The Old Soul's Burden
Akiko stood at the kitchen island, pouring a freshly brewed cup of jasmine tea. A small smile rested on her lips as she finished setting up her tray with some snacks to compliment the tea. Picking it up gingerly, the tennyo walked through the fusuma sliding door between the kitchen and the tatami room. Kazuki smiled up at her from his seat at the kotatsu.
“So... how’s the wrist?” Akiko asked as she knelt beside him, placing a cup in front of him. “Dad told me he worked on it a little after I crashed, but he didn’t tell me how bad it was. After it swelled so badly last night, does it still hurt?”
“Not really,” the old soul answered with a shrug. Raising the wrapped limb, he picked up the cup in his opposite hand. “He used some reflexology to work the rest of the arm and hand. It’s a sprain for sure, after the way that oni manhandled it, but we hope to have me back to swinging in a few weeks. I promised to not push it though.
“While we’re on the topic of last night, how’s that voice of yours, Aki-chan? You were incredible! How did it feel to sing again?” His dark eyes gleamed with joy and pride, aimed in her direction, a moment before calming a bit. “Karura said it took a lot out of you though. You hit the sack pretty quick when we got back here.”
“Well, I haven’t really sung in two centuries,” the tennyo admitted as she glanced at her own cup. “I’d forgotten the sensation that flows through me when the cords leave my throat. I felt so alive while I was singing, but I got pretty lightheaded once I stopped. It wasn’t my song, so it wouldn’t rejuvenate me like my own would have.”
“I guess we both overdid it yesterday,” Kazuki said with a heavy sigh. “Karura gave me quite a lecture of his own about recklessness after the stunt I pulled.”
Akiko smirked at the thought of her father scolding someone other than her for once. She had gotten off easy - running into the heat of his fight with the oni - because the tennin missed hearing her voice. It seemed her father had his own concerns about the old soul’s sense of self-preservation. After the chewing she gave Kazuki over the Demon’s Blood resin, hopefully, the mortal would start taking better care of himself.
The memory still haunted her of those hopeless eyes about his own mortality though. He said he’d gone numb to dying, but how had he lost the selfish desire to outlast an opponent? Perhaps it was just the wistful fancy of a young mind that failed to grasp longevity as long as Kazuki's. Maybe he didn’t remember why, as he didn’t recall his first death. As much as she wanted to ask him more, it didn’t seem like the right time to inquire why he felt that way. At least, not just yet anyway.
“That’s what friends and family are for,” she said with a huff, “to ride your ass till you straighten out.”
The both of them laughed for a moment before starting to sip the steaming brew again. After only a few days, it seemed strange for two people to be so comfortable in each other’s presence. Even counting the few months they had known one another in his last life, the celestial and old soul appeared to have been long-time friends. The thought finally sunk in as a quiet settled upon them.
“I really am grateful to have met you and your father, Akiko. You have no idea how blissful it is to be myself with someone after so long.”
“How long has it been?” The tennyo leaned her cheek against her palm, staring back at the youthful visage. “Since you were able to be yourself, I mean.”
“Oh...” The old soul glanced up at the ceiling as he thought back over the years. He tilted his head from side to side as he counted back the lifetimes. Gaping suddenly, he whistled loudly. “I think it was late 16th into the 17th century. That was the longest I ever lived, too, now that I think on it.”
“How old were you?” Akiko asked with surprise.
“It was weeks from my fiftieth birthday. I remember because the ladies around the lounge were trying to plan a party for me.” Kazuki laughed at the memory, rubbing behind his ear. So many good memories blossomed as he reflected on the time. “I told them I just wanted to live like any other day with the ones I loved. That was a great life. I hadn’t felt so loved and whole in ages.”
“Were you a lord or something? Who plans a party at a lounge back then?”
“Oh no!” Kazuki glanced at the tennyo at last. “I owned the business and building. It used to be a brothel, but I turned it into a hostess lounge when I brought in more money serving drinks and talking to the men. You could say I opened an early version of a hostess club.”
“Wait...” Akiko frowned at the information. “You worked in a brothel?”
“Yep! I was a den mother!” As Kazuki laughed at her shocked reaction, the maiden gaped back at him. “I haven’t always been a man, remember, Aki-chan? Does that really surprise you though? Reincarnation is indiscriminate when it comes to gender. I’ve lived numerous, colorful lives over the years. It’s been an interesting experience, living so fluidly. It helps me empathize with others, knowing I’ve experienced something similar. The times really don’t change much, I’ll tell you.”
“I suppose you have a point... I just can’t imagine you as a woman of the night, Kaz.”
“You called me that last night.” Kazuki leaned closer to explore her amethyst orbs. “Do you like calling me that?”
“Well,” she said softly, “everyone should have a nickname. Kaz is short for Kazuki, like you call me Aki. I figured you might like a familiar name as well.”
Kazuki rested his chin in his free palm, watching her shy expression. Her gemstone irises glanced back at him nervously. It was adorable to see the tennyo could be just as fiery and as she was humbled. That deep, diverse personality had drawn his attention even as Mamoru. They said a beautiful jewel had the most facets, and he saw nothing less in those starburst cut amethysts.
“I do,” he said when he realized she was getting anxious in the silence. “Am I too old for ‘kun’ or something though?”
“No,” she grunted, trying to cover up her nerves, “I’m not playing games with you. I hate watching girls act like they aren’t interested in a guy when they want them. It’s stupid. It should be obvious by now how I feel about you.”
Kazuki laughed at the front, knowing full well how the tennyo had seen him in their last time together. Akiko didn’t play hard to get, but she did struggle to communicate her feelings. If he had to choose, he was glad she was one of the honest breed. They could work on communication skills in time. If things worked out the way they had centuries ago, he might enjoy some time with her, too.
Both of them glanced up at a knock at the gate. Since Karura was out on a job, Akiko glanced at the old soul, nervously. Kazuki nodded to the unspoken request. It was clear that Akiko was not supposed to answer the door herself and rightfully so. He stood to approach the front door. Reaching into his seed bag inside his messenger bag, Akiko wondered what he could be up to.
“Wait here by the door, Aki-chan,” he said after setting the bag back down.
“What did you grab, mister? You gave me all your Demon’s Blood resin last night, right?”
The celestial maiden narrowed her eyes, suspiciously. Crossing her arms, Akiko watched Kazuki walk toward the gate. He was shaking his head with a smile.
From his hand, he placed something at the four corners of the gate entrance. They were just out of sight, wedged in tightly to avoid falling or knocking away. Glancing behind him at the front door, the old soul grinned wide.
“No resin, I promise. Just black tourmaline that I’ve collected and charged over the years.” Kazuki reached to open the gate. He huffed a brief laugh. “Your dad can thank me later.”
Before Akiko could inquire further, he opened the gate to see their caller. It was Yoko, staring back at him tiredly. The old soul smiled widely at the shinigami. She couldn’t maintain a disapproving expression with that innocent visage, beaming back at her.
“Miss Takahashi! To what do we owe this visit? Karura is out at the moment, but we were just enjoying some tea. Please come in!”
“Aren’t we comfortable in someone else’s home?” The shinigami strode past the threshold, stoically.
She paused a moment as her second foot stepped inside. What was this weightless sensation that had just swept over her? The air felt clean, as if all the impurities had been removed. The shinigami felt the tension slip from her shoulders. It was as if she were in Lord Eiji’s presence somehow.
“You okay, Yoko?” Akiko asked from the doorway. Her disapproving expression had a hint of concern, but the tennyo still was hardly pleased to see the shinigami. “Don’t faint. Kaz has a sprained wrist, so he can’t catch you.”
“I would catch her,” Kazuki said with a playful eyeroll. “It’s my fault anyway. This crystal has a purifying effect on the soul. Shinigami are bound by deep emotions, so I’m sure Miss Takahashi will be fine in a moment.”
The old soul extended his good arm toward the woman. Yoko blinked as the buzz faded from her head. Glancing at him, his smile made her gape before taking his arm.
“Whatever you did,” she said in a tired voice, “once I know what it does, I will thank you properly. Until then, I am unamused by that little prank.”
“Prank?” Kazuki gasped at the word as they walked toward the house. “I assure you, Miss Takahashi, that was no act of mischief. Black tourmaline is a protective and purification crystal that was used by mystics to protect from ill intent from mortal and immortal origins. It also makes a great mood stabilizer. It’s hardly my fault you retain that much stress. Have you considered finding a release? Preferably, a big payout kind?”
“See?! Even Kaz thinks you need to get laid!”
Listening to the childish commentary, Yoko tried not to take any to heart. After all, she was above this sort of banter and did not care to indulge in the topic at hand. She had reason enough to be there. The shinigami did not like wasting time on nonsense.
“Since Karura is not home,” Yoko said, leaning against the door frame to remove her pumps, “I suppose we could discuss the Court’s stance on you, Mr. Kazuki.”
“Me? Why does the underworld need a stance on me?”
“You did tell me to look you up.”
Akiko and Kazuki gaped at the response. It was true that he had told the shinigami to look into his death record to prove he was harmless, but he didn’t think there needed to be anything beyond that. He let his true eyes stare back at Yoko’s sapphire pools a moment. Was that a glimmer of inspiration?
“I guess I’ll get another cup for the tea,” Akiko said, noticing Kazuki’s concerned expression. “It’s a fresh pot, if you’re interested, Yoko.”
“Tea would be delightful. Thank you, Akiko.”
Kazuki and Yoko headed back to the tatami room, while Akiko turned into the kitchen. The old soul didn’t know what to think. Yoko didn’t feel hostile about this topic, but knowing his existence was abnormal, he couldn’t help brimming with dread. After expressing his happiness to be his authentic self for once, he wondered if things would fall apart like usual.
“Why the grim aura, Mr. Kazuki?” Yoko asked as they sat at the table. “I do hope you aren’t discouraged by my answer.”
“You’ll have to excuse me, Miss Takahashi. I’ve faced discrimination for whatever it is I am anymore most of my lives. Hearing the Court of Meido has a stance against me is hardly reassuring.”
His hard, black eyes seemed more appropriate to Yoko somehow. Those were the eyes of someone that had lived through hell and had to keep going. For him, there was no escaping his circumstances, especially having little understanding of how it happened. Lowering her gaze to the top of the kotatsu, her own sadness slipped through in an attempt to express empathy.
“I did not intend to give the impression we were against you, Mr. Kazuki,” she said solemnly. Folding her hands in her lap, she sat in perfect seiza style. “On the contrary, we are quite curious to understand how you became trapped in such a vicious cycle to begin with. I spoke with Lord Prince Eiji about my impression of you, and he believes that my instincts about you were not for the benefit of the tennin.
“As a shepherd of the dead, a shinigami is drawn to souls in need of assistance on their karmic path. We sense oddities in a soul’s energy field and aura. This tells us when one’s life is coming to an end as well as the strength they possess to resist it. You recall I sensed something about you that nagged me so greatly that I engulfed you into my shadow. The Court of Meido believes that I am your fated shinigami, and as such, you have been added to my priority assignment.”
“What does that mean exactly?” Kazuki asked innocently. He was blown away by the news, and frankly, he wasn’t sure how to absorb it. “Does this mean I’m clear to help Akiko and Karura?”
“For now, yes.”
“Why just for now?” Akiko asked from the doorway to the kitchen. She had been standing there, listening to Yoko’s explanation. The last answer didn’t sit right with her. “What more does he have to prove to you?”
“Akiko,” the shinigami looked up at the tennyo sympathetically, “it isn’t that we do not trust him. When I attempted to pull his death record for this and his previous lives, neither name was found in the compendium.”
“What does that mean?” Kazuki sounded worried, even anxious as he leaned toward the shinigami.
“The compendium contains the names of anyone that has ever lived,” Yoko explained, turning back to look at him. “There are three libraries, each with their own subcategories. The king’s oni searched the entire Mortal Compendium, including the lost records. Neither name existed.”
“But I didn’t make up those names!” Kazuki exclaimed, defensively. “I was given those names at birth! I can prove it!”
“I know,” Yoko said calmly, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I told Lord Eiji of this, and he believes that is why I am fated to help you. Your soul seeks answers for what happened to you, and to not appear before the Court of Meido is a frighting situation. This means your soul carries all the karma of every life you have lived without being freed by the court’s ruling. It is no wonder you are so exhausted. A mortal soul was never intended to carry such a burden.”
Kazuki’s eyes fell to the tatami floor. Akiko and Yoko watched him take in the information. For a moment, they could almost see the massive weight on his back. Weariness aside, the old soul looked lost, questioning everything he knew about his existence up to this point. The shinigami gave the shoulder a firm squeeze. He looked back at her at last.
“Do not despair. Not only will we find a means to lift the mark on Akiko as a team, I will also find your record and free you from this cycle, so you may release the weight on your soul, Mr. Kazuki. Ono and Yamamoto have joined our cause to allow me to do more investigating on both fronts. We will find our answers, Mr. Kazuki. All of us.”
Kazuki stared back at the shinigami in surprise. He had felt a foreboding sense when she mentioned looking into him. After her words of encouragement, he felt his eyes mist over. A grateful smile sprouted on his lips.
“I told Aki-chan that I was grateful to have met them both because I haven’t felt this free in so long, but for the first time, I’m so glad that a reaper crossed my path as well. The idea of learning the truth after all this time is beyond words to express. The only one I can think of is grateful. Thank you, Miss Takahashi. Please thank your master as well. I’m sure the son of Kannon Bosatsu is as kind as his mother."
"Don't tell me you've met the Merciful Goddess, too?!" Akiko exclaimed as she poured hot tea from the pot. Yoko gaped as she watched the liquid grow dangerously close to the rim. Kazuki just rubbed behind his right ear as he laughed lightly. "You have got to be kidding me!?"