"Grandfather really kept you in his sleeve?"
"You know- what that guy said. 'Back when Ryou was raising you from a sprat in his sleeve.'"
"If you believe everything *he* says, you're in trouble."
I almost said But I saw you. You were small and you hid in his sleeve. Only I'm not sure that I actually did.
"But *did* he keep you in his sleeve?"
Aoarashi grunted and skewered a chunk of boiled potato on his chopstick, spattering the soup as he pulled it from the pan.
"I'll take that as a yes," I suggested.
"You're wrong. Mostly it was the inside fold of his haori."
"Must have been uncomfortable?"
"I meant for him. A small youma wriggling around his chest like that."
Aoarashi gave me one of his sour looks. "Put Oguro or Ojiro inside your shirt and see how much space they take up." Oguro and Ojiro, pecking at a piece of fish paste, blinked in alarm.
"No thank you." I took a slice of daikon for myself and waved it a bit to cool it. "So how do you raise a youma anyway?"
"Feed it, obviously." Aoarashi was trying to get hold of a piece of tofu that kept sliding out of his chopsticks. "Damn these things anyway- OW!!!" He sucked his fingers.
"What you get for sticking your dirty hand in there. The rest of us have to eat what's in that broth, you know."
"Go have dinner with your mother then, and leave this for me."
"I'm supposed to stay and see you don't set the house on fire. Here." I flipped the tofu into his bowl and followed it with some fish tubes and shiitake. "Eat hearty."
"So you put a youma in your breast pocket and feed it on mh, other youma? That you catch for it, like flies for a pet frog..."
"Keep your insults to yourself."
"I'll explain similes to you some other time. And then it gets bigger. But that's gotta be a problem. How do you tame it? Stop it from biting your fingers, so to speak."
"How'd you tame them?" He gestured with his chopsticks at the birds, who looked affronted at the verb.
"I don't think I did," I said to mollify them. "They offered to become my servants off their own bat."
"Better than being eaten."
"I never threatened to feed them to you if they didn't."
"No, they thought you'd eat them yourself."
I glanced at them in surprise; they avoided my eye. "Me? But I'm not a youkai."
"So what? The strong eat the weak. That's how it works."
"Not among humans."
"How would they know that? They'd never lived with you. Strong youkai eat weak humans, so why wouldn't a strong human eat a weak youkai?"
"Mh." That put another face on things. "And here I thought it was my masterful personality that did it."
"With help from yours truly, don't forget."
"It's not like I'm allowed to." He considered taking offence at that for maybe ten seconds before his attention went back to the oden pot.
I contemplated Oguro and Ojiru, still pecking little pieces out of the kamaboko. In the sunlight they were just a pair of ordinary birds.
"So I could raise these guys if I wanted to? Grow them into something bigger and stronger?"-- and marginally more useful in the daylight hours. Well, and the night ones too. They're a lot prettier than the bald horned things my uncle Kai likes to keep around him, but face it, they aren't good for much in the magic line.
"Them?" Aoarashi looked dubious. "Mh. You wouldn't want to. A youkai has to stay close to its master, next to his heart, if you're going to make it especially your own--"
That did it. Oguro jumped on one of my shoulders and Ojiro on the other and they started wheedling in stereo:
"Please, young master! Think how magnificent I'd become under your tutelage--"
"Ohh *yes*, young master! Consider how useful I'll be to you when my powers are greater--"
"Ahh, how dearly I long to become a great demon bird!"
"Ohh, if I were only as sapient as Aoarashi-dono!"
They were all but batting their eyelashes at me, if they'd had eyelashes to bat.
"And they don't get along," Aoarashi pointed out. "It'd have to be one or the other--"
"Me, young master! Pick me!"
"No, pick me! You know you favour me over him!"
"He does not! Young master, I'm already stronger than he is, pick me--"
"You are not either! What airs! Young master, don't listen to a word he says--"
"Quiet!!" I batted them off me and they fluttered hastily back onto the table.
"Waste of time, you ask me," Aoarashi mumbled, around a mouthful of fried tofu. "Nothing there to work with in the first place." He swallowed. "On either side."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Simple fact. Kagyuu's grandson or not, you don't have the right kind of soul to bring a youma into full power. Those two are about the best you could hope for. Small. Limited."
"Maybe I don't have Grandfather's powers, but I *can* do things if I put my mind to it."
"Not powers. You don't have his soul. Anyone feeding on you isn't likely to turn into much."
"Feeding on me?"
"You never listen to what I say. You raise a youma by feeding it. If you only give it sprats, you'll only get a sprat. For something large and magnificent like me you have to give it some of your soul."
It was a second before I found my voice. "Grandfather did *that* to you? He gave you pieces of his *soul*?!"
"Of course. How do you think I came to know him as well as I did?" He smiled reminiscently. "And he was *good*- strong, full-bodied, heady..."
I couldn't answer. My grandfather died prematurely aged: the doctors said he had the body of a man twenty years older than he was. I knew magic saps you. I didn't know that--
"Do you see any difference," I said, and I was surprised how level my voice still sounded, "between yourself and a vampire?"
He blinked. "I don't drink blood?"
"You drank my grandfather's life!"
"Hanh. He gave me his life to drink."
"Grandfather- when he was a young man he took crazy risks." If that was Grandfather I'd actually met in my dream. "He couldn't have known what they'd cost him."
"How much of a fool do you think Kagyuu was?" Aoarashi looked indignant on my grandfather's behalf. "He knew how weak your kind is. Half his family was dead by the time he was your age. So of course he took risks. Why not, when he was going to die anyway?"
"He didn't have to-- I mean, there's no need to just throw your life away. Not when there are people who'll miss you."
"But there wasn't anyone to miss him." He could have been talking about the weather. Just a fact.
"So he got himself a dragon instead. I guess a youkai can't understand how sad that is."
"What's sad about it? Kagyuu was bold enough to go after what he wanted and as a result he had a dragon by his side all his life. It's you who doesn't understand. You're the kind to be satisfied with a pair of pigeons." He pulled a bright pink piece of kamaboko from the pot as the birds shrieked their outrage.
"Stuff it," he told them, not especially angry. Well, no. They're just birds and they make a lot of noise. Nothing for him to get angry about. I was the one whose insides were shaking.
"Grandfather may have got what he wanted but he paid for it. Not just with his life but with the happiness of the people who loved and depended on him. He must have regretted that when he got older and had children." And grandchildren, but I wasn't going to say that bit.
Aoarashi made a tchah sound. "Kagyuu wasn't one for regrets: he had too much sense. Yes, he took risks. He thought the risks worth taking. He knew there'd be a price. He never complained about paying it. Why do you think he had so much power over youkai? It's because he had the kind of soul we youkai understand."
"Or think you do."
"I have my reasons for that," he said, smug.
I was going to say something but stopped as the light finally dawned.
"So," I said after a minute, "which are you, my father or my grandfather?"
"Oguro," I said, "suppose I offered you a human body to live in. Would you accept? Would you like to live among humans- ordinary head-blind humans like my grandmother? Walking on two legs, stuck to the earth, no more sitting in treetops-- sound like a good life to you?"
"Young master?" He was round-eyed, appalled.
"What about you, Ojiro? Would you jump at the chance to be like us? You could eat human food and talk to us about baseball and politics. And catch a few of our sicknesses, and lose a few of your senses over time-" I nodded at Aoarashi's glasses: he was looking dangerous.
"You deign to jest with your servant," Ojiro said faintly.
"Mh." I got some octopus for myself. "So," I said to Aoarashi, "did *you* think the risk worth taking, back when you were a sprat and an onmyouji offered you a bit of his soul?"
He'd stopped eating entirely. "Yes," he said. "I did."
"And you don't mind that you lost a little of your youkai nature every time you accepted?
"I didn't lose that much," he said. The birds edged away cautiously. "Are *you* calculating the risks just now? You're not the master whose mind I shared for the few moments of his life. Stick your neck out too far and someone will bite it through."
I gave him a small smile. "No, I'm not your master. I'm the grandson he ordered you to protect as long as I live: and you'll do exactly that because you don't have any choice in the matter."
There was a silence. Then Aoarashi smiled back, broadly. He picked a fat fish ball from the nabe pan and shoved it in his mouth.
"Not bad," he said, chewing. "Not bad. Keep it up, boy. You'll be worthy of Kagyuu yet."