Youko wasn’t sure that Shuuichi would be coming for a visit tonight, he sometimes didn’t, and he did have Youko pass on the instruction for Asuka to start to teach him how to shapeshift which could mean he wouldn’t be wanting lessons himself. But still, he could hope, and Youko had an Ikebana he’d made for Shiori-sama at his lesson today, he could send it with Shuuichi tomorrow, or take it to Shiori-sama himself on Friday of course and it was easy enough for him to keep the flowers at their peak until then, but he’d rather she received it as soon as possible. And if she got it today she could find out what the meaning was herself before he visited on Friday, and that would give them a topic of conversation if she wanted it. The gossip sessions Youko had with Shiori when he visited her were nice sometimes, even if they did remind him how weak he was and fit disturbingly well into the ningen version of femininity, but he’d revealed more of what he really was to her than he was comfortable with on Monday, and he wanted to find something else to distract her with. He didn’t expect the distraction to last forever, she hungered to know all the secrets her son had kept from her, he just hoped it would last long enough for him to feel comfortable talking about things ningen weren’t supposed to know. And perhaps for his Patron to get some sort of official permission for these revelations, or at least confirm that he approved of them.
“Youko, would you like me to start your lessons in shapeshifting now, or do you want to focus on the weaknesses you see in your illusions?” By phrasing it that way Asuka didn’t really give him any choice, but she also complimented him on his skills and Youko smiled up at her as he responded without commenting on her skills of manipulation.
“Let’s work here then, in case our lord and master chooses to pay a visit.” It was a very subtle put-down, he didn’t think she’d dare take offence at it, even though the faint tightening at her eyes told him she recognised it, and she didn’t challenge him on it.
“As you wish. The first and most important aspect of shapeshifting lies in being able to visualise the form you wish to take. There are limitations of course, you cannot change your colouring for instance, but you can change in other ways as long as you’re going to a humanoid shape.”
“So, I need to focus on the anatomical differences between my ‘natural’ form and the form I’m trying to shift into?” That made him think of how he’d learned to take human form. “I guess I need to imagine how it would feel from the inside, right?”
“Yes, but you need to be able to do it on the fly, to shapeshift into a humanoid form you’ve never seen before to have mastered the technique. I have a collection of pictures for Shuuichi-sama’s ‘final exam’, he helped me get them.” Youko hadn’t known about that, he’d just dismissed it when they disappeared together as shapeshifting lessons. And it was he supposed, but now he wondered if he should feel threatened, he didn’t, not quite, but it was something he hadn’t realised had happened and that shook him a bit. “Or at least he got Yuusuke-san to take me to the Makai under his protection to take these pictures. We went to a bar and Shuuichi-sama gave me a purse to pay for models if I needed to. Genkai-shihan said it would be a useful learning experience for him.” No, he didn’t have any reason at all to feel threatened then. And this discussion was proving to be unexpectedly interesting.
“Didn’t Yuusuke protest? He normally does, even when it’s to save the ningenkai.”
“Genkai-shihan insisted, and Shuuichi-sama offered to let him borrow me for a night if he was interested. He hasn’t collected yet, so I’m not sure if he wants me or not.”
“Well, he does love Keiko, even though he doesn’t always show it very well. Perhaps he doesn’t want to be unfaithful to her.” Youko shrugged, it was a very human attitude, and something he didn’t understand, especially since Keiko wasn’t putting out as far as he knew. From her blank look Asuka didn’t understand either, but she gave an accepting shrug.
“I don’t know if I should hope for him to collect on our Patron’s debt or not. I mean if he doesn’t isn’t he saying I’m not appealing to him?”
“Maybe, or he could just be saying he’s saving his virginity for the woman he loves. It’s a human thing. And do you want to be with him? I never liked it when my previous Patrons did things like that, traded me away that way.” It was Youko’s duty to reassure her and make her feel better about herself after all - at least as long as it didn’t threaten his position with their master.
“Thank you for telling me that. We should focus on what you need to learn to shapeshift. What sort of humanoid demon do you want to try first? Think of the type you’re most familiar with, or remember best and we can start with that.”
“I...let me think about that.” Youko was not going to use one of his old Patrons as a model, not even with all the intimate knowledge he had of them. Shuuichi might have been able to, but he couldn’t. “Give me a day to make my decision, I’ll tell you by Friday evening at the latest.”
“As you wish. Shuuichi-sama knew which form he wanted to start with immediately, but if you need time to think I can understand.”
“By the way, what would you normally do when you got a new tail and more power? I mean you know this all on a theoretical level, not on the practical level.” Youko was sure that whatever a kitsune with a clan would do it was very different from how he’d celebrated getting a new tail - by planning a new, challenging theft. It had never occurred to him to try to find out about his improved powers, he’d been content with keeping up a reputation and staying safe.
“We get all the theoretical training when we’ve still only got one tail. We aren’t allowed to leave the clan holdings until our second tail, and with each tail we usually return to the clan holdings for safety while we master our new abilities on a practical level.” She turned and walked away from him then, he’d upset her somehow.
Youko’d been focused on working out who to try to emulate for his first effort in shapeshifting instead of on waiting for their Patron to arrive when Shuuichi did walk through the door of the apartment, carrying three wrapped parcels.
“Here.” Shuuichi handed one parcel over to Youko and continued speaking as he unwrapped it while Asuka came back into the main room. “It will take a bit longer to get the standing goban you asked for delivered.” There was also a new pad of kifu papers with the simple folding goban.
“Thank you Shuuichi-sama.” Youko kept his eyes cast down, focused on his reward, blushing faintly, but he looked up when Shuuichi handed the first of the other two parcels over to Asuka.
“This one’s for teaching Youko illusions. The other’s an early reward for teaching me shapeshifting.”
“Thank you Shuuichi-sama.” The gratitude in Asuka’s voice, even after the gifts their master had already given her, was a little bit disturbing. This first gift was a silver belt a bit like the one he’d got on Sunday, except that it was set with amethysts instead of black pearls and he’d wrapped some silver hair combs and pins set with amethysts in as well. The second gift was a simple tanto, simple, but exquisitely made and obviously well balanced. It was probably worth more than the jewellery was, or even the goban Shuuichi was having delivered, but there was a vague air of disappointment in Asuka’s reaction to it.
“Didn’t you use knives before?” Youko didn’t need to specify before what, but that was enough to make her look at the tanto in a new light - she’d obviously been thinking of how concubines were supposed to act.
“I carried a couple, as a last resort more than anything else. I wasn’t very good with them.” She blushed faintly, but Youko didn’t see any reason for that. He wasn’t really that good with most weapons, he could just barely use a sword well enough that he wasn’t more a threat to himself than anything else, but he was best with a whip, and very good with that.
‘I think she might be ashamed that she didn’t use one to kill herself before allowing herself to be enslaved, or ashamed of her showing when she was enslaved.’ That wasn’t really rational, but it would explain her embarrassment. Youko decided to change the subject and he picked up his Ikebana.
“Shuuichi-sama, when you leave could you take this with you and give it to Shiori-sama from me?”
“Sure, just remember to remind me before I leave. What does it mean?” Asuka took the chance to retreat back to her bedroom; Youko didn’t know what she did in there, but then it didn’t really matter to him.
“It means ‘Thank you for your kindness’, and it implies a familial relationship. I apologise if I presumed.” Youko put the Ikebana down, avoiding Shuuichi’s eyes.
“You didn’t. Not really. I know we haven’t added you to the family register, but as my concubine you’re part of my household now, and Kaasan does see you almost as a daughter.” And Shiori-sama was the most important thing in the world to Shuuichi. “I’m actually thinking about asking her to add you and Asuka to the family register before Hatanabe-san adds her to his. It would mean more to me that way.” And to Youko too, it would mean that she’d accepted him as a part of Shuuichi’s life and accepted Shuuichi’s nature and desire for a rather unconventional domestic arrangement by modern standards. “I wanted to ask you a few questions about the scenario you came up with last night, come.” Youko smiled at that, at the implication that he’d impressed Shuuichi, and followed his Patron into his bedroom. He hesitated when Shuuichi sat on his futon, but joined him when his master nodded for him to.
“What did you wish to know Shuuichi-sama?”
“How much detail did you go into? I got the impression that even though the people all looked different, albeit a bit like there were just six different families, three all men and three all women, but they didn’t seem to have much in the way of personality.”
“I’ll correct for that by gender flipped versions then when I add the children...that is if you’d be interested in using more scenarios based in that ‘community’. I just copied six basic shapes, letting enough imperfections slip in to make them individual. But you’re right, I didn’t bother giving them much in the way of personality, just enough to act as an appreciative audience for you. I didn’t have time to do more.” Youko shrugged, waiting to hear Shuuichi’s assessment of what he’d done.
“That...isn’t how I’d have done it, but it was creative and well-executed. Congratulations. Would that setting work for other scenarios, or is it just that one?”
“There are other scenarios that apply to that setting. I haven’t worked them all out, except that I’m a virgin in all of them and they’re all religious ceremonies. I have plans to improve on the setting if you want me to, for instance I think I can set the people up so that they acquire personalities over time in the dreamscape and I need to build more homes and such there.”
“Why always virgin?” There was a note of disappointment in Shuuichi’s voice, as well as curiosity. “And are you dominant in any of these rituals?”
“It fitted the mythology I came up with. I went for the simplicity of a two god set-up, one of change and one of stasis.” Youko shrugged, it had made more sense to have one avatar with perpetually renewing virginity than a new avatar chosen to be virgin every year. “And yes, I dominate in precisely one ritual, the mirror of the ritual we dreamed of last night.”
“The beginning of autumn instead of spring?” He sounded a bit puzzled, then he seemed to work out why. “To try and make the autumn mild and the winter short?”
“Yes Shuuichi-sama. With everything else the aim is for things to change, hopefully for the better, but then everyone wants things to stay the same as much as possible.”
“Hmm. Work on building that setting up until you think it’s complete, would you like a tanto like Asuka’s as a reward for that?”
“I was a little jealous of her when I saw it actually. Did that show so much?”
“No. Kiss me now my silver rose.” Youko drew in a hissing breath in pleasure when he heard the endearment, and obeyed enthusiastically.
Youko was wearing his black yukata with the silver foxes embroidered on it for his visit to Shiori-sama today. Shuuichi-sama didn’t often decide to use his right to dictate what Youko wore, but Youko knew better than to assume that leniency would mean his Patron wouldn’t punish him for disobeying. Still, he wore the black obi with it, instead of the dark red one they’d originally chosen, and he left the red polish on his fingernails chipped and untended in a subtle act of defiance. They’d grown long enough to look feminine anyway he had to admit, but this once he didn’t want to bother with going to the trouble of removing the polish and selecting an appropriately subdued colour. Besides, Shuuichi liked it when his nails were painted red, even when it was chipped and worn away at the ends, because it looked like blood; Shiori-sama simply didn’t think anything too blatant was ladylike. He’d gotten into the habit of wearing make-up - at least lip gloss and a smear of neutral eyeshadow - every time he went out, even on the rare occasions when it was as a male, but now he made it a bit less subtle than usual, including a deep wine lipstick and dark grey eyeshadow. Shuuichi had jokingly complained once about how subtle his make-up usually was, although he’d been understanding about Youko’s desire to please Shiori-sama and he’d never ordered Youko to wear more obvious make-up. He’d also made it clear how much he enjoyed letting Youko’s hair out so Youko put it up fully, with pins and combs, something he hadn’t used in his dream scenario, allowing his own preference for leaving his hair loose to influence the design of Kalikos. (Of course he could justify his decision if Shuuichi asked him, but it hadn’t been necessary so far.)
Shiori-sama hadn’t said anything about what Youko was wearing, although she’d seemed a little disappointed by it, instead she’d gone straight into another lesson in the tea ceremony. This time it was a review of the variations they’d done so far instead of a new ceremony, followed by a discussion on how to set the right tone for the ceremony.
“I’d like to give you a test next time you come. I want you to set up and perform the tea ceremony I tell you then without any guidance from me. Will that be a problem for you?”
“Of course not. If you wish to test me it is your right.” That seemed to bother her for some reason, Youko couldn’t tell why though, but he still wanted to make her feel better. “I expected that you would wish to test me since we were just reviewing earlier work today.”
She smiled at that, and changed the subject. “Ah, I see. Well, I know you are very talented with Ikebana, the arrangement you sent with Shuuichi shows that. All I could interpret was that you were saying thank you for something?”
“Yes, for all the kindness you have shown me Shiori-sama. And I presumed to imply a familial relationship. Did I offend you?”
“No.” Shiori-sama laughed at the idea. “And besides, my son has asked me to add you to the family register.” What was Youko supposed to say to that?
“H-he told me he was going to ask, two days ago.” Youko blushed, keeping his eyes cast down, he hoped that he hadn’t been admitting to anything wrong on Shuuichi’s part by telling Shiori-sama that. She laughed at him, but Youko knew it wasn’t malicious, that simply wasn’t in her nature.
“Of course he’d ask how you feel about being added to the family register before asking me to add you. He wouldn’t make the arrangements without consulting you, only your parents would have that right, and even then arranged marriages are pretty rare nowadays.”
She just didn’t understand. Youko didn’t have any choice in the matter, it was up to Shuuichi whether or not he was to be considered part of his family, he didn’t even really want a choice. But if it made Shiori-sama happier to think he’d been given the option of refusing then so be it. Still, she’d only mentioned him, did that mean Shuuichi hadn’t asked to have Asuka added to the family register?
“Forgive my ignorance please Shiori-sama, but would my name change if you granted Shuuichi-sama’s request?” He was sure he should know that answer to that question without asking, but he just couldn’t remember, and he thought it might please Shiori-sama if he asked her.
“Call me Kaasan. I am going to add you to the family register. And we can do it two ways, either keeping Youko as a second personal name or replacing your clan name with ours totally. What would you rather?”
“Whatever Shuuichi-sama wishes.” Even if Youko was the only connection he had left to his clan...he knew it wasn’t exactly a feminine name by Japanese standards. And Akari was the name Shiori-sama had given him. But she looked a bit disconcerted by that, and changed the subject for some reason. He didn’t understand it, but he was happy enough to explain what each of the flowers in her Ikebana meant and why they were all arranged together as they were.
Shiori wasn’t entirely certain why Akari was so embarrassed about the fact that her son had asked her how she felt about being added to the Minamino family register before he asked Shiori to consider it, but she suspected it had something to do with the strange answer she got when she asked Akari about replacing her clan name. She changed the subject to something the girl would be more comfortable talking about, and something Shiori could praise without seeming ignorant, her Ikebana. Shiori didn’t know much about it, not more than the most cursory overview, but she understood what Akari was trying to explain to her, especially when she got the arrangement and pointed out specific things of importance. But Akari seemed to be a little lost when Shiori mentioned something she only knew about in general terms, either because it was an old meaning, something Shiori’s mother had taught her or because she just hadn’t got that far in her course.
Reluctantly Shiori had to admit that Akari seemed more natural and comfortable in her yukata than she had in the Western clothing Shiori favoured herself. Ruefully she had to acknowledge that she was doing the same thing to Akari her mother had done to her as a child; forcing her to dress the way Shiori felt comfortable, rather than to her own tastes. And truthfully the tea ceremony did look better performed by a woman in traditional dress.
“By the way, your yukata is beautiful, and you’re obviously skilled at how to place your obi. Do you have true kimono at all?”
“Yes. Three informal kimono, one each in black, dark blue and white, and two more formal kimono, in different degrees of formality.” She let her eyes drop and blushed faintly as she continued. “Thank you for the compliment on my skill, but Shuuichi-sama is the one who chose my yukata.”
“Ah.” Shiori wasn’t sure what else to say to that. “Then wear a yukata on Monday, and an informal kimono next Friday if you would.”
“As you wish Kaasan. Is there any particular colour you wish me to wear?” Why would that be up to her? She wanted Akari to perform an engagement tea ceremony for her son, but she was used to Shuuichi not really caring that much about what he wore - after all, he usually dressed in his school uniform, even when he wasn’t at school.
“No, whatever you’re most comfortable with...although...perhaps not the white.” White was mourning, after all. Shiori knew she was manipulating Akari just a little bit, but she didn’t care. “Am I likely to get grandchildren from you?” she only realised just how thoroughly she’d managed to repress her knowledge of Ak-Youko’s true gender when she saw the girl’s startlement, and even then she couldn’t see her as male.
“Not human grandchildren. And probably not in your lifespan, not from me. If I ever attain a sixth tail I’ll be able to carry Shuuichi-sama’s kits, but they’ll be born in fox form, we don’t get a human form until we get our third tail, and I was over eight hundred years old before I gained my third tail. Even our humanoid forms aren’t accessible until we hit puberty.”
“Oh!” Shiori couldn’t help but be disappointed by that. She’d wanted grandchildren, but it seemed she’d have to settle for gaining a daughter...and knowing that her son would live for a very long time. But they’d implied it would be possible for Shuuichi to have another lover without anyone in their relationship objecting. “What about if he had children with a human woman? Or a different type of demon?”
“I...a human woman might be able to give Shuuichi-sama children who looked human from birth, but...they’d probably be pretty weak, I don’t think he’d like that, they’d be too much of a vulnerability for him.” The way Shiori knew she was herself, even if Akari didn’t say that. “And the Reikai authorities frown on powerful demons, more than C-class superior at the very highest, reproducing with humans. It gives rise to problems when it comes to sorting the dead you see. For another demon...” Akari shrugged gracefully. “The problem is that powerful demons only look even slightly human later in life, most of them anyway. And the weaker ones never really look human at all, although even if they did there’d be the same problem of producing weak offspring. We don’t have a clan stronghold where we could raise kits you see.”
“And until you do you won’t be able to risk having children? Won’t you be safe here, or can’t you find somewhere safe in this world?”
“It isn’t my decision. But I doubt it, not with so few of us. Really it takes at least ten kitsune to make up a large enough clan to safely raise kits.”
“Ten?” Shiori found it hard to believe that kitsune needed that many adults to raise a few kits.
“Well...ten to hold and disguise a large enough territory that we don’t need an adult to be constantly with the kits.” Akari shrugged as she spoke. “I suppose it might be possibly for a pair of kitsune to raise one litter, but three or four would be better if we wanted to risk raising kits without a clan.” She frowned as she spoke. “I suppose we would have to take that risk if Shuuichi-sama chose to create a new clan. I do know that all clans started that way.” she shook her head then, looking at the clock. “Should we start preparing a meal for when Shuuichi-sama returns?”
“Not yet. I want to hear more about how a kitsune clan works.”
Youko wore leather pants and a leather vest over a grey cotton shirt for his training with Genkai-shihan and the rest of the Tantei. Shuuichi hadn’t been upset that he’d answered Shiori-sama’s questions about kitsune clans, or told her what little he remembered, but he hadn’t answered the question their conversation had brought up for Youko. Was his Patron intending to start a clan of his own, or ask to join a clan to have protection for his kits? It wasn’t something Youko’d ever thought about, or ever dared consider after seeing his own clan slaughtered, but...
It didn’t matter. Youko turned his attention to Genkai-shihan, since they all trained together she was the one to decide on how they trained, even if Shuuichi decided when he was allowed to go and play in the forest. And she’d implied she had something special planned for them all.
“What are we doing today Old Hag?” Yuusuke must have caught that implication too then.
“Teamwork, tracking and evasion. The foxes are working together to avoid being caught, and the rest of you need to catch them. You can have half an hour to plan, then the foxes get half an hour head start to hide in the forest. You’ll have four and a half hours after that to catch them. The foxes win if they all get back here five hours after they’ve set off...but you have to spend all five hours in the forest, the tracking team win if they can catch all the foxes in the four and a half hours.”
“And it’s a draw if some of us avoid you and some of us get captured.” Youko was sure his Patron hadn’t needed to say that out loud, but he wasn’t going to be saying anything that might show any doubt in his judgement.
“Precisely. Start planning.” For a moment Youko thought Hiei was going to protest, but Yuusuke dragged him and Kuwabara away to plan.
‘Youko, can you set up three illusions with what looks like suppressed versions of our ki and send them out independently?’
‘Yes, but I haven’t tested how long they will last without my being near enough to feed ki to them constantly. And I’m not sure how complicated the instructions I can give them can be.’ Youko knew that was a weakness, in is knowledge of his abilities for certain, and perhaps in his abilities himself, but he hadn’t had a chance to test it.
‘I’ve never heard of anyone giving illusions any sort of instructions for operating out of line of sight, or where the actions can be clearly envisaged.’ Asuka was supporting him, and encouraging him despite his inadequacies. But she could have a point, he wouldn’t have considered doing something like that, except for the experiences he’d had with Shuuichi in the dreamscape.
‘Set them to just run through the forest. Asuka, you can suppress your ki well enough to pass for a normal fox, can’t you?’
‘Yes. That’s something we learn before we can shift to our half-fox form.’
‘Good. I want you to do that and to hide for the full five hours before you make your way back here, looking like a normal fox for as long as you can. Youko, I’ll create a set of nine illusions in potentia, they’ll activate when one of our opponents gets to within ten metres of your illusions. Your illusions should be ordered to just run, in some sort of pattern, acting as a diversion. You can have them stick together or split up as you wish.’
‘It would be easier to have them stick together.’
‘And that would make them think we were determined to have a decisive outcome...either win or lose, not try for a draw in case we can’t win. Either way if you can I want you to set them to dissipate either when they’re brought to the temple or after six hours.’ That wasn’t a problem, well the time limit wasn’t, although setting them to dissipate on getting back to the temple might be, and Youko was aware that he couldn’t have done what Shuuichi was planning on doing with his own illusions. ‘Will you be aware of when they dissipate?’
‘I’m not sure. I think that if I wanted to do that I’d have to keep some sort of link to them, and that would let Hiei track me from them.’
‘Good point. Then don’t try to keep track of them, but if you have the energy to spare for it create a second set about half way through the game.’ And send them off again, that went without saying. ‘Otherwise just run and hole up at some point if you can. But break your scent by travelling through the treetops and up a stream for a while.’ That was simple practicality, and Youko was surprised their Patron bothered to explain it to them, but then...Asuka had been enslaved, and she’d spent at least the past six years in a brothel. Her skills in hiding her trail couldn’t have been too good to start off with if she was captured, and they had to have degraded even further during her time as a whore. ‘Asuka, can you manage that?’
‘Yes Shuuichi-sama, I should be able to find a stream to break my scent. And If I go into the stream in this form and emerge in fox form...’ Perhaps Genkai-shihan had improved her skills then, or she’d been better than Youko expected and not lost as much skill as he’d thought.
‘Hiding one of your tails, yes. Are there any normal foxes who live in the area?’ For decoys, of course. Youko had to think a moment about how to convey the information about where they denned, eventually coming up with the idea of visualising the place the way he would a dreamscape and adding a rough mental map.
‘Yes, they den here.’ He sent the images he’d come up with as he answered his Patron.
‘Good. I’ll aim for that area, and tie illusions of us to the foxes. If you come across one you-’
“Planning time’s up. Start running evasion team.” Youko glanced at Genkai-shihan, then followed Shuuichi as he ran towards the forest. They came to a halt for him to create the illusions and for Shuuichi to do whatever it was that he was doing to add his own illusions. Then they split up, Youko and Shuuichi taking to the trees and Asuka remaining on the ground, but it occurred to Youko that the others wouldn’t know the forest as well as he did.
‘Here, Asuka, Shuuichi-sama, this is where the streams are.’ He used the same rough map of the forest he’d created to show where the foxes den was, but drawing attention to the streams instead, particularly the one on the way to the foxes den for Shuuichi-sama.
‘Thank you Youko.’
‘Well thought my silver rose.’ Their responses came simultaneously, and Youko just focused on getting to his own chosen stream.