There is a boundary that separates the living from the dead. It is not meant to be crossed, nor is it meant to be noticed -essentially, it’s there for the sake of silently preventing the two different worlds from clashing. Creatures dwell in both realms; humans and animals in the living, spirits and supernatural in the dead, and the boundary’s there to keep it that way.
But like every other rule that subsists, there exist loopholes. And rules are bound to break, anyway.
i. it begins
“Under no circumstances should you be near the hill, child”, the mothers say, their eyes cold and their grins unkind, “for if you do, the lurking evil shall claim its prize.”
The first thing that comes to Erwin’s mind when he sees the seemingly endless flight of stairs that leads to the top of the hill is shelter. Home is still a few minutes’ journey away, and the downpour doesn't appear to be letting up any time soon. He’s shivering from the chill that comes with having soaked clothes sticking to wet skin, and he’s not particularly in the mood for a scolding, so it’s only natural that seconds later, he finds himself running up the moldy steps, as quickly and carefully as his little feet can take him.
The further he goes, the colder it gets. Erwin counts in his head to keep his mind off the changing ambiance. Exactly forty four steps later, he reaches the end, clutching his knees and breathless.
(Something tells him this cannot be good, that forty four is never a figure you’d want to relate with anything in your life, but he’s lived ten years enough to know that everything is better than his mother’s wrath, so he forges on.)
At the top of the stairs, a faded crimson gate stands tall, looming and ominous, rustlings of nearby branches singing in a melody that borders on welcoming and threatening. And beyond the gate lies a shrine, or at least whatever remains of it.
It isn't fear that overwhelms Erwin when he sees the shrine, with its partly collapsed roof, wooden doors barely hanging off the hinges and frayed knots dangling from the transoms. It isn't dread that engulfs him when he glances at the single stone fox that perches in the compound, grayed with age and crumbling at the edges.
For an ephemeral moment, Erwin forgets about the rain. The thought of shelter leaves his head and he stares at the fox statue that sits alone in the courtyard, raindrops falling on its surface and running down the broken face in continuous streams that flow like tears.
‘It’s cold,’ Erwin’s mind echoes. ‘You must feel so lonely.’
A grumbling thunder resounds in the distance. Erwin flinches a little, dashing to the shrine take cover from the heavy droplets. The floor groans and creaks under his weight, old and abandonment evident in its sounds, like it’s unwilling to bear the burden of a mere mortal. An altar resides in the middle of the pathway -dusty and forsaken- forgotten in the days when everything speaks louder than prayers and deities are but stories passed on by the elders, their believers astray. Erwin stays anyway, despite the unwelcoming air. He takes out a rice ball from his unfinished lunchbox and places it gently on the altar. How long has it been since the last offering, Erwin wonders. A strangely comfortable stillness befalls, and he swings his legs to the rhythm of the folk’s song he hums ever so softly.
When the skies finally clear up hours later, Erwin reluctantly leaves, but a part of his heart is left behind.
He returns to the shrine the next day, and the days after.
ii. he watches
Legend has it that a fox lived in the shrine on the hills to the west, overlooking the village. Inari’s messenger, the fox was once, brave and admired. “O’ great Kitsune, humanity’s hope!” the people chanted, bowing their heads. They prayed when there’s drought and pleaded when there’s flood.
The fox listened and granted their wishes. But when disasters were gone and paddies grew golden, the people put behind the promises they made. Offerings dwindled and prayers lessened. The fox was left alone, no longer deemed useful and a blessing.
The shrine was unspoken of ever since, but the tales lived on.
“He’s here again,” the fox sighs. He leans against the shady maple tree, luscious leaves casting a murky shadow upon his face. His words hang in the humid air unanswered, but the fox knows better; in this forest of dreams and illusions, silence is temporary.
It doesn't take a breath before his thoughts come true.
“The boy is here?” A thrilled kappa pops up from the depths of a nearby river, sending splashes of icy water across, some even landing on the fox’s smooth fur. “Ne, ne, tell me, is the human boy here? Can we go and meet him?”
The fox growls and turns away, furry brownish ears drooping down to tune out the unsolicited noises. Nothing is more annoying and frustrating than a kappa with tremendous interest in mortals getting under your skin, thirsty for knowledge of occupants on ‘the other side’. As undying legendary beings, they have no need for information regarding the lives of earthlings; humans’ lives are insignificant, shorter than even a blink of an eye. The only things they should bother with are the offerings and prayers, and if concerned enough, the villagers’ safety. But the kappa never quits. It has befriended the fox no less than a few decades, and dwellers of the woods understand that to be able to get close to the irritable fox -let alone become its acquaintance- is no easy feat.
“Hey, I was thinking… why are you not chasing him out? No one has ever stayed longer than a day,” The kappa points out, shaking the fox’s shoulder excitably, its eyes twinkling like glass even under the dim light. “Something special about him?”
The fox thinks of the boy with the ashen blond hair and small kind hands, of the way he hums softly and watches the sky from the shrine before going home with a little smile, each day without fail.
“Nothing much,” the fox answers, nonchalant and unbothered. “He just has manners, unlike the others.”
“Oh! I assume he doesn't litter, then?” the kappa presses on. “Does he clean your shrine, too?”
Exhausted and in dire need of peace and tranquility, the prickly fox scoffs and gets up, smoothing the wrinkles on his midnight kimono and brushing the leaves off his bushy tail. It’s clear as day that the kappa isn't shutting its trap any time soon -stay any longer and it’ll start talking about conducting quirky experiments- so despite its whines and protests, the fox excuses himself, retreating to the safety of his home.
Images of the little boy sweeping the hallway and polishing the altar fill his thoughts for the rest of the evening, and the fox finds him not hating the idea in the least.
To crave for a company… He’s been alone for too long, it seems.
iii. they meet
Foxes grow an additional tail when a century passes. It was said that foxes with nine tails are the wisest; their age teaching them things beyond the ones written on scrolls and scriptures. The lonely fox had only three when he was neglected –such a young age for beings with eternal lives- but he had seen enough miseries and felt enough pain to know that humans are not to be trusted.
So he simply watched them from afar.
Erwin meets the strange young man on his twenty-third visit to the abandoned shrine.
The man is sleeping soundly beside the altar when Erwin arrives. Always a boy of sharp vigilance and skilled observation, Erwin doesn't approach without proper inspection. Strangers, no matter the place and circumstances, are to be handled with care, so Erwin tiptoes to get a good look at the dozing figure.
He first sees the garment the man donned -a plain dark blue kimono that falls perfectly in place, smooth and downy. Must be a local, Erwin deduces. Next, he notices the hair –raven short locks that frame the man’s small face, making it impossible to actually make out whether he is sleeping or just resting. His white skin has an almost unearthly glow, like mother’s whenever she’s happy. Whoever this man is, he’s irrevocably beautiful, so Erwin curiously runs his eyes over once again…
…and then it twitches.
Ordinary people would have jumped back in horror upon seeing the two pairs of furry ears that stick out from beneath the messy bed of black hair, twitching and moving about. They would have scurried away in fear and cowardice, recalling the tales of the evil that lurks on top of the hill, of the monster that prowl. But Erwin Smith is no ordinary child. What he saw evokes questions, and when he has questions, he wants answers.
Erwin crouches and taps the man’s shoulder. “Pardon me, mister, but what are you?” he asks, loud and earnest. “Why do you have odd ears?”
Those ears jerk once more before the peculiar young man springs up in panic, roughly awoken from his slumber. Erwin watches him fumble to keep his stand on the creaking floor and sees the three tails jutting out from under his clothes. It isn't Erwin’s intention to frighten or startle, though it’s obvious that he has done exactly just that judging from how the man is scowling furiously, furs on his tails on its end and frizzled like his mind.
When standing on his two feet, the man towers above him in the exasperating way adults always do, but not too much. Erwin’s eyes are leveled with the man’s waist, so he cranes his neck to look into those gray orbs, which are now glaring menacing daggers at him.
“Go away, brat.”
Erwin doesn't budge, isn't scared in the slightest. Carefully, he reaches out a hand to caress one of the tails in pure awe, marveling in the soft feel of the fur. He is greeted with a violent slap to his prying hand. Exceptionally strong, too, Erwin notes.
“Tell me. Why do you have those ears and tails? Are you a monster?” Erwin clutches onto the dark kimono, gazing up with the most fervently inquisitive gaze. “Are you going to eat me?”
“Foxes don’t eat people, stupid.”
“So you are a fox… Is this your shrine?” Erwin asks, still polite but more demanding. “What do foxes eat, then?”
The fox, seemingly catching the drift that this human boy is just as radical as the kappa in terms of hunger for knowledge, sighs in defeat. From the looks of the bright sun still high in the sky, there’s still plenty of time before he needs to revert back to his form to save his energy, so there is really no harm in entertaining the questions. Besides, this kid is different; he doesn't make a mess like those bastard delinquents do, and he brings excellent food more often than not. Even without offerings, the fox manages just fine with wild peaches and nuts, but still, those piping hot steamed buns are really worth spending time for.
“It can’t be helped… Fine. Sit, if you want to listen,” the fox replies grumpily. The little boy complies and sits too close for comfort, but the fox sees the eager shine in those mesmerizing sky blue eyes, and wounds up saying nothing about it.
By the end of their lengthy conversation, Erwin is sure he knows more about Japanese folklore than any other child of his age. But there’s still an utmost important thing that he still doesn't know.
“Mister, what is your name?” he turns to look at the fox, whose silver irises are so small they appear like dots in the middle of slanted slits. “I am Erwin.”
“Name? I… I don’t have one.”
“You don’t? Then what do they call you?”
The fox has never minded much that he’s called what he really is, but Erwin disapproves. He looks pensive for a second, wheels vigorously turning in his mind, before he turns to the fox with his eyebrows furrowed. “That won’t do. Names are something to be proud of, you know?” He says. “Will you let me give you one?”
Astonished and taken aback by the sudden offer, the fox quickly looks away and shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
Erwin nods and goes silent, but in no time, he speaks up again.
“Levi,” he says, and he clasps the fox’s cold hands to grab his attention. “From now on, your name is Levi.”
(Erwin leaves out the extra fact that Levi was his late dog’s name -an obedient and affectionate Shiba inu that he loved very much before it passed on months ago- since he figures that the fox might get offended. But Levi is still a good name, regardless.)
The fox doesn't shake off Erwin’s hands despite the gesture being foreign to him. No other human of this era has ever cared enough about his existence, so even the smallest sliver of kindness felt bizarre to him. “Levi,” he tastes the name in his mouth, tries to let it roll off his tongue. It comes out heavily accented; the sound of l and v lost in his Japanese pronunciations, but it’s worth the smile that blooms on Erwin’s boyish face.
Despite knowing that Erwin is probably the only one to ever call him that, the fox accepts. “Not too bad,” he replies. Erwin lights up, bright and radiant like the moon and the sun combined, and the fox -Levi now- fights the urge to return the smile.
Levi knows he might be repeating history by choosing to trust a human, but he can’t find the strength to say no to the warmth of Erwin’s little hands.
iv. time flies
A day for a human is a second for the fox. A month is merely an hour, and one year is barely a day. Time flows painfully slow in the realm of the dead; it’s almost like a curse. The fox watched over the villagers for generations after generations, deaths and lives exchanged in a natural balance. He witnessed children grieving for their fathers and wives mourning their husbands, tears shed and wails let out. But he felt nothing, simply empty and unmoved.
For humans are humans, and spirits are spirits; the boundary lies clear.
When Erwin turns fifteen, Levi grows his fourth tail.
“You sure grow fast, huh,” Levi mutters one day when they are lying on their backs, sprawled on the lush green field of grass next to the creek. Erwin has his head on Levi’s chest, and he absentmindedly twirls his fingers around the fluffy ends of Levi’s tails; they've gotten thicker with time. Two years ago, he could still lie on top of Levi like the petite child he was, but now Levi complains whenever he does it –you’re too heavy and you’re crushing my ribs among his favourite lines.
“I made sure to eat lots,” Erwin says, then turns around to cheekily grin at Levi. “Told you I’d pick you up one day, remember?”
Levi scowls and looks away. “I’ll change back into my true form if you ever dare to.”
“I would. And I’ll eat you right then.”
Erwin laughs heartily; childlike and naïve like he was when they first met. His voice is deeper now, still cracking awkwardly now and then, but nevertheless deeper and strangely addictive. Levi is sure Erwin hasn't hit his final range yet, and he briefly wonders how Erwin will sound like when he’s a full-grown adult.
Adult. When Erwin’s an adult, he will have more responsibilities, less time to spare. Will he still be with him by then?
Throughout his entire life, the fox has never feared loneliness. So why does his chest hurt so much?
“Levi,” Erwin calls out, breaking the fox out of his reverie. “Want to head back now? It’s getting late.”
Levi nods and stands up, smoothing out the creases on his kimono neatly as always. He’s hardly any taller than Erwin now, maybe by only a few inches, but he knows Erwin is catching up fast.
Some things will change, whether he’s ready or not. Change is inevitable, that Levi has to accept.
They walk hand in hand following the narrow path that leads to the shrine, guided by the crickets’ song and the trails of swallowtail butterflies. Erwin hums merrily to the tune that Levi thinks everyone has forgotten -the one about three frogs leaping in a pond- all the while swinging their intertwined hands to the tempo, his steps light and wispy with the blitheness of a teen.
This is nice, Levi tells himself, noting the secure way Erwin’s long fingers snugly fill the spaces between his. With Erwin, he discovers so many things he never thought he would feel. Warmth, comfort, kindness; so many things he never dreamt of ever having.
v. he dreams
“Tell me something I know nothing of,” Levi asks while resting on top of a sturdy branch that juts out from the shady tree, his tails curling around the smaller twigs. Erwin, now nineteen, looks up from the book he’s reading and peers up to give a questioning look.
“Like what?” Erwin ask back. “Don’t you already know everything, o’ great Kitsune?” He teases.
Levi doesn't answer. Instead, he makes a small sound that’s a mixture of a frustrated growl and a sigh, and leaps down from the branch to land right next to Erwin. Casually, he peeks at the book, but frowns when the writings are incomprehensible. Outlandish, even. What are those round, curvy letters? Levi wonders. They look nothing like the scrolls he has read in the past.
(But then again, the last time he had seen one was no less than a few decades ago; hardly anyone is well versed in the ancient language nowadays. Human’s advancements are rapidly developing; changes and revolutions draw close without forewarning. It’s the reason he’s left abandoned in the first place.)
Erwin returns his attention to the book when he realizes that Levi has dropped the question. He flips the pages with his left hand, and gently ruffles Levi’s hair with his right. Levi lets out a small satisfied moan when Erwin scratches the area behind his sensitive ears, but not before cursing himself for indulging in such ungodly pleasures. No matter how many times Levi angrily reminds that he’s a fox, not a lowly cat, Erwin still treats him like he would a house pet, perhaps even more endearingly. Few years have passed and Levi never really minds anymore.
“Your dreams,” Levi says after a while, staring at the sky with a forlorn expression. “Talk to me about it.”
“I want to become a soldier,” comes Erwin’s honest reply.
“A soldier? Why not a politician, or a merchant? More fortune, less risk,” Levi taunts. He lifts his head off Erwin’s shoulder to meet Erwin’s eyes, and is shocked by the intensity of the firm gaze. Those cerulean blue depths reflect audacity. Determination. Courage.
He’s not kidding, Levi realizes. He’s going to war.
“I want to protect the ones I love,” Erwin says, resolute and unwavering, like it’s his sole purpose of life. Something in the way he so confidently utters the words stirs Levi’s emotions, makes his breath hitch in his throat. The heart the fox never knew he owns skips a beat.
“Including me?” Levi tries, hoping for an equally witty remark from Erwin, but receives none. Instead, Erwin smiles sweetly and pulls him close, nuzzling his face into Levi’s hair and breathing in his scent. “Especially you,” he whispers into Levi’s ear, and really, he doesn't even need to get so close because Levi’s keen hearing is more than enough; the proximity just serves to amplify it. He hears each dip and rise of Erwin’s voice, his adult voice, and oh how it is just as he has imagined, deep and rich and sensual.
Levi wants to back away, feeling unfamiliar heat creeping up his neck and blazing his face. He’s dead sure his tails are standing on their roots, and damn, he’s blushing and that’s embarrassing, but Erwin doesn't show any signs of letting go. Hesitantly, Levi’s hands finds home on Erwin’s strong back, and he buries his face in the crook of Erwin’s neck.
Change is here, Levi thinks as he stays in Erwin’s embrace, sense of time lost and unheeded. Erwin kisses him, once on the forehead, a second on his eyelids, another on his jaw. Again, and again, and again.
Levi, whose heart was once cold and guarded, melts under the fiery kisses and soft whispers. He thinks of the times when he was young, twin-tailed and guileless, when the shrine was blessed, lively and unforgotten. He felt warm back then, safe and happy, but nothing, nothing can compare to the warmth and bliss he feels when Erwin holds him close.
The fox didn’t know of love, of longing and affection. He’s a creature of tricks and wishes, accustomed to distance and solitude. But the human had changed him in more ways than one, and the fox slowly learned the meaning of loving and being loved.
The boundary had been crossed.
vi. they part
Peace in the world of the living was nothing but a variable; irregular and never lasting. Humans fight over everything: wealth, power, land, even honour. They’re insatiable, voracious and unmerciful in their selfish quests, often sacrificing thousands of lives for their own filthy desires, and for this very reason they’re loathed by the spirits. War destroys. It does nothing but devastates and separates families from their loved ones. For the fox, wars had never affected him much.
But this one time, it did.
Levi has dreaded the arrival of this day ever since Erwin made that promise.
Erwin appears at the shrine that evening smartly dressed in dark brown military uniform, a sheathed sword resting on his hip, the nation’s crest proudly worn on his heart and sleeves. He looks handsome as always, golden blonde hair swiftly combed to the side in the way that Levi loves to meddle with sometimes, and Levi wants to compliment him, he really does. He would, if the words are not stuck in his throat. But all that escapes his mouth is a choked sob.
“You don’t have to go,” Levi says, pleads with desperation unbecoming of Inari’s messenger, of a deity supposedly untouched and unhurt. “It’s not safe.”
You might die, is what Levi means in his words, but to talk of death with such insouciance when he himself can never fathom its true meaning is like hypocrisy. He doesn't understand death, doesn't know the grief and pain that comes with it. He does not want to, not when it involves Erwin.
Erwin smiles, azure eyes still dazzling with a brilliant hue even in such a despairing situation. Quietly, he reaches out to brush a stray hair from Levi’s face and tucks it aside. Levi’s skin feels warm now, tender and almost human, long gone are the days when the fox’s skin is nothing but layers of frosty ice. He runs his gloved thumb over Levi’s rosy lips and revels in the shiver that Levi gives.
“You know I have to,” Erwin says, watching Levi lean closer into his touch. “The war will not end without a fight.”
“Why must it be you?” Levi whispers softly, like the words hurt too much. “Why?”
Erwin remembers this feeling, this overwhelming urge to find answers to each question he has, but time has taught him that sometimes, not everything has an answer. Levi looks up at him, silver orbs glazed and unfocused, and Erwin tries to recall the days when he was the one looking up. Strong, clear and resilient, those eyes were back then. But Erwin knows the strength is not lost, never will be, just hidden beneath fear and uncertainty.
Erwin holds Levi’s jaw set in his palms, and kisses him slowly, deep and loving, like they have all the time in the world. The thought of never having the chance to kiss Levi again tears at his heart, so he deepens the kiss, struggles to pour his emotions into every glide of his tongue, every suck and every nibble. Levi’s tails wraps around his hips, pulling him closer and pressing him flush to his chest. Erwin drinks every whimper and moan that Levi lets out, burying his hands in the soft black locks that he knows he’ll come to miss soon.
When they break away, Levi has to clutch onto Erwin’s arms to keep still. Funny how a mere human can make him go so weak.
“Hold me,” Levi breathes, and his grip tightens on Erwin’s strong arms. “Only for tonight. Please.”
Various tales have been told and passed on, but the message is the same:
There is no happy ending for a love that transcends boundaries.
Erwin is gentle in his every move, his caresses lingering and scorching every inch of Levi’s pearly skin. "You're beautiful, Levi," Erwin says between kisses, worshipping the body that writhes and arches beneath him. In a tangle of limbs, hushed whispers and empty promises, he makes love to Levi for the first time the night before he departs to the battlefield, and their hearts shatter knowing that it might well be the last.
“I will come back soon,” Erwin makes a promise he isn't sure he can keep. He flashes a smile cold and broken. Levi smiles back anyway.
“I will be waiting.”
vii. it ends
There is no happy ending for a love that transcends boundaries.
But like every other rule that subsists, there exist loopholes.
When Erwin returns years later with a smile and a softly uttered I’m home, Levi runs into his open embrace, too shocked and overwhelmed to even cry. He wraps his hands around Erwin and notices the hollow space beneath Erwin’s right shoulder. He’s injured, Levi screams in his mind, angry that Erwin’s hurt yet happy that he’s at least still alive. Levi doesn't know how, but Erwin manages to lift him up from the ground with a single hand and twirls him around like a shy maiden.
After he's been gently released, Levi opens his mouth to speak, but then Erwin is already dropping down on his knee, struggling with his balance a bit before taking Levi’s hand in his -the only one left- and he smiles in the vibrant way that Levi misses so, so much.
Erwin slips a ring onto Levi’s palm, bringing the fox’s hand to his lips.
"Will you marry me?"
In a heartbeat, Levi kisses him and says yes.
And on the day it rained but the sun still shone, the fox found his happiness at last.