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Summertide

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San says it’s the hottest summer in years. In the northeast the same season brings twice the heat, yet half the humidity. Ashitaka still isn’t acclimatised. During one of those endless dog days at the young wood he blacks out. One moment he’s saying hello to a kodama and in the next San’s frowning down at him.

“Yakkul says you fainted,” San explains, cradling Ashitaka’s right hand against her breast. Around her fingers he folds his, drawing petals into her palm. When Yakkul wheezes his concern too, Ashitaka raises his other hand to stroke his trembling snout. “You need to rest.”

“I’m all right, really. I just need to catch up on sleep. That’s all.”

“Those humans work you like a slave!”

“Not true. I work because I want to. Have to.” Maybe he should sit up, so as to not worry her, but a surge of heat stamps him down before he can all the way. He slumps back. At least San’s relieving the glare a little; he can tell by the colour of her hair that the sun’s blazing plumb overhead. The forest still wants for shade after all. “And you work much, much harder, besides.”

A grin reveals glinting eyeteeth. “Then we both need that break. I know just the place.”

So Ashitaka entrusts Yakkul to Eboshi and his house to the passing vagrants who can’t afford the inn. The destination is supposed to be a surprise; San tells him nothing except that they’ll be sleeping, preferably in the nude together, amidst the great outdoors, but he’s used to that by now. They bring only the bare necessities: a hammock from Eboshi; a gourd for drinking water; contingencies; spices; their weapons of choice; San’s favourite pelts; and a few changes of Ashitaka’s bathrobes and underclothes. San wears the aquamarine earrings Ashitaka gifted her seasons ago, and on her shoulders they cast little lakes fed by the fine blue veins down her throat. Some of them flow southwards still to the inland sea of their dagger. Then there’s the now rather threadbare garb. Ashitaka watched her dress; nothing else divides her body from the world.

They owe her brothers a two day’s lope through thick southern forest that barely shades the rue in San’s eyes. But the closer they come the more they gladden, regain their lustre, until they brighten to sparkling with thousands of diamonds the sun keeps sending through the canopy. As she sniffs the air, her back arches, and her eyes shut. How sweet, this; brings back memories.

“Ashitaka,” she says, “can you hear that?”

“I can smell it too. Where are we?”

“Guess!”

Five strides after, the diamonds cluster into unclouded sky, now one with the earth. “I… I don’t know.” His heart stammers like what he now recognises as the waves.

“It’s the beach, silly!” San laughs. She alights from her brother’s back. Each wolf says goodbye with a lick and a nudge returned by a hug and a kiss. They vanish before Ashitaka can thank them. He looks to San for instruction, but she’s busy twirling in the manner of a young girl. “Look, Ashitaka! This is it.”

Ashitaka has never been to the sea before. Well, he has, but only vicariously, through stories. He may be the first in generations of his clansmen to see it beyond his dreams; Emishi has not been able to afford the world adventurers for more than five generations. So it is another thing entirely for him to visit one himself, let alone with San, let alone left alone with San.

It’s something like a lake, only much bigger, louder, before it a bald band of sand that goldenly sections mountain from water which undergoes myriad transformations from paw to claw to maw. But his nose recognises it, though he can’t quite put his finger on why yet.

San strips and sprints wildly towards the waves. Just before she reaches the shoreline she begins to cartwheel back, dancing with the tide. Ashitaka disrobes too, then folds both their clothes into as neat a pile as he can, which he places atop their other belongings. Thereupon she calls him, so he follows her footprints into the sea, though he lingers a few moments on the coast squelching his toes in the wet sand. Feels nice, if funny. As the waves lick his feet he is surprised at how warm the water is, such that for a moment he mistakes the swash for the tongue of an affectionate cat. That done, he strides after his love, who is now floating on her back and confabulating with a pelican. Only her face, an arm, and her breasts escape the waves; the rest of her goes squiggly under the water, turning into something part marine: Mermaid? Wolfish? Queen-in-the-sea? He would love her all the same, whatever the name, whatever the shape.

Instead Ashitaka asks San, “What’s it saying?”

“He’s telling me where all the grub is and wishing us luck with the catch. Awfully kind of him. Are you game to go fishing later?” She closes her eyes. “Or you can go yourself now. I’ll be here. It’s too hot to do anything.”

“I’d rather stay with you.” He wades deeper until his shadow falls across San’s body, whereupon she cracks open an eye not directed at his face.

San tugs at his fundoshi. “Isn’t this a nuisance? The water feels so much better when you’re naked.”

“A-ah, does it?”

“It does!” She slaps his hips. “Turn around.” Ashitaka sighs and obeys. With practised ease she undoes the cloth, balls it in her hand, and chucks it all the way towards the berm. Still coolly floating on her back, she grabs his wrist and jerks.

Ashitaka tumbles. Rude seawater stings his eyes, but does not quite displease his tongue, for it tastes something like San, though with eightfold salt, and none of the slickness he so loves.

He coughs up water and her name. He flails his arms about for a while to regain his balance, and soon he too is floating, although not quite as serenely as San. His eyes still smart from brine and sun. “That was unsportsmanlike.”

Well, two can play at that game. Before she can respond he dives low, finds the sun through the liquid aperture enclosed by her thighs, and lunges towards it.

Once he surfaces she fills his ears with her pealing and handfuls of water, thereby plugging them. Her thighs squeeze his neck as she finishes her curl-up so that he chairs her. A familiar weight falls on his shoulders. He can still hear her say, “I’ll make you beg for mercy.”

Heels buffet his sides, as if to spur him. Up blasts enough water to blind him. Then all he can do is tighten his grip on her knees. “Best of luck!”

She begins flicking water at his eyes. “Take this!”

Ashitaka shakes his head; she’s going soft on him. “Well, I suppose I ought to let you know I’ll be taking my turn now.” He crosses his elbows over her knees and ducks his head under her thighs to throw her forward. She slams into the waves, but with her reflexes, she manages to frame his neck with her calves just in time to take him down with her. Underwater, they lose grip of each other, what with the flow that strikes them from behind. In Ashitaka blood sloshes and smoulders as the brine does around him.

When they stand upright again San steps on his foot. She begins the second round by lashing a whip of water across his cheek. She wrestles with him, though they don’t always have weight in the water, or any solid place to fall, so neither keeps score. Soon Ashitaka loses count of the bites he’s received on his ears, and the headlocks San has reversed into armbars, and the brine bombs they’ve dropped on each other. He wants to hold her still long enough to ask her whether or not she will grant him truce, so they can at last one with each other, but she slips and slips and slips, forever out of reach, white and slight as froth.

Splish, splash, splosh; from whom has San learned all her moves? Clearly the forest is not her only element, though he ought to have known since he first saw her glide glistening fishwise through water where she is native too. Neither relents till they’re breathing hard and almost choking on their laughter. They have to stop then, before they cut their feet, or drown each other.

Ashitaka pants, “Who wins?”

San launches a surprise jet out her mouth. “Who’s wetter?”

Ashitaka wipes himself. “That’s obvious.” He reaches down to knuckle her clit. He mouths her ear. “You.”

“Ashitaka,” San carps. “That’s not fair. You know I can’t help it.”

“Aw, then we both win.” He embraces her with everything he has. At last she stills into solid, all hot flesh, her heart a swiftlet his hands branched to meet. “So let’s celebrate!”

She treats him to that bubbling laugh again. “Standing?”

“Yup.” He nuzzles her nose, kisses her salty open mouth. “Are you worried?” He strokes her arm.

“Of what?” She nuzzles him back. Her hand’s about level with his now, combing the tuft of hair that trails up to his navel. She told him before it always comforts her to do that, because it feels like something between running her fingers through new grass, the makings of a spring nest, a pack’s worth of whiskers all at once, and something else entirely, something unnameable, but very dear.

“Falling, maybe?” He glides a forefinger inside. He keeps it there he while he swipes her clit, first with the pad of his thumb, then the knuckle of it. All their fingers have already wrinkled up and raised their own tiny mountain ranges. That’s what San calls them, because they resemble home. She’s awfully fond of them, since they always form when he’s been fingering her, or she herself, to sating. They are not there yet, though it’s not long at all before San wobbles forward and clenches his shoulders. Her hip shivers under his hold. “I won’t let you, though.”

“It’s… it’s not the sea I’m afraid of,” she breathes. Ashitaka feels briefly very stupid, for talking to San as if she’s Kaya on the brink of womanhood: Here stands the great wolf who has fallen from castles, canopies, into gods. What’s a little water going to hurt?

“I’m a little scared.” It’s the truth. “This is my first time here, after all. How deep does it go?”

“I don’t know.” She hooks her arms around his neck, shooting him the look of a wolf on the prowl.  “Why don’t you find out?”

Breath feathers across his face. Lips follow. They fall in a storm of kisses. San smears spit across Ashitaka’s eyelids, up and down his nose, around each cheek, licking like a dog (yet he is her pet). Then she sucks his throat hard enough to mark it, muttering, “mine, mine, mine,” into the skin. She draws his voice to scream her mastery true. Her tongue quests for his heart, as though she knows not that it has always been hers. He does not realise she has bitten him till he sees her mouth painted with his blood.

Sooner than he can react she licks his wounds to gentle the shock, though at the same time she scrapes her nails along his shoulders, up, up, marking spine and nape too, till her fingers crest his crown. She presses down; she must want kisses elsewhere. He is only too happy to offer more. Before her he prostrates himself. Curls his arms round her ankles. Begins to clamber up her calves. Rises, rises. High heaven now. In worship he kisses her thighs. They fly open for him. With his tongue he parts hair, lips, to get to her clit, against which any pearl would pale. He lets her push and pull as much as she likes, so long as he can reach her sweet spots to work them till she can scarce breathe, much less think, and still less sorrow.

And all at once his mouth is packed with an influx of salt; he’s so far gone it takes him a moment to realise it’s not her orgasm he’s tasting, but a rogue wave that’s hit them, though the tide’s been receding ever since they stepped in it. He panics. The only thing remembers to do right is not to breathe as the sea springs overhead. He grasps San’s knees as if they support the only altar that can absolve him. (This deathbound body, delivered. (I who have taken life for life, would now forsake mine freely, for the promise of your being, that beauty may survive the future, in spite of the times and the tides.)) Through the tumult she moors him, more merciful than sweet Kannon herself. From his shoulders ebbs the surf, all suffering, every past transgression, pennons billowing backwards in retreat. Only love is left. All there is is this:

Bliss.

It is over then. Ashitaka looks up, and San down. She’s biting her wrist not to laugh, since he’s coughing up a bucketful and wheezing and probably looking the part of a shipwrecked sailor. More determined than ever to win against the waves, for her to come into his mouth before the next surge, he pounces upon her again, buries his nose in her cleft, worries her clit, licks as a cur would a bowl, sucks as a cub would a teat, and mouths prayer, oaths, tongues.

Once he regains his breath, he warns, “Hold onto me.”

“What’s that?” she huffs back. “It’s you who’s holding onto me.”

Ashitaka bites the inward of her thigh. She likes that so much she yips yes and knees him in the sternum. “Just in case. Hold on.”

But the sea rasps rushing closer and closer. His body fills with fire till his limbs seem to move of their own accord. He releases her clit from his mouth and replaces it with his slicked fingers, which can go harder than his tongue. As he tests the speed and pressure their eyes lock. Her face mantles with pink, a marvel. “Yes?”

She nods jerkily. He rubs so fast with his fingers she bays and pummels his shoulders. He heeds her how she’s taught him to listen. Between the odd whine or sob he searches for the big gulp of breath that so often preludes her peak, and when he finds it he drives his mouth towards her clit and nips. And so she comes. He shoves two of his fingers as far as they will go in her, rolling them round and round and round while he kisses and sucks and nibbles her clit for good measure. By then she’s shrieking, and he wins his bet against the sea that she would outsing it.

Ashitaka wraps his other hand around his erection, and it doesn’t take more than a couple of strokes for him to come too, just in time to catch San when her knees buckle. Over his shoulder he lifts her quivering body. She’s pealing again. He never wants to stop hearing her laugh like that.

“See?” he chortles. Into her rump he plumps a hand, whose place his mouth, then teeth, take. She kicks him for that. “I’ve got you. No matter what.”

San goes limp. “I see.”

“I’m glad. Thank you for trusting me, ”Ashitaka says, and carries her over the watermark. This time the spume frills around his ankles, and rises no higher before the unravelling.

--

By the time San thought to look at the sun, it had stolen to the centre of the upper hyaline to blaze an ever broader path down the lower one. Funny how far a cry her current gleeful inattention was from her acute awareness of herself in that cubhood summer measured by hours upon hours of her mother’s worries, the gulls’ taunts, and her brothers’ parades along the seaside that had made her feel awfully hairless and alone under the glaring daylight. She had loved them all, still loved them, the sea equally, and her last trip here almost as much, but at the time not the smooth skin she did now, for since then she had learned the sun was only trying to kiss her, and the sea preen her, which neither could do half as well had she any pelage at all.

“That’s funny,” Ashitaka said, his voice even and cool, notwithstanding her riding on his shoulder. Sometimes she worried about that, in case that strength portended his curse’s relapse, but she was so pleased and giddy and indolent with orgasm she chose to assume the best of his natural gifts. “You think it’ll storm? I hear thunder, but I can’t see a single cloud out there…"

“I don’t think so. It’s my tummy rumbling. Can’t you tell?”

“Ah!” he laughed. “I suppose we’d better make lunch. What would you like?”

“Oh. I forget sometimes that you really are a prince.” Those sun-browned hands could not fool her, scarred and hard as they were, not since they had first gentled her.

He stiffened a little. “Was.”

“Once a wolf, always a wolf.” Moro had taught her that. “It must be the same for royalty. Is it not true that there are among you kings, who were once princes, and whose sons are princes? They aren’t like our lords. They never have to earn their place in the world, and live all their lives in wealth and glamour off the blood and labour of the needy. You must have been used to wanting for nothing. We’re far from home, so we can’t have whatever we like. We’ll have to take whatever we can get.”

“Oh, yes. I was only—I asked so I would know your first choice. You see, I’m sure what you say is all true in some parts of the world. It’s only partly true in my experience. I was privileged beyond what I deserved, yes. And indeed to this day I owe a grievous debt to those over whom I was to rule. But we hadn’t much land or food, though you are right in that I rarely went hungry. And, well, here’s what I was taught: A good prince is like unto the lifeblood of his people. I didn’t think so. I don’t hope so. I hope everyone is doing well—no, better—without me. But I take the creed to mean something else. A good prince should shoulder all blame. Ease suffering. Secure happiness for his subjects. Be just. Be gentler still. And doubly kinder. A good prince must bleed for the people. It’s the least he could do.”

“I believe you,” San said, “but you bleed more than necessary.”

“You are a better princess than I was a prince. You’ve bled the most, willingly. Didn’t you know the villagers call you ‘princess’ too? I suppose that’s one thing they got right.”

San hissed, “I don’t care what they think.”

“Do you care what I think?”

“No!” She covered her face, which was silly, since he couldn’t see it. Around him she was always so silly. “But what do you think?”

Ashitaka belly-laughed, and sang with great gusto, “Verily, thou art the empress of this heart, whose mortal vessel be but a base upstart.”

She giggled. “Is there more?”

“A whole hundred more lines. I can’t say I remember them all, though.”

“Try.”

Ashitaka did his best, but only stiltedly reached the fifth stanza when they chanced upon his fundoshi, whereupon he lowered San, for he required two hands to refasten it. San never could see the point of that, not in this heat, but wouldn’t waste energy on arguing, when it would be much easier to simply unknot the cloth later, once he was willing again.

It was pleasant to see his face welcoming her back to a vertical carriage. Every time he blinked the brine strung through his lush pendent lashes shivered, glittered. His hair was well forested too, though canopied with the sea. “Oh,” San laughed, “you’ve got seaweed in your hair.” She tidied him strip by strip.

“Oof! I suppose I look quite ridiculous.”

“A little, like a seaman, maybe.” San finished weeding. “Say, can you remember the rest of that song?”

“Mmm, my memory’s a little murky beyond the fifth stanza. Some prince I could have been,” he said. “Sorry.” Yet she rolled the last words he recited like knucklebones in her mind: Prithee, light the lamps of heaven, that this poor mendicant might descry thy fair grace, of rosy countenance wherewith thou once entered my sweven. Shall I seed the bloom of my love, and, thriving, embrace the thorns of thy garden, where rooted ne’er will mine affection wilt, nor demand pardon? Show me my place by thy feet, and let me stay, I entreat thee, my sweet, my dove—

“Um,” interrupted Ashitaka, who was pointing offshore. “Do you see those?”

San cupped a hand over her eyes and squinted to see two spheres bobbing about in the water. She waded towards them and returned with two heavy watermelons before Ashitaka could warn against it.

“I wonder where these came from?” San growled. “A boat?”

As Ashitaka lowered his chin, shadows lengthened over his face. “Maybe someone’s just looking out for us.” He knocked on the melons. “There might be some important babies sleeping in there.”

“Oh, when I was a cub they told us that too! The story was that all of us grow on trees and come into the world from fruit. But I figured out the truth, after so many springs. Poor Ashitaka! Do they tell humans the same thing?”

“Haha, not exactly. I was thinking of Momotarou, and Kaguya-hime. Seems like children sprout from plants all the time. Haven’t I told you the stories?”

“I would have remembered,” San gasped. “You mean to tell me now all that’s true?”

“Well, I suppose truth touches every story, even lives in some of them. So who knows?”

“Tell them to me later.” San jumped up and down on the spot. “We can eat these now.”

“I’ll get a sharper knife.” When Ashitaka returned with one, he had also retrieved an idea for a game of suikawari. They discussed the prize, and he offered, “Half my dinner?”

“All.”

“Fine. But if I win?”

“Hmm. If you win you can do whatever you like with me till the sun sets.”

Ashitaka clapped a hand over his mouth. “I wouldn’t take advantage of you like that!”

She knew. “Then don’t. Like I said, you can do whatever you like.”

“I—”

“You want me more than anything, right? It’s an offer you can’t refuse.” Before Ashitaka could respond, San seized the sheath of the knife, for now doubling as a bat, threw it, and ran after it. “Race you!”

Of course, San won. When Ashitaka blindfolded her all the world turned red. Had the temperature increased? San was beginning to sweat a lot, and it had nothing to do with the prospect of Ashitaka winning, given how gentle he was.

“Ready?” Ashitaka laughed, cupping her shoulders. San felt dizzy already.

“Yes.” She held the sheath steady as Ashitaka spun her round and round and round. She tried to search for the clean ripe green smell of the watermelon, but she was so dizzy, and spindrift was stifling her nose.

Ashitaka cheered, “A little to the left!”

“I don’t need your help!” she snapped, which silenced him.

Rage goaded her to strike too soon. Her bat thwacked something that certainly wasn’t a watermelon. She ripped the blindfold off. Ashitaka was clutching his shoulder and pinching one eye shut. When had San learned to strike without the intent to kill?

San huffed. “Why didn’t you move out of the way!”

“You’re too fast for me!” he laughed.

“I’m not playing this wretched game anymore.”

Ashitaka cracked his shoulder and rotated his flexed arm to readjust it. “But it’s fun, right?”

“Huh?”

“Hitting me. Does it ease your anger a little?”

“I don’t know,” she grumbled, “I’m getting angry now.”

So he instated the rule of distance, and fixed the problem. San didn’t mind when Ashitaka won, for her wager had been as good as foolproof, or so she thought.

Under the shade between the azaleas and rhododendrons in full bloom they feasted on fruit and all the beauty around them. Among the million petals San found a flower just the shade of Ashitaka’s lips, and Ashitaka put in her hair one which he said bloomed the blee of her cheeks. The watermelon had nothing in it but ripe flesh that blended well amid the blossoms. After each refreshing bite they spat seeds, and by the end of the meal there were so many they didn’t know whose came first.

Still peckish, they turned to coconuts for sustenance. When Ashitaka suggested they chop down the palms to get to them San kicked him in the ankle. Instead she taught him to swarm, throwing down coconuts while he stood ready to receive them. She hit him once accidentally on the pate. He lived. Still lived when he fell flat on his rump the first time he tried to climb, but luckily for him, he got all the way up on the second go.

They left behind rinds each as thin as a thumbnail. Ashitaka held two of the husks up to San’s breasts. “Hmmm.”

“What’re you doing?” she asked.

“It’s just—uh, it’s a little distracting, to see you naked all the time? Maybe this way I won’t be.”

“Oh, good. I mean to do that.”

“It’s just not very practical.” Ashitaka grinned. “And you said I could do what I liked if I won.”

The husks contained some water still, which felt nice once the shell cupped the flesh. But Ashitaka informed her, “Ah, these are too small.” He chucked them over his shoulder and tested the watermelons, whose rims were also still cold with juice. He shook his head. “Too big.” Those went over the other shoulder. “Oh, who cares two figs,” he mumbled, and moulded his great warm hands to her breasts. Her nipples hardened under them. “There! Is this a comfortable fit for you?”

She chortled, “You’re a fool.”

“You’re right.” He hung his head down, moonily thumbed her nipples. “I got even more excited, this way.”

“Well, at least make yourself useful.” She circled each breast to demonstrate where juice had settled. “It’ll get sticky! Lick it off for me?”

“Aye aye,” he wheezed, wetting his lips and kneeling forward.

As he mouthed her breasts she laughed.

“Hmm?”

“You look like a little cub!” She pulled his ears. They were very soft, though it was rare for any part of his body to be that way. “So greedy. But cute?” 

“Oh, right. Wolves have nipples too. I completely forgot!”

San’s hands tightened in his hair. “But how could you, you silly? There’s one right here.” She cupped the breast he was gnawing on and pushed it as far it would go into his mouth. “Don’t forget it, hmm?” 

“Mmm.”

“Oh, and this one too.” She pulled his right hand up to her waiting breast. He squeezed obligingly. “Ah. That feels nice.”

Ashitaka’s skin was also a little sticky with juice and dried sweat, and his mouth wetly warm. Against each other they perspired, bodies burning, but his touch felt good, and the last thing San wanted to do was move. Soon he slicked her breasts with spit; she slickened elsewhere. By the ears San drove him lower to her navel. In his languor he sank into the pit between her crossed legs, curled his body around hers, and kissed a bridge from hip to hip, slow as he had been hasty earlier. He made a convincing housedog.

“You know,” Ashitaka said, nose brushing her clit, “this morning I wanted to make you come with just my mouth, but there wasn’t time. I thought I was going to die, for a moment; happily, if I could get you to orgasm.”

San’s heart sped. She laughed, “That sounds like you.”

San weighed his head so heavy in her hands, twined around her fingers the luxuriant hair over it. It was usually silky and soft, soft as an undercoat and thrice as thick, but a little salt-knotted now. She combed it, challenging herself not to tug as he repeatedly opened and closed her, teased her with cool breath at her clit.

“May I stay here? I’d like to try again,” Ashitaka murmured. “San. You’re so slippery already.” 

“Of course. I want you. Anywhere. Here especially.” She opened her body to him, shifted a little so she could easier touch him too. They whiled away the blue hue of the sky, he kissing her sex while she amused herself with his. Ashitaka peaked first, in her palm; and San after, against his smiling lips.

“I’m glad we came,” hummed Ashitaka into her opening. She was shivering still, harder when his words entered her, redoubling through for many breaths in the offing.

“So am I,” she sighed. “Do you feel better now? No more blackouts?”

“Couldn’t be better. Thanks to you. Daoists say this acts an elixir of sorts,” he hummed, as he trailed her wet heat, echoing inside her again, “that increases longevity. Helpful, since I want to do this to you for a long, long time.” He lifted her hands up to his face. “I’m sorry about the mess.”

“Why?” San snatched the painted hand away, licked her palm, and tasted him. “I like it.”

His cheek got hotter against her other hand. “R-really? Thank you. But I’m so sticky I can’t stand it! I wouldn’t want to get any stickier.”

San tried to stand. Recognising her struggle, Ashitaka helped to pull her up, but she stumbled even then, her knees were so weak. He caught her, let her stay in his embrace as she regained her composure.

“Mmmn,” said San, “I’ll show you an nice spot for bathing.”

San grabbed his hand and didn’t let go, despite (or maybe because of) how sticky they both were, and started at a leisurely pace. As they strolled the aged sunglade followed them across the scrolling sea. Seabirds wolf-whistled and crabs snapped their felicitations, but there was no way in all the mountain that San would tell Ashitaka why she looked so flustered.

Erelong the brimstone smell overpowered them. Further ahead outthrusts of cockled rocks pocketed pools of various sizes and shapes: one like an acorn, another a deep cup, two as lotus flowers, five arranged close to resemble a wolf’s paw.

“It’s a hot spring,” San said. “Better get in before the tide rises again.” With a toetip San tested the water of the pool shaped like a palmar pad. The temperature was perfect. As she lowered to a crouch in the hollow a wondrous warmth relaxed her body. In no time at all her head cleared; health and vigour suffused her to the bone; fatigue from the hunt fled. It was as though she were floating.

“Whoa,” Ashitaka breathed, as one of his legs turned into a noodle under the water, “this feels amazing. Smells a little funny, though.”

“You get used to it. I’ve come to like it myself. It’s really good for you. Sulphur mixes with a lot of minerals in the water. The rocks are all slippery with the stuff.” A little slimy, even. “I fell here when I was a cub.” She touched the place. “Did I tell you about the scar?” She checked to see if the rock had received one from their scramble too, but it was not so.

Ashitaka wet his lips. “I don’t think so.”

“I’ll show you.” San stood and twisted to locate the mark somewhere under her rump, after which she guided one of Ashitaka’s hands to it. As he ghosted up her thigh his cheeks pinked behind a veil of steam. Heat from his great hand alone made the water and the air feel cool in comparison. San squeezed her legs together to trap him, desperate for more contact and relief from that all-encompassing ache. “Can you see it?” She reached between her thighs, interlaced their trembling fingers, and dragged his palm up against her wet. He had already sprung up full-length and hard against her backside.

Ashitaka huffed, “Not that well through all this vapour.”

“Then can you feel it?”

He let go her hand and parted her thighs at last, at last.

“Sorry?” Ashitaka gathered the flesh of her inner thigh to knead in one hand, and spread and circled and spread and circled her slit with the other, skirting around the place she most wanted touched. “I don’t quite follow you.”

“I’ll make you match me, mark for mark, if you keep doing that.”

“That’s a cute idea.” His voice was unperturbed, but his right hand, the one skimming her slit, started shaking on the spot again. Thereupon San bent over, placed her hands on the reef, rammed him with her behind, then ground against him till he whimpered. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?”

“You might be able to get out of it.”

“Tell me how.”

San sighed. “Come.”

Muscle nudged her back. Ashitaka interposed the shaft between her legs, girded her waist with his arms as he pressed their bodies nearer, nearer, as near he could, cocooning her in all his warmth and strength.  

Then San closed the last of the distance between them by hugging his erection with her thighs. Ashitaka’s head fell against her shoulder. It was so heavy, so warm. “Oh, dear,” he murmured into her ear through hot breath. Unsteady hands curved around her hips. “I’ll come. I could come from just holding you in my mind.”

“Not soon?” she barely pushed out, for his words had tangled and tangled like lianas all around her throat. He clenched the flesh of her hip as he began to slide against her, awfully slowly, so that she could measure his length by the endless duration of each stroke.

“I’ll try my best,” he wheezed. “Is this good for you too?”

“Go a little higher.” She spread her lips with one hand and lifted him with the other, so he could curve into the cleft. “Yes. Now move.”

“With pleasure.” Ashitaka began to rock again, a perfect fit against as inside her. Slid and slid, sleeking, their flesh and blood hotter and hotter than the water, than the heart and heat of the season.

At boiling point San screamed for him to pick up the pace. As soon as he obeyed she near lost her mind, babbling between breaths a spell: “Get in, get in, I want you inside me while I come. Ashitaka, Ashitaka.” That little incantation worked wonders; she did come then, but her clit still beat against his erection. “Do it—oh—n-now, now. Now!” She aimed a punch at his thigh, to impel him, but she missed, hitting herself. She ought to have known the effect would be feeble, since she trembled so badly. He blanketed her hand with one of his.

“Anything you want, oh,” he said into her neck as he sank in. She took as much of him as she could, and he gave generously so as to ensure she would never want for more. Having him all the way inside felt as delicious as the first meal after a long fever always tastes, perhaps better, since he pet her clit still, winging her to mind-numbing heights as she came and came and came. Pleasure flirted with pain as she was rubbed just short of raw. “San, San. You’re wonderful. It feels so good inside you. You’re hugging me so tight, haa—”

If San ever figured out what to say in response, she forgot it instantly; it was hard—because he was so hard—to focus on anything except his body alongside and inside her body as he swung them both from now to now to then and then and then. He breathed hot air into her neck as he bucked twice, slowed after. He stretched her soaked slit with his fingers while he edged out. Then with the head of his sex he gave her clit a few nudges till she couldn’t take it anymore and pushed him back in herself, though that alone could not start him.

“Don’t stop moving, oh, don’t, Ashitaka. Keep going.” Since San’s pride did not allow it, she almost never said please for any human, but she discovered she did not need to, for the magic word was truly his name. She had called it once and he had come charging like a champion out of an old vixen’s tale. It had worked then, and it worked now. He began to stroke the inside of her body, shallowly and slowly at first, but a little deeper and quicker with each thrust. By the seventh stroke he had bailed out enough to slick her thighs, but to no avail, as she only ever got wetter and wetter and wetter. Ashitaka bucked when he touched them, found how drenched she was for him. As he quickened he crossed an arm over her chest, splaying one hand across a breast. The rest of his busy, busy fingers stroked her hair, her lips, turning her face closer to his to kiss. San caught his fingers in her mouth so she could bite them, instead of her own lips, or teeth together. Soon he had done well enough to bleed under her eyeteeth, though he seemed to like that, for he was making soft sounds, and had pushed his fingers a little deeper into her mouth.

“I’ll give them to you,” Ashitaka chuckled into her cheek, “if you want them.”

“What?” she slurred around his fingers and his blood. Both went deeper still.

“These.” He wriggled about in her mouth, but she bit his knuckles to still him. He groaned again. More blood, salty and metallic, slicked her tongue. “Nnn. I really don’t mind. Do I taste good?”

Through San’s skull flashed Tataraba the first night, Ashitaka’s great fist round her wrist, her teeth in his arm, his flesh like stone. Wraiths of serpents had stopped her then, but nothing could now. Yes, he tasted like a skinning knife, like life.

“Much better than you smell.”

“Ouch!” he laughed, rather deliriously, jolting. San lost all breath for a trice.

“You, you keep them.” San unloosed him, whereupon he drew a trail of spit from her chin to her clit. “More use to you than to me.”

“You’re sure?” he fluted as he massaged her clit in his keen deft way. She barked, not of her own accord. “Really—haa—truly sure?”

“That’s not what I meant, you fool! Lowlife! Scound… amn—yahnn …”

“I am as you say. I’ve been visiting your forest more often as of late, but haven’t been paying nearly enough tribute.” He tapped on her clit. “How shall I make it up to you?” Shifted to gyring, unbearably slowly. “How?” Now he stopped moving entirely, rested a hand on her belly, under which blazed his sex stuffed inside hers. “Just give me the word.”

“Start—curses!—start by making me c-come again. Your hips, your hips, and those blasted hands, they need to move faster—” Ashitaka was nothing if not a man of his word; he obliged her at a moment’s notice. For an instant San thought her voice was not her own, making such noises, some of which could only be drawn hunting, or fighting, but just as many only Ashitaka knew. Her knees shook to hear herself. They knocked together each time he emptied her, bent as he rushed in again and again and again.

While his fingers played with her yet, Ashitaka asked, “Can you keep standing?” Not for very much longer, if he kept that up, but then Ashitaka himself could barely speak now. She came once more, with Ashitaka warm and full and alive all the way inside her. And she continued to come, when he had slipped outside again to slide between her twitching thighs back and forth and back, now and again poking her still tender clit with the head of his sex.

“Oh! I,” she squealed; one of her paws abandoned the wall, squeezed the hand that held her upright at her waist. By the next thrust she was clawing at him. She made another sound, which she only later recognised as a sob, deaf and dumbfounded and blind as a new mother she was as she blanked.

When she revived his come warmed her thighs, her belly, and had painted the reef too. It didn’t stay long on her skin, because she could not do much more than slump into the basin. Ashitaka was beside her, his arms limp, gulping breaths.

San edged up next to him, and said, with some effort, “Look. It’s sunset now. I don’t have to answer to you anymore.”

“Do you ever?” he wheezed, drawing her close. The rise and fall of his inbreath and outbreath got at her own already overactive heart. “It felt like you were the one doing the bidding the whole time.”

“Shut up, shut up,” she said, and when he wouldn’t, she kissed him until the only thing that came out of his mouth was the spit and tongue and breath that will have belonged to her forever.

--

In the evening lull they rock each other until they fall asleep while he’s still inside her, sailing together the waters of their dreams. At some point he slips out; he figures later that the cold in the dream marks when. The rude wind shunts him alone to palaces carven from jade on the new moon. Up there it is so cold, so cold, with williwaws of wolves hounding him as he chases a shadow after whom he wakes running breathless into the middle of the night, where the dream dies, and he cannot follow, until he is wolfwindbitten to bleeding, warm, awake. There may be more to the dream, but he cannot remember it.

San’s holding his hand, legs hooked over his hip. Somehow it’s not so dark he can’t see her. Each lash and flourish of iris is illumed by ghost-light, as if they sleep in the tall forest still. Incandescence whets her jaw, her eyes, that he might cut himself to behold her. But sheathed by friendship her touch is more ceremony than slice.

“You’re so beautiful,” he sighs, though he needn’t see her to know, just as she doesn’t always know when she sees. For once, though, she doesn’t wince. “How is it that I can see you?”

San smiles and points over her head; Ashitaka’s eyes follow her finger. Above pulses the vast plexus of the stars.

“Oh.” He kisses her fingers. The stars in her eyes tremble. “I’d forgotten.”

“You were making noise again,” San says. “Where were you this time?”

“Someplace far, far, far away from here. It was very dark.” Darker than the sanctuary of her hair, and even deeper than terror. But his laughter reaches further, where she joins him. “I didn’t say anything untoward, then, did I?”

“No. Not words. But you sounded like you were in a lot of pain.” She surveys his hand, the right one, squints at it. Ashitaka flinches and prays she doesn’t see.

“Aw, perhaps I was playing at being a wolf in my dream. Poorly.” Their linked hands still. “Anyway, it ended well, didn’t it? I’m here with you, and I feel much, much better. I think that bath did me a lot of good.” He has not felt like this since he was an idle boy with no responsibilities to a kingdom, nor sentence of death, merely laughing with friends among the fruits of the orchard. He will never see them again, but through her he can remember how he loves them yet. “I’m sorry I woke you. How was your sleep?”

San smiles, and Ashitaka stops breathing for few seconds, until she says, “Must have been better than yours.”

“Did you dream saucily? Oh, you must have done, with a cheeky face like that.” He squishes her cheeks, and the daggers there brand his hands with heat.

“Guess,” she goads, whereupon she chews his fingers.

“I wouldn’t know where to begin. Perhaps this is the true dream, this lovely breeze, oh, what delicious air, and the stars, my dear, the stars, they shine with an almost unnatural light. How can it be? Will it be winter when we wake?”

With her head cocked to the side, San takes his fingers out of her mouth, then says, “Nothing in the world is unnatural or unreal. Even when it might seem otherwise. It can be; it always is. Without you I wouldn’t have known.” She puts his hands on her, laughs like a baby. If he was not awake he certainly is now. “Do I feel like this in your dreams?”

“Well, the truth is, you appear alarmingly vivid in them. I wouldn’t be able to tell by your touch alone.” He shakes his head. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s such a beautiful night: nice and cool. It’d almost be a shame to close one’s eyes now. To stop dreaming. Begin sleeping.”

“Then don’t.” She empties his arms. They refill with coolth. “The night’s still young.” San rolls, somehow elegantly, out of the hammock, without making a sound. “You can follow me, if you don’t care to sleep alone.”

A stride ahead she walks in beauty like the night. Ashitaka tails her in a trance, impervious to all save his own tracks dwarfing her shallow footprints, for each time he steps into one of them, he is overcome with the sense that, if for only a trice, he is walking in her body.

Where will she lead him? She’s always showing him things. Where to pluck the sweetest berries (by the thorns); whose mother each young tree is (all are family); how to love her after he forgets why (through her heartbeat, and earthquakes, then breath, oh, those clouds that rain along the mountain paths she treads in impossible silence and grace). He remembers her leading him up the summit, how her small hand was the only warm thing in unknown realms of snow. Wonder by wonder she takes him further into herself, through where he will walk into the world always.

Transported, Ashitaka bumps into San’s back, but she holds him steady, directing his line of sight with her chin. The treasure of this new memory will be but one roundelay in the boundless fields of praise. Greeting them is the sea, luminous blue, not sparkling as shards of sun broken on the waves in the morning, but lit from within, softly aglow, like fairy fire, or the light of an ash moon that lingers upon a dreaming pool.

“Whoa,” is all he can squeeze out. Wave after wave of swash and swell line up like a stairwell celestial. Tidewise light scatters in each ebb and flow into zodiacs, aquanimity stellectrified.

“Try putting your hand in it,” San says, smiling. 

And so Ashitaka cups stars, yelps as round his fingers blazes blue fire somehow balmy as the air. He is lost, then, as to where he should focus his eyes. Should he cast them to the sea, or the stars? The patent answer: San. The fey sea limns her profile in jewel blue; when she turns her face towards him her eyes catch constellations. He’s startled still, as if he is looking at her for the first time, though he knows her so well by now, nude or no. How could he have ever claimed she was anything other than divine? Since they first met they have been making myth, legend, truth together, this known only to the two of them, but such is how they will find each other one life after another.

“What a view,” he sighs.

“Yes,” she says, with a look that is not at all dreamy. “I didn’t think I’d see it again. But I’m so glad I can.”

Ashitaka almost asks why, but he stops himself, and bites his tongue so he will remember next time.

Hours pass. There gather so many stars in their size and splendour that they haze over each other into one light. Even those that shy from the moon in her absence emerge haloed at the court of heaven. Ashitaka hails heroons, gods engaged in games of go, namesakes of great songs or dances, and maps of far-flung paradises, though there’s no place he’d rather be at the moment but here. San wishes she could see her mother’s twin tails better, brightest in winter, when she first discovered them after she had died; and Shishigami’s antlers, best not now but nearer autumn—but then she shows Ashitaka a great tree whose farthest reaches span horizon to horizon, visible always, however faintly, though in some seasons it loses leaves as well as branches, and in others it bears no fruit; yet the roots, she says, are the same stars whenever and wherever one looks up: the boughs are heavy now with red and yellow fruit and foliage; and the roots swollen, at once drinking and feeding the shining of the sea. San reaches out to pluck them a midnight feast, gathering starfall, which comes in sheets and slices and sets, an imperial harvest of the stuff she juices into Ashitaka’s open mouth.

“They’re kind to keep us such lovely company,” Ashitaka says. Are Altair and Vega watching? Do they envy this bliss? Just as like they are looking at each other, godspeeding July.

“Indeed.” San nods to herself and places her thumb in her mouth and her chin on her knees. “But you should thank the dark first.”

“Oh,” he says, and turns his face into her hair tangled and dark like the tide, stardust sprinkling paths across it as she tosses in his arms. They fall asleep sometime like that, and dream of the sea and all the stars and each other so they are not sure where they begin and fantasy ends.

Next thing Ashitaka knows, little feet are walking across his eyelids. He opens them to find San and her fingers hovering over him.

“San?” he yawns. “May I ask what you're doing?”

“Something important. Hold still. And close your eyes.” She shutters them gently with her sultry fingers, their texture and temperature penetrating his lids. Her image, too, in sun-drawn red. She’ll take her time now; he can tell because she shifts to sit, quite comfortably for the both of them, on him.

After a while she says, matter-of-factly, “You have 88 lashes on the upper lid of this eye.”

“That’s a lucky number! I’m told—”

“And 44 on the bottom.”

“Ah, not so lucky—ow!”

“You said it wasn’t lucky. But you need all the luck you can get. Now you have 43.” She presumably brushes sand off his cheeks. Her lower lip quivers a little. “Don’t die, OK?”

He holds her hand. “OK.”

“Did you know that my mother had a hundred and eight on the top of each eye? None at the bottom, though.”

“I didn’t. You’re really patient, huh?”

She sighs, “I have to be.” With one hand she’s thumbing the fading scar, tousling his eyebrows.

“They’re pretty, anyway. Your eyelashes. Almost like little crow’s wings.” She reaches out with the other hand, but her fingers freeze in midair. “Hey. You’re really hard.”

“Haha.” Ashitaka covers his eyes with his wrist. It doesn’t help. “Guilty as charged.”

“That’s only natural.” She grinds against him. He tenses his whole body in the aftershock, but without enough control to still it. “It would be a problem if you weren’t excited to see me. I’d be sad.”

“Then I bet you’re over the moon right now.” He probably doesn’t need to explain that he’s getting harder the longer he looks at her, or thinks about her, really; hard as a stalk of jade.

San inserts him right inside to his wondering whether one can grow harder than a mineral, because he’s quite sure he has gone as hard as her will in the lovely hot softness of her body. It almost hurts to be this hard. “I’m rather pleased, yes.” She puts a hand over her belly as though trying to stroke him through her skin and flesh. He’s probably imagining his own feeling it. “You’re still growing inside, you know?”

Ashitaka almost loses the whole plot then and there, and the more he wants to stay the closer he verges on coming. He grabs her knees as she begins to bounce. “Is it uncomfortable?”

“No, it’s really nice. I like your penis a lot.”

All his blood rushes up to meet her. “Just that?”

“Oh, no. Are you joking? Your body is interesting in other ways, or else we wouldn’t be mating. For example...” Her tongue pokes out from the corner of her mouth as she twists his nipples, whereupon he starts into her, grunting quite embarrassingly, and she begins to makes funny faces and noises she doesn’t mean to. It’s unbearably cute. “D-does that answer your question? Hmm.”

“Perfectly.”

“And tell me—oof—tell me when you’ll come?”

“Pretty soon. I’m sorry!” he says, so she shifts to rolling her hips forthwith. He can’t believe the strangled sounds he’s making. His hands climb up her thighs until he can reach her clit with a thumb, but by then it’s a little too late to hold his breath, or call the roll of family members he’s never met to the tenth generation above him, so he tells San the truth. They synchronise remarkably; she takes him out the exact moment he begins to jet, pressing his sex against her belly as she smears his semen across it. Under daylight she’s so fair they’re almost the same shade. He fights the temptation to return to sleep with her white-hot body burned into his mind. He rasps, “Oh, you didn’t come. Let me make you come.”

“Hmmm. You won’t fall asleep on me? Your eyes are half closed, lazybones. We could have more fun doing something else.”

“Please. Please finish in my mouth.”

“You’re begging?”

“I’m begging. You won’t even have to do anything. Please.”

She smiles wolfishly. The lowering of her chin is his cue to drag her by legs up to his neck. Good timing, too; his own have already started to go asleep. She squeals, “Ashitaka!”

“Yes? Will you kindly sit on my face?”

A warm dark weight answers him. As he nuzzles her she wets the inside of his nose, and soon his cheeks and chin when he alternates between gentle sucks and long licks on her command. Her slick flesh is mouthwatering, bloodboiling, hearthammering, soulstirring, loinlighting, scrotumtightening. Staggeringly so. She does end up working after all. At even intervals she grinds her clit against his nose, his chin, cheekbones, the flat of his fawning tongue; gripping fistfuls of his hair, she marks his entire face with her heady scent. From here he can only whine like a dog for more and more and more. By the time she comes, her voice crashing into his ears, he’s hard again. Almost as hard as she is wet. He has to admit it might have been more prudent to dedicate a single hand to her breasts rather than both, so he could spare one for his own body, but he can’t say he regrets his choices when San pounces on the opportunity for another round. They don’t stop till the semen and the sand sprinkled in it becomes a nuisance.

The tide’s not low enough to show the baths just yet, so they head to the main instead, though Ashitaka prefers not to bathe, as slovenly as that may sound to some, for he would wear her scent all day if he could.

For half the day they plunge into seascape and explore the reefs. Ashitaka might be dreaming up some aquatic spring where blues and purples come bright as levin-bolts; greens like the nostalgic hearts of old, old mountains; golds in imperial brocade; reds redder than Eboshi’s rouge; blacks only a little short of San’s hair in darkness; and pinks about the brilliance of remembered rose petals, the flush of colour that blooms across her body as she comes—if he’s done especially well it goes right up to her ears. When he thinks of that he needs must come up for air at once.

“You need to practice,” San berates him, before he can even smile at her.

“Pardon me?”

“Holding your breath! You need to be as good as I am.” She gentles her expression a little. “You never know what will happen.”

“All right, I shall do my best not to lose,” he says, really just to spur her on. She takes the bait and dunks his head.

Ashitaka promises the both of them that he will not be distracted this time, so they cast their gaze in the same direction, rather than at each other. When together they look down at the world called the sea they are as fledglings that map mountains on their wintering way. Hither and thither roam critters that seem to have been saturated in the rainbow of a child’s imagination. There is a creature that reminds Ashitaka of a kaleidoscope of butterflies flocked to a single flower. Another called a stingray, which Ashitaka mustn’t near nor touch. He keeps a wide berth of the sea snakes winding together in the distance too. Lush kelp forests flourish over fields of sea urchins swollen and spiky like great rambutans or fabulous pufferfish splashed with dye of gromwell. Pagodas and castles and temples of coral clownfish comb and seahorses clutch loom over little streets wherethrough parrotfish and lionfish swim with a mysterious sense of purpose. Coral comes in other shapes too, Ashitaka soon discovers, such as one remarkably like a brain, and another of a deep red colour that branches like blood vessels. All kinds of jellyfish float about like unfurling flowers, festival lanterns, windchimes, elaborate ladies’ purses. They also brush against a loggerhead zipping to shore to meet his love. Enrapt in discovery, in the end they tie for the longest held breath.

They beachcomb the shore on their desultory promenade across it, finding sand dollars, driftwood, small fossils, beached medusas. Sometimes the piles the sea throws up get so thick they can only tiptoe across the dunes to avoid being cut underfoot. But amidst all the dreck Ashitaka finds a nugget of amber with a butterfly perched on some nameless bloom inside. He offers that to San, and she stuffs it safe into the palm leaf basket he’s woven for her (Mother once showed him how with bamboo). She thinks he can’t catch her sneaking glances at her new bijou (she would not stop eyeing their dagger when their love was new either), but he does, every time.

San digs a hole, on the spot, presumably to find more of the same. With remarkable speed it deepens to her height, and she can begin another one. Meanwhile, Ashitaka recreates Emishi from the mountains of sand she raises digging. He moulds the grains into all he can summon from memory: every grand green hill around the village; the long stone wall and each little birdbath built along it; the thoroughfare; his family’s graves (he takes some time off to find a few blossoms wherewith to honour the departed); the mines; the orchard; the ash wood where roam the last of the elks. He ribbons the sculpture with the river. If he runnels deep enough water springs up on its own to raise it above false imitation. Sand is too delicate to support the structure of the lookout, so he stacks sticks into a miniature instead. By the time he’s ready to repopulate the ghost town San is up to her third hole. The first two she has connected by hollowing out the barrier between them so that a bridge is suspended above, a lintel linking separate rooms. Now she returns to surface level via a ramp she’s paved.

“Have you found anything?” Ashitaka asks, a little absentmindedly, since he’s trying to get Kaya’s hairstyle right. But he can’t quite do it, not at those dimensions. Frustrated, he crumbles the sand doll in his fingers and faces San. Maybe he ought to try making grass dolls instead.

“Oh! You got busy.” She circles his model. It’s six leisurely steps around. She has her hands linked behind her back, as if she would not trust herself otherwise. “Is it finished?”

“Not yet. It’s my hometown. I wanted to show you, so—”

“But it looks finished.”

“Ah, but how can you tell?”

“Your and Yakkul’s stories. Look, you’ve got the oracle’s hut there, the meetinghouse here, and even the stables and the well and the granary and everything. The river cuts through the forest and the hills, where all the gold hides inside. What’s missing?”

“There are no people in it.”

San quirks her head. “Maybe it’s night-time there, and all the humans in the houses are sleeping, or having sex, or cooking dinner, or revelling. Or perhaps it’s raining.” Like a god she wets her hands in the river and flicks a drizzle over the roofs. “People do a great amount of things indoors, right?”

“Ah. But there are some things you can only do outdoors.” Ashitaka blushes a little bit, even though he ought to be old enough by now not to. “But that’s an excellent solution. I’m saved! Thank you, San.” He grabs her shoulders and kisses her mouth out of sheer pleasure and relief.

When they come apart she looks at him wide-eyed. “Good! Now you can help me dig another hole.”

“Sure. But what is it all for? Will you show me?”

“All right.” She entwines their hands to lead him through the tunnels. She has carved alcoves into the walls of it, in which live Moro and Okkotonushi and Shishigami in exquisite bas-relief. At a left turn she has forested the beginning of a frieze that scrolls to the sea. The kodama in it are rendered in striking high-relief, and somewhere in the midst of the leaves he thinks he spots the backs of two humans holding hands.

“You’re really good at this,” Ashitaka says, wowed. He wants to touch the sculptures, but Moro may bite him, and Okkotonushi gore him, like he’d promised the last time. Shishigami would be safest, but it is perhaps best not to risk breaking him. Here Ashitaka thought San was digging for bones (she has found a veritable treasure trove, though: half a phoenix-shaped hairpin; a scrap of a flag; an arrowhead, the likes of which he has never seen; the fabled peach grove lacquered on a tiny box with an umbilical cord in it; the skeleton of a parasol; a cloudy magic mirror; and last and largest of all, her own childlike glee, robbed from her long before its time by war and her poor misbegotten birth. He would ask no more of her than to relish the gleam in her eyes, and that she gives freely. How rich a man he is this day).

“I’m tunnelling a maze after the old mole masters. They are such good hide-and-seekers. Of course, I can’t work at their scale, but I think I’ve done pretty well so far.” She sighs. “I dream of decorating the lair like this, but it takes much longer to work with rock. I don’t have the time.”

“I could help?”

“But you only come see me once every week.”

“Twice.” He looks up at the sky. “I’ll try to make more time.”

“Start now.” She drags him back up the ramp and marks the spot where they will dig. “Help me with this, will you?”

So they get on all fours. The pit’s not yet ankle-deep when Ashitaka bumps face first into her rump by some fault of the heat. The collision wets his nose; when he recovers from his disorientation, lo and behold, her sex is all ashimmer, a pop of colour amid her incandescent curves. Ashitaka can’t touch it, not with so much sand on his hands, so he dusts them desperately on his thighs.

San catches on. She crawls a little ahead of him, raises her rump, wags and wriggles it in his face. Then she turns her head around in invitation, lips parted. She’s panting his name like a bitc... Forget it.

Ashitaka begins to feel rather faint. This position mortifies him. The women of Tataraba who once worked in the towns preferred it in the past, for then they were spared the sight of their clients. Many still do, for reasons they cannot explain. Regardless, to Ashitaka there is something of the animal in that manner of lovemaking. But that is precisely why San loves it. Perhaps in lieu of a view she pretends that dewclaws dig into her thighs, a snout bites into her back, a furred body coats her; and lets loose a wolf, not a man, to run wild inside her. But Ashitaka does not wish to copulate like an animal, like mate-munching spiders, salmon that can love only once, or dragonflies, what with their summerlong rape and affray.

Besides, he would always rather see her from the front. She thrills the senses any which way he looks at her, but she’s not always one to talk about what she wants. From here he cannot read her whenever he needs to; so far he’s done well discovering her scale of notes, this breath and that whine and what each may mean—but he does so much better to watch her face where all her everblooming wonder and beauty and argosy of expression thrives. And he fears at times that she cannot tell the difference between pleasure and pain, or does not think to inform him of her experience of the latter, especially when she is convinced that suffering is noble and wolves and wild things are meant to endure more of it than she ever could without breaking into a battlefield of false reflections, each one pitted against all the others, every illusion a grotesque. So he will dedicate his life to eradicating her pain, and her tolerance of it, and pump her so full of pleasure that she will never think to endure anything less. His cheeks grow hot with the thought.

The sky blushes too. Above the horizon clouds drift like cherry blossoms.

San whines, and Ashitaka has to look at her again. He can’t resist any longer. Post-haste he digs between her knees, assimilating into wolf life one hole at a time. She jiggles. “What’s taking so long?”

Ashitaka stops dawdling. He cleans his hands with some of their drinking water, triple checks his nails to be sure, and kneels in the ditch, which makes what he’s about to do all the easier. Then he nudges her clit, runs his nose up and down her cleft, and takes a good long whiff he makes sure she can hear. Maybe she would like it if he barked too, but that might compromise his dignity beyond reparability, so he settles with giving her a few honest whimpers before he tucks in.

Everything is upside down and back to front this way, so he has to approximate, though she has another set of sweet spots in this direction, harder to manoeuvre as they are. The whole time he savours her flavour he hums. Her clit curves nicely into his upper lip so he moves his head side to side for the inside of his lip to caress it. He can just get the tip of his nose in her entrance while he’s sucking, too. To great acclaim he nods his nose down to her clit and back up to her slit. When her thighs begin to shake in his hands, he kisses them pink, kisses a bouquet into her breech that trails down her legs, just little light love-bites that’ll fade by the end of a few minutes, if that. Meanwhile he thumbs her clit and twirls a finger halfway inside her. Every few rotations he will go a little deeper and bend the finger, scrape his knuckle against her walls to smooth the ridges. If he tilts his head just so, he can lick and finger at once, which he does each time he has reascended her legs kiss by kiss. Soon her thighs are pink from his lips, slippery with sweat, spit, smeared slick; and he can get two fingers in, or more, if he or she so wishes. But she doesn’t want his fingers anymore, not even his tongue. The sounds she’s been making have been so far soft against the roaring sea, but he can hear this one loud and clear. She crawls forward, so she’s out of his reach unless he climbs out of the ditch. His stomach drops and his heart hammers and he snarls! He’s the one turning into a wolf. Barks, bays lodge in his throat.

So he edges closer to her on his kneecaps, aligns their loins. He takes his time circling her, prodding, sliding until she’s slicked down her thighs. In her zeal she pushes back to swallow him. Her aim’s off. His isn’t.

“Can’t you go any faster?” she grunts as she begins to ram his hips with enough force to tip him over.

Ashitaka gnashes his teeth and holds onto her waist. “Show me?” He stops moving.

“You’re useless,” she hisses, “you can’t even tie!”

That strikes a chord. The attempt always ends in a imbroglio of embarrassment and pain as they bend each other in a way no human is designed to be. “Our bodies don’t work that way! Oh, what a terrible idea.” Ashitaka clenches her waist, then, and drives, to show her how it is supposed to be done. She howls with it. The slap of hips into backside sounds over her and the sea. He overexcites and thrusts with the same force and depth the twice and she contracts and starts and screeches yes.

Before he loses it for good, he pulls out of her. At times like these it is only too easy for either of them to surrender control. Yesterday he could study half her face at first, at least, kiss it, even. They may as well be fumbling in the dark this way, in wolf-spirit, far more perilous than wolf-shape.

San keens, “No!”

She wriggles against him, incenses his senses. Ashitaka musters all his restraint, spreads her open, and says in as firm a voice as he can manage, “I can give you what you want. But you must tell me to stop if it’s too much at any time. Do you understand?” He would rather not resort to baiting like some bounder, but there is no other way she will listen. She whimpers, tossing her entire body about like a wet wolf. He cannot withstand her advances for much longer. He stretches her wider. “You will promise me this, if you would have me continue.”

San reaches back and cups what were once Emishi’s clan jewels, the one means to their propagation. They serve no such purpose any longer, so they are next to useless, except for the odd chance that they benefit San in some way. Still he prefers for them to remain affixed to his body. She gives them a squeeze, which would please him, if they did not threaten his unity.

“Do you really think I would let you wound me?” she growls. “You said, ‘Anything you want!’”

Ashitaka braves her, on pain of dismemberment, at best. “Of course. Anything. But safety comes first. All this would be pointless if I failed to please you. I’m a man, nothing more, nothing less. Not a wolf. I’m as good as blind like this. To do right by you I sometimes need words to guide me. Please promise me that.”

“Fine!” she bays. “There—now, don’t tease.” She lets go his body, flings some sand at him, which luckily misses his eyes, and kicks his thigh, less luckily on target. “Move! Fast and hard or else.”

“All right. Thank you,” Ashitaka huffs, but only after he has given her all of him does she stop snarling and start crowing. He’s relieved. He strokes her hair, wet with sweat, as he begins to speed. “Oh, wow, ah, and,” he says, his fingers falling to her waist, “where do you want my hands?” He bends over, and with one hand he doodles a continuous line that circles her breasts, tickles her belly (and then she laughs from the bottom of hers), then zigzags over her clit. “Here?” Her back arches, which is the best answer he can hope for. She confirms that with a nod of her head. There’s still slick on her thighs, her vulva, which he scrounges before he really begins to worry her clit. He ghosts his free hand up and down her spine now arched like a bow.

From there he tries several angles till he finds the one that makes her entire body tremble under him. He drives fast, shallow, shallow, deep, again. She meets him whenever she has the strength. Each time he pulls back she glosses his sex with fluid before it disappears inside her again; her thighs ripple as he slams his hips into her backside. He might die, exposed so long to such a view.

“It’s a shame I can’t see your face, too,” Ashitaka says, when she begins to convulse around him, though she probably doesn’t even hear it, and if he but glimpsed her expression, he would fall clean apart. He’s ambitious; he’d like to help her come again, so he begins to tick off a litany of banalities, anything his mind will hold that isn’t San: numbers, shogi rules, pillow words, chores to do, the leaking hole in the roof—wait, no, no, no, that’s far too suggestive! All right, then, how about the curse, the fates of Nago and Moro and Shishigami, Jiko-bou’s betrayal, his exile, the farmers quarrels with Eboshi, Asano’s daughter missing, what it’s like to breathe with a hole in one lung, but then again sometimes thinking about San is like having no lungs at all. Oh, all paths lead back to her now, since they paved them together, by the gift of time shared. But he hasn’t the time now to aim away from her back.

It’s tough keeping up that pace; how does she do it? Ashitaka lands on his side, then enfolds her so she’s facing him. Now he can have a good long look as he scrapes all that sand and semen off her back. He ought to feel groggy, but instead he’s giddy, refreshed, as though he is living a good dream after a long day.

“I missed this,” Ashitaka says. He revisits the shape of her sides while he makes up for all those lost kisses. Sometimes the savour and texture of the bolus she fed him that one momentous morning returns to him. Tataraba beeves, he later realised, strips salted and roasted to a jerky, cut from the oxen her brothers dragged off the day they met at the river. Otherwise, she might be tart with berries, or bitter from chewing herbs. Today he licks salt off her lips. Then he opens his mouth to swallow the first breath of flowering wood; a gulp of mountain mist; dewfall; a waft of steam from the warm spring; spring itself; and summer, too, abloom; autumn again; all the winters they will have weathered together. Her tongue is so thick in his mouth, heavy and heavenly as the summer air. They’re hazy, lazy, and for once she is gentle with him. Her tongue circles his, slow. He sucks, pets. She only makes a little sweet sound then, but it echoes in his mouth and his mind. It tickles when she begins to climb across the ridge of his gum, so much he has to laugh, laugh into her mouth, because, oh, he never, never wants to leave it, except maybe to steal a glance every now and then at that face of hers, striking to the point that he marvels at how he ever survives her: eyes, hips, thighs, lips, breasts, and all of his best beloved mesmerise him, such that when he does look to her full in the face at long last he is stunned in place.

“What?” San says. Her breathing is a little ragged. She frames his face with sandy hands. “Ashitaka.”

“Oh, San. San. I missed your face so much. I love looking at it, at you. You’re ravishing.” He pulls her a little closer. “Can we stay like this a little while?”

“It hasn’t been that long. But we can. I want to too. You’re also very, hmmm, very pleasant to look at. You’ve got such an interesting face.”

“Th-thank you?”

“I don’t usually get to look at humans this close.” She starts to rub her palms on his cheeks to get the sand off. “Maybe that’s why I couldn’t see, all that time?” She wrinkles her nose. “Ashitaka, I worry about you. What if you go blind someday? Will you survive? I would hate for you to die over something like that, because I love you very much, you understand...”

“I understand. I love you too.” He laughs a little. “So I don’t need eyes to see your spirit. And what a splendid spirit it is. It will more than serve.”

“Oh! Right! But you always panic when you can’t see—”

“I told you. Humans, we see what we’re feeling with faces. I’d be able to do it by touch, I think.” Her soft warm cheek barely fills his palm. “I won’t forget the shape of your smile against my hand. I needn’t anything else. So if I were blind, you’d have to be gentle with me while you take the lead. Teach me all about your body again. Though I think I know it pretty well by now.”

Nevertheless, there’s no harm in revision; neither of them will feel the same forever, besides. They study together. He memorises the exact coordinate of that newfound scar hidden in the joint of her haunch; and she remaps the veins that branch down his arms, his belly, and elsewhere.

They miss the fall of the labyrinth and Emishi’s double, but it is all right. Their loved ones have long since escaped.

 --

During the blue hour man and wolf go together to the river.

“Strange,” San says, when the horizon begins to blaze out, “we should be there by now.”

“Did you arrive by wolfback last time?” San lets Ashitaka help her over some high slippery rocks. “I can never keep up with your brothers.”

“No.” She sniffs the air. Stills. “Something’s coming.”

They step down hand-in-hand into damp earth. Each footfall crushes wondrous scent out of it. Even Ashitaka can sense it then. San pivots backward, a hand by Ashitaka’s hip, on his blade. They face a strange boy whose hair is as San’s, coloured like shadows of leaves, though much sleeker, and whose eyes glow in the dimness a preternatural green. Ashitaka has seen his fair share of faces from distant shores pass through Tataraba, but this child retains features he has only ever found in the Yamato people. And for what reason is he dressed in such finery?

“Leave this place,” San barks, eyes and nostrils flaring.

Ashitaka grips her wrist. “San,” he says, but she ignores him, “San, don’t.”

Then the boy laughs. “I am not human.”

San eyes widen. She lets go the blade, and finally stops snarling. “Neither am I.”

“That much is clear.” The gourd under Ashitaka’s arm suddenly heavies, as though it is full. “Look. We stand on the same side. There’s a reason I didn’t appear on the other bank.”

San sucks in a breath. “You couldn’t be—”

He smiles. “Yes.”

Reeds in the river bend, twist, form a basket. In a blink fish fly into it. Lotuses, wide open though it is the evening, drop their blooms, which land over the catch. The boy presents it to Ashitaka, who says, “We thank you for your generosity, but we can’t simply—”

“A gift.” There is one more basket he gives to San. “These are the flesh of my flesh, born here in the river. The sweetest bites.” He bows. “Sadly, I am short on time this evening, but I hope we can meet again soon.”

Ashitaka wants to say something, anything, but in another blink the stranger has vanished into the dark.

--

Back at camp they make a fire, for its light and culinary need rather than the heat. For dinner they have some dried coriander, bonito flakes, a slab of miso and a touch of mirin to work with, staples of the westerners’ kitchen only. Ashitaka sorely regrets not seeking out answers to his questions about the daily lives 0f the women of Emishi; in their lore throve worlds of knowledge he will have never known: the plant for the dye of his clan’s colour, the perfect poultice, his favourite comfort dishes from childhood, songs for babies to forget and mothers to remember. He does not remember. But he will not make the same mistake twice. The women of Tataraba must be tired by now of his endless questions.

However, their advice hardly helps them cook out in the wild, so they improvise, brewing a broth with fresh greens they’ve gathered around the shore and fishbones from that strange boy’s gift. They put mussels in it and sprinkle pepper and salt over the top. Then they stuff shrimp with coconut and coat them in the eggs they found earlier in the day under the belly of a parrot whose mate they could not find. San is patient with Ashitaka, even though it is all just for his (by her standards) sensitive stomach.

It’s not the most delicate meal Ashitaka’s ever prepared, but it tastes just as good. The savoury soup soothes, refreshing the stomach as well as the heart. For side-dishes he slurps oysters and she downs sea cucumber between mouthfuls of words. And amidst talk of Eboshi and Yakkul and San’s brothers, Ashitaka takes the opportunity to ask, “Did you know that boy?”

“Not his name.” Something’s bothering her. She picks her teeth a little too roughly with a fishbone. Her gums will start bleeding any second. “I should have smelled it.”

“What?” After he takes the fishbone from her, she spits a splinter of it at his face. She’s nice enough not to aim it at his eye; it would have landed there, if she willed it so.

“I couldn’t smell him. That’s why,” she grumbles. “All I could smell was the river. I should have known.”

“Do you think he was lost? He seemed awfully—”

“Oh, no.” San chortles. Ashitaka is afraid soup will pour out of her nose. “He’s right where he ought to be.”

“I don’t think so. He ought to be with his mother.” Ashitaka’s stomach begins to descend. “Do you think he made it back to her? Maybe I should go and look for him.”

San clasps his arm. “Enough about the dragon!” She slams her bowl into sand. “He’ll see us again if he keeps his promise. Ask him then. Unless he’s a slippery one.” She wolfs down another sea cucumber. “You better hope he isn’t.”

--

So much sex drowsed them at odd hours, so they trusted their own bodies to adjust accordingly. They stayed up late enough for the tide to recede again, and so could together enjoy yet another bath in the hot springs, where they scrubbed each other’s calluses with pumice.

“It’s so peaceful here,” Ashitaka said, cleansing her feet. “Was it always?”

“I think there was a village here, a while ago, before you or I were born.

“Well, according to Okkotonushi-sama, when I fought with him. He told me stories about the other mountain, the straits and the sea, and all about Mother, answering any question I asked, I think to keep my mind off the battle. It was very kind of him to comfort me like that, though I don’t think I needed to be.

“The humans here believed that they were being haunted by a kind of tataragami of the sea, a skeleton of a whale, tailed by fish and birds such as never seen before. Okkotonushi-sama himself wasn’t sure if it was true or not, since the village died out from some sort of famine or plague, not long after the haunting.”

She took Ashitaka’s busy right hand in hers, looked at that small pink scar.

“Okkotonushi-sama didn’t like telling that story. I wrung it out of him, though I wish I hadn’t. He knew so much, but he didn’t want to.

“There seemed to be a happy ending to the story, though. When it had its vengeance, the spirit abated. It moved on. But Okkotonushi-sama talked of it like, he talked like he would never be able to return to this shore, to see for himself. And, of course, he was right.”

“But we will, won’t we?” Ashitaka said. “Though I think I’d rather we not run into any sea bonzes along the way.”

“Sea bonzes?”

“Indeed. I heard the other night in town that some seas are infested with them on calm nights like this. Imagine Jiko-bou drowned at sea, chasing ships around for their cargo and capsizing them for it.” Ashitaka frowned. “He would not be acting out of character.”

“That’s creepy,” San said, a shiver spidering down her spine. The chill of the sensation was almost refreshing in the heat. This was the first and perhaps only time, aside from the certain date of Jiko-bou’s death, that that name would give her any pleasure.

“Scared?” He curled his hot arms around her. “You can hold me if you like.”

Indeed she held on, though she insisted, “Not because I’m scared!” but because she wanted to hide her goosebumps from him. They had nothing to do with mortal fear. She said into his ear, “A whale did die here. Kai, her name was. She was so beautiful, and she was my friend. She taught me everything I know about swimming, and the names of all the things in the sea. You humans’ fault that she died. One day we found her beached with a harpoon in her back. We lived off her carcass for weeks. I ate the bones. I ate them so she wouldn’t become a tatarigami and die in disgrace. I’ve never heard of anyone turning into one without a body, no matter how much they suffered. Would you keep an eye out, Ashitaka? If I fall asleep first?”

“Oh, of course.” He held her hard. “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry.”

“That was a long time ago. I haven’t been back since then. I’m all right now. But it mustn’t happen again.”

Ashitaka sighed. “San, I must apologise for how inappropriate my behaviour’s been, telling ghost tales when you—”

“But I liked the last story. I only started telling you scary ones so we could stay cool. You didn’t do that as a child?”

“Yes, but—”

“It worked! So tell me more.”

He stroked her hair and sighed and complied, though the stories he told after that weren’t so scary as much as funny or erotic, about samurai crabs, dragons, mermaids, wet women, and serpent wives. She could watch him speak for hours and hours. Light from a sliver of a moon glinted off his wet throat. Somehow the skin where she had marked him was its usual even bronze. The first time she had studied a live man’s craw, she had thought a mouse was trapped inside, trying to scurry to freedom, only to fall and fail again and again (and one autumn evening she had found beneath the underbrush a pitviper through whose belly silently passed a whole duckling). The eaten had resorted to desperate squeaking. Only later did she recognise the voice for her own. (But before that, she had asked, “Doesn’t it hurt?” and bit it dead, or so she had assumed. His pulse had leapt into her mouth, and he had groaned at such a volume that the sudden vibration had shaken the roots of her teeth.)

“San? Are you all right?” Ashitaka asked, fishing her out from her reverie as he pressed fingertips into her forehead. San could not stop herself from leaning into his wide warm palm. “You went somewhere else for a little while.”

“No, I didn’t,” she said, puzzled. “I was with you the whole time.”

“Yes, but you seemed—nevermind. I don’t want you running a fever,” he murmured, and tilted towards her. In the dimness she could barely make out his brow crinkling before their foreheads met. “You’re burning up.” He lingered.

“No more than you.”

“You’re sleepy, then? Hmm?” He massaged her temples so luxuriously she almost said yes. “I’ll carry you back to bed. My fault you’ve not been resting enough.”

She shook her head. “It’s just,” she stumbled, “just the water in the spring. It’s really hot. The stories were working, but we’ve been in for a long time. We could move to another pool.”

“If you want to,” he said, but he did not move.

San nuzzled his face. “I don’t.”

They kissed. Ashitaka’s mouth tasted briny on the outside, fresh on the inside. San closed her hands around the bump at the centre of his throat. He gulped, then; and as he opened his lips wide to gasp she slipped her tongue through his teeth for further exploration; sometimes she still fancied that if she stuck it down far enough she might dig up a bone. She thumbed the cartilaginous ridge of his throat upwards in the hopes that her tongue could better reach it, but it never did. Regardless, she swallowed breath after breath, pushing and searching, till she had forgotten where they were, and her advances had submerged his head well under the surface of the pool.

Nothing less would have kept her from kissing him. Overcome with fear for him and for her own want of vigilance, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and fished him out. She held him close to her breast.

She pummelled him. “Don’t you die!”

Ashitaka coughed up water that cascaded down her back. He laughed as soon as he could. “I’m fine,” he said, between chortles, “don’t worry!”

San huffed, “You should have stopped me.”

“But it felt amazing, you know, when you cut off my breath and—”

“Is that something men like?”

“You weren’t trying to, er—”

“N-no!” She bit her lips, then licked them. It was too much trouble to explain. “I pressed too hard, didn’t I. But I couldn’t resist, because,” she said, stroking the peak of his neck, “because...”

“It doesn’t matter. You can touch me whenever, however you like. For whatever reason.”

She linked her hands behind her back. “But I almost drowned you.”

“No, I can hold my breath for quite a while now, thanks to you. You didn’t mean it. So please, feel free.” He angled his head back; the apple strained against glistening skin. San swallowed. Ashitaka led her to his throat, the seat of her fall. Before she loved him she had not seen him, only smelled the shadow on him, but she had heard him truly, all right. Nobody had spoken like that to her before. She recognised the seed for a seed after it had already taken root. Ashitaka said, “I trust you,” and San sucked each delectable syllable into her mouth.

When he gulped his throat bobbed against her tongue. Then laughter bubbled up and out of his gullet into her hair. Roaming hands settled on her nipples, pinched them. A sharp pleasure spread from her breasts to the bottom of her belly and down her upper thighs and between, where it grew, and grew, and grew. As he began to roll the tips, draw them towards him, his throat plopped out of her mouth. “Ashitaka!”

“Yes?” he said. He rested his thumbs on her nipples while he stroked her breasts with his knuckles.

“You surprised me, is all. I like it. Do it again.”

Smiling, he obeyed. “I finally figured out a way to repay you for this morning.”

“You remembered! Good boy.” She gripped his hair as he kept at it. Enlarged moonlit eyes bore into San. Ashitaka licked his lips at a snail’s pace and didn’t put his tongue back in, as if he were on the verge of solving some arcane puzzle. It was a very good look on him, one that befit a wolf, and endeared him to her more than she would ever admit. Was he panting a little, too? She couldn’t tell either if the glimmer trailing down his chin was brine or drool or starlight.

“San,” he said, kneading the back of her neck, so gently. He brushed a brow with the other hand, diffusing pressure. She thanked him, silently, for his fingers. She knew better than anyone what those great hands could do, and they were more all the more formidable in love than violence. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”

“Hmmm. I’m thinking about you. Just you.” Right now there was no space for anything else, and she didn’t want there to be.

“I’m honoured,” he said, his voice low. Ashitaka nuzzled the side of her neck, kissed it. San couldn’t stop giggling, then, as he did that and got his hands busy washing her back.

She asked him, “What’re you thinking?” rapping his head, then shaking it, to check if it was empty. Instead it was heavy and didn’t rattle, so there must be something awfully important on his mind.

“Well,” he chuckled, looking down. She did too. The head of his erection had surfaced from the water. It almost looked shy, and certainly lonely.

“Me too!” She cupped him. “I want to sit on it.”

“I’d love you to, but remember the last time we tried to do that in water?” They both cringed at the memory. “I’ll tell you what. Come.” But he didn’t let her move. Some summers ago, he had lifted her just like this for the first time from Shishigami’s pool. But her body had felt so cold then. She didn’t want to remember that. No, she wanted to fill her mind and body with this, only this, so she could be happy again. He scooped her up while she was still crosswise out of the water. She hovered in his arms over his lap, which he replanted at the edge of the pool. “Good, good. Do you want to put me inside?”

“Yes,” she said. She let out a long sigh once he was in. He curled his arms only, sliding her up and down the length of him, though after a while he seemed a little tired, so he placed her down on his lap and she contented herself to sit tight, with him still hard and hot inside her. They didn’t move very much, mostly shared long wandering kisses, massaging each other till they almost fell asleep.

They didn’t reach the hammock again, though they were lucky enough the tide at its highest brushed them no further than their toes. San woke with one layer of cloth between her and the dawn. It was the deep blue of distant waves, and had a regular all-white pattern over it of an awfully familiar landscape. She slipped into the robe, clasping the long collar closed over her breast as she breakfasted on their leftovers. It must have been new, to be still so soft, and richly perfumed with the spirits of cotton and true indigo; and inside it with Ashitaka’s natural scents, unmarred by gunpowder or ash. She felt a little guilty wearing it; was Ashitaka cold, exposed to the elements like that? Maybe not; their first summer sleeping together, he had returned to her shoulders the bearskin she thought he would shiver without. Anyway, he smiled now. And she would not give up the robe since it smelled so nice. But just to be safe, she insulated him with some sand, and somewhere along the way shaped the blanket into a wolf’s body. She was unable to control her chortling after giving him his last paw, whereupon Ashitaka awoke.

“Oh!” he cried. He was probably trying to clench his fists somewhere under all that sand. “This explains a lot.”

From their vicinity she gathered shells for ears, a palm leaf for a tail, and seagrass for whiskers. Ashitaka waited obediently to be transformed, but he didn’t look very amused once he was. “You make a rather dashing wolf,” San nevertheless said; and nodded, pleased.

“But it’s still my face,” he muttered hopefully. “It remains, I’m afraid, a human one.”

“I can change that too.” She rolled up a sandball and hoisted it overhead. “Easily.” (Another way would be for her to simply close her eyes and play pretend; but the awful truth was that she liked to look at him looking at her, for them to see each other as they were really. (How she tired of hiding, blinding. (Herself most of all. (If anyone regarded themselves how he did her what use would shame serve but one of ruin rather than reason?))))

Ashitaka pinched his eyes shut. “Please… please don’t.”

“I ought to do away with you.” San kissed each petal-fine lid open. “Really! Humans have no sense of humour.”

Now he laughed. “I didn’t realise you were joking.”

San patted more sand over him till he became a boar, then a kappa, after that Yakkul (though Ashitaka resembled Shishigami-sama more), and at last a tree with roots so deep they sipped the sea. She doubled over with laughter to see each of her creations. When she fell into the waves admiring her latest masterpiece, Ashitaka at once struggled out of the dunes to spring to her side.

“San! Are you all right?”

“Fine!”

“Let’s hang this to dry.” He stripped the robe from her body, patted as much water out of it as he could, and laid it on his bare knees. “You’ll be sick wearing wet clothes.”

“I wanted to play a little longer,” she told him, pouting, “but since you’re here I guess we ought to clean you up.”

She pardoned him from his duties for now and allowed him to bathe off all the sand, though that was mostly an excuse for her to embark on a treasure hunt in places he was usually too timid to let her access. It couldn’t be helped; humans were just so frivolous that way.

San had intended to tickle him in said places till he begged her to stop, but she had to halt when she was just getting started. In the offing crested a pod of friends San recognised by their singing. San paddled towards them as fast as she could with Ashitaka’s wrist in her grip.

“Hello!” she called, and wondered if they could hear her over the waves. She had grown too much for them to remember her on sight. “It’s San!”

The pod encircled them faster than San could reconsider, whereupon Ashitaka got in front of her.

“What is it,” said one of the dolphins San did not know as it nudged her shoulder with its snout. “Should we drown it?”

“It is an ally. I remember it. Hama, is it not she? Look at the scar on her shoulder. Think of the harpoon.”

And San remembered Nami and Hama, too, so she hugged them, and all was well, though San didn’t like how a few newcomers frisked poor Ashitaka a little too eagerly, so she told them he was hers with all the power she could muster. And that was the end of that. Dolphins, unlike humans, could be trusted to be respectful of other people’s belongings.

“They’re old friends,” she said to Ashitaka, who had gone all wide-eyed in awe and confusion. San guided each of his hands to a snout and encouraged him to stroke. “We fought together once. They’re really great!” She whispered in his ear, “They love being pet on the melon. And the flippers. Under the beak, too—oh, anywhere, really. But be gentle.”

Ashitaka mouthed understanding and made to follow her advice, but Hama snorted out his blowhole, which spurted spray Ashitaka tried desperately to blink out of his eyes.

“Can we trust this man?” Hama asked, circling him. “He will not stick and eat us?”

“I would do no such thing,” Ashitaka said.

“I trust him,” added San, “besides, do you doubt that I could defeat him, if it came to that?”

Ashitaka’s brows were beginning to grind against each other. “I would prefer not to—”

San stared him silent, and said, “Fight me. I’ll show them.”

He closed his hands on her shoulders and looked at her with brows curving in opposite directions. “I won’t! If there’s something I have to prove, by heaven, I will prove it. I love you. But I don’t want—”

She clutched their dagger and held it between him and herself. She longed not to shake so. “If you betray me, I would tear you apart. It’d be easy, like ripping a leaf in half.” (Like tearing her heart out of her breast.)

“I know that,” Ashitaka said. “I know. But you have my heart to do with what you will. I swear I shall die to wrong you by mistake. I could never do so by design.” He lightened his grip on her shoulders and began to stroke them just the way she liked, and to her agitation it worked wonders. “My treasure, cease this.”

“No!” San said, weakly, “Your heart? It’s not mine alone, you cad, you liar.”

“That’s a good thing.” Now he embraced her; his body thinned the waves between them till he burned away all the sea, regathered them into unbroken flesh. “But dear one, it’s you through whom I last forever; through you my heart can grow high as the smallest, farthest stars. That is why I can give away as much of it as I want. To love others, more and more, is to love you better; a heart is stronger, greater, for having as many things in it as it can. Thanks to you there is no end. I know you know of what I speak. In you I have lost myself among trees, and I have loved you all the more for walking with me through them. You wouldn’t be you, if you didn’t love for your friends, your family as much as you do.”

“Does that mean you’re having sex behind my back?” she all but yelped.

“No, no, of course not.” And he relented a little; blushed, even. “My feelings for you are—are special. Each love is special. There are certain things I only want to do with you. I wouldn’t do them with anyone else—not even Yakkul! Actually, um, I don’t think we could, well

“Oh,” San wheezed, rubbing some salt out her eye, only to get more in it, not knowing how to clean up the mess she had made of her rage.

“Don’t fret, we needn’t fight, truly. I’m sure we can work this out together.”

Before she could finish she and Ashitaka both were blasted with a school of incoming fish as well a great splash by a new pair of flippers. “I found Kishi! Caught in a net, no less,” said the newcomer, and pointed its snout at San, “oh, it’s you, you with the hands! You could help. Would you, for old times’ sake?”

San recognised her for Awa, so: “Of course. I only hope I will be able to before it’s too late.”

“You forget Awa won first place in the summer race four years and counting. Hold on, five-fingered wolf, hold on.”

She would, if not for Ashitaka. “Can he come, too?”

“He looks strong,” Nami chirped, then nodded, “he could be of use. All right, we’ll take him if he behaves well.”

So San placed one of Ashitaka’s hands on Hama and the other on Nami; and they rode together through to noon on their backs. They found Kishi, a big bull now, by the keel of an unoccupied boat. He was ramming any which way against the net. Ashitaka swam a little ahead of San to try and untangle it from him, his silhouette oddly soft and pale underwater. His hair clouded like ink about him as he struggled. Shaking his head, he pointed to the surface, so they regrouped there.

“I don’t think I can get it free,” said Ashitaka, “it would be easy, if the curse still—”

San punched him, as hard as she could. “Don’t talk like that!” She hmphfed, and dove. She began to cut the rope with their knife, which had been dull to begin with. She had to go up for breath six times before she was halfway done, so she gnawed through the rest. She told Ashitaka to keep watch, and luckily nothing disturbed them until she had cut away a hole big enough to free the captive.

Thereupon the pod performed airborne tricks and flips for thanks in unison, throwing up showers as they did so. For half the time they mallicked San watched Ashitaka watch them with a look of utter awe, rare in humans, but agreeably common in him.

When they wearied at last of the festivities, Kishi said, “What a nice human,” and rubbed San’s cheek with the underside of his snout, but San found it hard to defend herself from that hurt. She turned her face away from them all. “Thank you, human. I shall give you a pearl later. Humans like those, do they not?”

“You foambrain,” said Nami to Kishi. “She is San, daughter of Moro, and you owe her your life twice over. Have you forgotten already? If the answer is yes, you are a shark of a dolphin and we should have left you to die in that net.”

“No, no, thank your finned friends, who swam us here,” San said, remembering her manners. She turned to Awa. “I’m so sorry. We must have been great burdens to you.”

Ashitaka apologised too, clumsily and at length.

“Not at all. You are a much better swimmer than your brothers,” Awa told San, punctuating her sentence with a sardonic click. San welled up with guilty pride at that.

“By the blue, San! It isn’t every day a dolphin meets a well talking two-legger,” Kishi chirped as he splashed water at her in greeting. He nodded his long head. “How do the landlubbers say it? You have bloomed indeed! Like a... a planula into a polyp.”

“Like a bud into a blossom,” corrected Hama.

“Either way!” Kishi whistled. “You have grown into a fine specimen! Yes, quite fine. Your skin is so smooth. And there is even more of it than before!”

“You are too kind. Besides, I met you a long time ago,” San said, fingering the scar shaped like a cobweb by his fin. “You don’t owe me your life twice over. Only once.”

“I say in my life I will have eaten about a million fishes of the goodliest iridescence. In which case, I have a solution to the debt I owe you. Since you are wolf there needn’t be any silliness over pearls. I have a better gift. Follow me.”

San grabbed Ashitaka’s wrist and did so, followed Kishi’s lead till he stopped at a wide shallow bay and proclaimed, “Welcome, welcome to our shores! Most welcome! We will make it that you will need only to enthrone yourselves upon that coral there, and be served such a banquet that would rival those of the dragon-king in his palace of the deep at spring tide. Do not stop eating until you regurgitate. It is the dolphin’s way. Anything short of that will be held in contempt of—”

“Forget him, for he is only playing an elaborate prank on you,” Nami said to San, “but do relax and replenish your strength, five-fingered one. We will herd the fish here for you, and we shall feast together, for we are friends.”

“Of course we are.” San pointed to Ashitaka. “Let us help.”

“You will only get in the way.”

San didn’t doubt it. “Then can he eat, too? I don’t want to feed him later, but he will be hungry.”

“The friend of my friend is my friend,” Nami chirped, and opened her mouth wide. It really was a lovely mouth, with so many sharp teeth in it, the lips curled cutely upwards in an eternal smile.

When Nami dove away, Ashitaka took San’s shoulders and inundated her with questions. His eyes were wide, and his brow drawn very far back in surprise. So San told him the story, though she abridged some of it once she saw the pod return; it was not a happy tale, and that evening they had no need to relive the gory past. After they ate they did not feel a particular need to throw up their food, though they certainly would not need to go fishing that night, or perhaps breakfast the following morning. Ashitaka made friends with even Hama once he helped him exfoliate with a dry clump of seaweed while San helped to feed Awa her meal in manageable morsels and talked of all that had passed in the kingdom below since San visited last. They played catch and toss-the-turtle (of course, after they had attained its consent). Once they were full of food and good news the dolphins ferried them back to their own shore, somersaulting their farewells, though not without promising to meet once more.

Ashitaka, who was not at all a bad swimmer, nevertheless collapsed on the sand upon reaching it, and had to drag himself by the elbows out of the waves. “What a day,” he moaned.

“Did you have fun?”

“Yes, of course. Your dolphin friends are such beautiful creatures.”

San agreed, but something niggled at her: “Ashitaka. Is there anything in the world you don’t find ‘beautiful’? Or ‘amazing’, or ‘wonderful’?”

“Well, no. Maybe. I had no particular fondness for how the curse looked on me, and was glad to see it go,” he laughed, “but through it I met you. You can find beauty anywhere, if you just search for it, right?”

“Oh,” San said, considering, “then I think I’ll try doing that more. It seems to work well for you.”

“I’m glad. And so happy to be here with you, because, of course, you’re beautiful too. I can barely bear how beautiful you are. Did I forget to tell you today?” Yes, but he had been showing her all that livelong summer and every season before with his clear constant eyes. Ever since the first night she had seen the truth in the dark of them, unclouded, unflinching. He will have done the same until the winter of his life; that she could glean from how willingly he gave her anything she asked of him and more. His grin threatened to rive her heart. And as if by natural design she mirrored him, whereupon he reached out and thumbed her fangs. “My, what sharp teeth you have.” He got a little closer.

“Thanks,” San said, before she bit, this time not hard enough to draw any blood. Ashitaka tasted good like this, though, of sea and skin. She couldn’t smell him as well as she would like, what with all the water, water everywhere; but her nose did find the sun and summer on his skin as he closed in on her, two eyes now one. He was about to kiss her, and she would kiss him back, and they would roll and rut in the sand, all the while kissing and kissing and kissing still as if lips were life, as if the only way to breathe were through someone else’s mouth, as if tongues tapped the heart alive for love, for sex, which they would have again and again, twice after, thrice over, again, longer and deeper and more than the kisses given unto life past life. But a great warm wave crested over them before they could kiss at all, and San wondered if it was asking them to spare it a forestage view. Hugging herself, she giggled and snorted water out her nose. Ashitaka shook saltwater out of his hair, which scattered a bit of sand over the both of them. He tried to clean her up first, but only managed to smear more of it over her, tickling her awfully in the process. A second wave washed them clean but for the side on which they laid.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Ashitaka, curling an arm under San’s knees and another about her waist. He staggered upright. “Wow, I’m woozy. Land feels like water after all that swimming. I wonder whether I can still walk...”

“You could put me down and ride me.”

Ashitaka swerved seaward. “P-pardon me?”

“Pickaback. I think I could do it. What did you think I said?”

“Um. Never mind that. Please.”

“Huh? You’re so weird,” San laughed, and launched an attack on his hair, because she felt like it. She was a wolf of whimsy indeed.

Ashitaka did trip when she got a little carried away with her tugging, although he kept his promise, and did not drop her. Instead he seized her—a little more pressure and she might’ve bruised with it—and landed himself under her to break her fall. But his body was hard in various places, hence it did not offer a better landing than the sand itself did. Well, it was warm and lovely for cradling and cuddling and other things, just not slamming into.

San rolled off him, grabbed his hands, and pulled him to a cross-legged sit. She was panting hard; he was practically begging her to kiss him, licking his lips like that. They had got far enough; a wave wouldn’t disturb them this time.

“I know that look,” Ashitaka said, resting his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand. He blinked less and less, each languid unveiling of eye under heavy lid drawing her deeper into the sweet dreamy aura of him. He rendered the air warmer, delicious. “Do you want me to touch you?”

“We were going to kiss,” she answered. She shuffled closer on her knees. “So we will.”

“You don’t want to get back to the hammock first? We could at least get something to lie on, so we don’t get sand—”

San lunged for his lips. Her blood pounded against all her skin, which was tender to the touch, as when nursing a fever. Ever her heart clamoured for him. And when he at last pet her, oh, how sweet the heat, and how lush the spring that flourished in his wake. He engulfed her in his embrace. She might melt to stay long against his mouth, in those arms. But that was what she wanted to do anyway. She was puddling already; she looked down at the sand under her, and proved herself correct. When she looked up again Ashitaka was leaning over towards her, dusk honeying the open hands he held out. His great eyes were an intense black, black and broad as a young moonless night. Hours passed for him to get closer, till there in his gaze stars rose, amongst which San lost herself as he scooped her up by the thighs and splayed her over his lap. He lavished her with elegant touches to her face, miraculous massages where she was sorest, though just as soon new deeper aches took their place. “I’ve wanted this all day. I remember now. Ashitaka.” She reached for him. Already he throbbed like life in her hand. She scooted a little closer and pressed him against her clit.

“I did, too, oh.” He cupped her chin, let their lips trace one another as she relished the full-body thrill of him in her arms flowering so new. Ashitaka kept smiling against her mouth, his cheeks curving into hers, as if something were funny.

“I’ve been a very bad wolf,” San sighed. “We’re only supposed to mate a while in winter. I think to keep warm. What else? But you burn whenever, so I do too, to be so close to you. I stay in heat all year round.”

“Thank goodness for that.” His cheeks seemed to get even hotter. He kissed her around the mouth. “I care little about proper lupine conduct, whatever that is. You’re still my favourite wolf. My favourite god, too, but keep that secret, lest another curse befall me for it.”

“I care. Maybe not as much as I used to. That’s probably a good thing, though.”

“It is! It is.”

“But still! I want—we mated like wolves yesterday. Can we do it again? A little differently this time. We can’t knot, but, do you think you could stay? As long as you could, as if we really were tying…”

Ashitaka was so flustered it took him a few seconds to respond. “Yes! Of course. I can’t guarantee I can last as long as a wolf can, but I’ll do my best.” He kissed his way down her breasts. Balancing her with one arm, he then reached below, and rubbed delicately against her clit (she muffled some sound in his shoulder; he had not touched her like this since the night before, and then to now seemed like such a long time; she could barely remember what a week without him felt like). He got one thick finger all the way inside her, then another. “Wow! You’re overflowing.” When he lifted his fingers to his lips they shone. He sucked each one. “Could it be you’re more aroused than usual?”

“Oh? You are too. Harder.” She flicked the base of the shaft, which twitched.

“Ow!”

“Maybe not. But,” she hummed, trailing a vein from the root up to the head, “you’ve gotten even bigger.”

“Ah, and if you keep doing that I’ll—”

“What? Explode?” She climbed off his lap to give her own head space. To her disappointment she had to settle for not biting at least this part of him. So instead she nuzzled and kissed it and made a meal of his precome, all sweet musk and sea. While she tasted him he stroked her drying hair.

“Oh, dear, I have to get inside you. May I? May I please?” He drew her up by the armpits, kissed her under and over her eyes and tasted himself on her mouth before turning her over.

Ashitaka teased her awfully after that; it was worse than his words. His fingers, the tips ribbed with calluses, spread her wide, then he breathed hot breath over her. San imagined him staring with his eyes full of wonder and ached for him to be in. But then he closed her up again, palmed her clit, reopened and licked the length of her cunt—that was the last she was having any of it. She raised her rump high till she reached his nose. “You promised!” she growled. She aimed a kick at the direction of his voice and hit something solid. “Hurry!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. You, you look so delicious.” He buried his face in her rump. “I needed to have a taste.” A cuntful of his fingers slid inside. “You’re, erm, ridiculously wet, you see. But you haven’t come, not once today. Are you sure you’re ready?” He bent over her, surrounded her with his body, covered her hands, and interwove their fingers, his erection wiping up the wet of her cleft.

She pushed back against him. “Who knows my body better?”

“You know best, of course.” To her panting he inched in, little by little, till he had packed her to the brim with warmth, squeezing them together, his front flush to her back, his prick plumb inside. “Goodness—”

Was he growing, still? No matter; she could, to her own wonder, create space enough for him always, even as he asked for more and more of it. Length thronged depth; and width, breadth. He stretched her out to the shape of him, thick and full to overwhelming.

“Could you… could you stay like this?” San said, but hated how strange her own voice sounded to herself; she almost pulled away, to return herself to normal. She reconsidered: this was normal. Many a great wolf was born to parents who coupled just like this. Maybe she could not cut through hide with her teeth, or leap a crag, but this—this she could do just as well as any other.

“As long as I can,” he breathed on her neck. “Can I move a little, though?”

“No, no, don’t pull out—”

“I mean like this.” His broad hands brushed her shoulders and curled around to hug her breasts as he rolled his hips, nudged against her walls. A hot-cold shiver zipped down her spine. Sweeter warmth swelled in her belly. She found herself bringing her thighs closer. The sand gave a little more under their combined weight. “How is it?”

“Oh, do keep doing that.” San got down on her elbows, and Ashitaka seemed to slide deeper, if that were possible. She wondered whether it was his heart beating against her back or her own as it bayed and bated loud enough for two—or perhaps they shared one organ now they had merged. In that manner Ashitaka stayed for an admirably long time, and he was so tender with her she ached, massaging the inside of her body as he sometimes did the outside of it after a long patrol: patiently, painstakingly. He tugged and brushed her nipples until her elbows could no longer hold and one wrist separated her face from the sand; by then her breasts pushed into the warm dune below them, whereupon Ashitaka’s hands concentrated all their efforts on her clit. She would have come anyway, but now—

Wonder branched from her belly nerve by nerve like leaves up, roots down, from crown through understory to turf, marrow to skin, filling her full, full to bursting or imploding, as though within her swirled the south wind, sweet and sudden, whose breath gloried in bloom and dapple of fawn and light in the greenwood dancing.

In orgasm San luxuriated till Ashitaka called her name as in a dream. She thought he said, “I want to see your face this time.”

She nodded weakly, so he reached down for her, hooked his elbows under her knees, and dragged her up to his hips.

“What’s with that look? I won’t drop you.” His voice did not shake; his hands were steady, and he did not sweat, not yet. “Well, if you leave my hair alone this time.”

“I know.” That did not quite impress her; rather, she envied his strength and wished she had enough of it to do this to him. But she knew he didn’t do it to impress her, and she could bear it easier because of that.

“I mean, if you don’t like it, we can try something else!” He was clenching awfully hard on her rump, though. “I just want to look at you as much as I can. I’m greedy. And I like kissing. A lot.” He nuzzled her cheek. “May I?”

“Yes,” she laughed, so he kissed her dizzy. He had crushed coconut flesh into milk that she could still taste in his sweet mouth. When he pulled back he was short of breath, but his hands were steady. This time they didn’t kiss each other very hard, but did for so long their lips had swelled up with softness, and ached to meet again. But she spared a moment to say, “I think I will like it. Try.”

Then San watched Ashitaka’s soft lips tremble, his dark thick brows rise above eyes growing so liquid and large as he filled her. At their largest they looked not unlike the eyes of a young hart. Open, prone to untold wonder, they preserved an innocence that should not be there still. His scar turned silver in the oblique sunlight. “I’m greedy too,” she all but giggled. Her giggling gave way into squealing as his hands splayed across her haunches, squeezed down, and spread them. She stretched to tautness and had to belay herself round his neck. His hips and arms moved in tandem to bounce her up and down the firm warm length of him. That was so fun she laughed. Soon she was helping, pushing down as he did up. He would be touching her face with his hands, but they were busy, so he used his nose and his lips to trace where his fingers would be. He stopped soon, though, too soon, and looked long at her. The offing shone in the deep wide dark of his eyes, and there she tided towards the horizon.

She kicked her legs about in the air, which made him hobble a little. “Why did you stop! You can’t even carry me for—”

“Well, no, but I’m—I’ll come! Really soon… Sorry, but I’ll have to put you down before I do, so—”

“No! Just come inside me.”

She didn’t think his eyes could get any wider, but wider and wider they got, all right. “You’re ready to be a mother? Th-there are means, of course, to cease—”

“If that’s nature’s course,” San mumbled. Unlikely, given their precautions and the time of her cycle, but: “I know you’re kind to children. You would be a good father.” Not for the first time, she imagined holding in her arms something soft and small and frail and lovely beyond withstanding. It had her face, or his, and an unknowing happiness and newness they had both long since lost. Beauty surrounded it, dwelled in it, human although or because it was. Living in the wild ought to confer her more freedom, but it was through flesh mirrors that San had came uncaged, released bar by bar from her monstrosity to the reality that it had never existed at all.

Just then, Ashitaka bumped his forehead against her own, abruptly. The impact rang in her skull and all her bones. “I’ll take full responsibility!”

His grip on her tightened, tightened. He kissed her without his usual elegance, smashing their lips together, and then it was all hunger: teeth touched; tongue blades edged each other; and when his nose got in the way, he didn’t bother to move it aside, only forward. Soon breathing became a funny business. San forgot how to move and the meaning of most words, but that was all right, since Ashitaka’s hips and arms and big greedy wondrous mouth did all the moving and talking for her. Was this all it took to draw the wild from him? From within she could count his pulse. Faster and faster now. Branches of blood budded, budded, budded to bloom at last in her belly, fill her throat, rush down her thighs, open, open, open.

In their languor they coupled all afternoon, in every which way they could without getting sand where it might cause trouble, before Ashitaka ended up with wild abandon atop San after all. She no longer shook. She wanted his weight over her. Ashitaka tried to send it into his palms, but San hugged his hips with her legs and his shoulders with her arms and squeezed him to her till she subsumed him. San gathered to her, inside her, Ashitaka, Ashitaka, beloved of the sun, the earth and quake of him, breathing in the musk she so often chased in the forest tangled as they were now. They pressed close and long enough for him to stamp her with the ridges of his body. For a moment their ribs rubbed together. For another she was sure his heart had fallen into her body.

How he had frightened her once. She had thought it was because he could hurt her; or worse, that she would come to hurt herself for him. But the wolf in her breast had always scented the lie, because before him she had never feared to die. (The curse—the gift—had been wasted on him who had clung to life like a vine. (Imagine what I could do with a power such as his; (imagine to futility!))). The truth was he made her utterly unfamiliar to herself, monstrous in her beauty, without her furs raw for him to pluck out her hackles and muffle her mouth with his kisses and dull her teeth to gnash for fear of or for him and then need by need strip her of her soul, secret and safe though she had kept it all that time. In spite of herself with him she grew lusher, louder, fresher, with a new sense of the familiar (Your body is yours, yours is of the world, love it all like the winds and waters and woods you fight for; (why ask where they are) here are you in them (and everywhere are we (I in you (in me)))). She knew now. She knew anew. She knew. Like this she felt, if not secret, then safer for it. Their throats were open only to each other. Together they made one beast with two backs.

They were both shaking madly, sweat-and-sex-soaked, when he said, “I hope we can do this together for ten thousand years. A thousand thousand years.” He laughed loud and full. “For ever and ever and ever.”

“Good grief!” San sighed. “You’re about to come, aren’t you. I can tell! Wait, not now…? Stop making that face, those noises—oh, Ashitaka…”

“Whoops. I’ll, aah, I’ll make it up to you. I promise.” He laughed again, buried his face in the curve of her neck, and blew breath into it, too hot to handle.

“Ashitaka!” she yelped. She yanked on one ear, bit the other. He moaned into her skin, reheating the place she had just revenged. “You’d come eight million times before that happens. If your body can take it.”

“It can!” His head shot up. He stared and stared with those large delicious eyes. “And I’ll have you know, I plan to make you come a thousandfold that. Could you endure it till then?”

She lifted her chin; he dipped his head. “I can.”

“Then I guess we should start now.”

-

That night stars danced across a sky bent low to warm its pale citizens against the dark summer loam. From the field-on-high meteors scattered like seed over the earth, fast as a fallow heart could follow. Whispers between air and water of where the messengers had landed accompanied the song of the small cuckoo, who sang so sweetly and unguardedly of the fragrant summer ether San’s own heart swelled with it. Ashitaka too sat in the dry sand, his high hard shoulder pressed against her lower softer one. After their bath together he had swaddled her in that dark sweet-smelling robe of his; while he himself wore the white one with the little waves on it, distractingly resplendent. His hair still dripped a little on her shoulder.

“Some of my seafaring friends tell me that far north there’s something called a midnight sun,” said San to Ashitaka, breathless, eyes turned heavenward.

Ashitaka said, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.” How could he tear his eyes away from such a sight to look at her with all the patience of time itself? Mortal though he was? Even Moro had not been capable of that.

“The day chases away the night before it can come, and what should be dark becomes light. If you go a little further upland the sun doesn’t set for what should be whole moons. But the twilights last for ages and ages.”

“So if we were there, we wouldn’t get to see any of this?”

“No. That’s why I like our cycles better. They’re just right.” She directed her gaze back to the sky, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to. “Do you think if we swam out to sea far enough we could catch one?”

“A star?”

“Yes. It’d be nice to wear some in my ears. I would love to know what a star sounds like.”

“Ah, I see.” He was beginning to undo the obi tied low around his hips. “Then shall we go?”

“But we might run into the midnight sun if we went too far. Scary.”

Ashitaka parted her robe. “That’s true. Maybe if we stay here a star will wash ashore. You could lure it with your beauty.” He cupped a breast through the voluminous fabric. San held her breath, briefly, but then he kissed a ladder up her neck to climb into her hair, breathing into it as though he were sprinting, and she had to snort, “That tickles!”

San grabbed his collar. Together they toppled down to the sand. She could well smell him under the sea-scent now. His weight warmed her body, but his hair still dripped cold brine onto her face. Ashitaka licked her warm again. “So.” He neared to murmur. “What shall we do?”

But a midsummer’s night was too short to do all the things she or he wanted to then; after the adventure for the star they trudged back to the hammock, where with some lullabying and rocking they scrounged out of the thin hours all the sleep they could, her back to his chest, their bodies still one. In the strangest, oldest dream, within San’s belly grew a great tree that threw sweet scent from the upper branches, upon which alighted a rainbow of birds, the ever thicker shaft and deepening roots sticky with enough sap to feed a forest. When she woke indeed something grew inside her, higher and thicker and warmer with each breath that tickled her back. “Ashitaka?”

“G’morning,” a voice mumbled into her shoulder. “I’m afraid my boy was up before me. Sorry to wake you.”

“Oh!” Ashitaka’s hands were curling around her waist, thumbs tracing the underside of her breasts. He trailed wakes of warmth. “You stayed in all this time?”

“Somehow,” he chuckled, nuzzling her scruff. “Am I still welcome?”

San rested a hand on Ashitaka’s thigh, ran her fingers through the curls there. “Very.”

He began to move, slowly and gently. Oh, how he swelled and swelled. Swayed, heavy and smooth, like boughs in summer. Except: warm; in her depths she hugged him tighter and tighter to be ever warmer within. Her tenth year sitting in the crown of the trees to watch the world; below her the young town she had not yet learned to hate. It had been late spring then, and through her hair had howled the winds of an incipient storm. How she had held on to those dear branches! With thighs, hands, prayer: everything she had. Here in that swinging bed there impended no such danger, but a similar sensation, and identical desperation. Against him with the selfsame violence she trembled, wet as the leaves in June. Intermittent breeze cooled sweat, slick, skin. Around and within her he was warm, though, never once slipping out. Blood called to blood, gathered, heat on heat. Between all the happy puffing and huffing he was chanting her name, oh and ah and ha, by heaven and his word, my lovely love, my life’s life, her waist now in his strong grip, then his hymning lips at her neck, raising her hackles, that voice the wonder before the thunder. His teeth brushed the skin there, bit it a little; he said something about breakfast. When she asked him to, he bit her again, nibbled along her neck, each nip a little harder than the last, though never enough to hurt. He didn’t bite her when he came, just squeezed her middle tight, pressing his forehead against her neck and expelling so much sound and breath at her nape that she laughed, laughed hard till it hurt.

She ought to have known he’d not be done after that; he never quit, ever, unless she asked him, or came, whichever first. She could content herself with just this, the comfort of him so close, but why would she, when he was slinking the endless length of his fingers over her clit how she loved it most, till her body buzzed, burst, honey-lovely delight spreading sweet as sweet throughout it. At her telltale tremor he gave her his palm, and she shook that much harder. Sea blurred to mist, then condensed in a flash that filmed over her hawless eyes; all of a sudden she sat in the centre of a lily she had tried to turn inside out when she had been a cub who had not yet figured out what fingers were for.

Ashitaka held her together, eased her back to the earth of the present. “We didn’t fall out! Or crash land,” he bellowed, and shook the trees with his voice. San laughed too. “Mm! What a way to start the morning. I feel like I’m in paradise when I’m with you.”

“It does feel like we’re flying when the bed swings under us.” She rocked a little to recreate the motion. It soothed her, roused him; he was getting hard again, already, heavy against her thigh. Turning her head just so, to face him, she let his beauty touch her. (At first blush when it she had learned she had thought she would die. Not like this, she had wished. Not like this). That used to frighten her so, but she was braver now, because he helped her be. Colour returned to the world. “I’m surprised you didn’t fall out. You usually move around a lot. Sometimes you thrash.”

“Sorry, sorry!” He curved hands around her belly and wriggled his hips, entered her again; she coughed, or gasped, or laughed. “I had to stay still, so I could be safe inside you, just like this. I had such a good night’s sleep thanks to you. And what marvellous dreams!”

One hand stroked the backs and insides of her thighs, and another fondled the outside of her right one, precise fingers drawing breakers that flowed from her knee, crested at her hip, and threw spindrift across her waist, which he represented with tickles.

“Ashitahahaha, oh, my, oh, Ashitaka.” She wanted to curl up and hug herself and laugh into her knees to be quieter, but if she moved he might fall out, and then everything would be lost. Her breasts ached, especially at the tips, and so did her clit, as well as everywhere he was so rudely teasing. She moved her hands to touch the places he wasn’t, but he barred her from doing so. A hand squeezed between the hammock and her neck to grab one of hers, and the other pulled back her entire arm. His grip was gentle as ever, but his voice firm, despite its low volume.

“No, no, don’t. Let me,” he murmured as he tucked her hair behind her ears. “You always do the work. Just relax now.” He rested a thumb on her clit and a palm over her breast.

“That’s not true….”

“Really. Don’t sweat it. Enjoy this slowly.” He began to rub slow circles into her clit. She leaned into his body. “I’ll try not to come before you do this time.”

San stifled a laugh. “You having trouble keeping it in?”

“N-nothing I can’t handle, hah, but, hmm…” He buried his face in her hair. “Do you remember the first night we slept in the den together?”

“Did you forget?”

“No, I remember. How you shook. The moonlight shook with you. You were curled up on your side, like this. I wanted, I wanted you, then. But you were so far, so far.”

“Where? Where was I? I was right beside you, watching over you. I made sure! In case you tried anything funny.”

“Yes. Yet there was, I thought—Impossible. I was going to die,” he whimpered. “As long as I live, I—” A gasp coincided with a squeeze of her rump. “I’ll have your back, all right?” This time he cupped her breasts. “Your front too.” And he laughed a little, heated her shoulder. “Oh, I never thought we could be—this—”

She reached round, pushed him close as could be. How well they fit. “There isn’t anything between us now.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, breathless, “nothing at all.”

A few more wet tickly kisses on the neck and she squirmed, started to buck back, writhed against his fingers and his hips. She reached for the hand upon her breast, squeezed it, because she wanted to touch him too. She searched for his face, tried to lick it, but it was too far. He leaned in to suck her tongue. They panted, giggled, squealed together. “I love it when you laugh,” Ashitaka said. “You hug me so tight inside.” And San answered him with more laughter, enough to fill his mouth, his whole body, till it shook against her.  The hammock swung in ever wider arcs as she wriggled against him. Higher and higher they flew, she pushing them to and he pulling them fro. She came in the sunshine amid arms wound so tight around her, to keep her from falling.

They lay together awhile like how they did after the fall that dawn in the grass, facing each other. In perfect peace they listened to the lull of the sea. On Ashitaka’s back San found her scratches from yesterday half-healed, a ridge of tough muscle there, some scar tissue here. By then he had told her the story of each mark, but only ever after she asked, for he would refuse her nothing, except perhaps someone else’s life. She gritted her teeth when she reached the unbearably sleek patches of young unscathed skin, smooth and soft as new petals, so much like certain stretches of her own. After she spared him one more caress there she escaped to his scalp and as she scritched it he shut his eyes and sighed and smiled his great smile and she was convinced that there must be fewer differences between men and wolves than she first thought.

“I think my dream was about you,” San said, and they got close, kissed. They were both a little slippery with sweat and stickier from sex, filling the sultry air and their lungs with the familiar scent of each other together. Not even his hair was dry, but she gripped it anyway as it went all coppery in the sunlight. “Tell me about yours?”

--

Whenever you sleep as one your dreams are sweet and wet, as though cruising over wine dark waters. This one isn’t any different. After the voyage you arrive at an island abounding in golden palaces, where trees grow earrings of stars and rosaries of moons, forests of them, full of tigers white as the snow that never touches these shores, who drink from a silver river wherein bloom jade lotuses, and talk of the happiness of the fish. You promenade along a long, long labyrinth of a walkway, storied in every beam and rafter with age after age; landscape, seascape, cloudscape; here, fairies dancing to the tune of a zither ten thousand fathoms down; there, some foul-smelling, ear-splitting battle in another country; and at the end of the corridor, up from a painting of a divine grove in the joist, a branch reaches out like a hand of compassion (like antlers in sacrifice), grows, buds, blooms, and sets a peach, pink, perfect, the sweetest you have ever tasted, the air perfumed still as you suck juice off your fingers. You marvel. Then you step across the threshold of a pavilion by the sea wherein bays a wolf whose white, white fur shines brighter than a brilliance of stars. Above you all the cassion spins alive, away.

A voice says, “We’re going to live forever.”

And you believe it.

--

Today clouds whose summits graze the daytime moon amass over the soft blue sky. They watch them scud by as they eat the crabs San’s caught for breakfast. With full bellies they go bathing, not in the spring, since it’s a little early, but on the main proper, where mirages chase them ceaselessly; in the heat hazes they see gorgeous cities on the horizon, in the heavens, through the sea, as though gossamer veils a fourfold world. They appear at once close and far, like phosphenes, or dreams. To the south edifices of coral and crystal numberless storeys high shimmer in the air, a deer hunt among the maples at one side, a shining wind whistling through cherry blossoms on the other; in the backyard snow falls while rain warms the front gate of the grounds. San smiles; Ashitaka wonders. It’s odd for her to be happy about civilisation at large. Clam-castles, she says, mysteriously and abstrusely; then she dives, and comes back with a pearl that fills her palm.

Eventually the mirages usher Ashitaka and San into a raft of otters by an isle barely any bigger than Ashitaka’s room. Some are crushing urchins, others rolling about in the water, another very interested in Ashitaka’s leg. Mothers and pups are connected belly to belly by long strips of kelp. There is also a pair that float on their backs, curiously holding paws as they try to enjoy a siesta. They’re not quite asleep just yet, so their eyes intermittently open and shut and watch each other, as if to make sure their friend is still there. They bump into reef, drift away from each other, before the current brings them together again. Through their drowsiness they still manage to rejoin paws and at last fall into sleep.

“Why do they do that?” Ashitaka asks San, petting the otter that has attached itself to his knee.

“To survive. This way they don’t float out to sea unawares. Otters don’t do very well there,” San replies. “They’re only strangers to each other, and yet…”

“Not anymore.”

“That’s true.” San grabs Ashitaka’s hand. “We can try it too. It might be cooler to sleep here.”

It is, although Ashitaka wakes after a few seconds of sleep with water down his throat, whereupon San’s laughter thunders around them. Thereafter she joins him permanently in the land of the waking. But it’s nice and peaceful like this, so they don’t bother getting up. Instead they float on, weightless in the water, watching the mountains of clouds pass one another by, overlap and separate and collide over and over, as in a painting upon an unfolding fan.

“I think it’ll rain soon,” San says as clouds swallow the sun and cast a great shadow over their bodies, relieving them a little of the heat from above. “Tonight or tomorrow.”

“I guess that means we’ll need to head back home.” Ashitaka sighs. “I had such a good time. You?”

“Mmm.” She gives his hand a squeeze that could crush an orange dry. Her chest rises much higher the next time she breathes in. “More importantly, how do you feel?”

“Splendid. Reborn.” He returns the squeeze, gently. “Thank you for all you’ve done to ensure that.”

“Thank Ryuujin-sama too, remember?”

“Oh. Thank you,” he says to the sea.

“Good boy.” San looks to the sky again. “I think Yakkul would like it here. Mikan too. The hot springs especially.”

“Why don’t we bring them next time? Along with your brothers?”

“I love them,” San says gravely, “but they are a nuisance.”

Ashitaka laughs. “They won’t feel left out?”

“They won’t want to watch us mate. They’d scare Mikan, anyway.”

“Um, I’m not really comfortable letting a baby monkey watch us—”

“The dolphins can babysit.”

“Can’t your brothers babysit?”

“I told you: they won’t come. And, they might eat her if I’m not watching.”

Ashitaka sighs. “Can Mikan even swim?”

“Oh, I know! We can get Yakkul to babysit. How’s that?”

“Quite perfect. He won’t mind,” Ashitaka says, so with the arrangements made, he devotes the rest of their day to figuring when and how to make the time for another trip.

As San shows him her secret paintings in the sea cave, he’s already imagining all they’ll get up to the next time they come, though he places those dreams on standby the moment she points to the paintings she did when she was half her age now. It upsets Ashitaka that she used to draw herself as an angry red squiggle beside everyone else from her life much more lovingly limned. He asks her about a smudge, a desperate splatter, and consequent swipe. “Is that you, too?” he asks.

“It was my thumbprint,” she says, very fast. She’s even quicker to direct his line of vision towards the browsing deer.

Ashitaka pictures a toddler of a girl, so terrified of herself she plays alone in the dark, year after year, to hide her shadow, though even there, where no one can see her, she cries in silence because of the maps on her palms that do not lead to any promises of wolfhood. She might try to find a way through the mazes of her fingertips, but only more questions lurk within, the place she loses what little of herself she started out with. But now, now he takes her hands and immerses them in bold wet paint so they can print all their fingers with their fingers and their hearts with her hearts. 

They’ve just finished illustrating their all new seaside escapades when the water moans around them. Before Ashitaka knows it, he’s letting himself be dragged along on whatever new emprise San will get them into. They meet her perhaps a league or two offshore, the awesome creature that would dwarf a warship. Upon closer inspection, there are scabious looking patches on her body he mistakes for barnacles, then rust, but which he realises moves. Refracted waves play like silk on where the dark skin is smooth.

“How magnificent,” Ashitaka says to San, who nods. A rush of brine reminds him to close his mouth.

“Why, thank you, dearie,” the whale answers, to Ashitaka’s surprise. “It has been a while since I’ve been propositioned by one so young! However, I don’t think I’ve ever made it work with a human, I’m sorry to say, and really you are much too young.”

Ashitaka blushes. “Oh, there must be another lucky someone out there for you, as San—”

“That’s me. He’s Ashitaka. Mine. And you?”

“Ah, how rude of me! I have forgotten my manners. Forgive me. My name is Aoi, and some kind dolphins told me I could find some friendly fingers to help me here.”

“You found us,” San says, “what do you need help with?”

“Well, there is a terrible itch near the blowhole, more than the usual, and the occasional stabbing pain. The lice are usually quite chivalrous about it—they keep me such rollicking company the long nights alone in the deep—but they have recently, erm, become quite rowdy about the feminine area, such that it is impeding the natural functions. You young people will know precisely why this is unacceptable. And while I am no spring chicken, I am not ready to be blind yet. But I am afraid my right eye is going. Will you help me to see what I cannot?”

“Sure,” San says. They find tackles piercing the skin on her back, which San unhooks gingerly, blinking fast, as if she is about to cry, though it might just be the salt in the water. The lice have gathered to the wounds, feeding. With a cold precision San begins to scrape them off with her fingers. Ashitaka realises she will not stop until she wears her fingernails ragged down to bleeding plates. 

“Oh, darling, that feels absolutely divine!” Aoi shakes with pleasure and churns the water around them.

Drowning is a distinct possibility until San says, “Please, stay still for me.”

“I am awfully sorry,” Aoi replies, with a high pitched click. “Sometimes I forget how very small you are.”

“It’s all right.” San climbs again and starts to scrape. She has picked at her own scabs this exact way. Ashitaka leaves to fetch their blades. When he comes back, he takes San’s hands in his to find they are a little pink, but the skin on them intact, if pruney. They commence cleanup. Upon Aoi’s insistence, San presides over her “feminine area”, and Ashitaka is tasked with seeing what the matter is with her eye, which is bigger than his fist, black and somehow calm amid the disarray of angry-looking lice sprawling about it. Some have even feed upon the encrusted lid, which might be what blinds her. Ashitaka is reminded of Okkotonushi’s rheumy cornea, Moro’s bloodshot sclera, wisdom in suffering.

“Well, handsome? What do you see?” Aoi asks him, in a watery voice. The eye is not focused on him. Ashitaka can’t answer underwater, so he just pats the side of her eye, to tell her as best as he can that it’s going to be all right, and begins to pick off the lice one by one with fingers and only the pommel of his sword, since it’s a delicate area. The eye reacts to his touch, widening and darting this way and that in relief until at last it is clean and clear and the pupil points at Ashitaka. Aoi emits through the main a great quivering coo. “You’ve done it, my boy, and I think San has too. Come now, go on up for a bit of breath.”

When San and Ashitaka regroup, San tells Aoi, “There’re a lot more on your tail, the rostrum—”

“Oh, no, dear, leave them where they are. I used to dream of shaking them all off, and tried, scratching them off on the sea floor and so on, as you do, but since it was impossible, I’ve grown fond of the little things, bothersome as they can be. At the end of the day, they’re just trying to stay alive, and so am I.”

“You’re sure?” San asks. “We’re only here for another day at most.”

“All right, all right, I suppose maybe you could clear out my nostrils—there are some awful bullies there—and get rid of the mutineers all over my belly. I hear them fighting, and that’s not going to happen on my body if I can help it.”

So they spend the rest of the day grooming Aoi, leaving the whole vicinity of her wound smooth to heal, until their arms are a little sore. By then the sky is yellowing, and they’re hungry.

“Do you know of a calf called Kita?” San asks, before they leave. “Her mother was Kai, and they used to swim here, in the spring.”

Aoi considers for a few moments, pacing in the water. “Ah! I do know a cow called that. Should be way up north by now.”

San’ face opens up like a flower in the morning. “If you find her, will you tell her to come to San in these waters next April? I want to apologise for not taking better care of her mother.”

“She doesn’t blame you for that, dear,” Aoi says. “But I’m sure she’d love to get deloused too, so I’ll be sure to pass on the message. Will you two be here the same time next year? I’d love to see you both again.”

San looks to Ashitaka, her eyes bright and conspiratorial. “We hope so.”

“Well, be sure to relay a few words to the dolphins for me if you come,” Aoi says, turning. “Until next time!”

Aoi breaches her great body, waves goodbye midair, and lobtails farewells thereafter. They can still taste the spray after she has disappeared from sight.

--

At eventide roosting seabirds sound all the opal of the welkin with their singing. After Ashitaka and San have lunched they beguile the last of the light with their chins on their knees and eyes on the sky. They follow the slow flight of the sun, west and west and west, until they spot in the distance what looks to be a small army marching across the glittering golden dunes. Upon closer inspection they realise they are loggerhead hatchlings.

“Oh!” San claps her hands. “We’re lucky. I’ve only seen this happening one other time.”

“What are they doing, though?”

“Racing to sea.” She turns to him. “Hey, how about we bet on them? I pick that one.”

“All right. I’ll do with this fellow.” Should be easy enough, Ashitaka thinks, and then the first bird swoops down to make a meal of one yet defenceless turtle. “San? I know you said we can’t intervene, but…” He looks up.

San’s already ahead of him, shooing off birds by throwing sand at them. “Try picking on someone your own size,” she howls at a few albatrosses, “and leave my prizewinner alone.”

They smile at each other, despite themselves. Ashitaka isn’t sure how much time has really passed once they’re back to watching their bets waddle forward. Ashitaka’s stumbles over a rock, and San’s at one point is flipped onto its shell by a stampede of other turtles. San crouches and squints at it. When she thinks Ashitaka isn’t looking, she turns it back onto its belly. Ashitaka won’t play dirty like that, but he will have to, if his turtle doesn’t get up. “Come on, little guy,” he attempts to cheer, which is oddly successful. His turtle is not halfway done catching up to San’s when another bites her toe. She shrieks and Ashitaka expects her to squash it underfoot. By the time he moves to stop her, she’s already plucked it from her toe and cupped it in her palms. She strides up to the waves and sets it unexpectedly gently in the water.

“I won’t go easy on you next time!” She shakes a fist at the sea and tiptoes around the stampede back to Ashitaka. “Where’s my turtle?”

Ashitaka points at the one coming first by the length of its body. It’s a few waddles more until it plunges triumphantly into the water to be tided away. Though it is Ashitaka’s loss, he cheers along with San.

The race over, they sit on the sand, watching the slow march to sea until the last stragglers make it. When they retrace their steps to the hammock they discover a few dozen that have gone the wrong direction, or are stuck in a footprint (Ashitaka feels especially guilty about that) so they rescue them in the late lavender light.

“We shouldn’t coddle them like that, actually,” San huffs, after each hatchling has been accounted for. “They’ve got to learn how to survive on their own.”

“You really do take after your mother.” Ashitaka laughs, cupping her cheeks, in case she runs. She stays. Her eyes go all fluttery and wide, her cheeks pink and soft like the dawn under the sharp red.

“What, what do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing bad. Really. It’s true, though.” His hands drop to her shoulders. Her brow furrows; she’s thinking hard. After it smooths she smiles, fresh out of some fabulous maze of thought. But that smile, he sees it and knows he can joke now, “I thought you meant to eat a couple.”

She laughs too. “Reptiles don’t taste very good.”

So they follow kingfishers’ vespers to the estuary, where they stand knee-deep to catch squiggling and sweet-fleshed anago. Ashitaka works well with slippery things by now, so he catches three to San’s one, when a strange man appears before them. He stands between Ashitaka and San’s statures, holding a readied meal upon a plate Ashitaka then realises is a great shell dotted with teardrops of pearls. It takes a few blinks for Ashitaka to recognise who he is.

“Good evening,” he says, his green, green eyes glinting. “May I have the pleasure of joining you for dinner this night?”

“Do as you please,” San says, spearing one more eel. It writhes dead. She motions for Ashitaka to come to her. “We don’t need to fish anymore.” She points to the platter.

Ashitaka almost tries to convince San into showing some hospitality or at least a little more courtesy, but he doesn’t want to fight her for something as futile as that. He addresses the dragon directly, “Thank you for your offer, but oh, we’ve such a humble catch tonight, compared to your—”

“Nonsense! These anago are far out of my reach. I am the one who must be excused to ask a rare delicacy of you.”

Ashitaka can’t argue; all he can do is bow and lead the way.

Like San, the dragon moves in silence. Unlike San, he doesn’t seem to get wet, or hot. Even though he is the one seated closest to the campfire, not a single bead of sweat or grain of sand touches his body or the cloth over it. The soles of his feet are clean, somehow,  after walking through so much mud to get here.

“You’re not going to eat?” San asks the dragon around a mouthful of fish. “Well, more for me.” She then chomps off the head of a charred newt.

“Oh, I’m saving some stomach for the anago,” he answers, smiling pleasantly, coolly.

Ashitaka fillets the slippery eels with increasing speed, though he really shouldn’t, since it requires such a soft touch. The slices turn out even despite that. Then he simmers half of them in a pan with the little bit of mirin and sugar they’ve got left over.

It’s good; the cooked anago melts in their mouths, and the raw flesh sweetens them. Their guest is partial to the latter, though after the first few bites he refrains from more, while San is still licking the unagi dripping off her fingers.

“That was delicious. Thank you for the meal,” the dragon says. San is spooning gleaming orange roe into her mouth with a shell. “You seem to be enjoying yourselves too. I’m glad of it.”

“Please,” says Ashitaka, “help yourself. There is much left. We couldn’t possibly finish it ourselves.” He hopes San will be good and at least pretend it’s true.

“You are too kind,” he replies, but does not move. “I have come to you both to thank you for that, the good you have both done unto me.”

San stops eating. Ashitaka clutches his own knees. “Forgive me, for I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

“Nor do I,” San adds, wolfing down the meat of a mussel. She spits out a surprise… tooth? No, pearl.

The dragon turns to Ashitaka and says, “You cleared the river of windthrow.” He faces San, tells her, “You planted trees by the banks where they fell.”

San stops narrowing her eyes, and gurgles, “It’s nice that you remembered a little thing like that, but do you think you could help the forest out from time to time during a human invasion? I thank you for everything you do do for us. I know that not everybody wants to fight, and you ought to have the choice not to—the apes didn’t, and the little ones can’t, but, but… You live here, too, don’t you? Lend us your strength.”

“San!” Ashitaka hisses, but she ignores him. When he touches her arm she shrugs him off again. “San, don’t be rude—”

“I am sorry it has come to this,” the dragon says at last, hands folded neatly over his lap. “I am only a small river, and still very new. I owe men for their worship. And I have a… great fondness for them. That you can understand, surely, wolf-wife?”

“You’ve been spoiled by your good fortune,” San says, not out of cruelty. She looks down at her fists on her knees. “You wait. Wait until they dirty your waters beyond your means to clean them, pollute your lifeblood with their ashes, defile your name, your being. They would seek to become the god of you. You might regret it then.”

“Perhaps. If so, I shall face the consequences of my actions. But I endeavour never to regret them.”

San smiles ruefully. “Good luck to you, then.”

“And you,” the dragon says. “Consider that Ryuujin-sama may be able to assist you how I cannot. I extend an invitation to you both to his hallowed halls; I have an appointment there tonight, for which I must leave shortly. I can even bring you back, though the world may become a little different from what it will have been. Time passes differently there, and my magic is not yet strong enough to save so many hours.”

San has her thinking fur on. Ashitaka would rather turn in for another quiet night with San, the rarest and most precious gift of all. The possibility of a time slip scares him, besides. Ashitaka and San say in unison, “No.”

San adds, “Thanks for the offer. I’m sure it’d be a pleasure to see his home for myself, but what good will that do if the world changes for the worse while I’m gone?”

“Ah.” The dragon chuckles. “I thought that might be your answer. I still owe you a debt, then. If you ever wish to come, you may find me right here at the river once this moon is over. Or you could call me by my name.”

They promise never to utter it to anyone but one another. In the next blink the man is gone, purring in his place a meander of a dragon, all brilliant scales and gemweed mane; in another blink, he has bounded across the moon.

--

San twists fibres she peels off coconut husks into a cord, pokes holes in shells with one of Ashitaka’s heated arrowheads, and strings clams and conches together to make an unexpectedly symmetrical necklace. “Looks good,” she says, patting sand off his shoulders. “Sounds nice too.” She shakes it and it clacks. With her other hand she holds up a conch bigger than either of their heads to his ear. The sea sings inside it. “Take this, also. Now you can bring the sea with you anywhere! You like?”

“Oh, I love!” Grinning, he gathers the gifts in his lap. “Thank you so very much. This was all so thoughtful of you!”

Her eyes sparkle. “You can sound it yourself.” She urges the apex of the shell to his lips. “Blow.”

He does, releasing a startlingly resonant mellow sound.

San claps. “Isn’t it lovely?” She crowns herself with a garland of seaweed studded with starfish and seed pearls, held together by the sweet sticky pine sap she drew by hand from the cones. “I think we’re ready for the ball at the dragon palace. I might need a tail, but I should do fine with these.” She wriggles her limbs. “They’ve always served me well. Somehow.”

“Indeed.” Ashitaka laughs. “But what’s the weather like down there? Perhaps we should bring a few coats, just to be safe.”

“We won’t need to.” San readjusts her crown, which has gone a little askew. “It’s a different season in each of the four wings. The only thing we might need to wear is this.” She belts both their waists with kelp. “In case we drift apart on the way down. Oh, and I suppose I could switch out my earrings…” She holds sand dollars up to her ears. “What do you think?”

“You look beautiful in anything. And also nothing, haha. I mean, whatever you wear, or don’t. All the time. Um.” He twiddles his thumbs and feigns composure. Successfully? “Did you always like dressing up?”

San fidgets. She draws her mother’s face into the sand, swipes it, and outlines a flower that then transforms into a fish into a wyrm into a man. “It’s not that. It’s showing what’s deep inside on the outside for everyone to see. So people can understand who I really am. With you I don’t have to, not anymore, because I think you see now. Most of the time. Even when you don’t, you try.”

Inner heat, untouched by the sultry air, spreads through him. “San, I…”

“Keep doing your best.” She bends forward to attach what seems to be coral to his hair. “Aw, you look like a little dragon now! Cute.”

“You do seem to like dressing me up,” he chuckles. “I bet you can see through me as well.”

“Sure. But you know, it’s just for you. I’d like you to look at all these pretty things so you can see inside yourself and remember we had a good time.” She holds up the mirror she found a few days back. She seems to have polished it crystalline with the waterstone he gave her. Their reflections shine back at them.

“Oh, yes. I had such a wonderful time I don’t think I could forget it if I tried.”

“Well, why would you want to forget?” A moment after she makes a face; she understands. “We’ll make more and more memories. Here, if you want. We ought to come in April. The humpbacks will be on the move then, and since they aren’t as shy about their voices as other whales, you might be able to hear them sing. And the sperm whales too, oh, they’re the most superb beatboxers… It’s been a while since I heard them. They don’t come close to shore so often, anymore. They don’t think these beaches are safe from hunters.”  She sighs. “Humans ruin so much. Imagine what they could do if they fought for us. Not against us.” She stares hard at Ashitaka. “Look, you need to tell your people to stop hurting my friends, all right?”

“I will. But they aren’t my people, San.”

She raises an eyebrow, but drops the subject for once. “You do your best, anyway. It can’t hurt. It can’t. It can only get better from here.”

--

From the nightbound drizzle they shelter under a beetling combe. Each raindrop transforms into a sapphire upon contact with the sea before rippling across the surface in brilliant blue roundels, watery growth rings of subsumption. Enrapt, they don’t sleep till it clears. It’s too late then to begin the journey back, so they ready a bed of leaves and furs, though neither of them feel sleepy. After all the nights are so short now.

Ashitaka’s already pillowed his head on San’s thighs, the both of them half-asleep, when blue silhouettes of light surf the waves: dolphins dancing in the multifaceted beryl of the sea, throwing from their flukes and fins fountains of foam like flowers of summersweet, andromeda, mimosa, sky-full-of-stars. Then these glowing blue quilts come toddling out of the sea. Turtles, Ashitaka concludes, upon a harder blink. Or maybe he’s dreaming again. His head hits limestone after San jolts from under him. He can’t be dreaming.

“You don’t want to miss this!” San says, dashing back as if she’s forgotten something important. She seizes his hand and jerks it forward. They skirt the periphery of the turtle and stalk her from behind.

“What’s happening?” Ashitaka asks, groggy.

“She’s going to lay her eggs.” When the turtle starts digging her nest, San lies flat on her belly and rests her chin over her folded hands, relaxed. “Amazing. I could watch all night long. In fact, I will be. Feel free to sleep.”

“Then I’ll watch, too.”

“It’ll take a while.”

“Everything worth the effort does.” Ashitaka smiles. He gets down on the sand too, to lie abreast San. By soft blue life-light they meditate together on the painstaking measures the mother-to-be takes to keep her offspring safe. Ashitaka almost tries to help her dig a few times, but San bars him with an arm before he ever verbalises what he plans. When the eggs—jewels, really—are at last laid, they count them till they reach the grand total of 99.

As the turtle begins to hide the nest, San hums, “I wonder if she’s really ten thousand years old.”

She doesn’t expect to be answered by, “How rude! You should never ask a lady her age.”

San blinks in bewilderment. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you could hear me, out of the water.”

“Well, let this be a lesson to you young rascals.” She harrumphs, and begins to waddle away. “I am only two thousand years old.”

“My mistake. You just struck me as much wiser beyond your years. My mate thinks so too.” San elbows Ashitaka and winks at him. He mhms. “Also, your shell is very beautiful.” She goes on to say something about such symmetry! Such shine! and tops it off with, “Thank you for letting us watch you nest.”

“Oh, yes,” Ashitaka adds, “that was quite the honour. We hope the hatchlings grow up strong and healthy.”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I came on the dragon’s recommendation. Ideal conditions, he said. No risk, he said. Great eating, he said. A survival rate of one to ten! Bah! It’s too good to be true! He mentioned two perfectly harmless landlubbers, one man and a she-wolf, but all I see are two good-for-nothings who would wage war against my dignity. I am not such an exhibitionist to enjoy being watched while I lay!” She narrows her eyes to cattish slits. “Oh, you’re lucky I’m so gracious.”

“You could have told us?” San says. “To go away. We would respect your wishes.”

“Do you think I would deign to speak to the likes of you!”

San points out, “Um, you’re talking to us now?”

“Why, I ought to—” The turtle’s nostrils flare. She sluggishly cranes her head. “No, no, this is a waste of time,” she mutters, probably to herself, swivels her head, and begins to waddle away.

“Actually,” San says, unperturbed, “you’re headed to the estuary, right?”

“None of your business. And how rude! I’m faster on my flippers in water than you are on your feet in sand. I can manage fine on my own, thank you.”

“Well, if you are, it’s the other way.” The turtle turns, but does not provide the last word. “We’d better leave her alone,” San says, tugging at Ashitaka’s sleeve. She tells the turtle, “Take care!”

“Yes, yes. Stay out of trouble and my way. Oh, don’t look at me like that! Those are one and the same. The dragon will have my head if I make a meal of your toes. But I will, so help me heaven, if I have to deal with you a second longer.”

So they leave her be. The sea becomes solid colour again, dim even as the turtle dives into it, for it is already paling to daylight. Stars say their goodbyes with the hesitation of old friends at the end of a long-awaited reunion. But one by one they fade, hounded by time, till only the sky’s six brightest beside august Venus are left. It begins before long. Light shafts through mist and cloud, casting a wake in which shadows are reborn. And over the horizon steps dawn arrayed in cloth of gold. Then goes breath with the last of the dark.

“I’m glad we stayed up all night,” San says, while they stand hand-in-hand and stare far beyond the rollers, the combers, the breakers, the whitecaps, the skipper’s daughters, where the sun kisses white stars into the sea. “I’m still not sleepy.”

Perhaps it’s something to do with the bathwater, but Ashitaka isn’t either. He isn’t even sad to leave, since their heads are full of plans and promises, their luggage heavier and their hearts lighter, as they journey back through a sea of summer grass: warriors’ nightmares’ survivors. The sweet wind comes to play, too, singing of green while swallow chicks in their nests daydream of beyonds no colour they know. Butterflies imbibe love and nectar to ebriety; they move in starts and stops, swoops and shivers from flower to flower and lover to lover in the shimmering heat. The strange dance is quite inspiriting.

Time blurs. They wake like how they woke at the end or the beginning, among the long heavy grasses, with their limbs wrapped around each other, their robes inside out, unbelted, smelling of flowers and sex. Their skins are dotted with mosquito and love bites all over. They look to each other, and then to the silver sky shot through with veins of gold.

“Oh, how did we get here,” Ashitaka laughs, choking a little on pollen, “I’ll be late.” San kisses him full on the mouth till she runs out of breath. “I’ll be late!”

Her indifference is contagious. That, paired with the length of their days, encourages them to lavish time every few steps they take; they couple over and over, as though the world will end otherwise; they linger at the brow of a mountain overlooking shadows of clouds on the sea; breathing in the mists rolling in from the southern slopes, they pick wolfberries, stain their lips and nails red eating them; she’s naked at some point in the warm rain. She refuses to dress after it clears (“But the wind feels so nice!”), so he holds her close and tight as they bivouac by the blue light of the seawater they’ve bottled, San for Mikan, and Ashitaka for the village children. It’s not enough to stop her from running a fever, so Ashitaka takes a few more luxurious days off work, though he really shouldn’t, spooning her oyaku, oyaki, and manjuu when they return to the lair. Spooning her body too, though San fusses over him getting sick as well and the both of them perishing because they can’t look after each other, only cough themselves to death. But he laughs them both well.

On and off for about a year, he’s been thinking of building a hut, a halfway house between the mountain and the town for times like this. She would be warmer in winter for it. They would have a soft bed to sleep on. He can lend his spot in Tataraba for the people who truly need it. He figures Eboshi still wants for all the help she can get, but she might benefit from his contributing in other ways from time to time. Guerrilla warfare. Foraging. Reconnaissance. Sustainability. Diplomacy.

“Would you like that?” Ashitaka asks San, when her voice returns.

She smiles and turns to him. The stars in her ears twinkle bright, but they are dull against her black, black eyes. “When will you finish it?”

Chapter Text

“Would you like to make love again?” Ashitaka asked San. He made languid wavelike motions up and down her leg.

San blinked. “I’ve never understand what you mean by that. We’ve been ‘making love’ all the time, haven’t we? What is ‘making love’ to you?”

“W-why,” he stammered, “when I insert this—” He put a hand around his penis and pressed a finger against her mons, the soft flesh there dimpling under his finger. “—Here. Well,” he considered again, that finger sliding down, around her clit, and then at last between the inner walls, where he curled it. After he found just the right spot she broke out in squirms and happy squeals. “When I put it in here, specifically. And I suppose, whenever we do everything else that makes you wet and me all stiff.” His cheeks pinked. San doubted it was because of the heat.

“Oh!” San laughed. “So you mean mating! Your way of saying it doesn’t make sense, though. I think making love is when you looked for me in Okkotonushi-sama, and held Shishigami-sama’s head with me, and all the times you took care of me when I was hurt, or sick, or sad, and as I live like a tree blooming in your heart. So you’ve been making love to me all this time, unmaking hate, so that I don’t want to kill you anymore.” She sighed a little. “Sometimes I wish I still wanted to kill you.”

Ashitaka’s breaths quickened a little. “Yes. I suppose that’s right.”

“And,” San continued, “would you love me as much if I never let you touch me?”

His lips began to tremble. San touched them. As a mouthful of peach they were plump and soft, softer than his ears, the skin over the shaft warm within her hand. It would start to grow again, soon enough.

“Yes. I would.”

“What if I never looked at you?” But she was looking at him now. “Not once?”  And she had looked back, that first time.

“Since I saw you first I’ve loved you. I didn’t believe you would return all my feelings... Sometimes I still can’t believe it!”

“Oh.” She began to count the grains of sand on her ankles. “What if you never saw me?”

“I told you. It wouldn’t have mattered. I knew because I felt it. You cut a way through me. And I knew. I didn’t, couldn’t think, but I knew.”

“So that was when the lovemaking began.”

“No.” Ashitaka bent his fingers again. “Well, yes.”

“Which is it?”

“Both?”

“H-humans and their funny ways. You either have your fingers in my vagina or you don’t. Do humans even call it that?”

“We do! But we have many names for it. For instance, the way of your yin.”

That one escaped San totally. She cocked her head. “Where are you going through me? Have you found anything there?”

“Oh, bliss of the most sublime order! Right at the gates of the celestial palace…”

“I see.” (Actually, San didn’t.) She nodded. “Alternatives?”

“Well, they might not be appropriate for feminine ears—”

“Tell me, tell me!” San lunged and landed with her face in his lap.

“But!”

“I’ll bite off your penis if you don’t.” She ringed her teeth around the head. But it was only a threat; she enjoyed this part of him too much to really do away with it. She vaguely remembered that she had proposed such a thing not long ago to wring “prick,” “dick,” and “cock,” out of him, after he had offhandedly mentioned something about the comparatively dull “member.” Or was it “priapus”? Whatever.

Ashitaka’s heels furrowed the sand. “All right. All right! I’ll tell, I’ll tell: gash, hole, muff, minge, q-quim, clunge, cunt! Now—”

Despite his audible terror he had hardened and lengthened into her maw. She gave him a rather experimental kiss, her mouth gliding in the opposite direction of his growth. Would he hit the back of her throat first, or would she reach the head before that?

“Gosh. Let me touch you, too,” Ashitaka said, when San was still busy licking off precome. This would be good. She reclined in glee. Wide-eyed Ashitaka’s hands began at her hips, then closed in on her groin, stroking inward till he got to hair and abundant lubrication that still shone on it. Then he spread her open and framed her clit with the long, thick fingers of one hand, rubbing and squeezing it between them as she drenched him up to the knuckles. Another worked at her opening with his thumb. He smiled dreamily, as though oh so pleased with the knowledge that this was all his fault.

“I like those words,” San said. She tested them.

Ashitaka raised his head a little. This time he lost some colour in his face. Something shimmered at the corner of his parted lips, though he’d yet to kiss her anywhere that might wet them. “Um. I would have thought you would rather have this be referred to as your most splendid, ah… womanhood—”

At once San lurched from his touch. “You’re wrong!” she woofed. “I’m a wolf.

San tried kicking him, but Ashitaka caught her ankle, licked the bone on it, before raising her calf to rest over his shoulder. He edged forward, planting a path of kisses up her leg that led back to her centre. She was well beyond protesting when he took her clit between his fingers again.

“Right,” he said, “I made a mistake.”

She huffed, “No dinner for you tonight.”

He sighed into her thigh, then smiled into her groin. “Ah. Will you be so kind to allow me just a little snack? Perhaps?”

“Uh, wait, I changed my mind, dinner, dinner it is. A banquet. A buffet! All you can eat.” She wriggled closer to encourage him. “You may begin early.”

“As you wish,” Ashitaka said, clapping his hands over his head. “Itadakimasu!” Then he buried his nose in her curls. He nuzzled her clit, breath hot against flesh, before one hand slid up a thigh while the other took her clit between his fingers again, stroking a spring of slick out of her cunt. Cunt. It rolled off the tongue quite well. It rolled off his tongue all the more sweetly. With his mouth he formed a ring of warmth around her clit, above his fingers, which pressed down as he sucked up. Like he did when she bled, he massaged her tummy, made heat heavy in her here and there and everywhere, as he rubbed the surface of his teeth against her clit, played coy with the keen tip of his tongue, then at last lapped her up with the flat of it: sharp, slow, sweet. Every so often he looked up at her, beaming. Those black, black eyes shone like river-polished stones. His moans moved in her, called her closer to him, to climax. Grasping his hand, she threw herself towards that soft, wet, warm mouth; the pressure of his face, his fingers. How sweet and dear the shape of them were.

To keep San in place, Ashitaka steeled his hand in hers against her belly, heating her from the outside in; it had hurt the whole night he’d struck her here, but she was past remembering whether desire had meddled with the ache, a bud then, a bloom now. Want raced from where he was, up and up to her throat, clouded in her head, left her entire body hot and tender for more. She squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back. There was something she wanted to tell him, but she forgot what. All that came to mind was his name. But maybe that was it. She kept on calling him. Ashitaka went a little wild after a while.

Against her cunt his breaths came quick and hot; since his hands were too busy with her to touch himself he ground against the sand, with nothing between it and his cock but the thin cloth of his half-shed robe. Muscles along his arms tensed, fuller the harder he held on, casting new shadows under them. Soon the robe fell off the other shoulder. Then she could admire how all the dark muscle there rippled for her. She smoothed her hands over what she could reach of him; the hardness of each knuckle; calluses; scars, some softer and some rougher than the skin around it, some raised and others depressed; the elasticity of muscle, larger further up; the raised veins that branched up into his corded back. When she got to an underside of elbow she gasped at how soft the place was. The gasp broke into a yelp as his voice came up through her cunt right to her breast, spread from her breast past the edges of her body. Another noise from him, somewhere between a whimper and a growl. Poor Ashitaka. If this were their first session today he’d probably be able to save himself the trouble by thinking himself to climax. Oh, she was getting there too. San slid back down his arm and held onto his hand hard.

“Yes, yes, yes,” San said, to ensure that he would not stop. “Yes. Ashitaka, Ashitaka. Yes! Ah.” And then she couldn’t manage words anymore. There was no stopping all that thrashing, either, but they did their best to hold onto each other, as always, as ever; she mostly clawed at his hair and the hands he still stubbornly used to steady her by the belly and a hip as orgasm overtook her.

“Oh, f—” Ashitaka almost said, but he swallowed the word as quickly as he swallowed her come. He was still jerking his hips into the ground. “San, San, San.” He bathed himself with her fluids, her name, as if it would rid his mouth of filth. He choked on it. She choked on how much power she wielded against him. “If you could see yourself. Beautiful, beautiful. You’re so beautiful.” As she continued to come he gave her a suck greater than any that came before, great enough to sound a smack over the sea, though he usually ate so quietly, like deer do. After he nibbled her a little he swirled his tongue round her clit, gentle, as if he were licking a wound. He did it till she relaxed. Kisses eased her back here, where Ashitaka was staring beauty into her, starry-eyed, as he rested his cheek on the thigh he hugged. “I love you,” he said, through glistening lips. The words popped in her heart; all the better if she never got used to hearing them. “But I am only human. I hurt you.” Ashitaka shut his eyes, as if overwhelmed by brightness, lashes feathering shadows under his lids. They tickled her thighs as he kissed the inside of each one. “I hadn’t thought it through.” He tightened his grip on the fingers she had strung through his. “I’m so sorry.” Now his tongue and mouth were soft around her clit, made her ache for him again, already. “I love you.”

“It matters that you tried,” said San, to see him smile again, his face so like a child’s.

“Tell me how I can do better.”

“Don’t call it a womanhood. Anything but that!”

“All right. I won’t. Never again.”

She could laugh a little now. “Trust humans to come up with so ridiculous an idea!”

“What do you mean?”

“It should be obvious. Even I know that women are more than their vaginas.” But how nice it was to have one, she thought, as he reintroduced delicious fingers to her vagina, curled them at just the right spot, while he did that soft sucking thing on her clit again, this time to the rhythm of his flexes.

“Oh, of course,” he said over her clit, tickling it with breath, “of course. I didn’t think—”

“Concentrate! The vulva! The clitoris! Right here. That’s it. Oh, Ashitaka, y-you know this already.” He didn’t bury his face in her cunt fast enough for her to miss the blush. “Better than aaanyone…” And that redoubled his strength. She helped him, parting her lips with her fingers, till he was bending his in tandem with her contractions.

San said, between pants, “Come here for a bit.” She propped Ashitaka up on her belly, where he laid his warm, heavy head, to listen. She didn’t mind the break; he wasn’t going anywhere. He never would. But once he took his fingers out the ache grew twice as bad, and might’ve been unbearable had he not stilled the callused tips against her clit, so that it would remind them both of where they had left off till they began again. Once, he’d told her this, this beating, was the best way to beguile time to their own keeping. “Ashitaka, I don’t know about you, but I have dreams, and all these fears. Memories, this history of the fights, the failures. The lessons my mother taught me. The same howl as my brothers. My friends’ goodwill. And the nice things you’ve said and done. More. Everything. I keep it all safe in here,” San said, and put a hand over her heart, “because they make me me. I’m not, I’m not my body only; especially not such a small part of it. No one is. It was never your penis that made you a man, either. You were a man long before I met you.”

Ashitaka lifted his head from her belly and lowered it between her thighs. “But I was a ghost, then. You helped me become human again. San, you—”

“Yes! E—even if I’m a woman, I’m wolf too, you see. And it’s not like women are the only ones with vaginas. If I’m not mistaken; I, um, never really surveyed the forest.”

“Might be time for some brainstorming. Let’s start again. From the top.” He twined waves of hair around his glossy fingers.  “Shall I refer to this as our own little forest?”

She giggled. “Oh, that one’s nice. But you can’t wrap a forest around your fingers. Though vines might strangle whatever they can reach.” (Wisteria, wringing beauty from the world in a splendour of summer.)

“Hmmn. How about your wolf fluff?”

“If you want. I kind of like it.” When Ashitaka nudged lower, she told him, “Call it anything but a cave.”

“You said it first,” he laughed into her cunt, “not I.” He traced her opening with his tongue, licked into it.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if you did! I think you called my vagina a ‘valley of solitude’ once. And in the same sentence the glans of your penis was a ‘turtle head’. It looks nothing like one. Ashitaka, have you ever seen a turtle?”

“Um!! It—it wasn’t my idea. I read it somewhere. Truly.”

“I can do better,” San hmphfed. “It’s shaped more like a phallus—you know, the fungus—than a turtle’s head.”

Ashitaka pressed his face into her cunt again. “Oh, San, I…”

“All right, so you don’t like it. You are much bigger and smoother and warmer and nicer. But it’s true that there is a likeness, in the silhouette especially. What matters most of all is that you don’t smell as bad as a stinkhorn. You smell quite—”

In a rush he pinned her to the ground. “Oh, shush,” he half-laughed, covering her body with his warmth and his weight and her mouth under these big long gulping kisses which displaced breath, thought, time. She didn’t mind waiting forever for them to return while he fed her her own come; she surprised herself with how much she liked the taste of it, kissing him till she’d lapped up the last lick of herself in his mouth, till he smacked of sweetwater again. By then his cock was heavy on her belly. “Ah. I forgot to thank you for the meal,” Ashitaka murmured, licking his lips and sucking all of his fingers and hers one by one. Then he was petting her hair back from her forehead as he licked the outline of each tattoo, filled them in with spit, whispering endearments she could barely hear into her brow, her cheeks. “Thank you. It was delicious.”

“A-anytime,” San said, and she could not help but writhe under him, rock her cunt against his cock, just as he could not help but jolt up hard against her clit. His hand shook at her hairline. Never again would it frighten her how powerful his body was, for watching him lose control like this, for her, because of her, thrilled her with the knowledge that such a force was utterly at her mercy. San tried to count all the times she’d come when she was alone but for him in her mind helpless without her, hard wholly for her; but it was a number beyond measure. “I’m starving too,” San said against his lips, licking them as she reached between them for his erection. “Time to fill up the belly.”

Ashitaka stared at her a moment, soft and confused as a lost duckling. Then he smiled, cradled her against him, so they lay on their sides, hip to hip. After he hiked her leg up to sit on his thigh she hooked it around his waist. Ashitaka choked on breath as he came in. A nipple of hers gathered again against his calluses on one palm; her back arched under the scar tissue on the other.

“Ashitaka,” she laughed into his mouth. His breath shaped her name in hers in kind. He kissed her temples, the eyes she closed. She kissed his eyes too, which shivered under her tongue. For a moment she feared he was crying, since he tasted salty, but then she remembered their swim together and the season, the sweat and the seawater. She laved his face for him as he pumped pleasure into her cunt.  Though: “You’re slow. Are you tired?”

“Never with you.” Clouds gathered in her breast, her belly, as he kissed her again and again and again, soft as spring rain. “I want this to last a long time. That’s all. Would you like it faster?”

“I don’t mind,” she said. “This is good, too. Oh. Really nice. But I don’t want you to be tired.” Especially after he’d almost passed out in the bath. So she clutched him, sent all her weight to one side, and pushed forward, laying him flat so that she was mounting him. To these advances he offered no resistance. “Big day tomorrow.”

“Oh, so what’s the plan?”

“There isn’t one. But every day with you is a big day. I have so much fun, when you’re good.” She pressed a thumb to his throat. “Will you be good?”

“Yes,” he rasped. She thumbed his throat as he swallowed. A weight moved through her body, too, down and down, belling into a warmth that settled around his thick cock. “I’ll be on my best behaviour.”

“Good boy, ah. Shit. Ahaha.” Supporting herself on his throat, San began to slide along Ashitaka, so that her clit rubbed against him while his cock kindled her cunt and all her body, every extremity–when she did it right, anyway; he slipped out the once or twice, while she went her fastest, but that was all right, since she stuck him back in straightaway, roughhousing him gleefully till she breasted the summit, crested on his cock, then rolled heartlong down the knoll holding his hand; it was grass grass grass all the way down and wildflowers and the sky wheeling and the earth tumbling as they oned with each other and the flowers and the world when they landed at the foothills, breathtaken, brimful, borderless.

San slumped over him, then, the sun on her back and red behind her eyelids, his body hotter than that under her. As soon as she could move she tried to rub her clit against his cock, but had little control over what her body did after that. “Oh!” She writhed, digging her knees into the sand. “Good, good, good,” she breathed. Unbearable pressure accompanied a boundless pleasure. Her body wasn’t doing what she wanted it to, running from rather than towards what waited beyond, but he knew, so he locked her in his arms and thrust up. Dizzy, dying, she gripped his jaw, his neck, biting her own fingers instead of his lips, because she wanted them to stay on him, so he could kiss her; she braved the heatwaves like so till his come and hers glued their bellies together.

“Thank you,” Ashitaka said into San’s neck. On her throat he planted kisses like flowerfall, dangerous, seeding desire, a weald of want, so that soon she thirsted for him again. She licked his mouth while he said into hers, “Thank you. San, San. I love you. San.”

“Did we make a lot of it just then? Love, I mean.” She nuzzled into his neck. She wished to dig a den for herself in his body and shelter there, but then he bowered her with his arms, and it was perhaps a happier alternative. It reminded her of forever ago, when she partook of afternoon tea with all the other woodland creatures in the oldest tree Eboshi had since then felled; the hollows home to owls, swallows, flying squirrels, and almshouse to any passerby it could fit. They had pooled their fare and shared it, for they been too small to fear her, and she had been too small to be feared. Ashitaka did not fear her. The closeness of his warmth proved that. She would always be safe here. And better yet, welcome. “It’s not like we needed more. I already have so much love for and from you. I don’t know what I’ll do with it!”

Ashitaka cupped her cheeks. She melted in the tar of his eyes. “I love you,” he said, again and again, between wet and indiscriminate kisses he scattered all over her.

“If you say it anymore it’ll run over! I’ll break, I will. Oh,” she said, laughing, breathless, “my chest hurts, Ashitaka.”

“That makes two of us.” He felt for her heart, got it, held it like a mirror might light. “But love is one of the few infinite resources in the world. And this a bottomless vessel. Unlike…” He didn’t say it. “I’m going to make of the best of that. You don’t mind, do you? Here, I’ll say it again. I love you.”

“I love you as well!” she said, fiercely, and in relief, since the language of love was harder borne alone, and her heart loosened and grew a little. “It’s ridiculous. I want to gobble you up just about all the time; and make a den of you; and, and give you the moon. Your happiness happens inside me, too. Ten thousand other things. It’s a lot to bear. Really scary, sometimes. But I’m… glad? In the end. That I love you. Not because of sex, though it helps a little.”

Ashitaka laughed. His chest rippled under her. “See? We’re still in one piece, aren’t we? We’ll live.”

She told him she loved him a couple more times between marks she left on him. “There. Now we’re even.”

Ashitaka frowned. “You don’t owe me. Not these feelings, not anything. Never think that.”

“I don’t.” She delivered smacks and pecks to his face till she could feel him smile. “But I won’t lose!”

He tickled her to reverberating laughter. “Why not call it a tie? Or symbiosis.”

“Mmm! Sounds good,” she said, and she was about to ask about copulatory ties, when his stomach began to growl. She started to shake her head, but ended up nuzzling his throat. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“I guess I’m still a little peckish,” he chuckled. “Will you join me for a bit of afternoon delight?”

“And dinner, too?”

Ashitaka said into her hair, “I thought you said I couldn’t have any.”

“I changed my mind!” She opened her mouth. “Wolves are supposed to be hungry all the time. So I’m going to dig in.”

“Yes. Please do,” he said, and began to graze her lips. “It would be an honour.”

So they did. Afterwards, San fed on a geoduck. For supper Ashitaka had the abalone. Then together they, dream-drenched, licked brine from brack, savoured time as ceaseless as the sea, the sea, the splendid transmigrational sea.