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But moods came and went, and then were relevant no more. So too did Yamame’s.
Would that she were as quick at these talks as she was at the drawing table. Then, Yamame could have reached farther ideas than what was on hand – or under hand – or under Yamame, as it were. But she was not. So, drawing upon what was there – as well as her hair behind her ear, and a spidery smile onto her lips – the blond star of the Underworld asked her human:
“Would you like to tie me up, instead?”
Yamame’s human, for all he had been pinned under an earth spider for a well good bit now (technically since waking up), batted his eyes close and open again as though the spider had only begun pinning in earnest with those words.
“… Were you asking,” he coughed up at last – and the words were somehow something returning, “… Or were you ordering, Yamame?”
The mother of plagues, Yamame Kurodani, puffed up her cheeks viciously. That it was with pique, rather than some black contagion, only spoke of how much she was ready to restrain herself for her human. “Are we playing that again?” she huffed. “Are we, really? I don’t want to. I don’t want to order you. I’ll order you very good when it is on our work, thank you very much in advance. Outside of that, I… I don’t want to. And that’s final.” Yamame knew she would regret this “final” sooner than it made fully out of her mouth; still, with what authority remained from her topmost position, she rounded it off, “So no. I’m not ordering, Paran. Wiggle out of this however you like, but I’m not giving you that way. I want… I need an envoy and a house-minder. Those two. I don’t need a pet to boot. I’m no Komeiji.”
“… Asking, then,” her human concluded. “Why?”
Yamame shrugged – and her hair somewise slid free again. “… I don’t know,” she confessed, looping it behind an ear again. “Only I’d thought… Or hadn’t thought about it. It’s just something I… Something I just felt like asking, I guess. I let slide your human quirks. Why can’t you let slide mine? I have those too, you know.”
“This?” asked Paran, prodding his chin out at his restrained arms.
“… Something like that, yes,” admitted Yamame. “I wasn’t going to eat you. Or hurt you. Or scare you. Or anything, really; I’m an earth spider, yes – but I’m also more. I just… wanted to tie you up. I really, really wanted to tie you up. That’s all.”
That really is all, she said again in a gloomy corner of her head, even as her human shut his eyes and exhaled a long and heavy breath into the sticky air between them. Then, some kind of decision forging, Paran looked up at her again.
“… Yamame,” he said, “I will do you any favour you would like. Ahead of that, however, there is something you should – might want to – hear. I have made a decision.”
I saw, thought Yamame; but to humour her human’s quirks (oh how she humoured those), she volunteered, “What kind?”
“That I would lie less,” said Paran. “Maybe it is late, yes,” he immediately conceded; “but I have had some time to think calmly across the last few days, and I remembered some lies that had been… well, rendered somewhat pointless. I hadn’t entirely meant them to, but I had to consider maybe it was time to throw them out.”
“What brought that on?”
Paran sighed; then, mouth twisting dramatically, he wrenched his head left and right. “A certain earth spider had begun to explore, Yamame,” he grunted. “Worse, for I had kept her out of trouble for months before. Worse yet, I then let her bully me into assisting. Worst of all, however, I found out I wanted to assist her. It was like a landslide from there. Imagine me tumbling.”
Somehow, by an effort of will, Yamame kept her lips from curling up. “That makes you easy prey though, you know?”
“As well I am,” her human surrendered. “Maybe even easier. Maybe I had always wanted to help her explore. Maybe I’d only been lying I hadn’t. To her, and to myself.”
“That would make you easier,” Yamame agreed.
“And her, a lazy hunter,” Paran countered. “Going for such easy prey and all. Oof.”
Yamame Kurodani retracted her hand after the punch. “I will let that pass,” she allowed big-heartedly; “I won’t even bite you – but only because I’m curious as to what all of this is leading us up to. What was that we were talking about before this little sidelight on my hunting choices? Something about decisions?”
“To lie less,” Paran nodded.
“‘To lie less.’” Yamame nodded as well. “Admirable. The Oni would be proud. About what, for instance?”
“About what you ask me, for instance,” Paran returned. “That is why I am telling you. So that you mind what you ask from now on.”
“And why’s that supposed to be such a big concern?”
Paran shrugged his arms – as far, anyway, as his binds allowed. “Warning, is all.”
Yamame laughed. A human, warning a spider! “This is a tough stone to swallow, you know,” she teased the man trapped – she fancied, in more meanings than one – underneath her. “Come now. A self-professed liar, self-professing honesty? I want to believe you; I really, really want to. There’s trouble, though. I don’t know that I can. Can I, Paran?”
“Why not try?”
“There’s an idea. And I can really ask you anything? Anything I like whatsoever?”
“… Within limits,” Paran said, caution entering his voice. “Ask carefully. Then it is fine.”
“All right. I’ll give it a tug.” Yamame breathed in. “Then… What is your name?”
“Is it, really?”
“It is how I am known.”
That’s not un-true, Yamame had to admit. Oh well. “All right, ‘Paranseberi,’” she went on. “What is your favourite colour, then?”
“I am boring,” said Paran. “I like black.”
“You aren’t,” said Yamame, frowning. “Neither is black; it’s a very useful colour.” All the same, the spinstress inside her filed away a mental note. “Very good, anyway. Coming right along… Have you ever spent any significant amount of time with any of my sisters?”
A startled delay preceded the answer. “… I have,” Paran confessed at length. “Hachiashi and I have… sat and talked, on occasion.”
“Only Ashi?” Yamame wanted to know. “No others?”
“… I met one other, briefly,” Paran recalled. “I did not get her name; she had only come for something from the storeroom.”
“This is new. And you let her in – just like so?”
“Only human, Yamame,” her human reminded.
“That’s never stopped you stopping me,” Yamame pointed out.
“When storing our payments,” he corrected. “You browse, Yamame; browsing makes storing things difficult.”
Yamame smacked her human. “I do that, yes.”
Paran looked up at her, wounded – at least figuratively. “… Why hit me, then?”
“I don’t like being told I’m difficult.”
“That is not what I said.”
The star of the Underworld made a pout. “It’s what I heard,” she told him. “I’m a silly earth spider, yes, but even I can pick between the threads when they are this thick. Very good, Paran. I promise I’ll not put a single foot inside the storeroom until you’re done storing when we’re done with Hijiri’s guest-house. Which we should get you reporting on soon,” she remembered. “Though, before we go down to that, there’s still one more question I’d like to have answered – clearly.”
“What is it?”
But Yamame Kurodani, a huntress as earth spiders were, knew her human well: as certain as she was herself, he would flee from the last question Yamame had for him, if such an opportunity presented. So, if for nothing else but to close one avenue of escape, Yamame, leaning forward, got up on all fours. So, having first tossed her hair onto her back, she clamped her hands down on the human’s shoulders. So, for no reason but she did not feel safe enough, she locked her knees around his flanks as well. So, tying up the final snare, Yamame Kurodani gave the human the full amber favour of her eyes.
Then, and only then, did the eldest of earth spiders voice her monumental question.
“Tell me, you ‘Paranseberi,’” she said, “Tell me this – and no lying. How do you feel about me? How do you feel about me, really?”
But for all her spider’s spatial acuity, Yamame had never accounted for one unlikely direction: inward. And it was inward now where her human was quickly escaping.
First, with his eyes alone – for those shut like doors once the question had been voiced; then, with his mouth also – for it drew of the quiet air of Yamame’s salon enough to last its owner a long dive in one of the cold underground lakes. Then, with his arms as well – for he shoved them out before Yamame’s face, as though to bar himself from pursuit.
No bar enough to bar Yamame Kurodani; yet even as her spider’s pride began to play at the idea of swatting those brittle arms aside, it – and the sour taste spreading across her mouth – turned out all a premature frustration.
“… Untie me,” Paran said.
Yamame Kurodani, stunned out of her annoyance by the demand, sat right back. Then, eyes squinting, she noticed, “That doesn’t answer my question.”
“No,” Paran agreed. “Untie me first.”
“My shoulders are cramping,” he grunted. “And… it’s tantalising.”
“Untie me, Yamame,” Paran delivered his ultimatum, “and I’ll tell you.”
Then once more he closed his mouth, and spoke no more.
What could she do? Yamame Kurodani, understanding at last what her sister had meant by “stubborn,” let go of her human and his shoulders; and, with a confused feeling of shame, began to pick apart the knots on her ribbon. When it sailed free, and Paran’s arms with it, Yamame watched on, bemused, as her favourite human rubbed kinks out of his wrists which they could not have possibly gotten from a bind this soft.
Maybe it was because she was bemused then, that – once the wrists swivelled around and offered up the human’s open hands – Yamame consigned her own into them without so much as a thought. A fidgety thought did come, yes it did – but only afterwards, when her favourite human gently brushed his fingers up the insides of her palms.
“… I like you, Yamame,” he said at the same time.
Maybe because her palms were ticklish, Yamame let go of a nervous giggle. Maybe because she was giggling, she did not at first notice the human’s fingers firmly threading through her own. Maybe because she then did notice, Yamame Kurodani did not feel her human tensing up for even more.
Quite suddenly, Paran was sitting up.
Quite suddenly, Yamame Kurodani was no longer alone on her topmost level.
Quite suddenly, right in front of the Underworld’s brightest mind, there was a human with his patience stretched way thin, and kissing her good-morning.
Yamame seized up.
Not least out of her over-excitable instincts were rising in any way. Those had been shushed into unwilling docility earlier, when her human’s touch had been much less delicate. Nor was Yamame surprised anymore at being surprised by something so dim-eyed and anaemic as a human. Maybe because her heart was leaping up at her throat, then. Maybe because a thrill was running down her spine making it arch back, as if to facilitate a wider channel of escape for said heart. Maybe Yamame Kurodani did not wish to show her insides to anyone, ever – least of all her human – and that was all.
Or maybe – just maybe, purely hypothetically, nothing too likely – Yamame Kurodani was afraid doing anything but seizing up would scare her human into breaking up the kiss, which – surprise besides – was unexplainably making her feel really, really good.
“Good,” Yamame? a tiny voice in Yamame’s head was jeering. Unaccountably, it sounded like Ashi’s. Not just “OK?” Not “trusted?” What is this? An old spider like you, enjoying physicality? For shame.
Shut up, Ashi, Yamame thought back. Ashi – or her voice – shut up.
But whichever word was correct, none were anyway quick enough to make matter; and Yamame found her breath catching when her human broke the kiss of his own accord. A hand-span or less ahead, he was working on his own breath – even if it was very soon to be expended again, and at length.
Because it was.
“I like you, Yamame,” Paran breathed out, very soon. “I really like you – a lot. More than twice as much as it is appropriate to like a youkai; probably twice again as much as I’m ready to tell you without my ears burning up. That’s what makes this so tantalising – because, even if it isn’t proper, and you are only a little less unpredictable since before you began exploring, I’ve realised I still want to tell you. But, I’m bad with words, and that’s the problem.”
“You are doing fine,” Yamame assured him. “Keep going.”
“I’ve had three days, Yamame” Paran said, shoulders going up and down dismissively. “It’s a long time to prepare. But since I have had those days, here are some other answers I came up with – so you are spared the effort of asking, and I, of having to rephrase them later. Yes, touching you feels good. I am a human; and you were right when you said we were bizarrely fixated on touching. It’s addictive. No, spider or no inside, outside you are shaped like a girl – a girl who, in her own words, is plenty soft in traditional spots. That is very apparently enough for me. No, just because I said you looked amazing with your hair down doesn’t make it any less amazing when it’s tied up. Only in a different way. Yes, your sewing is incredible. I haven’t seen very much of it, no – and I honestly couldn’t tell you what makes it incredible, because I don’t understand what does. The end effects are still beautiful. And really, no, I don’t much enjoy mushroom tea myself, either. I’d had our first client put a proper blend in our payment, and planned to get you to habituate. I regret nothing.” Paran paused, refilling on his breath again. Yamame, drunken on his voice for once coming out in abundance, let him to do so undisturbed. “And, finally,” the human resumed, “yes, I do have your notes. Hijiri had me accede to some adjustments. ‘Trimming the fat,’ such as she called it. I’ve all the details in those notes. I’ll go over those with you any time you like. We’ve time aplenty: Hijiri said four days until she has those materials you outlined delivered. I pointed the good priestess to whomever reliable I could. It is in her hands now – and out of ours. Worst case, you will have a slower start.”
“That’s a little sloppy,” Yamame complained.
“Spared me another day’s waiting for everyone to sober up. And, well…”
“Yes?” The spinstress smiled. “Was there something else?”
“… Yes,” her human sighed. “Yes, I did that because I wanted to keep my promise. Three days is three days. I’ll pay due if – when – it comes to it.”
“Very good. I’ll count on you being nearby then.”
“I don’t know that I’ll be,” Paran chuckled, all derisive. “Hijiri’s rein on her… disciples… is a little loose. Maybe best she sends our payment someplace in town, and I’ll take it from there. Safer for me, and a little closer to boot. And, Yamame? Speaking of safe…”
“Yes?” asked Yamame. “What is it?”
The human Paran (or ‘Paranseberi,’ as he was known in places – and his god alone knew what other names which he wasn’t telling), squared his back. The motion brought to Yamame’s mind the memory (and it was not entirely an uncomfortable one) of her own back misbehaving not minutes before. She squared hers as well.
Maybe because he mistook it for teasing, but Paran favoured her gymnastics with a warm smile.
“… Well, there is one last thing,” he then said, almost pulling the edges of his lips down by force into a more serious expression. “I will not be taking it now – because if I don’t take breakfast in the next ten minutes and wash my mouth down, I am going to faint – but no, I’ve not forgotten about what else we promised. I’ve been gone for three days, Yamame. That is three—” he hesitated, “no, two now…? Two. Two mornings and three evenings that we missed. You remember, yes?”
“Yes,” Yamame nodded, and somehow kept her own expression straight and professional throughout. “I remember. We did miss those, at that. Hmm.”
“Should we make up?” Paran asked, very seriously.
“I’ll think about it,” Yamame told him, very serious herself. “I’ll let you know, no worries. As soon as I’ve finished thinking it. In the meanwhile – breakfast? You’re making, of course. I can sew beautifully, but the stove’s your field of expertise – and cleaning, too. The ash is piling a little high below, you know? I was putting on water yesterday, and it got all over the floor.”
“… I’ll take it out after we’ve eaten,” her human proposed.
“Very good. And, Paran?”
“I know holding onto my hands keeps me from clawing,” she granted. “I’m still going to need you to let go, if I’m going to stand up. You know that, yes?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Well, let go, then. I won’t claw. I promise.”
“… Of course.”
Wins, as moods, came and went, and then – most often – were relevant no more. Yamame knew this much.
All the same, even as she tore herself away from her human and climbed back up on her own two feet, the Underworld’s great architect, Yamame Kurodani, remained stoutly confident. Confident that, with enough leeway in technicality (and one or two blind eyes turned), she could still persuade anyone onlooking that, for all she and her human now plainly looked like those partners who – in addition to living together, working together, and trading services – also did these kinds of things, that they were not. That theirs was a partnership of trust and skill, rather than a want for physicality and other nameless sentiments. That – once their food was eaten, and ash taken out – the eldest, most exalted earth spider of all, Yamame Kurodani, would not immediately take her human back to her sofa to discuss those oh-so-trifle missed mornings and evenings which so weighed down on his conscience. And if, by chance, there remained among the watchers-on those who stayed unpersuaded even despite her best efforts…
… Well, they would just have to nurse their envy without her help.