Speak Your Mind
"Are you sure this will work?" Yoko asked, skeptically.
"Kodama are always honest, Yoko!" You said, sounding a bit offended. "Be nice, or you'll scare the poor spirit."
"I've never met a kodama before," Mei spoke up softly. "Are they as cute as the stories say, Kazuki?"
"Absolutely," he replied with a grin.
The small group walked toward the park, following Kazuki's lead. Karura was mostly silent, holding a small box with care. Yoko and You were bouncing the reliability of spirits back and forth, and Mei seemed to just be curious about meeting the tree spirit. All in all, the old soul had a good feeling about this trip.
Once they reached the park, the idle chit chat settled down. The plan was to approach with a request to speak with other kodama about the previous areas the tennin had lived to gather clues. They also would inquire if the trees knew where the oni was hiding out in town during the day. With any luck, their friend could offer some answers that could save a life tonight. Kazuki's timeline was coming up, but even Yoko seemed hopeful they might meet it now.
"This is the tree," Kazuki said with pride. "Let me speak first. This kodama's really shy."
Everyone seemed to agree with the request, so they hung back a bit to allow Kazuki to approach. He reached up to touch the trunk tenderly. Smiling, he whispered softly to call the spirit out.
"Good afternoon, old friend. It's Kazuki again. Care to talk today?"
The glowing body grew out of the roots as the spirit came out to greet him. It seemed particularly excited to see him, leaping over the roots to scurry closer. The light seemed to brighten when he reached his outstretched palm.
"Kazuki!" A high pitched plucking sound echoed from the spirit. The little voice echoed further than the onlookers anticipated, as if the whole forest were cheering. The spirit must have been happy to speak so naturally. The old soul grinned widely. "Kazuki came back! So happy to see Kazuki!"
"I'm happy to see you as well, my friend. I brought more friends to meet you today. We stopped two of the oni since I last saw you, and we want to stop the last one now. Do you think you could help us protect Akiko and the other women in town?"
The kodama nodded with confidence. The spirit crawled up Kazuki's arm to look at the others behind them. Perching on all four, tiny limbs, the spirit seemed to be assessing the company.
"Kazuki has many friends now. So happy to see Kazuki not alone."
"Forgive us for not greeting you sooner," You said as he bowed in reverence. "It's an honor to meet you. My name is Ono You. If it would please you, might I bring some shimenawa rope for you and your kin?"
"Really?" The spirit sounded excited at the offer. "Humans not come to us in so long. We miss humans. Please bring rope to find us!"
"Kodama," Karura bowed as well, "allow me to offer these river-polished stones on behalf of my daughter and I. As the present Karura, I humbly beseech your aide in protecting my only child."
The kodama looked at Kazuki, pointing toward Karura. The old soul nodded, standing to approach the group. As the tennin rose to see the spirit's reaction, he gaped as the tiny form leaped from Kazuki's shoulder to the box. The glowing forelimbs touched his right hand, tenderly.
"Akiko is friend to us, so we are friend to Karura. How can our forest help?"
Yoko felt her cheeks grow warm at the scene unfolding beside her. She had never met benevolent kami before, so she hadn't imagined how adorable they could be. She felt like a child, filled with wonder and anticipation again. Was this the world Kazuki lived in across time?
"Hey, little guy," Mei spoke up, "we got a plan to take out this big ugly, but we need to know where he's hiding out all day. The oni only come out at night, but no one sees them during the day. Any idea where they go?"
"Mei-chan, try to show a little respect," You whispered to his partner. "Kodama might seem small, but they're actually kami of the forest. We should treat them with reverence."
"We're like equals though," she retorted with a defiant huff, "and Kazuki said this kid is pretty easy-going. I figured equality would make spirits feel included."
"Oni not hide in town."
"What do you mean, Kodama?" Kazuki asked, curiously.
"Oni return through Veil at daybreak," the kodama said, turning to face Kazuki. "Sun leaves few shadows to hide. Humans stronger now against yokai. Oni come to park to come and go."
As the spirit pointed to the clearing behind them, the shinigami all glanced at the same time. It did seem like an odd place for no trees to grow among the trails. This wasn't even the open field of the park.
"Do you mean the Veil to the Spirit Realm is weak here, Kodama?" Karura gaped at the spirit with surprise. The kodama nodded in Karura's direction. "Kazuki, this could mean that the Demon oil might not work as well in the day. With a means to return, the enemy could transverse planes to avoid expending excess energy by focusing their spell."
"That or moving hosts are noticed more often," the old soul considered thoughtfully. "Now that I think about it, it only really works when the anointed is stationary during the day. Oni are some of the antsiest yokai there are. They have next to no patience."
"Maybe that was why Miss Sato noticed the oni when she got home," You spoke up excitedly. "The lights around your apartment building are intense, combine that with her intuition, and that oni probably stuck out like a sore thumb!"
"So we just wait for the bastard to come through the park tonight and nab him, right?" Mei smacked her fist into her palm, smirking victoriously.
"Oni not come last night." The kodama drew their attention back. "Remember two come through, but none come back."
"So the last one is in town somewhere still," Kazuki said with concern.
Black oni were ruthless, but every so often, there would be one that was as cunning a hunter as a human. The one from nineteen years back had been cut from that cloth. After the second oni's confession last night about his last brother, it was safe to bet this one was as well.
"What do you think, Mr. Kazuki?" Yoko asked, noticing his expression. If he looked worried, she felt there was cause for concern. "Should we watch the sight? You know my expertise is stealth and reconnaissance. Ono and Yamamoto are better suited to extended combat. We know the oni have honed in on the tennin's neighborhood, so they would serve best to watch there. Karura and yourself make suitable guardians at Akiko's side. Wherever this beast shows himself, we can be ready."
"I like your line of thinking, Miss Takahashi," Kazuki said after a brief pause. "In the meantime, Kodama, Miss Takahashi has a list of previous places Akiko and Karura have lived, but they had to leave when things got dangerous. Do you think you and the rest of the forest can connect with the trees there to find out any clues to who was behind those incidents?"
"To make Akiko smile again would make us happy. All kodama will speak for Kazuki and friends." The spirit turned around to look at Karura again. "May we see Karura's stones? Help lay them at our roots?"
"I would be honored, Kodama," Karura said with a surprised smile.
Akiko opened the door to her classroom with a defeated countenance. She had searched the whole locker room, but her hagoromo was nowhere to be found. She could only imagine Junko had picked it up after she fled. Hopefully, this didn't turn into one of those awful situations passed down in the myths.
"I had a feeling you would return here, Tennin."
The tennyo gaped at the sound of Chikako's voice, coming from her desk in the center of the room. It would be just her luck to run into her on this mess of a day. No doubt, she'd sent Junko to ruffle her feathers to get her to spill whatever was egging her since yesterday. She closed the door behind her, cautiously.
"Yeah, I'm here," Akiko said flatly. "What do you want?"
"Do not misunderstand my meeting you here," the school idol said with a hint of disappointment. She held up something that had been resting in her lap. Akiko gaped at the purple cloth. "I wanted to ensure this was returned to you without further incident."
"That's it? You don't want anything?"
"Why no...?" The other student seemed genuinely shocked by the question. She stood from her seat to approach her classmate. Extending the hagoromo between both hands, her dark brown eyes seemed saddened.
"It is unlike you to abandon your scarf. I notice you wear it always, even during physical education. Kikuchi brought it to me, as she felt ashamed to give it to you after your encounter. I assured her I would return it to you though, should she be unable to find you on the grounds."
"She was looking for me?" Akiko furrowed her brow at the idea that Junko could feel badly at all. She was shameless, so she couldn't imagine a guilty expression on her face.
"While it is true her sexual deviancy fuels her advances, Kikuchi has never forced herself on someone unwilling. She did stop when you asked, did she not?"
The tennyo blinked, realizing the student hadn't chased her when she pushed her away. Perversion aside, it might be best to resolve things later. Junko sounded upset after seeing her neck. Maybe the sex fiend had a conscience after all.
Chikako could see the welts on her neck clearly now. Change was something that stood out to her, so little details had a tendency to throttle her day if left unresolved. Unlike before, she had an opportunity to address the curious changes in Tennin Akiko.
"Be sure to keep those scratches clean and apply an ointment to prevent scarring." Akiko gawked back at Chikako's blunt tone. "They appear fresh, so immediate treatment should prove successful. You wouldn't want to damage that porcelain complexion."
"Why do you care so much?"
"Change is unavoidable, and as one that notices the slightest alterations, I merely seek to ensure it does not lead to disastrous ends." Chikako tucked a lock of stray hair behind her ear before finishing her thought.
"Since the day you began attending our school, you have carried a heavy air about you, Tennin. Your secrecy is not out of the ordinary. While I see no need to ostracize yourself from the company of peers, your sudden shift in mood drew my attention, for you seemed distracted by whatever caused it.
"As a young woman, it is imperative to keep focused on the path ahead, for there are many that would stand in your way. However, whatever reason brought such warmth to your eyes might prove positive. Be mindful of your strengths and weaknesses, and you will overcome any obstacle you face."
The school idol opened the door on that note, exiting without another word. Akiko gaped at the windows across the room, wondering where that had come from. Pulling her hagoromo close to her, she thanked the heavens she had gotten it back without much of a fuss.
"Note to self," she muttered into the robe, "never let this out of your sight again."
The rest of the day went on without incident, but she did not attend her club that day. After informing a fellow member she was not feeling well, she walked home. She had dealt with enough stimulation for one day. Glancing at the case slung over her shoulder, the tennyo decided she needed to do some thinking.
"Dad, I'm home," her tired voice called as she removed her shoes. Seeing a pair of sneakers next to her slippers, she wondered if Kazuki had come back again.
"Welcome home," Karura called softly, standing in the doorway to the tatami room. "I invited Kazuki for dinner again. I hope you do not mind."
"No, not at all," she replied with a sigh of relief. She'd hoped he would be here, but the tennyo also thought he might be sick of them after fighting oni every night since he arrived. She made her way back to the back room.
"I hope you had a good day, Aki-chan," Kazuki said as Akiko glanced into the room.
"Well, it all worked out in the end," she said with a forced smile.
The old soul looked a bit anxious from where he sat. It occurred to her that she had not seen him off last night, so there might be some awkwardness after the incident with her panic attack and that oni. Perhaps now would be a good time to talk.
"Could you give us a moment, Dad? I'm sure you need some time to prep for dinner, right?"
The tennin nodded, stepping out of the room. He closed the sliding door once she was inside. They deserved a moment to talk alone after everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours.
Akiko set the case next to the table before sitting next to Kazuki. He glanced her way, surprise written all over his face. She smirked at him with confusion.
"You act like I'll bite your ear or something."
"Well..." He stopped himself before he tried talking around in circles. Narita had said to let her explain her feelings, but how was he supposed to ask her about that without making things worse?" I thought... maybe... you thought... I might."
"What are you talking about?" The tennyo stared at him as if he had eight heads.
"Last night... I thought I might have scared you," Kazuki confessed, not knowing how else to ask. "You went up to your room, and I heard you crying. I try not to bare my fangs, if you will, if I can. Yokai only answer to brute force, but I understand if that's too much for you to watch. I'm sorry if that overwhelmed you."
As she watched his eyes fall to his lap, Akiko realized how much he cared about her feelings. He might even be ashamed of his own strength, but that was survival. She couldn't fault him for that. Oddly enough, she found herself smiling at his humbleness.
"What's so amusing? I'm trying to apologize."
"Oh, I was just amused that you thought your fangs scared me," she said with a touch of sass. He looked up at her with concern. "Really, you've never scared me, Kazuki. Even the day you died, I wasn't afraid of your voice. I just thought I would be in the way if I stuck around to watch."
"So then, when you said I made you feel stupid, what did you mean exactly?"
"You heard that...?" She gawked at him with embarrassment. "You weren't supposed to hear that!"
"I have good ears." He narrowed his eyes at her, waiting for an answer.
It was her turn to feel awkward. After talking with Grandmother and Tsune, it was clear that she was overly sensitive about her voice. Kazuki seemed to be enamored with tennyo and the Karyoubinga, and she knew there was no way she could match those expectations. Reaching up to touch her neck, still covered with her hagoromo, she purple eyes softened as she found her words.
"I was jealous..."
"Jealous of what?"
"You have so many skills and abilities," she said softly, "and I'm barely worth calling a tennin. I can't fight or help anyone. I told you my voice was complicated, but really, I just can't sing."
"I know." Kazuki's guilt was clear in his voice. "I'm sorry I asked your father before you could explain, but you shouldn't blame yourself, Akiko. You suffered a horrible shock."
Akiko folded her arms on the tabletop to bury her face. She didn't want him to see her cry. It made her feel pathetic. While his words were kind, she couldn't accept them. It had been enough time to recover, but there was no music in her spirit. Only silence settled in her core. The warm touch of his hand on her shoulder made her tremble in her shame.
"It's all right to be angry, Akiko," he said softly. "You're mother should have been with you all this time, teaching, guiding, loving you. When she died, a part of you ran after her, hoping to regain what you had lost. Your voice connects you to her, and however long it takes, I believe it will return when you forgive yourself for being unable to save her."
Turning her head to look back at him, she saw sorrow in his eyes. Those words sounded personal and heavy on his heart. How careless of her to forget how old he was. It must have taken lifetimes to learn everything he had, and he must have suffered just as many setbacks as victories. His black pools met hers for a moment before she knew what she needed to say.
"Forgiveness sounds like the cure to anger then. Someone told me recently that anger can enslave you, stripping you of who you are, but if we are mindful of our strengths and weaknesses, we can overcome anything.
"Right now, I'm defenseless. I can't protect anyone, but I can offer encouragement, like you did for me before. You have a lot of strength, but without purpose, what good is any of it?" She reached into her satchel at her side. "I think in the end we're both lonely, Kazuki, so I hope my reflection warms your heart that way yours does for mine."
She held up the watch inside her cupped palm toward him. Kazuki gaped at the necklace, reaching to take it. Tapping the button at the top, he smiled at the mirror inside. The old soul glanced up with a bright smile.
"You'd give this to me?"
"We'll always be connected... once I get Dad to enchant it, of course."
"Thank you, Akiko." Kazuki sounded so hopeful. It warmed her heart to see such relief and happiness from his face. "I'll wear it every day!"