Koharu came home from classes one icy winter evening to find the genkan full of old-fashioned leather boots and the house tense with raised voices. She slipped upstairs as quietly as she could; Belo was sitting cross-legged on her bed trying to read her old calculus textbook, bottom lip sticking out stubbornly.
"Here," Koharu said, digging a tube of Marble Choco out of her bag and tossing it to him. "I already ate half. The sticker should still be in there, though." She piled her coat and bag on the desk chair and dropped down next to Belo. Sometimes she wanted to pet him like Eitaro, but she knew she hated that kind of thing when she was a kid. "What's everyone fighting about?"
"Grown-up stuff," Belo said, spilling the candies out and choosing the pink ones to eat first. "It's boring and I don't need to know anyway, is what Miss Hidemi said. But I'm older than her, aren't I?" He shook the tube until the sticker fell out, and squinted at the picture of rainbow-colored animals at a fairground.
"She's just like that. She's like Natsume, she wants to protect you guys. Only her skillset runs more to coddling and spoiling." Koharu clapped a hand on Belo's shoulder. She thought she understood how Hidemi felt: even if Belo wasn't human, even if he bled green and was unkillable, she had still let a child stand between herself and a gang with guns. No one should shoot children, ever, not even yokai children, but they had; and not one cowering human had tried to stop them aside from Detective Natsume. That guilt made Hidemi fuss like a mother hen. Koharu just got angry. "You want to come down with me? We'll make them tell us what's going on."
"Bem was crying," Belo said. "They were talking about me."
"So let's go kick them in the head." Belo grinned. His baby teeth were weirdly adorable. "Put the chocolate away for later."
Belo held her hand as he skipped down the stairs, dragging her into the parlor, where everyone had fallen silent at their approach. Bela, Hidemi, and granddad all looked up; Bem was staring resolutely at the floor. He had a blood-stained towel pressed to his cheek.
"Are you guys fighting for real?" Koharu raised her eyebrows at Bela – she had expected cutting words, not bloodshed. Bela grimaced in reply, raking her hair back with her fingers in exasperation. It was still a bit of a shock to see the patch of rough inhuman skin framing her face after Bela had kept it hidden for so long. Koharu wondered what it felt like: soft, like snakeskin, or rough, like tree bark.
"I was showing the professor how that one," Bela said, jerking her chin at Bem, "got himself fucked up in the fight with Sayuri."
"Children present," Hidemi sing-songed, and shifted over on her zabuton. "Sit with me, Belo?"
Belo complied, and she put her arm around him, pulling him into a sideways hug.
"It's true, though," Bem said. He lowered the hand holding the towel, showing two parallel scratches down his cheek which welled up with green blood as Koharu watched. As if he'd been in a fight with a cat – or as if Bela had raked her nails down his face, more likely. "Something like this takes a day or two to heal now."
"The creature Sayuri turned into was inside him." Bela made a gesture with her hands that looked dirty enough that Koharu had to hold back a laugh. "That green slime went from tears, to plants, to Sayuri, to Bem."
"Similar to the transmission of an infectious disease," granddad announced, as if that was the truly fascinating part of the story.
Koharu sighed, and looked at Bem. "Do you feel evil now?"
Bem flinched, and Bela clicked her tongue, as if she thought he was being unspeakably stupid.
"No," he said slowly, pressing the towel to the cuts again. "Not that I can tell. But that was the same for everyone that slime affected. Their feelings didn't change. They just..."
"Acted on desires instead of locking them away," Hidemi cut in, with a decisive nod. She rubbed Belo's shoulder, and he leaned into her side, as if she could protect him. "Haven't you had enough practice not getting carried away by emotion?"
"Right?" Bela slapped her palm down on the table decisively. "So. Old man Wakui's dying, and Bem and Belo are going to take care of him." She shot Koharu an exasperated look. "Wakui lied to someone, or bribed them, and now Bem and I are on his family register. Who waits until they're doddering to put children on a bucket list, is what I don't get. The Professor wants to experiment with the green plants, see if they can turn us human, and I volunteer to stay here for that. It's settled."
"Koharu can help – she's studying biology, you know. And there's room in this house for a guest," granddad added, as confident as if everyone'd approved of his crazy ideas already.
Bela shook her head immediately. "Appreciated, but no. If the plants work, we'll be human the rest of our lives, right? Bem and I will need jobs, and a rice cooker to make Belo obento, and our own home. It's time to come out of the shadows."
Granddad clapped his fist into his palm, like he was playing catch. "I can get you a job, then. You know something about plants, don't you?"
For some reason, Bela looked to Koharu, as if she should be the one to decide if this was too much help to accept. Koharu took a breath and let it out. "I'll get you guys a good cell phone plan, to talk to Belo every night before bed. So he doesn't get lonely."
"Just for a while," Bem said, as if he was ashamed. "I don't like to ask this of you, Bela."
Bela sighed loudly through her nose. "Idiot. I'm offering. And look, we have friends. I'll be fine." She smiled like she knew a good secret. "So just tell our old man not to kick it till I get there."
"This place is a dump," Koharu said without thinking when Bela showed her into her new apartment. Bela was a bad influence; before meeting her all the mean, rude, and selfish things in Koharu's head had stayed bottled up there. Now, she was getting a reputation for being blunt-spoken, and she didn't even mind.
"It's cheap," Bela said, looking around with satisfaction. "I've been in worse."
"Yeah, but that was like, caves and abandoned shrines, right? Hardcore." Koharu flapped a hand to indicate the worn tatami, the crumbling mud-plaster walls, and the shabby dark kitchen. Normally on her weekends she lazed about at home, but when Bela had asked her over she'd been curious, and admittedly wrong. She'd thought Bela'd be a lot more gothic in her decorating, but this was worse than her school friends' one-room apartments. The curtains weren't black or velvet – there simply weren't any, and that starkness was reflected everywhere. "I bet the bath is gross."
"The rain doesn't get in, and there aren't weasels or tanuki to fight with for food." Bela opened the tiny refrigerator and took out a saucepan. "You want tea?"
Koharu crossed her arms. "Not if it's weird grass tea. That kind of thing's just going to make you sick, now that granddad's got you taking the green stuff. Your body won't heal if you poison yourself."
"It's storebought," Bela said shortly, and dipped a cup in the pan to fill it, wiping it on her sleeve before shoving it at Koharu. "Go sit down at the table."
"Kotatsu," Koharu corrected, but sat anyway. She sniffed the tea, and then took a miniscule sip. It seemed like normal barley tea. Probably it wouldn't kill her. "Hidemi gave you these zabuton, didn't she?" They looked just like a spare set that had been in the storage room for ages.
"Bem says I can't let my pride get in the way." Bela filled her own cup and sat down with her back to the wall, looking out at the balcony and the empty laundry poles there. "He says we'll never really fit in without getting a hell of a lot of help." Her eyebrows pulled down with determination. "This job the professor's referred me to – I want to do it. Humans need money. So how do I not get sent away?"
"Don't call people humans, for starters." Koharu shrugged. "It's an organic farm, so everyone's kind of hippy-dippy and weird anyway. Ask if you don't know how to do something – like, I helped out there one summer and accidentally pulled up a bunch of plants I thought were weeds. It was embarrassing. Oh, and wear real clothes."
Bela pulled the hem of her skirt out to the side and glared down at it. "They're real."
"They're stupid." Koharu dug out her phone and googled; a second later, she thrust the screen towards Bela, who accepted the phone like she worried it'd bite. "You dress like an extra from an NHK serial drama. Hello," she mocked, waving. "I'm time-traveling from the Taisho period." Bela opened her mouth to say something, scathing no doubt, and Koharu raised her voice to talk right over her. "You need to blend in. It's dangerous to look different, because you don't want people to get curious, not if you're going to settle down. Here."
She shifted over to grab her phone back and looked up work-clothes. Bela studied the pictures, scrolling down gingerly. She still looked angry, but Koharu knew by now that most of Bela's emotions looked and sounded like anger.
"I can pay," she offered. "I have a credit card." It wasn't like her parents paid any attention to what she bought, anyway.
Bela huffed out a sigh. "The professor loaned me money already. It's just that... any place we can't run from easily is a trap. What if Belo changed on a train? There's no way to get off, no place to hide, and hundreds of human witnesses. There's so much we don't know that mistakes are inevitable, and then people start watching, trying to figure out exactly what's wrong with us. If you've never been invited into a house, how do you know to take your shoes off? That kind of thing." She pushed her hair back in irritation. "We stay away from shops. I – " she stared hard at Koharu – "am not comfortable in shops."
So what was Koharu supposed to be, her personal shopper, like a servant? Screw that. She tossed back her tea and stood decisively. "You can borrow some of my clothes so you don't stick out, and then we'll go hit up Uniqlo."
"You're short," Bela pointed out, pushing to her feet. She put her hand on the top of Koharu's head, as if measuring her. "Even shorter than Bem. I'd definitely stick out in anything of yours."
"And now," Koharu said singsong, stepping out of Bela's reach, "you have to buy me lunch in return for my help. Which you totally need, by the way."
"Shut up," Bela said, but a small pleased smile made the words come out fondly.
In the end, Bela ended up with two identical pairs of generic jeans, four shirts, and a ton of underwear, because no one, in Koharu's opinion, should wear bloomers unless cosplay or Lolita fashion was involved. Giving Bela stuff to try on was kind of fun, because it annoyed her so much, but Koharu wasn't much of a shopper, and she kind of suspected that without whatever dosage of green stuff granddad had Bela on, the clothes that had been too tight, too short, too long, and too revealing might have ended up shredded in a fit of super-human irritation. Not to mention that Bela had obviously been nervous at the register, and had tried to pay with a thousand note instead of a ten thousand.
"Hey," Koharu said, and took one of the shopping bags as they turned left out of the shop. She could be nice occasionally. "The weather's good. You want to hit up the bakery and eat in the park?"
Bela shrugged, starting to reach up automatically to check that her hair was covering her face before checking herself. The scaled skin over her temple had faded – not entirely gone, but now it looked more like a scar than an alien irruption. Koharu had taped a bandage over the area anyway before they headed out, just in case, and Bela had nodded in approval and pulled her hair back into a ponytail.
Koharu supposed that breaking decades' worth of survival habits was going to take time. She hoped the experiments with the green stuff worked. Granddad always seemed a bit sad when Bela reported back on the effects of the concoctions he mixed up; Koharu got the impression that he felt guilty for messing with Ogata Shinsaku's creations. If there was a mythical ivory tower where no research had terrible real-world applications, granddad would be happy moving in and continuing Shinsaku's work. But knowing knowing how the world had treated the yokai, he knew giving them humanity was humane and justified, no matter his own regrets.
Bela and Bem – even Belo – were brave, not just when fighting bad guys, but also... doing simple things like this, walking in the sun instead of running away or hiding. Koharu wanted to be brave, herself, one day. For today, her bravery involved sitting on the cold ground under trees in full bloom, watching the wind shake petals down into Bela's hair, and fighting over who got to eat which sandwich. (Bela won at rock-scissors-paper – because she had a bad habit of putting her hand out after her opponent – but she still let Koharu have the egg salad.)
Koharu's department head asked her to work on his pet project over the summer break, so instead of getting a part-time job or napping under the air conditioner, she spent every day up to her eyeballs in Poaceae pollens. When she slept she dreamed about wind and growth patterns, and she somehow worked grain sizes into every single conversation.
She suspected that she'd been asked to join the project partly because of granddad's influence and reputation, but mostly because she wasn't allergic to anything. She was tough that way: she'd gotten an award for never missing a day of high school, not even succumbing when influenza went around. Combined with the way nothing grossed her out, people tended to assume she was pretty cold, or at least unsympathetic. Which, to be fair, she probably was.
She did regret not having more chances to see Bela, though. She'd taught her to text on her new phone, so they kept in touch, but the overlap of free time between Koharu's research and Bela's job wasn't much. They'd gone to karaoke a couple of times – Bela was surprisingly good at singing Showa oldies – and hung out by the waterfront, but the less they saw of each other the more tongue-tied Koharu got, which made her frustrated and short-tempered. She'd catch herself telling Bela about collecting pollen and wonder what was wrong with her.
Maybe, she thought, she just wasn't cut out to have close friends. Some people were like that.
Coming home from the university one afternoon she found Hidemi on her knees in the hallway, scrubbing bloodstains off the floor. Red blood, that smelled like iron, which made Koharu run in a panic back to the sunroom which was now doing duty as a greenhouse cum laboratory.
Granddad gave her a sharp stare that made her freeze in the doorway. "Fortunately, her blood doesn't eat through metal now," he said, indicating the IV that was set up, the needle taped to Bela's arm. Bela was stretched out unconscious on the narrow hospital bed, and bloody, like she'd been in a terrible accident. "I'm sorry," granddad said. There was exhaustion on his face, and worry lines, and he was wearing two pairs of reading glasses. "Too high a dose, obviously. I should have – " He shook his head, and Koharu pictured him spending hours poring over his data, redoing all his calculations, trying to find where the numbers had been interpreted wrong, his own human error.
"I'll get some towels," Koharu said, because the work he was doing was over her head, but she knew how to be practical. One day she'd make a good mad scientist – it ran in the family – but today that wasn't what she could do, or was needed for.
She cleaned Bela's face and hands, and was wondering whether she could change the sheets on the cot if Hidemi helped, when Bela curled to the side to throw up blood again.
The whole night passed like that. Koharu was aware of granddad trying to get Bela's fever down and Hidemi taking away soiled linens and replacing them with clean, but she was overwhelmed by the sudden tangible realization that the success of this whole experiment would be death – that like Urashima Taro, they were breaking open the treasure chest Bem, Bela, and Belo had as their only birthright, and eventually age would claim them. Koharu was selfish: she didn't want to live in a world without the people she cared about – her family, her friends.
Bela stayed over for three days, too sick to go home; when her fever finally broke, there was a green tinge creeping back into her blood, but granddad seemed to think that was worthwhile information to have. Bela thought otherwise; when Koharu brought her breakfast, Hidemi having finally been persuaded to go rest, Bela looked at her with appeal in her sunken bloodshot eyes and rasped out, "I don't want to do this any more."
Koharu was cranky from lack of sleep and worry. She said, "Do what you want, I don't care. But eat your damn porridge first."
Bela's expression turned into a glare, but she let Koharu feed her, and slept for a straight five hours afterwards. When she woke again, she demanded to know if they'd told Bem. Koharu told her that of course they had, and as soon as Bela let her wash her hair they'd Skype to show Belo that she was still alive and kicking.
Bela nodded, and said she was ready for her bath now.
An hour later, Bela was seated in front of granddad's computer, wearing a clean yukata and with her hair in a thick braid over her shoulder. She was still pale and shaky, but she had presence again, smirking as the call went through and Belo's face filled the screen.
"You were sick," Belo announced, as if maybe Bela didn't know that. "Bem wouldn't let me see you."
"We were told we didn't need to come," Bem corrected, tugging Belo back away from the phone until he could peer over Belo's head. Neither of them were hiding their horns, and Koharu wished she could take a screenshot – so adorable, so unbelievable. "You don't look well."
"Ugh." Bela pulled a face at the computer screen that made Belo grin ear to ear. "You really drive me crazy. I'm fine. This isn't that bad. I got to sleep in a real bed, just like what I imagined a hotel would be like, complete with room service. So stop worrying."
"Your face is thinner," Bem said, and Bela made another disgusted noise. "If this doesn't work, it's okay. We've survived this far just fine."
"I don't want to survive," Bela snapped back. "I want to live. You want Belo to go back to eating weeds instead of hot rice?"
Bem looked like he wanted to argue more, but he had to make do with a fairly ineffectual glare so as not to upset Belo. Bela laughed at him, and asked Belo if he had any friends yet. Belo told her that he'd gone with Bem to the library and made his own card, and now he could bring books home. As many as he wanted, he informed her, wide-eyed, and told her he was reading about pill bugs now, and he was planning on catching some and keeping them as pets.
"There now, Bem." Bela patted the monitor as if Belo had just proved her right. "That will give you something worth worrying about. Don't let him borrow books about snakes or tigers."
Belo announced that he was absolutely going to read about tigers next, and he looked proud of himself for making Bela laugh. He told her about the meteors he was staying up all night to watch for, and Bem answered questions about Mr Wakui's (extremely bad) health. Bela listened with her head cocked to the side in a way that made Koharu think suddenly that even though she never complained, Bela must be lonely, separated from her family.
But still, when Belo's stomach rumbled, Bela was quick to say, "Well, go eat then," and end the call.
Koharu leaned around Bela to turn the computer off. "You told me you wanted to quit," she said, making sure not to meet Bela's eyes. "You said you'd had enough. So were you lying to me or to Bem?"
"I never lie," Bela said. "But I think I understand what the man in the hat did, now." She pitched her voice lower in mimicry. "Why should I have to be the one who suffers? Other people are to blame. I deserve better – I'm owed better." She shrugged, and spoke normally. "Those are the places the evil hooks into, I think. Feeling apart from a world that fucks you over." She clapped her hand to Koharu's shoulder, patting twice. "But you fed me food you made yourself, and you were so rude about it. I'm grateful to you."
Koharu shook her head. "You shouldn't be. I took advantage of you." She clenched her hands tight into fists. "I like girls."
Bela shrugged. "I thought you might." Koharu's heart missed a beat and she must have looked shocked, because Bela went on, "People who have something to hide are good at recognizing other people who are hiding, don't you think?"
Koharu snapped back,"You just have more experience than most," and then scowled at how sulky she sounded. Like a little kid getting into a playground fight.
"Yes," Bela agreed, and this time there was a sharp edge under her amiable tone. "That's true. I've been hiding since before you were born, and the consequences for being caught were always... unpleasant." She rubbed her shoulder, which she still needed to keep covered because her skin was still a little scaly, and gave a Koharu a speculative once-over. "Your family doesn't mind? Or you haven't told them?"
"Not yet," Koharu said. "It's not like I'm in love with anyone, and my parents pay my bills."
"Very pragmatic of you," Bela said, like that was a compliment.
"Mercenary, you mean."
"You're not a different person," Bela said, voice tinged with exasperation. "Are you? You're the same as you've always been – just what I know changed."
Koharu frowned, and crossed her arms. "I became the kind of person who can tell you. I wouldn't have two years ago." She remembered how good it had felt to wash Bela's hair and brush out all the tangles. Bela trusted her, and Koharu liked that. "Back then, I barely understood myself."
"I've never known a human as long as I've known you," Bela said, matter-of-fact. "And Bem and Belo never changed much – well, Bem got sadder, I suppose, but he was always somewhat like that."
"He doesn't seem sad that your dad's dying." Words out of her mouth, Koharu wished them back for being insensitive, but she was off-kilter and couldn't remember how to be polite.
Bela sighed and pushed up from the desk chair, taking the arm Koharu offered for balance. "Because of having my idiot brother take care of him, Wakui's lived longer than the doctors said he would. It's good for Bem to live with the consequences of his actions for once, instead of running away. He likes being useful."
"You're not very nice," Koharu said, unable to hold back a grin and feeling on the edge of giddy laughter. "Do you want cake? Hidemi said there's some in the fridge. We should eat it all. Ruin our appetites for the day."
"I don't like sweet food. You can eat my share."
She was on her third slice of cake – even though she was already full; Bela had dared her – when granddad wandered out with Eitaro perched on his shoulder and wearing his jauntiest pair of checked trousers.
"We've been trying to do the wrong thing," granddad told Bela. He seemed pleased about that, for some reason. "I don't think it's possible to turn you human."
Bela narrowed her eyes at him and said nothing very loudly.
Granddad was cheerfully oblivious to her glare. "We've been trying to make the change permanent, but that much of the green stuff in your body is rejected."
"Violently," Bela agreed dryly.
"But we don't need to keep increasing the dosage." Even Bela and Koharu's combined blank stares weren't enough to dampen his enthusiasm. "It's not a perfect solution, of course, but if you don't mind having to take pills for, well, the rest of your life, we can maintain your human form. Probably." He broke off a piece of cake and fed it to Eitaro. "Like filling a bucket with a hole in the bottom. As long as you keep adding water, it never empties completely."
"You'll have to teach us how to make the medicine ourselves," Bela said. She'd looked disappointed at first, but being compared to a broken bucket had her back to her normal annoyed self. "We'd be fucked if the plants in your greenhouse there all died."
"I can help," Koharu pointed out. "And we – " she gestured between herself and granddad "– won't stop working on a better solution. But even if you only took pills for five years, or ten, that'd still make a huge difference for Belo." Bad analogies aside, she felt enormously relieved. Part of her had been dreading the resumption of the experiment, worried about what Bela would have to go through next, and whether eventually they'd have to torture Bem and Belo in the same way.
"Can you picture him on Coming of Age Day?" Bela asked. "Graduating from school, driving a car." She glanced at Koharu. "I'd do anything to see that. So I'll keep your words of inspiration next to my heart. Eat my damn porridge."
Koharu kicked her under the table; not too hard, just enough to earn a look of outrage. "I hate you so much."
"Girls," granddad said, looking slightly alarmed. Their laughter startled Eitaro into diving inside his cardigan, in a shower of crumbs.
One of the hippy-dippy organic farmers had taken Bela under her wing. Koharu refused to remember her name, no matter how many times Bela reminder her that it was Megumi. She had raised three all-organic kids on home-baked bread and aphorisms, and drove Bela home in her little white pickup truck on the days their shifts ended at the same time. Megumi knew the best places to go garbage-picking, and thanks to her, Bela's apartment had repainted color box shelves in the kitchen and drapes made out of a discarded bedspread.
For the most part, Koharu kept her stupid jealousy to herself, though. She was happy that Bela had made friends and was holding down her job – even getting asked to help with the morning markets in front of Nakamachi Station. Koharu felt a sort of smug satisfaction when Bela managed to overcome the suspicion that possessions were a dangerous indulgence, and was willing to admit that the drapes Megumi made gave Bela's room character (much in the same way granddad's love of plaid and orange gave him character, but still).
Koharu's second-term class schedule gave her a couple of early days, and she invited herself over to Bela's shamelessly, on the pretext of teaching her how to cook real human food. Bela still had an inhuman sense of taste. She disliked most spices and sauces; when Koharu cooked curry, Bela ate hers without roux, and praised the flavor the boiled vegetables and meat gave to the water.
Today Koharu was going to try tofu boiled in konbu stock, with stone parsley. Flavorful, but hopefully not strong enough to overwhelm. She swung by the supermarket on her way home from university, and turned the corner onto Bela's street just as Bela was getting out of Megumi's truck.
Koharu said Nice to see you again and asked after Megumi's kids, and they ended up having a long chat by the side of the road. When Megumi finally declared that she had to run, Koharu was so relieved that she waved until the truck was out of sight.
"You were bored," Bela said, heading for her front door. "You shouldn't have asked all those questions."
"I was trying to be polite," Koharu said. "I don't want your friends to hate me."
"Why?" Bela asked, but Koharu was saved by Bela's phone going off.
The Ge-ge-ge No Kitaro ringtone meant it was Bem, and Koharu hoped he wasn't calling to say his dad had died. Bela tossed her the key and dug her phone out of the bottom of her bag.
"What," Bela snapped. Koharu got the door open, and Bela pushed past her into the kitchen. "Where are you?... Is that all? What a pain – you tell him from me he's a pain in my ass. Go give the phone to Bem, tell him to call Matsuda. Belo, you think you can do that? He'll take Bem to the hospital and fix him, no problem... Can you watch the house while he's gone? Just wait, I'll be there in a couple hours. You need to hang up now." Bela lowered her voice. "You're a good kid, you know."
She hung up and cracked her neck, giving Koharu a wry look. "Bem fell off the roof and broke his leg. Wouldn't be a problem except the professor's been sending him pills – so he has to do this the human way – and we didn't tell Belo, so he thinks Bem's dying. Said Bem's horns were gone, and Bem didn't stand right up. Well. Of course not."
"I don't have classes until Monday," Koharu said, volunteering herself before she'd thought through what she was offering.
But Bela gave her a sharp grateful smile, even as she stripped off her dirty jeans and work jacket and whipped clean clothes out of the dresser. "Good. Can you make the train reservations and tell the professor... what he needs to know, I guess." She yanked a cotton shirt on. "Fuck."
Koharu called Hidemi first, so they had to swing by the house on their dash to the station, to collect a set of copies of the Wakui insurance cards (just in case) and exchange the tofu and vegetables she'd bought for enough onigiri to outft a small army. When they got to the station, the local was just pulling in, and they made the connection to the express at Asatsu easily, dropping into their seats with three minutes to spare.
Bela had taken the window seat, rolling the sunshade up and fiddling with the armrest, and Koharu felt a strong wave of unreality. Trains were as common as anything, and Bela was the most uncommon person Koharu knew; it almost felt as if they shouldn't exist in the same space.
"You don't need to be scared," she said, and Bela half-turned her head in exaggerated astonishment. "I know you don't like being in crowded places."
"I don't like not having an escape route," Bela corrected. "You never know when a situation will turn bad."
Koharu took Bela's hand, weaving their fingers together. Bela's fingernails matched her lipstick, dark like American cherries, but she kept them short now that they didn't break the clippers. Bela rubbed her thumb over the back of Koharu's hand.
"I'll keep you safe," Koharu promised, as though she could.
Bela laughed. "I'm not the one who's going to be on crutches because of my own stupidity. I can take care of myself." She shrugged, as if she wasn't worried at all, but surely she knew... people died sometimes, falling off the roof. And if Bem could break a leg, he could just as easily have cracked his skull or his neck. Or it could just as easily have been Bela, forgetting for one careless moment that she wasn't indestructible any more. "Thanks for coming – I like having you around. I like knowing that you've never run screaming from me or my family. Sometimes I wonder about my other friends, what they'd do if they knew the truth." She yawned. "Wake me up when we get there."
Koharu spent the trip wishing she'd thought to bring a book or a magazine. She didn't want to use up her phone's battery life playing games or reading Twitter, but she kept remembering when she'd first seen Bem, Bela, and Belo as yokai, when they'd used their bodies as a barrier and had been shot so many times. That they should bear so much pain, for no thanks, and to get in return only hatred...
After learning the truth, she'd tried to find out as much as she could about her many-greats uncle Shinsaku, but he'd vanished from records nearly completely. The university he'd worked at and his rented house there had been bombed in the war; his colleagues were long dead, and any papers he'd entrusted with them must have been thrown away decades ago. But Koharu had grown up hearing granddad complain about department funding and grants, and she knew if she went into research herself she'd be at the mercy of the people who controlled the money.
Shinsaku had been working under the dark shadow of war. An experiment which created people who were born as adults who knew language and could reason, unkillable even by bullets... who else but the military would have funded such a thing? And considering Shinsaku had been in the media, his success was an anticipated propaganda victory. Koharu had probably read too many SF comics as a kid: she liked to think that Shinsaku ran away from the university and took his research with him because he fell in love with the idea of becoming a father. But maybe he'd just moved to a secret lab for the safety of the project. Maybe he hadn't been a good person at all; maybe he'd wanted Japan to crush the world into submission with his creations, or maybe he'd had tunnel vision, impassioned with the theory and blind to its applications.
But all he'd left as a way to gauge his intentions were his children, the good and the evil.
That, Koharu supposed, was what it meant to be human, to have the evidence of your life eroded until all that remained was a faint echo down through time, just a tiny amount in the world's account-book in the red or in the black.
A hundred years from now, whatever she chose to do with her life wouldn't be a big deal at all, but still, she felt like she was standing at the top of a cliff, getting ready to throw herself off. Like Bem and the roof.
Koharu was stiff by the time they arrived in Ogawa, having frozen when Bela's head sank onto her shoulder, and she shook Bela awake with more force than was needed. Bela's face was disconcertingly open and worried for a moment, and then her usual bravery settled in as she shot to her feet to pull their bags down from the overhead luggage rack.
Bela rang Bem from the station and repeated everything he said to Koharu, like a relay station. He was home already, she said, and he was fine, he said, and it wasn't serious enough for her to have come all this way.
"Too late now," Bela said, with blithe ruthlessness, and hung up, stalking out to grab a taxi.
Koharu had never been out to the Wakui place before. Bela had said that it was an akiya, uninhabited for a decade, so she expected something out of a horror movie, broken windows and a yard full of weeds. But the taxi pulled up in front of a place that didn't look any different to the other houses up and down the road. The tiny subdivision was hemmed in by rice fields and each house was two-up two-down on a meager plot of land, but forty years ago it had probably seemed luxurious. Clean country air, parks and good schools for the kids, and a bustling shopping arcade in front of the station, even though it was deserted now. The bright promise of a new town.
Bela paid the driver in coins counted out one by one, took his card in case I need to get around, and took Koharu's had to lead her through the rusty garden gate up to the front door, which she unlocked and slid open.
"Tadaima," she called, stepping out of her shoes and marching past the stairs to the kitchen. "Looks like you guys are useless without me after all." Bela glared at Bem as he tried to get up – he was seated at the kitchen table, with his leg in a cast propped up on a chair – and gave him a tight, brisk hug and a kiss to his forehead. "You're such a dumbass," she said, stepping back and rounding on Belo. "And you – when did you get to be such a responsible guy, huh? That was good work. You get a hug, too."
Belo flew into her outstretched arms and clung, bursting into tears and a moment later losing his human form completely. Bela nudged him over towards the table until he was sandwiched between herself and Bem, who got an arm around Belo and soothed him, voice low and steady.
Koharu spotted an apron on a hook by the door and pulled it over her dress, putting the kettle on for tea and setting the onigiri out for supper – keeping her hands busy and trying not to intrude more than she already was. Through the kitchen window she could see laundry flapping on the poles in the garden, so she went out to fold it into the empty basket by the back door. The yokai of Japan were keeping Uniqlo in business, apparently; dedicated to purchasing unmemorable wardrobes in neutral colors. Koharu almost felt guilty, but it wasn't like her sappy sentimentality would do anyone any good. She brought the basket in, and made the tea.
"You don't have to do that," Bem said, trying to get up again and getting Bela's fist pressing down on his shoulder this time. "Bela..."
"She's good at it," Bela said with a shrug. "I'm going to go see the old man. Take him his tea and read a page or two of his latest book. Belo – change back or you'll dribble tea everywhere."
"There's a box of tea cakes on top of the refrigerator," Bem said. That made Belo change back fast, human hands reaching for the box that Bela took down. "Only one before supper."
Belo looked at Bela in appeal, and she dropped him a hugely unsubtle wink as she herded him towards the bedroom, tea tray clenched in her free hand.
"You know Bela doesn't like sweets, right?" Koharu asked, handing Bem his tea and dropping down into the free chair. "She's going to give him hers."
"If only two cakes were enough to ruin his appetite," Bem said ruefully. "Everyone tells me he's a growing boy." He sighed, and shifted awkwardly. "Bela tells me he will be, by this time next year."
"From what I've heard, granddad's pretty much figured out the dosage for the plant gel. One pill every ten days, isn't it?" She looked pointedly at Bem's broken leg.
"More or less. Depending on blood levels and conditions like physical activity and stress." He took a careful sip of tea; like Bela, he still wasn't a good judge of food temperature. ""We'd planned on having Belo turn human first, if it was possible, and then Bela, to take care of him. She said I could do what I wanted, she didn't care. But it turns out, we're doing it backwards because we're both overprotective."
"I could have told you that." From the other room, Belo laughed loud enough to need to be shushed by Bela in an even louder voice. "But even when we know the safe doses for you two, it'll be different for a kid, and again when he's a teenager. Hopefully he won't throw up blood or have convulsions, but you know... it could happen."
Bem nodded, letting his hair fall over his face. He'd dyed it brown, just like dozens of people Koharu saw everyday. Normal, or nearly. "We learn new things every day. Today's lesson: don't fall off roofs." He smiled in self-mockery, and grabbed his crutches, standing before Koharu could threaten him properly. "Can you help with dinner?"
"Bela will strangle me," Koharu said, following him, with her hands ready to steady him if he overbalanced. "Just tell me what to do."
"Bela would never," Bem said. "She likes you."
"Good," Koharu said, shooing him away from the refrigerator. She found fish and greens and tomatoes, and figured she could make a decent – well, edible – meal out of that. "Because I like her too, you know." She tried to copy one of Bela's sterner looks. "Which means I'm on her side, not yours, so sit and eat onigiri and stay out of my way."
Bem stared for a moment, and then laughed so hard he had to prop himself up against the counter. Belo came racing back in, clutching a cake in one hand (just like Eitaro, Koharu thought), and demanded to know what was so funny. Koharu made him sit next to Bem at the table with the tomatoes and a knife, and let the two of them make a wreck of a salad.
Dinner was loud and strange but oddly well-mannered, and Koharu found herself relaxing, almost as if she fit in. Bela was apparently houseproud wherever she was; after eating, under her command every dish was cleaned and tidied away, every speck cleared from the countertop, and the floor swept, especially the corners.
"The kitchen's also the changing room for the bath," Bela explained, and shot Bem an accusatory glare. He looked guilty, and Bela sighed loudly. "Which I'll also clean. Because I don't want our guest to think you live in a pigsty."
Koharu guessed that the house had been a real wreck before Bem moved in, and he'd worked hard to get everything looking as nice as it did now. Even cleaning the gutters and trying to fix the roof tiles, despite not having a safety harness or anything. But he didn't seem bothered by Bela's words; he probably recognized them as a smokescreen for her worry.
After Koharu, Belo, and Bela took their baths (the tub polished to a mirror shine), Bela tossed Bem's set of futons down the stairs to Koharu, who brought them in to the front room, where Bem directed Belo in how to set them up. They made a good assembly line. Mr Wakui's hospital bed took up half of the six-mat front room, so the process was like a game of Tetris, but Belo was excited to get to stay downstairs with Bem, who Bela'd ordered to stay the hell away from the stairs as long as he was in a cast.
"We're having a sleepover," Belo told Mr Wakui. Bem had gone off to try and figure out his own bath (the doctor had advised plastic bags and tape), so Belo didn't think twice about abandoning pillow covers for the tattered notebook on the nightstand. "Is that on the list?"
"Better add it," Mr Wakui said. "And then cross it off." He gestured weakly with one skeletal hand. "Is that Yoshiko?"
"She's upstairs," Belo said, biting his lip as he wrote. He didn't seem to notice that Mr Wakui had dozed off, his evening medications kicking in. "She's going to make breakfast tomorrow. Maybe pancakes."
Koharu realized with a start that Yoshiko was Bela's human name. "Shh," she told Belo, and nodded at the bed. "Why don't you get a book and I'll read you a bedtime story?"
Belo's eyes went round. "I'll read to you," he countered, dashing upstairs – loudly – and then bumping down wearing a school backpack over his pajamas. Inside, he had five library books and a pencil case with three knife-sharpened pencils. Koharu tried to get him to read the picture book about mice, but Belo insisted on reading her an educational book about the secret lives of snails.
Belo was half-asleep but refused to get into bed by himself. Koharu kind of felt bad for Bem when he returned, looking like he'd given up pretending that he wasn't in pain and that a broken leg was hardly an inconvenience at all.
She put her hands on Belo's shoulders like she was asking him to take on a mission. "I'm going to put you in charge, okay?" she said. "Can you keep Bem company so he can get some sleep?" She lowered her voice. "I think he needs a hug."
"Roger, over and out," Belo said, and dove under the covers.
Koharu put his bag at the head of the futon, so no one tripped over it, and escaped amidst a sleepy barrage of good-nights.
Upstairs, the clutter of laundry, toys, and various nature collections – rocks, acorns, hopefully not pill bugs or snails – had been tidied away, and Bela was towel-drying her hair.
"There's only Belo's futon," Bela said, with an apologetic gesture at the bedding set out in the center of the room. "We'll have to share."
"I don't mind," Koharu said, and made Bela turn around so she could brush out her hair. "I hear you're Yoshiko – what's Bem called?"
"Atsushi." Koharu laughed, and then wondered if she shouldn't. "The old man read it in a book. Belo's going to be Ryota once we get him papers. Weird, right? If you really want to drive Bem up the wall, call him Atchan."
"I'll try that tomorrow."
There was an elastic around the hairbrush handle, so Koharu twisted Bela's hair into a long braid to keep it from snarling in the night. Bela turned before Koharu could step back, and kissed her cheek. Koharu wasn't surprised that she looked more belligerent than shy: Bela knew what to do in a fight, but neither of them had the first clue what they were doing now.
"Don't unless you mean it," Koharu said. "Because if I was going to fall in love with anyone, it'd be you."
"Is that meant to scare me off?" Bela raised an eyebrow. "It didn't work."
Koharu framed Bela's face in her hands and leaned up to kiss her the way they did in the comics, and Bela wrapped her arms around her, pulling her close. Koharu wanted to make Bela breathless, but she got lightheaded herself. She could feel heat building under her skin, making her sensitive to every touch, and she wanted –
She wanted privacy, damn it. She broke the kiss and lowered her head to lean against Bela's shoulder. "Your brothers are right below us," she pointed out. "Noise carries."
Bela slid her fingers up into Koharu's hair from the nape of her neck, making her shudder with want. "A year ago, Bem could hear me from across the city if he tried." She slipped out of Koharu's embrace and gestured for her to get into the futon. Koharu did, and Bela clicked the light off, a moment later crawling in under the covers with her and complaining about her cold feet.
In the dark, Koharu curled around Bela, one hand sliding across her breasts by accident, and then again on purpose.
"Do you miss... having those abilities?" Koharu could never decide herself if yokai powers were a blessing or a curse. She hoped Bela didn't feel diminished, but she wouldn't blame her if she did.
"I feel selfish," Bela said after a moment, catching Koharu's hand and holding it still over her heart. "We never wanted to be just monsters, but is it okay to be plain humans?"
"Whatever." Koharu closed her eyes. "Maybe it's selfish to not let other people be the heroes for a change. There's good in the world, if you give it a chance to grow."
"Then I'll be selfish for now," Bela said. Koharu could hear the smile in her voice. "Eat my porridge and damn well like it, as you said."
"You were more romantic," Koharu countered, starting to fall asleep despite herself. "You told me you'd like me forever and ever, practically from the moment we met."
Bela turned and kissed her one more time, slow and thorough, until Koharu was drifting between dream and reality. She thought she heard someone say If I can grow old, I want it to be with you, and felt a rush of sadness and joy. Being human could mean so many terrible things, but it also meant not being alone, having a family, loving and being loved. Koharu held Bela tight, and dreamed of their numbered tomorrows to come.