The Tennyo's Pain
After ensuring no one had been touched by the oni’s blood - and Kazuki's bokken was cleansed - Yoko sent Mei with the others back to the house. She engulfed the oni’s corpse in shadow, turning it over to the home office before waiting on the police to arrive. Hopefully, they would believe she had just discovered the victim. Augmenting was a last resort with law enforcement.
Tensions were taut as the group walked in silence. Once they reached the gate’s barrier, Mei nodded for them to go inside. Akiko didn’t hesitate. Karura bowed in gratitude to the shinigami before following her. Kazuki glanced at the young woman’s blank face, noticing the tremble in her shoulders.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Yamamoto? That oni dropped on you pretty hard, right?”
“I’ll be fine,” she grunted, avoiding his eyes, “but thanks for asking, I guess. I’ve dealt with spirits and smaller yokai before. Never faced an oni.”
“Told you they were big and ugly.” Glancing up quickly, the smile on his face made Mei flush. He winked a dark eye, encouragingly. “I’ll make sure things are settled here before going home. Thanks for the contact information. I’ll keep you in the loop.”
“Yeah... sure.” Mei blinked dizzily as she watched him walk inside. Something about those words felt familiar. She couldn’t recall why, but they birthed a nostalgic sense of relief in her chest. Shaking her head, she pulled a spiral notebook from her back pocket, scribbling a message on a lined page:
You up yet, loser?
When there was no response, the shinigami jumped to perch on the gate. She sat there, staring at the blank page. If she was gonna be on watch, might as well try waking her partner. The youth wrote the same message, over and over again as a naughty sense of satisfaction radiated from her eyes.
Inside, Kazuki took his socks off before coming in further. Running across the rooftops in his socks had been a pain, but he was counting his blessings that none of the oni’s blood had reached the cotton. His bokken had only been sparred because of the oiled seal didn't soak up anything. Regardless, it was rude to trek in dirt from outside, so he stuffed them in his sneakers.
“Karura,” he asked as he walked into the kitchen, “did Akiko go upstairs already?”
“Yes,” the tennin replied, wearily, “I heard the door to her room slam, so I believe she has retired for tonight. I have tried to shield her from the violence that follows us, but this incident struck too close to her heart.”
“I know this isn’t the best time, but I have a few questions about this mark you mentioned.” Kazuki’s voice was gentle, knowing the tennin could reject this request, but he needed more information to pursue their case.
“I told you that I trust you, Kazuki,” Karura said in a flat tone, staring back at the young face. “I am not foolish enough to withhold information from an ally. Yoko and I have always been honest with one another, so I extend the same curiosity to you, my friend.”
“I greatly appreciate that,” Kazuki said with a relieved smile. “You said yesterday that Akiko was marked by someone, but truthfully, her mother was the victim of the unsolved crime. Are you hiding Akiko out of precaution, or are there some other circumstances I need to be aware of? These oni call her ‘the unpaired bird’ or ‘bride’. What kind of mark are we talking about here?”
Karura took a deep breath, rolling the line of questioning around his thoughts. It was a heavy topic in need of explanation, but how could he explain it to someone outside of the immortal world? He picked up the kettle to fill with fresh water at the sink.
“Do you have some time to spare before leaving? It might require a pot of tea as well.”
“I’ll clear the table while you work on that then.”
Kazuki left to retrieve the dishes. After this latest incident, he had a feeling the ritual of making tea could help relax the tennin. Try as he did, the old soul couldn’t shake the guessing games flooding his thoughts while he waited.
What had driven the tennin from Tendou? There were guards and protective measures there that could shield them with the Heavenly Army. The gods and tennin could have investigate the murder. Why go to underworld for help?
Akiko’s muttering about harmony from before still bothered him as well. If King Enma had spoken to her about this, did that have to do with her hesitation around her voice? The Karyoubinga’s harmony could mean a unique song or the voice of the priestess in general. What about it made the tennyo panic though?
The latest oni had mentioned they had been hired to do a job. The previous one had said they weren’t supposed to kill Akiko, so why would the second one endanger her life tonight? While it was common knowledge that most oni weren’t the brightest, if they had a master, they didn’t disobey carelessly. Who were they working for, and were they pulling the strings or being pulled themselves?
“Want me to wash the dishes for you? You deserve a break after saving our hides back there.”
“Later,” Karura replied, turning about with a teapot and cups on a tray. “Come to the office with me. Akiko will be less likely to overhear us in there.”
“I thought you two didn’t keep secrets.”
“We do not, but I do not wish to stir up her pain further, speaking of the past in her presence.”
Kazuki nodded in understanding. Setting the dishes down, he followed Karura to his office space across the foyer. It was the same as he remembered it before. The tennin worked as a spiritualist in the Mortal Realm, consulting on things from fengshui to hauntings. When most mortals just wanted peace of mind without the effort of maintenance, spiritualists stepped in to mediate for the spirits.
“That was a nice purification spell. Radiating over the whole area must have taken a toll on you though. You sure you’re all right?”
“Fortunately for myself, I do not need to consume much of my energy on a daily basis. I prefer to conserve by living as a mortal as much as possible. Recovering spiritual energy is different in the Mortal Realm than the other planes. While the spell was great, my energy has had time to store up enough to avoid completely sapping my strength.”
Setting the tray on his low desk, Karura motioned to a cushioned zaisu chair in front. As his guest took a seat, he made sure to set Kazuki’s place for tea before sitting in his own chair. Filling Kazuki’s cup, the scent of macha filled the study. It was calming in contrast to the topic at hand.
“The term ‘unpaired bird’ most likely refers to the fact that Akiko has not found a mate," the tennin continued. "Despite her maturity, our lives have not allowed for her to seek out a tennin partner. Also, as a candidate for the title of Karyoubinga, she could be fated to the future Karura.”
“That makes sense,” Kazuki spoke up, nodding to accept his tea. “Tennin have been one of my fascinations most of my lives, so I’m familiar with some of your cultural customs. However, if she is of age, why has she not awakened as the Karyoubinga yet?”
“There are several factors, I am afraid.” Karura set the pot down to take his own cup in hand. His face was saddened, and Kazuki thought he saw guilt in his amethyst eyes. “I, myself, did not awaken as the Karura until later in my life, so Akiko’s mother was unpaired for many years. It took some time to conceive Akiko as well. Karyou was consistently patient with me, but I have always been... a late bloomer, I suppose one could say.”
“So you think Akiko inherited that from you?” The former detective took a sip of his tea as he tried to read the tennin’s eyes.
“There is also the matter of her childhood trauma.”
“Trauma?” Kazuki frown at the word. Did this have something to do with her panic attack earlier?
“Akiko discovered her mother’s body just after she was killed.”
Kazuki gaped back at Karura as the tennin sipped his tea. She had told him about how her mother died, but he hadn’t realized she found her that way. He had taken for granted how strong willed she was. Will was honed from experience. Knowing her, she refused to perish the same way, but that anger and frustration in her eyes seemed deeper to him though. What else didn’t he know?
“I have only heard her scream that way twice in her life,” Karura said sadly. “Both were when someone she cared for perished.”
“Twice...?” The old soul struggled to look the tennin in the eye. “That’s why she was so angry with me yesterday.”
“It was not your fault, Kazuki," Karura reassured the other. "I understand why you withheld your circumstances from us. I would not have believed it if you had not returned to us.”
Even if he tried to huff a laugh, Kazuki continued to frown. Loss, that was the fear in her eyes. She didn’t want to attach for fear of the bond slipping through her fingers. He had grown numb to it at this point in his existence, but he had known that fear once. It was crippling, but he hadn’t the time to fall to pieces. All she had was time on her hands.
“Karura,” Kazuki said softly, “why are you hiding her? Surely this is no better than living in a cage for you both.”
“When I found Akiko and Karyou, my first instinct was to protect my child. I had seen battle before, so I knew there was nothing I could do for my beloved. We went to the house of Kannon Bosatsu. After hearing my concerns, she sent us to King Enma to see my wife’s soul.
“She was being questioned by Lord Prince Eiji about her death when we arrived. Karyou and Akiko embraced for hours. The prince explained she hadn’t seen her attacker, and they went straight for her neck. It was quick, so much so, she had almost died instantly. He said it seemed spontaneous and planned at the same time. Whoever the killer was had known Karyou enough to strike during her morning meditation.
“King Enma came to see us when the Karyoubinga had not come to his courtroom. After hearing the circumstances, he said Akiko was the last hope of a pure blooded Karyoubinga, but...”
“She couldn’t sing, could she?” Kazuki’s voice cracked as tears welled up in his eyes. That was her secret pain. The trauma had robbed her of her song given at birth. A life without song for a tennyo was sorrowful. He finally understood her panic to his oath tonight.
“No, and without her voice, she is unable to protect herself even in Tendou. The Mortal Realm has potential for healing, but it takes time. It also has grown more difficult for yokai and spirits to rampage here. Yoko has experience that the king and prince believe can both help protect us and discover the murderer’s identity. The problem is that we have never been able to come up with a motive other than to silence the Karyoubinga.”
“No wonder there’s no end in sight,” Kazuki said after a deep breath to even out his emotions. “You’re a cold case, waiting in witness protection, and I’ve got a deadline coming fast. We’re going to need more help.”
Curled around one of her pillows, Akiko cried hot tears in silence. The images of tonight’s episode were still sinking in. The unfortunate victim’s final moments in the oni’s grip and Mei stunned beneath him reminded her how useless she was to protect herself. If Kazuki and her dad hadn’t shown up when they had, Mei might have been seriously injured or...! Yoko was strong, but she couldn’t shield and fight at the same time.
The memories rising to the surface from dinner were fresh as well. Her mother’s bloodied face stared back at her with eyes glazed over in shock at what had happened to her. Kazuki’s sad gaze with blood and burns on his cheeks looked at her with resignation, as if he wanted to die. Now, these poor women were added to the pile of victims around her. It was enough to make her crazy.
Beneath her bluish-black locks, her neck had scratch marks where she had clawed out of frustration. If only her voice wasn’t muted, she could have helped tonight. Tennyo were born singing, but she had forgotten hers long ago. Her dad could say she would find a new one all he wanted. It didn’t change the fact that she shouldn’t have lost it.
If only she could learn a skill to compensate, she might feel better, but the tennin had said that was complacent thinking. She had to try reclaiming what she had lost, or it would never return. Easy for him to say. Once a soldier, always one.
Kazuki had lots of skills. He had shown her amazing things in their short time together. The old soul was constantly surprising her with wondrous secrets all around her. She wanted to be as strong as he was. He could take on anything. The tennyo doubted there was something he couldn’t do.
“Damn it all...” Her groaning voice grunted into her pillow. Though she had much to rant about, she never wanted her father to hear her thoughtless outbursts. She just needed to ramble for a while till the truth rolled out of the mess. That was how she sorted through her thoughts, since she never really had anyone to talk to before.
“Damn that oni... Damn my stupid voice... Damn femininity... Damn bastard that killed my mother... Damn Kazuki for making me look stupid...”
On the other side of door, Kazuki’s hand froze before it touched her door. His ears picked up her cracked voice as she wept. She was obviously trying to hide her fears from them, but one of those curses stung him deeply.
Had she been frightened by his display of dominance from before? He had learned the tactic through experience to get what he needed from yokai. It was a qigong technique that flared up to intimidate, originally used by yokai to scare away predators. He hadn’t thought about anyone else that might sense it, so he wondered if he had gone too far twice with her tonight.
After her ceremonial speech to return his weapons, he had tried to return the gesture in kind. While his words were grand, he had meant every one of them. They still pushed her, regardless of whether he was aware of their weight. Now, he was suddenly aware that she had witnessed that technique twice.
Turning quietly on his heel, he walked down the stairs as silently as possible. Maybe she just needed time after facing another oni up close. He had intended to try consoling her anxiety with a talk, but he felt words wouldn’t be of much help tonight, especially his right now. Not to mention, he had his own pills to swallow now. Perhaps it was best to just go home.
“Did you not speak with her, Kazuki?” Karura asked from the kitchen. He had begun cleaning up to unwind. “I thought you wanted to try.”
“She sounds like she isn’t up for company right now. I think I’ll let her get some rest. Don’t want to overwhelm her again.”
“Of course.” Karura nodded, sensing his defeated tone. It surprised him after all of his positive reinforcement with her, but it seemed even the old soul knew when to step back. “Will you be joining us tomorrow night? I am sure Akiko will be happy to have guests. We never had anyone other than shinigami before you.”
“I don’t want to impose on you, Karura.”
“That settles the matter. We will see you around the same time as today. Perhaps we will meet each other on the way again.”
Kazuki gaped back at the tennin. He had not expected such hospitality, but it made sense to hold onto friends when one could make them. Akiko had mentioned bringing him to meet their kodama friend before. It would be nice to eat with a family again after moving away from Tokyo.
“Thank you. I’ll see you then.”