Author's note: based on vols 1-4 of Ze by Shimizu Yuki. Contains personal speculation as well as spoilers for vol. 4 backstory. The relationship stuff is all speculation and the nuts'n'bolts stuff is all canon.
Raizou came smiling into the dining room, bearing a tray with half a dozen dishes arranged on it.
"Good morning, Ouka-san! I hope you're feeling well?"
"Perfectly, thank you. And you?"
"Just wonderful." He set the tray down and beamed at Ouka's little companion, sitting silent beside her master. "Good morning, Benio-san. Lovely day today."
Benio didn't answer, but then Raizou'd never heard her say more than a few words in all the months he'd lived in Waki-san's house. She gave a small smile in vague response, and began removing the head and bones from Ouka-san's grilled fish.
You seem happy this morning," Ouka said, sipping tea. "Kon's getting accustomed to you?"
"Oh yes." Raizou beamed again: saw Ouka's sardonic smile: and felt the blood rise painfully to his face. Benio hid her mouth with her hand but her eyes danced. "I mean-- I mean, we're... we're... ahhh---"
"Rubbing along together," Konoe's harsh voice suggested behind him.
"Raizou's fitting in," Ouka suggested.
"Only because Kon's so expansive."
"Flexible." Konoe deposited himself in the chair across from Ouka and put his opened laptop on the table. "Kotoha's sleeping in today. Said he'll be up in about half an hour and he wants crepes a la mode for breakfast. Got that?"
"Y-yes, I think I can manage that--" Raizou stammered, relieved the hideous conversation seemed to be at an end. Konoe scratched at his chin beard as he tapped single-handed at the keyboard. Itching him? Or could it?
"Konoe-san, may I ask a question?"
"How do you shave?"
"Shave? What makes you think I do?"
"Well, you have a beard, so- I mean, I assumed- if hair grows on your face--"
"Nah, nothing like that. Kotoha thought a beard'd look cool so he got Waki to give me one at last year's check-up."
"Check-up?" Raizou asked distractedly, a picture of Waki-san with a stethoscope and tongue depressor flashing through his mind.
"Check-over, if you like," Ouka said. "Plus updates. Waki makes sure the kami are working OK and makes any little adjustments we might want. It's a good thing Kon's gotten used to you by himself."
"You don't have the kind of money that Waki charges to customize a kami."
"Customize-- you mean he might actually change Kon? I mean, change his-- body?" Change him... down there...??!! "Uh, 'scuse me!" and Raizou bolted back to the kitchen, where he concentrated desperately on rounding up the materials for Kotoha's crepes to avoid concentrating on anything else. Flour butter milk uhh were there eggs in crepes as well? He hadn't a clue. Warily he edged back into the dining room.
"Err, Konoe-san...?" Konoe looked up from his laptop. "I'm terribly sorry but, uhh, Granma never taught me to make crepes. You wouldn't know how it's done?"
Konoe only scowled in answer, tapping ferociously at the keys. Oh dear. "Ouka-san," Raizou began even more tentatively, but Konoe cut in with a short "Here" and turned the laptop towards him. "Google."
"Goo- ah, what? Oh-" for there on the screen was a recipe for crepes. Flour, eggs, butter-- simple enough. "Thank you."
Back to the kitchen to check the fridge. The recipe called for a lot of butter and there wasn't much here. Maybe vegetable oil would do instead? Raizou whipped the ingredients together, gauged the amount of oil needed by eye, and heated the frying pan. Using oil- hope it works- Granma always said, changing a recipe's tricky, always a bit of by guess and by golly- though once you've done it it's OK- 'cause, well, if Waki-san could change Kon a bit- just a bit- make him uhh, like, *wider* so that, like, it didn't hurt him as much- like, he seems to enjoy it but he'd said... But if you made him wider wouldn't it cause problems when he had to-- except that kami don't have to cause they don't eat--
Raizou grabbed the pan and flipped the charred and smoking mess out of it. Pay attention, idiot! He shoved all other thoughts out of his mind and watched his crepes cook thereafter as if his life depended on it.
He got a tray ready, set the crepes on a plate with a dob of ice cream on top- mhh, two dobs of ice cream maybe- oh well, make it three- added a small pitcher of sugar syrup, and carried the whole thing into the dining room. No sign of Kotoha yet.
"I'll take that," Konoe said, rising and grabbing the tray from him.
"Breakfast in bed," Konoe said as he exited through the door. The sheets! Raizou mourned. Oh well, another wash. He sighed. "More tea, Ouka-san?"
He made another pot and brought it back. Ouka was deep in the morning paper; Benio had vanished somewhere, and Konoe not come back. Feeding Kotoha his crepes, no doubt. Maybe he'd manage to keep the ice cream off the bed. Raizou sighed again and sat down with his own cup.
"Problems?" Ouka cocked an eye at him over the top of the paper.
"Oh- no. Just thinking." Ouka was still looking at him. "I just wish- Konoe-san could eat my cooking too." And Kon...
"And Kon," Ouka said aloud.
"Mhh- yes." They were alone. Grab the chance, because he really didn't want to ask this in front of the kami. "Mh, Ouka-san. I was wondering. The kami- they look just like real people." And feel like them- warm and... wet... "Sometimes it's hard to believe they aren't human. But they're just paper, right?"
"And they never eat, right?"
"So why do they have uhh ahh- digestive organs if they don't err digest?"
"You mean, why do they have shitholes if they don't shit?" Raizou's face flamed. Yes, and sometimes it was hard to believe Ouka-san wasn't a man. "So there's a place to put it into, obviously."
"Ouuuka-san!!!" Tears of shock welled in Raizou's eyes--
"Oh, don't start bawling again, Raizou. Anyone'd think you were a girl."
--and rolled down his cheeks. Ouka snorted, not unkindly, and passed him a large cambric handkerchief from the breast pocket of her green velvet topcoat. He dabbed at his eyes.
"You should be asking Waki," Ouka said. "He's the one who makes them. Me, I'd guess the physical pattern is in the DNA and their bodies just follow it automatically."
"DNA? But the kami are made of paper. Paper doesn't have DNA." At least I don't think it does.
"Paper and the ashes and bone of a dead word-master. Dunno if those have active DNA either but--"
"Wait- what?? Waki-san uses..."
"The remains of our family to make his kami. He's got all our funeral urns in drawers in his workshop, full of ashes and bone chips. The kami get the same name as whoever's stuff they're made from. And look like them too, is why I think it's DNA. Magical cloning, you know? Raizou, close your mouth. Your tongue is *not* an elegant sight."
"You're saying Kon was once a-- a--" 'Person' was the wrong word, because he was already a person. "A human? An ancestor of yours?"
"More like a relative. We've only been doing this for three generations, you know."
A relative. An uncle- cousin-- "He was someone you knew?"
"Not me. Too young. Someone around Waki's age would remember better."
"There's a reason he's so nice to the kami, you know. Well, and not so nice to some of them, like Konoe. He knew them when they were us."
"Then-- was that-- was there a reason--" He gulped, unable to go on.
"A reason he kept Kon awake after the man he was made for died?"
"I'm sure there was." Ouka smiled maliciously. "Maybe he was friends with the original Kon. Or something."
Friends. Or something. Raizou felt like he'd swallowed a lead weight. Ouka got up, dusting her hands of crumbs.
"You're a clot, Raizou. But still, a good cook. Cheer up, chum." She gave him a punch on the shoulder that rocked him in his chair and went out, whistling.
Raizou was still sitting at the table, stewing in his unhappy thoughts, when Kon came into the room.
"Oh *there* you are. I wondered what you were up to. The dishes are waiting."
"Oh- yes-" Raizou looked up in dumb confusion at Kon's frowning face.
"What's the matter with you?" Kon demanded.
"Ah- oh. Nothing. The washing up- and the laundry. Gotta make a start." He gathered up Ouka's dishes and loaded them on their tray. Kon followed him into the kitchen and scraped stuff into the garbage while Raizou filled the wash tub with water.
"Mh- Kon-kun," he said to the soapy water.
"You- uhh, you- you get on well with Waki-san, don't you?"
"Yeah." Kon looked away.
"You- you like him-" he swallowed- "a lot, yes?"
"Yeah, I suppose." Raizou didn't know what to say next. It was Kon who filled the silence. "He always looked after me. He was the only one who ever tried to give me what I wanted." A small reminiscent smile played about his mouth.
What's he thinking of? Just how much does he remember?
"Waki-san likes you too," Raizou said sadly.
Kon swung his head around abruptly to scowl at him. "Yeah, he does. What's it to you?"
"N-nothing!" Raizou jumped at the sudden ferocity. "I-I mean, it's great he- he looks after you-- all--"
"You got some problem with Waki?"
"Good." Kon gave him a furious scowl.
"The dishes," Kon said.
"Oh. Yes." Conversation clearly over. Raizou washed the dishes in terrible silence.
He went out to the back shed where the washing machine was and began putting through the family's mounds of laundry. His thoughts scurried unhappily about his head.
Kon was once a Mitou. A word-master like Ouka and Kotoha and Shoui. Someone who used the spirit of words to lay curses on people- to bind them to action against their will- and, well, all the unpleasant things that were part of the family business. Raizou gave a sigh that was near to a moan. His Kon, his lovely Kon who'd always seemed so sad, lost and out of place and covering it up with bad temper in case anyone guessed what he was feeling; his Kon who was so sweet inside and who'd die before he admitted it; his Kon... had he once been someone like Ouka? or Shoui? Or the terrible Genma who'd made Kon suffer so much?
No. I don't believe it. He's so nice- he must always have been nice- even when he was a Word-master, because Waki-san... Waki-san wouldn't go for someone who was like Genma...
Raizou groaned again. Waki-san. If Waki had loved the human Kon and lost him-- and made him again from the human Kon's ashes-- how must he feel now, with Raizou coming in and taking his love away? But Kon had chosen *him*, not Waki. Had Kon ever loved Waki? Or was it-- was it Waki who didn't love Kon back, or not enough-- Kind of hard to see Waki in love, come to that. Always so jaunty and smiling and 'don't touch me.' Was that why Kon had been so sad? Not just because his own word-master was dead, the man who should have taken Waki's place in his life- but because Waki wasn't ready to commit-- and so Kon had accepted Raizou as second-best? Any port in a storm...?
"AHHHHRRR!!!" Raizou yelled at the laundry tub.
I wish I knew. Granma, I hate this. If only I knew. But-- there's no one I can ask.
"Raizou, what the hell's eating you?"
Konoe loomed above him where he sat collapsed in his chair.
"N-nothing!" he said, startled from his miserable thoughts.
"Nothing my ass! You've been glooming around all day like a dying duck and I can't take the sight of it another minute. If you and Kon've been fighting, get it settled now. Or get it settled before Ouka comes home and settles it for you."
Raizou winced at the reminder of Ouka-san's methods and experienced a sudden revolt of feeling. Dammit, he was tired of being bossed around by the family and their kami. He stood up imperiously, straightening to the full extent of his enormous half-gaijin height-- and found himself looking straight into Konoe's irritated eyes. Raizou collapsed back on to his seat again.
"Konoe-san..." he began miserably, and stopped.
"Konoe-san... Do you remember the word-master that Kon was before he- before he was a kami?"
"Hanh? No. How would I? I don't remember anything before Kotoha called me awake."
"Our lives begin when the word-master we're made for wakes us up into these bodies. Doesn't matter how often it's happened- and I've never asked Waki how often it's happened with me- that's when it starts for us."
"You don't remember the time when you were human?"
"Christ! Would you listen?! We don't remember being kami before, never mind word-masters!"
"But Kon-- he- there's a reason, isn't there, why Waki-san didn't turn him back to paper when Akimitsu-san died, right?"
"Yeah, maybe." Konoe's eyes narrowed.
"And it's because- isn't it because- Waki-san and the original Kon were- they had a special relationship- and--"
Konoe pulled the other kitchen chair out with his foot and sat down on it, kerplump: leaned over and looked straight into Raizou's eyes.
"Buh-buh-buh-" Raizou jumped.
"Listen. I'm only saying this once. Forget about Waki. He's a kami-master, not a word-master. They're different."
"And while you're at it, forget the original Kon. He's dead, OK? The Kon who's here now- the one you screw, right?--"
"He's a kami. You wanna think of him as being the original Kon's son, go ahead. But he's not the original Kon; he can't be. He's a kami, made for a word-master: end story."
"Yes- but-- I'm not the word-master he was made for."
"That didn't bother you yesterday."
"Kon chose you as his word-master; you chose Kon as your kami. What's the problem?"
"I didn't- what did you say?- I didn't call him awake..."
"He says you did." Konoe snorted. "It's not the first time it's happened with someone else's kami."
"God! Waki doesn't come into this! Kami live for their word-masters, not their makers. That's how it works."
"No, but I mean- if Waki-san still has feelings for Kon-"
"If he has any feelings for Kon's *father*, well, tough shit on Waki. All he can do is see the guy's son gets matched up with someone good. Which I'd say he did. If Kon had gone back to paper he'd have stayed paper for- hell, who knows how long? There aren't any children now needing kami of their own. Ouka's the only one the right age to have kids and she won't, obviously. So I'd say Waki made the right decision for once, keeping Kon here and waiting for you to show up."
"He didn't know I'd show up."
"You think?" Konoe gave him an odd look. "No, of course, he couldn't have known about you. Pure chance. Whatever. How many empty rooms are there in this house?"
Raizou blinked at the sudden change of subject. "Huh? Well, a couple- Asari's old one and the one on the second floor back and-"
"So why'd Waki have you move into Kon's room right from the start?"
Raizou goggled. "Uh- ah-"
Konoe got to his feet. "Think about it," he said. "Sometimes Waki knows what he's doing," and he marched out of the room.
Raizou thought about it. And thought about it some more. Granma, you think maybe- maybe Waki-san really only feels like a father to Kon?- he said that's what he was-- and parents, they feel different, don't they?
'I wish I didn't have to take the bus every day. Why can't I go to school in the village here?'
'There aren't enough children in the village here for a school.'
'People here move away when they grow up- they go to work in the city and have their families there.'
'*I* won't go away! I'm never gonna leave you, ever.'
She stroked his hair. 'We'll see. Maybe you'll marry a nice girl and bring her to come live with your granma.'
'Why do I need any girls? I'm happy just being alone with you.'
'Ahh, but you know, Granma would like to see you with children. There's nothing better than a house with lots of people in it, lots of husbands and wives and children, all helping each other out and being friends... A big family's a nice thing to have.'
Yes, it really is. I think Waki-san's happy with his big family and their-- husbands and wives. And uhh me. He felt himself blushing.
An hour before he had to start supper.
...maybe I'll go see what Kon-kun is doing.