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The Sound of Laughter, the Shape of Truth ( 笑いの音、真実の形)

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It took some doing, but eventually Rakushun managed to pluck a grain of silver out of the drawstring bag. The bag had been full, once, a dangerous parcel to carry on the road regardless of his patronage: now, after six years of correspondence, it was down to a third of its weight. It was still a princely sum, and if Rakushun had ever considered using it for anything but its intended purpose it could go a long way toward lodgings, a kijyuu not borrowed from the palace, all of Ma’s taxes for the next who-knows-how-long. Rare books, even. But the silver, and the correspondence of the seicho to go along with it, had never been so much a gift as a privilege, and Rakushun could never consider it otherwise.

He reached out his paw, let the seicho nip the grain, over the callus that had thickened through the years. The bird chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed, and Rakushun settled down on his hind legs to listen.

“Hello, Rakushun,” Youko’s voice came through loud and clear, the bird’s beak not following her speech at all, as ever. “Congratulations on another signature! Six down, one to go. I have to say, I miss it being--well, not easy, sorry. I know University isn’t easy. But I remember the feeling of having passed a test, and I missed that. I don’t know if there’s a word for that other than easy. It’s not straightforward either. Clear? But, benchmarks. I mean benchmarks. I miss being able to measure progress that way.

“--I’m sorry,” she went on, suddenly, like she’d snapped herself off a tangent, and Rakushun laughed because that was Youko through and through: Ruler of Kei, and still apologizing for her own trains of thought. “I mean, congratulations. I shouldn’t go on about myself like that, and I know that the last signature is usually the hardest to get. But I know you’re well on your way. Which professor are you going to focus on? From what I got from Shouryuu, it won’t be the archery-master.”

Rakushun laughed, rubbed his nose with both paws. Of course Shouryuu told Youko about the fiasco at the archery range this past autumn, because of course Enki told him, never mind how embarrassing it was. They must have run out of things to talk about in five hundred years of companionship. Clearly, the foibles of a bumbling half-rat hick trying to break through University made for good conversation.

Well, no. And it was uncharitable for him to think so, perhaps, however mischievous Shouryuu could be. He probably mentioned it to Youko when last she asked after him. The Royal En simply had more opportunity to visit Youko in Kei, that was all.

Rakushun must have gotten lost in thought, because when he focused on the seicho again, Youko was already through her congratulations and onto her own news. “I’ll be able to visit En soon, I think. Now that things have begun to stabilize in Tai, and some of the burden is off Shouryuu, he’s willing to open the border again. As far as I know this will be an official visit, so Enki should come by with an invitation for you as well. I hope you can make time to come and see everyone. I know how busy school can be. And if you can’t, just say so, and we’ll work something out. I miss you.”

* *

Later that night, when he’d sent the bird on with a message of his own, Rakushun wrote in his diary:

I do not know if there are words in any language as uniquely beautiful as ‘I miss you’. Wonderful, because the person who says them is thinking of you, enough to say so, but there’s guilt, on both sides, because no matter how long it’s been, no matter the reason for your separation, you haven’t been there.

And all told, it had not been that long since he and Youko had seen each other, a year at most. But when had a year become not so long? Perhaps it wouldn’t be so long for Youko, above the clouds, on the registry of the immortals. But Rakushun would turn twenty-eight this winter, and every one of those years had mattered, and would matter.

Shouryuu asked him once, to join the registry. He didn’t have to take a position before his time, of course: there were plenty of opportunities, and in En at least they’d simply accept it as one of Shouryuu’s whims. He went on to say that his council of three deadbeats once suggested that he make every courtesan in his favorite teahouse immortal, if just to save the strain on the treasury. (He didn’t do it, of course: the convenient fiction of Fuukan the Itinerant Swordsman would never hold up.) So surely they wouldn’t mind if he elevated his friend and occasional covert operative, who would certainly be joining the civil service sooner or later.

Rakushun turned him down politely. There were a dozen excuses. There had been, every time the issue was raised. But the one that Rakushun held to in his heart was that if he could not be registered in Kou--or if Kou could not become a place where a hanjyuu could become a civil servant--then it would mean nothing.

He kept writing, brush nestled in the familiar creases in his paw: But to say ‘I miss you’ implies trust, also, that you will eventually come together again, and anxiety that it cannot be soon enough. Perhaps longing carries as much fear with it as hope. Perhaps the two are inextricable.

He had some difficulties getting to sleep that night.

* *

After six years, Rakushun could safely say that he knew the halls of this University, from the street level all the way to the highest enclaves carved into the mountainside. The stairs weren’t designed with hanjyuu in mind, and certainly not hanjyuu of his stature, so Rakushun took the time to learn every possible workaround. There weren’t many, but it still wasn’t a quick study. After several mistakes in scheduling his first season, he learned to pace his seminars out, so as not to worry about missing his meetings simply by taking too long to get from one office to another. After his second season, he took to leaving inkstones and brushkits in each of his classrooms, so he wouldn’t have to carry them or borrow anyone else’s. An expensive provision, surely, but after the gift of Pillow Spider’s notes and textbooks, one he could certainly afford. His third season and a severe reprimand from Kanshi the archery instructor resulted in Rakushun stashing a spare change of human-sized clothes under a brick in the equipment shed, because no, the chestguard was not enough. And of course he knew every creaking stair and every shortcut, and the traffic of the scholars at every bell, and where to go not to get crushed on the way to lunch.

That third provision was about to come in useful.

“What,” Kanshi groused, tapping his foot. “Again?”

“I promise I’ll just be a moment,” Rakushun said, scrambling into the equipment shed. His claws skittered on the bricks as he searched out the one he’d pulled loose three years ago, and again three weeks ago. His clothing was still there, wrapped in a tarp to keep the bugs and dirt off, and he quickly shifted up and started belting them on.

Kanshi pummeled the door, probably with his quiver. “You’re wasting my time, Bun Chou.”

“Sorry!” He closed the robe as best he could, pulled on trousers and stuffed the ends down the front. Covered, at least, and he thought it would be enough to step outside and not anger the professor further, so--right. Shoes. Shoes were always the worst, where did he put those? Right, under the bundle. And he forgot socks, or wore them home last time. It would have to do. So he stuffed his feet into the shoes (why did it always seem like his human feet always got bigger?), held up his pants, and shambled for the door.

“About time,” Kanshi said, and Rakushun bowed. His robes fell open, apparently not tucked tightly enough down his pants, so he grabbed them closed. “Don’t come at all next time, if you’re not going to make an effort.

Rakushun bit the inside of his cheek to swallow whatever squeak of indignation was about to come out. Five years here, and he still hadn’t mastered what almost every other student considered the relaxing, easy discipline. Some even talked about getting a signature for free out of Kanshi, as if it were a thing that could be done. Not so for him, apparently. And Rakushun was about to apologize (again) when he realized that no, he wasn’t alone at the range.

“And this is the physical education center,” someone said from the entrance. A tour, it would seem--it wasn’t uncommon for new students to be led through by aides or more experienced scholars, though a mid-season entrant would have to be special. So Rakushun looked up, and held his robes closed--

“You--shi,” he corrected quickly, for sure enough, that is who Youko stood in the entryway as. Her bright red hair was banded back in a high ponytail, a more masculine style like Shouryuu’s, and while she wasn’t wearing her full armor she was attired like a young man, with cinched sleeves and shin-guards and a short overcoat. Of course she seemed no older to him, but the way she carried herself in men’s clothes had always made her seem more than sixteen, and that was the case now was well, but certainly no onlooker would think her older than twenty. Meiken would have competition for his prodigy title, if she stayed here for long.

But Rakushun wasn’t looking at her for the first time, and saw beyond the disguise. She wore Youshi’s clothes with confidence and the carriage of not only a warrior, but a statesman. Youko had not lowered her head to anyone in six years, and had abolished the custom of prostration in Kei so that she could see the faces of all who regarded her and accept their judgment.

He wondered--and would write, later, in his diary--what she saw in him at that moment.

She looked up at Rakushun--and looking up at him would always be strange for him, no matter how often it happened--and laughed, startled enough to raise a hand to stifle it. That gesture, definitely a holdover from Hourai, was quickly stifled in turn, and she coughed into her fist to mask it, as if it had been a feminine style back where she was born. “Rakushun,” she said, her voice lowered only a little, roughened at the edges. “Sorry. It’s been a long time.”

“Too long,” he agreed, reaching up to rub the scruff of his neck--and then the absence of fur there, coupled with the sudden burst of cold air on his chest, made him fumble to keep his robe closed. Again. His cheeks burned and if the whiskers had been there they’d be flared out in all directions like dandelion fluff. “So, ah--what brings you here?”

For all that everyone at school called him Bun Chou, the Master of Prose, he found himself running out of words.

“Well,” she started, and if his eyes weren’t mistaken her cheeks tinged at least as red as his, “I’ve been considering going back to school, now that I have the time.” And stability, she wasn’t saying, but Rakushun understood her meaning clearly. She’d said as much through the seichou, but somehow he hadn’t read between the lines. “And since I have a choice between En or Kei, I thought I would compare the two before I test in.”

Rakushun opened his mouth to speak, then closed it resolutely, as if his teeth would show his intentions. No, it would be impossible for her to attend University in her own domain: no disguise would hold for long among her own people, and certainly the sage Roushou had already been engaged in tutoring her in the ways of this world. But surely she couldn’t be considering abandoning her people to take classes in En? Then again, she’d offered the excuse more than once before, in her first years as Ruler, of coming to study with Shouryuu. In a way, that would be a logical conclusion. But it took years to get signatures, and regular attendance to pass courses, and camaraderie among the students to get ahead.

“Aren’t you going to introduce your friend, Bun Chou?” Kanshi said, cutting Rakushun off from this increasingly besieged caravan of thought.

“Yes, sorry,” he said. At last he managed to resolutely right his clothes, and extended an arm to present his teacher. “Youshi, this is Professor Kanshi, chair of the archery program. Professor Kanshi, this is Youshi, the taika warrior who helped me get from Kou to En six years ago. Youshi currently serves as an officer in Kei’s army,” he finished, unsure what rank Youko was conferring on herself at the moment, since the polite fiction of Youshi’s existence was a mystery of impropriety and convenience.

Youko bowed, quickly, and Kanshi did the same. “A pleasure to meet you,” she said, and Kanshi responded, “Likewise.”

Rakushun took advantage of their inclination to finally wedge his feet properly into the shoes and tie his belt.

But Kanshi looked up with a grin that was anything but indulgent, then cocked his head at Rakushun while he kept his eyes on Youko. “Maybe you can help me get through to him, as long as you’re here. Are you infantry or archer?”

“I’m skilled with both,” Youko said. “Is Rakushun lacking in anything in particular?”

“Everything in particular,” Kanshi said, which made Rakushun grimace and hang his head, and if his tail had been there it would have twitched. “He’s the most hopeless case I’ve ever had. This is supposed to be a private corrective session, and look how he shows up!”

Rakushun squared his shoulders, met Youko’s eyes and tried to imbue his words with as much meaning as possible. “It’s more than a matter of pride.”

Her eyes caught his--the startling green still, well, startling, arresting, enough to make him feel cracked open all over--and she nodded. “I’ll be glad to help. If Rakushun doesn’t mind, of course.”

“Then get yourself a bow and test us out. If we’re not cutting into your tour, that is.”

“I wanted to see how the school worked. This is a better example than many.”

She smiled, with nothing but a quick pulse of her eyebrow to check if Rakushun was on board. But of course he was, and nodded, and braced himself for an even more complex notion of missing her than he could possibly expect from words alone.

* *

The target was as far away as always, the bow as heavy, the arrow as flimsy and alien. Well, perhaps it was disingenuous to say so: bows, arrows, and targets had held much the same shape for thousands of years, and Rakushun had alternated between two distinct shapes for only twenty-eight, and spent far more time in the other, warmer, more comfortable one. Years ago, Pillow Spider had said that Rakushun’s real education would come from learning his own body. Rakushun, if he was honest with himself, did not agree at all.

But he couldn’t deny, watching Youko with a bow and arrow, that beside her he felt like a complete imbecile, like a child trying to walk with chairs for shoes. Because Youko, even as Youshi, was fluid and natural, even beautiful, inhabiting her body and treating the bow and arrow like they’d always been part of it. She moved like water, sure of her direction, nothing but trust. And he watched, as she readied to shoot, lined the arrow up over her fingers without the slightest trepidation or concern that the arrowhead would scrape her knuckles. Then she drew back, only long enough to pose and hold, and the string was tauter than her muscles. She let the arrow fly, and it took the target just slightly off center, and when Rakushun looked back to her she stood relaxed, bow still in hand.

Kanshi clapped his approval. “If you need to work-study when you come here, you can always help me out.”

Youko laughed, brushed her fringe away from her forehead with her finger-guarded hand. “Thank you. I’ll consider it. Come on, Rakushun--do you mind if I help you?”

For a moment, he pictured it, and his already hot cheeks flared up for want of whiskers. But, “No,” he said, “not at all.”

“Good,” Kanshi said, crossing his arms, “since he needs all the help he can get.”

Rakushun winced, but Youko was already on her way over, and after two short steps (he smiled, and remembered, no, it’s three for me) she settled against his back. Since he’d shifted up, she was half a head shorter, and her breath rustled the back of his neck. “I promise,” she whispered, where hopefully only he could hear, “half of this is my hinman. But he has a point that I think could really help you.”

He nodded, and when she took his wrists to help him into position to shoot, he let her without question.

“Archery is about trust,” she said. “That might be you’re still struggling with it. I...I can completely understand not feeling right in the body you’re in. So you hold yourself back, and look at yourself from the outside, and don’t trust yourself, which means you can’t trust the arrow that’s supposed to be an extension of it. Is that completely off the mark?”

She was still keeping her voice down, even through that, so Rakushun did the same. “I don’t think it’s wrong. We can try it.”

“Okay. So, um. Let me try an easy question.” She lifted his arms, straightened the left so that he held the bow out straight. “How tall are you, like this?”

Sure enough, Rakushun had to think about his answer. And even then, with her right beside him to measure himself against, he had to answer, “I don’t know.”

She nodded, and her hair tickled the back of his neck, just past his collar. “Okay, a different one. How far do your arms stretch out? Is it more or less than your height?”

“Less,” he said, “but I don’t know how much less.” But he followed her train of thought, as easily as he had years ago on the road, when he knew more than she did about the world itself. “But it’s a smaller difference than it is when I’m a rat.”

“Exactly.” He must have lowered the bow, because she righted it for him, guided his arm back into place, stretched out in front of him like a balance--like a tail, he thought, except in front. “I know it’s not the way you’re used to being, and I know that there are...” She trailed off, bothered for a word, but he knew it, and said it, with her.

“Complications.”

“Right,” she agreed. “Complications, to thinking that this form is your real one. It’s not. But they’re both part of you, even if one feels more right than the other.”

He thought of his right arm as a tail instead, held the arrow in it and guided it into place, shifted his balance over his feet with hips that were too high, legs that were too long.

“It moves your center of gravity,” she said. “Like carrying a book on your head.”

He laughed, because honestly, he’d tried that too, when he was small and trying to walk on two legs at all, because that’s what his teachers at the village school said he was supposed to do, supposed to be. He imagined Youko doing the same, in the kaikyaku clothes she’d described to him once, her hair in split buns like a child. And he laughed, since the image was so absurd, but she tugged his arms back into place. Which of course staggered him forward, and pulled her across his back, a chain reaction that wound up with him whacking his nose with the bowstring. That hurt, as much as any other time he’d done it.

“All right, you two, cut it out,” Kanshi said. “Shoot something.”

Youko looked at Rakushun, and burst out snickering, and he couldn’t stop laughing either, not for a while. For all that she said that she relied on him too much, Rakushun felt in that moment that it must go both ways. Her burdens were so much greater than his--a country, a ministry, the expectations and well-being of thousands of people, a world she wasn’t born into--but she still lightened his, for so little in exchange. If a letter or a seicho from her could brighten his day or his week, a visit from her like this, the sight of her smile or the occasionally cavalier ease of her touch...

He blushed. It really had been too long, since this.

Youko was all apologies to Kanshi, but Rakushun still took his time, getting back into a proper stance, trying his best to remember Youko’s guidance. He tried to pull back, be aware of his body, its unfamiliar size, shape, dispersal. He told himself it wasn’t selling out to shortsightedness and propriety, and mostly believed it. And he went through the motions of pulling, aiming, and letting go--and rather than watch the shot he shut his eyes and felt the stretch in his muscles, the components of his stance. Not quite himself, but not not himself either.

“Not bad,” Kanshi said, and Rakushun opened his eyes.

Well, he didn’t hit the target. But he wasn’t so far off as to be embarrassing, and he didn’t snap the arrow this time either.

* *

Rain hit before the sun set, which cut archery practice short but made dinner a somewhat crowded affair. Meiken and Youko had met, of course--he remembered her as Youshi, and introduced her to everyone else so Rakushun didn’t have to. But it still made her the center of attention throughout the meal, and Rakushun held back, not sure how long she could keep up the illusion of not being the Ruler of Kei. It turned out, she easily managed an entire meal, answering in half-truths and awkward stories when the questions became too personal.

Eventually, dinner wound down, and Rakushun found Youko headed back to his rooms with him. He’d shifted down again after practice, so she slowed her pace to match his in the halls, and of course it wasn’t polite to ask where she was staying or whether she had to be getting back any time soon, so he didn’t.

And she followed him into his room. Which was, admittedly, not a mess (except for the paper on his desk which he’d abandoned in haste this morning) but still hardly worthy of her.

“This is nice,” she said, surprisingly enough, as she removed her shoes by the door.

“It’s larger than Ma’s house was in Kou,” Rakushun admitted.

“How is she?”

“She’s doing well, thank you. Winters are easier here, and she’s working at the kaikyaku offices now.” Rakushun thanked Enki and Shouryuu for that a thousand times over, and it still didn’t feel like enough.

“That’s good,” Youko said. She came away from the door, looked around for somewhere to sit and eventually settled on Rakushun’s desk chair, not too far from the desk where Rakushun was trying his best to put the papers into some semblance of order. “Is she living alone?”

“No, with another woman from work. And I come by sometimes but it’s easier to get my work done here.” His whiskers twitched, and there really was no choice but to ask, “Youko...do you need to stay here tonight?”

“I don’t want to impose, but we didn’t exactly get the chance to talk about anything but archery today. Sorry.”

He smiled, sat down on his footstool. “It’s not imposing,” he said. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but the last time they’d shared a room was before she knew precisely what being a hanjyuu meant, and before anyone knew she was the Royal Kei. And sharing a room at an inn was an entirely different prospect than overnighting in his apartment. It would be awkward, certainly, but nothing had to be uncomfortable unless they made it so. “Are you sure?”

She nodded, fiddled with the ends of her ponytail. “I guess it’s like with Shouryuu. There are times when I just want to be myself. Or be something not the Ruler of Kei.”

He laughed. “But you just said the same to me. That’s part of you too, as much as my other form is part of me.”

“I did say that, didn’t I.” She blushed, an entirely different shade of red than her hair, and leaned over, covered her nose with the back of her hand. “Which makes this my other shape, I guess. But it’s hard to think of it that way when neither of those is what I was.” She stopped. “I’m making no sense.”

“I think I got some of it,” he said, charitably. But since she was looking so uncomfortable, so ill-at-ease in his chair and Youshi’s clothes, he thought it best to change the subject, at least for now. “Do you want some tea?”

“Tea would be great.”

And the next few minutes were busy with his miniature stove, and fetching water from the pump downstairs, and making sure that yes, two teacups were clean enough for royalty. Youko took care of getting the water, and brought up enough for a bath as well (when did she get so strong?), so Rakushun knocked on the dorm chaperone’s door and asked to borrow a folding screen so that his guest could have some privacy. So tea came first, and conversation as the rain thickened into a storm, while Youko caught Rakushun up on all the recent advancements at the Kei court, the sort of things that seemed to slip, sometimes, when corresponding through the seicho.

“Shoukei’s doing well too,” Youko said, once the tea in her cup had dwindled down to spinning leaves. Rakushun poured her more. “She’s been going-between the army and the administration. I’ll probably promote her soon. Kantai offered to make her his adjutant, but she’s not sure she wants a military career.”

“Few people are,” Rakushun agreed. “And that could get you in trouble, since she’s still wanted in Kyou.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” Youko folded her hands around the teacup, smiled into it. “You always think so far ahead.”

“It’s nothing special.”

“It is to me,” she said, eyes still down, muddled by the steam from the tea. “Even now, I still feel like I’m stepping from one stone to the next and trying not to fall, and that someday I’ll wind up having to move backward because I couldn’t see far enough.”

“You have people to guide you and help you,” he said. “Just stay above water, and trust them now that you can.”

“You make it sound so easy.”

“I think I’ve had to do that longer than you,” he demurred. It was certainly true: for all that he’d taken the biggest leaps he could in life--short hind legs and all--trusting that Ma and his teachers had the best in mind for him made it easier to go forward, and believing that everyone else around him thought the same way kept him out of anyone else’s path. “From what you’ve told me, Hourai was a fearful country.”

“It was,” she said. “Maybe shame more than fear. Or maybe they’re the same. Being me--like this, or like the Ruler of Kei--both of those people would be unthinkable, there.”

She told him, once, years ago, that for her to put on men’s clothing would have brought shame to her father. That it was unconscionable for her to wish to measure herself against men in any way, and being dutiful and diligent was all that mattered. When Rakushun said he’d never heard of such a thing here, she said they’d reacted the same way in the palace of Kei, and told her that it would be unbecoming for her to wear simpler clothes. She said she couldn’t tell if it was the palace habit of Kei having three queens in a row, and two of them very particular about their appearance, or whether it was a more general perception of queens. Expectations, she’d said, and even the seicho she was speaking through seemed to roll its eyes. I’m fighting everyone else’s as much as my own.

“It’s harder to understand people when you don’t understand yourself,” Rakushun said, quietly, carefully working the words around the rim of his teacup.

Youko burst out laughing, scrunched up her nose at him. “Says the man who can’t figure himself out enough to fire an arrow.”

He sighed, but there was laughter in that too, a bright thread impossible to ignore. “Your point. But I’m working on it.”

“I know.” She sipped her tea again, and her lips lingered on the edge of the cup. Rakushun tried not to stare. “And after,” she started, but trailed off, shook her head, set the cup down on the tray. “After you finish here, do you know where you want to serve?”

It was as close as Youko had ever gotten, to outright asking him which kingdom he belonged to. As if she’d waited, held off on this question for years--which she almost certainly had, come to think of it. Shouryuu had always been more forward in his insinuations, and who could blame him? Rakushun was as good as a citizen of En. As a hanjyuu, he had no passport in Kou. All of his documentation was in En, his residency, his experience, the six signatures that marked him an advancing scholar. And his supplementary work had always been for En’s good, but then En’s good was Kou’s good too, and Kei’s, and Ryuu’s and Tai’s and the world’s, and Rakushun had never thought of his favors to his friends as service to the State, even if, now more than ever, his friends were the State.

“I don’t want to take you from En if that’s where you want to be,” she went on, hiding behind her bangs. “We all owe so much to Shouryuu, so I understand. But...well. Consider this my offer. I would love to have you with me. In Kei,” she added, quickly, as if--well. There was more to her point, wasn’t there.

A hot frisson like static rustled all of Rakushun’s fur, from the tip of his tail to the back of his neck.

“You said, once, that you’d like to see what kind of kingdom I would build,” she said. “And I want to build one where you’ll feel comfortable and safe, no matter how you see yourself, or how you show yourself to other people. I want it to be a place where no one looks down on anyone except to give them a hand up. And I’m working for that, but there’s still so much I don’t understand, not just about government but history, and people, and how people live. And you see so much, and know so much, and I want you to show me too. That’s--well, it’s not all, but it’s a lot of it.”

Rakushun smiled, pressed the pads of his forepaws into the cup. “I understand. And I’ve thought about it, I promise. But can I ask you a question first?”

“Of course.”

“You’re here as Youko now, not as the Ruler of Kei?”

“Well, that’s not a question, really. But, yes.”

“You never have to ask me if I’ll help you, Youko. With anything. I always will. And I you know that if you come to me with something specific I can do for Kei, I’ll do that too. But a ministerial position is more than that. Is that why you’re asking me now?”

She nodded, but didn’t lift her head after the last drop. “That’s part of it. The rest...”

The rest, she didn’t, or couldn’t, say.

The bathwater steamed on the hearth, almost whistling, and she got up to deal with it, struggle with the tongs. “I hope I don’t scald,” she said, “I’m sorry I left it on too long.”

“It’s fine,” Rakushun said, and let the rest rest, for now.

* *

She bathed on the other side of the folding screen, Youshi’s clothes draped over the top, and Rakushun tried as hard as he could to get a few more paragraphs of writing done. He scraped the ink, poised his brush over the page, listened to the rain drum on his window. But his paws shook, and when he glanced down the page was full of little blots, stippling the paper like sweat.

There hadn’t been many times in their acquaintance when Youko had kept something from him, deliberately. There had only been one, come to think of it, and the circumstances had been dire, that chaos of that battle outside the gates of Agan. Of course she’d desert him, for her own safety, and of course she’d be ashamed that she’d be so calculating, but that fear and desperation was the only secret she ever kept from him, until now. And the only thing he ever kept from her was his human form, and that was more circumstance than anything else. He hadn’t exactly brought clothes on the road, when they set out to En in the first place.

But this, this trepidation and awkwardness permeating the room like steam--this was another secret, and one that might never be confessed over letters and birds and voices.

He glanced down at his diary, remembered the words he’d committed to it. Perhaps longing carries as much fear with it as hope.

Longing, he thought, and turned to the screen. He couldn’t see trough it, of course, and if he could it wouldn’t be proper to look, but he remembered that first night in Ma’s house, the night at the inn when she washed the dye out of her hair, the day she embraced him in the street and didn’t know what it meant. And the day he needed to touch her, needed to reassure her that yes, she was worthy, yes, she could create a realm that was safe and strong, but no, don’t turn around, don’t look, just let me touch you and reach you.

Six years, and they’d never held each other face-to-face, with bodies the same shape.

He pushed back his desk chair, and stood, and went to his chest of drawers. Surely he had at least one nightshirt in there.

She called over the folding screen, “Rakushun? Is everything all right?”

“Yes,” he said, “sorry,” and found what he was looking for, then took the shirt out, shifted up, and pulled it over his head. Clothes were always strange, but somehow the silk felt even stranger tonight, cool and prickling against his skin. He had no fur like this, of course, but the hair on his arms and thighs seemed to prickle, but not because of the cold. If anything, the entire room felt warmer, but he still wanted to keep his arms around his chest, curl in on himself until this body felt like his again.

It might, soon. He hoped, and shut his eyes and pictured it, still too nervous to speak.

He reached into the chest for another shirt, nicer than his, and took it to the screen. “Here,” he said, and handed it around the side, careful not to snoop, “so you don’t have to sleep in your clothes.”

Her breath caught, or maybe that was just a shift in the water. “Rakushun?”

“Is something wrong?” he asked this time. Maybe he shouldn’t have shifted, not if his paws--hands, he reminded himself--were going to shake like this. Not if he now had this much more space for his heart to pound blood through. Not if he had no fur to hide the heat of his skin behind.

“No,” she said, barely a whisper. Not at all.

She took his hand, not the shirt. And he barely had a moment to feel it before she pulled him behind the screen.

She still stood in the tub, dripping wet, but he didn’t get a chance to look at much before she drew him close. He held on, one arm and the spare shirt still crushed between them, but he wrapped the other around her back, and she did the same. It was strange, strange as always, to be taller, but they fit so perfectly like this, her chin perched on his shoulder, soaking through his clothes and so warm it might as well be skin-to-skin. Her breath stuttered against his throat, but he couldn’t breathe at all. His shins knocked against the tub and he realized that he was pulling himself closer, holding her tighter. And her hand came up into his hair, tilted him closer, and somehow they fit even better.

“Sorry,” she said, as if there was anything to apologize for.

He shook his head, smiled. This felt right too, as right as anything else about being with her. “I’d wondered if this was what you meant, by wanting me in Kei.”

“It’s not! I mean--” she cut herself off, but didn’t pull back, didn’t bristle even though she blushed through the sheen of the hot water. “I still don’t know either.”

He nodded, brushed his forehead against hers. Her hair, still wet, clung to his cheek, but he didn’t push it away. “Neither do I. But I do, um. I do think about it. And that’s one of the reasons I can’t say yes, just yet.”

Her hand tightened on his, and he dropped the shirt, fumbled to catch it before it hit the water--and, well, didn’t succeed. But she laughed, and stepped out of the bath, and he turned away while she bent over to pick the clothing up.

“It’s fine,” she said, while his back was turned. “I understand. I really do. But I don’t think this would be the same as what happened with You-ou.”

“Neither do I. But it’s still--”

“Awkward,” they said together.

Moments passed, while she wrung out the shirt, and Rakushun tilted back on his heels, unsure of his balance.

When she coughed, and said he could turn around again, she’d put on the shirt. It was damp, but not soaked through, and hung too long on her, past her knees and heavy on her arms. But she didn’t look uncomfortable, and he found, for a moment, that he didn’t feel out of place either.

“I’m not saying no,” he clarified, and the heat in his cheeks was almost paralyzing, but he moistened his lips and kept going. “But I can’t say yes. Not yet.”

She nodded too, looked up at the end, her cheeks still flushed a solid pink, like scars. “So, um. Should I get the futon?”

It took him a moment to understand her meaning. “--oh! No, I meant about Kei.”

Oh.

“--though I mean it about tonight too. We probably shouldn’t--I mean, I never have, and the walls here are a little thin so I’ve heard some of the others get rankled about it, and--well, everyone knows you’re here so if you come back I don’t want them to assume--”

“Rakushun,” she said, much more steady than he felt. It wasn’t the voice of a queen to be obeyed, but it wasn’t a nervous teenager either, not completely. “It’s okay. But--”

“--We can share the bed,” he said. “I’ve never slept in it like this either.”

She smiled, and took his hand again, and held it until they were lying down, fitted side by side.

* *

The following morning, he showed up to archery practice with a change of clothes bundled onto his back, and a letter of intent curled in his paw.

Kanshi raised his eyebrows, and was probably about to launch into some well-deserved derision when Rakushun passed him the letter and said, “Professor Kanshi, I want you to be my seventh signature. Don’t go easy on me, all right?”

For the first time in Rakushun’s tenure at this school, Kanshi looked down on him with pride. “About time,” he said. “Now get dressed. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

Yes, Rakushun thought, I do, but less than I did yesterday.

* *