Rei stepped with trepidation onto the large, rocky platform in front of the cave. Ruka watched him, arms folded in front of his broad chest. Stern and serious. Still mad at him, probably, from that incident with the little sparrow chicks. Well, let him be, thought Rei. A life's a life, never mind that it got in the way of Ruka's stupid training exercise. What was a stupid crystal worth next to the lives of six such dear little birds, anyway?
"Ruka." Rei lifted his chin defiantly, soft purple hair drifting around his shoulders. "I report for the test, as requested."
"Do you think you are ready, Rei?"
"Yes," said Rei, resolutely. In fact he was quaking inside. Ruka's tests tended to be more than a little challenging, and he was so mad... but this was a matter of principle. He had been right to save those chicks, and if there was a price... well, he'd pay it. Heroically, like Gou or Yuda. He absolutely, definitely would not squeal, or cry. At all.
His mouth set in a grim little line, he took a step closer to Ruka, and bowed.
"At your pleasure, Ruka."
Ruka inclined his head in response, stern as ever. "Behind us is a cave, Rei. Inside that cave you will find three alcoves. Each alcove is covered by a paper screen. You will put a hand through each screen in turn, and identify what is behind it, by touch alone."
Rei bowed again, mostly to hide his face before Ruka caught sight of his dismay. He had to control himself. This was the purpose of the test, surely: to make sure he could behave with courage and determination, to overcome his fears.
And besides, Ruka wouldn't give him a task that terrified him on purpose, just for revenge for that crystal, would he? Of course not. Ruka cared for him. Ruka...
A flash of memory, of strong warm hands and soft, deep voice, reminded Rei just how much Ruka really did care for him. Surely someone who had been his mentor, his sensei, and of late, from time to time, his... lover -- Rei paused for a moment to enjoy the little buzz that word sent down his spine -- surely someone like that wouldn't...
"Do you accept the test?"
"Then go. You have ten minutes, starting from now."
Rei summoned all his dignity and walked past Ruka to enter the cave.
It was dimly lit: one narrow shaft of light from the entranceway painted a yellow rectangle on the floor, and a glowing brazier marked each end of the wall where the alcoves were. As Ruka had told him, three screens concealed whatever lay within: the thin paper stained red by torchlight, dark shadows dancing over the surface as Rei approached. They were numbered, he realised, from one to three.
Best start at the beginning, then.
He took a deep breath, and closed his eyes. Gathered his focus as best he could. Pulled back his fist, elbow tucked neatly into his side, just like Ruka had taught him.
He punched cleanly through the first screen, with a snap as the paper fractured.
His fist uncurled in empty air: he forced himself to feel around the rough walls of the alcove, slowly, dreading what he might find, but there seemed to be nothing but rock. He was about to give up and move on to the next when he heard a tiny noise, and thought he felt something brush his fingers. He investigated further, deep into the recesses of the alcove, so that his whole arm was inside, and something nuzzled into his touch. Soft. He identified a round little head, whiskers, ears laid flat. A tiny, stiff little tail.
He pinched the kitten's scruff between thumb and forefinger and brought him out. A handsome little ginger furball, one of Gai's fearsome little pets, obviously. It mewed crossly at him, and spat.
Rei heard quiet footsteps behind him, and turned. Ruka nodded wordlessly, took the kitten from him, and petted it absently. Which took away a lot of his menace, it must be said.
Was he missing something here? Was this more than a simple test of courage? After all, a kitten was hardly menacing, even if it was one of Gai's.
He punched through the second screen, less apprehension, and felt around a little more boldly, only to jump back with a squeal.
He heard Ruka stifling a laugh behind him, and scowled.
That was... wet?
He reached back inside the alcove; tentative investigation revealed a pool. Not, of itself, menacing, unless... the sudden imagining of shark-like teeth sinking into his fingers shocked him, and he swallowed hard, suppressing another shriek. Determined not to give Ruka the satisfaction, no matter how rampant his imagination was. He forced himself to feel along the bottom of the pool, thankfully unmolested by slippery scales or teeth, and finally came across something... metal? Smooth, curved... a ring?
He fished the trinket out of the sandy bottom of the pool. It was pale silver - platinum, maybe? - a broad, gleaming band. It was beautiful.
"Good," murmured Ruka, taking it from him. Rei was sorry to see it go. So pretty. Definitely not frightening; he loved pretty things, and Ruka knew it. He didn't understand this test at all.
He turned to the final alcove. Naturally optimistic, Rei squared his shoulders and mustered something like confidence. Nothing terrible had happened yet. Perhaps Ruka wasn't so mad at him after all.
As soon as the paper on the third screen broke, he heard a hiss.
Rei froze in terror.
"Ruka," he whispered. "No, you wouldn't..."
The hiss came again, and Rei snatched back his hand.
He tried to tell himself that it meant nothing. It wasn't only snakes that hissed. It could be another cat, perhaps, or he might have misheard. Perhaps an echo from the tearing paper... Rei tried to breathe, his head spinning, throat suddenly dry and aching.
Somewhere deep inside him, with the heightened instinct of one who knows his own fear too well, Rei knew it was a snake.
The only creature in the heavens or on earth that Rei feared. He had no idea why: Shin said he had perhaps been traumatised at some time in the past, but if that was the case, he had no memory of it. He only knew that snakes brought about in him a fear so deep and primal that it made him feel as vulnerable as a human. Like the mouse fleeing from the hawk: small and frightened and wanting only to run and run and run...
And Ruka knew.
How could he do this?
Rei fought back tears, nursing his still-fisted hand to his chest, as if he'd already been bitten.
Did Ruka think so little of him? Was it a joke? Let's make Rei cry. Let's laugh at him for being soft. For saving baby chicks and being scared of snakes.
How could he do this?
It was an impossible task, all of a sudden. To ask him to pick up a snake when he was so frightened he could barely move... but then... he wanted to be stronger. He wanted to show Ruka he could be strong. Why else had he taken up the challenge?
However wrong he may have been in his judgement of Ruka's feelings, Rei decided bitterly, he wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much this was hurting. Never.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and plunged his hand inside before he had a chance to change his mind.
The snake didn't feel cold and clammy, like he'd expected. His trembling fingertips found oddly smooth skin, like some kind of rough tubing, slender, not as fat as he'd feared, - he resolutely blocked out images in his mind of long snakes with little bird-shaped bulges in them - and he had no idea how to pick it up; apart from the fact that even touching it like this was making him feel sick to his stomach, he knew there was some kind of trick to it, but no clue what it was-
The snake shifted under his touch; he screamed and it was all he could do to keep from running.
"Rei, stop! It's alright!" Ruka's voice startled him.
The test must be over. He must have failed, he thought, miserably.
Ruka was gently tugging on his arm, trying to pull him back from the alcove.
"No," said Rei, his voice trembling. "I can do it," - even though he knew it was impossible - "I just need to..."
He couldn't. To touch the thing once was enough. To do it again... he shuddered at the thought.
"It's alright, Rei. Listen to me. You don't have to. You've passed the test."
"But, I... what?" Rei wrapped his arms around himself, tried to stop the shaking. "It's still in there, I-"
"Shh, Rei..." Ruka sounded genuinely concerned. "I didn't ask you to take it out. Only to identify what was inside."
"S...s...snake," stuttered Rei. "It was a snake."
"Hush, yes, I know. You've passed. You don't have to do any more."
"I don't understand," said Rei, miserably. "How could I have passed? I was terrified!"
Ruka made a soft, comforting noise, and pulled Rei backwards to be enfolded in strong arms. "Don't you understand, even now? It's not the absence of fear that shows courage. Courage is facing your fear and refusing to let it defeat you."
"But I did, I was, I couldn't..." Tears spilled from Rei's eyes, a sob caught in his throat.
"Shh." Ruka tightened his hold. "I'm proud of you, my sparrow. I'm proud."
Relief washed over Rei, and the fear started to subside, quelled by the heat of Ruka's body seeping into him, stilling shaking limbs. But just as he was starting to relax, Ruka moved away.
"I still don't understand," Rei murmured, backing away almost subconsciously from the alcoves. "I see the... last one, you know I'm frightened of ... them. But the kitten? The ring? Why would I be frightened of those?"
"The test works on many levels." Ruka picked up the kitten, and looked seriously into it's big blue eyes, undeterred when it batted his nose with it's paw. Rei failed to contain a giggle, more nerves than anything. "The first alcove tested your courage in the face of the unknown," Ruka continued, giving the kitten his sternest look. "Any worries you may have had about what was actually inside were secondary to that, most fundamental of fears. Therefore, the contents were irrelevant." He bopped the kitten gently on its nose with his finger, and set the little creature back on the ground.
"Oh," said Rei. "I see. And the ring?"
"The ring is a symbol. It stands for loyalty, for friendship. Trust."
Ruka was stalking towards him; he stopped so close than Rei could see each of his silvery eyelashes, the rare flecks of gold in his eyes.
"You trusted me, when you accepted the challenge. Knowing I was angry."
"You thought I was weak. I didn't want you to think I was weak. I knew you wouldn't hurt me," he added, that terrible moment of doubt already forgotten. "You'd never hurt me."
He thought for a moment that Ruka looked troubled, but it must have been a trick of the torchlight. The next moment Ruka was smiling, his eyes warm, his hand reaching for Rei's.
"There's one last question I have of you, my fearless pupil," he said softly.
"Yes, Sensei?" Rei breathed.
"Knowing what it means," Ruka folded his fingers around Rei's, thumb stroking gently across his knuckles, absentminded affection. "Understanding what the ring represents, would you accept it, as a gift from me?"
Rei swallowed hard. "Sensei?"
"Not as your teacher." Ruka raised Rei's hand to his lips, and kissed his fingertips. "As your lover."
"Oh!" Rei became suddenly aware that he was trembling fiercely at the touch of Ruka's lips to his skin, a blush rising to his cheeks. "Yes," he whispered. "Thank you, Sens-... Ruka. Thank you. Yes."
The ring was slipped onto his finger, a single kiss dropped onto the gleaming band once it was settled in place. Ruka's fingertips brushed along Rei's jaw to his chin, tilted his head up for a kiss. Rei wound his arms about Ruka's neck, eager to feel and taste him. Gentle at first, strong fingers threading through his hair to make little circles around the sensitive spot behind his ears. Then harder, passion rising, Ruka's tongue plunging ruthlessly into the depths of Rei's mouth.
Rei made to tug him down onto the floor of the cave, but Ruka resisted.
"Wait a moment," he gasped, and left Rei standing there, bereft, as he crossed to the alcoves.
He picked up the kitten, which had fallen asleep, a furry heap in the corner, and spoke to it.
"Back to Gai, my treasure. Hurry, now. He's with Maya, down near the woods. You know the place?"
The kitten mewed, and hopped off Ruka's palm, trotted happily out of the cave.
Ruka turned to the third alcove.
Rei stepped back until he felt the cold, rough rock of the opposite wall of the cave pressing painfully into his back. Eyes wide. Not wanting to look, but unable to stop.
Ruka reverently picked up the snake - only little, Rei rationalised, although it seemed an endless stream of coils to him - and just as he had with the kitten, brushed his lips close to its head to speak to it.
"Thank you," Ruka said, with a deep reverence, as if addressing the Goddess herself. "I beg you to take your leave."
The snake made no noise, but inclined its head, regarding Ruka steadily for a moment through small, unblinking eyes. It shifted smoothly, coiling around his arm, a shimmer of orange-pink and deep crimson under the flickering torchlight.
Rei clamped his hand over his mouth to stifle a scream as Ruka released the snake, watched with horror and relief as it slithered a corkscrew path around Ruka's body, down one leg to the ground, and from there, thank the Heavens, to the cave mouth, and beyond.
Rei closed his eyes, and finally allowed himself to breathe.
"Come," said Ruka, and took his hand again.
Rei nodded, suddenly exhausted, and let Ruka lead him outside. No sooner had he felt the warm sun on his face than Ruka spread his wings and lifted them both into the air.
They flew into the hills, through cool, cleansing air. No snakes. No tests. No surprises. Just the clear blue sky, the steady beating of wings, and the song of Rei's beloved birds.
Ruka led him to their favourite spot: a sheltered patch of mossy grass on the hillside overlooking the stream. There Ruka slowly undressed them both, tenderly kissing each part of Rei's slender body as it was exposed, tracing muscle and sinew with the tip of his tongue. Rei lay back on the soft ground and let the warmth of arousal wash over him, his hands taking pleasure in the solid beauty of whatever part of Ruka's body he could reach. Ruka worked down his body, flirting briefly with stiff nipples and the quivering dip of his navel - taking a moment to nip at the little ruby that lay there - teased his aching cock with wet lips and tongue.
He pulled Rei on top of him, and caressed his back; ran knowing fingers over the ridges of his spine, softly stroked the sensitive, almost-ticklish spots where his wings were hidden. He touched Rei in places no-one else had seen, and opened him like a flower. Bathed him in warm oil, and entered him so gently it was all Rei could do to remember to breathe.
He lowered himself down onto Ruka's hips, taking him in deep. Full. Complete.
With a whisper, his wings unfurled.
"So beautiful," Ruka whispered, reaching up to touch Rei's face, gentle fingertips soft on his skin.
Rei rode him, arching with pleasure, lavender hair streaming down his back, wings beating slowly with the rhythm of their lovemaking.
* * * * * * *
"What are you frightened of, Ruka?" Rei asked, much later, as he leaned back against Ruka's chest, one of Ruka's arms folded around him, the other playing with his hair, while they watched the sun set.
"Confinement," said Ruka, smoothing long, silky strands over Rei's naked chest. "Of losing this, this freedom. Of being chained, or silenced."
Rei considered this for a moment.
"But in the Heavens, we are always free," he said. "No-one would lock you away, Ruka. So your fears are groundless, too."
He snuggled back into Ruka's warmth, content.
Ruka's fingers stilled in Rei's hair; he closed his eyes and committed this moment, this peace and desire, to memory.
And wished, more than anything, that Rei's words were true.