That You, Little Birdie?
“... and then I had to convince him I was not a suitable bride because humans don’t breathe underwater.”
Akiko laughed so hard she nearly choked on her tea. The latest twist in Kazuki’s encounter with a sea dragon was just too much not to. He smiled at her reaction, chuckling a bit. Karura bit his lower lip as a smile threatened to appear.
“Did he finally give up...?” Akiko wheezed.
“Well, he said he would come back when he found a solution to the breathing issue,” Kazuki replied with a smile. “Needless to say, I did not go back to the beach that life.”
“Do you always have to deal with kami and yokai in your lives?” The tennyo rested her cheek against her fist, turning toward her guest.
“I wish,” the old soul sighed at her question. “Most of the time, I have plain, mortal obstacles to face. The past century was mostly human trouble truthfully.”
“We did notice a great deal of human-instigated strife,” Karura commented. He took a sip of his tea as silence settled on the table.
“That’s the Realm of Mortals for you,” Kazuki finally spoke up. “So much potential and possibility in finite hands usually leads to chaos.”
Akiko glanced at his face as he said that. He sounded disappointed. With all the memories he had shared with them tonight, how many less fond ones did he hold back? There had to have been plenty of times humans let him down. She could think of plenty in her time among them. What kept him going?
“Such a pensive expression,” Kazuki said in a soft voice, “for such a young visage. What has you so engrossed, Aki-chan?”
“You sound so old when you say it like that.”
“But I am, technically.” He shrugged his shoulders with a silly smile. “I just wear it well.”
Akiko rolled her eyes at his playfulness. She remembered he had done this before for her as Mamoru. Whenever her thoughts got the better of her, her tongue had a tendency to run away with her. He always knew when she meant something and when she was just babbling. All it took was that patient gaze.
“I think the flan should be ready now,” Karura stood to leave the room. “We shall see if my efforts were fruitful or not.”
Kazuki smiled after him, wondering what the comment meant. He glanced at Akiko to ask. Seeing her starry eyes brought up new questions he wanted answered.
“Does he not make flan often?”
“He’s trying out a new recipe! He remembered when I asked about it last week!”
“Your dad tries to spoil you with treats, huh? That’s so kind of him. I’m almost jealous.”
“He might not be the most affectionate dad, but I can tell he cares by the little things. My mother once said that love is found in small, everyday moments that last a lifetime. I think she was talking about Dad at the time.”
“What was she like?” Kazuki asked with a smile. He hoped this was a good time to bring up the Karyoubinga. The opportunity seemed right at least. He had heard so many stories about the legendary tennyo, but he wanted to hear a true recounting. “Do you remember her much?”
“Mother? Oh, she was amazing.” Akiko’s face softened as she tried to recall her memories of the late priestess. “She used to play the biwa with me at night. We would sit in the garden and let the moonlight wash over us before I had to go to bed. I can still remember her lullaby the best.”
“Lullabies are the best,” he said with a big grin. “Your parents sound like they were deeply in love. I sensed that from how your father spoke of her earlier today.”
“Dad talked about her?” Akiko gaped in Kazuki’s direction. “What did he say? Did he tell you anything?”
“She came up, yeah. Is that strange?”
“He usually doesn’t like to talk about her. Every time I try to, he gets quiet or changes the subject. I always thought it made him depressed.”
“Oh, I see.” He dropped the subject. Karura had said he didn’t dare to dream of the dead coming back. That was pretty depressing no matter how you looked at it. She was a piece of him that would never be restored.
“It would seem the molds held firm after all,” Karura said as he returned to the tatami room. “I hope it is to your liking, Akiko.”
“Thanks, Dad!” Akiko threw her arms around his neck, kissing his cheek. “You’re the best!”
As they enjoyed the sweet treat, Kazuki took a moment to observe the celestials' relationship. He remembered Karura being a typical, overprotective parental, but right now, there was a genuine tenderness in his eyes. Beneath the hardened warrior was a loving father, trying to bring a smile to his child’s face. From how Akiko described him in the past, Kazuki felt privileged to see this side of the guardian, for he doubted many ever witnessed the affection he displayed now.
Akiko still was the daddy’s girl he remembered. Perhaps he had paid more attention to her last life than he originally thought. While her attitude was far from proper, she was honest and frank. Traits like those were learned, and with two hundred years of adolescent interaction, he would presume she had mastered them. There was something she held back though, a truth he hadn’t been able to flesh out. He had promised to let her explain on her own, but when tennyo fascinated him so greatly, the suspense was maddening.
“If you’re going to stare at me that hard, you’ll get a headache, Kazuki,” Akiko said in an annoyed tone. “Teenaged hormones getting to you?”
“More like detective habits getting away from me.”
“Before we get too distracted,” Karura spoke up, drawing their attention, “I think Kazuki should receive the treasures he left in our keep. Akiko, would you like to present them?”
Akiko grinned at the request, scurrying from the kotatsu to retrieve them. She had spent the remainder of the previous day looking for the bokken and seeds Kazuki had given them. It turned out to be more of a challenge than her father had originally thought.
Karura said the pomp and ceremony could be good practice for her priestess responsibilities back in Tendou. Decorating heroes was one of many rites the Karyoubinga oversaw in the Celestial City, and Akiko had few day-to-day applications in the Mortal Realm to exercise her true strengths, especially when the shinigami hindered her growth to protect her.
“Well then,” the tennyo returned to the entryway of the tatami room with the bokken resting in her hands with the bag tied to it, “for nearly two decades, these artifacts have awaited their master’s return. Resting in the keep of the Karura, I now return this sacred bokken and satchel of seeds to your possession, Kazuki.”
The old soul marveled at the elegant pose and tone of voice. He hadn’t thought Akiko had the patience for it, but seeing it first hand, he had no doubts she was worthy of the title Karyoubinga. Standing from the floor, he approached to kneel before her. Bowing his head out of respect, he extended his hands to receive his treasured sword and bag.
Akiko gaped at the formal response, glancing at her father for a cue. He motioned for her to set the bokken in his open palms, smiling encouragingly. Swallowing her anxiety in one gulp, she followed his direction. Staring down at Kazuki’s black crown, she wondered if he was used to things like this.
“I swear upon this bokken that I will use all my resources to combat the enemy pursuing your life,” Kazuki spoke in a resolved voice as he finally glanced up at her stunned face, “and it would be my greatest joy to help restore the harmony within your soul.”
Akiko gaped down at his expression. It was so much older than a man of eighteen. He looked like a seasoned warrior, accepting his final mission. His honor was unquestionably sound by the conviction in his voice, but those eyes...
“Akiko? What’s wrong?” Kazuki rose to take her arms. She looked like she might lose her balance at any moment. “Did I say too much? You look overwhelmed.”
The Karyoubinga’s harmony must not be silenced.
“Akiko?” Karura stood to approach as well. “Akiko, speak to us? What is the matter?”
“Harmony...” Her voice whispered as she reached to grasp her scalp. “King Enma talked about harmony... It mustn’t be silenced, but...”
The memory of watching Kazuki and that oni flashed through her mind. Her ears had fallen deaf under her own screams. She’d missed the sound of metal piercing flesh and the thud of impact on flat cement. The blood bubbling along the pole to the burned body of the man now reborn before her seemed so fresh. His lifeless eyes haunted her as she realized why she couldn’t forget them...
“NO!” The tennyo screamed, pushing the males away from her. She stumbled backward into the hall, bumping her head. Grabbing the spot, she ran toward the front door. “MOMMA!”
“Akiko, wait!” Kazuki rounded the doorway in time to see her pull the front door open. “What’s going on, Karura?”
“I am not sure, but she mentioned her mother and harmony. I wonder...”
“Well, wonder while we run!” The youth ignored his shoes to chase the tennyo. “She’s passing through the gate!”
The young immortal cried as she ran down her street toward the park. She shook her head, trying to sort out what was real from memory. It all felt too fresh in her mind. Her senses were too vivid, as if she was reliving it all once. Bumping into a phone pole, she finally halted, slumping to the ground. Coughing from the sudden impact, she glanced up, only to freeze where she’d landed.
At the edge of the street light’s circle of illumination, a black oni was sinking his spiked teeth into the neck of a helpless woman. Despite being unconscious, Akiko trembled at the sight of flinching arms and legs in a final reaction to pain before slumping in the beast’s hold. The blood seeping down from the oni’s mouth made Akiko’s blood run cold. He munched on the corpse a bit before dropping it like a spent snack. Finally, he stared back at her.
“Nice scarf you got there, girly. It’s sparkly, like a Spring evening sky.” The voice snarled with pleasure, flashing the blood and tissue still in his teeth. She flinched in terror, making him snicker. “Guess you can see me. That you, little birdie?”
"Why...?" She spoke in a hoarse whisper. "Why did you do this? She didn't deserve to die."
"Eheheh! If you come with me," the yokai took a few steps into the light, "she'll be the last."
Suddenly, Akiko ground her teeth in rage. Hot tears fell down her pale cheeks. While the offer was tempting, she recalled the last oni's offer before Kazuki had purified him.
"I will not sit in a gilded cage for eternity, so tell the bastard that sent you I'm no one's bride!"
A beastly snarl snapped at the tennyo as the oni leaped toward her. Scrambling to her feet, Akiko already knew she wouldn't be able to outrun him. He was just too close. Why had she lost her head and run away from Kazuki and her father?
Before the oni landed on her back, a figure appeared from her shadow, striking the beast backward. Akiko paused to look at her rescuer. Yoko was crouched with her back to her. In her right hand, she held an open fan, braced against her left forearm. Had she used that to deflect the oni?
"We have discussed leaving the barrier at night without an escort, Akiko," the shinigami said in a flat tone, as if the feat had been too simple.
"I-" Akiko tried to make a snarky come back, but she remembered her embarrassing exit. "I know, Yoko. I messed up."
"It would seem the beast is either too dumb to remember not to harm you or foolish enough to think a few injuries won't anger his master." Yoko stood up, folding her black, tessen fan closed. Her blue eyes narrowed at the oni, pacing the edge of the light. "He must not want to end up like his brother. Unfortunately, as a guardian of the dead, I cannot allow you to go unpunished for this woman's murder, oni. This might not be my jurisdiction, but I have permission to engage."
Before the oni could rush again, Yoko dashed for the shadows, vanishing entirely. Akiko gaped in bewilderment. Even if it was dark, she could still make out figures in the shadows. It was as if Yoko had completely disappeared.
The oni turned around himself while glancing at the tennyo, as if he was unsure of how to proceed. A swipe was heard from behind him, which he barely dodged. Rolling into the light, the beast turned to assess the threat. His shoulder had been nicked, seeping black blood down his arm. He snarled defensively.
"Where are you, witch?!"
"Akiko," Yoko's voice echoed from the dark, "run away from here! Do not let the oni bleed on you! Go!"
As she tried to comply, the oni jumped above her to land in her path. She rushed toward a wall to avoid the black stream falling from above. The sandy dirt beneath the oni's blood turned dark brown, darkening as the taint took root. Akiko's mouth went dry as she sucked in a breath. Could this get much worse?
"You're not going anywhere, little birdie! Now that I found you, my brother and I only have to split the reward between ourselves! Haha!"
"I guess it was a good thing I thought to check your main street, Miss Akiko." Mei stood behind the oni. Jumping up on light feet, she landed on the oni's hunched back. "Found a big ugly to slay."
"Little bitch!" Before the beast could shake her off, she grabbed the oni's horns. "How many of you lapdogs are there?!"
"Let's do this, Yoko!" The short shinigami wrapped her legs around the oni's neck. Letting the right horn go, she let a shadow coil around her hand, forming a dark wood bokken. As the oni tried grabbing her, she swung downward strikes on either side of his head, cracking the bones of the oni's hands. "Any day now, Yoko! Don't make me do all the work!"
Akiko gasped at the touch of a hand on her shoulder. Yoko quickly covered her mouth to stop her from screaming. The tennyo glanced at the deadly gaze, nodding to show her attention was on the guardian.
"Once the path is clear, return to the barrier. The oni cannot pass through it. We will open the way for you."
As soon as Akiko felt Yoko release her, the shinigami leaped forward to swing her closed tessen at the oni's broken hands. She was trying to force it backward, but the pain was sending the creature into a frenzy. Akiko watched intently, trying not to let herself give in to her anxiety again.
She found a moment when Mei went flying off the back of the beast. Yoko opened the fan again, bracing it against her forearm, to knock the oni backward. It worked, but Mei was pinned under the oni now.
Akiko started to run, but she couldn't help glancing back at the shinigami. Grinding her teeth, she didn't have the nerve to run away. She had to do something. As the oni rolled over to grab the stunned shinigami, Yoko and Akiko gaped in horror.
"That's enough fun for one night!"
Kazuki's voice echoed from above as he came crashing down on the oni. His chestnut brown bokken pierced the spot at the base of the neck. The beast howled in pain as his limbs twitched uncontrollably, falling to his face. Mei pulled the mangled hand off her neck, standing shakily. Her own bokken ready to finish the oni off.
"Where is your brother?" Kazuki's voice was dark, balancing on the end of his bokken. A chill settled in the air as he tried to get some answers out of the beast before he kicked it. "The Karyoubinga is well protected, but who is protecting you?"
"No one!" The oni cried as he tried to knock Kazuki off his back by throwing his weight around. "We came on orders with no others! We got paid to do a job! That's all!"
"Who paid you?" The old soul's eyes were so intense the shinigami backed away. The oni trembled under the pressure of his aura. Akiko gaped, recalling he had done this the last time she saw him alive.
"Doesn't matter anymore!" The oni whimpered as he tried to shake off the effect of Kazuki's aura. "He'd kill us if we failed! My brother's the smart one! He'll finish the job! He always does!"
As the oni rocked back and forth, Kazuki realized what was going on. The beast wanted to rip his head off to spray his tainted blood on his assailants. Kazuki looked up at Akiko. He might be able to make it over a fence, and the shinigami could try shadow magic. The tennyo was defenseless though, and he was too far away to get to her. Reaching a hand toward her, his voice never left his throat before he sensed something coming toward them. Fast.
An arrow with a fuda attached impaled in the oni's side, emitting a bright light in the darkness. The taint turned from black to red as the oni gagged. The purification spell was enough to cleanse the street as well, leaving no trace of the poison. Everyone looked up to see who had fired the arrow, seeing Karura in an aiming stance.
"Indeed, that is enough for tonight."