"It looks as if it belongs to someone," was Ichimoku Ren's first observation.
A wide number of very different thoughts had already crossed Susabi's mind on the topic, starting from the first moment when their afternoon had been disrupted by the small, fluffy monster that had come barreling into their midst. He and Ren had been sharing a late lunch together, leisurely enjoying the summer warmth and discussing the higher levels of miasma to the south; an uwabami had settled in to nest, having supped enough to temporarily sate even its ravenous hunger. The resulting clots of spiritual energies were a natural result of the uwabami's presence, and -- while dangerous to anyone unlucky enough to stumble into its lair -- would not permanently damage the region.
The massive snake would sleep for months if undisturbed -- years, potentially, depending on the nature of its meal. But both food and rest were a natural part of its behavioral cycle, and so long as it was left in peace, it would eventually move on in its own time.
Other hunters, however, could not be counted on to avoid the illusion of an easy kill. Uwabami were far tougher than they appeared, even in sleep, and had notoriously bad tempers when woken out of their digestive stasis. Susabi and Ren had been debating if it would be better to place a blinding ward around the area, or simply warn the local spirits when they'd heard snuffling from the nearby bushes -- and then the overgrown puppy had burst into their midst, diving straight towards them as if it belonged there. Its fur was thick and puffy; its curl of a tail bounced with each eager yap. It had flopped into their midst like a sack of rice, knocked over the food, stuck its face into the resulting mess to lap happily at the plates, and finished its rampage by merrily clambering over Ren's legs.
Both dragons had hissed and snaked up to the trees, clearly wanting no part of their newfound canine experience. Susabi had been torn between joining them, and trying to defend the other spirit from this unexpected attack.
Ren had simply laughed as he had tried to calm the puppy down, allowing it to burn off its excitement as it frolicked, making occasional soothing noises and stroking its fur. It only relented once it had finished devouring the remains of their fish and rice, and then went into a sprawl beside Ren, greedily taking up all of the spirit's attention.
"I should hope it has a caretaker," Susabi replied icily, aware of how petty it was to glare at such a young animal, and doing so anyway. "With the amount of noise it's making, it's begging to be turned into a meal by any number of predators out here."
Ren, on the other hand, seemed intent on meticulously checking the puppy over for signs of wounds or proper care. At first, he appeared unconcerned by his examination -- and then the spirit frowned, leaning his face close to the creature's fur to sniff it gingerly.
"Susabi," he ventured, his brow furrowing thoughtfully. "There's a strange odor on him. Tell me what you think it is."
"I would imagine there are several odors on the creature, judging from where it must have been," Susabi replied, baffled, but then obeyed when Ren waved him over insistently.
There was a distinctive scent on the puppy's fur. Beyond the expected mud and oils and rotting-meat breath, there was a sharper tang -- like that of alcohol, strong and sharp. Not just alcohol, but power, a particular mixture of headiness: sake mixed with spiritual force, distilled into raw ambrosia that was more potent than any brew from human hands.
There were quite a few spirits who were overly fond of liquor, but only one that could cause even the residual effects to linger with merely a touch.
Susabi straightened up. "This is Shuten Doji's dog."
It wasn't hard to recognize the influence of the demon. Susabi knew of Shuten because it was impossible not to: the yokai's power made him an influence without parallel in the mortal world. Luckily enough, Shuten was largely uninterested in wielding his authority recklessly. He could be reasoned with, and understood the usefulness of a human world that was guided by stability, not war. The few times that Susabi crossed paths with Shuten, they had both been clearly aware of the chaos they could unleash if incited into a fight. Instead, they had shared sake, spoken of other battles, and had always parted amicably.
Ren, surprisingly, had also somehow already become acquainted with Shuten Doji -- though whether was from his time as a god or as a yōkai, Susabi didn't know. For a former remote wind god, Ichimoku Ren was surprisingly well traveled. It seemed as if there were a thousand stories hidden behind his placid expression, and Susabi had barely touched them all.
One of them was on the ground in front of them now.
Shuten Doji had been easy for Susabi's powers to track down. The yōkai was sleeping the afternoon away in the shade of a grove, sprawled out with the easy, unguarded insolence of a creature who knew they had nothing to fear even in their dreams. His mass of red hair had been left loose in tangles, carelessly picking up dust. His gourd was docile, smacking its lips quietly; it must have been fed recently, judging from the smudge of drying blood on its side.
If there was any doubt as to the dog's owner, it was dispelled by how quickly the creature tore up to the sleeping demon and began sloppily mouthing one of his hands.
Shuten Doji might have held little concern for any demons attacking him in his sleep, but a several-month-old puppy was apparently a different story, because he shot awake as fast as if the dog's saliva was acid. "Again?" he groaned, shoving blindly at the beast. "I thought I'd finally got rid of you at last. Move! Shoo!"
Susabi opened his mouth to declare that now the dog had found its master and they could both leave, but Ren beat him to it first. "It's been a while, Shuten Doji. I'm overjoyed to see that you're staying safe this time. I'm guessing the dog is yours?"
The look Shuten gave them both was withering, though it eased up under Ren's patient regard. "It's Ibaraki's," he retorted, and shoved fruitlessly at the puppy. It paddled up the length of his body and then promptly set its teeth in his collar, making delighted growls as it tried to wrestle with his clothes. "He got it into his fool head that if he gave me a dog, it would remind me of him every day, until I would start liking him just as much."
"That isn't an entirely bad plan," Ren offered tactfully -- and then, tellingly, flicked his own gaze in Susabi's direction, heavy with consideration.
"Shuten Doji," Susabi announced loudly, trying to reclaim the proper gravity of the conversation before any more terrible ideas could spark. "Now that we have returned your errant companion to you, please ensure that you do not misplace them again -- "
"It's not mine! Bah!" Sitting up in an attempt at self-defense as the dog tried to roll gleefully across his lap, Shuten Doji gave up on holding his ground and climbed the rest of the way to his feet. "Lord Susabi," he added grimly, and then, with a casual nod that bordered suspiciously on overfamiliarity, "Ren. Dogs aren't in my nature. I tried taking care of a stray once, and woke up to find it licking the leftovers out of my sakazuki cup. I promise you -- I'm terrible with them." He shot a fresh glare down as the canine began to lick intently at one of his hands, determined to drench his fingers in as much spit as possible. "But if this... dog is anything like its master, then no matter if it dies of alcohol poisoning or my throwing it off a cliff, its vengeful spirit is going to follow me around as a curse forever."
Leaning back against his gourd for support, Shuten Doji raked his fingers through his hair to smooth it out in crimson fistfuls, steadfastly ignoring the puppy bounding around his feet. "More importantly, you know how Ibaraki is. If I do end up showing it any affection, then he'll assume I like it more than him, and destroy it. He'll challenge it to a fight, try to turn it into a dramatic battle that he'll make me watch, and then I'll still have the vengeful spirit of his dog following me around, drooling on me."
The analysis was clipped, precise, and -- unfortunately -- completely accurate, as far as Susabi knew. He hadn't had reason to confront Ibaraki directly in the past, but the few times that they'd crossed paths, their meetings had veered dangerously close to outright brawls. Unlike Shuten, Ibaraki had no hesitation in using his considerable power; if there was any chance of attracting Shuten's attention, that chance increased a thousandfold.
They all stared at the puppy as it wriggled joyfully in the dirt, coating its thick fur with debris before bounding up to try and rub against Shuten's leg.
"He really does resemble Ibaraki, doesn't he," Ren voiced on all their behalfs.
The dog had moved on in its affections to brace its paws around Shuten's calf. As it gazed up adoringly at Shuten Doji, its tongue lolling out, its hips began to piston rapidly against the yōkai's leg.
"Yes," Shuten Doji intoned mournfully. "It does."
They tried to relocate the dog peacefully first. Susabi knew the length of Japan all the way back to Hokkaido, and it wasn't a great burden to carry the puppy across several territories, bundled in a spare blanket. He couldn't travel as fast as he liked -- the dog kept squirming free in excitement, and then threatening to fall to its death -- and he thought more than once about stuffing it into a wicker box and tying the thing closed. Every time he did, he was haunted by the vision of Ichimoku Ren's exasperated face glancing up at him in polite disapproval around his long bangs. It wasn't that Ren would be angry with him if anything happened to the dog. He'd just sigh and say something about how he knew Susabi had more control over his strength than that, and then Susabi would have to go and bring the dog back to life somehow just to demonstrate that yes, he did possess the self-discipline befitting of a divine emissary.
He made it to the eastern shore of Japan eventually, cursing every step of the way for why he didn't just make his dragon fly it there, or use an incantation, or introduce the dog to the Underworld. The only satisfaction he had from doing it himself was to know that the task had been properly accomplished. Even then, he wasn't sure it was worth it. The puppy's excitement at being carried by Susabi had left scrapes up and down his arms where its nails had made its way through his robes. Fur coated Susabi's entire body, and the blanket smelled decidedly of urine.
He left the entire bundle -- dog squirming free of the fabric, barking at the clouds -- on the outskirts of a fishing village just as the sun was rising over the waves. Boats were sliding out onto the water, fishermen calling back and forth as they prepared for another day's catch. Susabi breathed in the salt air deeply, and then went back to Ichimoku Ren with the scent of the ocean in his nose and on his clothes, allowing the other spirit to gently shoo away the experience with gentle words and even gentler hands.
For a few months, there was glorious freedom. Susabi put the whole affair out of his mind, and didn't suggest checking in with Shuten Doji to see if the dog had made its way back. The demon's pet woes were of little concern to him; since it was obvious that Shuten would not harm the creature, and a fishing village had more than enough to keep any dog occupied, Susabi assumed the subject to be closed forever.
When the autumn came around, however, he discovered just how wrong he was.
Rather than wait for the changing leaves to creep towards Kyoto, Susabi and Ren had traveled northwards instead, watching the colors gradually shift around them as they crossed the miles. The end of the year was always exhausting with the numerous demands that weighed upon the gods: wards had to be renewed, shrines had to be maintained, and the Kannazuki council month was coming up fast. Even though he was not enshrined, Susabi was still expected to travel to Izumo for the entire duration, there to sit through endless meetings and review lists of mortal names, mediating politics between gods who still held centuries-old grudges over broken looms and stolen worshippers.
As a result, he was relishing his stolen time with Ren with a fierce spite, aware of how each minute spent with the yōkai was another minute not wasted on preparing paperwork. It was the perfect afternoon. The breeze was just cool enough to temper the sunlight that came heavy through the clouds, and evening was still hours away. The red and gold of the forest stood out against Ren's skin, with slivers of blue sky perfectly mirroring his hair and robes, as if the world itself had turned into a painting with him at the center.
They had brewed oolong tea that day, brought from overseas and gifted to one of the gods who had, in turn, passed it to Susabi in thanks for a minor divination favor. Leaves slowly uncurled in the teapot as they relaxed, seeping color and fragrance into the liquid. Ren was savouring the flavor even as it continued to steep, taking small, impatient sips from his cup. Susabi -- for his part -- was thoroughly enjoying the sight of the yōkai framed between the trees, his horns curving up like gilded branches.
It helped that his head was pillowed comfortably in Ren's lap.
"We should have a moon viewing party," Ren murmured, gently stroking his fingers through Susabi's hair where it spilled over his legs. "It's almost the right time for it."
Susabi lifted his hand to trace a thumb along Ren’s palm. "Is that another celebration that you never had a chance to attend?"
Ren offered him a faint smile, angling his arm so that Susabi could slide his touch all the way up along the wrist. "Not with company, no. The priests of my shrine would go down to the village to celebrate there, with everyone else. At times, I thought about asking them to stay with me -- but I didn't want to take them away from their families, their friends, their celebration. They belonged with each other." A slight pull of his mouth betrayed the sadness that dwelt behind that acceptance; Ren was silent for a moment, organizing his thoughts with practiced discipline before continuing. "But the moon was very beautiful from where I could see it through the trees. I would sit by the temizuya and smell the freshness of the water, and liked to think that the moon was watching the evening with me, too."
All those were good enough memories, as Ren described them -- good, but lonely when the choice for company was out of his control. There was room for significant improvement. Susabi could already envision how to arrange things: lumps of sweet dango, chestnuts on a dish, thick branches fluttering their leaves above. He could pour sake for Ren, and relish the yōkai's joy as liquid filled the perfect circle of the cup -- to watch Ren experience the novelty of having someone else at last to share such a simple celebration with him. "Then we should have a viewing party. Shall we set the dragons to fly free for a night, and celebrate it alone?"
"Then we could spend the entire night watching the moon go past above us. Though," Susabi added, "I might not do that much in the way of watching."
Mouth going soft and sly in a smile, Ren started to answer -- and was interrupted by the sound of high-pitched barking. He frowned, turning his head towards the forest as he searched for the source. The noise was erratic, but coming closer, unerringly, as if both of them were giving off the only light in the middle of a storm and could be seen as far as the horizon.
"It's Shuten's dog again," Ren exclaimed, startled, setting down the cup as the moment fell apart around them. "How did he find his way back here safely?"
Susabi shut his eyes tightly in denial, feeling a sudden, intense sympathy for Shuten Doji. "And why does it keep coming after us? We drink more tea than alcohol. There's nothing we have that would attract it."
As if in defiance of any answer, the creature promptly burst through the bushes and stood there, tail wagging. It shook itself off ferociously before pelting forward like a furry arrow. The months had wicked away some of its puppy fat, turning it leggy and dense with muscle. Ren reached out his hands to welcome it, abandoning Susabi -- who sat up quickly to avoid his face being trampled on by muddy paws. "Maybe something happened to Shuten Doji, and the dog sensed it?"
It was a generous optimism on Ren's part -- generous, since the greatest threat to Shuten's life was cirrhosis, in Susabi's opinion. Susabi glowered at the creature that was now taking up the entirety of Ren's lap, forcing him into exile. "If so, then we should certainly find him to assure ourselves of his safety," he bit out. "At the least, we can let him know where it's ended up. I'm certain he'd be grateful."
This time when they tracked Shuten down, they found the spirit lingering even further north, nearly to Hokkaido. He had taken up a seat in the branches of one particularly large tree, far up off the ground and protected from any distractions. The demon had joined in the seasonal leaf-watching as well, and was deep in his cups already, his gourd braced in a fork of one of the branches. When he saw them both, his eyes widened; he glanced towards the dog, and then back up towards the sky quickly, as if to feign ignorance of any recognition.
Susabi didn't let him pretend. He went straight up to the tree Shuten was perched in, and planted a heel firmly against the trunk in an implied threat. "Shuten Doji. Take your dog. I will make this a mandate from Takamagahara itself if I must."
A few leaves rustled down in answer.
"You really should accept it, Shuten." Ren's voice, eternally reasonable. "He'll die when the winter comes if you keep making him chase after you like this."
Shuten peered down at their assembly, as if equally wary of the dog and Susabi both. "It seems to like you well enough, Ren," he offered. "You keep attracting the damned puffball, I bet you're a natural with dogs. Why don't you adopt it? It'd go great with your dragon."
Immediately, Susabi's mind broke into a vision of the canine permanently attaching itself to the yokai, even as Ren tilted his head thoughtfully. Gone would be all their peaceful afternoons together, spent in solitude away from the rest of the world -- which could escalate quite possibly to Ibaraki himself chasing Ren around, either to reclaim his gift to Shuten or punish the yōkai for taking it.
"No," he declared immediately, before Ren could answer. "Ibaraki would be... heartbroken if you rejected his gift like that, Shuten. And then he'd likely destroy something. For the interests of preserving the peace of the mortal realm, we need to find another solution. You need to find another solution," he emphasized to Shuten, who was looking shiftily towards another tree, as if leaping away like a rodent would provide an escape. "This is hardly our problem to start with."
Thwarted, Shuten hooked his legs around his branch and leaned down, bracing his hands on the tree's bark. "What would I even do with a dog?" he pleaded. "Half the oni I know would eat it. The other half would turn it into a yōkai. Some would try both, just to see if it'd work."
"It's not the dog's fault he loves you," Ren coaxed. "He's already attached."
"Not as much as it is to you. Ever since you both showed up, it hasn't come looking for me at all," Shuten remarked laconically. "Clearly, it likes the two of you better. Maybe it's destiny."
"Shuten Doji," Susabi announced again, warningly. "If you do not take responsibility for this creature, then I promise you, I will find a way to enshrine this dog as a deity of persistence and unreasonable loyalty, and you will never have a moment's peace again for so long as Takamagahara shines bright -- "
"All right!" Surrendering at last, Shuten vaulted down from the tree, his gourd hiccuping as he hit the ground. He gave Susabi a dark look, but straightened his shoulders in an attempt to recover his dignity. "You hold onto the thing for now. In exchange, I promise I'll find a solution before the end of the month. A permanent one. Satisfied?"
Rather than simply penning the dog up for several weeks -- the simplest solution, in Susabi's eyes -- Ren had already taken its cause to heart, and insisted on taking care of it personally until Shuten fulfilled his half of bargain. Much to the chagrin of both Susabi and their dragons, that meant bringing it around with him wherever the spirit went.
The dog's continued presence blocked Susabi's vague plans to convince Ren to spend the winter somewhere safer, warmer, where Susabi wouldn't have to worry about him potentially buried under a snowstorm. Time -- something that neither one of them had ever cared about before -- had suddenly become a prominent factor in Susabi's life again. Now that he had something to watch over that dwelt in the mortal realm and was prey to its temperament, he found himself far more concerned about its woes: storms were a concern, wars were a concern, plagues and famines and netherworld rifts were all suddenly much more personal when Susabi couldn't dismiss them as mere lines on a report. He had repeatedly hinted that Ren could take up rooms in a private corner of his estate, but Ren had pointed out the difficulty of hiding from other gods, and besides, there weren't any humans around in Takamagahara for him to help anyway. A mortal dog would be even harder to keep in the heavens. Even if Susabi could conceal it, the last thing he needed was to have it tearing through the serenity of his home, chewing on divination instruments and urinating on holy vestments.
Instead, Ren had chosen one of the nearby mountains for his shelter against the oncoming winter, close enough to his old domain that some of his influence still lingered. It was passable enough, in Susabi's opinion. There were few spiritual imbalances in the area, and the territory hadn't been claimed by aggressive yōkai. The shallow cave that Ren had found was spacious enough to stay in for a few months, with clean, cold water from the mountain runoff; there was room for both dragons to curl up comfortably whenever Susabi visited, and still let the dog run.
Susabi fully expected for Shuten to try and slink out of their deal; in the best case, the spirit might simply convince Ibaraki to forget about the dog, and then abandon the creature in Ren's care without a second thought. But -- by the end of the month, as promised -- the yōkai was the one to find them this time, trudging up the narrow, overgrown path towards the cave with his mouth set in a sour line.
"Come on," he announced, and actually snapped his fingers to call the dog towards him, though it was already bounding his way with its tongue unraveling from its mouth in a long pink wad. "Follow me. It isn't far."
The farmstead that Shuten led them towards was tucked on the outskirts of its village, with fields that bumped against the forest and were slowly losing their territory to weeds and saplings. Its buildings were aging and rough, but showed signs of careful tending by hands willing to bend to repairs. Outside the main house, a dog had been leashed to watch: a young one, around the same age and size as the stray that haunted them, but with a thick coat of fur that was redder than any mortal dog Susabi had ever seen. The cream of its underbelly stood out like a strip of fresh silk. It looked well-fed, and was lazing with its legs kicked out wide across the ground, as smug as an emperor stealing an afternoon nap away from their court.
"Here," Shuten announced, giving Ibaraki's puppy an encouraging nudge down the road. It rumbled in protest, but its attention was already fixed on the new dog; after making a whine of excitement, it bounded forward gleefully. "I had to comb the entire country to find one that would be suitable, but here it is. It used to be paired with another dog, but that one died, so it's been lonely ever since. I paid the farmers to take them both, so they have good reason to treat them well from now on. More importantly, do you know how much work it took me to find a dog that might accept Ibaraki's, and with this coloration?"
"I'm impressed," Ren acknowledged dutifully, but his attention was fixed on the dogs. The ruddy one had caught sight of Ibaraki's, and had clambered to its feet with its ears pricked up, tail making a few tentative wags.
Skeptical of the yōkai's efforts, Susabi watched warily as the two dogs carefully snuffled at each other. They each made a few experimental barks -- and then began to wrestle happily, mouthing at one another's scruffs as they ignored the spirits nearby.
Satisfied, Ren nodded his thanks, and discreetly headed back down the path before either dog could be tempted by their presence. Susabi turned as well, eager to finally escape -- but Shuten hesitated, poised in clear view on the trail as he watched the two dogs romp and roll across the dirt yard.
Susabi paused, perplexed by the strangely wistful expression on the other spirit's face. "Don't tell me you miss it already."
"No," Shuten claimed dolefully, though he continued to linger for another few moments. “Anyway," he concluded with an exaggerated shrug, though his steps were slow as he finally drifted behind, "I'm sure I'm more of a cat person."