01. Bem doesn't get to be human.
They were grown in a laboratory, and they're in a laboratory when they learn that this is all they'll ever be. The three canes are dead bone, not magic. The green blood is a brief disguise, not a potion. The thing in the body of a man is crazy, not their father.
It can't hold the body together anymore. The pink man, the thing inside it is shaking and whatever experiment he brought them here for is going wrong, dreadfully wrong.
It wanted to merge them to make them human, he said. But what it wants is a new body, new bodies maybe, because the pink one is shaking apart.
"You betrayed us," Bem says, hot with disappointment and loss, and the next moment green is exploding across the lab and covering him, covering Bela. Only Belo has ducked behind an experiment table.
His horns sink in and shrivel, all sound going flat even as Bela thrashes on the ground, and he shakes and feels lighter all over, pulled back from himself.
Five seconds… ten… this is how humans breathe. He's human.
Then his strength slams back into him and his ears start to rush. It's over.
It's all over.
Afterwards, Belo is close to tears. "I missed it," he says. "Just for a moment…"
"It was nothing much," Bem says. He almost believes it, as he makes himself drag them out of there. Nothing much. They're nothing much at all, and each step weighs a ton.
02. Bem never got to have a home.
Every time he thought something was his – a bare room, a hearth, some little shed where they were hidden and protected – it ended in blood and fury and people screaming. And then you have to run.
So they stopped. Bem stopped. Whatever the place is, it might as well be outside and they might as well be naked.
Bela calls him a coward but she's just the same. He knows how she stalks on with wide eyes and hard shoulders when it is time to leave another place behind. She hates it.
The boat is different. Things encroach on him, like the place where they eat or Bem's favourite place to sit.
Natsume-san brings Yui-chan and Naoko-san to the boat. Naoko-san pauses at every step, her eyes wandering over this and that, but Yui runs around with Belo between the scrap metal and the barrels and asks why they don't have beds.
They get futons in from a friend of Naoko-san's who is renovating their home. They come in thin film sheets anyway, "from the laundry," and it's only later that Bem realises it must have cost money to do that, but Natsume-san won't hear of it.
The next time Natsume-san brings his family, there are three more seats around their table, and soup and dumplings in the middle. Naoko smiles cautiously.
"Eat," Bela says. "I cooked it for three hours and it's much better than what we always have!"
Bem prefers herbs and grass to the soup but Bela is getting quite good at the dumplings, so they eat all of that and drink the hot broth around whatever was soaked in it.
The women tidy up afterwards, Belo watching and nibbling on sticky treats with Yui. Natsume-san strolls around the boat with Bem, intrigued by the bits and pieces they have kept lying around.
"It has a lot of character, this place," Natsume-san says.
Bem watches him smile and examine a piece of fishing tackle, not saying anything.
"This is like a sitting area," he says with a laugh at a space between a large wodden box and the vertical beams that encloses two windows. "A living room!" It's just dirty right now, the same dark colours as the rest of the place. But Natsume-san pulls up one of the smaller boxes and they talk about Natsume-san's latest case, a fraud ring swindling money out of old people. Bem thinks he could move his seat here, or find wood outside to build one.
Yui and Naoko make them curtains. They're a light blue with white flowers on them. Bela detests them.
Bem thinks they look quite nice and he likes the better light. In between the iron and spare parts and old canvas, it looks like they brought in a piece of Natsume-san's apartment, like a real home.
03. Bem gets a job.
"It won't pay," Natsume-san says. He's twitchy, as he is when he tries to shake out a thought. "And I don't--- it's not like I'm using you, is it?"
What? "I like being useful," Bem says while they watch Yui laugh as Belo pushes Bela on the swing. It's a bright, piercing day. Natsume-san wants to work with him.
"I only thought, you enjoyed helping me out… When you didn't even have to. But if you want to… I think we could do well together."
Bem tilts his head low. "I would be happy to help you, Natsume-san."
That's how it happens that Natsume-san comes by the boat in the mornings, too. Bem follows him on cases, on interviews. Listens and pays attention to clues. Natsume-san is good at understanding humans and their emotions, but he doesn't always know when a suspect's breath turns from confusion to rage; when a gunman's heart thumps to shoot now.
At some point Bem gets clothes for his work, a darker coat that looks less 'memorable', as Natsume-san puts it. It feels like a costume, like he's dressing up as a human at work. But they go to bars after the interviews and the criminals, and nobody treats Bem strangely.
One day they are discussing a case in Natsume-san's small kitchen, just Bem over for dinner after work. Bem knows how humans can be, and still he didn't expect this horrible death, starvation of an old woman, for greed. He's heard her grandchildren talk about it.
Natsume-san looks like he knows how humans can be, too, and wishes he didn't. "It's a hard case," he says, more quietly than usual. "It's hard when there's nothing to win."
Nothing, except payment. Balance. But that's still something. A string that hums low inside him when they are around bad people. Natsume-san wants to make things better. Bem can settle for making things right.
"What case?" Naoko-san asks. "What's hard?" She's on the other side of the counter, her soft worry on them both. They didn't know she'd changed focus.
That's when Natsume-san tells her that Bem is with him on cases, helping with policework. Bem didn't think it was a secret, but he didn't think she knew either. He's not sure what he was really thinking.
"But you're not a police officer," is what she thinks first. She's clearly concerned, and Bem is confused that it's for both of them.
"Nao-chan," Natsume-san says. "Bem-san is just helping me a little--- well, no, he does a lot of good work, when we interview suspects and all those things. He's very good and most of the bad guys really don't want to mess with us. Do they, Bem-san?"
"I can protect him," Bem says, low and cautious and still it cuts Natsume-san off. "I'll protect him." It's the first time Naoko-san looks at him with open doubt.
So Natsume-san tells her everything. About Bem, Bela and Belo. Asks Bem with a bow to take off his hat.
Bem doesn't change his form for her, and he's not too happy. But Naoko-san is merely surprised and shocked, and saying she trusts them in the end even if her eyes keep scouting Bem's head.
Bem keeps his job.
04. Bem doesn't age.
None of them do, and none of them think about it anymore. The days turn, criminals are arrested and more meals are cooked, some that even taste different from herbs, and they live here long enough the boat needs fixing when the overhead planks let some water through.
They've never stayed in one place this long. There was nowhere an old man with a favourite bench would look at Belo and say he should eat more fish, he wasn't growing right. Nowhere Bem would look at the changing hair at Natsume-san's temple, see that the skin folds deeper when he smiles.
Yui is twice as tall as Belo now. "Like a beanpole," Naoko-san says over okonomiyaki one night when it's quiet and people are talking less than usual, and Yui blushes. She seems to do that a lot now. She also doesn't want to play on the swings in the park anymore, and there's some boy whose name is on her cell phone a lot. They know because Bela peered at it from afar. Yui's eyes have changed too, they're darker sometimes, but Bela says that's painted on.
"You're always so young and shining, Bela-san," Naoko once says to Bela, with a smile that holds some sadness. "In that way it's a blessing, isn't it?"
It's a rare occasion now. They don't get invited around to the apartment often anymore, but Natsume-san comes to the boat nearly every day, and that's more than Bem can expect.
They're on the boat alone when Natsume-san is with his family and there is no work. Bem is sitting in his corner while Bela is trying to mend his black police work coat and keeps cursing the needle. "I want to have a phone," Belo announces, leaning over the top of the canvas-covered barrel.
"We don't have any money," Bem says. "And we don't need phones."
"I want to talk to Yui-chan," Belo insists. "She talks to her other friend."
This is so familiar. There's an empty place inside Bem where the knowledge sits and holds all his thoughts together. Belo never knew because he stands back up and smiles at the world, and because they never stayed.
"That's not because of the phone, Belo."
"But then why doesn't she play with me anymore? I wait for her after school, and she doesn't want to play or stay in the park."
"Humans move on," Bem says. "It's because we don't grow, Belo. Yui was a child before, and now she's growing up."
"But I'm older than Yui-chan," Belo protests. His eyes are a shimmering black and the empty place inside Bem aches and spreads, big enough it could swallow them all.
"But we're not human," he says. It doesn't help. But at least it's the truth. Bem has always been ready for it. "Yui's interested in other things now."
Belo stares at him, before pushing off, landing with a thump. He leaves, and Bem looks away because Belo may be like a child but he is old, and he can keep his tears private if he wants to.
He starts when something hits him in the face. Black and coarse; his coat.
Bela is towering over him. "Fix it yourself," she snaps. "I don't know why I bother with you." She stomps off, her dark cloak rippling the air.
She bothers with him because they're the same, all caught in the same thing. Bem holds the dark, sturdy fabric. Natsume-san bought it somewhere. It tore yesterday on a broken door, like any human's.
05. Bem doesn't enjoy alcohol.
It's not something he ever gave much thought, but it comes with the territory of having a job and Natsume-san not being terribly hurried when they finish a day's work.
"Yui-chan has a boyfriend now," Natsume says, doing something peculiar and mobile with his eyebrows. "She's just grateful when we don't make her come home for family dinners."
They walk, and it's quiet, a serious draft in the air, before Natsume shakes himself.
"I think the neighbour knows more than she wants to admit," he says energetically. "And she liked you. We'll talk to her again tomorrow, shall we? See if we can bother her into giving us the whole picture."
"I think you bothered her very well today," Bem says, which pleases Natsume somehow.
They head from the dark chilly street into a packed, buzzing bar. There are aged people with gnarly hands and a loud couple arguing over something. Natsume-squeezes them into a spot at the bar and orders two beers, and pushes sideways to make the room Bem needs so Bem doesn't have to intrude on people.
"This is good, isn't it?" Natsume-san says. "A drink with a friend after a good day at work."
"I like it too," Bem says. They didn't do this at the start and it never would have occurred to Bem. But it makes Natsume-san happier.
So there is alcohol. Bem is told beer is not a strong kind and shouldn't sting.
The taste is bitter and the fumes burn in his nostrils. From Natsume-san, he knows he should feel something like an easing, or a fuzziness to his head that makes the words spill faster and rougher.
Bem finds words about as flowing as ever.
But it makes Natsume-san laugh a lot, and Bem realises that Natsume-san hasn't been laughing as much as when they met.
"My first chase," Natsume-san is telling a story, red colour in his face. Bem assumes it's warm in the bar, but he never feels it. "Truancy. Just some kid, and god he was fast. I jumped over a fence, fell flat on my face, and he stopped." Natsume-san laughs again.
"Why did he stop?" Bem asks. He wants this story to continue.
"To see if I was all right! Can you imagine that?"
Bem feels his face change; not the monster, but that other change when things are good and something in him is bright and easier. "I think I can."
This becomes their place. Like the sitting room corner has become their place. People greet Bem even though he hardly speaks to them.
"You really don't get drunk?" Natsume-san asks, still fascinated. Tonight it's after three rounds of the terrible, burning beer, when Natsume-san's eyes are tiny and his smile goes deeper than ever.
"I don't feel any different," Bem says. He feels like this all day, every day he leaves the boat in the morning.
06. Bem gets a name.
This surprises him, because they have moved among humans for a long time, and all they were were the writings before the tubes they grew in.
But Bela needs a name to have mail delivered. Bem finds this strange, since everyone they know is in the neighbourhood, and there's nobody who would send them anything.
But Bela informs him, "We are called Hayashi now. It's easy to write." The boat comes to sport a mailbox.
When Yui hears about it, she sends Belo a postcard, and he is excited for days.
Bela gets mail too, and maybe she is excited as well, because she smiles quietly and then glares at them over her shoulder.
"I think it's from her boyfriend," Belo informs him, hopping out of the way of Bela's wrathful hand. "He is cuuute and keeps losing his glasses!"
Working with Natsume-san most days, Bem isn't as up to date on these things as he otherwise would be. He tries to read Bela, and thinks she's not as above the subject as she'd like to appear. Which may be the most telling thing of all.
07. Bem kills a human.
They are tracking a robber who's put two youths in hospital, youths who don't want to talk but a witness gave them a sketch, which led them to a name and grey, washed-out neighbourhood. Natsume-san makes a joke about not being able to walk as fast as he used to and the air explodes in gunshots, fast many fire and nowhere to hide but next the man has stopped and Bem is standing alone on a roof, the sick staleness of death around him. He counts half a minute before Natsume-san bursts out of the emergency exit.
"Bem-san!" Natsume-san runs, and then he doesn't move at all.
Bem's hands are cramped and cold. They're pale, human. He didn't even change.
When Natsume-san comes closer, he checks the man for pulse, but his heart isn't it it. Bem's never felt so naked in this body. His gut is still burning, oozing, and finally there's the familiar crackle, roughness spreading over his skin. Finally. Bem almost laughs.
Natsume-san looks down at the dead body while it happens, and Bem's throat is searing from keeping quiet, all quiet.
"You have to go," Natsume-san says, and Bem has to go away, go away from Natsume-san, forever. "Get to the boat, wait for me there." There are sirens. Of course there would be. People have heard the shots. "Go through the building."
So he can change back.
"Go." Natsume-san looks desperate, and Bem has killed a human and he does what Natsume-san says.
He grabs his leftover clothes and covers up as well as he can. Nobody sees him. Moving in secret is easy when he wants to. At the boat, he tells Bela as briefly as he can, and then he sits. It's in his head like someone engraved it there. The long jump and the crunch and the sound of a dead body falling down, that breath not taken. Maybe his human form remembers better, sharp as crystal.
Bela hasn't said anything in all the time he's been slumped between the boxes, staring at wooden planks over sharp images. Nothing to chide him or be annoyed with him, just that silence.
It goes on forever. Forever. Where Bem's heart is pumping his green blood along, where nausea spikes and folds in on him, over and over.
He hears the steps upstairs and wills himself not to jump. To get up, see, do something. And Bela greets Natsume-san and then she leaves quietly.
He feels Natsume-san step closer, until he towers over the little alcove where Bem has built a seat by now, where Natsume-san often has tea.
Natsume-san puts something black and hard on the high crate. It clanks. It's his gun.
"I've never killed anyone," he says. "Never fired it outside of a range, really."
Bem remembers that gun. His fear reached nearly as deep as this. But that could be undone, stopped.
"That's because of you, of course."
Bem shakes his head. "It's because of you."
He's split off from evil and for all his need to help he still finds this, deep down. A rage that kills a man with a hard, inhuman punch.
"That guy had a pretty serious gun. We think there's more going on here than robbery. I said I wrestled him down and got his windpipe, and that was that."
It's not supposed to be like this.
"But you didn't do it."
"It doesn't matter. It was self-defense. What could you do, turn yourself in?"
Bem moves his eyes up, up, slow and bit by bit. Natsume-san looks spooked; Bem knows that look on people.
Then he hunches in a more familiar way. "Can I sit down?"
Natsume-san sits down on his side, and Bem wants to look away but he cannot.
"He'd have shot me. We were standing wide open."
"I know," Bem says.
"I was lucky. I couldn't have reacted quickly enough, I just know…" Natsume-san is a good person. He's a person.
"I know." It's one of the advantages this horrible body gives him, even when it looks human, moves human.
Natsume-san breathes in. Breathes out. Slowly. "You do, don't you. You see things fast."
Bem unclenches his hand and the little piece of metal falls down in a soft echo of the sound of Natsume-san's gun. "He got me. He aimed well."
Then he thinks of Natsume-san's gun again, because Natsume-san's face changes to something dark and strange, like that time.
Natsume-san looks away, elsewhere, anywhere. It frightens Bem, shaking that place inside him that needs Natsume-san to be all right, he needs, and this isn't all right.
"When I went to kill Tougou, I wasn't protecting anyone. I was just angry," Natsume-san says. "And I'm angry now…" It's half a laugh, like any other time it would be a laugh. "Now this was serious. I've never had to shoot anyone and that one time, you stopped me. But you were protecting me, you were threatened. Please don't judge yourself… like you're a monster. Please."
Bem's head seems foggier than before, death and shame and understanding all weaving around each other, messing him up. But Natsume-san seems sure.
Bem's hand pulses and aches, and when the change happens, Natsume sits next to him and and prods his knee afterwards, with a lopsided smile.
08. Bem gets a different job.
There's a week when Natsume-san doesn't come to the boat. Not in the morning when Bem is waiting in his black, less memorable coat; not in the afternoon to say he had police business Bem could not help with, he needed to do it alone.
Not the next morning. Or the next afternoon.
On the third day Bem catches a glimpse of him coming out of the police station, from afar because Bem doesn't go near. Natsume-san says goodbye to a colleague and doesn't head for the boat.
He takes a taxi and in the rush of the traffic Bem catches a street name that means nothing to him, and then closes his mind. They have both been cautious about what Bem should listen to with suspects, and Natsume-san is a detective.
Bem sits and thinks for a long time. In his sitting room corner, drinking tea the way humans drink it, and waiting to feel warmer from it.
Natsume-san didn't treat him badly. It was a long time that they knew each other and people move on, they get busy. They have different lives. Bem's had people come with torches and rocks to throw at his head.
On Friday, he has his work coat on, but he waits inside. Bela has left; Bem's lost track of what she gets up to in the mornings when he's not around. He thinks it's her at the first sounds of steps on the deck.
But Bela walks rougher and doesn't come home hesitantly.
Bem stands. His legs are slow like they hold all his blood. But he's ready to go to work. He's ready.
When Natsume-san is down from the stairs, he looks tired and hunched in, a trapped set to his shoulders.
"I apologize," he says, and bows. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it this week, things have been..."
"Don't worry," Bem says. He means it. He feels ungrounded, like someone picked him up, away from the dreary day.
"No, that was--- that was awful. I'd have called you, I wasn't just... but you don't have a phone, and I couldn't think... I wasn't thinking well. I was hardly at work."
"Are you sick, Natsume-san?"
"No!" Natsume-san laughs, only not really. "No, I'm... I'm not sick. And I saw, I forgot you have a mailbox now," he adds with a little jump, as if he wants to reach for the mailbox from down here. "I could have--- sorry."
Bem feels slow in understanding. "Is everything all right, Natsume-san?"
"It's fine now." Then he shrugs brightly. "Hey, if you have time tomorrow, do you want to come over to my place and help me move some heavy stuff? I could use a second pair of arms." His face falls. "Not that---"
"I'll be glad to," Bem says, and the next thing is strange, because Natsume slips a piece of paper into his hand. It's an address.
"Is eleven in the morning okay?"
"I'll be there," Bem promises, wondering where there is.
Natsume-san has to go. He looks, Bem thinks he understands now, like he wants to stay, but he walks up the stairs more quietly than when Bem killed a human, like he's a different person.
Bem reaches there at ten forty-five on Saturday morning. It's another apartment complex, in a different direction than Natsume-san's home. A van is parked downstairs, and Bem only stands and watches it for a minute or two before Natsume-san hops out from it.
"Good morning!" he says. "You're early!"
"I wanted to make sure I could find it," Bem replies.
"I, um, okay. This van is full of boxes, and my apartment is still kind of empty, and I was hoping… if you don't mind, we could carry stuff together."
Bem doesn't ask yet, just nods. Boxes and stuff, and an empty apartment. "That will be fine," he says. "I'm glad to help."
So he carries boxes. He tries to guess the heavy ones because he doesn't want to do faster than Natsume-san but he can do heavier, and soon the van is empty and the little apartment is very full. They don't put anything in the tiny tatami room, "Yui wants to come over this weekend, and I don't know… I might be bad at unpacking."
"So this room is… for Yui?" The rest of the apartment is open space, with a smaller kitchen than Bela's cobbled-together arrangement.
Natsume-san doesn't look at him, but he nods.
Then there is furniture still in boxes and pieces. Bem is used to working with abandoned crates and rope coils, and this even comes with instructions.
It's slow, satisfying work. Not as much talking and understanding as policework, closer to pulling a stuck wheel out of a muddy field.
Natsume-san wants to do everything quickly but Bem can see when the corners don't line up or a bolt is about to give, and he tells Natsume-san how they can do it better. Sometimes he tells him twice.
"Thank you for helping me," Natsume-san says when they're done. He offers Bem a beer, which Bem accepts in resignation.
But Natsume-san has caught something. "Wait, you don't want it?"
Bem surprises himself by thinking he'll just say it. "I… I don't like alcohol."
"But you've been drinking it all this time!" He snaps at Bem's side with his fingers, in a weird way that makes Bem twist and gasp.
"It seems like what people do," he explains reluctantly.
Natsume-san is laughing. "People drink all sorts of things! That is just…"
And then they're sitting next to each other, propped up against a rolled-up futon, and Bem looks around again.
"Why did you need new furniture, Natsume-san?"
Natsume-san fiddles with his beer, without drinking it. He always drinks quite slowly when he still has things to think about. "Nao-chan and I have decided we want to separate."
"I see," he says finally. "I'm…"
"Don't say anything," Natsume-san says quickly. "It's… it's complicated. Not bad, it just, it happened. But that's why I didn't come around, this week was… a complicated week, and my head was all messed up." His shoulders are twitching, and he sounds like he's sorry again.
"I understand that," Bem says. "I should get a phone."
Natsume-san laughs. "Thank you for coming along today," he says then. "Not just for the carrying… it's not just for the carrying."
Bem nods, or half-nods because this is the sort of thought he has to mull over, and doesn't drink his beer.
09. Bem has a family.
Bela and Belo have always been with him, split from the same cell, closer than siblings. But they were also lonely among humans. When they are no longer cut off from everyone and each other's only chance, sharing their lives feels different to Bem, like it got new and he didn't notice.
Belo develops an interest in human games, and he spends hours with the professor, chasing each other's little figurines around a board or trading things like corn or brick, the logistics of which escape Bem. But he talks Bela and Bem into a game involving colours, a map on the floor, and all four limbs; Belo usually loses because he breaks into giggles, and Bela usually wins looking like she's ready to kill them both. Bem finds it surprisingly enjoyable.
The Ogatas have kept inviting them over, though Bela has more time to go than Bem and apparently more things to talk about. Bem thinks this is about cooking.
He runs into Naoko-san once at Natsume-san's new apartment. She carries a bag with clothes and she greets Bem warmly, though the touch between her and Natsume-san is quiet and a little sad.
Koharu visits sometimes from her job in Osaka, and she and Bela have these sharp conversations that make Bem sit on the edge of his chair, ready to duck, but they seem to consider them perfectly normal. And one Saturday morning, Yui comes by the boat.
She looks shy like her father when he's unsure of himself. She's as tall as Bem now, and more serious than Bela. "Bem-san," she says, "is Belo at home?"
"He's gone out to help a grandpa with his shopping," Bem says. Bela is watching them while sticking with her cooking experiment. "Do you have time to wait?"
Yui nods readily and, Bem knows after all his police work, a little guiltily. "I should have come over more often," she says, and Bem doesn't agree, but he doesn't want to disagree either.
"He'll be glad to see you," he says. He's very right about that too, because Belo takes only about a second to be surprised before bursting out in a delighted grin.
He drags Yui off to the park, where, it turns out, they sit on the swings, but without making more use of them.
Bela nudges Bem to move a bit along the tree branch because her cloak is hanging down too far.
"I suddenly thought, it wasn't cool to be hanging around with someone who's that much younger. Looks that much younger," Yui is saying in a low voice. "But that was really stupid. I've missed you."
They move sideways a little softly on the swings, and fall into the same sway, then laugh.
"You're like my younger older sister," Belo grins, and so does Yui, after a bit.
"I told my boyfriend that you're my younger cousin," she says. "Because I want you to meet him. And I thought, well, I don't know how long he's going to stick around and if he does, we can think again. But for now, I thought that could work."
"That's a clever idea," Belo says. "You know, Bela has a boyfriend too. I've never talked to him though."
Bem glances over, but Bela is just letting her eyebrows look very busy and pretending to be annoyed by leaves.
"I think my mom might have a boyfriend too," Yui says. "Or someone she likes, anyway."
"Oh, really?" Belo asks. "Isn't that strange?"
"I don't know, maybe." Yui shrugs, jiggling the chains of the swing. "But she was kind of sad for a while. She's said… things were very quiet with my dad. And now she's all… energetic and stuff."
"Do you know who it is?" Belo wants to know, and Yui makes their seats bump into each other.
"Oh my god, are you going to follow him around?" Their giggling is the perfect mask for Bela and Bem to look at each other, and climb out of their tree like thieves.
It's a few months after Bela has started getting exciting letters that she tells Bem and Belo they have to be at the boat that night, because she has an important evening planned.
They witness all the important preparation for the important evening, which revolves around making food that does not contain any grass, and then they meet Yuuto. He does have glasses like Belo said, and almost knocks over his tea cup when he first reaches for it.
"Sorry," he says, with a flushed smile. It's a nice smile, and Bela chides him even more softly than she chides Bem when it's serious.
He's a young engineer; as young as Koharu perhaps, and his work has to do with robots. "But not because they're robots! I mean, I like robots. But I like people too! Or--- and. Um." He gives Bela a pleading look, and she rolls her eyes.
"He likes people who are demons, too," she translates, and in the margins Bem catches the warmest look Bem has ever seen on her.
Then she makes them eat the thing with egg she cooked, no excuses.
Afterwards, when Yuuto is gone and they roll out their futons, it takes Bela a while to ask. But she asks. "So what did you think?"
"I think he's great," Belo says. "I like the robot stories, and I think he's nice to you. I like that."
Bela squirms a little, but doesn't contradict him.
"He seems like a good person," Bem says. "How long ago did you tell him?"
"Well, I didn't exactly choose to tell him," she replies. "I cut myself cooking in his kitchen. He has really unusable knives, it's so ridiculous." She shrugs slowly. "So… I had to explain."
Bem stares at her. He knows he's staring, because the thought is such a strange fit, for him. He knows people don't always run. They have friends now, friends who know, and yet… "And it doesn't bother him?"
Bela shakes her head, not even defensive. "No."
She tells him the whole story because Bem wants to know, but at the end he still doesn't feel like he understands.
A short while later Bela stays away overnight, and when she comes back with Yuuto the next day, he looks like someone has shaken him in a cocktail mixer, and his eyes follow her around in adoring terror.
10. Bem has a friend.
It's a Tuesday when Natsume-san meets him at the boat and tells him they're going to talk to a witness, but later, if Bem doesn't mind.
Bem doesn't, though he doesn't know where they're going either. Natsume-san is chatting about Yui-chan and his neighbours, and asks Bem about "that robot guy," and then they stop at a cemetery.
It's been half a year since Bem killed a human, and he doesn't immediately see whom he'd even know, in a place like this.
The man's grave has a small stone among other small stones, nothing personal or grand here. Bem feels a jitter in his bones, from his head down to his heels.
"You know he was part of an organised group," Natsume-san is saying. "But nobody claimed him. I thought… it's what I'd want to know. Where he is."
"Yes," Bem says slowly. "I agree."
"I know you've been thinking about him, and…"
Bem blinks at him. He never said a word after that evening.
"Look, I know. You didn't say anything but…" Natsume-san looks sullen now, like when something doesn't go his way in a way he finds ridiculous. "And if you're going to be thinking about it I'd rather be there to see how you think about it. But anyway."
Bem blinks again, at the headstone, and Natsume-san waits and lets him. Then Bem apologizes to the dead man, however little sense it makes, for not finding a better way in that moment, for what he took away.
"Let's go back to work," Natsume-san says quietly in the end, and as they're walking out of the grey silent place Bem tells him he thinks he understands the difference between being sorry and being a monster.
But that Natsume-san is his friend is something he thinks a few weeks later, when they're in Natsume-san's apartment on a Saturday after no work, because Natsume-san asked if he had time to come over.
"Is there anything I can do?" Bem asks when Natsume-san has let him in and the apartment still has the eternal three boxes standing around, two of them by now converted into a table by way of a tablecloth. "You said you wanted to show me something."
"Oh. Yeah. In a minute. But that's not work." Natsume-san is stirring something on the stove, and then he gets out a rustling pack of something which he puts next to the beer bottles on the box-table.
"What should I do now?"
"You shouldn't do anything! Just sit down. Have a drink."
Bem eyes the bottles in doubt.
"Those are all for me!" Natsume-san exclaims, and grins. "Now sit down."
Bem sits down. The rolled-up futon still makes for a sofa, but it has acquired a dark blue cover now. Bem sits down and finds this weird and interesting, the way humans sometimes get, and he doesn't even worry.
Then Natsume-san serves him tea in a somewhat huge mug. It looks like tea, anyway.
It tastes… like demon food, only better. Sweeter. And, admittedly, hot.
"I know you don't digest most of the human food and this way… I tried this out and I think it's got a nice taste, but still gives you… well. Something?"
"Yeah," Bem says, heat in his throat. "Something." It's made from the green herbs Bem and his family need for nourishment, and has other flavours to it, it tastes strong.
"What do you think?"
"It tastes… good."
"I was thinking, I have the beer, and I like beer and I get tipsy, but for you… you like human food for the taste, but this way… it's your own type of things, only a little, you know, to drink. When we're having drinks."
"Why do you want to make demon things for me?"
Natsume-san looks surprised. "Bela-san makes human food for me when I come by."
Suddenly Natsume-san flips his fingers against the brim of Bem's hat, but it only rises a little. Natsume-san sighs.
"But nothing. And you don't have to drink it if you don't like it," he adds with a smile. "It was just an experiment."
"I like it," Bem says. "It tastes good." He feels fuzzy in the middle, like something radiating out from there. The drink is water and herbs, and shouldn't really be like alcohol.
Bem has not lived next to humans this long without knowing that they have friends. He's just never felt it.
When Natsume-san is a little tipsier, he asks some cautious questions about what the past was like, the early parts of last century. "The fun stuff," he adds quickly. "Not 'let's talk about the war and the military', okay? Just… what was it like… without computers?"
Bem is a little amused and preoccupied with the tea to give the most obvious answer, which would be that Bem has no computer now, and his life is not much different. Instead he sifts through his memories, past the people who hated him and being on the run and seeing humans hurt one another, for images of village life that Natsume-san can find interesting.
"What's the best place you've ever lived?" is another question, to which the answer is easy.
Natsume-san laughs and leans laxer against the futon roll. "This is a pretty boring town, though. Not much going on."
"I like it. It's… we never stayed anywhere. This is… I think it's home." He normally doesn't say these things but they're easy and right at the edge of his breath, he almost can't hold them in.
"Never?" Natsume-san looks almost shocked, when he must have known, after he heard about how hated they were. "You never… stayed anywhere? Got to know people, ever?"
Bem shakes his head. "No."
Suddenly Natsume-san looks even more curious. "Then, have you ever… you know…" He hunches in over his beer with his face a little red. "You know."
Bem watches him attentively for another clue. "I don't."
"I mean, had a girlfriend," Natsume-san says quickly. "You know. Dated someone."
Bem shakes his head. He doesn't think the idea was part of his vocabulary, until Bela surprised them all by falling for the bungling man from the explosion.
"So… you've never kissed anyone?" Natsume-san is thinking; putting thoughts together. They're probably about girlfriends and kissing because of the beer.
Bem shakes his head again. It never occurred to him as something he could do, something he ever would do. So he doesn't know why he feels strange and surprised, why he even cares what his answer is.
He drinks his tea, and lets Natsume-san think his thoughts.
11. Bem turns into a monster.
This time it happens in front of a man; the man they're chasing, a thief they follow into a warehouse full of car parts, where the echoes off the metal rob Bem of his orientation. He doesn't have Bela's eyes; doesn't see the metal beam that comes down for Natsume until it's too late, until he can only jump and catch it on his back, and the pain explodes and takes him onwards, until he's growling and panting and feeling the heavy strength.
The man is standing still, staring, all through Natsume-san putting handcuffs him, before he's dragged away. Natsume-san's eyes are nervous and fast as he stumbles them outside, but he says nothing, doesn't need to, because Bem knows where to hide.
So it happened. There is no green blood to help them explain it away, no fog on their memory to erase the monster from the story.
"Well, it's a bit inconvenient," Natsume-san says that night on the boat, late after work, the skin under his eyes swollen and heavier. He has tea that Belo made and some of the alcohol they keep for Natsume-san. "Hard to come up with a story… Guy sounds crazy to everybody, seeing green people with long teeth. Would be easy…" Natsume-san's eyes pull together into very tiny slits. "But it's not right…"
"What do you mean?" Bem asks.
Natsume-san drinks from the old battered mug, holding the alcohol in his mouth for longer than usual. "They could lock him away, if they find he's crazy," he says then. "For a long time."
"But that's not right," Bem says. It gives him a shiver.
"Yeah. He's not crazy. Just a thief."
The lantern flickers when the wind steals in from the top hole. Other than that it's quiet. Bela and Belo have left them in the corner between the old containers where they like to sit, because Natsume-san can stretch out his legs and Bem has a favourite corner.
Natsume-san is thinking and Bem doesn't understand this part of policework, but he doesn't ask if he should leave, if that would be easier.
In the end the police let the man go. The case didn't hold up, Natsume-san explains, some later morning he dropped in on his lunch break, though he's looking at the tea again and not at Bem.
"I'm sorry I caused you trouble," Bem says, because he understands there were… trade-offs, as humans call it.
Natsume-san makes a puffy sound through his lips. "You going to apologize for saving my life, too?"
"No," Bem says slowly. "I suppose that… was a good outcome." The tug on his mouth is slow but pleasant, and so is Natsume-san laughing, not nervously but for real.
"We should work on it," Natsume-san suggests then. "See you have a better handle on your look, for the future! Just in case."
His look. That is what Natsume-san calls the monster.
"Work on it?"
"Yes, you know. Practice. So when the next guy drops a hammer on your foot, you don't go, aaargh ooooh, in front of half a street. You know." Natsume-san nearly spills the tea on himself with his gestures.
"It happens when I am hurt," Bem says. "Or angry."
Natsume-san stares at Bem, long and too close somehow. He sets the tea down, and stares again. "Yeah, okay," he says, and laughs. "Not doing that. There has to be something else."
"I…" Bem tells Natsume-san many things. But if he says how the singing inside can change him too, and if Natsume-san knows it's happened so many times because Natsume-san didn't walk away from him… he doesn't want to know the face Natsume-san would make.
Natsume-san pinches him with two fingers, right under his ribs. It pulls in that sense of a breeze under his skin, rippling his muscles and twisting them, and he jerks.
Natsume-san is grinning. "You are ticklish." He does the pinch again, brings those pulling sensations and the twitches and the strange breathy sounds from Bem's mouth.
Then the ripping slams through him and his skin starts to crack, and Bem stops, all breezy feeling gone.
Natsume-san pokes him above his hip, on scaly rough skin that still gives, still partly human. He pokes a little harder, and harder still when the scales turn to leather and Bem is hiccuping. Laughter, in his monster voice.
"See, that could work," Natsume-san says. Now his fingers are not poking, more patting. "We can practice with that."
12. Bem has been in love with Natsume-san.
He didn't know, until he does, and in that moment he goes so cold and still that it stops Bela in mid-rant.
"What?" she snaps.
"Nothing," Bem whispers.
"I hate humans. They're such idiots. Why does he have to go fall off a bicycle, why is it that they have to be so stupid? This wouldn't happen to me! I wouldn't go into the hospital and lie there all full of blood and useless!"
Yuuto has been in hospital for a week. The initial injury didn't worry Bela, but after visiting him today she has been muttering to herself, spilling things in the kitchen, freezing up at random moments.
"He'll be all right, Bela!" Belo tries to cheer her up, but it only gets him snapped at too.
"How do you know that? He has… scars! He's still in pain! I don't know if he's healing, you don't know if he's healing, humans are so…"
She's dressed utterly normally but her eyes are wild and alone, like they're abandoned in a forest clearing and don't understand even themselves.
Bem thinks of Natsume-san, who is human like the other humans, who makes jokes about not running so fast and who needs reading glasses now and when Bem looks at Bela he knows they're both standing above the same dark pit, the same fear coiling up for them.
He waits until Bela has calmed down, and then he's gone.
Natsume-san is at home. So is Yui.
"Bem-san!" Natsume-san greets him brightly. "Now, there's a good surprise. Yui-chan, look who's here!"
"Good morning," Bem says. Please don't leave, is in his head. Please don't die. "I was… in the neighbourhood."
"Come in, come in!" Natsume-san gestures, and Yui waves at him. She's at the real table Natsume-san finally bought with a lot of books in front of her, and a teapot.
"I didn't want to interrupt," Bem says, but he takes his hat off.
"How is Yuuto-kun? That was such a scare, wasn't it," Natsume-san says while he handles a different teapot on the kitchen counter.
"I think he's improving," Bem says. "Bela is still worried, though."
"Ah, I bet."
There's a little ping and next Natsume-san puts a steaming mug of the demon tea in his hands. It's sweet like always. Bem sometimes misses it at the boat, and he could learn to make it, ask Natsume-san what he does with the herbs. But somehow he doesn't, he wants to keep it here, to look forward to it.
Natsume-san shoos him to sit down, explaining he's helping Yui study complicated math, and apparently he's helping badly because she whacks him gently with the ledger.
Bem is in love with him.
It puts a name to the tumbling feeling deep down inside Bem when Natsume-san smiles widely like this, and asks him if he thinks it's fair you cannot divide by zero. But it doesn't really change how things are, which is more than he ever expected already.
13. Bem has to pay taxes.
"Hmm," Yuuto says when they show him the forms, which Bem finds completely bewildering. Apparently Bem is the owner of the boat. "I don't--- do you, um. Have an income?"
"A small one," Bem says. "I think."
Belo gets treats by helping out around the neighbourhood and occasionally that's money. Bela took a job in a little family store in exchange for food leftovers. Bem's most significant contribution was a finder's fee on a lost bag of jewellery that Natsume-san insisted he accept, for all the good work he'd done and "to buy something nice for your family."
What they get from those things pays for Bela's cooking ingredients, alcohol for Natsume-san, and every once in a while an item of clothing.
Apparently they owe property tax. Even if Bem doesn't quite understand the human systems he guesses he won't help himself if he writes a letter saying how he never bought the boat in the first place. He looks at the blue curtains and the futons, and at Bela's scoffing face that says this is clearly some stupid human mistake, and his heart sinks.
"Give it to me," Natsume-san says two hours later, when they're in Natsume-san's apartment, drinking beer and tea from herbs and doing nothing useful. That Bem is in love with Natsume-san has had no bearing on these evenings. "Just bring me the whole thing, I'll see what I can do."
What is there to do, except find money somewhere?
"That boat isn't worth nearly that much," Natsume-san says. "I mean I don't know, but it seems pretty obvious. I know some people I can talk to…" For a moment he frowns, and Bem wishes he'd never brought it up.
"Please don't worry. This isn't your problem."
Bem puts the boat out of his mind and concentrates on not looking like he needs help. "I can't always let you help me."
Natsume-san's frown grows more serious. "You're joking, right?"
"I…" Bem isn't sure he ever jokes, in that sense. It's the first time he's ever seen Natsume-san look at him… like Bela does when she thinks Bem's an idiot. Grumpy.
"Just let me do this," Natsume-san says. "This is your home. And the humans shouldn't mess you around. Just bring me the stuff."
"Okay," Bem says, and drinks his tea.
It turns out that Naoko-san's new husband works for the tax office. A few weeks later, Bem has another letter in his mailbox, asking him to pay the property tax of one thousand and two hundred yen, and he can pay it in instalments, if he wishes.
14. Bem continues his professional development.
"All right, ready?" Natsume-san asks after he's rolled up his sleeves. He's kneeling next to Bem and the new table has been moved away.
"I think if you warn me, it's not very true to our work environment," Bem considers.
"Well," Natsume-san says. "I'm just trying to bear in mind that we're inside and this is my apartment, and I own… stuff."
Bem looks around at the shelves. All seems safely out of range. "Last time you weren't very success—"
Natsume's hands shoot out and grab Bem's side, an evil pinch that twitches through him and brings the rough gasps to his throat. Bem twists and shivers and tries not to jerk away or push at Natsume's hand.
The turn starts like a prickle and his hands ache, but they don't… they won't crack, Bem is concentrating, this skin, he's in this skin he's that person, and he's laughing because he can only control so much, and the urge spreads all around him, chasing up and down but never latching, it never gets him.
He's panting when Natsume-san sits back. Panting but pale and smooth, almost human.
"I'm starting to be disappointed," Natsume-san grins.
"Why?" Bem says, in a voice rough from laughing. "This is good, yes?"
"Yes, but then I think, maybe I've just slacked off as a tickler."
Bem laughs again. An aftereffect. "I think you're all right."
Natsume is still grinning. They're in their usual spot against the futon-sofa. After the practice Bem is warm and a little unfocused, and Natsume rests his head against the pillows that serve as the backrest. His eyes are closed and he looks so comfortable, and there's that tumbling ache in Bem again.
He breathes for a moment, until it's better.
"Why don't you mind?" he asks suddenly. "Most people think we're dangerous. We're hideous. But you're my friend, and you never seemed to mind."
Natsume flips one eye open. "Why would I mind?" Then he flips the other eye open too, and looks more serious instantly. "And isn't this a kind of old question?"
"Maybe," Bem says. "But I never asked."
Natsume waits a moment. Yes, serious. Then he says, "I don't think you understand, Bem-san."
Bem tries to read him but he can't, not about this. "Maybe I don't."
"You help people," Natsume says.
This is nothing new. It's… almost easy. "Yes, okay."
"No, I mean… You see, I'm a policeman. I run into bad people. Dangerous people. It's hard sometimes. But everyone else thinks I'm doing something good. People go, oh, he's a detective, and they're proud to know me." He sits straighter now, and Bem can't look away even though this is strange. "But right from the start… you just help people."
"It's how I was made," Bem shrugs, and this time Natsume laughs.
"No," he shakes his head. "I know you. You get angry, like I do. You want to punish people sometimes. Like I do. You're as human as the rest of us. But you always choose to go with the helping, and there's nothing you get in return, nothing at all. Not even someone saying thank you. And you do it anyway."
Natsume has never looked at him like this, this blunt and uncompromising, and it leaves Bem with everything inside him a mess. He doesn't know what to say, or even how to look away.
"I'm proud to know you."
It's quiet. Natsume is quiet. Bem feels the mess bubble over and spread, but he's in this skin, he's that person, he's…
Natsume looks at his hands and Bem catches him at it, and smiles through his focus. "It's like tickling," he says, and then it's Natsume fighting a smile. Master tickler.
15. Bem has a housewarming party.
It's in part because Bem got to keep his home, and in part because Koharu is visiting, and in part because Belo says they have lived here for eight years and humans would have had eight birthday parties, or even twenty-four.
Twenty-four missed parties is a lot to live up to, and Bela has outdone herself by trying to bake. Belo saved up his treat money for two weeks and bought some emergency sweets.
It's a full boat. All the lanterns are lit, along with candles in colourful little jars Yui and Belo scattered everywhere. Bem is wearing his hat because Yui has brought her new boyfriend from her first university semester. Belo has likewise covered his horns and is a younger cousin again. He and Yui laugh a lot together, and the new boyfriend has to go play the game with the colour arrows and the mat.
The Ogatas have brought a large basket filled with human food packages. Naoko-san has washed the blue curtains for them and is sitting with Natsume in the living-room corner, speaking in quiet tones.
Koharu has brought a music device, and while Bem is trying to understand what the professor is saying about the varieties of alcohol, she's trying to teach Bela to sing. Yuuto watches and smiles. He's got new glasses and a fine scar on his chin, but otherwise he's fine. Bela has forgiven him for being so human.
"See, this, this is a fine drop of sake," the professor is saying. It must be, because the open bottle alone makes Bem shudder.
The professor shakes his head sadly, as if this, out of all things human Bem missed out on, is the most tragic.
"Excuse me, I'm busy now," Bem hears Bela says, and laughs to himself as she flees for the food trays and pretends they need replenishing.
Bem couldn't say what, out of all things human that he missed, is the most tragic. He has lost some sense for what is tragic, and what is just life.
It's a full boat, and so much more.
"So what will you sing for us?" Bem asks Bela later, over two cups of the demon tea Natsume brought.
"The ballad of the dead Bem," she suggests. "Would that entertain you?"
Someone, Bem thinks, could probably come up with interesting lyrics for that. But not Bem. He stopped envying the dead a long time ago.
Yui and Belo are pulling Naoko-san into the mat game, but Natsume is hanging back, shaking his head and pleading clumsiness.
"You should go to your human," Bela says.
Bem looks at her. She doesn't respond to alcohol either, but she seems softer, like she might know that fuzzy thing inside Bem and not find it so strange.
It aches a little, but then he goes.
16. Bem gets Natsume.
On a Sunday night, or Monday morning; Bem will lose track of time.
Yui has gone back to university after staying for three days and the apartment is still in chaos. Bem doesn't mind. He finds it warm and familiar, Natsume clearing just enough space so they can sit on the futon as usual and have their drinks, and talk about work, make plans for next weekend, discuss how hard it can be to be a father.
"She called me old," Natsume sniffs.
Bem cannot properly imagine that. "Would Yui-chan do that?"
"I don't know, she said I don't understand how her phone works, but… like she's not even expecting me to!"
"Maybe she's right," Bem hazards. "I don't understand the phones with the screen at all."
Natsume blinks at him.
"And I'm over eighty years old."
That gets him punched, in a way that doesn't hurt at all. "I want to complain!" Natsume says, and pretends to sulk. "That's all easy for you to say, you're just young and trim and all that forever!"
Bem thinks of Bela, of humans being too human. But he also remembers that they're right here.
"I was born with grey hair," he smiles. "Does that count?"
"Nah, that's… that's nice. That's silver." Natsume eyes Bem's hair in a detective sort of way, then nods to himself. "Yeah. I always thought that looks good."
Bem lowers his head. In truth he's never thought much about his hair one way or the other, but it's nice, to hear that from Natsume.
"I am getting older, though. I think I'm getting a bit fat," Natsume says, patting his own stomach.
To Bem, Natsume is the same as ever, even if he can see the grey and the lines. It all makes no difference.
"I don't think that's true."
"No, really, check for yourself!"
Natsume grabs Bem's hand and puts it on his stomach, which moves with Natsume's breath.
Natsume is a little soft there, warm. For a moment all of Bem pools in his fingers, he's sure they must be hot and cold at once to Natsume. He wonders what that must feel like to Natsume. He wonders what it would be like to have his hand there without the shirt.
Then the burn takes over, and Bem pulls back. He never blushes, his skin is different, but underneath he's hot with shame.
"I… don't know."
"See, and you're all like a seventeen-year-old…" Then Natsume does the same to Bem, his face like he's on a quest, and Bem can't breathe.
It's like the tickling only softer, much softer, and he doesn't know why he wants to curl around it, why he's making this strange faint sound.
Natsume pulls his hand away. "Sorry," he says. "Sorry if that was…"
Natsume laughs a little, squirms. "That wasn't very polite, sorry."
"No, it's… it's fine. It was very fine." Bem usually ends up going silent but this one time, he doesn't. "Nobody touches me very much."
Natsume's look grows a little longer. "And that means…"
Bem is sure Natsume can read it all on his face.
"It means I… didn't mind."
Natsume is sitting still, everything is still. Bem doesn't even know how he can say this to anyone, but he did.
Natsume moves his hand again. Slower this time, slow enough to see. Puts it in the same spot on Bem's belly, and then it's… there, still, but moving, a tiny little bit. Natsume's thumb. Bem bites back that same embarrassing sound.
"That's kind of… sad. That nobody…" Natsume-san is speaking softly and the words slip in everywhere, every aching space inside him.
Suddenly Bem moves, clutching at Natsume's hand with both of his, holds it there, and he shouldn't and he won't but he needs…
He breathes, at last.
"I want to touch you more," he says with his eyes closed. "I'd like… that you know that."
Natsume could pull away. It's not demon strength. Instead there is a little circle, and he can hear Natsume breathe, against resistance just like Bem.
Then Natsume touches him more, on Bem's mouth, with his own mouth.
This is a kiss.
Bem doesn't know kisses and so he doesn't know if they always go through and through like this, why he is shaking all over.
It stops again. Natsume regards him, his eyes all different. Maybe he doesn't know how to kiss a monster.
Natsume laughs, the happy nervous laugh. "I've never kissed a guy." Then he turns serious. "Is it okay? I mean, you haven't…"
"It's fine," Bem says, instead of please, "if you… but you don't have to…"
Natsume brushes his face with the back of his fingers. His eyes are dark, and Bem doesn't know why his gaze feels like that kiss, too. Then Natsume touches Bem's mouth with his thumb, and Bem makes that sound again. But Natsume's heard it before, and he doesn't seem to mind.
"I should have gotten older a while ago," Natsume says, but Bem doesn't understand despite his good hearing, he's touching Natsume's fingers with his mouth, the shivers flowing into everything.
Natsume gasps. "I didn't think you'd…" An unfinished whisper, and Bem can't guess how it would have finished either.
But Natsume's hand goes into his hair, and Natsume presses their mouths together. Through and through, Bem thinks, maybe that is the way it is.
When Natsume sits back, he does it slowly. His hands are at his collar. "You wanted to…" Natsume's cheeks are red but his eyes aren't flickering away the way they do when he's shy. "You wanted to touch me more?"
Bem nods quickly, and Natsume fumbles his shirt undone. Button by button, and Bem cannot stop watching.
He's still watching when Natsume gets to the final one and… stops. "I am getting this right… right? We're, um. Getting naked?"
Bem nods again, more slowly in case he's doing something wrong. But then he understands. "Yes, we are." He took his hat off long ago and now he gets coat and shirt and pants off demon-fast.
"Wow," Natsume says. "That is… um. That is kind of handy."
Bem puts his hands on Natsume's stomach again, Natsume warm and just a little soft. Natsume breathes sharply, and this, this goes deeper than the kissing still, Bem runs his hands all over, everywhere Natsume is naked and touchable, the hair sticking up on his arms and the dip in his belly and the knobbly parts of his elbows and thin skin in the bend of his arm.
"Should I say something?" Bem whispers.
"I don't know if I should say something." He knows there must be ways to do this right and ways to do it wrong. "I really like this."
Natsume smiles, a smile that sounds breathless. His hand does something with the hair behind Bem's ear, before he pulls Bem close again. "I like it too," he mumbles, and Bem surges forward, touching him everywhere with not just his hands.
They kiss more. Bem learns there are things you can do during kissing, and they make him shake more, make Natsume's skin flush and make Natsume embrace him tightly, so much skin together. When Natsume is over him, Bem finds himself moving, seeking…
Natsume is feeling the rough patches over Bem's hip bones, the other scales Natsume hasn't seen yet, and Bem is almost curiously unafraid. "Huh," Natsume says, and Bem closes his eyes.
Then he reaches between Bem's legs, pulling at the heat there, heat Bem's never felt like this. "That's okay, right?" Natsume mumbles. "I mean, it's not… different?"
"I… don't know." He's grasping at Natsume's arms without meaning to. "If it's different." He feels open like he's bleeding, only with no pain or injury. Whatever Natsume sees seems answer enough.
Natsume's limbs seem to get in the way when he tries to take his own trousers off, but Bem gets in on that and then they're all against each other. Bem touches Natsume too, down there where he's hot and hard, and Natsume making sounds does something to him too, a curling burning thing deep down, and whichever way they're moving there's more and better, he could move like this with Natsume forever.
Natsume shows him something with his hand, something a little faster and steadier and Natsume is breathing hard and holding Bem, so tight, his mouth all over Bem's face when they get sticky and slower.
But the heat spreads on, on and on as he's being kissed and pressing himself against Natsume and he's shaking and it's nothing he's ever felt before.
The cracks start to burn underneath. So good. So good it scares him. Spreading everywhere. Natsume next to him, so close.
This skin this body.
"Let it," Natsume says with his hand on Bem's chest. "It's fine."
It's fine. He changes, Natsume watching with his eyes half-closed. His hand stays on Bem, and where he was tracing human bones he's feeling the monster's ridges. He's beautiful even through the flickering vision.
"Guess that's not such a surprise," he says, kissing the corner of Bem's changed, rougher mouth. Not like those other kisses. But through and through.
Natsume's arm is still around him when he changes back.
"It's funny," Natsume says in a wondering voice. "I didn't think you liked being touched at all."
Bem gets as close as he can, like before even without moving, holding on just short of bruising. "I do," he says. "I want to keep touching you."
Natsume's fingers are tracing his horns, and Bem shivers from it. "Good. Let's do that then."
Natsume's skin tastes salty. Bem's lips are tingling, and he can't decide what is better against them, the skin of Natsume's chest, or the rough pad of his thumb, or Natsume's soft mouth.
So he gets all of them, one after the other.