They sat beneath the red foliage of the old maple tree with its delicate weeping branches outspread like a mother’s arms, cradling her precious little children about her. Soon the tree would drop her leaves and shiver, naked, throughout the coming winter, but for now she was brilliant and beautiful in her exquisite velvet robes of red. It was the middle of autumn and on this bright, clear night they could see and smell everything. The full moon hung in the sky, huge and round and bright as could be like a glowing white jewel against a backdrop of glittering stars in a pool of inky black and blue; lush grass and rich soil; the earthy odour of decaying leaves on the ground and impending rain far off in the distance; smoke from people in nearby towns roasting sweet potatoes and chestnuts for the mid-autumn Tsukimi festival, when people would gather to celebrate the autumn harvest moon.
A gentle breeze whispered through the grass and leaves: fill your larders, for this winter will be a harsh one. They needn’t heed the warning on the wind, for they lived beyond the daily struggles of mankind. It had been some decades since they were brought to their maker’s home and they were quickly approaching their seventies but, sitting beneath the old maple tree together, they were just as young and fresh and beautiful as they had been the day that their hearts stopped beating in their twenties. Their skin was firm and fair and unblemished; mortal disease could not touch them, and time was of no consequence, for they could not age.
“I do enjoy looking at the moon,” the first young man sighed.
His dark-haired companion smiled. “I know. I don’t believe you have ever missed a single Tsukimi in all the years that I have known you, Sugizo.”
“Nor shall I.” Sugizo sighed again, wistfully this time. “My mother used to tell me that story when I was a child. It’s been so long that I cannot recall her face, but I will always remember the story of the rabbit on the moon.”
His friend remained quiet. He knew that Sugizo held little fondness for his mother, having sold him to a pleasure house when he was but a child of eight years old. At least he had a sweet fairytale to remind him of the kinder days of his childhood.
“Heath, look,” Sugizo said, pointing. “You can see him.”
Heath laughed lightly. “The moon is far too high in the sky. You cannot possibly see the rabbit from here.”
“But I can,” Sugizo insisted. Still pointing, he pulled his companion closer with his free hand. “If you sit here, look at where I am pointing. You can see his long ears and his cute, round body. Our little friend watches over us.”
They sat beneath the old maple tree, shoulder to shoulder, cheek to cheek. Sugizo’s gaze was fixed upon the moon but Heath’s eye was drawn to the hand that held him close. He gave a light cough and Sugizo withdrew his hand, looking down.
“I… I am sorry. That was not… proper, was it?”
Heath, too, avoided his gaze, but he smiled again. He would have blushed if he could. “No. It is quite all right. I… I don’t mind.” What he meant was I liked it, but perhaps would not have been ‘proper’ to admit, either.
Sugizo swallowed a sigh of relief and cast a glance at his companion. Heath looked especially lovely tonight. The soft glow of the moon highlighted his elegant features, in particular the beautiful eyes that had drawn him in the very moment they met some forty years ago. Heath had smelled of blood and terror and despair that night. Now, he smelled of jasmine and sweet wisteria and some unidentifiable, intoxicating, irresistible scent. Sugizo watched Heath blink slowly and he raised his gaze to meet Sugizo’s eyes with a questioning look.
Smiling bashfully, Sugizo looked away again. “I am sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. I simply wondered…”
Sugizo hesitated and chanced a look into Heath’s eyes, always so warm and patient. “Whether you would ever think of leaving this place.”
“Oh.” Heath thought upon this for a moment and shook his head. “No. I could not leave. Not if you remained here.”
“Then what if… we were to leave together?”
Heath did not answer for a moment, but he held Sugizo’s gaze calmly. “I hate the way he touches me.”
By he, Sugizo knew that there was only one person: their vain, capricious maker, strong and beautiful and golden with an explosive temper as imperious as the sun itself.
“I hate it when he touches me, too,” Sugizo said quietly. He had spent almost twenty years working at the Gin no Tsuki pleasure house in Kanagawa. As a child, they had dressed the pretty little boy as a pretty little girl and he would greet guests at the door and serve refreshments to them. During this time he had been groped and fondled by more lecherous older men than he could count, and then when he came of age, he was pressed into service where men and women alike would pay a handsome fee to do all sorts of things to him. Yet in all these years he had never been quite so repulsed by another’s touch or felt so dirty and used as he did now, under Yoshiki’s roof.
“I…” Heath began softly and reached out to touch Sugizo’s hand. “If I had my way, Yoshiki would never lay a hand on you.”
They both knew that that was an impossible dream. Yoshiki was stronger than either of them and even if that weren’t the case, they couldn’t lay a hand on him if they valued their lives. Theirs was a bloodthirsty, cutthroat breed with no rules or laws to keep them in check, save for one: the ultimate sin of harming or killing the one who gave them new life. Those who were guilty of the crime of killing their maker would soon see a bloody end at the hands of their peers.
Still, there was no harm in dreaming of a life without their maker, Sugizo thought with a smile. He leaned in close with a conspiratorial smile, as though he were about to divulge a great secret. His lips were almost close enough to brush against Heath’s ear. “I wouldn’t mind if you touched me that way.”
Perhaps it wasn’t proper either but when they gazed into each other’s eyes, nothing and nobody else mattered. They had spent far too many years dancing around each other and the simple words they exchanged tonight brought it all to the surface, culminating in a kiss with dreamy, hooded eyes, the meeting of cool, soft lips and a delicate gasp, half surprise, half delight. Just one simple little kiss and their lips parted. Sugizo rested his forehead against Heath’s and dared to reach up and touch his face, a tender caress of his thumb over Heath’s delicate skin and they shared a tiny smile before their lips met again with more confidence this time, feeling the soft brush of dark lashes on cool porcelain cheeks, and it was almost as pleasurable as feeding on live prey, like a gentle flame rippling beneath their skin, a startling warmth that burned and glowed inside them like hot liquor, chancing a tentative taste of Heath, propriety be damned, and trembled with delight when Heath responded in kind. Heath cupped the side of Sugizo’s face with one hand and Sugizo sighed into their kiss, clasped that hand in his own. Mine. Yours. Ours. This wasn’t just kissing. They had each kissed other people before. What they shared now were songs and poems, shy promises and bold declarations, visions of forever, a delightful secret like a hidden, gleaming pearl that was known only to the two of them. Happiness. Exhilaration. Peace.
Sugizo’s body exploded with pain and somebody was screaming and it was Heath’s voice, Heath was screaming his name and he tried to move, he needed to be by Heath’s side and shield him from whatever danger had befallen them and he bit back a scream of his own; his arms and legs wouldn’t obey as though the very bones were broken and with much effort he opened his eyes and he stared down at the unnatural way his arm bent at the elbow, oh gods his bones were broken, and he set his jaw, grasped his forearm with his good hand and shoved the joint back into place with a thick crack and through the blur of agony and tears he saw Heath lunging for him, only for a furious streak of gold to swoop in and catch him by the scruff of his neck.
“No!” Heath cried. “Spare him, my lord. Take me instead!”
Blush pink lips twisted into a snarl of satisfaction. “As you wish.”
Lying in a heap against the side of Yoshiki’s manse, his body alight and thrumming with pain while his cracked bones twisted and groaned and tried to mend themselves, Sugizo could only watch in silent horror when Yoshiki sank his teeth deep into Heath’s neck and tore a great gash from throat to chest, drowning Heath’s tortured screams in his own blood, and their eyes meeting for one fleeting moment: Shock. Tears. Agony.
With one last contemptuous sneer, Yoshiki threw Heath’s broken, bloody body on the ground and left in a whirlwind of red-hot fury. Sugizo did not see where he went; all he could see was blood, blood everywhere, Heath was choking on it in between short, shallow gasps as the likes of Mana, Takuro and Hisashi looked on sadly.
Takuro knelt down in the blood-drenched grass beside Sugizo. “What can we do?”
But Sugizo did not hear him. Terrified, he hovered over Heath’s barely conscious form, unaware of the tears running down his face. He looked down at the ground between his knees. The flow of blood from Heath’s body had slowed and it spread in a thick, dark pool around them and everything that Sugizo saw was red, red, red: red grass, red dirt, red hands, red leaves. Having lost so much blood so quickly, Heath’s already pale skin turned as white and dry as paper and his once beautiful, leanly-muscled body was as limp and withered as a long-dead corpse, as though the past few decades of bountiful youth had finally caught up with him in the blink of an eye. He was barely breathing now, just the occasional wheeze of his body desperately clawing to stay alive and failing, and his eyes were blank and unseeing as Sugizo knelt, cradling his thin body, cool tears cutting clear tracks through the smears of blood on his face. It wasn’t fair. They hadn’t even had a chance to enjoy their time together and Yoshiki, jealous, petty Yoshiki couldn’t stand to see someone else’s happiness when it didn’t involve himself and had to rip them apart. Yoshiki who had given them his blood and forced them to live by his will.
“Sugizo.” Takuro’s voice sounded very far away. “He has lost too much blood. I fear…”
Something about this train of thought gave Sugizo pause and he gave Takuro a hard stare. Everything revolved around blood. Blood was their death and their life. Blood had made them and blood alone sustained them. Blood could heal them. Heath had lost a lot of blood but if he took in enough fresh blood…
“Sugizo, don’t—!” Hisashi cried, but he had already torn his own forearm open with his teeth and pressed the bleeding wound to Heath’s already bloodstained lips, pooling off and drawing a lovely line of red across his withered cheek before dripping into the puddle of blood beneath them that had already begun to soak into the earth. Sugizo held Heath tight and wept bitterly, fearing the worst, until Heath’s body jerked to life like a wooden doll; his eyes, still clouded and seeing nothing, snapped open and a low moan of agony escaped from his red-painted lips. Still sobbing but clinging to that sliver of hope, Sugizo tilted Heath’s head back and let the blood from his arm trickle into his slack mouth. The smell of fresh blood drove his animal instinct to survive, and the dying Heath weakly swallowed this generous offering of life. Before long, Sugizo’s wound healed over and Heath swallowed one last time and his eyes fluttered closed with a sigh, his body once again going limp. Sugizo pressed a trembling kiss to his forehead and gathered him up in his arms. Their clothes were soaked with blood and heavy, and his still-healing bones ached terribly, but he paid this no heed. Without a look or a word to those who looked on, Sugizo took Heath and they disappeared into the night, never to return to their maker’s home.
God it's always nerve-racking to release a new story into the wild. I hope you all enjoy :)
The title comes from MUCC's Kurayami ni Saku Hana. If you haven't heard it, do yourself a favour!
The first night was the hardest.
Sugizo limped for hours with Heath cradled in his arms, not knowing where he was going. He had no other home to return to. None of them did. Any family they had before they had been changed would be old or otherwise dead by now, and any descendants would not know or accept them as they were. Certainly Sugizo had no intention of returning to the pleasure house in Kanagawa from where he was stolen. Yoshiki’s was the only home he had known for decades and in between bouts of their maker’s temper and being summoned to his bed, they had lived in relative peace and comfort amongst their own kind.
He looked up. Dark clouds gathered in the sky and the thick, damp smell of approaching rain grew stronger. How late was it? He would need to find shelter very soon if they were both to survive. The moonlight shining in between the dark clouds filtered through the trees in the forest, silvery tendrils between leaves and branches, illuminating a huge, dark form in the distance: a small, dilapidated Buddhist temple, the paint chipped and faded, the sharply-sloping roof missing tiles in big gaps, the walls overgrown with green creepers and moss and lichen. There were two aged stone lanterns standing on either side of the entryway and they were similarly adorned with greenery from years and decades of neglect. Sugizo almost fell to his knees and praised whichever deities were out there watching over them and showing him the way. All was not lost.
Sugizo lay Heath down very gently on the dirty, gritty floor of the temple, tucked away in the farthest, darkest corner he could find so that the light of tomorrow’s sun would not reach them. He brushed a lock of hair away from Heath’s sunken cheek, stark black against white. He was asleep or unconscious, allowing his body to channel what little strength he had into healing, but he looked dead and his cheek felt so, so cold. His breathing came in very slowly and shallowly, barely perceptible at a first or second glance. Looking at Heath in such a pitiful state, so thin and ashen and all but drowned in his own blood, Sugizo wanted to cry but he knew he had no such luxury right now. He had to save him first. They could cry over this later, once Heath was out of danger. Sugizo leaned over him and pressed a trembling kiss to his forehead. I shall return before long, the kiss said. Please wait for me.
Heath would need a lot of blood to sustain his recovery. He was far too weak to be able to feed properly, so Sugizo had no choice but to bring the blood to him. He looked up at the clouded sky; at a guess, he would have perhaps two hours to find prey and make it back to Heath before first light. He made his way through the forest and into the nearest town swiftly and quietly. Very few people were out and about at this hour so he could not afford to be picky. The first person he encountered was a man on his way home late from the local brothel, and they stopped and stared at each other for a second: one a balding, overweight, middle-aged man stinking of alcohol and sex, the other a younger man perhaps half his age in dark, sodden clothing with blood smeared on his face and hands and an unnaturally cold look in his eye. The older man’s mouth fell open and he turned to run, but Sugizo was upon him without a sound, holding him in a frighteningly strong grip, and he bit down into the soft rolls of skin of his neck, paying no attention to the sharp odour of sweat and fear and he drank deeply, scarcely stopping for breath. The man thrashed and tried to scream but the dark creature clapped a hand over his mouth and held him more tightly and still he drank, sucking and swallowing mouthful after mouthful of thick, musky-tasting blood tinged with the bite of alcohol and whatever else the man had imbibed before his unlucky encounter. It was not long before the man grew limp and heavy in Sugizo’s arms, unconscious from the sheer amount of blood he had lost, and still Sugizo drank. The deeper he drank, the more effort it took, as though the human body did not want to let go, but Heath needed a lot of blood and Sugizo was determined to take all of it. He heard voices, then; three or four drunk men laughing and shouting jovially at each other. With his lips and teeth still fastened to that pulsing vein in the man’s neck, Sugizo glanced around and dragged his prey into a narrow alley where he might feed in peace without being seen or disturbed. If anyone thought to look, they might have seen a dark shape with fierce eyes hovering over the limp form of a man and heard the soft sighs of a creature of the night feeding, but nobody did. They walked past without a single glance as Sugizo drank his quarry dry, leaving a shapeless, bloodless corpse on the ground. Normally they were loath to leave such obvious evidence behind but Sugizo’s sole concern was saving Heath’s life. He stood and licked the last few drops from his lips and, after a moment’s thought, stripped the man down to his underclothes. He would need to change out of his own bloodstained clothes sooner or later to avoid drawing attention from humans as well as his maker, who would surely be able to follow the scent of Heath’s blood. Heavy and bloated from overfeeding, Sugizo made his way back to the temple with haste. At the back of his mind, he wondered if he would make it in time. Heath was barely alive when he had left to go and hunt. He wasn’t sure what he would do if he came back to find that Heath had died while he was gone. Sugizo gritted his teeth and pushed these thoughts away. Heath was barely alive but he was still alive. He would give him blood and he would live.
The curtain of heavy black clouds drifted over the moon by the time Sugizo found the temple again. Thunder rolled in the distance like the deep, chesty snarl of a great dragon in the sky, and the already cool night became cold when rain finally fell. Heath was still where he had left him.
Sugizo whispered his name. “Heath.”
Heath did not stir.
Sugizo called his name again, louder this time, and received no reaction or response, not a twitch of a finger or a flutter of the eye. An invisible claw of panic slid around Sugizo’s throat and clenched. He called Heath’s name once more, held his hand, squeezed it, shook his shoulder once, twice and tears gathered in Sugizo’s eyes and a sob rose in his throat and he was about to slap Heath across the face when lightning cracked open the clouds, releasing the rain inside, and a deafening crack of thunder made the entire building shake and Heath woke up with a convulsive gasp, his eyes wide and staring up at the ceiling. Sugizo gathered him up in his arms, weeping and pressing little kisses to his face.
“Here, drink,” he whispered hoarsely, opening up his wrist and pressing it to Heath’s lips just as he had before. Heath only moaned softly and his head lolled sickly to one side.
He is too weak, Sugizo realised with a sinking heart. He hasn’t the strength to drink for himself.
If Heath couldn’t drink for himself, Sugizo would do it for him.
Sugizo drew blood from his own wrist, filling his mouth and pressing his lips to Heath’s, letting the blood flood his mouth. Heath choked and coughed and the blood pooled back out again, running down his chin and neck but Sugizo would not be deterred. Cradling Heath’s bony, wasted body in his arms, he filled his mouth again and again, feeding Heath his own blood, trembling with joy when he swallowed what he was given. The wound in Sugizo’s wrist soon healed itself over but he tore his arm open again and again. It hurt but he did it as many times as he needed to keep feeding Heath mouth to mouth until Sugizo himself began to feel faint. He would have to stop here. It would not do to weaken himself so much that he couldn’t hunt.
“I will save you, Heath,” he murmured. “You will live. I’ll see to it myself, and once you are all better we can be together. Please, please just hold on for a little longer.”
Heath’s lips parted and he seemed to take an immense effort to focus his gaze on Sugizo’s face. Sugizo did his best to smile through his tears. “I am here for you. Worry not.”
Heath blinked once, very slowly, and then his eyes closed again.
Sugizo gingerly peeled away the layers of ragged, blood-soaked clothing from Heath’s body. The wound that Yoshiki had dealt him was still fresh and gaping and red. Then he looked down at himself. He would have to dispose of his ruined clothes but before he did so, he tore off anything that wasn’t too badly stained. With one long length of linen, he bound up Heath’s wound tightly. Another scrap of cloth was soaked in rain and used to gently clean the dried blood from Heath’s face.
There, Sugizo thought as he dabbed at the last few dark red streaks on his chin. That’s a lot better. He would give Heath a proper wash when his wound began to heal. For now, they needed to rest and recuperate. They had endured a most harrowing night and Heath had far to go in his recovery. Sugizo stripped his own torn, bloodstained clothes off and buried them as deeply as he could. Digging with his bare hands was hard and tedious work especially in the rain but once his clothes were buried deep enough, wild animals wouldn’t be able to dig them up and expose their trail. Naked, he stood out in the pelting rain, letting it loosen and wash off the fresh mud and dried blood caked to his skin, and he dressed himself in the clothes that he had stolen from the man he’d attacked earlier that night. The clothes still bore the man’s strong odour but at least they fit well enough until he could find something cleaner. Together, they slept soundly through the day with Heath safely nestled between Sugizo and the wall.
The next evening, Heath did not stir when he lifted him from the floor of the old Buddhist temple and moved on. Sugizo walked doggedly for hours until he found adequate shelter for them, where he would once again set Heath down to rest while he himself set out to hunt. On this second night, Sugizo once again drained his prey dry and stripped them of their clothing. This time, after he had woken Heath up and given him a good feed, he helped him out of his old clothes which had become stiff with dried blood. Heath had bled through his makeshift dressing. Sugizo carefully removed this and bound him up with fresh linen before helping him into his new, stolen clothing. His old clothes were buried as well. Heath was still too weak to do anything except sleep.
When Sugizo gathered Heath into his arms at dusk on the fourth night and resumed their new nomadic life, Heath stirred and Sugizo’s heart fairly leapt for joy. This was the first sure sign of improvement in Heath’s condition and he pressed delicate little kisses to Heath’s face until he saw tears gathering at the corners of his eyes.
“Shh,” Sugizo whispered, stroking his hair soothingly. “It’s all right. Go back to sleep. If you sleep, you won’t feel the pain.”
But it wasn’t the pain for which Heath wept. “Wh… wh…”
“Don’t try to speak. Save your strength.”
“N…no…” Heath ground out through clenched teeth. “Wha… what are… y-you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“Y-you… ngh, leave m-me.”
“Do not worry,” Sugizo murmured. “I won’t leave you.”
“No!” Heath’s chest heaved with the effort it took to speak. “You n-need… to… leave me!”
Sugizo’s blood ran cold. “Why would I do that?”
Tears streamed down Heath’s face and he groaned in pain. “Am… dying.”
“No, no. Shh. You’ll be fine, you’ll see. Please don’t worry. I will take care of you.”
“He… w-will find…”
“No, he won’t.”
“I’m… dead weight.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m… s-slow you down.” Heath bit back another agonised moan. “If he finds… h-he will kill—”
“I won’t let him kill you.”
Sugizo kept walking, keeping a resolute calm about him. “I am not afraid of him.”
“No,” Heath whimpered. “He… too strong.”
“I don’t care,” Sugizo snarled. “I’ll do anything to protect you.”
“You can’t,” Heath sobbed. “If you die… all of this… for nothing.”
“No, stop this.”
“—you can be fr-ree—”
“Stop it, stop it, STOP IT!” Sugizo buried his face into Heath’s shoulder and let heavy sobs rack his body. “What use do I have for freedom if you’re not there? There is nothing without you. If Yoshiki finds us, then so be it. He is free to kill us both if he wishes it, but I will not leave you to die on your own! Would you curse me to live with your death, knowing that I could have saved you?”
Heath only wept harder at this but he had not the strength to speak and convince Sugizo to leave his side and, exhausted by his efforts, descended back into a deep sleep, his eyelashes webbed with tears.
There was no place out here where they might shelter undetected, but Sugizo found a small farmhouse with an enclosed pig pen that adjoined a small stable. It smelled strongly of manure but this would have to do for now. The pigs squealed when they came near, frightened into a panic by the scent of predators, and the horse occupying one of the stalls reared and backed away, snorting and tossing its head. Sugizo set Heath down on the dirt floor of the empty stall. The walls were high enough that the sun might not touch them in here. He stroked Heath’s face gently, brushing away the last of his tears, and took off into the night for his hunt.
He returned a few hours later to wake Heath up for his feed, changed his dressing, as had become their routine, and curled up to sleep.
The next time he woke, a bright light all but seared his eyes and he was so startled by this that it took a few moments to realise what was going on when something hard prodded him in the shoulder.
“I said, who are you?” It was the human to whom the house and livestock belonged, and fear and fury stabbed at Sugizo’s heart at being discovered, being caught out during the day when they were at their most vulnerable. His predator’s instincts screamed for him to attack and kill the intruder, take his blood for himself and for Heath. His human instincts told him to yield and to reason, to lessen the risk to Heath.
“Speak!” the man barked, pointing the end of a broomstick in Sugizo’s face. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Sugizo slowly sat up and he held up both hands to show that he was unarmed and not a threat. “Please,” he said quietly. “I… we mean no harm. We are… travellers, good sir. My… my friend is ill and he only needs a place to rest.”
The man maintained his suspicious glare. “If he is ill, why don’t you take him to see a physician?”
“Please, sir.” Sugizo licked his lips and tried again. “He does not need a physician, only rest. I ask nothing of you but for a dark, quiet place to sleep for the day. We need no food or water, nor money. I promise we will be gone by nightfall.”
The old man leaned down and peered at him, and Sugizo breathed an inward sigh of relief that he had washed all of the blood from himself and that Heath was still sound asleep, facing the wall. It would not do for anyone, much less a human to see Heath’s face the way he looked right now.
“You’re awfully pale, young man,” the man finally remarked. “Are you ill as well?”
“N-no, it is just fatigue, good sir. We shall be quite fine by the evening and by then we will move on. I promise we shan’t disturb you. If we can only sleep for the day, you need not know that we are here at all.”
The old man frowned. These two travellers looked suspicious to have turned up in his stable overnight. They looked unkempt but this young man was far more polite and articulate than your average beggar, and he was very insistent that they needed nothing but rest. Finally the man rubbed his greying beard and nodded. “Very well. If you need a quiet place to sleep, I can offer you a bed for the day, and you can wash up inside as well. I’ll be working until dusk, so I won’t disturb—”
“No!” Sugizo said quickly. The stables were at least a good fifty paces from the farmhouse. Sugizo himself would never make it there unscathed in the morning sun, and that sort of exposure would almost certainly kill Heath in his present state. “We will be fine right here, good sir.”
“If your friend is unwell, sleeping outside on the ground won’t do him any good. It gets cold once the sun starts to set. He’ll catch his death out in the open.”
Sugizo shook his head firmly. “I appreciate your kind offer but it is all right.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” the old man said dubiously.
The stable door squeaked closed on aged, rusty hinges and the stall was dark again. Sugizo drew a sigh and closed his eyes.
The old man left the strangers to sleep and went about his daily work. The animals were unusually skittish this morning. One of the stray dogs that frequented his property, a brown mongrel that he called Genzo, trotted through the grass, out for a casual morning stroll, panting noisily and stopping to urinate at the base of a tree trunk. The old man watched as Genzo sniffed at the ground intently and whined. That was odd. Genzo normally wasn’t shy about coming around to beg for scraps. He squatted down and whistled at the dog, slapped his knee, but Genzo only put his ears down and whined again, refusing to come any closer. Finally the dog turned and meekly slunk away with his head and tail down and his ears folded back. The old grey mare kept tossing her head and pawing at the straw in her stall, and she only stopped fussing when he rubbed her face and spoke to her in a calm voice. The two pigs he kept were huddled together at the far end of the pig pen and refused to go near their trough for their morning feed no matter how he whistled and called to them. Figuring that they would eat once they were hungry enough, the old man left them alone and busied himself tending to his crops and mending any broken fences. The day was mild and he worked hard, stopping only for some lunch at midday. He sat on a log stool in the shade of his house, enjoying some freshly-made onigiri and hot tea. After he finished his midday meal, he went back inside to make a few more onigiri and wrapped them in cloth. He rubbed the mare’s soft nose with one hand as he walked past to peer over the door of the other stall. The two travellers were still in there, sound asleep. Huh, the old man thought to himself. If he hadn’t looked earlier this morning, he really wouldn’t have known that they were there. He left the food on an upturned wooden bucket next to the stall door and saddled his horse as quietly as he could to avoid disturbing his sleeping ‘guests’.
The old man returned home from the market just after dusk. The sky glowed in bands of blue and purple and orange as the last of the sun’s light dipped below the horizon. He was looking forward to a hot meal, a hot bath and a warm night’s sleep but first he would need to take care of his horse. He dismounted and led her up the well-worn dirt path, passing by the pig pen. They seemed to have calmed down by now, and when he peered into their trough, it had been licked clean of all but a few scraps. That was good. He had been worried; he couldn’t afford to lose two animals to illness. As he approached the stable, he saw that the door to the unused stall hung wide open. The travellers were gone and the food had not been touched.
Oh these poor darlings.
Fearing that their maker might catch up to them, Sugizo continued to move them from place to place every evening. Heath slept deeply, as deeply as the dead, but his sleep was often haunted by the kind of nightmares that made him wake up screaming Sugizo’s name, thrashing wildly and sobbing and Sugizo would hold him and stroke his hair, murmuring soothing words to him.
“Shh, I am here, Heath. He cannot hurt us anymore. Go back to sleep. I am here for you.”
And Heath would curl up into a ball, his body wracked with pain and shuddering sobs while Sugizo sat by his side, stroking his hair until he fell asleep again. At dusk he would gather Heath up in his arms and walk for hours in search of a new place to stay for the day. Then he would go out and overfeed, and return to force Heath to drink from him, mouth to mouth. Heath still bled through his dressing every night, and so Sugizo continued to change his dressing every night with fresh linens. In his first year as an inexperienced and overconfident fledgling, Sugizo had once attempted to feed upon what turned out to be a bandit, and when he bit down, the man retaliated with a dull knife, tearing into Sugizo’s skin and flesh. The wound had been deep and painful, but it had healed itself within the hour and Sugizo felt no worse off for it afterwards. It had been days since Yoshiki set upon them and Heath’s wound scarcely looked better than when he had first received it. Sugizo frequently worried whether he was recovering at all; at times it seemed as though the blood he was feeding Heath was simply leaking out again, but he remained diligent with his care. There was nothing else he could do and in time his efforts paid off, for the bleeding gradually slowed and after seven nights, the cloth binding Heath’s wound only bore a few spots of red. Just in case, Sugizo gingerly peeled the linen back; the flesh beneath was still raw and red but there were no signs of decay. He was getting better, very slowly but it was happening.
The next night after feeding him, Sugizo carried Heath down to a shallow stream where he tore off a strip of clean linen and soaked it in the water to carefully wash the ragged skin around the wound and the worst of the dried blood on his skin. Now that he looked closer, his skin appeared different, too. The change was too gradual for him to notice a marked improvement at a glance, but Heath definitely looked healthier than he had on that first night; less gaunt, less withered. He was slowly getting stronger, too. As Sugizo gently sponged the wet cloth over his skin, the water loosened the dried blood and ran off in little red rivulets. Sugizo rinsed out the cloth over and over, bathing him patiently and methodically until Heath stirred and his dry lips parted, moving silently.
Sugizo leaned in close. “What is it?”
With his head resting in Sugizo’s lap, Heath’s dark lashes fluttered and he slowly opened his eyes, gazing up at him with clarity. “S’cold.”
Sugizo smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything I can use to warm up some water over a fire. Do you want me to stop?”
“Mm.” A tiny, grateful smile played at Heath’s lips. His eyes closed again but rested a hand on top of Sugizo’s. “No. Feels nice.”
Heath was getting stronger every night, little by little. A fortnight after they fled from their maker, Heath was able to speak more and he now had the strength to feed from Sugizo’s arm without being force-fed. This was not to say that he didn’t enjoy the feeling of Sugizo’s lips pressed to his own. He was still too frail to walk on his own, so Sugizo continued to carry him in his arms as they trekked north through the countryside away from Chiba, headed towards Tochigi Prefecture. In Sugizo’s arms with his head resting against his shoulder, Heath found comfort in his companion’s scent and he would often drift into a peaceful slumber until Sugizo woke him for his next feed at their new hiding place. By the light of the waning crescent moon, Sugizo quietly studied Heath’s appearance and condition while he slept. Some of the suppleness had returned to his face and body, and his eyes and cheeks were not as sunken, nor as dull and sallow as they had been several days ago. He was still far too thin however, and the slightest bump could cause him to bruise very easily, dark bruises that took days to heal, but that would resolve itself with more time and more blood. At least Heath was now able to sit up with some trouble. His wound was still painful but it had healed enough to allow him some range of motion without overwhelming agony.
“Does it hurt you when I drink from you?” Heath murmured one night as he lapped at Sugizo’s wrist.
Sugizo shook his head. “No. It stings when you bite down, but when you drink it feels… pleasant. I like knowing that I can do this for you. Besides,” he said, smoothing Heath’s hair away from his forehead with all the tenderness of a mother comforting her child, “even if it did hurt, it wouldn’t matter as long as you’re getting better. And you are. I see that you are improving night by night.”
Heath sighed a long, contented sigh and gazed up at Sugizo with quiet contemplation and a soft smile. He slowly reached up and drew cool fingertips over the curve of Sugizo’s cheek, the strong line of his jaw, down his neck to his collarbone and back up again. Beneath his skin, Sugizo’s pulse, normally silent except when feeding on live prey, seemed to come alive.
Heath lifted his gaze. “Do you think I might…?”
Without a word, Sugizo cradled Heath closer and hoisted him a little higher in his lap. Heath slipped one arm around his neck and nuzzled the delicate skin, pressing a soft kiss to the pulse point beneath his jaw and feeling it thrum against his lips like an invitation. Here it is, it whispered to him. You know what to do.
Sugizo kept himself very still, letting Heath explore this new territory at his own pace. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, taking in Heath’s scent; muted due to his frail condition, but unmistakably him. Delicate fingers played over Sugizo’s skin and lips, soft, teasing lips mouthed at his neck made him want to tremble and then he felt a brief sting in his neck and that first pull of blood and he jerked back in… surprise? Shock? Heath stared back at him; his eyes were wide as well but they softened in an instant and he gingerly touched the fresh bite he’d opened up on Sugizo’s neck.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Did I hurt you?”
Sugizo swallowed hard and trembled all over when Heath tenderly licked the wound. “I… no.”
“I wish you would not lie for my sake. Tell me the truth, please.”
“No, Heath, I… I’m not… you didn’t hurt me but…”
How could he explain it? The intense jolt of lightheaded pleasure and exhilaration that knocks the breath out of you, like being drunk, like the rush of falling from a great height or the shock of jumping into a cold lake on a hot day.
Like the pleasure of all pleasures.
“I… it felt… good,” he stammered. “So good. It felt… it felt wonderful.”
Heath brushed his lips against his ear and whispered darkly, “You taste wonderful.”
Without thinking, Sugizo coaxed Heath to drink from his neck again. He was delirious with pleasure and his blood felt like fire and starlight in his veins. Was this what it was like to drink from their own kind, or was it a special connection that only the two of them shared? Their maker Yoshiki had never encouraged this behaviour but he was concerned only with his own pleasure, never anyone else’s. Was this what happened when vampires fell in love? Sugizo pressed Heath’s thin body to his own and he wanted nothing more than to kiss him all over, to ravish and worship him and make love to him and he might have done just that if Heath had not suddenly stopped drinking and pulled away.
“Wh… what’s wrong?” Sugizo asked breathlessly and he received his answer when Heath slumped in his arms, his forehead pressed against his companion’s shoulder and breathing heavily.
“Too tired,” Heath murmured. “And I am afraid of hurting you.”
“Never,” Sugizo assured him. “You could do no such thing. Do you want more?”
Heath shook his head and tenderly kissed the raw bite until it healed over. “No,” he said at last with another one of those lovely smiles. “I just want to sleep. A sleep without dreams.”
“Shh. He isn’t here.” Sugizo helped Heath lie down and curled a protective arm around him. “It’s just you and me, just the way we wanted.”
They continued on their way the next evening and the next. The waning crescent moon turned and became the new moon, and the new moon turned and became the waxing crescent moon, and by this time Heath’s bloody wound had become a thin, ragged tear, very sore and, much to Heath’s chagrin, very itchy. He was now able to stand and walk about on unsteady legs for brief periods. One night, Sugizo brought Heath with him on a hunt so that he wouldn’t have to spend a few very boring hours alone. Sugizo brought their prey down and they fed together, and once they were done he carried a tired but sated Heath back to their hiding place for the night. In the early days when Heath was little more than an emaciated corpse, he had weighed almost nothing but now there was a much healthier weight to him and the light had returned to his eyes. His strength came back little by little and instead of falling asleep immediately after a good feed, he would stay up with Sugizo during the night, sitting together as they used to do in the old days beneath the old maple tree, side by side, gazing up at the stars and the fairytale rabbit on the moon, quietly talking, laughing, holding hands.
Throughout Heath’s laborious and distressing recovery, Sugizo thought often on their first kiss and how beautiful it had felt to share something so intimate and sweet with one he had been so entranced with since they first laid eyes on one another. Would it happen again, he had wondered? There were many times when he wanted to kiss Heath while he slept, when he did nothing but sleep in between being force-fed and he did once, a gentle kiss to those dry, paper-white lips, but it wasn’t the same if Heath couldn’t feel it. Then when Heath gradually recovered his strength and could sit up, he had wanted to do it then. But Heath was still so frail and always so tired, and so Sugizo kept himself entertained with just the tactile memory of their first kiss, doing his best not to recall what had happened immediately after. He didn't always succeed with the latter.
Then one night, Heath lay sleeping peacefully with his head in Sugizo’s lap. Sugizo gazed down at him fondly, stroking his hair, as soft and smooth as any silk, running his thumb along the curve of his cheek and those soft, pale pink lips. It was astonishing, he thought, how well Heath had recovered after that harrowing night. If it weren’t for the painful-looking tear in his chest, you might never know that anything had happened to him. How could Yoshiki hurt them so? How could he hurt and try to kill such a beautiful creature that he had made? The more Sugizo thought of this act of sheer wilful cruelty, the more the rage and hate simmered beneath his skin. Yoshiki had seen how happy they were together and dealt a near-fatal wound to Heath and left just like that. Sugizo ground his teeth and clenched his fists. Yoshiki had wanted him to watch Heath die.
He snapped out of his reverie when Heath awoke with a start, coughing hard, and Sugizo helped him up and rubbed his back. “Another nightmare?”
Heath coughed a few more times and rubbed his sore chest. He shook his head. “Is something the matter?”
“No. What do you mean?”
“Are you sure?” When Heath looked up, his eyes were dark with worry. “I dreamt of your voice. There was so much anger, I feared that something—”
“No no no, shh,” Sugizo assured him. “It is nothing. You were only dreaming. Everything is fine. The night is clear and quiet, and we are safe. Go back to sleep.”
Heath reached up and pressed a cool palm to the side of his face. “It will be daylight soon. You need your rest too, love. I know that looking after me is very difficult on you.”
“It is no such thing. I am fine—wait, what did you just call me?”
“I…” Heath hesitated and his gaze skated away. “I am sorry, I d-didn’t mean—”
“No. Heath.” Sugizo cupped his face in both hands. “Tell me. What did you call me?”
Guiltily, Heath raised his eyes to meet Sugizo’s gaze for a brief moment, only to skate away again as though he were confessing to some shameful wrongdoing. “‘Love’. I am sorry, was that… should I not have…?”
His words slipped away when Sugizo pulled him closer and kissed him so fiercely that a noise of surprise escaped from Heath’s throat, melting into a soft, delicate sigh. He wanted this as much as Sugizo did, had missed and craved his touch and his lips every night, even in his deepest sleep, worried that the first sweet kisses they had shared beneath the old maple tree had been some sort of beautiful, miraculous accident that he might never experience again, and here they were in each other’s arms, Heath’s hands tangled in Sugizo’s hair, kissing him again and again, long and languid with soft, sweet lips, rekindling that fire that had glowed inside them. Yoshiki hadn’t won. They had escaped from his grasp and now they had a second chance to fall in love properly. Sugizo cradled the back of Heath’s head and gently lowered him to the floor without breaking their kiss even for a second, the flame in him burning hotter than ever and—
A sharp cry of pain; on top of Heath, Sugizo froze. Heath had his head tilted back, his face twisted into a grimace, his teeth biting into his lower lip, one hand clutched over his chest. Sugizo swore under his breath. He had gotten too carried away; Heath’s wound was still painful and Sugizo had almost settled his whole weight upon him.
“Gods I am so sorry, oh Heath please, please forgive me.” He pressed frantic, delicate little kisses across his forehead. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just… it slipped my mind—”
Heath only smiled that sweet smile of his and reached up to stroke his face again. “It is all right. It slipped my mind as well. Perhaps when I am better…”
“Shh. No need to think about that right now.” Sugizo cradled Heath’s body against his own protectively, keeping his hands well clear of the bandaged wound. “Go back to sleep. You need your rest.”
“I’ll try, love.”
Sugizo closed his eyes to go to sleep as well, but sleep would not come easily. Love, Heath had called him. He had never heard anything sweeter, nor in his many years had he felt quite so taken with anybody as he was now with Heath and while he knew in his mind that they shared the same feelings for one another, hearing it put into words in this manner was enough to bring tears of sheer happiness. Even though they had no home to call their own, everything that Sugizo ever wanted or needed was right here.
A soft chuckle made him open his eyes. “Heath? What is it now?”
Still awake, Heath’s warm eyes were bright with mirth. “Why do you keep smiling?”
“Have you been watching me instead of sleeping?”
Heath brought one of Sugizo’s hands to his lips and kissed it gently. “I want you to be the very last thing I see before I go to sleep. If I can dream of you instead of him, I know that I will sleep easy and happy.”
Still smiling, Sugizo shook his head. “Go to sleep, my sweet.”
“You haven’t answered my question. Why do you keep smiling?”
Sugizo regarded him with much affection and at length he pressed a light kiss to his lips. “Because I love you.”
Heath’s wound was almost completely healed by the time the next full moon was upon them. What remained of it was a long, ugly scar but it did not hinder his movement and was no longer painful. For reasons that Sugizo could not understand, Heath was terribly self-conscious of his scar and he refused to undress or wash himself unless he was alone and out of sight. Sugizo told Heath time and again that he had seen him at his worst when he was almost dying, and that he really didn’t care about any damn scar so long as Heath was alive and well.
“Think of it as kintsugi,” Sugizo had teased him once, using a finger to trace the line of the scar through Heath’s clothing.
Heath only pouted and turned away, drawing his clothes tighter about himself.
“Dearest, I wish that you would not worry.” Sugizo pulled him into his arms and pressed a kiss to his hair. “If that terrible wound can heal, so too will this. Scar or no scar, I would feel no differently about you.”
“Really?” Heath whispered.
“Really.” Sugizo sighed and held him a little—just a little—tighter. “Even if you were to carry that scar for the rest of our days, it would not mar your beauty or diminish how I feel about you. It is a mark of what we have survived to be together and I could only love you more for it.”
Tears filled Heath’s eyes. Not the rest of your days. The rest of our days. It was such an offhand remark but the weight it carried was vast.
“Shh, now why are you crying?” Sugizo scolded him gently.
Heath brushed away his tears and tried to smile. “Because I am happy to have you, my love.”
It would still be a while longer until Heath recovered his full strength to be able to hunt for himself, but Sugizo did not mind hunting for the both of them. Prey was easy to find. A few times he even brought live prey back and they would set upon their hapless victim together, leaving the corpse behind when they departed at dusk the next evening. This was not Sugizo’s preferred method as they had been taught to leave no bodies and he generally disliked having to spend the day sleeping near a corpse, but Heath needed the nourishment. Now that he was far from mortal danger, however, Sugizo could also afford to be more choosy about the kind of people he preyed upon. It was still early in the evening yet, and he set his sights on a young woman, not yet twenty, as sweet and fresh as a spring flower: the perfect meal. He stalked her from a safe distance, watching her every move, waiting for the moment when he could strike up conversation and lure her into a dark corner or alley, away from prying eyes.
“Good evening, miss.”
The young woman stopped. So did Sugizo. An older, grizzled man with greying stubble and a missing tooth grinned at her. “Tell me, where did you purchase such a fine kimono?”
“It… it belonged to my mother, s-sir,” she stammered, taking a step backwards and avoiding his gaze.
The older man closed the distance between them and Sugizo could smell the fear in the woman’s scent. “Your mother, eh?” he grunted, catching her chin between his thick, dirty fingers. “Is she as pretty as you?”
The dirty old man and the young woman looked up to see a young man, a modestly-dressed stranger approaching them.
“I strongly suggest you leave this young lady alone,” Sugizo said smoothly.
The old man snorted and laughed in his face. “Who are you? Her husband?”
“No. Just someone who thinks that you should leave before you get hurt.”
“Is that so?” snarled the dirty old man, and the young woman cried out in fear when he grabbed her arm. “What are you going to do about it?”
Passers by began to stare and murmur amongst themselves. Sugizo calmly approached the man, placed one hand on his wrist and squeezed.
“What— ow, hey you’re hurting me,” the man grunted.
“If you stop bothering this young lady, I’ll stop hurting you.”
“Fuck you! You— ah! Let me go let me—”
A few of the onlookers gasped and the man let go of the young woman.
“My arm!” he howled, clutching the injured limb with his good hand. “Fucking bastard, you broke my arm!”
“It will heal,” Sugizo said coolly. “Not well, but it will heal.”
“S-sir, thank you.” The young woman bowed before Sugizo, and he smiled.
“You will never need to worry about people like him again.”
“How can I ever repay you?”
Sugizo patted her shoulder reassuringly. “You need not do anything to repay me. Perhaps I could walk you home? It would ease my heart greatly to know that you have made it home safely.”
The young woman cast another look in the direction that her would-be attacker had fled, still wailing about his broken arm. “I would appreciate that very much, kind sir.”
Sugizo and Heath fed very well that night.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m using the modern prefecture names that came into effect in the after the Meiji Restoration instead of the now-obsolete provinces that would be accurate for the current 1700s period. What we know as Chiba Prefecture was not established until 1873.
Sugizo took a deep breath of the cool air of late-autumn. Winter would soon be upon them and with Heath making a full recovery, it was time to start thinking about the future and where they would go from here. He had fed sparingly tonight, having taken a small amount of blood from three different people. The first was a vibrant young woman, recently married and with child. She had tasted sweet and rich. The second was an older woman, likely with a husband and children at home. She had a more mature, well-rounded taste. The third was a young man, scarcely seventeen and a virgin, by the mild taste of his blood. He had not yet developed the stronger, musky flavour of a sexually mature male. Each of them had lived. He had recently stopped overfeeding. There was no need anymore. His victims would wake up feeling strange and weak, and go home to tell their families about strange shadows lurking in the dark. In addition to taking their blood, Sugizo had quietly taken their money and any other valuables they had on their person. If he and Heath were to walk amongst humans and blend in, it seemed inevitable that they would need to use money for something eventually.
Feeling very satisfied with tonight’s efforts, he made his way to the little fisherman’s hut by the river where they would spend the day sleeping. Fishing season was well and truly over now that it was getting colder. The fish had long since spawned and migrated to warmer coastal waters or otherwise died and been snatched up by bears and hawks and other predatory animals to fatten up and feed their young before prey became too scarce during the coldest months of the year. The fishermen had cleaned and dried their catches for their winter stores and, like the fish, would not return for months. Sugizo pushed open the door to the flimsy hut and stopped and stared. The hut was empty.
He clenched and unclenched his hands, fighting the slew of frantic what ifs running through his mind like a swarm of buzzing insects. Beneath the fishy odour, Heath’s scent still lingered. That meant that he couldn’t be long gone. Before Sugizo could run off in a panic, he heard gentle splashing over the sound of running water nearby, and he made his way down to the reedy riverbank. A kimono and hakama lay neatly folded on a large rock and bathing in the river was Heath, so exquisitely beautiful in the light of the moon with his smooth black hair drawing dark lines along his back and shoulders like the finest calligraphy upon a scroll of pale silk cloth. He turned and looked up when he heard soft footsteps approaching in the grass, and his body looked strong and firm. There was no trace of the scar on his chest. He was perfect.
“You’re back,” Heath greeted Sugizo, smiling warmly.
Sugizo knelt down at the riverbank. “You gave me a dreadful fright. I thought somebody had swooped in and taken you or… or that you had left me.”
Heath’s easy smile faded and for a brief moment he frowned—remorse for worrying him, or reproach that he would even entertain the idea?—and then he took Sugizo’s hand, pressing a kiss to his palm. “Of course not, love. How could I ever want to leave your side?”
A current of delight skittered up Sugizo’s spine like tiny tendrils of ice. It still made him feel giddy every time Heath called him ‘love’. He wondered if he would ever get used to it. “I am glad.”
“I simply could not live with myself for another night without having a good wash.”
“You should be resting.”
“I am tired of resting,” Heath said with a weary sigh. “It has been more than a turn of the moon since I had a proper soak. I had thought to be finished by the time you came back but it felt so nice to be clean again that I wasn’t ready to leave the water just yet.” He drew more kisses up Sugizo’s wrist, mouthing at his skin and making him purr.
“Are you hungry?”
“Mmm. Not yet. Come, join me.” Heath leaned against the riverbank and reached up to Sugizo’s waist, and his deft fingers began to undo the knots securing his hakama. Sugizo shifted closer and helped him undo the obi at the back, and he slipped out of his hakama while Heath’s chilly fingers slid his kimono off his shoulders. Sugizo did not bother to fold them in a neat pile the way Heath had done with his own clothes. He had other, more important, more interesting matters on his mind. They had seen each other naked before and even occasionally touched each other at their maker’s behest, but this was different. They were in love. Heath guided Sugizo past the rocks and reeds and into the cold, cold river and kissed him, slow enough to make their heads spin. It had been over a month since they first kissed beneath the maple tree but it felt like an eternity, and now they could finally enjoy some well-deserved time together, gazing at each other through half-lidded eyes, and then Heath pressed his body against Sugizo’s and offered him his neck.
“Do it,” he breathed.
“I…” Sugizo swallowed, his hands resting at Heath’s waist. Gingerly, he reached up to touch his neck, closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. He was sorely tempted; Heath smelled so, so good but he had just come out of a month-long recovery from a life-threatening injury. Surely it wouldn’t be right to take blood from him so soon. Sugizo took his hands away. “I cannot.”
“I want you to. Please, love?”
“I want to know what it’s like to have you feed from me. It is all I have been thinking of for days. I want my blood inside you, the way your blood runs in me. You complete me.”
Sugizo gulped again. He let his lips brush against Heath’s neck, kissing him, mouthing him softly. Beneath his lips, Heath’s pulse throbbed as though it called to him.
“You always taste so good. I want you to taste me, too.”
Sugizo needed no more encouragement than that. He bit down and hot, sweet blood flooded his mouth.
“Yes,” Heath sighed with pleasure, his hands digging into Sugizo’s back, pressing him closer still, and his pulse quickened as Sugizo swallowed and drew another mouthful of blood, almost choking when he felt Heath’s light fingers making their way down his body, playing with him, teasing the neediest part of him.
Sugizo wiped the blood off his lip with the back of one hand and licked the bites clean until they healed and all the while, Heath played with him. Sugizo clenched his teeth. “Heath.”
“Please do not tease me.”
“Why not?” There was laughter in Heath’s voice and laughter in his eyes, and his hands did not stop their tantalising strokes, up and down and up again.
“Because I…” Sugizo’s voice caught in his throat when Heath started mouthing at his neck where his pulse fluttered with excitement, nipping him lightly.
“I…cannot guarantee that I will control myself.”
Heath only smiled at this and went on stroking him with his hands, teasing him with play bites, nicking his skin and licking up the tiny beads of blood before they healed over, drawing his tongue up along his throat. “Take me, my love. I need you. Make me yours.”
Sugizo took him by the waist, hauled him out of the water and onto the grassy riverbank in one fluid movement, kissing him aggressively, biting his lip and making him bleed, grinding his hardness against Heath’s equally needy body and they were little more than rutting beasts then, naked and wet and gleaming, all but devouring each other with hot, bloody kisses and bites, heaving chests and deep gasps and heady moans of desire. Heath’s hands tangled in Sugizo’s hair, clutched at his back and dug in, clamped his legs about his waist, whimpering, begging, needing him closer. Their bodies were too wet from their dip in the river, too slick and slippery and this only fuelled their frenzied desire until Sugizo simply could not hold back and he parted Heath’s pale thighs and sank inside him, to their mutual cries of pleasure and relief. They stilled for a few moments to catch their breath, foreheads touching, gazing into each other’s dark eyes, listening to the whisper of wind through the grass and trees, the ripple of the river and their own shallow breathing. They couldn’t quite believe this was happening. It simply felt too good to be true.
Heath let out a tremulous moan and clenched around his lover. “I have wanted this for so long,” he whispered.
Sugizo groaned and buried his head in the crook of Heath’s neck, almost sobbing with pleasure. He had coupled with dozens of men and women during his time at the pleasure house and of course he had slept with Yoshiki; he was intimately familiar with all manner of sexual acts and could bring just about anyone to a screaming climax with just his hands or mouth, but that had always been out of business and duty. Desire had never been a part of the equation. He had never known romantic love until now. He had never known the kind of physical love that could bring him to tears, to be joined with someone so dear to him, the desire to give all pleasures to his partner for the sake of pleasing him, the need to hold and love and touch and have him. He had never cared for his partner the way he did now as their bodies burned with lust, trading kisses and bites and blood. Their bodies completed and complemented one another the way nobody else had and nobody else could, their lips perfectly shaped for kisses, hands that were both strong and delicate enough to entice and torment, their eyes made for appreciating his lover. Even the alchemy of their bodies was perfect, for each found his partner’s scent addictive and the taste of his blood powerfully seductive, especially now during the throes of their lovemaking when their blood ran as hot as molten gold. As they moved together, Sugizo traced a line of kisses along Heath’s throat, past the gentle rise and dip of his collarbone, pausing to mouth lazily at the pert nipple along the way and using his hands to trace along the same route that Yoshiki had taken to try to end Heath’s life. There was no pain now, no scars and no marks to hint that it had ever happened and beneath him, Heath purred and writhed, and Sugizo slowly withdrew from his body and Heath bit back a whimper of disapproval that quickly gave way to delight when Sugizo sat up and pulled him into his lap and offered him his neck. Heath kissed him where his pulse thrummed and eased himself onto his lover’s length until he was fully, deeply sheathed back inside him, rocking their bodies together, Sugizo panting and mewling while he let Heath take control of their mutual pleasure and sharp teeth pierced the skin of his neck and Heath drank delicately, not so much to feed but more to entice, letting his lover’s blood fuel his desire until his body tensed and his movements became frenetic, rolling his hips harder and faster and he clung to Sugizo and arched with a breathless cry from his bloodstained lips upon the sudden rise of his climax, his breath coming in harsh gasps as he rode right through his peak while Sugizo chased after his own release, chased it and caught it and let it devour and overwhelm and ruin him so that he could do nothing but hold the one he loved so fiercely, so precious and beautiful all alight with pleasure and they kissed and kissed, for they had not known love such as this.
Afterwards, they basked in the coolness of the river with Heath cradled tenderly in Sugizo’s arms.
“Mmm,” Heath murmured, smiling to himself, tracing shapeless lines over Sugizo’s bare chest. “You are a wicked, despicable creature.”
Sugizo caught that hand and pressed it to his lips. “Is that so?”
“Oh, without a doubt.”
“As I recall, you were the one bathing indecently out in the open.”
“I could hardly wash myself properly with clothes on.”
“I was vulnerable. You stripped me naked and seduced me.”
“I had gotten myself nice and clean before you attacked me.”
“You,” Sugizo said, taking those lovely lips to his, “are a filthy liar.”
Heath smiled into their kiss. “It occurs to me that I never thanked you.”
Sugizo blinked. “For what?”
“For saving my life and taking care of me.” His mood turned sombre, Heath cast his gaze aside, watching sodden brown autumn leaves bobbing and swirling along the water’s surface and catching on sticks and reeds along the way. “It is not death that frightens me. It’s knowing that I could have missed out on… this. The happiness of being with you. That would have been the greatest shame of all.”
Sugizo sighed and squeezed him just a little tighter. “You needn’t thank me. There is no debt that is owed.”
“All the same, I want you to know that I will always be grateful.”
“I know.” Sugizo allowed himself a small smile. “But I cannot say that my intentions were entirely selfless.”
“You are wicked! It is a good thing, then, that I fancy you so.”
“You fancy me, do you?”
“Would I have let you do that to me if I did not?” Heath gave him a playful shove and Sugizo caught both of his wrists and pinned them behind his back.
“I can show you just how wicked I can be,” he said in a low voice, dark and husky.
“I would like that very much, my love,” Heath said with a small sigh of regret. “But I fear it may have to wait. You and your lustful ways have worn me out.”
“I don’t mind waiting,” Sugizo said mildly. “You will need to rest and regain your strength for what I plan to do to you.”
Heath smiled and tucked his head beneath Sugizo’s chin. “Disgusting.”
The two lovers slept soundly and contentedly throughout the day, and Heath awoke just after twilight to a set of soft lips at his neck and cool hands slowly sliding inside the folds of his kimono, settling between his legs.
“So wicked,” Heath murmured, letting his thighs fall open.
“I will make no apologies for how I feel about you.” Sugizo’s voice was muffled as he drew deep kisses along his lover’s throat. “Wake up, sweetness. It is time for us to rise and continue on our way.”
Heath kept his eyes closed and sighed with pleasure, enjoying those kisses, his body arching into Sugizo’s touch almost of its own accord. “Let us stay for another day. You deserve to rest, too.”
Sugizo mouthed at his neck, letting his teeth graze against Heath’s skin. “Not if you have anything to do with it.”
The pair simply could not keep their hands or lips from each other and before long, they shed their clothes and made love loudly and passionately on the damp, dirty floor of the fisherman’s hut.
With Heath fully recovered and able to hunt for himself, they set upon the nearest town together to hunt as a pack, taking a little here and a little there as they had been taught by their maker. There was no longer any need to drink anyone dry, and with the money that Sugizo had stolen from some of his victims, they purchased new clothes and burned their old ones. Wherever they could, they would retire to their new hiding place after having a good feed and they’d enjoy each other for hours before going to sleep. As two mature and experienced vampires, they continued moving from place to place regardless of rain, snow or heat. They rarely spoke of him but the constant threat of Yoshiki lying in wait for them at the next corner, the next road, the next village, weighed on their minds. They slowly made their way from Chiba to Tochigi, Fukushima, Niigata, Toyama, Shiga, never seeing Yoshiki or more of their kind, never staying in any one town or village for more than one or two weeks at a stretch for fear that lingering in any one place for too long would allow their maker to catch up to them and find them, and take away the happiness that they had endured so much to gain.
Time is of little consequence to their kind; weeks and months passed in what seemed like mere hours and days, and after spending six years drifting wherever the wind took them, the pair decided to settle in Gunma Prefecture for a time. They strolled through the bustling little towns at nightfall when eating and drinking establishments would light the paper lanterns hanging from the eaves, gently swinging in the biting winter breeze. Sugizo and Heath smiled at each other. Hunting here would be very easy. They surveyed their surroundings with great care and stopped at a quaint tea shop.
“Terribly cold, isn’t it?” said the little old woman behind the counter, smiling so that the corners of her eyes crinkled, and rubbing her gnarled hands for warmth.
“Yes,” Sugizo agreed, watching a small group of children run past in their heavy winter clothes, lively and carefree. “How has business been?”
“It comes and it goes. I have a very fine tea brought here by merchants from China not three days ago. Perhaps you’d like to sample some to warm yourselves up?”
“We’d like that very much. My friend here comes from a family of tea merchants.” Sugizo smiled at Heath. “I’m sure he would love to try some.”
“Is that right?” The old woman’s face lit up. “I’d like to find out what a fellow tea devotee thinks.”
Heath accepted the cup of steaming tea. He brought it to his face, relishing the gentle steam upon his skin, taking in the fragrance before having a small sip and then another. He set his cup down on the counter. “Oolong tea.”
“Very good, young man. What else can you tell me?”
“Fujian province.” Heath closed his eyes and took another sip. The light, golden-hued brew boasted a gentle floral taste and aroma with a smooth, velvety finish. “There is a faint fragrance of orchids. If I had to guess… the Anxi region. A very nice tieguanyin.”
The old woman beamed and clapped. “Excellent, excellent! It is, in fact, the finest tieguanyin harvested at the peak of its season, just this spring past. Your family has raised you well. May I ask where you are from?”
Heath smiled modestly. “My family came from Hyogo Prefecture. Amagasaki.”
“Goodness! You’re a long way from home, aren’t you?”
“We are travelling.”
“Ah.” The old woman nodded sagely. “It is good to be able to travel while you are young. Sadly, my travelling days are long gone.”
The pair shared a small, secret smile between themselves. At a guess, they were probably the same age as she. They stood, nursing the rest of their tea, as a young woman accompanied by her husband approached the same tea shop and made polite conversation with the little old shop owner. Heath and Sugizo watched them from the corner of their eyes as the newcomers also sampled a cup of tieguanyin and spent a moment discussing other teas amongst themselves, their breath coming out in puffs of vapour in the chilly air. After some light bickering, the young couple settled on some mild sencha.
“Now, is there anything else I might help you young lads with?” The old woman returned to them, all smiles.
Heath set down his empty tea cup. “I would very much like to purchase some of your lovely tieguanyin, please.”
“Caught your fancy, eh? Now, it is a touch on the expensive side but I’m sure you’ll agree that the quality is worth it.” The little old woman busied herself bustling about with scales and implements, wrapping the tea leaves very carefully in layers of paper. “Here you go, young man. Enjoy your tea, and please do visit again.”
“We certainly shall.” Heath paid for his purchase and bowed, and he and Sugizo set off in the direction that the young couple had gone.
They stalked the young woman and her husband and watched them stop at a ramen shop for a meal. Being that they could not eat human food themselves, Heath and Sugizo decided to wait. That was when they noticed him.
Oh yeah, Heath and Sugizo are THAT COUPLE who annoys everybody with how irritatingly and perfectly in love they are.
It was Heath who noticed him first. He stopped where he was, took Sugizo by the hand and pulled him deep into the shadows, out of sight.
“What is it?” Sugizo whispered.
Heath didn’t reply and he stayed very still, turning his head very slowly, looking in all directions, and that was when Sugizo caught his scent, too. It was faint in the air but someone was definitely there, very old blood, probably as old as Yoshiki, probably was Yoshiki. Worse still was if they could smell him, then he could almost certainly smell them and there was little point in hiding.
Sugizo’s hand tightened around Heath’s. “We should leave. Quickly, before he finds us. He may yet lose our trail.” If Yoshiki saw them alive and well and together, Sugizo had no doubt that their maker would finish what he had started by the light of the mid-autumn full moon six years ago.
The pair slipped back into the bustling street in the vain hope that the crowds and the combined smells of humans and fresh food and oil and smoke from the kitchens would be enough to mask their trail from their maker’s keen senses.
“I do apologise. I did not mean to startle you.”
They stopped short, just beyond the mouth of a narrow alley lit only by a single paper lantern far above their heads, but their sharp eyes saw him perfectly clearly: a tall, aristocratic-looking man with skin as pale as theirs, long, dark hair and even darker eyes beneath a severe brow. There was an enigmatic, brooding kind of beauty to him and his voice was rich and deep. A slow smile spread across his dark, painted lips.
Sugizo held Heath’s wrist and they took a cautious step back. “Good evening, sir.”
The stranger bowed, his long black hair falling over his shoulders like a sheet of silk. “And a good evening to you. To whom do I owe the pleasure of meeting?”
“We are but two travellers, sir.”
The stranger’s eyes narrowed shrewdly but his smile did not falter. “Come, now. Let us not play these childish games. I know what you are and you know what I am. That much is clear.”
“Begging your pardon, good sir,” Heath said politely. “If we have insulted you, you have our sincerest apologies. We meant no offense and we do not wish to have any quarrel with you. If this is your territory, all we ask is to rest and feed for a few nights and we can be on our way.”
The tall, dark stranger threw back his head and laughed. “Please, my friends, be at ease. I mean you no harm. It has been too many a year since I have crossed paths with our own kind. Let me show you to my home and we can sit down for a drink.” He bowed again. “My name is Sakurai Atsushi. Welcome to Gunma.”
Their new friend Atsushi led them through town and up a rocky path that snaked its way through the forest. Sugizo and Heath remained alert and wary, holding hands very tightly in case they might need to flee at a moment’s notice. Atsushi himself seemed unconcerned, striding easily before them, pointing out this shrine or that river.
“You must have lived in Gunma for a very long time,” Sugizo said.
“Ah yes. Many, many years.” Atsushi pointed to a mountain towards the south of where they stood. “Over there you’ll see Mount Haruna. Mind your step, now.”
A small pale shape darted out from the trees: a calico cat dashing across the path on soft, silent paws, almost right under their feet. The rocky path began to climb and became overgrown with moss and lichen and weeds the deeper into the forest they ventured. Where on earth was Atsushi taking them? Only someone who had made the journey many, many times would know that a path even existed here, especially in the dark. If this was some sort of elaborate trap, this Atsushi character would have the upper hand with such an intimate knowledge of the forest and its secrets.
“We are almost there.” Atsushi stopped beside a small red torii gate that sat by the side of the path. It was not much higher than their ankles, and he picked up a parcel wrapped in paper and tied with string, and a small clay flask. He offered no explanation.
The moon drifted high in the sky by the time they reached a clearing where a grand old house stood. Atsushi smiled cordially to his two guests and bowed at the doorway.
“Welcome to my home. Please make yourselves comfortable and sit by the hearth. I shall brew us some tea.”
Somewhat perplexed, Sugizo and Heath sat beside the sunken irori hearth in the centre of the room. Though the cold was of minor consequence to their kind, it was nonetheless pleasant to be able to sit by an open hearth and warm themselves. Presently, their host returned with a fine black lacquered tray and a clay teapot with three matching cups.
“This tea is a very fine tieguanyin from China,” he said, setting the tray on the floor. “I purchased it from old Mrs Fukui in town. Her goods are always of the highest quality. I believe you also paid her a visit earlier this evening, did you not?”
Heath exchanged another glance with Sugizo. How long had Atsushi been watching and following them?
Seeing their look, Atsushi burst into peals of melodious laughter. “Please lay your worries aside. I only thought it curious to see the two of you tonight. I have lived here for over one hundred years and not encountered even one of us until now. I would very much like for us to be friends.”
Sugizo inclined his head politely. “Please accept our apologies, sir—”
“You may call me Atsushi, my friends.”
“Very well. We do not mean to be rude. It’s just that we, too, have not come across any others like us since we left home six years ago.”
“That is fair. We are a rare breed, and how are you to know whether one is friendly or not?”
“Yes.” Sugizo hesitated. “We are also… avoiding somebody.”
“Ah,” Atsushi said very softly, casting them a very knowing look with glittering eyes, first at Heath and then Sugizo. “Your maker?”
Sugizo hesitated again. “Yes.”
“Please do not worry,” Atsushi said, smiling broadly. “You will be quite safe here. As I said, there exists no other of our kind in Gunma aside from myself, and I will allow no harm to come to my guests. You have my word.”
“Thank you,” Heath said gratefully.
The three of them settled down to enjoy the fragrant tea by the warmth of the hearth, and their host smiled when a handsome, long-haired black cat with a torn ear padded across the tatami and rubbed itself against Heath’s legs. “Ah, I see that Miu has taken a liking to you, Heath. You can pat him. He’s very friendly.”
Obediently, Heath stroked the cat’s soft fur and Miu pushed his head into Heath’s hand, purring loudly. “You’re very fond of cats, aren’t you?” Aside from Miu, there were six other cats in the room and at least a dozen more outside.
“Oh yes,” said the older vampire, producing the parcel he had picked up earlier and unwrapping it. Inside were several dried saury, and a few of the cats sauntered across the floor to take a fish each. The clay flask he set to one side. “I’ve always had a special affinity for cats. Perhaps I was a cat in a past life and my little friends can smell it on me.”
“You mentioned that you have lived here for over one hundred years…”
“Oh yes. And my family has lived here for generations before me. I was the only child in my family. We lived very comfortably here with my parents and grandparents, and I had a lovely wife and two sweet daughters. Then one evening as I came home using that same path through the forest, I was attacked. I do not know why I was targeted or by whom. When I woke up, I knew that something about me was different somehow.”
Heath and Sugizo nodded sagely. This was the same story that Mana had told them during the rare moments that he spoke, and it was sad to think that this was not an isolated incident. They themselves held no love for their maker, but at least Yoshiki had taken the time and effort to raise them and teach them how to look after themselves.
“As soon as I arrived home and set eyes upon my wife and children, the smell of their blood frightened me most dreadfully and I fled. I could hear them calling and calling for me, and for months and years they searched for me, but I could not return to them as I was. I spent a decade looking for a cure. When there was none to be found, I returned to Gunma and kept watch over my family from a distance.”
During this time, he said, he watched his family die off in stages: his parents in their sixties, his wife in her seventies, and one of his daughters died of a fever at only sixteen. His one remaining daughter grew up and married and moved away from the family home, and there the old Sakurai bloodline of Gunma ended. The family home fell into disarray and with nobody to maintain it, it quickly became overrun with vegetation until Atsushi himself returned to reclaim it.
“That was well over one hundred years ago. The people of the villages nearby are afraid to venture this far into the forest. They know that the Sakurai family left no descendants and that the house was abandoned.”
“But can they not see the light from your lanterns or the smoke from your hearth?” Sugizo asked.
Atsushi smiled shrewdly. “The local people believe that the area has been haunted by a bakeneko ever since the family bloodline ended. Who knows, perhaps it was the bakeneko who cursed the family and caused its ruin.”
Looking around at the many cats lounging and playing and prowling in the area, it wasn’t difficult to understand why the villagers would be afraid of approaching the area.
“I have lived here very comfortably since then and I feed upon the villagers sparingly. Legend has it that those who bear the mark of the bakeneko’s wrathful bite must make an offering of fish and lamp oil to appease him.” Atsushi touched the clay flask and laughed heartily. “I must say that this quaint superstition of theirs has worked very much in my favour. Their gifts of fish help to keep my cats well-fed, and I keep and use the lamp oil for myself.”
Their host refilled their tea cups.
“Now, that is quite enough about me.” Atsushi smiled at Sugizo. “May I ask how you came to know each other, and what brings you to Gunma?”
Sugizo took a sip of his tea. “Heath and I share a maker. When I was a child, I was sold to a pleasure house in Kanagawa and that was where I was… shall we say, picked up. A year after I was changed, our maker stole Heath, the second son of a family of tea merchants in Hyogo.”
Atsushi listened to their story with great interest, nodding every now and then and stroking a kitten that had climbed into his lap.
“We stayed with our maker for many years but after an unpleasant altercation with him, we made the decision to leave together.” Sugizo did not think it was appropriate to disclose any specific details of their ordeal at Yoshiki’s hands and Heath’s recovery. That part was personal. “And so we have been travelling together for six years, seeing the world.”
A chilling scream made them all turn and Atsushi got to his feet, tutting. “I do hate it when they fight.” He hurried outside to break up the cat fight, and Sugizo and Heath rose from their seats as well.
“It is late, my lord,” Sugizo said with a bow. “We have taken enough of your time.”
“Oh, no, please!” Atsushi implored, touching his arm lightly. “I would be honoured if you might stay a while. I have not ventured beyond the borders of Gunma since I settled back in my family’s home. I would very much like to enjoy your company for a while longer and to hear about the world from a pair of youngsters, and you look like you could do with a comfortable place to sleep. You have travelled long and far.”
“We have no wish to inconvenience—”
“Inconvenience? No, no, I will not hear of such nonsense,” Atsushi interrupted. “It would be my express pleasure.”
And so the pair stayed at Atsushi’s grand old ancestral home for half a year. It was impossible to deny that life was significantly easier during this time. They had a safe, warm place to return to every night with no fear of being discovered by suspicious humans, no danger of being caught at dawn with no shelter, and their host’s solemn guarantee for their safety meant that they could visit and hunt in the nearby villages without needing to watch out for shadows in the dark, waiting to snatch them up and drag them back to their maker to be punished for the crime of falling in love.
Sakurai Atsushi was the perfect host. They didn’t mind sleeping on the bare tatami but Atsushi took pains to air out a very musty set of futons for them to sleep in, served expensive tea to them every night and showed them around Gunma, as well as the best places to hunt. On rare occasions they might go out and hunt together, all three of them, but it was safer to hunt as individuals so as not to rouse suspicion. After they had fed, most evenings were spent sitting by the hearth, enjoying a cup of tea and sharing stories of travel; Sugizo and Heath were particularly taken with their elder’s tales from long before they were born, and how much the world had changed in that time. Did he ever find his maker?
Atsushi shook his head. “Alas, no. I fear my maker does not want anything to do with me.”
“That is so sad,” Heath murmured, gently stroking the black cat, Miu.
“Is that so different from not wanting anything to do with our maker?” Sugizo quipped.
Heath smiled. “That is his own fault.”
“It has been long enough that I am not too concerned about my maker. I’m sure your maker is a remarkable man, though,” Atsushi said, gently stroking Sugizo’s cheek with the back of one cool hand. “He certainly has excellent taste in those he chooses to be his children.”
Sugizo blinked, taken aback. “M-my lord?”
But Atsushi had already withdrawn his hand and picked up one of his many cats. He crossed the floor and stood by the door, looking out into the night. Winter was coming to an end; the bare trees and shrubs were sprouting pale green leaves, the air smelled of fresh rain, and some of the forest animals were already darting about with their young in tow. In the branches of the trees above them, a bird stirred and chirped. Atsushi sighed and smiled, and leaned over to blow out the flame in the oil lamp.
“Dawn is coming, my friends. It is time we retired and let the daywalkers go about their business.”
Squeezed onto one futon, Heath tucked his head beneath Sugizo’s chin and nuzzled him affectionately. “Is something the matter? You seemed tense just now.”
In the dark, Sugizo smiled and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Just a little tired. It’s nothing.”
Heath sighed softly. “I think I know what’s bothering you.”
Sugizo felt Heath’s cool hand reaching up to touch his face. “It must have been uncomfortable when Atsushi mentioned Yoshiki. It was uncomfortable for me, too. Even now he torments me in my dreams. I… try not to think of him and what he did to us. When I can. But we can’t let him control us like this. He is not a part of our lives anymore. Not for years. If we continue to let his presence and his memory threaten us, then he will always hold sway over us. The only way we can take that power away from him is to live our lives and forget him.”
“Promise me, love.” Heath slipped his arms around Sugizo and held him tight. “Promise me you’ll not spend our time together dwelling on him.”
Sugizo smiled and gave Heath another reassuring kiss. “I promise.”
This year’s cherry blossom season was a bountiful one. At its peak, the trees were laden with cherry blossoms and flower buds and the ground was carpeted in a delicate sprinkling of tiny, pale pink petals. The air was mild and fresh with the smells of sweet flowers in full bloom, lush green foliage and vibrant life as far as the eye could see, and on this wonderfully lively evening, Sugizo and Heath set out from the forest to hunt together. The village’s population—women and men, boys and girls, young and old—had amassed in town to enjoy hanami, celebrating the brevity of life and the importance of cherishing every fleeting moment. Girls and women were dressed in their very best spring kimono and yukata, beautiful garments embroidered with bamboo, peonies, plum and cherry blossoms, weeping wisteria, dragonflies and butterflies, and their hair adorned with delightful floral ornaments. Sugizo watched a pair of little girls, sisters scarcely more than six or seven years old in matching pink kimonos and holding hands, and he smiled at what a winsome sight they made. A pack of boisterous older boys sprinting in the opposite direction happened to knock the smaller of the little girls down; the boys apologised but she still burst into tears at having grazed one of her hands.
Sugizo knelt down to her level and helped her to her feet. “Oh dear. Look at you. It’s all right, little one.” He withdrew a soft square of cloth from his kimono and tied it around her grazed hand as a makeshift bandage while she sniffled. “It will hurt a bit but I’m sure you’re very brave and strong.”
“Oh, thank you, kind sir.” A woman, presumably the girls’ mother, hurried to their side. “Yuko, say thank you to the nice man.”
“Thank you,” the little girl Yuko said, rubbing her eyes with her uninjured hand.
Heath smiled as they continued on their way, charmed by his lover’s sweetness.
They missed being intimate with each other but it would be inappropriate while they lived beneath somebody else’s roof. In the past few months, they had exchanged little more than a chaste kiss every night, and one very lewd kiss that Heath placed delicately beneath the folds of Sugizo’s yukata. Sugizo had enjoyed that very much. On a few occasions they fled to a remote corner of the forest and all but tore their clothes off and wore each other out with their intense lovemaking with naught but the trees and the stars watching, later making their way into one of the nearby villages full of smiles and having a quick feed before enjoying a long, relaxing soak in one of Gunma’s many onsens.
“How long do you suppose we will stay here?” Sugizo mused. “How long until we move on and continue seeing the world?”
“Aren’t you enjoying it here?” Heath seemed rather surprised.
Sugizo made a noncommittal noise. “It would be preferable if we had a place where we needn’t restrain ourselves.”
Heath smiled. “I cannot argue with that. Gunma is so pretty, though. I had hoped that we might remain for a while longer, perhaps until the end of summer.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course.” Sugizo cupped his lover’s face in both hands and kissed him lightly. “Anything for you, my darling.”
Heath smiled warmly. “Well, now that we’ve fed, shall we head back?”
“Oh, but it is such a lovely evening, it would be a shame to end it so quickly.”
“We can stay out a little longer if you like.” Heath slipped his arm through Sugizo’s, and the pair slowly meandered through the village taking in the sights and sounds and smells.
Atsushi’s home in the forest was still empty upon their return a few hours later, just before a light rain began to fall. A few of the cats approached them with their tails up, meowing enthusiastically.
“I’ll feed them,” Heath said, crouching down and holding out the little parcel of fish that they had picked up from the shrine on their way up through the wending forest path.
“Very well. If you don’t mind, I’m going to have a quick wash before Atsushi gets back.”
“Not at all. I might have a nice soak, myself.”
Sugizo re-emerged a short time later in a yukata of indigo cotton decorated with cloud motifs in different shades of blue, and he found Heath seated by the unlit hearth playing with a mother cat and her two kittens.
“You can use the bath now,” he said, giving Heath a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you.” Heath smiled and got to his feet. “I shan’t be too long. Tell me if Atsushi comes home, won’t you? I wouldn’t like to make him wait if he wants to bathe before going to sleep.”
Heath disappeared inside the house, humming quietly to himself, and Sugizo took his place by the hearth and watched the fuzzy little kittens climbing over each other before picking one up. They had opened their eyes only days ago and spent much of their time clumsily exploring this new, strange world. The mother cat, lying on her side, blinked lazily at him. She was comfortable enough with them that she didn’t mind them handling her young. Atsushi had names for all of the cats. There were dozens of them coming and going, and how he managed to keep track of them all had always mystified Sugizo.
“I wonder what your name will be, little one?” he murmured, tickling the black and white kitten’s tiny paws.
“Yes, I’ve been giving that a lot of thought, too.”
“Oh! You’re back!” Sugizo set the kitten on the floor again and started to get up. “I’ll go and tell Heath, he’s having a soak in the bath but he said to—”
“No, please.” Atsushi motioned for him to sit back down again. “It’s fine. Let him enjoy a nice, long soak. It is one of life’s little pleasures, after all. I am in no hurry.”
“All right,” Sugizo said uncertainly.
Atsushi sat down cross-legged beside him and picked up the little black and white kitten. The mother cat yawned and twitched her tail idly. “I think I will call this one Haru, and her brother will be called Ame.”
“Very good names,” Sugizo agreed. “Did you have a good evening?”
“Oh yes. Lovely, wasn’t it? People everywhere in their best attire, the beautiful flowers. Truly a glorious time of year, and so easy to find a quick bite when everyone is distracted. Such a shame that the rain sends them all scurrying home like frightened little mice.” Atsushi cast Sugizo a warm smile. “My friend, you yourself are also looking very handsome this evening. That is a very elegant yukata. It suits you well.”
“Oh. Thank you. You are too kind.” Sugizo looked down at his yukata, feeling self-conscious. “Heath and I purchased some new clothing recently and—”
“Where did you say you came from?”
Sugizo balked. “Er. Kanagawa, my lord—”
“A pleasure house, wasn’t it?”
“Y-yes. I was sold to them when I was but a child.”
“Ah yes. I recall that now.” Atsushi stroked the kitten and set her back down beside her mother to nurse at her mother’s teat. “That must have been quite a shock for you.”
“I… yes. I remember it well.”
“How old were you?”
“Eight years old.”
“So young. Surely they did not have you… servicing patrons at such a young age. I cannot imagine.”
“No, my lord.” Sugizo’s throat felt dry, and he swallowed. “I did not not see or touch any customers behind closed doors until I came of age.”
“That is a relief.” Atsushi smiled at him again and held Sugizo with a steady gaze that slowly roamed over his body. “I’m sure there was much for you to learn. You must have been quite the popular attraction, I’d wager.”
Sugizo swallowed again. He cleared his throat. “Please excuse me. I should tell Heath to finish up with his bath.”
Atsushi’s face fell. “Oh, but I’ve been enjoying our conversation so much.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord.” Sugizo rose to his feet and bowed. “It is getting late.”
He could still feel Atsushi’s eyes upon him, burning like twin flames in his back as he retreated down the corridor on bare feet with brisk strides. When he reached the door of the bathroom, he paused for a moment to take a deep breath and compose himself.
“Heath?” He rapped on the door lightly. “Are you done?”
“Is he home?”
Sugizo heard splashing inside and he waited patiently by the door, eyeing the long, dark corridor in case Atsushi might come looking for him to continue their uncomfortable conversation about his upbringing. He listened to the gentle patter of rain outside. Presently the bathroom door slid open and Heath emerged, his skin scrubbed clean and glowing from his bath, dressed in a yukata not dissimilar to the one Sugizo wore, only his was decorated with paulownias.
Sugizo smiled. “Come. Let us go to sleep.”
“I’ll go and tell Atsushi that the bathroom is free to use—”
Heath stopped when Sugizo caught his wrist. “Is something the matter?”
“N-no, nothing,” Sugizo said quickly. “I just mean that… er… I told him that you would be finished soon. So you don’t need to tell him again.”
“Oh that’s all right,” Heath smiled. “I shall just bid him a good night.”
“I shall wait for you in our room. Please do not linger out there too long. You know how I miss you so.”
Heath gave him a sweet little peck on the lips and padded down the dark corridor, the warmth from his bare feet, still fresh from his bath, leaving little ghostly footprints on the smooth polished floorboards that soon disappeared. Sugizo heaved an inward sigh.
In the nights that followed, Sugizo did his best to avoid being alone with Atsushi if he could help it. Even so, it was impossible to evade his attention altogether. When the three of them sat around the hearth enjoying fine tea and light conversation, Sugizo would catch their elder holding him in a dark, lustful gaze when Heath wasn’t looking. If Heath excused himself for any reason, Atsushi would be by Sugizo’s side, smiling and resting his hand on his knee or his shoulder or at the small of his back.
“My lord.” Sugizo dipped his head, moving just out of arm’s reach.
Atsushi only laughed. “Oh, I do apologise if I’ve made you uncomfortable. It’s just that I have been alone for so long that I do so miss being around others of our kind. If I’ve done anything untoward, I hope that you may forgive me.”
One warm evening in summer, the lovers returned to Atsushi’s home from a hunt. They had enjoyed a light feed and a relaxing soak at an onsen, and Heath had purchased some gyokuro tea from Mrs Fukui in town.
“Let me brew some of this lovely tea for us,” Heath offered.
“Thank you,” Atsushi said with a small incline of his head.
“I’ll help you—” Sugizo said and started after Heath.
Heath shook his head and waved him away. “It’s all right, I shall be back very soon. This will take but a moment.”
Sugizo bit his lip as Heath disappeared around the corner with the paper parcel of tea leaves in his hands. To put some distance between himself and Atsushi, Sugizo stood by one of the windows, breathing in the warm air. Hidden in the trees and shrubs, male bell crickets trilled to attract mates, and moths fluttered haphazardly about the lanterns, their dusty wings whispering against the delicate paper shielding the flame from gusts of wind and all too soon, Atsushi was by his side.
“Heath is a very nice young man,” he remarked lightly.
“Yes, he is.” The older vampire’s proximity made Sugizo shiver.
Atsushi sighed and moved a little closer. “It has been too long.”
Sugizo swallowed nervously. “Too long?”
“Since I have been with another.” Atsushi let his arms slip about Sugizo’s waist. “I have not lain with another of our kind in… I can scarcely remember how long. Perhaps longer than I have lived here in Gunma, alone.”
He drew his arms closer about Sugizo’s body and let his teeth graze along his neck. Sugizo shuddered and his skin crawled. The older vampire’s teeth upon his skin felt good, bringing back pleasantly erotic memories of the way Heath would bite and drink from him, but he hated it as well and then Atsushi’s voice, deep and dark as the Haruna River that flowed nearby and as smooth as any silk, was in his ear.
“I can give you so much more than Heath can,” he murmured. “And you could give me so much pleasure. Together we can live like the lords of this mountain and feast upon the people of the village as we please.”
Sugizo’s throat tightened. “And what of Heath?”
“What of Heath?” Atsushi’s voice was haunting and musical, almost hypnotic. “He is not my concern.”
Sugizo tore himself from Atsushi’s embrace but his elder only laughed and backed him into a corner, trapping him with one hand, the other hand already toying at the obi on Sugizo’s yukata.
“You would never need to worry about running from your maker,” Atsushi murmured. “I will protect you.”
“My lord, I must ask that you desist!” Sugizo pushed him away as Atsushi tried to kiss him, and his knees all but collapsed with relief when Heath returned with their tea.
Heath stopped short, sensing their discomfort.
“Come, my love.” Sugizo took the tray from his hands and placed it on the floor, putting a protective arm around Heath’s shoulders. “We are leaving.”
“Leaving? What?” Holding Sugizo’s hand tightly in his, Heath glanced between him and Atsushi. “Why?”
“Please, no—” Atsushi looked chastened as he approached them.
Sugizo backed away. “My lord,” he said in a warning tone.
Atsushi stopped and looked at them with new eyes. The way that they held each other was far more familiar and intimate than that of mere friends or even casual lovers. “My friends, I do sincerely apologise. It is my fault. I… I had not realised that your bond was so strong. You have my respect.” He closed his eyes and his dark, sultry beauty appeared to fade into something more akin to brooding sadness. “I did not mean to offend. I am so very lonely, you see. Living here alone for so many years.”
“Be that as it may, my lord, that is not my concern,” Sugizo said tersely. “I will not forsake the one that I love.”
Still confused, Heath said nothing.
“I regret that we cannot repay you for your kind hospitality,” Sugizo went on, backing himself and Heath towards the front door, “but I must insist that we take our leave. We have no wish to further inconvenience you.”
The pair made their way back down the forest path with Sugizo occasionally glancing over his shoulder, although Atsushi’s resigned countenance indicated that he would not attempt to follow them and indeed it was unlikely that he would even want to leave the comfortable life he’d built here, with the villagers all but worshipping the ‘spirit’ that lived in the forest. The only dark shapes they saw were the trees looming far overhead and the occasional cat or fox darting into the undergrowth. The evening was still young but they would still need to hurry to find new lodgings before first light.
“What on earth has happened?” Heath asked.
Sugizo glowered into the darkness. “I have worried about this for some time, but tonight he made it quite clear. He intended for me to stay with him as his… he was all too interested in my previous life at the pleasure house.”
“What?” Heath frowned. He couldn’t believe that their charming host would display such behaviour.
“In your absence he would make advances towards me. Just this evening, he attempted to touch me and had you not returned when you did…” Sugizo clenched his fists. “That is why we must leave. I am sorry. I know that you would have liked to stay here longer but—”
Heath stopped and pulled Sugizo into his arms, pressing little kisses to his forehead, his cheeks, his lips. “No, love. There is nothing to apologise for. We will not consort with someone who wishes to tear us apart. Not Yoshiki and not Sakurai, even if it puts our lives in danger.” He rested his forehead to Sugizo’s and sighed. “I only wish that I had noticed, if I had seen or heard something before it came to this. I feel that I have failed you.”
“No! The fault lies with him.” Sugizo took Heath’s hand. “We must hurry if we are to find new shelter.”
From that night, they resumed their nomadic life. It was difficult after spending several months living in lavish comfort in a beautiful old house in the forest with plentiful food within arm’s reach. After escaping from their maker and then encountering another elder whose conscience was perhaps only slightly more favourable, they were very wary of meeting others. Fortunately what Atsushi had said when they met still rang true: their kind was a very rare breed indeed. These were few and far between as they moved around the country.
Several years on from their departure from Gunma, they found themselves in Sugizo’s hometown in Kanagawa. Much to Sugizo’s scorn, the old Gin no Tsuki pleasure house still stood, although it looked much worse for wear since the last time he had seen it over half a century ago. In addition to stationing a pretty little girl at the door to attract and greet guests, as Sugizo had done as a child, they also had a grizzled, overweight man who looked like he smelled of sweat and tobacco, shouting bawdy comments at any women passing by, and a woman in her thirties dressed as an oiran in a very fancy layered kimono with even more elaborate decorations in her hair, batting her eyelashes at all the men. The little girl herself was dressed much like Sugizo himself had been when he’d been disguised as a girl to lure male guests.
Heath tugged at Sugizo’s hand. “Come away, love. You hold no fondness for this place. We don’t need to be here.”
Sugizo started to follow him and paused. “No. I would like to see how the old slave house has fared these past decades. You should go and feed.”
“Very well,” Heath agreed.
“Would you be upset if I were to…?”
Heath hesitated and cast an apprehensive glance at the pleasure house.
“Heath. I am only asking. If you do not want me to, you need only say so. I will not argue and I will not be offended.” Sugizo took both of Heath’s hands in his own. “I wouldn’t and couldn’t do anything to upset you, and certainly nobody could ever take your place in my heart. Nobody matters more to me than you do. Please tell me that you know that.”
Still hesitant, Heath nodded slowly.
“If you do not want me to, I will only have a look around and you have my word that I will not touch anybody. None at all.”
“If I say yes, will you come back to me?” Heath asked softly.
“I will come back to you no matter what, my darling.” Sugizo pressed Heath’s hands to his lips. “I am merely curious to be a customer. I am not tired of you; far from it. You know that I only have eyes for you. And no mere human could please me the way you do.”
“All right.” Heath squeezed Sugizo’s hand. “I… I understand.”
“Thank you.” Sugizo kissed him tenderly. “I shall not be long. I will come and find you once I am done.”
After Heath had retreated back into the shadows to hunt on his own, Sugizo straightened out his yukata and approached the old pleasure house with a self-assured stride and his head held high. Anyone with money in their pockets was fair game but he had always been trained to look out for the confident, well-to-do types between the ages of twenty to fifty. It seemed that these teachings had not been lost, for he quickly caught the gaze of the older woman masquerading as an oiran.
“Good evening, my lord.” She greeted him effusively in a shower of smiles and overly-sweet, almost caustic perfume. She touched his arm lightly and laughed. “Oh my, what strong arms you have. And such beautiful skin! You would put some of our young ladies to shame. It’s a very good thing that they aren’t out here to greet you, for you would have them all swooning in the streets and fighting over you!”
“Is that so?” he said with his most charming smile, the one that he had often used on his own customers back in the day. Old habits die hard.
“Of course! Have you visited our fine establishment before?”
“It was a very long time ago. I have been travelling for many years.”
“Well! In that case you’ll be pleased to know that we have a lot of fresh, young girls who would be most pleased to entertain a fine gentleman such as yourself.” She took a step back and held Sugizo with a calculating gaze and a small smile on her painted lips. “Or perhaps my lord prefers a male companion. We have some lovely boys for you to choose from - not as fine as yourself, of course, but I’m sure you will find them more than satisfactory.”
Sugizo laughed. “Please, my dear, you flatter me.”
“No indeed, it is the truth! Now, if you’d like to come with me, I’m sure we can find something to suit my lord’s tastes and budget.”
Sugizo let himself be led inside, and the overpowering smells of tobacco smoke, perfume, alcohol, sex and sweat were as thick as fog even before he stepped over the threshold. While the female greeter gushed at him, he cast his gaze around, taking it all in. Everything still looked as he remembered, although of course all of the faces had changed. With a very small number of exceptions, the men and women employed to service customers were retired once they reached a certain age, usually no later than thirty as it was thought that they had become too old to appeal to most customers. Sugizo himself was approaching the twilight of his employability at the pleasure house by the time Yoshiki had snatched him up at the age of twenty-six. Now he had returned looking not a day older than when he suddenly disappeared. He noticed with distaste that the mama-san in charge of the whole operation had the same mannerisms as the ruling mama-san of his own time, bustling about barking orders at the staff and slapping them if they complained or were too slow to obey orders. It takes a certain kind of person to manage a brothel, he thought wryly. He caught the mama-san looking at him up and down with a shrewd smile on her face, no doubt thinking about how much money they could fleece out of him tonight.
“Hotaru! Hotaru!” The female greeter beckoned to a younger woman who came hurrying over.
“Please see that this gentleman is well taken care of.”
“Of course!” The new girl, Hotaru, bowed and took Sugizo’s arm while Sumire returned to her post outside to draw in more guests. “I can see that you are a man of discerning tastes, my lord. I’ll have our very best sake brought to you at once—”
“That’s all right,” Sugizo cut in smoothly. It was one of the oldest tricks in the book: selling the most expensive alcohol upfront to dupe the unsuspecting patron. Most customers either didn’t know that there were cheaper options on offer, or were too embarrassed to ask or decline the drink altogether. “Some tea will be quite sufficient. I am not much of a drinker, I’m afraid.”
“Of course,” Hotaru said again, masking her displeasure well. Somebody who hadn’t been taught the same tricks would never have noticed the subtle cooling of Hotaru’s demeanor, but Sugizo saw right through the mask of politeness and he could practically feel the mama-san glaring behind him. “Does my lord have a preference?”
“Genmaicha would be lovely, thank you.”
Hotaru dipped her head in acknowledgement. “Now, about tonight’s entertainment. Does my lord prefer a female or a male?”
“Hmm,” he mused. “May I see some of your boys?”
The mama-san clapped her hands twice and barked, “Bring me Hizaki, Kaya, Hyde and Miyako! Quickly!”
In the blink of an eye, three attractive young men were ushered out, plump of cheek and impeccably turned out, bowing their heads submissively before a potential customer.
The older woman scowled. “Where is Kaya?”
“He is with a customer, mama-san!” somebody else called.
Sugizo studied each of the three young men in turn.
“These boys are aged between eighteen and twenty,” Hotaru said, placing one hand beneath the first one’s chin to tilt his face up. “They are healthy and clean and I can guarantee that they are all well-trained in the arts of pleasuring women and men. My lord will be well-looked after.”
Sugizo said nothing. The first one, Hizaki, had large, beautiful eyes and a delicate oval face, and was pretty enough to be a girl. Briefly he wondered if this Hizaki had the same story as his own; sold to this same pleasure house at a young age and used as a lure for customers. The second, Miyako, was more slender of face and had lovely, almond-shaped eyes. The third, Hyde, was the smallest of the three with a more boyish face and full, pouting lips.
Sugizo prowled back and forth before them like a predator choosing his meal and he finally stopped and stood in front of the second one. “I shall take this one.”
“Excellent choice,” Hotaru said, bowing and sending the other two away. She led them down a long corridor that Sugizo had walked up and down hundreds of times with all manner of moans and groans all around them, and showed them to a sparsely-furnished room decorated with candles and flowers, and a lamp filled with perfumed oil in one corner. “I’ll have some genmaicha brought over shortly and we’ll leave it outside your door so as not to disturb you, my lord.”
“Thank you, Hotaru.”
She bowed again and slid the door closed.
While Sugizo was being shown to his room, Heath slowly roamed the streets at the other end of town, half-hidden in the shadows. He did not feel like engaging with anybody tonight, not even the tea sellers. Despite Sugizo’s reassurances that he had not tired of him, and his solemn promise to return to his side, Heath could not help but think otherwise. He had never been interested in brothels himself and didn't really see the appeal. To him, they were a place for married men to escape from their shrewish wives, and for unattached men to seek the sort of attention and pleasure that they could not find elsewhere. He wandered for well over an hour and eventually settled on the easiest catch he saw: a half-drunk man in his forties, not the best-tasting meal that a healthy and cunning creature such as himself could have caught, but he paid little attention to the taste. In truth, he had only said yes because he did not wish to disappoint Sugizo and ruin his fun, for that was surely a way to make him resent him. There was no compromise, Heath thought unhappily. He imagined his lover in a lavishly-decorated, heavily-perfumed room surrounded by a harem of pretty young girls and pretty young boys, all limber and supple and vying for Sugizo’s attention. He imagined his lover touching and kissing another, coupling with another.
He was snapped out of his reverie by the strong presence of another and he spun on his heel and would have turned on them had Sugizo not caught his wrist.
“Goodness! Have you seen a ghost?” he teased, bringing that wrist to his lips and grazing his teeth along Heath’s skin.
“I… I suppose you caught me daydreaming,” Heath said bashfully.
“About me, I hope.”
Heath hesitated. “In a manner of speaking.”
In the space of half a breath, Sugizo wrapped his arms around him and held him close, nuzzling at his neck. “Oh Heath, my love, my darling, my dearest. You were uncomfortable with me visiting the brothel, weren’t you? I should have realised. I am sorry. I never meant for you to feel unwanted.”
Heath said nothing but he relished his lover’s strong, possessive embrace. He must have washed himself well, Heath realised, for he smelled of fresh charcoal and pine. He relaxed in Sugizo’s arms. “It is my own fault. I was afraid that you would be displeased if I said otherwise. I… did not wish for you to think that I was selfish in keeping you all to myself.”
“No, Heath. Please don’t say that. The only thing I want is to be yours. I am yours, am I not?”
Heath finally managed a smile. “Always. As I am yours.”
“Do you want to know something?” Sugizo murmured into his neck.
“Mm?” was all Heath was able to say, for Sugizo’s kisses upon his neck deepened and his hands began to roam.
“The whole time, I could only think of you.” Those hands tugged Heath deeper into the shadows and crept inside the folds of his yukata. “I left that place feeling more hungry than I did before I stepped through their door. Because it wasn’t you.”
Heath drew in a sharp breath and he trembled. Now Sugizo was palming him beneath his clothes, between his thighs where his flesh began to stiffen and his skin tingled in anticipation of the pleasure that these hands never failed to deliver.
“I kept wishing that you could be there with me. All the things I would do for you. All the things I would do to you.”
Heath bit back a moan.
“The things I would have that pretty boy do to you while I watched. How beautiful you would be like that.”
“Oh Sugizo—” Heath captured his lips in a searing kiss and Sugizo would have torn at the obi fastening Heath’s yukata had Heath not stopped him.
“Wait,” he breathed.
Sugizo growled low in his throat. “Why must you tease me like this, sweetheart?”
“Not here.” As desperate as he was for Sugizo to take him right now, this wasn’t like their frantic, heated trysts in the empty forests back in Gunma. There were too many people here, too many prying eyes.
“Very well.” Sugizo helped Heath straighten out his clothes again. “No matter. I know of a nice little place where we can spend our time… entertaining ourselves.”
Sugizo took his hand and led him back up the street a short distance, until they came to a modest-looking inn and he asked for a quiet room for two, the darker the better. The clerk at the front desk smiled broadly and showed them to a corner room on the upper level, with woven bamboo shades overhanging the windows that could be unfurled at a moment’s notice.
“Sugizo, we don’t have the money to pay for a room at an inn,” Heath whispered.
Sugizo smiled and bowed, and the clerk left, sliding the door closed behind him. “I sold many years of my life to the bastards at Gin no Tsuki.” He withdrew a thick wad of money from inside his kimono. “I thought it was only fair for me to take some of it back.”
Heath laughed and kissed him. “You stole all of that from them?”
“Is it ‘stealing’ if you take back what was yours?” Sugizo pondered, and then he pressed Heath against the wall and made quick work of his clothing. “Enough of that. I seem to recall that somebody started something that needs to be finished.”
Heath purred and started tugging at Sugizo’s kimono. “As long as you’re not tired of me.”
“I have never wanted you more—ah!” Sugizo hissed when Heath kissed him and bit his lip, drawing a small bead of blood, and he smiled. “You should let me take you to a pleasure house one day. I promise you’ll have a good time.”
“One day,” Heath agreed. “But for now I want you to show me… how you were thinking of me when… ohhh—”
The rest of his words were lost in a moan when Sugizo sank to his knees and began to pleasure his lover with his mouth.
They continued wandering through the country and through the years, wending their way from west to east: Tottori, Hyogo, Ishikawa, Shiga, spending a summer close to beautiful Lake Biwa before moving onto Nagoya. They had become comfortable with their way of life, now staying in a village or town for longer stretches, the threat of their maker’s wrath gradually fading with each mile and each year. They had wandered for nearly twenty years since leaving Yoshiki. While they would always remain vigilant, they believed that if he wanted to find them, he would surely have done so by now.
During their travels, the pair heard news that the northern Tohoku region had seen a number of very dry, bitter winters followed by heavy rains and flooding, and uneasiness rippled out from this region throughout the rest of the country. Long periods of poor weather, going from drought to floods, meant that crops were not able to flourish, and poorer farming families in rural areas were struggling to make ends meet.
“Tanuma Okitsugu did this!” one farmer complained.
Another farmer grunted. “His taxes will drive us to poverty. How are we to pay our taxes in rice when we cannot grow rice? Look at this!” He held up a handful of limp, yellow stalks and threw it on the ground in disgust. “We barely have enough rice to feed our families.”
Ongoing crop failures forced the buying price of rice to rise and rise, and it was not long before a large portion of the population could not afford to buy rice at all. Emergency food stores were distributed to struggling families until there were none left, and the famine spread like a disease throughout the country. Some families resorted to selling their children to be able to afford to buy food; others smothered their newborns and infants for they could not afford to feed another mouth.
At the height of summer in the following year, Heath and Sugizo found themselves in Nagano Prefecture. People here were struggling too. They saw people harvesting clumps of grass for their evening meal, for they had little else to eat. Others slaughtered their own horses, or trapped stray cats and dogs for a meagre meal. The sky was overcast with thick clouds hanging in the air like an omen of things to come, tremors rocked the earth and in the distance, Mount Asama rumbled and coughed, belching more ashen clouds into the sky. The ash cloud grew darker and heavier as they made their way into town until the sky turned black, frequently rumbling with thunder and crackling with lightning. By now, day had become almost as dark as night and still Mount Asama grew more wrathful, shaking the ground and frightening people from their homes.
“It is a sign,” an old woman said, pointing at the mountain and shaking her head. “Mount Iwaki in Aomori erupted and the same will happen here. This is surely a sign that the gods are punishing us for the crimes of the ruling shoguns.”
Heath and Sugizo looked around; everybody was looking up anxiously and whispering amongst themselves. Some of the villagers were laden with their belongings; they were leaving in case things got much worse.
“We should leave,” Sugizo murmured, squeezing Heath’s hand.
“Yes. Let us leave tonight.”
No sooner had they said this than a deafening explosion rocked the ground and all around, people screamed and clutched at each other in fear. Children burst into tears. Several more great explosions followed and some of the townspeople bolted from their homes with their crying children in their arms. Years later it was said that the biggest explosion could be heard over a hundred miles away, like a great crack of thunder in the distance. Black ash spewed from the mountain’s mouth and in return, jagged rocks fell out of the sky, striking the ground and houses with alarming force. People ran for cover, dodging more falling rocks as they went. A huge plume of boiling hot ash poured down the north face of the mountain, bringing with it an avalanche of rocks as small as pebbles and boulders larger than any house. By now, everybody was running for dear life. They didn’t bother going home to gather their belongings, they ran like panicked animals, crashing into one another in sheer blind terror, screaming as they went: Papa! Where are you! I’m scared! Mama! Takeo! I can’t see! Miharu!
Tremors continued to shake the ground and some people fell and were trampled; those who stopped to help them up were sometimes pushed over and trampled themselves and still the cascade of hot ash and rocks bore down on them, all but flattening the nearby forests and spilling into the Agatsuma River. The surge flooded the banks of the river and the water boiled in seconds, churning into hot, thick mud and throwing more steam and ash into the sky. Rocks continued falling out of the sky, striking houses and covering the ground in rubble. It was impossible to see where they were going now; everybody and everything was covered in pale grey ash, there was ash in their noses and mouths so that they could scarcely breathe, and ash in their eyes so that they could not see. Everything became a uniform, undulating, screaming grey mass and amid the panic and confusion, Sugizo’s hand slipped out of Heath’s grasp and they reached for each other again, grabbed hold and slipped, tried again, but the stampede was suffocating and stronger than a surging wave. For every person they shoved out of the way with their preternatural strength, five more took their place and someone in front of Sugizo stumbled and fell, taking him and several others down with them, and the crush of people bringing up the rear drove them into the ground to cries of fear and pain that went unheard, until Sugizo threw them off with an infernal snarl and clambered back to his feet, but he had lost sight of Heath in the mass of fleeing, screaming townsfolk amongst the rain of ash and rocks, the great whip-cracks of lightning in the sky and the furious, roaring mountain behind them. They had no choice; they had to run and run if they were to escape the flowing cloud of hot death growing and spreading, burning, melting and destroying everything in its path. Some people were killed by the floodwater, some were trampled to death, others were consumed by the cloud of hot ash and rocks. They knew not how long or far they had run, or indeed how far they still needed to run. When they looked behind them, there was nothing to see but the enormous black cloud, crackling with lightning, and it was difficult to tell whether it was still moving and spreading. At times they might stop to catch their breath and some people would sit down to rest, only to be dragged back to their feet when more trees and buildings were swallowed up by the deadly haze.
After some time, it seemed that none could run any further and amongst them, Sugizo’s weary legs gave way beneath him. He coughed and brushed off as much as he could of the ash that clung to his clothes and his skin and hair. He studied everybody around him, desperately looking for Heath, but they all looked the same; grey, ghostly shapes shrouded in pale ash, coughing or crying or both. He could only hope that Heath had also managed to escape and hadn’t been caught in the flood of carnage. His heart told him that Heath was alive somehow, that he would have felt something otherwise, but he needed to see and touch and hold him to truly believe that he was safe and well.
Days elapsed and the ash in the sky began to dissipate very gradually in the winds. The area that had been touched by the rolling cloud of heat and boiling rocks and mud gradually cooled, and the townspeople began to make their way back to salvage what they could. Sugizo joined them, picking through the rubble with his heart in his mouth for fear of finding some trace of Heath that might indicate that he had not made it out, and he roamed the greater Nagano area looking for him, all to no avail. Months after Mount Asama erupted, Sugizo was forced to admit defeat: Heath wasn’t here, and by now his trail had gone cold.
In the aftermath of the Mount Asama eruption, Heath lay curled up on the ground, blinded and exhausted from coughing up ash and dust. They had to be miles and miles from town now and the rolling mass of boiling hot ash and steam and rocks had finally slowed and stopped racing after them and nipping at their heels. Water rippled nearby; there was a stream of clean water running from the east, untouched by the volcanic fallout, and already the people were washing the dust out of their eyes and scrubbing it from their skin and clothes. Farther downstream, the water turned cloudy. He jerked away when something touched his arm, but it was only a kindly middle-aged woman encouraging him to his feet, and he attempted a smile of thanks and joined the rest of the people at the edge of the stream, scrubbing his hands and forearms before splashing water in his face until the worst of the grey and black dust was sloughed off. Carefully, he cupped his hands in the stream and drank. What he really needed was a drink of blood but the area was far too open with too many pairs of eyes. He sat back on his haunches and idly watched everybody else for a long time before clambering to his feet. There were easily a few hundred people here—mostly those who were young or strong enough to run, for much of the old and weak had fallen behind—but as Heath roamed about, glancing at their faces, his heart grew heavier and heavier. Sugizo was not amongst them. He could still hear his own cries ringing in his ears, screaming Sugizo’s name as he disappeared beneath the surge of people. Everything smelled and tasted of sulphur and ash. He knew he had no chance of picking up Sugizo’s scent.
In the next day or so, both the people and the ashen cloud in the sky slowly began to drift away. Many were headed back to town to see what they could salvage; others had houses beyond the treeline that might have survived. A third group had nowhere to go. Their homes were either too close to Mount Asama or the boiling, flooded Agatsuma River to have survived. They had lost everything: their homes, their personal belongings, and even relatives who hadn’t been able to flee in time. Heath felt much the same. He had also lost the only thing that mattered to him and it left him at a loss as to what to do. He watched the group of people trickling back in the direction of the town that they had fled. Others called them foolish: “There’s nothing left but death!”
Heath lingered where he was for several nights, hoping to see more refugees of the volcano’s eruption in case Sugizo should be amongst them. By day, he sheltered in a large tree hollow that mostly protected him from the threat of daylight; he had to squeeze himself very tightly against the hollow’s inner wall when the long, slanting fingers of the late afternoon sun slithered across the ground and tried to reach inside his hiding place. During this time, a few dozen people did pass this way east, hoping to make new lives for themselves in Gunma and Niigata. This quickly dwindled; by the seventh and eighth nights, he did not see a soul.
I cannot stay here forever, Heath thought as the weak sunlight withdrew its reach and sank beneath the horizon, making way for the blue and purple hues of dusk. He hadn’t fed since the night before the eruption and it made him restless. He tried to think: they hadn’t been heading for a specific destination, but they had been gradually heading north. After not having seen a single person for five days and nights, he emerged from his tree and headed north. Perhaps Sugizo had somehow gotten ahead of him; if Sugizo was not too long gone, they might run into each other along the way.
Where are you, love?
Heath travelled quickly, hoping to catch up with Sugizo if he were still somewhere ahead, and by autumn he reached the northern tip of Honshu. He hesitated; had Sugizo come this far? If so, would he have crossed the water, or would he turn back and head south again, perhaps along the eastern coast? He idled in the city of Aomori for two nights, deliberating on a decision, sheltering at a cheap inn using some of the money that Sugizo had stolen from his old pleasure house. The room was tiny and musty-smelling, which he did not mind overmuch, but he had to sleep inside the cupboard where the futons were kept for there was no way to cover the windows during the day. At night he fed well. He would need to keep his strength up to find Sugizo, no matter how long it took.
Just after dark of the third night he made his decision and made his way to the fishing port.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I seek passage across the water to Hokkaido.”
The grizzled, stubble-faced fisherman looked him up and down and shook his head with a grunt. “You’d best catch a ferry across, son. No fishing boats going out this late. Them ferries leave twice a day: one in the morning and one at midday.”
“Please, sir. I cannot wait that long.”
“Can’t wait that long? Nonsense.”
“I can pay.”
“Then pay for a ferry. A well-to-do young man like you won’t want no stinking fishing boat all covered in fish guts—”
“Sir,” Heath said more firmly. “It is important that I reach Hokkaido before dawn.”
The old fisherman squinted up at him. “Why?”
“I have… urgent family business.”
But the old fisherman just shook his head and spat on the ground. “Sorry, son. Wish I could help, but nobody’s settin’ sail after sundown. Too dark, too dangerous.”
Heath set his jaw. He advanced upon the old man and placed one hand on his shoulder and gazed deeply into his eyes. “I must cross the water now.”
The old man stared back right into those dark eyes and his mouth hung slack. The cold hand on his shoulder tightened to a vice-like grip but he didn’t seem to be aware. Then he blinked and, as if in a trance, turned and led Heath to the fishing boat docked at the water’s edge.
The crossing from Aomori to Hakodate took hours but the fisherman rowed steadily without rest or a single word, for which Heath was grateful. He was busy with his own thoughts of where Sugizo might be. What would he do if he could not find him? Would they be doomed to spend the rest of their lives apart? Would Sugizo grow weary of looking for him and find someone else?
There were only two, perhaps three hours until dawn by the time they reached Hakodate and Heath took a drink from the fisherman and sent him home to Aomori before hastening to find shelter for the day. By night, he continued north. Hokkaido was much more sparsely-populated than the provinces of Honshu. One day he sheltered in a bear’s den while the animal was out foraging for food and emerged just after sunset. As he did so, he heard rustling and a series of snorts. A bear, presumably the owner of the den, emerged from the trees. He had heard about bears in his youth but had never seen one and did not know what to do when encountered by one. The bear reared up and snorted again. Standing on its hind legs, it was as tall as Heath and he took a step back. Would it attack? He didn’t really want to hurt the animal if he could help it. But the bear only sniffed their air a few times, dropped down to all fours and lumbered back into the forest.
It was a few more weeks of roaming before something made him stop. It was the scent of another vampire but unlike last time, this one did not venture out to meet him. There was only one modest, if somewhat shabby house out here for miles in the bareness of northern Hokkaido, and a small glow of light inside said that the occupant was home. He could only hope that they were friendly, for there was no other shelter out here in the bitter cold, and dawn would be upon him within the hour.
Heath approached the house cautiously and stood at the door. “Good evening.”
“Good evening,” came the voice from inside. “I was beginning to wonder how long you would stand out there. Do come in. I will not bite.”
This was punctuated with a dark chuckle. Heath carefully slid the door open. Inside, a thin man with dark, wavy hair, high cheekbones and large, doleful eyes looked up from where he sat at the hearth. “Er, I…”
“Well, come inside and close the door.” The thin man waved him in. “Let’s not let the chill in, now.”
“Oh! M-my apologies.” Heath hastened to close the door.
“Please, sit. Would you care for a drink?” The stranger lifted a small flask of hot sake.
Heath slowly approached and sat by the warmth of the hearth, being careful to keep a respectable distance between them. His caution did not escape the stranger’s attention, but he only smiled and poured a cup of sake for his visitor.
“My name is Issay. And you are?”
Heath bowed politely. “My name is Heath, good sir.”
“Lovely to meet you, young man. What brings you this far into Hokkaido?”
“I am looking for someone.”
Issay looked up from his own cup of sake. “It is a long way to come to look for someone.”
Heath said nothing.
“A friend? Family?”
“A… friend,” Heath said haltingly.
“One of us?”
Heath hesitated again, and then he nodded. There was no use in pretending.
Issay took one last sip and set his empty cup down. “I can tell you now that your friend is not here. There are none in this area of northern Hokkaido. You are the first to come this far in the four years I have lived here.”
Heath’s heart sank and he closed his eyes. His shoulders crumpled. For the first time he felt like coming to Hokkaido at all was a mistake. He had wasted all of this time getting here and Sugizo could be anywhere by now.
At length, the elder sighed. “Please do not worry yourself. You have travelled far, you must be tired and it will be light soon. Let me show you to a room and you can rest.”
With nothing else to do, Heath reluctantly followed Issay down the dark corridor, all the while recalling what Sugizo had told him about Sakurai Atsushi. What if this Issay was no better than Atsushi and Yoshiki? Not that he had a choice; outside, the sky was already beginning to lighten. Thankfully, Issay left him in peace and Heath slept a deep sleep covered with a blanket made of some sort of soft animal fur, and he was plagued by dreams of Yoshiki pursuing him in a sea of people while he screamed Sugizo’s name.
The next evening when Heath rose, Issay was already awake and sitting by the hearth with a pot of fragrant jasmine tea.
“Good evening!” Issay greeted him pleasantly. “Apologies for not rousing you. You looked so weary, I did not think you wished to be disturbed.”
“That is all right.” Heath sat down as well, once again being cautious about keeping his distance.
“Tell me about your friend.” Issay carefully poured a cup of tea for his visitor, and Heath accepted it with a dip of his head.
“What do you wish to know?”
“If I am not mistaken, your friend is your lover, are they not?”
Heath’s head snapped up. “How did…?”
Issay chuckled. “I can read your thoughts if I so wish, but I need only to look at your face to see how much you care for them.”
Heath nodded unhappily. “He… Sugizo and I share a maker. We lived with our maker for many years before travelling on our own. We were very happy until we came to Nagano.”
“What happened there?”
“Mount Asama erupted. We were separated.”
“Oh,” Issay said softly. “I had heard that Mount Iwaki erupted several months ago. Many people lost their lives and their homes. I hadn’t realised the same had happened at Mount Asama. I am so very sorry, my friend.”
Heath inclined his head again.
“Forgive me for being blunt but… you seem very uncomfortable. Is something the matter?” Issay studied Heath’s expression. “Are you worried for your Sugizo, or have I said or done something to offend?”
“N-no, of course not,” Heath said quickly. “It’s just that I… I’m not used to being around elders of our kind. The last time was an… unusual experience.”
“Oh? In what way, if you don’t mind my prying?”
Heath shifted uncomfortably. How could he describe it? “We encountered one some years ago in Gunma. He was very friendly and welcoming at first, and very charming. However after some time it became apparent that this elder had… designs on Sugizo. Intentions that were not reciprocated, so to speak. We no longer felt comfortable being in the company of such an individual, so we left.”
A brief frown flitted across Issay’s face. “An elder? In Gunma?”
“Yes. He was a very lonely soul. His maker abandoned him once he was changed, and he had to watch his mortal family die. He was very happy to have company when we arrived, but…”
“That is a very interesting story,” Issay interrupted and folded his hands neatly in his lap. “Tell me, Heath, how old would you say this individual was?”
A pause. “I am not certain.”
“Well…” he studied Issay’s face, took in his scent. “Younger than yourself.”
“Your maker has taught you well,” Issay said with a nod of approval. “Now can you tell me, where in Gunma did this elder live?”
“In the forest, up a mountain path. He had a beautiful old house that belonged to his family for generations.”
“With a lot of cats?”
Heath blinked, taken aback. “Yes. Do you know him?”
“Oh, I know him. Only too well.” Issay gritted his teeth. “I am his maker.”
Heath stared. “You are his maker? But he said—”
Issay shook his head and refilled their tea. “I did not abandon him. It was he who drove me away.”
Issay looked at Heath squarely. “I fell in love with a mortal. Loneliness and love: two things that make us all do foolish things, isn’t that so? He had a wife and two daughters, yet he would slip from his bed at night to meet with me. When we made love it was like music and poetry. Then when he learned what I was, he begged me to change him as well. It was wrong but I could not refuse him anything. The night that he was changed, we left Gunma together, abandoning his wife and children, abandoning his elderly, sickly parents. Without him to run the family business, they fell into ruin and died one by one.
“He and I travelled together for half a century, just as you and your Sugizo have, and then he wished to settle in Niigata. We lived there for another twenty years. Things between us became strained during this time. I should have been more responsible with him as his maker, but I was young and foolish when I made him, and blinded by my love for him. That turned him into the spoilt creature that he is now. Our relationship was founded upon pure infatuation and that gave it no stability. He said I did not give him enough attention. I grew terribly weary of his possessiveness and all of his cats, became tired of trying to smooth his ruffled feathers after his many fits of jealousy if I so much as looked at another, or if I spoke to a pretty lady for longer than he would have liked. It was at this point that we had to part ways, lest we be driven to seriously hurt one another. I did it more for his sake than my own.”
Heath knew what that meant. As Atsushi’s maker, Issay was much stronger and as such, he had a greater potential to grievously injure him than what Atsushi could do to Issay. Even if Atsushi were able to hurt his maker, he would be subjected to the judgment of his peers.
“One night I left our house to feed and simply did not return. I watched over him for some time. He searched for me for months, weeping and begging me to return one night, raging and cursing my name the next. Eventually he returned to Gunma to reclaim his family home. Knowing that he was safe, I continued my travels and arrived here in Hokkaido four years ago.
“And that,” Issay said, smoothing out the folds in his hakama, “is the story of how I ‘abandoned’ Sakurai Atsushi.”
Heath shook his head. “I do apologise, I had no idea…”
“Please. No. It is no fault of your own. You could only know what he told you.” Issay gave a weary sigh. “I cannot help but love him, but my dear Acchan can be hard work. I don’t believe he meant you any harm; being alone for so long must have eroded his common sense. Tell me; when you saw him, did he seem well?”
“Well enough. He lives quite comfortably in his home in Gunma.”
“Then I am glad.”
“He has the villagers all but worshipping him. They think that the house is haunted by a bakeneko, and that the bakeneko bites them when it becomes angry. They make offerings of fish to appease him, and he uses the fish to feed his many cats.”
Issay snorted. “That sounds just like something he would do.”
Heath smiled then, and that made Issay smile as well.
“There we are. That’s much better,” the elder vampire said. “You have had a face as bleak as the winter ever since you arrived. A smile is much more becoming of you.”
“I must thank you for your kind hospitality,” Heath said, bowing. “But I should be on my way.”
“I would urge you to stay indoors, Heath.” He nodded at the door and, curious, Heath got to his feet and opened the door a crack. It was dark outside and a strong wind whistled and howled. Smaller trees bowed and bent in the frosty gale and the ground was covered in a thin white crust. “Winter has come early this year.”
Although their kind possessed a greater resistance to lower temperatures than their human counterparts, the hostility of the northern Hokkaido winter was beyond even their tolerance. The next evening, Heath stood by the window watching the endless snow. The wind had died down but it had snowed steadily throughout the previous night and day, and most everything was covered in a thick blanket of snow. When he ventured outside to explore, the snow on the ground was more than ankle-deep. Even the sharply-sloping thatched roof of Issay’s house was encrusted in patches of snow. The surrounding forest of conifers stretched up to the sky in all directions. This far north, almost all of the trees were evergreen conifers. Unlike the broader, more fragile leaves of their southern cousins, the conifers’ thin, hardy needles were better suited to the climate and they did not need to shed their leaves when the weather turned. In the darkness of the winter gloom, the trees loomed over them like giant shamans or monks draped in great heavy cloaks dusted with snow, their faces shadowed by their pointed hoods, keeping watch over all life in the forest. Something rustled and scraped in the distance; a clump of snow fell from a tree branch where now an owl perched. The bird preened its soft grey-brown feathers and turned its head to survey its surroundings and listen for prey. Its great yellow eyes, shrewd and alert, seemed to stare right into him, and he stared right back.
I know you, it seemed to say. Hunter. Night walker. Blood drinker.
Then the owl blinked and the spell was broken. Heath retreated back inside again.
“I have never seen such a winter,” he said, dusting the snow from his sleeves. “It is beautiful, but so fierce.”
“Raised in the south, weren’t you?”
“Yes. I was raised in Hyogo and we lived in Chiba with our maker for a time.”
Issay nodded sagely, rubbing his hands together. “Winters up here are a different animal. It always snows here in winter, but this year it has come early and it is far worse than the previous winters I have seen here. I do believe it has gotten colder ever since Mount Iwaki erupted. As much as I appreciate the company, I’m afraid you could scarcely have chosen a worse time to visit.”
With a long and brutal winter ahead of them, Issay persuaded Heath to spend the next few months with him. He did not feel confident about the younger vampire’s chances for survival out there.
“But what about Sugizo?” Heath protested.
“You can resume your search for him after the thaw sets in.”
“Heath, listen to me. You do not know what it is like to struggle to find any prey at night in the middle of such a deep and dark winter, with nowhere to shelter when the sun rises,” he said. “If you find yourself in the middle of the snowfields by daybreak, well…”
“Surely you have someone to feed on if you have lived here for years.”
“Ah.” Issay smiled and beckoned for Heath to follow. He took him down a different corridor and slid open a narrow door that led to an adjoining outhouse or barn filled with…
Issay smiled again and shrugged. “There are so few people in this area, especially in the deep of winter. I had to find a more creative solution that would at least tide me over until the thaw sets in. So I began breeding rabbits.”
The animals scampered away as soon as the door had opened, fleeing to the far end of the barn. There had to be dozens and dozens of rabbits here, far more than Heath could assume to count at a glance, well over one hundred animals all huddled together in a soft white cluster of long, velvety ears and little pink twitching noses. It was cold in the barn but they were at least shielded from the worst of the wind and snow.
“You’re as bad as Atsushi and his cats,” Heath mused.
Issay cocked an eyebrow at this remark. “I keep my rabbits for food the way humans store salted meat and dried fish and root vegetables. I don’t name them the way Acchan names each of his cats.”
As if to prove it, Issay strolled out into the barn and the rabbits scattered around him like a stream of water. It was fascinating to watch how uniformly the animals moved as a group, like a flock of birds or a school of fish darting and wheeling this way and that, fleet little things on light paws, but in minutes he returned with a rabbit squirming in each hand and slid the door closed again with one foot. Looking Heath straight in the eye, he brought one rabbit to his face and the animal shrieked and thrashed, its powerful hind legs kicking out as his teeth sank into its throat and he drank and drank while the second animal screamed and flailed in terror at the smell of predators and blood. The first rabbit seized violently the deeper he drank and its cries grew weaker until its body fell limp in his hand, its legs kicking spasmodically every few seconds and soon stopped moving altogether, its eyes wide and staring, its little mouth frozen open in a silent scream. When Issay’s lips came away, the white fur on the rabbit’s neck was stained red.
Issay offered Heath the second rabbit. “Be careful now; if you drop it, you’re going to have to catch it again. The little bastards are terribly quick.”
Heath grasped the rabbit by the scruff and hesitated. He had long since lost any qualms about feeding from humans and even killing them occasionally, but a helpless, frightened little animal was another matter entirely. He tightened his grip, held its kicking hind feet with his other hand and took a deep breath. He bit down hard. The animal squealed and struggled and he let the hot blood flood his mouth before swallowing and taking another mouthful, and another, until he had bled the rabbit dry.
“Well?” Issay grinned.
Heath licked the last smear of blood from his lips and picked some stray rabbit hairs from his mouth. “I had always been taught that feeding from animals was considered distasteful or objectionable, and unbecoming for our kind, but…” He gazed down thoughtfully at the dead rabbit with the patch of red in its fur. “I must say that that was not unpleasant.”
The rabbit’s blood had a very mild grassy taste to it; not anywhere near as appetising or gratifying as feeding on human blood, but it was far from the worst thing he’d ever tasted. It was, for all intents and purposes, a bit like eating plain steamed rice on its own; simple and uninteresting, but he hadn’t fed in several nights and the rabbit’s blood was enough to soothe an empty stomach.
“It is a small meal, all things considered,” Issay conceded, weighing the dead rabbit in his hand. “But larger animals are so difficult to find and keep and then there is the matter of replenishing supplies, and rabbits reproduce so quickly.”
“Do you miss the taste of human blood?”
Issay wrinkled his nose. “I do. However the people here tend to taste slightly… fishy.”
Then there was the issue of what to do with the drained rabbit carcasses. They could not eat the meat of course, for they no longer possessed the fundamental human ability to digest solid food, but Issay gave him a warm cloak sewn from soft rabbit pelts and a set of well-worn, slightly too big boots woven out of barley straw and lined, too, with warm rabbit fur, and they ventured outside into the snow.
“Stay close to me,” Issay warned.
Heath nodded. With both of them cloaked in white rabbit furs, it would be far too easy to lose sight of one another during snowfall. Quite belatedly, he realised that the soft furry blanket he had been sleeping beneath must also have been sewn from rabbit pelts. “Where are we going?” he called as they waded through the ankle-deep snow.
“Giving back to the forest,” Issay called back over his shoulder. “I like to leave the leftovers to feed the forest animals: hungry foxes, weasels and bears and the like.”
When they reached the treeline, perhaps a mile or so from Issay’s home, they tossed the rabbit carcasses on the ground and started back.
“If you keep so many live rabbits at home, what would stop the foxes and weasels and bears from breaking in and taking them?” Heath asked.
Issay smiled. “Have you encountered many animals on your way north, my young friend?”
Heath thought about this for a moment. “Just one. A brown bear whose den I had occupied for a day.”
“Just one. And what happened?”
“Nothing. For a moment it looked like it might attack but then it simply walked away.”
“Indeed. Do you know why?”
“I suppose it wasn’t hungry.”
“Not so, my friend.”
Heath stopped. “Oh?”
“They can smell us, Heath. An animal’s sense of smell is far keener than a human’s. They know a predator when they smell one. There are wild bears and foxes and weasels, but they won’t approach the house because it is the territory of another predator. When confronted, they would sooner flee, just as the rabbits did.”
Oh, Heath thought. He had just assumed that, being prey animals of a naturally nervous disposition, the rabbits were simply fleeing from a larger creature in their midst. No wonder the bear seemed to think twice about challenging him for its den. He suddenly felt very small and naïve. There was probably much that he still did not know about their kind.
Throughout the winter, Heath and Issay fed sparingly on the rabbits, taking a meal only once every five or six days to ensure that they did not run out of food before spring. Every night they would go out and forage for vegetation—dried grass, weeds and reeds—to feed to the rabbits and keep them nice and warm and plump, along with the stores of root vegetables and nuts and dried clover that Issay had gathered over summer and autumn. Heath remarked upon this unusually pastoral lifestyle for a vampire, spending most of his year farming his rabbits which would then be devoured over the course of the winter.
“I suppose I like the quiet,” Issay said thoughtfully. “I had spent so much time travelling before and after I left Atsushi, and the time we spent living together in Niigata was far from peaceful. It’s nice to have some time to myself. I may move on soon, though. As peaceful as it is here, the climate is rather harsher than I prefer.”
Heath agreed. He would have much preferred to be out there looking for Sugizo if he could, but the Hokkaido winter was simply too bleak and hostile. The idea of being caught out in the open with no shelter for miles and virtually no food at all was a frightening prospect. He wondered if Sugizo was safe and warm, with a full stomach. Was he near? Far? Had he encountered other vampires as he roamed, just as Heath had encountered Issay? What if he found one who was hostile and wanted to hurt him? What if he found one that he fancied even more than Heath, the kind of radiant, fiery infatuation that had drawn Issay and Sakurai Atsushi together? The months wore on, as frigid and dark as the next, and in the deep, hazy moments of pre-sleep, he became increasingly worried that their bond would wane the longer they were apart. The red thread that bound their lives and hearts together was being pulled taut to its very limit; how long until it would fray and snap?
Even with their prudent feeding, Issay had almost run out of rabbits by February, for of course he had not counted on having another mouth to feed through the winter. Despite Issay’s protests, Heath decided to stop feeding altogether. By the time the thaw set in in March, he hadn’t fed in over a month.
Heath stood by the door looking out into the cool night of early spring with the fresh smells of budding leaves and tender grass shoots reaching through the last of the snowmelt, soon to be food for what remained of Issay’s rabbit population, and he looked up when a light hand rested upon his shoulder.
“I wish that you would take one last meal before you leave. You will need your strength for your travels.”
Heath shook his head. “I cannot do that. You only have… seven? Eight rabbits left? You will need these and more for breeding stock.”
“It does not matter. I can catch more with ease.”
“I feel fine.” Heath attempted a smile. “I am sure I will find something before long.”
“Heath, I don’t wish to discourage you but…” Issay hesitated. “Have you considered that there’s a chance that you may never find your Sugizo?”
Heath said nothing. He shrugged off the rabbit fur cloak from his shoulders and folded it as best he could, running his hands over the soft white fur. Temperatures were still low, but not intolerably so. He no longer needed the rabbit pelts to keep him from freezing to death.
Issay tried again. “The country is vast. If you are both roaming the country looking for each other, there is every chance that you may be wandering forever, chasing each other’s tails and never crossing paths.”
“Then I shall wander forever.”
“Heath,” Issay sighed. “He may not even be alive anymore.”
“No.” Heath shook his head. “I know in my heart that he is. I am certain of it.”
Heath spent the next few months wandering throughout Hokkaido alone and hungry until he could find his next meal, usually feeding from the native Ainu people that made up most of Hokkaido’s sparse population. As the end of summer approached, he came to the conclusion that Sugizo had never come here at all. At the port of Hakodate, he sought passage back across to Honshu with a pair of younger fishermen and began to wend his way southwest. By now, autumn was well underway and winter would soon settle in, but at least he knew that it could not be colder than the winter he had seen in Hokkaido.
Some five or six years later, the country began to slowly recover from the great famine that had seen several hundred thousand people die of disease and starvation. The drop in temperatures that followed the eruption of the two volcanoes gradually stabilised and crops were beginning to flourish again, yet still Heath had not seen any sign of Sugizo anywhere. Determined to be thorough in his search, he spent his years gradually moving south, criss-crossing the country between the east and west coasts to cover as much area as possible. He reached the far-western tip of Honshu and watched the fishing boats crossing the narrow channel to Kyushu. Discouraged by his fruitless venture into Hokkaido, he turned back and retraced his steps.
Have you considered that there’s a chance that you may never find Sugizo?
All the time.
By the time Heath reached the eastern border of Tochigi, he had become numb to the loneliness and the loss of his soulmate. He had now wandered for over ten years, wandered for the sake of wandering, for he had nothing else to do. He crossed the border into Ibaraki. The area bustled with activity, as it skirted along one the five major trade routes that ran as far north as Shirakawa and as far west as the capital in Kyoto, all meeting at Edo in the south. Finding a meal here was trivial for Heath; the past years had seen a steady rise in drinking establishments known as ‘izakaya’, particularly along these trade routes, and it was all too easy for him to charm a feed from the half-drunk patrons but the constant, dull throb of despair in his heart made his appetite very poor. He had not fed in the last fortnight and even now as his keen senses sought out a potential target, consciously he was only doing so to sate his physical hunger and little else. He found shelter beneath the house of an elderly couple in their eighties and there he languished. He had intended to rest for a day and a night and move on, but when he awoke on the second night, he could not summon the will or energy to move. At first he told himself that this lethargy was due to hunger and fatigue, and he did manage to go out for a heavy feed, returning to the space under the old couple’s house where he slept and slept. He had given up, he realised upon waking one night. He did not even know how long he had hidden here or how long he had slept, but he had given up. Ten years of searching with no result at all. Issay was probably right. Sugizo might not be alive anymore.
Heath was terribly hungry but he no longer wanted to feed. Heartbreak made him so very tired that he only wanted to sleep, for that was the only way to make all of the pain stop. Exhausted from lack of nourishment, his body lulled him into a long, dreamless sleep from which he occasionally stirred, opening his eyes to look around, listening to his surroundings. At times he would wake to the sound of people laughing and talking nearby and he would simply close his eyes and go back to sleep.
The next time he awoke, it was to the monotonous drone of cicadas calling for mates. The noise was loud and grating, and the night air warm and humid. Calling cicadas could only mean that it was summer. Had he really been asleep for so long? It had been close to the end of autumn when he first arrived in Ibaraki and crawled beneath the old couple’s house to ‘rest’. That meant that he had been sleeping for almost a year and he didn’t feel any better for it, either. His hunger had abated to something akin to a hollow ache in his stomach and he felt more tired than ever. He was about to go back to sleep when, over the screeching insects, his sharp hearing picked up voices in the house above him: the old couple speaking to one another.
“Dear, sit down,” the husband said. “You have worked hard enough preparing dinner. Here, let me rub your shoulders for you.”
The old woman chuckled and sighed. “Ah, you know me too well. These old bones do ache in hot weather. Thank you, dear.”
Amongst their conversation was the occasional burst of laughter and listening to this loving, domestic exchange, Heath couldn’t help but wonder if he and Sugizo might be just sweet after so much time together. Tears gathered in his eyes. Eternal life meant nothing to him without the love and happiness that Sugizo brought to him. Try as he might, he could not let go of someone he had loved so dearly and he carried it with him like a curse that weighed more on him every day. No, he could not give up and forsake all that Sugizo had done for him. With the last of his strength, he heaved himself up on thin, weak limbs and crawled out from beneath the house for the first time in ten months. He needed to feed soon and feed well to replenish what he had lost in months of starvation but although all of his instincts screamed at him to attack the old couple, being such easy pickings, he could not bring himself to hurt them. He gritted his teeth and started towards the town, moving along in the shadows as much as possible, and he slipped into a quiet-looking alley and waited patiently, watching. He was too weak and his body too withered to bring down an adult human on his own; he needed prey to come to him . It was some time before likely prey crossed his path: two young women, not yet thirty, out for an evening of shopping and unaccompanied by men who might pose a threat to him in his weakened state.
The day that followed saw more than a dozen people visiting their local Shinto shrines to be cleansed. It was said that they all shared a similar experience of walking home alone at night, falling into an eerie dream and waking up in a dark alley feeling strangely tired. Fearing the worst, they sought out the priest to be rid of evil spirits and made extra offerings to invite good fortune.
Beneath the home of an elderly couple slept a hundred-year old vampire, full of the blood of his human prey and as young and strong and beautiful as the day his mortal body died.
On the very same night that Heath emerged from his hiding place to feed for the first time in months, Sugizo also reached Ibaraki.
He had arrived into the area a few nights ago, having followed the trade route that took him through the city of Edo. In the three nights he spent in Edo, all he saw were merchants, farmers, travelling monks, families, couples. There was no sign of Heath. Sugizo would have liked to linger and enjoy the city’s atmosphere, perhaps snatch a drink or a meal, or visit a brothel, but he simply could not forgive himself if his lover were to slip right through his fingers while his back was turned. Doggedly, he continued following the road north and spent the day resting in a cave by a waterfall that towered overhead. It was noisy inside and the rocks were uncomfortable but the cave provided a very welcome respite to the heat and humidity outside as he slept through the hottest part of the day.
When he awoke at dusk, he heard the tiny skittering feet of small lizards climbing the cave walls, preying on flying insects. He dusted the sand and grit from his clothes and made his way through Ibaraki, following a smaller road, when something made the skin at the back of his neck prickle. Was somebody watching him? He glanced around; there was a man with two scruffy pack horses laden with sacks of rice, and another two men walking alongside an ox harnessed to a wooden cart full of fresh root vegetables: sweet potatoes, lotus root, taro, and thick white daikon with their long green fronds. Instinctively, he slipped into the shadows and kept very still, just watching. Small dark shapes, not much larger than the average mouse, fluttered and swooped in the sky above, making high-pitched squeaks and chirps; bats preying on moths and other insects. The summer air was still and humid, carrying smells of people and their pack animals, alcohol, tobacco, ripe fruit and salty, charred meat from roadside izakayas, and amongst it all was something that made his usually quiet heart skip in his chest. It was faint, but enough for him to follow the scent to a house occupied by an elderly couple. There was nothing remarkable about them, but the scent was much stronger here. Yes, he was sure of it now.
Sugizo followed the trail into town. He had to hurry; there was every chance that Heath was not long gone and he might be able to catch up to him. He had not gone far when a gentle breeze carried his name to him and he stopped where he was and stared hard into the shadows.
A dark shape moved into the light: first a hand, an arm, a shoulder, the form of a slender young man with long, dark hair, eyes that were drawn and tired, worn down by years of worry and solitude, almost too afraid to believe what they saw.
Sugizo was at his side in an instant, pulling him into his arms and pressing kisses to his hair, his forehead, his cheeks, his lips.
“Heath. Oh Heath, is this true? Is it really you?”
The name seemed alien to him. Heath hadn’t heard his name spoken in years, especially not by such a sweet voice. He still couldn’t understand what was happening, it was all too much, too overwhelming, his voice, his touch, his scent, his kisses tasting of tears.
“Oh Heath, sweetheart, darling Heath. I cannot believe you are here. Oh Heath, if this is a dream, please do not let me wake.”
“Su—” Heath choked on the name. Sugizo’s face was wet with tears but he was smiling in between salty kisses and repeating his name over and over again, and Heath could only cling to him and bury his face in his shoulder, taking in that comforting, almost-forgotten scent that could only belong to one person.
“Heath,” Sugizo murmured, cupping his face in both hands and stroking his cheek. “Are you well?”
“Yes.” Heath took in a trembling breath and two fat tears rolled down his face. “Yes, love. Now that you are here. And you?”
Sugizo let out a little noise somewhere in between a laugh and a sob. “Good. Good. I’m so glad, my dearest. Come with me.”
He took Heath by the hand and led him into the buzzing little town but Heath was scarcely looking where they were going; all he could see was the hand holding his own, cool and comforting, and he held onto that hand tightly. Sugizo glanced back at him and smiled.
They stepped into the first inn that Sugizo saw, and he had scarcely drawn the heavy curtains than Heath was upon him, kissing him fiercely, and Sugizo let him, holding onto his long-lost lover as though his life depended upon it.
“Oh Heath,” Sugizo sighed over and over again. “Oh Heath. My sweetheart. My everything.”
Heath gazed into his dark eyes. “It is you, isn’t it? I am not dreaming?”
“If you are dreaming, then so am I.”
“I looked everywhere for you. What happened to you, love? Where have you been?”
“I stayed in Nagano.” Sugizo’s arms tightened around Heath and he buried his face in his hair. “I stayed in Nagano looking for you.”
After months of fruitless searching beneath the murky, ash-streaked sky, Sugizo had ended up in Gunma in the extremely unlikely chance that that was where Heath had fled, and there he had run into Sakurai Atsushi again. He was not alone this time; Ryuichi looked like a younger version of Atsushi and was curious as to how this stranger knew his maker. Sugizo only said that they had crossed paths some fifteen years ago.
To Atsushi’s credit, he kept himself at a respectable distance and spoke politely. He had heard the great explosions of Mount Asama’s eruption, but he had not seen any sign of Heath in Gunma. He had, however, been visited by a golden-haired vampire named Yoshiki only two years ago. They had shared a drink at an izakaya, during which Yoshiki ribbed Atsushi about making another who looked just like him, and then inquired after the whereabouts of his own two wayward children. Atsushi said that he had not seen such individuals. For this, Sugizo was grateful.
After Sugizo left Gunma, he headed west, roughly following the way that they had come via Nagoya, Lake Biwa where they had spent a very happy summer one year, and Hyogo, hoping to find Heath in his hometown, but there was no sign of him there, either. All Sugizo could do by then was keep heading forward, ever west, feeding regularly and leaving the bodies out in the open as yet more casualties of the Great Tenmei Famine. He eventually crossed the channel into Kyushu and kept searching. Something told him that he was only getting further away in his search and at the port of Nagasaki, he boarded a ship that took him back east. From there, he slowly made his way along the southern coastline, arriving into Kanagawa, Edo, Tochigi and finally Ibaraki.
Heath pressed trembling lips to Sugizo’s forehead. “I almost gave up. Twelve years! I had almost given up, I felt that I could not live without you.”
Hearing this, Sugizo gave a low, anguished moan and held him even tighter.
“But I couldn’t, love. I knew I couldn’t stop looking for you, not while my heart still longs for you.”
Cradled in each other’s arms, Sugizo brushed a lock of hair away from Heath’s face. “These past twelve years, I often found myself dreaming of the night that we first met.”
Heath chuckled lightly. “Oh yes?”
“Yoshiki had just brought you home after you were changed. You were still asleep while he prepared your first drink. I had only been there for a year, myself.”
The first person that Heath saw when he woke up was not Yoshiki, but a glimpse of a very curious Sugizo peeping through the gap in the door. He disappeared when Yoshiki swept in with a bowl of fresh blood for his first feed, but Heath remained entranced by the quiet auburn-haired stranger instead of his fiercely beautiful golden maker with his honeyed words.
Later on, an hour or so before dawn when the rest of the household had gone to sleep, Sugizo heard soft sobbing and crept down the corridor to that same room where the lovely, dark-haired newcomer sat curled up in the corner, in tears. He didn’t move or react when Sugizo quietly slid the door open and sat beside him until he cried himself to sleep.
“Yoshiki had taken me out for my first hunt and schooled me on what it meant to be a blood drinker. He could not understand why I despaired,” Heath murmured. “But you did.”
Having found kindred spirits in each other that night, the pair became fast friends and grew closer in the years that they lived beneath Yoshiki’s roof in Chiba. At times they might venture out to hunt together, spend time reading poetry with their younger brothers Takuro and Hisashi, or watching the beautiful enigma that was Mana working at his paintings, until the beautiful, terrible night that they first kissed.
Now at the inn in Ibaraki, they slept soundly in each other’s arms, a deep, dreamless sleep unhindered by heartache and woe, and it was well into the next evening when the other guests were turning in for the night that they woke.
Heath woke up first and blinked lazily, smiling when he saw his lover sleeping beside him. He held onto him a little tighter, took in the comforting warmth of his scent and in his sleep, Sugizo mumbled Heath’s name and tucked his head beneath his chin.
Heath nuzzled him affectionately. “Sugizo. Wake up.”
Sugizo only sighed and snuggled him harder.
“Wake up, my love,” Heath whispered again, running his fingers through his hair.
“Mmm?” Sugizo stirred and grumbled. “What’s happening?”
“Nothing. It is nighttime. Are you hungry? Shall we feed?”
“Mmm. Later. I would be far happier to stay here with you.” Feeling a little more awake and a lot more amorous, Sugizo began mouthing at Heath’s neck and his fingers tugged at his clothes.
“Wait. Wait, Sugizo,” Heath breathed.
Sugizo’s teeth grazed along his throat. “Darling, I have waited for twelve years. I need this. I need you.”
“As I need you but I can’t, I… I feel so dirty.”
“I could not care less. You are always beautiful to me.”
Heath’s breath hitched in his throat when those hands that he had missed so much began roaming across his skin. “At least let me… oh… wash up first.”
Sugizo sighed. “Very well. But I will not let you out of my sight.”
While the rest of the guests slept, they quietly made their way to the empty bath house to enjoy a good hot scrub and returned to their room feeling warm and fresh, and Sugizo wasted no time in pushing Heath onto the floor and gazing into his dark eyes.
“I have waited so long to make you mine again.”
“I was always yours.” Heath pulled him down into a bruising kiss and tugged at his yukata, sliding it off his shoulders. “As you have been mine.”
“Always.” Sugizo mouthed at Heath’s neck and removed his clothing, their cool bodies warming against each other, kissing hard, and Sugizo settled in between his pale thighs and slowly pushed inside him.
“ Oh, ” Heath whimpered. “Be gentle with me, love. It has been too long.”
“Shh.” Sugizo stroked his face to soothe him and they both stifled a groan as he slid deeper inside him, and as they made love, long and slow and so achingly sweet that they almost wept, Heath arched beneath him and offered his neck to his lover and Sugizo bit down and drank.
It was another four nights and four days before the pair finally emerged from their room to feed, hungry but well-rested and even more in love than ever. With no destination in mind, they moved further into Ibaraki and thunder rumbled in the distance.
Sugizo looked up at the sky and frowned.
“What is it?” Heath asked.
“Do you hear that?”
“But there aren’t any clouds.”
Heath gazed up at the sky as well, and he squeezed Sugizo’s hand. “I smell blood.”
Drawn by their curiosity, they followed the sound of thunder and found themselves overlooking a valley crawling with hundreds of howling soldiers, some on foot, some mounted on horseback, armed with swords, bows, sickles and spears, horses rearing and kicking at anything that came near, screaming in terror as their legs were cut from beneath them, throwing their riders, the soldiers around them blindly hacking at each other. On each end, an armoured rider on horseback carried a spear bearing a flag; this was a war between two feuding daimyo. The charging soldiers and rumble of horses’ hooves sounded like thunder and the air was thick with the smells of mud, blood, horseflesh, fear and steel, and Heath gripped Sugizo’s hand in alarm. Amongst these smells was Yoshiki’s scent.
“There he is.” Sugizo pointed: on the other side of the valley, sitting amongst the trees and rocks was their golden-haired maker.
Heath crouched lower to the ground to avoid being seen. “Why is he here? Do you think he is after us?”
“I don’t know.”
They watched their maker for a while longer. Yoshiki didn’t seem to have noticed them and instead watched the warring soldiers intently with a strange smile on his face.
At length, Heath tugged at Sugizo’s hand. “We should leave before he sees us.”
Sugizo cast Yoshiki one last glance, and they turned and slipped away into the night.
They remained vigilant but in the days and weeks that followed, Yoshiki did not pursue them, and they could go back to enjoying their life together. By the mid-autumn, they had moved into Saitama Prefecture and they parted ways for a few moments; Heath to purchase some tea, Sugizo to pick out some fresh new clothes for them both, before retiring to a room at the nearest inn.
Sugizo pressed a kiss to Heath’s lips. “Would you do me one small favour?”
“Wait outside while I change into new clothes?”
“Oh? Since when have you become so shy?” Heath teased.
“Just for a moment. It is a surprise.”
“Very well. I shall wait outside by the garden for this… surprise .” Heath slid the door closed behind him, nodding politely at another guest in the corridor and made his way to the balcony overlooking the garden pond. Tiny flames gently flickered inside the stone lanterns on either side, and the air was fresh and sweet with the fragrance of neatly-trimmed azalea shrubs and a huge weeping wisteria whose branches hung overhead, the delicate purple fronds brushing over the pond’s surface. One of the koi surged up to snatch an insect and disappeared into the glossy black water again.
Heath turned at the sound of footsteps behind him, and he had to look twice.
“Well? What do you think?”
Instead of a new yukata like Heath wore, Sugizo was in a stunning snow-white women’s kimono woven with elegant cranes and fastened with a black and red obi, his hair adorned with delicate pearls.
“You…” Heath swallowed hard, staring. “You’re beautiful. But…?”
Sugizo’s red-painted lips turned up in a coy smile and turned to let his lover admire his new attire. “I happened upon this lovely garment at the shop and I simply couldn’t leave without it. I haven’t worn something like this since I was young and our mama-san dressed me as a girl. I thought it might be amusing to try it again. Do you like it?”
Heath took his wrist and pulled him in close. “I shall enjoy fighting off all the men vying for your attention, my love.”
Travelling as a man and a woman was certainly different from travelling as two men. Heath was right, of course: dressed as a woman, Sugizo drew the eye of many men. Unmarried men glared at the handsome young man by ‘her’ side, while married men received jealous glares from their wives. A handful of rowdier individuals tried to lure Sugizo away and he played the shy maiden while Heath fended off these would-be suitors.
Sugizo hid a smile behind his fan. “Thank you for rescuing me, my lord.”
“I think you’re enjoying this a little too much, aren’t you?” Heath teased.
“Only as much as you are.”
On this mild autumn evening, a man named Agatsuma nudged his friend and pointed. Up ahead, not forty paces away, was a beautiful woman with long auburn hair, dressed in an exquisite white kimono. She was all alone and looked incredibly out of place here; none of the locals had the kind of money to buy that kind of kimono.
“Excuse me, miss,” Agatsuma called. “Begging your pardon. You don’t look like you’re from around these parts.”
The woman stopped short and appeared to cringe away, hiding behind her fan, and nervously, she glanced at them in turn.
The second man, Machii, spread his hands in a gesture of openness and smiled. “We only want to help. Are you lost?”
“Oh,” said the woman in a soft voice. “I… I was looking for my uncle’s house but I seem to have taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
“Perhaps we could help?” said Machii.
“I would hate to trouble you…”
“Nonsense!” Agatsuma said smoothly. “Who is your uncle?”
“My uncle’s name is Nishihara Akira. Do you know him?”
The two men shared a smile.
“Old Nishihara? He is one of our very good friends!” Agatsuma exclaimed. “Why, we were just on our way to pay the old dog a visit. Why don’t we take you there right now?”
“Oh that would be most kind of you gentlemen,” the pretty woman said with a polite bow. “Thank you so much. I was so afraid I might run into bandits or rapists…”
Machii grinned broadly as they led the woman down a series of streets where fewer and fewer people wandered. This was all too easy; such a well-dressed woman was sure to be carrying valuables, not least of which could be found between her legs.
“Now, just a few more turns and we shall be at old Nishihara’s door,” Machii said, casting a quick glance in all directions. They hadn’t seen another soul in quite a while and with any luck, nobody would hear anything.
The woman appeared blissfully ignorant. “I’m so happy to finally see my uncle! I haven’t seen him since I was a child and— ah! ” This ended in a little scream as the woman found herself pushed up against a wall, dropping her fan. “What—”
“Hand over your money and your jewels,” Machii snarled.
The woman covered her mouth with both hands in fright. “I don’t understand, where is my uncle—”
“Your uncle can rot in hell, give us everything you’ve got or you’ll be sorry!”
“No, please don’t hurt me! I’ll do anything!” she cried.
“That’s right, you will do anything,” Agatsuma leered, and the woman cringed away when he leaned in close. “I think I’ll take your womanhood first.”
“No, please! Somebody, help me!” she screamed as the other man pinned her shoulders to the wall while Agatsuma yanked at the folds of her ornate kimono and slipped one hand between her thighs, caressing the smooth, cool skin while she trembled and whimpered in fear, gradually making his way up… and he stopped.
His friend watched as the expression on Agatsuma’s face changed from confusion to clarity to disgust and he snatched his hand back again as though he’d been burned.
“What… y-you’re a…”
“What?” Machii demanded, looking between the horrified Agatsuma and the woman.
“She… sh-she’s got a cock! She’s a freak! ”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the woman in a strangely masculine voice. “Was that not what you were expecting?”
The word had scarcely left Agatsuma’s lips than the ‘woman’ seized him by the throat in an iron grip, and lovely red-painted lips brushed over his neck before a sharp pain dug in like she was biting him, she was fucking biting his neck like a monster and he fought back desperately but she was frightfully strong and he was so very tired, so tired that he had not the strength to open his mouth and scream, so tired that he wanted only to close his eyes and go to sleep, and he attempted one last futile push at his attacker before his vision swam and blurred and he fell into a dark sleep, dreaming of ghouls and demons.
“I wasn’t sure if you actually wanted me to help you.”
Sugizo let Agatsuma’s body crumple to the ground, and he looked up and smiled. “Not particularly, but I wouldn’t have refused if you charged in to defend my honour.”
“Next time, then.” Perched on the roof of the building just behind him was Heath with an amused twinkle in his eye and the limp form of Machii across his lap with blood on his neck. He leapt off the rooftop and landed lightly on his feet with all the grace of a cat, setting his victim on the ground as well, and then he looked at Sugizo and sighed and shook his head. “Just look at you! You have ruined your kimono, love. And it was so pretty, too.”
“Perhaps you shall have to buy me a new one with their money.” Sugizo hooked his fingers into Heath’s hakama and pulled him close.
“Perhaps. It was also very enjoyable to watch.” Heath kissed the sticky blood off his lover’s lips.
“Are you going to attack me, now?” Sugizo purred.
“Do you want me to?” Heath whispered.
Sugizo sighed and moaned softly when Heath’s other hand slipped inside his bloodstained kimono and caressed him with those cool, deft fingers. “Oh yes, my darling. Please do.”
The sun and the moon continued to chase each other across the sky and months and years continued to turn, and more than fifty years had passed since Heath and Sugizo left Yoshiki. The pair sat shoulder to shoulder on the roof of a house overlooking one of the biggest shrines in Nagoya. The city was alight with red lanterns and all over the streets were mothers and fathers and grandparents with little children dressed in their very best clothing for the Shichi-Go-San festival. All day, families visited this very shrine to drive away evil spirits and wish for long, healthy lives for their children, and Heath smiled to see Sugizo watching the children running to and fro, showing off their new fancy clothes. The maple and gingko trees were also dressed for the occasion in their red and gold autumn foliage.
“You’re very fond of children, aren’t you?” It wasn’t really a question that needed answering.
Still looking down, Sugizo smiled to himself and took Heath’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “When I was younger, I had always held a small yearning for this kind of family life. I had a small dream: when I had earned enough money to buy my freedom, I would find myself a lovely wife and live in a house in the countryside where we would raise our children. Two of them: a boy and a girl.” Sugizo gave a self-deprecating laugh. “I suppose you must think that foolish. Can you imagine any self-respecting woman wanting to marry someone who was raised in a whorehouse?”
“Don’t say that.” Heath frowned. “I don’t think you’re foolish at all. I love you for who you are, no matter where you came from. That you can still have room in your heart to love another despite your upbringing and what Yoshiki did to us makes you all the more wonderful to me.”
Sugizo offered his lover a small, appreciative smile. “In any case, none of that matters anymore. The dream of raising a family died when Yoshiki took my mortal life.”
Heath said nothing.
All about them were happy families and beaming faces. Little girls were dressed in beautifully elaborate kimonos. For the three-year olds, it was their first time wearing a kimono, and the seven-year old girls even wore a traditional obi in place of a simple woven cord to fasten the kimono in place. Five-year old boys stood proudly in their first hakamas like miniature grownups, and they all held sticky chitose ame sweets in red and white, symbolising long life. When Sugizo and Heath were little children themselves, more than one hundred years ago, the custom of celebrating Shichi-Go-San had only just begun to trickle into common practice from families of samurai society. These days, families of all backgrounds dressed up and made offerings at their local shrines to show their gratitude to the gods and wish for long and happy lives.
After a short time, Heath spoke again. “Have you ever regretted it?”
“What is there to regret?” Sugizo chuckled wryly. “I cannot undo what Yoshiki has done.”
Heath fell quiet again but his shoulders slumped and Sugizo’s heart sank.
“Oh, Heath, no.” He took both of Heath’s hands in his own. “No, darling. I don’t regret being with you. I never have and I never could, I never will. You know that I love you more than anything.”
Heath nodded but his face remained pensive.
“If Yoshiki had not changed me when he did, we would not be here today and I can think of nothing sadder than a life where I might never have met you.”
“Sweetheart,” Sugizo pulled him into his arms. “If I didn’t feel the way I do about you, would I have spent twelve years looking for you?”
After a moment’s contemplation, Heath nodded into his shoulder. “And you saved my life. That I will never forget.”
“If there is one thing I regret, it is that we did not leave Yoshiki sooner. Then you might not have been hurt.” Sugizo sighed and brushed his thumb lightly across Heath’s lips. “Tell me. What brought all of this on, dearest?”
Heath smiled, and there was a certain melancholy in that smile. “I see the longing in your eyes when you look at all the happy little children. But that is something we can never have. We’ll never be able to raise the little boy and little girl you used to dream of.”
“Ah, but that was a different Sugizo with a different dream. You are my life, now. Besides,” Sugizo added with a playful smile, “I cannot say that I don’t enjoy making love to you whenever we wish, with none of that messy monthly bleeding. And childbirth! Goodness!” He shuddered, and Heath laughed.
“Have you considered that we might… make one of our own?”
“The way that Yoshiki made us?”
Sugizo slipped an arm around him. “You are all that I need and everything I could ever want.”
“I wish that we will never part again.” Heath rested his head on Sugizo’s shoulder. “I could not stand it. You are my everything.”
“As you are mine, my sweet.”
In the year that the Emperor Ninko passed away and was succeeded by his son, the Emperor Komei, Sugizo and Heath were well over one hundred years old. They had been together for more than eighty years and still their love and attraction to one another was as deep and intense as it ever was. They sat in a hot bath sunken into the floor at an onsen in Hakone, in a private room of their own, Heath cradled flush against his lover’s body while Sugizo mouthed at his neck playfully. The way that Sugizo touched him had Heath weak with pleasure, his hands squeezing and stroking just the way Heath liked it, and feeling Sugizo’s own hardness pressing into his back did not help.
“Please, love,” Heath sighed softly. “We really… ah… shouldn’t.”
“What if… mm… someone hears?”
Sugizo laughed darkly into his neck and let his teeth graze along the skin, and Heath stifled another sigh and tensed in his arms with a shiver of delight. Their furtive whispers were easily drowned out by the chatter and laughter from other patrons. “And what is the worst that they can do to us if they do hear us?”
“Th-they… they will…” Heath’s words died away into a delicate little moan and he arched beautifully, rutting himself into Sugizo’s hands over and over again until Sugizo hoisted his lover out of the bath and onto the cold, wet stone floor, kissing his neck, his collarbone and down his chest, past the slender line of his hips and along his thighs, as smooth and pale as porcelain in his hands.
“S-Sugizo my love, we mustn’t, we mustn’t—oh yes... ” Heath cried out softly when Sugizo took his length in his mouth, being careful not to touch his teeth to the sensitive skin there. He took his time pleasuring the lovely creature on display before him, using his hands and tongue and lips, enjoying the way Heath’s own hands clenched in his hair as he writhed and arched beneath him, needing his lover inside him. He was so very delicious like this, Sugizo thought, with his lips slightly parted in a silent moan and his skin all flushed with pleasure and from the warmth of their bath.
“This…” Heath drew in a sharp breath. “This was how… you made love to me… the first time.”
Sugizo smiled and slowly drew his tongue up the length of him from root to tip. “You remember?”
“Of c-course I remember.”
Sugizo resumed pressing delicate little kisses along his thighs and made his way back up his lover’s body, licking and kissing and play-biting, his hands caressing Heath’s thighs and slowly parting them. “Then do you remember how cruelly you teased me?”
Sugizo slid inside him in one motion, silencing his moan in a bruising kiss and slowly, gently rocking their hips together until Heath was almost in tears with how good he felt. Sugizo mouthed languidly at his neck and Heath was all but biting his own arm in a desperate effort to stay quiet even as he clenched his legs tightly about Sugizo’s hips to draw him in deeper. Beyond the thin walls of their private room, they could hear the onsen staff bustling to and fro and the ceaseless hum of other customers talking amongst themselves, some laughing and drinking, all unaware of the lovers quietly, passionately coupling right there in their midst, drowning in pleasure. Presently somebody stopped outside their door and when that person rapped on the doorframe lightly, the pair froze with Sugizo still inside his lover.
“Begging your pardon, sirs.” It was a member of staff, her voice slightly muffled through the wooden sliding door. “Do you need any more hot water for your bath? Perhaps some refreshments? We have tea and sake…”
Sugizo looked down and Heath shook his head vigorously, biting his lip.
“No, thank you,” Sugizo called back very sweetly and resumed the maddening, sensuous pace of their lovemaking, a slow dance with the rhythmic rise and fall of their bodies, each stroke feeling sweeter than the last. “We are very satisfied here.”
“Excellent. Should you need anything, please do not hesitate to let us know!”
As the young woman’s soft footsteps moved down the corridor, a small whimper escaped from Heath’s lips.
“Shh.” Sugizo leaned down so that their lips almost touched, and he drew himself out from Heath’s body almost all the way and delighting in the slow ripple of pleasure when he pushed back inside him again. “You must be quiet, my darling, unless you want to give everybody a show.”
“Please,” Heath whispered, clutching at Sugizo’s back and dragging angry red lines into his skin.
Sugizo smiled wickedly. “Mmm. Since you asked so nicely.”
He pulled out and drove himself back inside his lover’s body so hard that Heath had to bite down on Sugizo’s shoulder to muffle a cry of absolute pleasure and Sugizo could barely contain a groan of his own to feel the boiling heat of their lovemaking coupled with the bliss of his lover drinking from him, and Heath captured his lips in a searingly passionate kiss and together they relished the taste of salty skin and fresh blood as they reached their climax together.
They took their time scrubbing each other clean again, all lust-glazed eyes and sultry smiles, playful kisses and wandering hands, and they sank back into the still-steaming bath with Heath tenderly kissing the deep bites he had left along Sugizo’s neck and shoulders as they began to close up. Sugizo sighed and let his head fall to one side. He lifted one of Heath’s hands out of the water and gently bit down on his wrist, taking a mouthful of blood and licking the wound clean. “You always taste so good afterwards.”
The Tokugawa Shogunate established by Tokugawa Ieyasu had ruled Japan peacefully and successfully for over two hundred years and seen the reign of more than a dozen shoguns, but even the most powerful dynasties must come to an end. Upon Tokugawa Ieyoshi’s death, his son Iesada succeeded him as ruling shogun at the age of 29. It was soon established that he was unfit for the position, however; Tokugawa Iesada was a man of poor health and his role in political affairs was of little significance. This, coupled with a spate of earthquakes, tsunamis and diseases that collectively killed hundreds of thousands of people, saw the beginning of the end of the Edo Period. It was during this time that Sugizo and Heath travelled to Okayama in the west. To the east was Hyogo Prefecture; to the west was Hiroshima; and to the south lay the island of Shikoku. It was here in Okayama Prefecture that the well-loved fairytale of Momotaro and his heroic battle against the tyrannical ogres originated, and the picturesque city of Okayama was purported to be blessed with bountiful sunshine and produced some of the best fruit in the country. While the vampires could not benefit from the sunshine and food, the city’s population would provide them with many an easy meal.
Strolling along the street of Momotaro-Odori side by side in matching black kimonos and hakamas, the attractive pair caught the eye of many women; younger ladies hoping and wishing that their future husbands might be so handsome, and older, married women, tired of their ageing husbands, eyeing the younger men off, dreaming of having such a young, hot-blooded paramour to please them in bed. Heath and especially Sugizo enjoyed the attention but they truly had eyes only for each other.
“This seems like it would be a nice place to settle for a little while,” Sugizo said.
“Yes,” Heath agreed. “It will be nice to rest and have a place of our own. We can’t keep spending money on fancy inns for much longer.”
Sugizo stopped in front of a sake shop. “That woman can scarcely keep her eyes off you,” he murmured.
“The one in the indigo yukata, walking by the silk merchant.”
Heath cast a quick look around. Sure enough, a pretty lady in her early twenties was looking in his direction and she coyly hid her smile behind her fan as she walked past. “Hm. Yes. I think I like the look of her.”
Sugizo bade the sake seller a good evening and together, he and Heath turned and silently followed the young woman.
They lingered in the city for another two nights, hiding in a ramshackle stable by day. They needed to find more secure lodgings soon, but at least they fed well at night.
“Darling, look at you.” Sugizo gently wiped a smear of blood from the corner of Heath’s lips with his thumb. “One would think that you haven’t had enough.”
“Perhaps,” Heath said teasingly. “I know I can never have enough of you.”
“And you call me wicked!”
Heath started to laugh but his smile faded when he saw how serious Sugizo’s face had become. “What is it?” he asked quietly.
“Keep walking. Don’t look behind us, but we are being followed.”
“Followed?” Heath turned his head slightly, pretending to admire the wares on offer along both sides of this busy street: a flower stall, silk and paper fans painted with cranes and flowers and koi, glazed ceramics, wooden combs carefully carved by hand, a cheerful old lady selling freshly-made warabi mochi and senbei crackers. “I count two.”
“There is a third on the rooftop to our left,” Sugizo murmured. “I wonder who they are.”
“Let us see where they want to take us.”
As they continued on their way, it became apparent that the three they had spotted were slowly closing the distance between them and then a fourth emerged from an izakaya, casually strolling along a short distance ahead and presently Heath and Sugizo were herded to a corner where stood a fifth, looking straight at them with cold eyes and a small smile. This one inclined his head in a small bow and started walking away and, closely surrounded by the other four strangers, Sugizo and Heath had little choice but to follow. The pair exchanged a glance. Not only was this the first time in many years that they had come across others of their own kind, it was the first time they had encountered this many in one place as a pack.
“Good evening,” Heath greeted them pleasantly. “A lovely evening, is it not?”
“To what do we owe the pleasure of this meeting?” Sugizo cut in.
“We have been watching you for the past three nights,” said one of the strangers.
“Oh. How nice of you.”
“You are in Kirito’s territory. Do you think that you can simply walk in and take what you wish?”
Sugizo blinked at him. “Are you Kirito?”
“Peace, Takeo,” said another stranger, the one with the cold eyes who had been waiting for them at the corner, and he smiled again. “I am Kirito and these are my kin: Kohta, Takeo, Karyu and Giru.”
“I am Sugizo and this is Heath.” Sugizo offered the strangers a cursory bow. “Pleased to meet your acquaintance.”
“What brings you both to Okayama?” Kirito asked coolly.
“We are travelling and this beautiful city has caught our fancy.”
“She is a wonderful city,” Kirito agreed. “And she is ours.”
“I didn’t realise that you owned all of the people in this city,” Sugizo remarked.
“Please,” Heath said, spreading his hands in greeting. “We have no wish to quarrel. There are few things more futile than squabbles amongst our own kind.”
“Indeed, but you have entered our hunting grounds and we are obliged to defend our territory.”
“Is that so?” Sugizo said archly.
No sooner had these words left Sugizo’s lips than two of them set upon him in a split second he felt hot breath and sharp teeth grazing across his neck before his attacker was sent sprawling against the wall.
“Don’t you touch him,” Heath snarled and then Giru slammed him against the wall, stunning him before Kohta twisted Sugizo’s arm behind his back and Sugizo kicked his legs out from underneath him. Heath grunted when Karyu landed a blow to his cheek that sent him staggering, dragging Takeo to the ground with him while Kohta went for another crippling bite to the neck and Sugizo retaliated with a blow that sent Kohta sprawling against the opposite wall with a heavy groan, and he was about to drag Takeo away from Heath when Karyu, Giru and Kirito all latched onto him and on the ground, Heath drove his fist into Takeo’s face over and over again until he heard a great crack and Takeo went limp and Heath locked an arm about Kirito’s throat, dragging him backwards and choking him hard.
“Are you all completely mad?” Heath hissed.
Sugizo dusted himself off and caught Kirito’s chin in his hand. “What is the meaning of this, starting a fight in the middle of town?”
Kirito spat at him; Sugizo responded with a blow to his face that sent blood spurting from his nose and the other four started forward but Heath fixed them with a cold glare. “Not another move, or your maker dies.”
“If I were your maker, I would be fucking ashamed,” Sugizo growled. “Or were you not taught that our kind dwells in the shadows, you fool?”
“This is our territory!” Kirito choked out, fighting against Heath’s iron grip.
“You won’t have any territory if humans discover our kind living amongst them because of your ridiculous behaviour! Do you wish to give us all away and be slaughtered?”
“We have seen our brethren slaughtered by humans! We had to flee hundreds of miles to find a place of our own. That is why we must protect our territory!”
Heath loosened his hold on Kirito’s neck only very slightly. “If we are prudent, there is prey enough for all of us. Do we have an agreement?”
Kirito spat another mouthful of blood at him and Sugizo hit him across the face again.
“Do we have an agreement?” Heath repeated in a lower voice. “You stay out of our way and we will stay out of yours.”
Kirito glared at his captors but at length he ground his teeth and lapsed into a stubborn silence, signalling his acquiescence, and Heath released him. Seeing their leader subdued, the other four became meeker, unwilling to act without Kirito’s direction.
“Come, Heath.” Sugizo took his arm and cast the five younger vampires a look of contempt. “This part of town no longer pleases me. Let us find somewhere more civilised.”
The pair straightened out their clothes and made their way back into town, leaving Kirito and his kin to slink off into the night like dogs with their tails tucked between their legs.