time.

The dragon’s head was presented to the shepherd, who paid them handsomely for their service. He didn’t want anything to do with it, actually – he just wanted to make sure the fiend who devoured his sheep was dead. Thus it became Kageyama’s prize, and he pried off the thick scales, washed them clean, and polished them until they shone. They truly had an exquisite sheen; after all, a lesser dragon was still a dragon. After he showed them off to his brother, Hinata got the splendid idea to make jewellery out of them—but he needed help.

 

“Daichi, Daichi!”

“Hmm?” Daichi hummed absentmindedly. He was busy scrubbing the flesh off the dragonskin, and boy… it was the equivalent of a morbidly obese, six metre long cow.

“Can you make holes through these?” The boy passed him the bucket of shiny scales.

Daichi picked up the thickest scale and tapped it. “It’s pretty tough, but nothing a bit of metal can’t handle. Let’s see…”

He placed the scale down and hammered a dent into it. Using a smaller pick, he carefully chiselled away inside the dent until a hole formed. Hinata’s eyes sparkled as he watched.

“Is this good?” he asked.

“Yes! Could you do all of them just like this one? Please?”

“What do you want with them?”

“I wanna make something for Mama. Oh, I’ll make one for you, too!”

“Oh, you will?” smiled Daichi, “I guess I can’t refuse. Right after I finish this, yeah?”

The Kara beamed and hugged him. “You’re the best!”

 

It took a long time to assemble all the pieces together, but the two managed to finish their craft session in time for dinner. Suga had cooked a warm stew with some… interesting… spices he had bought from a traveling merchant. The lady was even kind enough to give him a traditional home recipe. The result was a spicy concoction, red and thick with bubbles of oil from the thoroughly cooked pork. The smell alone was enough to burn their nose hairs and warm their bellies.

Suga gave it a taste and licked his lips contentedly. He stopped short of adding more spices when Daichi hugged him from behind with a loud yawn.

“Smells great,” he drooled, “I want a sip.”

“It’s almost done. Just a while longer and the pork will be real soft.”

Daichi leaned forward to breathe in the delicious aroma, and Suga thwacked his forehead with the spoon. “Uh-uh. Go set the table and wait.”

“Oh, fine,” he pouted, and demanded a smooch before leaving obediently.

Everyone enjoyed the stew, but none so much as Suga. While the rest reached for water and bread to douse the flames, he drank straight from the bowl without stopping. While tears and snot ran down the others’ reddened faces, he was as fresh as a daisy in spring.

“Haa! This dish is perfect for winter,” he smiled from ear to ear, “What do you guys think?”

“HOT!” Hinata exploded with his tongue hanging out.

“Mama, why?!” Kageyama wept in agony.

“It’s—it’s nice.” Daichi gripped the table with a calm face.

“Ah,” Suga scratched his cheek sheepishly. “There’s milk in the kitchen—”

 

The three immediately bolted off their seats.

They had one bottle of milk, and it wasn’t going to be enough for all of them.

Hinata, the quickest one, honed in on the bottle and grabbed it first. Kageyama snatched it out of his hands with a swift swipe and tried to fly away, but crashed into Daichi. The impact sent the bottle cartwheeling into the air—drumming forth all the might from his thighs, Daichi lunged like a majestic whale.

Save!

He caught it right before it hit the floor. Not a drop spilled. He sighed in relief, but it wasn’t over. Hinata slammed screaming of hellfire into Kageyama, who bowled into Daichi, and knocked the bottle over again.

Smash!

All three of them went cold as they watched the precious white nectar seep into the floor.

“Did you break—oh, no.” Suga pinched his eyebrows and sighed. “See what you’ve done? Now there’s a mess, and nobody gets to drink the milk.”

“Sorry, Mama.” They mumbled in unison.

“I’ll dilute the soup for you, so hold on, alright?”

“Yes, Mama.”

 

The family dinner concluded without further incident. Suga promised to make it less spicy next time, and wondered if Ukai would like some.

 

Then, it was time for the gift. Hinata gave Mama the bracelet he had made especially for him. The blue dragon scales gleamed against the darkly tanned leather strips, arranged in an overlapping pattern of round and spiky pieces. Suga tied it round his wrist and admired it with a proud smile – it was perfect in his eyes, even though it clearly looked like the handiwork of a child.

“It’s so pretty! Thank you, Hinata.”

“Kageyama gave me the scales, and Daichi helped me make it.” Hinata grinned.

“Really? Then I must thank all of you.”

And thank he did, with a smooch for each of his boys. Daichi showed off his matching bracelet, too, and what a pair they made! Hinata joked that the bracelets were like a set of wedding rings, which made the two adults blush.

Marriage? It seldom crossed their minds, for many things had kept them occupied since they started out – the house, the work, the kids, the food – the list never ended, did it? Besides, male couples rarely wed; yet happy lives could still be led.

“If you two get married, then you’ll officially become Mama and Papa.” The orange crow declared.

Officially?

“What, you mean you’ll call me Papa if we do?” Daichi smirked.

“Not right away. We need to adjust to having you as a proper dad, so we’ll call you something in between first, like…”

“Father-chi.” Kageyama suggested. (Oya-chi)

“Dadchi.” Hinata guffawed. (Chi chi-chi)

Suga and Daichi couldn’t help but laugh, too.

“Hey, you don’t think I need an adjustment period? I’ll call you two Hina-chan and Kage-chan!”

That started a dad joke war which, naturally, nobody won.

 

To the lovebirds, they were already indistinguishable from family. Marriage was merely the icing on the cake. But then, one might say, what about formality? What about tradition? Isn’t it necessary for couples to declare their everlasting love in such a manner?

 

That night, Daichi asked Suga what he thought about marriage.

“As long as I’m with you… I don’t see why we need to.” He replied.

“But…” Daichi cuddled up to the crow’s wings, “I’d love to let everyone know you’re mine.”

“Everyone knows that already,” Suga blushed.

The day Daichi stopped being shy about telling others about him was the day Suga became the talk of the town. He couldn’t step out in public without anyone gawking at him for weeks.

“But it sounds better when I tell them I have a wife.”

Wife? You mean husband.”

“You’re Mama, so you have to be the wife.”

“In that case, you can’t be the husband.” Suga pouted.

“Why not?”

“They haven’t called you Papa yet.”

 

“I think I’ve earned that title already,” Daichi grinned proudly.

 

The Kara chuckled. “I think so too.”

 

And they embraced each other till the break of dawn.

 

 

Chapter Text

Two hundred years ago, the legacy of the Karas fell into obscurity. The story that is often told, if told at all, is that the Karas were punished during the Crimson-Blood War for betraying their allies.

The Crow King later discovered that their fate was a manufactured tragedy; their downfall instrumental to a greater, most abhorrent plot upon the Lands. It left a deep anger within every Kara who remained. But seeking justice was nigh impossible. The enemy never stopped trying to exterminate them, no matter where they fled.

Villages burned. Generations ended. They had nothing, not a shred of power to avenge their fallen brethren.

Thus, they had no choice but to become the forgotten; keepers of history who would one day rise again.

 


 

The ice mountains bordering the East and West Lands were a barren and uninhabitable place. Endless snowstorms and dangerously steep cliffs ensured that nobody would dare approach. And why bother? There was nothing here at all. Not a single speck of life.

Except the Karas.

Today, we follow one such Kara who lived there – a young man in the middle of a blizzard, diligently shovelling snow into a sack. Now, one might think it was a fool’s errand. Why, he could have simply raised the sack above his head, and it would fill up in seconds. But this man probably thought doing that would make him look silly. Besides, time was not of the essence. He could stay out on the freezing cold for as long as he wished.

Once he was done, he placed the fat bag over his shoulder and trudged back into a cave. He reached a dead end within a few paces, but he did not think to stop walking. He strode right through the rock wall and it absorbed him – bag and all – then re-solidified as he passed through, as if nothing had happened.

And then, silence. The roaring wind was no more.

Rows of glowing torches lit the stone-paved passage on the other side, warm and welcoming.

They led to an iron gate where four armoured Karas stood, each holding a spear taller than themselves. “Pass,” one of them said as the man approached. The man dropped a necklace with a glowing red crystal onto the guard’s palm, and the faint red glow around him disappeared. Now the chill was back.

“Good. You may proceed.”

 

Down the path the man went, his boots clacking on the pavement as he walked quickly. He didn’t want to stay a second longer in this dreary cave. Near the exit he noticed his friend waiting for him, and he strode right by without a second glance.

“Ah, Tsukki, wait up!”

And in typical Tsukishima fashion, he didn’t respond. He merely tipped his gold-rimmed spectacles – ones that matched his light hair – and carried on.

That sprightly friend of his was, of course, Yamaguchi. His neatly-tied hair bounced as he jogged behind Tsukishima like an obedient puppy; a familiar sight to friends of theirs. They were dressed in the same white robes with cross-shaped insignias on the side, complete with a golden pin on their lapel.

“Hey, Tsukki,” Yamaguchi grabbed onto the bag, “I’ll take it from here.”

Tsukki sighed and dropped it onto the ground with a thud. “Don’t ask me to do this again.”

“Sorry, Tsukki. I would’ve gone myself if I could,” he grinned and hoisted it onto his back.

“Seriously… you’re just wasting your passes. And mine.”

“Come on, don’t be like that. Besides, we don’t go out for anything else.”

The blonde took out his pocket watch. “Lunch?”

Yamaguchi nodded. “Of course!”

 

Down they flew into the sprawling underground city known as the Capital, where life flourished under the light of sun-charged crystals. It was covered in shades of green wherever you looked — across the massive shelves of rock where they built their homes, on the walls of the cavern where they carved temples and idols, and all around the castle of the Crow King. They planted whole forests and drew waterfalls from aquifers, then filled them with creatures from the outside world. Like a gigantic terrarium, the Capital ensured life in isolation for over thousands of Karas, protecting them at the cost of absolute secrecy. Only servants of the Capital were allowed to travel outside the city on official business.

This was their last stand. All else could fail, but the Capital would remain.

 

Tsukishima and Yamaguchi arrived at their favourite restaurant on level 126, platform B-03. Well, Tsukki didn’t care much for it – it was more for Yamaguchi, who adored their fried baby potatoes.

Then again, anything was better than the food at the mess hall.

“Three baskets – one to go – and two beef wraps, please!” Yamaguchi ordered. Tsukki took the table at the edge of the platform and stared listlessly at the twinkling city below. The deep cavern stretched downward for a mile before curving horizontally into a hollow they called King’s Valley. That was where the castle resided – right in the middle of the city.

His eyes wandered to the veranda above, where a large sign written in fanciful letters was hung. ‘The Best View in the Capital’.

Tsukishima scoffed to himself. As if we had visitors.

His friend sat down across him and patted the precious bag of snow. “It won’t melt, will it?”

“It’s enchanted. You ordered three baskets?”

“Yeah. I’m keeping one for tea break.” He smiled. Tsukki sighed and leaned into his chair. “Something bothering you, Tsukki?”

“No.”

A waitress arrived with two cups of water. Yamaguchi thanked her and asked for tomato puree. “Is it about work?”

“I said no.”

“Hm… or is it a girl?”

“Will you stop asking?” Tsukishima murmured and picked up his glass. Stuck to the bottom was a scrap of paper with something written on it. Seeing that, Yamaguchi sighed dramatically.

“Another moth to the flame. Don’t tell me we can’t come here anymore?”

The blonde peeled off the paper and put it aside - the words ‘you’re cute’ were written on it in cutesy cursive. He didn’t reply Yamaguchi at once, but when the waitress came by again to deliver their food, he made his intentions clear as day.

“Excuse me, you forgot this.”

The poor girl stammered an apology and left their table in a hurry.

“Aw, Tsukki, you didn’t have to do that.” Yamaguchi chided. Unapologetic, the man shrugged and dug in.

The two looked over their schedules for the day as they ate. Aside from their regular duties and lessons, they had quite a bit of free time today. Today was the start of the winter festival, after all.

“I think I’ll catch up on potions after our shift. What about you?” said Yamaguchi.

“Mm… I have to meet the chief later.” Tsukki replied. He bit on his fork absently as he thumbed through his notebook.

“Oh?” He blinked excitedly, “You’re getting a promotion?”

“Yeah, right. He just wants a report from me.”

“He thinks highly of you, you know. He’d never ask me to do that.”

Tsukishima grumbled, “He’s just too lazy to do it himself. That old fart… using us to get himself in the General’s good books.”

“I dunno. It’s still a good chance to show him what you can do.”

“Whatever. You done?”

“You eating those?” Yamaguchi pointed to the soggy potatoes in Tsukki’s basket. The spectacled man shook his head and left just enough gold on the table for the bill.

 

Obsidian Peak Castle.

With its shiny towers, imposing architecture, and well-kept gardens, the castle was a fitting replacement for its ill-fated predecessor. Although Tsukishima and Yamaguchi worked here, they rarely enjoyed any of the luxuries one would think they were privy to. After all, they were merely low-ranking officials; only through accompanying their mentors did they get to experience anything remotely glamourous.

Indeed, their place was right beneath the Karas’ emblem of hope, down in the deepest, darkest pit of the city.

 

The prison.

 

No, they were not prison guards. They were far too scrawny to be guards.

No, they were not executioners. To ask a youth to end lives would end their own.

Instead, they were doctors-in-training, sent here to hone their skills on the damned.

“Tsukishima and Yamaguchi. Right on time.” The guard checked their names off and dragged open the rusty metal gate. Tsukki hated the ear-grating sound it made. Couldn’t they at least oil it every now and then? “Remember to leave earlier today, boys. Don’t wanna miss the festival.”

“Thanks, Mister Jo.” Yamaguchi bowed politely and shut the gate behind them.

 

The musty air of the prison was sickening as always. Luminescent moss grew on the wet, craggy rocks. Rust and filth filled the cracks in the floor. Coupled with the stench of blood and decay, it was no wonder the two wore scented masks at all times.

They checked the cells one by one, tending to the prisoners’ pale bodies and festering wounds. This was probably the only place that didn’t have a sun crystal, which made keeping any of them healthy an uphill task. Some had gashes that hadn’t healed in weeks. The luckier ones didn’t fall sick every few days. But most of the time, any form of treatment that needed constant care became undone by the end of the week, no thanks to their peers’ negligence. The other trainees didn’t care as much about their jobs as Tsukishima and Yamaguchi did.

 

“There we go. Now, remember not to scratch it, alright?” Yamaguchi said.

“Alright, alright.” the old prisoner replied dismissively, then did a quick scratching motion in the air just to tease the boy.

“I mean it, Blacktooth. If you touch it…” Tsukishima warned.

Blacktooth laughed a jolly laugh at his own antics, showing off his set of rotten teeth. “Yes-sir! Won’t so much as look at it.”

“Good. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Oh, right.” Blacktooth stood up and peered out of his cell warily. The guard holding the keys was right outside. Other than that, nothing but the idle chatter of bored inmates. Taking his cue, Tsukishima began to slowly pack up their bottles, making a whole lot of clinking noises in the process.

The old man scrambled back to Yamaguchi and started whispering. “About the new guy…”

Yamaguchi perked up. “Did you hear anything?”

“I saw them drag him out again today.”

“What?!” he gasped, “But they just—”

Blacktooth quickly covered the boy’s mouth.

“Listen— I haven’t got anything else yet. Tight-lipped bastards,” He spat. “But don’t you worry, the guards’ll spill someday. They always do.”

“Well—is he back in his cell?”

“Yeah. But from the looks of it, he won’t last much longer.”

Yamaguchi frowned and wrung his wrist. “We’d better get to him then. Thanks, Blacktooth.”

“Just for you, kiddo.”

 

Tsukishima took out the logbook and eyed the last entry.

Prisoner #213. Captured three days ago. Treatment administered: Redwood moss cream for wounds. Herbal potion no. 65 for fever and rashes.

That was their entry for yesterday’s shift. No entries had been written for the morning shift today. He closed the book and sighed. Those insufferable colleagues.

“Next is Two-One-Three,” he told the guard.

“Isn’t that the last one?” the guard questioned.

“Yes.” Tsukishima glowered. The crest on his lapel gleamed in the dim light. “Is there a problem?”

“Not at all, sir. Follow me.”

 

As they approached prisoner 213’s cell, Yamaguchi gulped.

No light passed through the bars. A dish of cold gruel laid untouched on the floor. He felt a certain hollowness looking in, as if nothing was there. Then, Tsukishima brought a torch over, and they saw the collapsed figure of a man in the darkness.

Yamaguchi breathed in deeply. He stepped forward, and set down his supply chest calmly.

“Hey, go take a break. This one’s not going anywhere.” Tsukishima told the guard, who nodded and marched off to his station. He placed the torch beside the prisoner and glanced at his friend’s face.

It was a pained expression; one he could never make.

“Horrible.” Yamaguchi muttered bitterly.

Fresh wounds on top of the old lines underneath. Drag marks on his bleeding knees. Blood-soaked bandages, tattered and loose from the blows. The man was barely conscious – if at all.

“Nothing new.” Tsukishima remarked coldly. Ignoring his words, Yamaguchi knelt down and went over the steps in his head. First, cloth. He carefully wiped the prisoner’s wounds and patted them dry with alcohol.

The man twitched.

“Sorry. It hurts, doesn’t it? It’ll be over soon.” He said softly. “Tsukki, could you get him a new shirt?”

Tsukishima obeyed and silently walked out.

Prison doctors were never told anything about their patients. The rule was supposedly made to prevent vigilantism. It never stopped prisoners from telling them stories about their crimes, however, for what else was there to talk about? As for prisoner 213, Yamaguchi could not fathom what heinous crime he could have committed to deserve such cruel treatment. He had never heard him speak. Yet, he felt an immeasurable sense of misery whenever he treated the man. It just didn’t feel right. Not for a man like him.

When the two were done, the man was wrapped up and clean again. Just like they left him yesterday. It filled Yamaguchi with dread to know they might come in tomorrow, only to see him in that mangled state again. He placed a wrap of snow over the man’s forehead and took out the bag of fried potatoes he had hidden in his chest.

“Um… I brought this for you.”

Yamaguchi lifted a small piece to the man’s mouth. The man opened his eyes wearily at the faint aroma.

“It’s really tasty. I-I didn’t put anything in it, see?” he took a bite out of it and smiled. But the man stared at the food for a few seconds and turned away.

“Won’t you try one?”

No response.

Yamaguchi sighed. He rolled up the bag and looked around the cell. “I’ll… hide it in the corner for you. Have some when you’re better, okay?”

“Let’s go. We’ve got two more to look at,” said Tsukishima.

“Got it.”

 

Before they left, Yamaguchi took one last glance at the man.

He hoped tomorrow would be kinder to him.

 

“Hey, Tsukki.”

“Yeah?”

“Is that really… the only reason?”

“Who knows.”

“I thought we would’ve evolved past that.”

“It’s always been that way.”

 

“Well… I think they’re a beautiful grey.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The day it happened, it was snowing.

The grass had disappeared, the birds had flown, and the animals had fallen asleep.

In Mother Nature’s lullaby, there was peace.

 

The day it happened, Daichi saw them coming from the sky.

 

Them, whose bodies flickered between bird and human. Them, whose faces hid behind white, beak-shaped masks. Them, whose black wings filled hearts with fear.

There were three – and only one of him.

 

Two went after Suga and the kids.

Their leader stopped him from running to their aid.

 

The fiends grabbed hold of Suga’s wings as he fled. He fell into the snow and fought to get away. He told his children to run. Kageyama unsheathed his knife and swung, wildly, at the men. He cut one of them on the arm, who let go of Suga and grappled for the blade. Hinata jumped on the other and clawed, desperately, at his eyes. They told Mama to run.

The leader’s sword came flying at Daichi from all angles. He dodged them as they came, but the nicks quickly turned into cuts. His only weapon was his bow.

He heard the shouting from behind.

He had to do something.

Daichi deflected the sword with a swing of his bow. It left a chip in the wood – but it worked. Seizing his chance, he struck the man’s wrist. The sword fell. The man dove for it, and Daichi tackled him. His strength was not enough to overpower the hunter, and after a few seconds of struggling, he passed out in a chokehold.

Daichi dropped him and took to his heels.

He spun around in time to see Hinata being thrown to the ground, and a hand around Suga’s throat.

Blind with rage, he fired.

The fiend’s neck burst into red in front of Suga’s eyes— he could breathe again. In the distance he saw Daichi coming for them, and the other one drawing his sword to meet him.

 

And then he saw the one left behind.

 

But it was too late. No warning could have come swifter.



Daichi felt the sharp sting of cold steel run through his body.

He fell to his knees as it left him, and blood spilled down his shirt.

Before he could be dealt a second blow, he heard a scream.

 

Stop!

 

He felt the arms of his love around him as everything turned to white.

 

Please, I’ll go with you— just—please, leave them alone!

 

The leader paused and looked down at them through the hollowed eyes of his mask. He raised his head and saw his dead comrade. Then he saw the frightened children.

He lowered his sword.

If you had come quietly, none of this would have happened.

Daichi grasped Suga’s arm, leaving a red handprint.

Don’t ,” he begged, “ Run .”

 

The last thing he remembered was his angel’s tear-filled eyes, his trembling kiss, and his two faint words before he was taken away into the sky.

 

It all passed so quickly.

Mama was gone. Daichi was dying.

Their family was falling apart in front of them. Again.

Kageyama felt Hinata shake his arm. He slowly stared at the man and the growing pool of blood beneath him. He knew he had to stop the bleeding. Just like Daichi had taught him. But his hands had lost their courage, and his mind had become paralyzed.

“Kageyama! He’s gonna bleed out!”

The boy raised his palms to his face. He had to do something.

He slapped his cheeks and breathed out sharply.

Don’t stop thinking. Don’t stop moving.

He’s still alive.

“Okay,” Kageyama stood up, “I’ll take care of him. Go get Ukai!”

Hinata took off as fast as his wings would carry him. Kageyama stripped off his cape and pressed it into Daichi’s wound. The man groaned and panted as the searing pain ravaged his flesh.

“Stay awake, okay? Ukai will be here soon.”

Daichi’s eyes began to close.

“Hey, Daichi! Didn’t you hear me? Wake up!” the boy choked back his tears.

The man coughed, and blood trickled down his cheek. “I’m here.”

“I’ll never forgive you if you die.”

 

Once Ukai arrived with Debu, he carried Daichi into the house without delay. He uttered not a single word as he battled to save his boy. He was as terrified as the children were at the thought of losing him. At least , he prayed to the gods, let him live long enough for one more lecture .

When it was done, bloody bandages littered the floor, and the smell of oil and iron filled the room. The bleeding had stopped, but the pain would persist for a long time. That was the best he could do for a wound that deep – the only saving grace was that the blade had gone cleanly through. It took a while for Daichi to regain consciousness, and as soon as he did, he tried to get up. Ukai, pinned him down.

“Don’t even think of moving.”

Staring at Ukai through hazy eyes, Daichi muttered, “Suga… Suga needs me.”

“And what the hell do you think you’re going to do?”

“He’s still alive.”

“You can’t save him like this.”

“Then cure me!”

“I’ve done what I can! I don’t even know if you’ll last the night.”

“You always have something; I know you do!”

“Daichi, I know you feel like shit right now, but you can’t—”

Daichi grasped Ukai’s collar with his shaking hand.

“He trusted me!”

Ukai flinched. He knew what was coming.

“He trusted me, and I failed him. I failed them . And now because of me, he’s going to suffer again. I can’t let that happen.”

Ukai closed his eyes. “Even if you die?”

“Even if I die.”

The doctor fell silent. He bit his lip, hoping it would wake him up from this nightmare. It didn’t.

Standing up, he produced a small vial of a swirling, golden liquid from his bag. He looked grimly at its contents, hesitating for a long while, before showing it to Daichi.

“This… is distilled dragon’s blood. If you drink this, you’ll survive a few days. Maybe even a month, if you’re lucky. But one day…”

He sighed.

“You will fall into a deep sleep.”

“Give it to me.”

“Do you understand, Daichi? You’ll die.”

Daichi clearly heard the pain in Ukai’s voice. This man, this dear friend of his, had already experienced enough heartbreak for a lifetime. To ask this of him would force another terrible weight upon his shoulders—but he had no one else to turn to.

“Please.”

Ukai squeezed his eyes shut. He could just throw it away, right now. Find another way. Save his godson’s life.

But that would be him and Sensei all over again.

 

Daichi’s life wasn’t his to lead.

 

“Daichi,” Hinata spoke, his eyes welling with tears, “Are you really…?”

The man reached out and held the boys’ hands. They were both crying.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop them,” he said, “I’ll do anything now to get Suga back.”

“But then you’ll die,” said Kageyama.

 

Daichi only smiled.

 

“I’d die happy.”

Chapter Text

“Rise and shine, Prince Kenma!”

 

This happened every day without fail, when the Lady of the Sky had just begun to slip out of her nightdress.

How scandalous! If one should respect nature, one should wait until the sky was salmon-coloured – better yet, a full blue.

But that was Kenma’s pathetic attempt at a poetic excuse, anyway.

 

“No time to dally! Up, up, up!”

The silk curtains flew open and the room brightened just a smidge. Kenma pulled the covers over his head and grumbled.

In rolled a finely polished golden cart, neatly arranged with a silver platter of meat medallions, jugs of plain water and milk, and a bowl of freshly cut tropical fruit. Seeing that the dining table that was piled high with papers and knick-knacks, the servants nodded knowingly at each other and left the cart as it was.

Then, a small commotion occurred outside the door.

“General Kuroo! You’re early today—the prince isn’t awake yet.”

“Ha, I’d give you a promotion if he was.”

“Oh, you jest, I’ve been trying for years. Have a good day, sir.”

“Carry on.”

And as usual, after the door closed, the swooning began.

Oh, what a hunk! He’s even more gorgeous up close! I hope he likes calicos!

If only they knew it wasn’t soundproof. Not that Kuroo minded, anyway.

The subject of their admiration – that is, his beautifully sculpted body – only increased in desirability after it was marred by that hideous gash across his ribs. The scar it left behind was peculiarly red, too, unlike boring scars that turned brown after healing. Alas, that fight was all the excitement he would experience for the next two years, for the kingdom’s affairs kept him within its walls. One of which was the unmoving lump on the bed before him.

 

Kuroo yawned and sat down on the bed. His stomach grumbled as he caught a whiff of the meat.

One more minute, he thought to himself.

Then, he noticed a furry presence hiding in the darkness behind him. Turning around, he called out in a sweet, totally out-of-character voice.

“A-ma-yu-ki.”

A pair of bright blue eyes glowed at him.

“Come here!”

The creature leapt deftly onto the bed and sniffed Kuroo all over, and he laughed as her big fuzzy paws tickled his belly. Amayuki was Kenma’s pet—a blue-striped snow leopard which didn’t have a single bone of violence in her, despite being born with some of the best equipment around. Her cuddliest feature was her long poufy tail, which was almost as long as her body.

“You hungry? Want some meat?”

Kuroo dangled a medallion over his head, and her pupils bloomed into orbs as they focused on the juicy, seared piece of goodness.

She pounced.

Kuroo whipped his hand away. The cat landed heavily on top of Kenma, producing an audible ‘oof’ from the boy. Amayuki didn’t seem to realize she wasn’t the size of a house cat anymore. She pounced again onto Kuroo and knocked him over, then triumphantly licked her prize out of his hands. Only then, did Kenma finally sit up and reveal his thoroughly annoyed face.

“That freaking hurt,” he grumbled, his voice a little deeper than before. He had let his hair grow out as well, and it fell past his shoulders when it wasn’t in a ponytail. His overall appearance, however, remained mostly the same.

Basically, he didn’t grow much taller.

“Bad Yuki,” Kuroo bopped Amayuki’s snout.

“I declare myself incapable of physical activity. Morning exercise shall be dispensed with.”

“My, perhaps a full-body examination is in order, then. We can’t have you falling sick, Your Highness.”

Kenma narrowed his eyes at the man. “That will not be necessary.”

Smirking, Kuroo fed Amayuki another medallion and picked her up like she was a huge plush toy. She obliged. “Ooh, you’re getting chubby, aren’t you? You’re coming with us.”

Amayuki meowed excitedly at Kenma. Kenma sighed.

“Fine.”

And off they went for their morning trek. The trail they took from the fortress to the top of Kizunotani was not difficult. They always made it in time for sunrise, even with the Royal Fluff Ball. There, the best view of the Verdant Valley laid before the beholder, an evergreen wonder unperturbed by winter’s frost.

Second breakfast was served promptly upon their return, for combat training was next. Although Kenma was technically adept, he never graduated past being a recruit. Not only did he deliberately fail the final test every time he took it – in front of his parents, no less – he often won sparring matches with a single, unfair move. Kuroo always whacked him over the head for it, saying he had to learn how to fight before he could rule.

Afterwards, a warm bath and a full body massage was in order. Inside a candlelit cave, the soothing sounds of a gentle harp and a flowing stream accompanied the flowery aroma of massage oil. Perfect for falling asleep to, which was what Kenma often did. He didn’t get afternoon naps anymore; not after he turned six. He needed the energy, too, for the most draining part of the day was up next.

Princely duties. It was nothing too difficult, really. He just had walk around the designated village for a few hours, give his blessing to whatever things needed blessing, and then go home. Frankly, most of the requests were mind-boggling. He once had to bless an heirloom slipper, for it was, apparently, an amazing cockroach-beater. It was also worth noting that most of the requests came from the old folk; Kenma always returned home with a basketful of candies and toys as a result, and he often wondered what they would give him once he reached fifteen.

Well, he had an inkling.

Oftentimes, the village girls would follow him around on his trips. Dressed in colourful sashes, they would giggle and dart about the houses, taking turns to peek at him and his entourage of soldiers. And when only the Prince and the General were on patrol, the age profile of the admirers would increase exponentially – along with the boldness of the general female populace. No training could prepare Kenma for their tactics. Flower bombardments and love letter ambushes were just not military.

But who could blame them? They were the two most desirable men in the kingdom.

Well, one of them was, at least. When Kenma was eight, he made a girl cry by simply staring at her. All she had done was present him with a flower. He later asked his tutor what he had done wrong, and she laughed and told him to blink more often.

To Kenma, she was Grandma Shiro. She was not his real grandmother, of course, but a very old Nekomata who had served the royal family for generations. Grandma Shiro had taught Kenma’s father, his father before him, and waited on his father before him. Her lessons were his favourite part of the day – second only to bedtime – and today, she was teaching the young prince about the history and literature of the ancient Nekomata.

“The ancient ones used to etch symbols into stone with their claws. Back then, their claws were larger and tougher than ours, even in the two-legged form, as you can see from how wide and deep the marks were.”

“Grandma Shiro.”

“Yes?” she turned to face him, and her long white braids followed.

“Exactly how old are you?”

She counted silently on her blunt claws, and her wrinkled eyes scrunched up in mock concentration. “A thousand?”

“You told me the oldest was two hundred and thirty-six.”

“And I also told you it’s not very nice to ask a lady her age.”

Kenma frowned. “I don’t understand. It’s just a number.”

Grandma Shiro smiled and passed him the stone tablet. “Speaking of numbers...”

The boy looked down at the archaic scripture. He quickly picked apart the squiggles and lines in his head and wove them back together in his own tongue.

“Four… deer? Eleven leaves. Three hundred stone.”

She pointed at the fourth character.

“Fabric,” Kenma corrected himself.

“Well done, Your Highness. Now, they used these tablets to record…”

“Why can’t I ask your age?”

Grandma Shiro sighed slowly and sat down. At least he was inquisitive. “It’s not that you can’t, but rather, it’s done out of respect to people who don’t like to be reminded of their age.”

“I don’t like it either,” he shrugged, “They still do.”

“It’s because you’ve still got a long way to go, kitten. Everyone’s just excited for you.”

I’m not.”

“Oh, pooh.” She rolled her eyes and perfectly channelled a teen. “I was just like you at your age. Full of spite and angst. I can’t imagine how you’ll be when you hit fifteen.”

“Probably worse.”

“What could be worse than, oh, running away from home and ruining your father’s plans?”

 

As soon as she said it, it came.

 

A shrill sound that boiled his blood and burned the insides of his skull.

 

Kenma shot up from his desk, panting hard, his eyes wide and alive.

He had his answer.

 

“Doing it again.”

 

Grandma Shiro stood shakily. “Prince Kenma? Where you are going?”

“Kuroo,” he whispered under his breath, and bolted out the door on all fours.

 

He rushed past the servants and guards, through the empty throne room, and out of the main gate. He skidded down the mountainside, traversed the brambles and the ivy, and dashed over the sunlit fields. At last, he came upon the elite squad-in-training, a unit of Carcamas and the notoriously untameable Goranboro, with Kuroo at the head of the pack.

The Goranboro smelt him first. Agitated, they began to break formation as they growled and stomped the earth, and Kuroo saw him coming as well. He transformed as soon as the first Goranboro left the pack--

But that was unnecessary.

 

The half-tonne, three-eyed beast came pounding towards Kenma with a vicious snarl, its long yellow fangs bared in anger.

Kenma did not run away.

And when their eyes met, the Goranboro ground to an immediate halt.

It took a step back.

Then another.

And then slumped on the ground as if its legs had lost all feeling, and crouched before the boy, shivering with its tail between its legs.

“Out of the way.” Kenma growled, and the cat scampered away as fast as it could.

The others fell back upon seeing that, and neither Nekomata nor beast made a sound when he walked by.

 

Many a time, a soldier would hear rumours of this sovereign power, but few would ever see it for themselves. It was not a power to be used lightly, for those who have experienced it say it is akin to facing the god of death himself. Your blood would turn to ice, your feet would become shambling columns, and your heart would threaten to stop entirely.

The King’s Gaze.

 

Kuroo sighed haplessly to himself as he looked at the humbled beasts. “It only took you one look.”

 

“Kuroo, we have to go.”

 

“Go? Where?”

 

Kenma blinked. That’s right. It was only for his ears.

 

“To Kabeki Forest.”

 

 

Chapter Text

A burning sensation flooded Daichi’s throat as he drank the dragon’s blood – like a shot of strong whisky, but worse. An inexplicable coldness coursed through his veins and merged at his abdomen, and within seconds, small golden scales grew over his wounds. Then, the pain stopped altogether. He was healed.

But now that he was clear of mind, he finally understood what was going to happen to him.

 

It was the feeling one got while lying awake in bed at night.

It starts with loneliness. Just you and your thoughts. You see nothing but darkness, and hear nothing but your breathing. With nowhere to go, your mind wanders into that place.

That one day, all you know and ever knew would fade into nothingness. Your consciousness would disappear from this reality. You wouldn’t know if there was anything on the other side.

Maybe it was just like lying in bed. Floating forever in loneliness, with the memory of a life once lived.

Or maybe you’d forget all you had done, and cease to exist.

And then you start to imagine how it would be like to do that. To not feel. To not see. To not think. To not exist.

It is petrifying.

How accursed sentience is, to allow us to fathom death.

 

Daichi tried to fight those thoughts.

I’m still here. I’m real. I’m here.

It didn’t work.

He tried to stop thinking. To distract himself from the truth.

It didn’t work.

 

“Daichi, are you okay?”

He looked up from his hands to see Hinata and Kageyama. He was sweating.

“Did it work? Do you feel better?”

And the more he looked at them, the more he remembered why he was here in the first place.

That’s right. They mattered. He wanted to see them happy.

 

I’d die happy.

 

“I’m okay,” he breathed, “Let’s think about how we’re gonna find Suga.”

 

Ukai was certain that the attackers had come from the Capital. He did not know where it was, however. Such information was secret – even to Karas outside its walls – and virtually everyone they had met on their travels had never heard about them.

Except the Nekomata.

Now, Daichi knew that the cats had gone back to their clan; but he also knew of their treehouse in the forest next door. If it still remained with their belongings intact, he thought it might be possible to track them down. It was a long shot – but a shot nonetheless.

 

Hinata remembered Kenma telling him about the place.

You’ll know when you see a pipe running down a tree.

After hours of travelling and squinting, Daichi and the boys eventually spotted the pipe. It was covered in lichen and camouflaged within some vines. If they didn’t know what they were looking for, it would have been nearly impossible to find.

From the outside, the house looked overgrown and uninhabited. But Daichi felt something was off.

Brandishing an axe, he climbed up the tree and carefully pushed open the door.

It creaked.

The creature inside stirred. Wasting no time, he charged.

 

The boys heard the sounds of battle from below. Steel upon flesh. The roaring of a beast. Cries of pain. Those few minutes felt like forever, and they wanted so badly to get in there with their weapons. But they did as they were told. They stayed right where they were.

And when the sounds stopped abruptly, they gulped.

The door creaked open.

Blood spilled from the opening and splattered all over the trunk. Appropriately freaked out, Hinata and Kageyama clung to each other with chattering teeth. Then, the butchered carcass of a lynx tumbled out of the tree, and it landed with a great thud on the grass below. Panting and covered in sprays of red, Daichi stepped out and raised his dripping axe.

“Clear.”

“Holy shit,” eked Kageyama.

“Language,” Daichi frowned. The boys reset their jaws and flew up.

“That was sick! Did it even hit you?!” Hinata gasped. Besides a few tears in his clothing here and there, the hunter looked virtually unharmed.

 “It did,” he replied, equally incredulous, “But look…”

He pulled back his sleeve, and just like before, lines of golden scales had grown where his skin had split. They wouldn’t come off, no matter how he picked or pried with a knife. If he thought about it positively, it meant that he had become indestructible – but more often than not it reminded him of those thoughts, and he avoided looking at them as much as he could.

 

Once inside the house, it was immediately apparent that the Nekomata had left this place for good. Dark shadows on the walls marked where furniture used to lie. Small critters scurried among the cracks where creepers grew. Only the beanbag bed was left in the centre of the room, covered in a layer of dust. Not to be deterred, they searched the corners, tapped on the boards, and lifted the bed. But there was nothing left – not even a crumb of gold, and they had loads of it.

Hinata sighed sadly. “Now what do we do?”

Kageyama folded his arms and wings as he scanned the place. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Hm?”

“Why would they take everything, but leave the bed?”

“I dunno. For passing travellers to take a nap in?”

“Yeah, right, dumbass. This place is so hidden.”

The boy circled the bed again and again. He peered at the stitching, then started to pick at a spot which looked like it had been resewn. Daichi sliced it open, and out spilled the beans. Hidden within was a small wooden box with a strip of red cloth tied around it. It contained a horn from some small animal, a vial of red liquid, and a rolled up piece of yellowed parchment.

“Kenma must have left this for us!” Hinata exclaimed, “But what is it?”

“Voodoo magic?” Kageyama suggested.

Daichi unrolled the sheet and read what it said.

If in danger, pour on horn and blow.

“So it’s some sort of whistle?” Hinata looked at the vial and grimaced. “That is totally blood.”

“Voodoo magic.” Kageyama nodded.

“Looks like they expected us to have trouble. Surely not like this, though,” sighed Daichi.

“So, who’s gonna do it?” asked the orange crow. Daichi and Kageyama both looked at each other, then at Hinata. The boy raised his hands in surrender. “No way!”

“You’re the closest to Kenma, maybe it’ll work better,” said his brother.

“How do you know?”

“Hmm, let’s see… voodoo magic?”

“Nuh-uh. And my name’s not written there.”

“Fine, we’ll play for it. Loser does the deed.”

On the count of three, they threw their hands out.

Paper, paper, rock.

Hinata groaned and hit his forehead with his fist.

He took the horn and carefully dripped the blood onto it. The blood filled its eerie grooves uniformly, as if it had a mind of its own. Now he really didn’t want to put his mouth on it. Taking a deep breath, he said to himself – for Mama! – and blew on the horn till his lungs emptied.

Strangely, it produced no sound. But Hinata felt it vibrate, so it must have done something.

The boy wiped his mouth thoroughly and panted, “Did you guys hear anything? I didn’t.”

“Nope,” Kageyama frowned, “How do we know if it worked?”

“Only one way to find out. Let’s wait here and see,” said Daichi.

 

Hours passed. Night fell. None of them could sleep. They took turns shuffling around the house and staring out the window, yearning for a sign. They looked up at the moon, and thought of Mama.

They wondered if he was looking up, too.

Then, in the middle of the night, Daichi heard a knock on the door.

He jumped to his feet. The boys stayed behind him, and he took his axe.

 

After a few moments, the door lifted – and Daichi locked eyes with a familiar face.

 

“Oya, oya, oya?”

 

He never thought he would smile at the sight of this infuriating cat.

 

“About time you came,” Daichi greeted with a sigh of relief.

“And I see you left us a welcoming gift,” Kuroo smirked back, “What’s the occasion?”

Before Daichi could reply, Hinata ran up to the cat in sheer excitement. “Kuroo, you came! Where’s Kenma? Where is he?”

“Here,” came the monotonous voice from behind, and Kenma braced himself for a hug.

 

For a few moments, it was a joyous reunion. They had missed each other – some more so than the other – and the old friends spent some time marvelling at how everyone had changed. But the absence of Suga soon raised the circumstances of their meeting, and the air soured as Daichi related the tragedy that had befallen the Kara. It didn’t take long for Kuroo’s temper to rise.

“How could you let it happen?” he growled, “How many times do you have to let him down until you learn?”

When Daichi looked down, Kageyama snapped and came to his defence.

“Daichi did his best!”

“Kageyama…” Daichi reached out, but the boy brushed him off.

“He almost died trying to save us, and now he—!”

“That’s not important right now,” Daichi intervened, and the cat glared at him.

I decide what’s important. You guys called us all the way here, and we deserve to know. What the hell happened?”

Daichi breathed out. “Alright,” he said to himself, and looked at Kuroo silently. Slowly, he lifted his shirt, and the resulting confusion on Kuroo’s face was clearly visible by firelight.

“Are those… scales?”

“Yes. I was stabbed through. I managed to stay alive by drinking dragon’s blood, but… I will die from it soon.”

Kuroo was speechless for a few seconds. “You aren’t joking.”

Daichi shook his head calmly. “That’s why I need your help. We need to get to the Capital.”

Kenma looked down. “We still don’t know where it is.”

“You don’t?” Hinata frowned.

“No. We’ve tried so many places. The most we’ve managed to do is interrogate Karas from other tribes. None of them knew.”

Daichi bit his fingernail. Ukai was right. “Then who would?” he asked.

“None but a Kara from the Capital,” muttered Kuroo, “But we don’t have the time to sit and wait for one to come along.”

 

The glimmer of hope was fading fast. There had to be another way, thought Daichi, and he closed his eyes to think.

 

“What if we track ‘em?” suggested Kageyama, “Go in the direction they went?”

“They’re probably miles away by now. We won’t be able to catch up to them, not without flight.” replied Kuroo.

“But they could have landed somewhere to rest. We can tail them from there.”

“And what if they changed direction midway? That’s the problem with birds. They don’t leave tracks.”

Kenma raised his hand, “We could send the army to sniff them out. Many hands make short work, right?”

The General bopped him on the head. “Right. On whose orders?”

“Um… my orders… to you… to order them?”

“Not. A. Chance. I’m still surprised the King let you leave this time. Maybe he’s finally given up on you.”

Hinata sighed loudly, “Well, if we can’t track them, and we don’t know where to go, what do we do?”

 

Daichi’s eyes lit up.

 

“Maybe we can’t track them. But there’s someone who can.”

 

Everyone turned to look at him. From the cunning look on Daichi’s face, Hinata caught on to his idea, and his mouth wobbled in anticipation.

Daichi patted both Nekomata on the shoulders and smiled.

 

“Let’s hope chivalry isn’t dead.”

 

Chapter Text

At this time of year, most of the Land was covered in ice. Few places remained where the sun still shone, and the sunniest of them all were the southern beaches. It was a place where the skies were always blue, the sand was strangely blue, and pretty much everything but the sun was blue.

Thereupon one of these glimmering bays, a stranger was basking in the nude. His pristine, sun-kissed bottom, out for all to see. He was the very picture of relaxation, with his head resting on his arms, and his outstretched legs in the warm sand. It was no wonder, for the sound of the waves and the gentle sea breeze could lull anyone into a deep sleep.

From the shore came a splash as another stranger emerged from the sea. As he broke the surface, the pristine waters of the deep blue cascaded from the grooves and bumps of his rippling body, and he took a moment to stretch. For maximum effect, it is suggested that the reader visualizes the above description in slow motion. Sharply turning his head to the right, he caught a glimpse of some retreating figures, and clearly heard adolescent giggling. He sighed.

“Oikawa,” he shouted across the waves.

The mage yawned and wriggled into a fetal position. “Five more minutes.”

“Humans.”

“I don’t care.”

Iwa-chan rolled his eyes. “You were the one who told me to wake you up.”

“Forget it,” Oikawa mumbled back.

Iwa-chan then dug an Oikawa-sized hole, threw in the intended recipient, and buried him up to his shoulders in seconds. Try as he might, Oikawa couldn’t escape his sandy prison – and so he accepted his newfound modesty with optimism.

“Actually, this isn’t so bad. I bet my skin will be so smooth after this.”

“Want me to heat it up for you?”

Oikawa tut-tutted. “Now, now, Iwa-chan. We’ve had this conversation many times.”

“It’s too peaceful here,” the hound grumbled.

“That, my dear, is the very definition of a vacation. We have enough excitement every other day, wouldn’t you agree?”

Defeated, Iwa-chan rolled on his back with his paws in the air. Every time they went on vacation – which was rarely, by the way – they would go somewhere like this. A place where everything was sickeningly pleasant and monster-free, where a whole lot of nothing would be happening. Touring with the locals? Having a picnic? Just… sleeping?! It made his demonic blood boil faster than a hot spring in hell.

But he could take heart in the fact that even when they weren’t out finding trouble, trouble would find them.

 

The Far-Seeing Eye was a powerful relic which allowed its user to observe the land through the eyes of animals. Only Seekers could use it, for they were specially trained beast tamers with mastery of beast manipulation and telepathy. They reported suspicious incidents to mages out in the field, and looked after places that were under the Guild’s protection.

To that end, every mage was given a signal stone – a small crystal paired with an identical copy back at the Guild. Whenever a Seeker wanted to establish contact, they would make the stone glow. It was a mere courtesy, however, for there was no way to block out a telepathic message – not unless you were a Seeker yourself.

Iwa-chan would often pester Oikawa to take a look at his stone just in case, and today was no exception. He pawed the stone from Oikawa’s bag and pushed it to the man’s face.

It wasn’t glowing.

“Ask them.”

“I did that an hour ago.”

“There could be something now.”

It was Oikawa’s turn to roll his eyes. “If I do, will you stop whining for the rest of the day?”

Iwa-chan gave him a noncommittal stare and licked his nose. Sighing, Oikawa recited a spell, and the stone glowed green. After a few seconds, a small voice popped up in Oikawa’s head.

“Yes, Oikawa?”

“Could you check my spots out again?” Oikawa asked.

Again? I just did that! Do you know how many I have to go through for you?”

“Just do it already,” he groaned, and so did the voice on the other end. Minutes passed as Oikawa listened to the Seeker’s grumbling, and it took a long while before he heard a curious grunt.

“Hmm…!”

“What is it?”

“I’m currently looking at Hanomachi. There are people running away from something…”

“Hanomachi?” Oikawa perked up, “Isn’t that where…”

“It’s some kind of monster. Looks like it’s wrecking the town. You’d better get down there, Oikawa.”

“Got it. Over and out.”

Iwa-chan’s tail started to wag, and Oikawa scoffed.

“Well, look at you. The puppy’s got his bone. Hurry and dig me out then, for Reylaysius’ sake!”

As Iwa-chan dug around him at the speed of light, Oikawa took one final, longing look at the blue, blue beach.

“Ah, a mage’s work is never done. Au revoir, my short-lived bliss!”

 

With haste they made their way north, back into the land of white. It was dusk when they arrived, when the skies were a purplish-grey.

As soon as they were spotted, they were welcomed without hesitation, and were told of the ‘huge, black, cat demon’ that descended from the hills. It left a trail of destruction from the market to the town square, trashing stalls and squashing fruits, and chased after those who tried to fight back. No one was hurt from the whole ordeal, however, and it left for the forest afterwards.

Incensed, Oikawa knew what he was dealing with at once; and so, the duo walked to where it all went down two years ago.

They approached the snow-covered clinic, and Oikawa’s gaze lingered on a particular window near the front door. It was where he bid farewell to the silver crow. He fondly recalled those brown eyes, ones steeped with immutable sorrow, and wondered if that unimportant human had managed to change them for the better. But he digressed.

Oikawa knocked on the door. It creaked open, and standing there was the good doctor with a tired look on his face.

“You came,” Ukai said, “Come in, please.”

Oikawa blinked.

“You were expecting me?”

“Of course.”

And when he entered, he understood the situation at last.

 

Seated at the dining table and having dinner was the unimportant human, the crow children, the cat prince, and the ‘huge, black, cat demon’. They all looked up as he entered – some had expressions of joy, others of nonchalance – and Oikawa took a deep breath.

 

“You all better have a good reason for ruining my vacation.”

 

“We just wanted to see you again, mage,” Kuroo smirked, obviously delighting in Oikawa’s misery, “Did you miss us too?”

“Never in a million lifetimes, cat.”

Daichi immediately rose to shake his hand, and Oikawa jolted when their palms touched. A surge of mana wrapped around his fingers like barbed serpents, locking his hand in place—and the feeling only disappeared when Daichi let go.

“Thank you so much for coming. Have a seat, and we’ll explain everything.”

Intrigued by this strange development, Oikawa eyed the hunter and took his seat obediently.

“Alright… I’m listening.”

“First of all, sorry to disturb your – um – vacation. But we need your help, and causing some trouble was the only way we knew how to get your attention. Or at least, the Guild’s attention.”

“Well, it worked, and a mage must always honour his promises. Can we get to the point?”

Daichi nodded and spoke quietly. “Suga has been kidnapped.”

 

The mage slowly looked around the hall with a deadened stare. He abruptly dashed to the bedroom, and upon finding no one, returned wide-eyed to the dining table.

 

“Yeah,” Kuroo said, munching on a rib.

“Oh, how could this have happened to poor darling Suga!” Oikawa exclaimed with theatrical sadness, “What kind of atrocious, heartless barbarian could bear to harm that frail and delicate creature?”

“The Karas. They sent their soldiers from the Capital to take him away.” Daichi replied.

The mage slammed his fist on the table. “Tell me now, where this ‘Capital’ resides. I shall rain hellfire upon them, and they shall know the wrath of a demon!”

“I really appreciate your enthusiasm, but please calm down.”

“Oh, I was just letting off steam from the disappointment of losing my vacation. Go on.”

Daichi was starting to think twice about getting help from this unpredictable man.

“The problem is; we don’t know where the Capital’s at. We thought you’d be able to help us find it,” he explained.

Oikawa rubbed his chin. “I don’t have a magical map of the Land, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“What about the stone?” Iwa-chan suggested.

“Stone?” asked Daichi.

“It’s how I found out about your little ‘attack’. But Iwa-chan, where would we start? It’d take ages for them to scour the whole Land.”

“Actually, we were thinking you could use this.”

The hunter motioned for Kageyama, and the boy took out his knife. He unsheathed it, and there on the blade was a thin layer of dried blood. Oikawa’s eyes flashed.

“Now you’re talking my language. Iwa-chan!”

The hound promptly sniffed the blood, and began pacing around the room. He lifted his nose to the air for a few moments, and everyone held their breath.

“Too thin. It’s all in the air, and somewhere far away,” he said.

“Nothing a little magic can’t solve.” Oikawa grinned. He stood before the hound, and Iwa-chan’s collar glowed blue. “Iwa-chan, we’ll enhance your tracking magic with my mana, so be sure to use it well.”

“Is it enough?”

“We’ll see.”

 

It was said that Reylaysius’ aura was blinding; that even when it was not manifest, none could properly look him in the eye. Like the intensity of flame, a bright aura meant an abundance of mana. For Oikawa, his flame burned turquoise – and as it funnelled into Iwa-chan’s collar, it turned bright red, and the markings on the demon began to glow like hot iron.

Supercharged with mana, the hellhound ran outside and unleashed a crimson-coloured fireball to the sky. It was so hot that it razed the grass and the very air around him. Upon reaching a certain height, the fireball burst into millions of tiny flames, then formed a flaming trail in the sky. Everyone rushed out to see the bright spectacle – an ominous, pulsating red line which headed north.

 

“Pack your bags, people,” Oikawa panted, “The Capital awaits.”

 

 

Chapter Text

We return to the present, when Tsukishima and Yamaguchi have completed their duties for the day.

Every Kara in the Capital was getting ready for the winter festival. Colourful streamers, baskets of fruit, and decorations adorned with glowing crystals lined the streets. Karas dressed in bright gowns walked hand-in-hand with smiles on their faces. At the town square outside the palace, a huge bazaar welcomed the revellers. On his way out, Yamaguchi did not stop to look for long, for he would drop by later with his family and friends.

He flew to the agricultural district, where the Capital’s farmlands were. On one of these shelves was a house that shared in none of the festive cheer. Apart from looking like a basic house, its exterior had no décor whatsoever; it had been painted entirely black, and foreign, twisted flowers grew from their garden in unkempt patches. All in all, its eeriest feature was a large eye motif on the roof, that had been painted in some mysterious red pigment.

Yamaguchi knocked on the door of the gloomy house, and heard a loud shout from within.

Moments later, the door burst open.

 

Standing before him was a robust man with a head of messy grey and white hair, fluffy owl wings as white as snow, and naught but a towel around his waist. His sharp eyes were large and yellow, and the way he grinned upon seeing the boy was reminiscent of a plum-cheeked child.

“Oh, Yamaguchi! Welcome!” the man exclaimed, his voice vibrant and forceful.

Yamaguchi bowed. “Good evening, master Bokuto.”

“Come in, come in! Where’s Tsukki?”

“Oh, he’ll drop by later. He had to see the chief for something.”

The boy settled down at the large, flat stump in the living room. It was what passed for a table in this house. As always, it was stacked with all sorts of odds and ends – dried bundles of leaves wrapped in differently patterned papers, fresh and rotting animal parts, coils of strung-together berries, and bones. Lots of bones. Similar oddities hung from the ceiling at varying heights, for there was simply no space on the shelves or the floor. At the centre of it all was a bubbling cauldron, where a skewered fish was cooking slowly over the steam.

Bokuto poured a cup of tea from a long-spouted kettle and passed it to the boy. The liquid was entirely black, with questionable flecks of brown churning under the surface. Gulping, the boy took a small sip out of courtesy.

It tasted as vile as it was black.

“I’ll get him for you.”

“No, no, I’ll wait for him to be done--”

 

“Akaashi! Yamaguchi’s here!”

 

A while later, the sound of flowing water stopped, and a man stepped out from the bathroom. He was a calm-eyed, expressionless man with a head of brown hair and a pair of mottled brown wings. His physique was slimmer than his white-winged companion, and he exuded an air of tranquillity in all his mannerisms – from the unhurried way he dried his hair, to the loose toga hanging off his shoulder. He looked at Yamaguchi and gave a small nod.

“You’re early.”

Yamaguchi stood to bow. “Good evening, master Akaashi.”

“Good evening,” he greeted back.

“Sorry to disturb your bath. I told master Bokuto I’d wait.”

Bokuto grinned.

“It’s alright.” Akaashi sat down and took the cup from Yamaguchi’s hands, then drank it in one mouthful. “Bokuto, don’t give him that. It’s not meant for Karas.”

Bokuto continued grinning.

“What happens if I drink it?” Yamaguchi asked.

“Did you?”

“A sip.”

“I guess we’ll know, then. Anyway, I have something prepared for today’s lesson. Can you stay for long?”

“Um, the festival’s starting today…”

Akaashi looked out the window and saw the multi-coloured lights in the distance. He nodded. “We’ll have a short session.”

Yamaguchi twiddled his thumbs. “Actually, I wanted to ask if you and master Bokuto wanted to go. You two have never been, right?”

Akaashi folded his arms. “No…”

“I think you’ll enjoy it. There’s all sorts of food, games, and performances at the bazaar.”

Bokuto leapt off his seat. “What kind of games?”

“Usually there’s archery, wrestling, and hawk-fighting. Those are the traditional ones. They come up with new ones sometimes.”

Fidgeting in excitement, the man turned to Akaashi, “Shall we go, Akaashi?”

Akaashi looked away. “Making merry will not help us.”

“Or maybe – once everyone witnesses my amazing skills, they’ll cheer so loudly that something will stir within me!”

Akaashi faced Bokuto. “You just want to show off.”

“No. I’m serious.”

He sighed. “We cannot afford any more distractions. Yamaguchi, help me clear the table.”

“Akaashi, wait!” Bokuto blocked the man’s exit, “I can do it—I’ll show you!”

Akaashi stared at Bokuto for a few seconds.

He sat back down, looked him in the eye, and held his hands. Bokuto gulped and kept his gaze steady. He knew what he had to do. He’d been through this a thousand times before. In theory, it was simple. It was supposed to be intuitive. Focus.

 

Focus!

 

An image began to form in his mind. It was blurry and out of reach, like a receding dream. He could just make out the location, but not much else.

Bokuto’s palms began to sweat. His pulse began to race. Unbeknownst to him, his face was slowly turning red.

Eventually, his eyes darted away.

Akaashi asked, “Did you see anything?”

“It was… the Capital.”

“What else?”

Bokuto’s face contorted into an indignant grimace. “That’s it.”

Akaashi said nothing and got up. He had a slight frown on his face.

“A-Akaashi…” Bokuto trembled.

“Yamaguchi. Let’s begin.”

“Y-yes.” Yamaguchi obeyed. He looked over at Bokuto, who had fallen into a state of despair and was dragging himself into the room. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything about the festival, he thought, for even the ever-calm Akaashi was upset. All throughout the potion-making lesson, Yamaguchi could only think about what he had done. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he almost mashed in his finger with a pestle – luckily, it only grazed his thumb.

“Yamaguchi. Is something on your mind?” Akaashi asked, and passed him an ointment.

The Kara pondered his words carefully. “Master, about earlier… I shouldn’t have asked about the festival. Sorry.”

Akaashi bandaged the boy’s bruising thumb. “No… it was kind of you to offer. No need to apologize.”

“Are you angry?”

The man shook his head, and Yamaguchi sighed in relief.

Then, Akaashi paused, and set down the boy’s hand. His narrow eyes seemed deep in thought.

“Do you think what Bokuto said makes sense?”

“Huh?”

“That by going to the festival… he’d awaken his powers.”

Yamaguchi frowned and scratched his head. “I don’t know. But it might be worth a shot.”

Akaashi leaned on the table and sighed.

In the three years the Kara had known him, he had never seen his master so dejected before. Even the tiniest crease of worry on his face was unheard of.

“I’ve been following the way of the ancient shamans. I’ve done all they did for their vessels. They had no problems at all.” Akaashi sighed again. “Is it because I haven’t trained enough? Haven’t I been strict with Bokuto’s training?”

“W-well, master Bokuto is kind of difficult to work with…” Yamaguchi admitted.

“The chief himself said he was unfit as a vessel. But a good shaman should be able to make up for his weaknesses. Even after all these years, I have made little progress in my research. The farthest prophecy he has made was no more than a year away, and, I haven’t been able to replicate that.”

“Master Akaashi—I’m sure your hard work will pay off. There must be something more in the archives,” the Kara assured.

Akaashi fell quiet.

“Yamaguchi.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Is there something I have overlooked?”

The student laughed, “I wouldn’t know any more than you, master.”

“No, you have taught me many things that I would have not thought to ponder. Do not underestimate yourself, Yamaguchi.”

Yamaguchi blushed sheepishly. “Thank you, master. But see, you’ve already memorized all of master Bokuto’s weaknesses. Unless… there are more?”

Akaashi tilted his head. “What comes to mind?”

“I don’t know. But maybe… going to the festival… might give us an idea?”

The shaman gave him a small smile. “Understood. Let’s go together.”

 

It was traditional to wear one’s best on occasions like these. The colours of spring – green, blue, and pink – were especially popular among youngsters. Much to his disdain, Tsukishima was made to wear a cherry blossom-inspired outfit, with accents of green and white. Yamaguchi wore a more conservative baby blue robe. As for the outsiders, their way of observing tradition was to dress in full Fukuro tribe garb – which was very un-Kara like.

Akaashi’s heavily furred and feathered cloak, embroidered headscarf, and dark green ensemble was far from lively. Bokuto’s outfit did a little better – a breezy white robe which showed off his chest, green leather bracers, and gold embellishments on both hands. Putting colour aside, however, the least festive feature on their clothes was the symbol of the Fukuro tribe; the very same painting on their roof; a large almond-shaped eye with four claw-like lines beneath the lower lid. Streaked twice in red on Bokuto’s top, and in the form of a carved ruby necklace around Akaashi’s neck.

But who cared about the odd looks they would get – what mattered was the spirit of togetherness!

The bazaar was in full swing by the time they arrived. Something exciting was happening in every corner they looked. Fluttering silk and jangly jewellery. Fritters sizzling with oil and waiting to be stuffed. Karas painting each other’s wings in shades of pastel. Children laughing and playing games. A boy shyly giving his feather to the girl of his dreams. Sweat dripping off a wrestler’s brow.

Lit up as it were, the whole square was a shining oasis in the darkness of the cave.

The owls took in the sights as they walked with their Kara companions. It was a pleasant change of pace, even if Akaashi showed no inkling of those thoughts. He was rather focused on watching Bokuto, whose mood had considerably improved; a word of praise from him had done the trick. Along the way, however, some interesting goods managed to catch Akaashi’s eye, and he ended up shopping around till his hands were full. They soon chanced upon a stall selling grilled meat, and Bokuto drooled at the irresistible sight and smell.

“Akaashi! You want that?” Bokuto asked.

“Sure,” he replied, and within seconds a heaping plate of meat materialized in front of him.

“Here!”

“You eat first.”

Bokuto looked down and saw Akaashi’s occupied hands. Instinctively, he picked up a forkful of the stuff and offered it to him.

Akaashi accepted with a big bite, and made a soft ‘mm’ sound as he chewed. Then, for some reason, Bokuto quickly turned around and silently scarfed down the rest of the food. Now, Yamaguchi had also begun to watch Bokuto, and he raised an eyebrow at this strange act. He glanced at Akaashi, but it seemed like his teacher had nothing to say about it.

The strangeness happened again at the wrestling match. Eager to face the reigning champion of the day, Bokuto thrust himself into the ring – a large iron cage which was at least three storeys tall, built to withstand the roughest of tumbles. The owl’s appearance delighted the referee, who had never seen him in the flesh – as did most other Karas. He clanged on his small gong and announced loudly, “Come one, come all! Don’t miss the fight of the century! One look here and you’ll see why— up next in the ring is a fighter from a land beyond us!”

Bokuto pumped his fist in the air and grinned at the gathering crowd. “Warrior of the Fukuro, Bokuto Koutarou!”

The crowd whooped and cheered, and Bokuto’s opponent – a tough-looking Kara – rolled his burly shoulders.

“Will this rookie be able to defeat Goro, our long-running champion from the royal guard? Place your bets now!”

“Rookie?” Yamaguchi smirked. Even Tsukishima concurred.

 

The mallet raised. “Reaaa-dyyy?”

Goro threw off his sweat-drenched shirt and flexed his stocky arms. The crowd went wild. Not to be one-upped, Bokuto did the same and spread his huge white wings. Those certainly dwarfed the Kara’s.

Clang!

 

Fight!”

 

The two circled round the ring and stared each other down amid the chanting spectators. Their feathers ruffled with the rising heat.

Bokuto jumped and took off like an arrow.

Swooping down in a perfectly diagonal descent, he kicked Goro in the chest and sent him stumbling to the side of the cage. Getting up quickly, Goro flew at him with arms outstretched. He kept trying to get a grab on Bokuto in the air, but the owl deftly dodged all his attempts. Then, Bokuto flew underneath Goro and grabbed the man’s ankles on the way up. He flipped him upside down, locked his wings under his legs, and the two fell to the ground with a loud thud.

The dust cleared. Bokuto casually stepped off of Goro and flaunted himself to the roaring crowd.

The countdown began.

Looking around, Bokuto caught sight of Akaashi’s brown wings in the sea of black, and their eyes met. He beamed at him, and unexpectedly, he got a reaction.

 

Akaashi smiled.

 

Bokuto froze in place.

All he could see was the man’s face. The world around him fizzled out, and he didn’t understand why that smile slowly turned to shock.

Then he felt the meaty arms of Goro wrap around his waist.

 

“… I still can’t believe we lost,” Yamaguchi sighed loudly.

“That’ll teach you to bet,” said Tsukishima.

Bokuto, whose eyes had lost all motivation, offered no explanation. He hobbled along behind them on the way home, a shell of his former gallant self. What happened back there could only be described as ‘humiliation of the highest order’.

“I wonder if he needs to train his mind more,” Akaashi mused, much to Bokuto’s chagrin. “See you tomorrow, boys.”

Once they were home, Akaashi sat Bokuto down. The white owl, all roughed up and bruised, hung his head low. Akaashi sighed a small sigh and brought over the ointment. All was silent as he rubbed it into the bruises, and he found himself missing the loudness Bokuto always supplied.

“Did you like the festival?” Akaashi asked quietly.

After a lengthy pause, Bokuto nodded.

Another bout of silence.

The shaman felt as if he should say something more, but he felt too tired to think.

When he was done, he stood to leave.

“I’m going to bed. Get some rest.”

Suddenly, Bokuto spoke.

 

“Akaashi.”

He stopped. “Yes?”

“You’re disappointed in me.”

“No.”

“Of course you are. I couldn’t even fight properly. And that’s the only thing I’m good at.”

Akaashi sat down slowly. “What happened back there?”

Bokuto sniffed loudly. He still wouldn’t look at Akaashi. “I dunno. I just saw you. Then I couldn’t move at all. Next thing I know, I’m being beaten to a pulp.”

“Did I do something?”

“No…” the white owl started, then froze again as he recalled that impossible memory. Akaashi frowned. He took hold of Bokuto’s cheeks, lifted his head, and stared into his eyes.

 

“You can tell me. I’m your shaman.”

 

Channel the spirit of the Transcendent, the Traveller of Realms, the Ancient Owl of Prophecy. Look into the eyes of the soul-keeper’s servant, touch their soul, and seek the future of this mortal land.

 

Bokuto’s irises flashed a brilliant yellow as a kaleidoscopic deluge of images rushed past his eyes. His face brightened at once, and he suddenly grasped Akaashi’s shoulders.

 

“Akaashi!”

“What?”

“People, invading the Capital! They want something in the castle. It’s going to happen soon. And there’s blood… a lot of blood.”

The shaman frowned and muttered to himself, “Has the Capital finally been compromised?”

“Well, we managed to get here somehow,” said Bokuto.

“That’s only because you saw this place.”

“Oh, yeaaah. I did that.”

“Did you see who they were? Where they were from?” asked Akaashi.

The white owl shrugged.

“This could be important, not only to the Karas, but the fate of this Land.”

“Are we gonna tell the King?” Bokuto asked.

“We have no obligation to,” he replied simply. “Have a good rest. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

“Yessir!”

 

But before he retired for the night, Akaashi thought of something to say.

 

“Good job, Bokuto.”

 

He should have seen the stupid look on Bokuto’s face.

 

 

Chapter Text

Day four.

Scattered in front of prisoner #213’s cell were frayed grey feathers.

As Tsukishima and Yamaguchi entered, they stepped upon more feathers, and saw the man curled up in a corner.

His plumage was full of holes. From the crooked way his fingers hooked around the roots, Tsukishima knew the man didn’t have long. They called it cage-madness. Being stuck in one was just one of the many ways to get it. Yamaguchi snatched the logbook from his friend and read the last entry with a frown. It was exactly the same as the previous entry.

“What on earth are they doing? They really…”

He huffed and knelt beside the man, whose expression was as sunken as ever. The rings around his eyes had darkened, and the fat in his cheeks had withered. Yamaguchi could not imagine what he must have looked like before this ordeal. “Please don’t hurt yourself,” he said, but the man did not reply. His hands continued to grasp his wings tightly.

The young crow sighed. He moved to peer at a spot in the corner, then reached around and pulled out the paper bag from their last visit.

A hole had been chewed into the side; its contents, thoroughly empty.

“Crap. The rats got to it, huh? I’ll get you more next time.”

“You know he won’t eat it,” Tsukishima said.

“He will. One day.”

“Suit yourself.”

They gave the man an additional dose of cooling cream, and as a final note, Yamaguchi wrote the following in large script onto the logbook; continuous application of cooling cream to be administered. Pleased with himself, he smiled at the prisoner and waved a small goodbye. “Take care, um…” he scratched his chin. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t heard his name.

“…what’s your name?”

The prisoner slowly looked up at him. It was the first time their eyes properly met.

And then, in a hoarse whisper, he spoke.

Two syllables.

Yamaguchi nodded.

“I’ll remember that.”

 


 

It was clear that the road to the Capital would be long and harsh. They did not know what might befall them on their journey – but the band of friends and enemies past were of one mind, determined to survive whatever was thrown their way. With as much food and equipment they could carry, they briskly followed the red trail, which had faded into the realm of Iwa-chan’s vision. It took them from the gentle plains to the forbidden boundary, a lifeless place where no sane mortal would cross. Stories of terrifying wraiths, giant creatures hidden in the snow, and unpredictable snowstorms surrounded the mysterious mountains. It was where the air itself shattered into mist; where even coalbirds froze to death.

If they were to make it across, they had to find some means of protection. Sitting around a fire at the foothills of a mountain, they deliberated.

“How about we all hide in Kuroo’s fur? You’re super fuzzy when you awaken, right?” Hinata suggested.

“Erm… I don’t think it’s enough, even for myself,” the black cat replied.

“Let’s try!”

 

The two of them scaled a few metres up the mountain before running back down in shivering fits.

 

“Next idea,” Kuroo twitched. Hinata nodded furiously.

“There must be something the Karas are using. They’re no different from us,” Kageyama bit his nails.

“Is there a spell you could use?” Kenma asked Oikawa. The mage opened his mouth with a big smile.

“I can set people on fire.”

Daichi stared unamused at the mage.

“Sadly, out of all the elements, I never learned how to reduce the effects of fire spells. Even a mage of my calibre has their shortcomings,” sighed Oikawa.

“But does such a spell exist?” asked the hunter.

“Yes. It’s called Infernia’s Warmth. The Karas you met—they weren’t mages, were they?”

“No.”

“Then perhaps they had on them artefacts imbued with a fire spell.” Oikawa whipped out his eyeglasses and travel tome. He flipped through the pages until he came upon the entry he wanted. “Suitable artefacts for housing fire-based spells include dragonbreath crystals, condensed bone marrow from greater fire wyrms, alchemized magma globules, common ground-crystals boiled with Infernia’s Bloom extract, and anything that has been blessed by Infernia.”

“Infernia exists?” quipped Kenma, “The World-Ending Flame?”

“Yes, though her reputation is quite inflated, it seems.”

“Cool.”

“They all sound very difficult to get,” remarked Daichi.

“Well, dragonbreath crystals are the easiest to obtain. All we have to do is find a greater dragon, get it to trigger its breath – and, this is the important part – before it kills you, stuff a boulder into its mouth.” Oikawa explained.

It wasn’t the first time everyone looked at him like he was a madman.

“What? You wanna kill a fire wyrm instead?”

“Well— does it look like there are any dragons in this goddamned wasteland?” Kuroo seethed, still half-frozen.

 

Oikawa glanced suddenly at Daichi. He flinched. Then, without warning, the mage extended his index finger and placed it squarely onto the man’s chest. Once again, that squirming sensation slithered around his finger— it was so unnatural and bizarre that he could ignore it no longer.

“What did you do?” he demanded.

Daichi gave him a look of incomprehension, and his finger dug deeper.

“This aura around you is not yours. It was never this intimidating, and yet, it’s not strong enough to be what I think it is. So? What did you do?”

“Mages sure are a scary lot, huh.” Just when he had forgotten that gnawing feeling, it returned to seize his throat again. “Would you understand if I said ‘dragon blood’?”

Oikawa’s finger lowered. A look of recognition passed over him. Suddenly, he grabbed Daichi’s left arm, and the vapid stare in his eyes screamed ‘danger’.

“Is this your resolve? You would go this far for him?”

“Yes.”

“Then you won’t mind this.”

 

In that split second before Kuroo tackled the mage, Daichi felt his flesh sputter and boil, as if his very bones would turn black from the flames that were rapidly engulfing his arm. He screamed out in pain and drove his arm into the snow— but the fire was impossible to douse. It kept burning, even under the liquefied snow.

Kuroo grasped Oikawa’s collar and wrenched him from the ground. “What the fuck are you doing?!”

Though mussed up from the fall, the mage showed no emotion apart from his eyes. He was looking at Daichi with an almost manic intensity – not at the agony he had inflicted unto the man, but at something bigger. When the torturous flames finally extinguished, Daichi was lying down, gripping futilely at what was left of his arm. Then, as it had happened before, the deformed mass of raw flesh and charred bone soon began to overgrow with crackling golden scales, and their magic mended all that had been lost in its image.

Long, white reptilian claws took the place of his fingers; his scaly forearm gleamed anew in the sunlight.

Panting, Daichi took one look at his shaking arm and felt like throwing up.

“Oh, Daichi, if only you could see your aura now. Stunning!” Oikawa praised and laughed out loud.

Oikawa!” Daichi roared haplessly and struggled to his feet.

“Ah, ah. Before you hit me with that beautiful hand of yours, know this; as you are now, you’re the perfect bait… not too scary, but enough to be a nuisance in a dragon’s territory. If we hurry and make ourselves known…”

Oikawa chuckled ominously.

“We shall have ourselves a dragon!”

 


 

“Hmm… it’s close…”

“What is?”

With their noses almost touching, Bokuto wanted to say ‘your face’.

Akaashi had been trying to squeeze a prophecy out of Bokuto all morning. His piercing eyes were particularly intrusive this time, as if he were the one trying to see into the future. Carefully, Bokuto leaned back and said, “The invaders. I’d say two weeks or less till they reach us.”

“How many of them?” Akaashi questioned.

“Just a few. They must be really strong… man, I wanna fight ‘em!”

“This power is to be used for peace, not violence.”

“Yeah, we fight ‘em, and restore peace!”

Akaashi pulled Bokuto’s ear. It was surprisingly effective against a man of his stature.

“We need to find out where and when they’ll arrive. That means within these few days… we’ll have to accomplish what we couldn’t for years.”

“Does that mean… more training?”

More training?

All night, Akaashi had tossed and turned as he tried to understand what he was missing. Come morning, he realized nothing but his own ineptitude. But a shred of his shaman pride still remained; to think that he had spent his whole life training in vain was a crushing thought. When he looked at his students, however, he remembered their humility and the value of a different set of eyes. Why did he come to the Capital in the first place?

He took Bokuto’s hand and dragged themselves to the table without further thought. Startled, the young Karas looked up from their notes to see a stone-faced Akaashi and a petrified Bokuto.

“Yamaguchi, Tsukishima. Sorry to disturb your discussion,” said Akaashi formally.

“No, no. What is it, master?” asked Yamaguchi.

“What do you two think I should do to awaken Bokuto’s powers?”

Akaashi stared expectantly at them as they shot uneasy glances at each other.

“Master, to be honest, the two of us discussed this yesterday.” Tsukishima said.

“We have something, but you might not like it.” Yamaguchi smiled timidly.

“Please tell me,” implored Akaashi, “We do not have much time.”

 

Within minutes, the shaman received his students’ master plan, which had been extensively peer-reviewed by their parents; more specifically, their mothers (and their mothers’ friends), who were strangely interested in a matter regarding two highly eligible bachelors.

It was a bottle labelled ‘Potion of Undoing’, and a scroll with a single instruction: do everything together.

The word ‘everything’ had been underlined. Thrice.

 

Akaashi was speechless for a good two minutes. He looked at the crows with a blank stare, and they shrugged.

“It was mostly their idea,” said Yamaguchi.

“I appreciate their… kind concern… but I do not see how this will help. Especially, the potion…”

“We can’t tell you why, of course. It’d ruin the whole thing.”

He sighed. He did ask for help.

“Alright. Any objections, Bokuto?”

The white owl had a vacant smile on his face which said ‘I have no idea what’s going on but if Akaashi says okay then I’m okay’. And so, Akaashi swallowed the potion. It was potent – maybe too potent – for it gave him a terrible headache that forced him send the crows home and head to bed.

 

At noon, Bokuto crept into Akaashi’s room. He approached his hammock and exclaimed cheerily—

“Akaashi! Lunchtime!”

The man sat up slowly, his brows locked in a tight frown. When he opened his eyes, they were filled with something Bokuto had never seen before. “Get. Out.” Akaashi growled, then swiftly tucked himself under his wing and turned away from him.

Astonished, Bokuto backed away. He shook his head and went for it again.

“Come on, aren’t you hungry? Let’s—”

Akaashi leaped out of the hammock and marched Bokuto to the door, pushing the man from behind with unprecedented strength. Flustered, Bokuto grabbed for the door frame and stopped him in his tracks.

“Akaashi, what’s up with you?”

“I told you to get out!”

“But it’s lunchtime!”

Huffing, Akaashi’s eye twitched as he scowled at Bokuto.

“Then get your own lunch! Can’t you do even that?”

Bokuto looked like he was about to burst into tears.

Where did the kind Akaashi go? Unable to bear this sudden betrayal, he fled the house. He perched sullenly on the roof and wished Yams and Tsukki were here. They’d know what was going on. He stayed there for all of ten minutes when he heard someone calling his name.

Then, the back door swung open.

“Bokuto! There you are.” Akaashi flew up and knelt beside him. “Hey… are you upset with me? I didn’t mean to shout at you. I really didn’t. It’s all because of the potion and this horrible headache.”

He then sighed softly and leaned onto Bokuto, who kept staring ahead.

He could feel the shaman’s soft cheek on his shoulder.

Idly tracing circles on Bokuto’s arm, Akaashi spoke in a gentle voice.

“Sorry, Bokuto. Forgive me?”

Perhaps it was too gentle, for it scared Bokuto out of his wits. First a demon had possessed Akaashi, and now an angel? Sweating, he dared not turn his head, genuinely afraid of what the man would turn into next. He felt a tug on his wrist.

“Hey, let’s go make lunch together, okay?”

Akaashi looked up at him with the most perfectly poised puppy-dog eyes.

He could hear the Ancient Owl calling for his soul.

 

Bokuto rarely donned the apron. Akaashi had him devote his time to training, and so prepared all the meals himself. Thankfully, he cleaned the cauldron thoroughly each time when cooking – but as that was the only form of cookware in the house, it also meant almost all their food was soupy. As long as it had meat, though, Bokuto had no complaints.

Akaashi lifted a basket of vegetables onto the table. “Do you know how to cut these?” he asked. Seeing how Bokuto was holding the knife like a sword, he realized he shouldn’t have bothered. Standing behind him, Akaashi placed his hands on top of the man’s and corrected his grip. His fingers were steady and firm, and their iciness sent a jolt up Bokuto’s elbow. More importantly, his body was right against his.

It made Bokuto’s head spin. Akaashi didn’t do hugs.

“You hold it like this, and your other hand should be curved like this, so you don’t cut yourself,” Akaashi explained.

“Uhn,” was the best sound Bokuto could muster.

“Then you cut down…”

Thunk!

“Not so hard. They won’t run away,” he chuckled.

Chuckled!

O, what a sweet sound! Right by his ear, too!

“Yes, just like that. You can cut the rest the same way – I’ll leave it to you, then.”

Chop, chop, chop, went Bokuto. The monotonous rhythm helped him take his mind off things, and his heart calmed down a little. Every now and then he would sneak a peek at Akaashi to see if he would abruptly fly into a rage again, but he didn’t, and Bokuto thought he saw a slight smile on the man’s face as he took a whiff of the stew. It was as if he was… enjoying himself. Over such a mundane thing as cooking?

Bokuto knew he had never truly known his shaman – but now he found himself knowing less than before.

 

Throughout the day, Akaashi complained of his headache and tried to soothe it, but nothing seemed to help. He could get little done as a result, impeded more so by the need to do them with Bokuto, and explain everything he was doing. Sometimes, his impatience showed plainly in his speech, and other times he was encouraging and gentle. At least, Bokuto learned something about pounding ingredients that day.

Akaashi had no appetite for dinner, and decided to go to bed early.

Before retreating to his room, he remembered something, and tugged Bokuto’s hand.

“Bokuto. Come with me.” He sounded a little awkward, but he still found the courage to look the man in the eye.

“Huh?”

“Remember?”

He did.

“Yeah… um… everything.” Bokuto gulped, his face glowing red.

He let Akaashi lead him by the hand. He sat down on the bed obediently. He took the pillow that was passed to him. He stared at the shaman disrobing in the dim light. Wait, this isn’t new, he thought to himself, quit staring! He stripped off his top as well and put it neatly to one side.

Worn out, Akaashi flopped down on his usual spot and mumbled a ‘goodnight’. Bokuto followed suit, with his back turned. Their fluffy wings rested against each other. Gradually, only the sound of Akaashi’s heavy breathing could be heard, while Bokuto was as stiff as plank. He told himself to relax and just sleep like he normally did— if that was even possible.

It was not.

It didn’t take long for Akaashi to shift around in discomfort. He grumbled softly and rubbed his eyes. He rubbed the back of his head and sighed. When he could take it no longer, he sat up, wiped his face, and tapped Bokuto’s shoulder.

“Bokuto,” he mumbled, and the white owl shot upright immediately.

“Yes!”

“I can’t sleep.”

In the dark, Bokuto could see clearly the frustration on Akaashi’s face and the tears welling in his wincing eyes. So shocking was this image, that he tumbled out of bed and shouted out the first thing that came to mind.

“My deepest apologies! I will leave this instant!!”

But Akaashi hooked his wing around Bokuto’s waist and silently pulled him back. He made him lie down, arranged his body nicely, and then snuggled up to him with a contented grunt.

Seeing and feeling Akaashi use him as a bed was just surreal – by the gods, where was that hand going – and Bokuto was confident the Ancient Owl was coming for him any minute now. He could hear its majestic cry ringing in his eardrums. Hoot-hoo!

“Akaashi?” Bokuto whispered.

“Hm?”

“You’re Akaashi, right?”

“Silly…” the shaman muttered tiredly. His breathing slowed, and the knot on his brows loosened. “Bokuto’s a silly.”

 

Akaashi fell soundly asleep, and Bokuto was left with his increasingly unceasing thoughts.

He had always prided himself on his muscles, not the grey mass in his head. That was not to say he was dull – his faculties were simply not in the same place as Akaashi’s, in the same way Akaashi could not come to terms with the way he was. Despite so, Akaashi had never described him as dim-witted. Akaashi had always put up with his antics. Akaashi had stood by him when the rest would not.

He was grateful – ever so grateful – but he found it difficult to express his gratitude to someone who appeared incapable of receiving it. At times, he wondered if Akaashi’s kindness was out of pure dedication to his duty, and often doubted that the glimpses of humanity which occasionally glittered forth from his statuesque self were truly, for the lack of a better word, human. It was always the same serene, imperturbable elegance, the same unwrinkled face.

But today had destroyed everything. He was convinced that the man in his arms right now, could feel.

Whatever that potion was, was surely a mere catalyst— for those emotions could not have sprung from nothingness. This, he was certain of.

His only worry was that he would, very soon, and very abruptly, come to know more than he could bear, and begin to see Akaashi as anything less than perfect.

 

Chapter Text

Many would not hesitate to label Oikawa a sadist; most did not know he had a streak of masochism as well.

 

When Daichi balled his right fist, a few things went through Oikawa’s head.

First of all, he thought that it should clearly have been the left instead. Why, if he were in his place, he would have done so unreservedly. Then again, it would be hard to clench a clawed hand, wouldn’t it? The fingertips would not be able to curl inward to form a fist, and the thumbclaw would stick out in an awkward position, unless they could be retracted. But that would be unlikely, since dragons are not like Nekomata, and besides why would anyone use a claw like that——

 

Whiteness engulfed him.

 

Oikawa emerged from the snow and spat out a bloody tooth. Great, he thought, I’m going to have to get that fixed.

He saw the next blow coming. It was the other hand this time. Bravo, Daichi! That’s more like it!

But the hit did not come as Kuroo grasped Daichi and yanked him off of the mage. “My, someone’s angry,” Oikawa smirked and tapped his swelling cheek. “Go on, I know you can do it.”

“Shut the fuck up!” Kuroo growled, fighting the strength that was burgeoning forth from Daichi’s left arm – it was getting harder to control him by the second. Then, as if nothing had happened, the mage stood up and calmly locked eyes with his victim.

“Do you hate me, Daichi?”

Daichi’s eyes saw red. He could not speak a word, but the air between them seemed ready to ignite.

“Was I wrong? Was it presumptuous of me to think that you would give your life to find Suga? That you would think losing your arm was of little consequence? Hmph. I volunteer to do the dirty work, and look what I get. Not a word of thanks, and a kisser on the cheek.”

“You’re seriously fucked up,” snarled Kuroo.

“If you wanted to do it instead, be my guest!” Oikawa gestured.

“You’re missing the point!”

I’m the only one here who gets it!”

 

At last, Daichi threw Kuroo off, grabbed Oikawa’s coat – there was a ripping sound as the claws went through cloth – and with great clarity, shouted in the man’s face.

 

“You’re right! But fucking tell me first!”

 

Kuroo groaned in the background. Oikawa smiled to himself.

“I was sparing you from having to think about how painful it would be.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have punched you if you told me.”

“Right!”

Calming down, Daichi released his grip and gazed mournfully at his arm. Not only did it look different, it felt different, twitching minutely as though it had a mind of its own. But there was no denying that it was his – the cold sting of the air sinking through the still-soft scales, and into his flesh, was proof enough.

“Are you really gonna let this go?” Kuroo exclaimed.

 

He put it away.

There was no time to waste.

 

“I’m fine. Let’s go.”

 


 

Bokuto had a dream. In the dream, the Ancient Owl appeared before him.

He knew it was the Owl, even though it appeared as a shapeless, glowing amalgamation of ethereal light. For, in every moment it existed, it took the form of thousands of beings all at once, and within these beings were the owls of the mortal realm. That was why the Fukuro tribe called it the Owl, but in reality it transcended mortal conception – thus it sought, in this omnipresent way, to enlighten all manner of mortals with the nature of his existence.

Akaashi was in the dream as well. He was far, far away in the endless sky, and was as tall and large as a mountain. His wings and eyes were as white as snow.

The Owl flew into Akaashi.

Akaashi disintegrated into dust, and the sky exploded noiselessly into the Owl’s ethereal light.

Another Akaashi took Bokuto’s hand from behind. His skin was vibrant with the scent of spring. His eyes had the richness of honey. His lips, as red as raspberries in the snow.

Bokuto pulled him close and kissed him.

 

He woke up.

 

It was morning. One could not tell by looking out the window, but Bokuto’s body knew it was morning. Laying by his side was Akaashi, who was still fast asleep.

He could faintly remember the last parts of his dream. The sensation of his lips upon Akaashi’s, albeit imagined, lingered in his mind.

It wasn’t the first time.

Harbouring such indecent thoughts disturbed him. There was no law forbidding a shaman and a warrior to love, but he felt within his bones that lusting after him was tantamount to treason. He did not know why, for he could not to articulate his thoughts well – not even to himself.

He got up.

Akaashi stirred, having been moved from his slumber. Bokuto turned around.

 

Honey-coloured.

 

“Bokuto…” whispered he, “Is it morning?”

“Yes, Akaashi,” replied Bokuto. His gaze flitted away.

“You look troubled. Did you have a dream?”

How did he always know?

“Yes.”

“Was it the same one?”

“Yes.”

It was a half-truth; up until the end, it was the same. He couldn’t fool Akaashi, however.

 

“Could you tell me about it?”

 

Bokuto’s heart throbbed. He tried to keep a straight face, which was very hard to do for a person whose emotions showed plainly on his everything.

“There’s nothing to say, it’s the same thing.”

“I just want to refresh my memory. Start from the beginning, okay?”

He gulped. Sitting down, he twiddled his thumbs and stared at his hands.

“I am floating in space, and the Owl comes to me. It’s formless as always. He takes me somewhere far away across the stars to meet you. You’re enormous and completely white, for some reason. Then he flies into you, and you disappear along with him.”

“That’s all?”

He nodded.

Akaashi tapped his lower lip in thought.

 

Red as raspberries.

 

Bokuto’s eyes swept over the man’s bare skin.

 

Vibrant with the scent of spring.

 

Something possessed him. Something must have.

 

He would never have done this out of his own free will. This was too terrible, too unthinkable, that he could not have done so of his own volition. And yet, as he committed this foul act, it felt so liberating, so amazing, and so exhilarating, that it could not have been wrong. Only after coming to his senses did he realize he had been poisoned – poisoned by that sinful dream – and that reality was about to crumble at his unforgivable error.

 

“I-I’m sorry,” he uttered.

 

And he left without looking back.

 


 

How many days had it been?

It was impossible to tell.

He would rather be back there again, with the rectangle of light above his head. Through that small window, he could see if it was night or day. He could see if there was snow or rain. He could see the world. Here, he could see nothing. Nothing but the dark orange flames from the torches.

How many times had it been?

It was impossible to count.

He would rather be back there again, in solitude for the rest of his days. Where he understood nothing, knew no one, and felt no more than his mother’s love. Maybe then, he wouldn’t have had to suffer the whips upon his back, and know the pain of losing the strangers he had come to love. No matter how the guards tried, he told them nothing. There was nothing to say.

He did not hope to escape. He knew he would be executed once they were done with him – when he could no longer entertain their fantasies of some conspiracy against the Capital. He did not know which was worse; dying from his afflictions, or by hanging. What difference did it make, if the end was the same? It was tiring to think about, and so he did not.

He thought instead about his beautiful children and the fate of his beloved. He could only hope they were safe. They must be, for he was here now.

Their time of living in fear would end with him at the gallows.

 


 

You could sum up Tsukishima’s social life by saying ‘Yamaguchi and people from work’. Interestingly, Bokuto fell into the latter category, despite the lack of involvement in his work. Rather, the owl saw fit to teach him the ways of the Fukuro warrior, seeing how spindly the boy was in comparison to himself. He would visit him regularly to endow him with ‘fighting food’ – a special blend of mystery meat – and Tsukishima thought that today would be no exception.

But when he opened the door and saw the ashen-faced, empty-handed man, he could not help but conclude that this had something to do with the plan.

“Good morning, master. What brings you to my humble abode?”

“Tsukishima…” Bokuto murmured, his eyes glued to the floor, “I am… unfit to be your master. You deserve someone better.”

“Oh, good. I never saw you as one anyway. What happened?”

 

Suddenly overcome with emotion, Bokuto tugged at his hair and shouted, “I am the worst!!”

Hurriedly, Tsukishima clamped Bokuto’s mouth shut and dragged him to the sofa. Tsukishima’s mother greeted the owl as he came in, but he was too caught up in his own distress to notice. Sighing, the crow took his half-empty cup and said, “What are you on about?”

“Akaashi hates me.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

“Yes, it is! It’s all because of that weird potion you two gave him. He was all smiles, then angry, then back to being happy, then sad, and he did all those un-Akaashi things, like…”

Tsukishima chuckled as he listened to Bokuto’s confused ranting. Secretly, he was dying to see all the things that were being described to him. Imagine that— Akaashi, fuming from ear to ear? What a sight! As far as he knew, the shaman tolerated everything Bokuto threw at him, and as he continued to listen, he could not deduce how Bokuto had come to the conclusion that Akaashi hated him. All that was said and done were fairly normal annoyances on his standards. He pressed the owl for the truth, and after much hemming and hawing, Bokuto confessed with his head in his hands.

 

“I kissed him.”

 

The beverage in Tsukishima’s mouth evacuated in a violent spray of droplets. His mother had an ‘oh my’ expression on her face. Bokuto calmly wiped the spit and water off his forehead.

 

“What should I do, Tsukki? I can’t take it back.”

“Of… of course not.” He mumbled to himself, “I didn’t expect things to move this quickly.”

“What?”

Tsukishima cleared his throat. “Nothing. So you like master Akaashi? For real?”

A deep blush covered the man’s fierce features, but when he spoke he was unabashed with his words, and the unfiltered conviction that so defined him shone through.

“Of course I like him. He’s so talented, hardworking, kind, and beautiful… even the way he frowns is beautiful.”

You got that right, thought the crow. “So why don’t you tell him?”

“No, no, no, no, I can’t!”

“Why?”

Bokuto crossed his arms in the air. “I can’t! No way!”

“You already kissed him.”

“It was a mistake— I can’t risk doing that again! So, I’m going to stay here, until the potion wears off.”

Tsukishima jumped from his seat. “What?!”

“A good disciple should take care of his master in his time of need. Now come, hide me!”

 

Later in the day, Tsukishima heard another knock on the door. He had a good idea about who it was as he peered through the peephole, and lo and behold, it was master Akaashi. He came bearing a basket of something, and Tsukishima had a good idea about what that was, too.

“Good afternoon, Tsukishima,” The shaman greeted. His face had a small look of concern about him; it must have been the flat arch of his brows. “Sorry to trouble you on your day off.”

“Not a problem, master. What brings you here?”

“This…” he lifted the basket and looked at it for a long time. “Bokuto wanted to pass this to you.”

“More meat?” Tsukki quipped.

“Yes. He must have forgotten to take it with him. He’s here, isn’t he?”

The crow kept his poker face steady. It was the one thing he excelled at.

“No,” he replied, but as Akaashi looked at him strangely, he knew his game was up. Could he hear Bokuto snoring through the walls? With a relaxed gaze, Akaashi touched Tsukishima’s shoulder.

“If you see him, tell him to come home.”

The boy nodded. “Got it.”

“Thank you. Have a good day.”

Tsukishima watched his master walk away. Although he looked as graceful as always, his gait had changed markedly— he no longer stepped with confidence and purpose, and his wingbeats were shallow and erratic. Tsukishima pondered if Akaashi would still have been this affected, had he not drunk the potion.

 

Akaashi came by again the next day. Tsukishima still said nothing about Bokuto, and Bokuto still refused to go home.

Akaashi returned the following day. He looked wearier than before. Tsukishima came close to telling the truth, but held back at the last moment.

Akaashi didn’t come back again after that.

After coming to know of Akaashi’s absence, Bokuto agreed to leave, with Tsukishima’s assurance that the potion should have worn off already.

 

When Bokuto reached home, he noticed at once that the lights were off. Had Akaashi gone to bed already? He knocked on the door. No response. He went around back and entered the house. It was pitch black. “Akaashi?” he whispered aloud. Scanning the area, he saw no one in the kitchen or the living room. There was only one other place to look.

Bokuto crept to Akaashi’s door and hesitated. He remembered how cranky the man was in the beginning; and he would have left him alone, had he not seen something odd through the crack in the doorway.

He slammed open the door.

 

“Akaashi!”

 

Bokuto carried Akaashi’s limp body from the ground and laid him on the bed. His face was deathly pale.

“Akaashi, wake up!” he shook the man’s shoulders, to no avail. Stricken with gut-wrenching guilt, Bokuto found himself at a loss. He paced frantically around the room, wringing his head for a solution, then ran out to the kitchen for a towel. Gradually, Akaashi roused to the feeling of Bokuto massaging his fingers.

 

“You’re back…” Akaashi whispered.

“Akaashi! Are you okay? What happened?”

“The headache… I guess… I must have fainted.”

Then, a frown seized Akaashi’s face. He covered his mouth and tried to get up, and Bokuto quickly brought him to the bathroom. He retched several times into a basin. Nothing came up but bile. When he was done, he pushed the basin away and leaned weakly onto Bokuto, who rubbed his back in silence.

After a long rest, Bokuto asked quietly, “Feeling better?”

Akaashi nodded.

“Did you take medicine?”

“It all… came out.”

Bokuto slowl