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(X) Yes? No?
The moment was unrolling to the cut-off line, and Yamame had no answer.
A cold and clinical stock of viable replies was impossible. The panic might at any moment grab her by the shoulders (or was it already?) and startle her into blundering a stupid one; to rely on her spider’s instincts, too, would have been biting herself in the heel. As good build a web inside a doorway left ajar. Wrong-footed as she was, it seemed only one recourse remained for Yamame Kurodani.
Speak. Speak and hope the words fall in as well as bricks and mortar did when in her skilful hands.
“Yes,” lied Yamame. “Well… No,” she lied again. “Maybe? Maybe. I don’t know.”
Now her human’s hands stopped. “… This is your answer?”
Though not for long. Yamame squeaked like an old floorboard when they resumed exploring the pliability of her body. “Nn. No. No, that’s not… That’s not it. See, I… I don’t know what I’m doing to you. That’s a no. What I do know is what I’m doing with you. What I want to do with you. What I want you to… to do to me.” The eldest earth spider squeezed out a powerless chuckle. “That’s the reverse, isn’t it? All I’m doing is spinning it over back on myself, aren’t I? I’m sorry. This may well be the first in my life I’ve actually wished I were in Komeiji’s pink little shoes. Then I could just read your mind, and – poof. All this stupid cultural differencey nonsense behind us. Wouldn’t that be lovely?”
“Nothing lovely would come of you reading my mind, Yamame,” said the human, dourly. “Trust me. Nothing lovely.”
The spinstress smiled at the empty bedroom’s wall in front of her. “No worries. I’m not a mind-leech, you know. Ashi would tell you I can barely read a mood. She wouldn’t be making a big lie, either. At the very least, that means your dark and grungy secrets are still safe. As safe, anyway, as you continue to keep them.”
The human’s reply was as short as it was ominous. “… Yes.”
Have I stepped on another toe? Yamame briefly wondered; but spider though she demonstrably was, she had no eyes on the back of her head all the same. The state of her human’s toes marched away into the unknowable.
A quieter pause – a gathering of courage, or lulling of aroused secrets – was visited on Yamame’s wrap-and-throw-littered bedroom. A mysteriously pleasant pause, interceded only by jab after jab of blunt pain – then pull after of pull of wonderful release – as Yamame’s human diligently kept on rubbing her shoulders. The ten or so rounds of the thin hand of the clock spent on the task had allowed him to find the earth spider’s sorest spots; almost every stroke now Yamame’s chest was pinching the air out through her throat in inelegant sounds. The spinstress bit down on a thumb. This did nothing to restrain her voice; but it satisfied Yamame’s need to try.
The pause strained to breaking point; soon, and Yamame spoke up once more. This time, she was a spider full of decision, not butterflies.
“Paran,” she said. “I think—mm… I think I’ve figured it out.”
“Have you?” Her human sounded one full of doubt.
Yamame nodded, very serious. “Yes. I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing to you in a human sense – probably never will. After all, I’m just a dumb earth spider who—”
“You aren’t dumb.”
“—a dumb, selfish earth spider,” Yamame insisted, “who only—nn… only ever thinks about herself. That is why – I think – my best chance to solve this query would be to look at it from my own point of view.”
Her human pressed down hard. “… Is that so?”
“So… So it is,” croaked Yamame. Then she said it again – normally. “So it is. Maybe I am stupid, and maybe I can’t read a mood. Maybe I’ve deserved to be locked in this situation; but I know at the very, very least what I’m doing to you, here – right now. I know that.”
Paran unloosed a very sceptical breath. “… Oh?”
“I know, Paran. I’m making you touch me. That’s plainer than… plain. I’m making you touch me. Toss this ‘game’ or whatever, toss winning or losing; all I’ve ever wanted was to be touched. And that’s what I’m forcing you to do; because if I had asked, all you would have done is brush me off, like a… a spider from a sleeve. An Oni with half its wits gone and half the night in his cups could have told you the same. Nothing would have happened. That’s why I’m making you. And did you know something? I’ve also figured out you’re holding back on me. The hints were all there; this morning only bound them together. Humans love their… physicality, right? You said so yourself; and even you said… even though I’m an earth spider, when we did it, you said embracing me felt… ‘OK,’ as well.”
“Very OK,” Paran corrected.
“Very OK,” Yamame agreed. “It felt… very OK to me, too.”
“So you said.”
“It also… felt very OK when we… you know – in the morning.” After you’d quit kicking, anyway, the spinstress added inside; but for whatever crippled understanding she had of humans and their moods, she stored the thought away for now. “Very, very… very OK. Very. Then… Then – somehow, somewise – while I was busying myself deciphering those scrawls from Myouren-ji, you… Well, you went and did what you did – to my hip.”
“… I did.”
“Without much contingency planning, too,” Yamame chuckled. “Given where I was at the time. That is to say – right on top of you?”
“Maybe not,” Paran admitted calmly. “So?”
“So, Paran,” said Yamame, with a note of finality, “it’s very clear you want to touch me as well – but are holding it back. That’s why this ‘game.’ That’s why I’m ‘doing this to you’ right now. That’s why I’m ‘making you touch me’ – because you wouldn’t otherwise. As you said – I am a greedy, greedy spider.”
“Would anyone have sufficed?” the human questioned.
Yamame’s brows must have crashed above her nose. The procession of thoughts inside her head for certain did – all but ruching up into a flowery curtain inside her head.
Almost drowned out by the ensuing riot of complaints, an overdue thought caught up with its brethren, now they had been stalled. A stranded, unpunctual thought, which said only this: that the human’s hands had quit their ordained task (had long quit it) up on Yamame’s shoulders. That these hands had slid gently down Yamame’s arms (long ago now), and had landed at about their elbows. That they were even now pulling her backward – almost imperceptibly, all but unnoticeably, ever-so-stealthily – but pulling on the dumb earth spider’s dumb earth spider arms.
Then, its urgent message delivered, the belated thought sprang away, evacuating through Yamame’s suddenly hot ears.
“W—Would what have anyone… w—what sufficed?” Yamame stuttered out.
Paran made an impatient noise. “Would anyone have done?” he rephrased. “Would you have anyone touch you? Anyone with your trust?”
“Nobody wants to touch me, Paran,” the spinstress reminded. “I told you just then, nobody—”
Her human cut her off. “Yes,” he hissed, “I know, Yamame. Suppose they did, though. Suppose one of your friends… Nikuyama – would you have him touch you, too?”
“Niku has touched me,” Yamame pointed out. “Hugged me – which we have fought about, at that.”
“What if he touched you elsewise? Shoulders? Hips? What if he said he wished to hug you – every morning and every evening, not only as a greeting? What if it were him, not me, with you here now?”
Yamame’s ears were beginning to feel as red as the relevant Oni. “I… I don’t think we would be having this conversation then.”
“What if you did?” Paran stitched on. “What if you were having this conversation?”
“Then…” Yamame hesitated. “Then I don’t think it would have felt as good.”
This didn’t dissuade Paran’s burning curiosity. “What about your sisters?” he pushed on. “This… Ashi. What if she were here?”
“What does Ashi have to do with this?!”
“Answer the question, Yamame.”
Yamame whipped her golden locks left and right. Her ears were hurting. “Ashi… I don’t think Ashi would have felt good, either,” she peeped out. “She’s… smaller than I am. Thinner… bonier. Tougher. Ashi prefers to talk anyway – where I am concerned.”
Paran made a nod. At least so it felt like, from his hands rubbing up and down Yamame’s arms. “That’s what you want then,” he deduced. “Someone bigger than you to embrace you.”
Yamame raked her nails up her thighs. “Nn… Yes! Yes, I do!” she erupted. “That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel as good unless you’re… all wrapped-up, right? Of course I want someone bigger, then!”
“And Nikuyama doesn’t work?”
“Niku is an Oni!” yelped Yamame. “An old, old Oni – with Oni habits and Oni manners! It’s different when he does it – completely, completely different. When Niku hugs me, he gives… he gives Oni hugs, you know. The kind that spells respect. Camaraderie. That’s not what I want.”
“What do you want, Yamame?”
“I want…” Yamame closed her hands into fists. “… I want human hugs. The warm kind. The kind that makes me… feel good inside.”
“Any human would have done, then?”
The spinstress reeled on the edge of exploding in a variety of upset fluids. “I don’t know any other humans! Have you forgotten, already? I’ve never—”
“Imagine you did,” said Paran. “Imagine any other human, here, with you. Imagine having them touch you.”
Yamame stamped down on the fuse about to spark off and make her into a wet stain on the wall… and imagined.
Not often – indeed, perhaps not ever – had the great architect of the Underworld to imagine such a thing; but the silly book on her vain sister-in-profession she had perused the morning of her human’s departure (not at all willingly) paid out a wealth of ready-made scenarios. Ashi’s talk from the same day, submitting its own share of ideas, rounded off the deal. The deal launched Yamame into a world of thought she had never toured before – nor had thought of touring. Her ears – if they had been pulsing before – were now hammering like a workman nailing down the tiles on the roof.
Yet even the sights offered by this unexplored world did nothing more than that – make her blood pound in her ears. Nor had Yamame conjectured any purpose to visiting it other than making her blush; until, on a buzz-fly whim, she exchanged whatever blank face had been filled in by her mind on these imaginary humans – for one she knew almost by heart.
Still it could not have been Yamame; for when the spinstress looked down, her body remained a single piece.
Something had gone up in smoke, however; and as Yamame opened her mouth to… do whatever it is silly earth spiders do with their mouths, all she discovered came out was a billow of hot air wringing out of her chest. When her voice at last followed, it was a tiny thing. A tiny, embarrassed thing, no bigger than Yamame’s own tiny spider heart.
“… I don’t think,” said Yamame, “I don’t think it works… unless it’s you.”
There was an intake of breath behind her that could have meant anything. Then, Paran’s voice broke somehow through the noise inside her ears.
“Very good,” said Yamame’s favourite human. “That answers my question… Your turn, then.”
The spinstress did want to turn, no mistake – yet found the hands locked about her sides (when had they moved there?) far from allowing her to do so. Not without drawing of her preternatural strength at least; but Yamame’s brain, refining on the implications of her facing her human now, blocked the instinct out. The instinct shrivelled up – as did Yamame – and died. The latter, fortunately, the spinstress didn’t follow. No.
What she did follow on were the words – the words she had meant to say all along, but forgotten inexplicably; the words which – had Yamame not absorbed herself in speculation on potential rewards – she would have said at the beginning of tonight, not now.
Now, rather than commanding, the words came out as little more than an awkward plea.
“Trust me,” pleaded Yamame. “Trust me, Paran. Make it just for now, or just for today if you must; but for once… for once, I want you to trust me.”
“Are you so certain, Yamame?” asked Paran.
“Certain,” replied Yamame, with a firm nod toward the opposite wall. “Certain. More than… More than many things.”
“A bad idea. Yes.”
“Very bad,” Yamame agreed. “So… Trust me. That’s my order, Paran. Take it. Or it’s my win… you know.”
“… All right.”
And sooner than Yamame’s fears may recall this order, or rephrase into something more innocuous, the human’s two human arms winded like snakes around the earth spider’s body. The first of the arms simply rounded around her waist. The other, more artful of the two, slithered up from her side – going across her chest, and landing its hand on Yamame’s shoulder.
When they pulled her back, Yamame squealed. Almost, and she would have grabbed sideways to steady herself by the bedsheets as well; but, for reasons earth spider wisdom had never presumed, Yamame grabbed instead at the arms. Her nails jabbed into the human’s skin.
“Paran! Stop, you’re—!”
No, he’s not, another, less timorous part of Yamame was saying. He isn’t hurting you. You are panicking. That’s what’s happening.
Another thing – no, several things, were additionally happening. Yamame was being reeled in. Yamame was being pushed in – into something at once soft but tough, yet warm beyond expectation. The hair dangling loose by her neck was gently parted. The space freed up – roughly between her right ear and the geometrically appropriate shoulder – was being filled in by a nuzzling head. Yamame smelled sweat. Yamame smelled soap as well; mostly – Yamame smelled her fear steadily slinking away.
Then, her human spoke. The spinstress felt the words shape against the skin of her neck.
“This is what happens,” whispered Paran. “This is what happens… when I trust you.”
That’s all? Yamame wanted to tease.
No teasing came out.
Instead, the mother of plagues, builder of the Underworld, deadliest earth spider of all, Yamame Kurodani, curled her legs up – against her chest, and the arms enveloping her – and slipped herself deeper into whatever feeling it was dulling her age-honed instincts into uselessness. The feeling had a name. The name escaped Yamame – if not altogether, then at least right now.
Still she gave her best to find it.
“… Paran?” she murmured. “Are you there?”
“Mhm?” The answer was indistinct.
“Hear me out. All right?”
Yamame swallowed her rising nervousness. “I think,” she said, quietly, “… I think I like you.”
The human’s reply was a long and scalding breath crashing on her neck. The spinstress shivered.
“… You think so?”
“I… I think so,” said Yamame. “Not that I didn’t before; I’ve always more or less liked you. Only now… Now I think I really, really like you – really.”
Her human almost touched his lips to her ear. “… Hmm.”
Another ripple of… something shuddered down the length of her back. Yamame squeezed her eyes shut. “It’s… true,” she choked out. “Truly, truly true. I… I promise. Maybe I’m just a stupid, stupid earth spider, but… I know it when I like someone. And right now – and beyond right now – I am… I am absolutely sure I like you.”
“… Telling me that is dangerous, Yamame,” Paran cautioned.
The human did not reply at first. Only at length, spent breathing in her warmth, did he then venture the answer:
“… Turn around.”
“Turn around,” whispered Paran, “and I will show you how.”
And what Yamame Kurodani did – in spite of her spider’s instincts screaming at her not to…
… against her every experience featuring humans and their honeyed words…
… Yamame Kurodani, builder of the Underworld, mother of plagues, bearer of a dozen such meaningless titles – what she did…
... was she listened. And began to turn around.
And in that precise, immaculate tipping point, the moment was violently shattered.
A thump on the front door of the house – come in very clearly through the unclosed bedroom door – and the motion, the sensations, the anticipation, words, hope – everything… It was ripped apart.
Had Yamame Kurodani not been where – and in what arrangement – she now was, she could have punched her startled head through the house’s roof. A second thump tore across the silent air: less patient, more forceful, bearing even less wait than Yamame’s sister’s had the previous day. And that alone told volumes.
These volumes weren’t lost on Yamame’s human, who was soon again whispering in her ear.
“… Go,” he told her.
“Go. Get the door.”
The spinstress moved her head (as far as she could) to left and right. “Nn… No. No, I don’t want to get the door.”
And another thump. The human behind her wasn’t budging.
“Get the door, Yamame,” he urged on voicelessly.
Yamame, quickly exasperating, twisted her lips. “Then let me go!” she challenged. “Let me go, and I’ll get the twice-damned door.”
“No,” said her human. To accentuate how much “no” he meant, his arms wound tighter around her. “No,” he said again. Then, having pivoted his own head to the sides, a final time, “No.”
Yamame squirmed. “Then how am I supposed to—?!”
Out of nowhere, the thumping on the front door shifted manner – into what could very well have been a battering ram about to do justice to its design. At the end threads of her own patience, Yamame began to stand up.
… Only to, having painfully mismatched her exasperation against the human’s power of “no,” tumble forward into the beddings.
And it was down there, in the mussed-up covers, pinned down, with the human stuck on top of her, that all at once Yamame Kurodani understood at last how far she had strained this one’s resolve. How far she had tested his human tolerance. How far she had dared – for this was the correct term – the restraint of someone who – while perhaps not stronger, nor more durable than an earth spider such as she – had he but wanted, could easily, effortlessly persuade her to do things she did not as much as know existed.
The sound of her own name whispered into one of her ears was a curse and a promise all in one. Most of all, it was suddenly incredibly exciting.
“Ye—Yes?” breathed Yamame. “What is it?”
The human reached and slid a strap of her dress off of one of her shoulders.
“… You,” he warned, “had better get that door.”
( ) Door.
( ) No.