My Tree Friends
“You must think I’m pretty weird,” Kazuki said with a huff as they walked next to the gate. “Your shinigami sure doesn’t seem to like me much.”
“I wouldn’t worry about Yoko,” Akiko said in a bored tone. She hadn’t cared about the woman’s distrust. Kazuki had sacrificed his life to keep her hidden, and his eyes still held the same, gentle gaze she remembered. “She just needs to get laid.”
“I’ll try then.”
Kazuki smiled at her as she walked a few paces ahead. The sight was reminiscent of the first time he had met her. The tennyo was so far inside her own head he’d been able to approach without her noticing. Thankfully, the oni hadn’t noticed him either, beating him to his catch.
“So, want to get started?”
“Start what?” Akiko paused to look back at him.
“Wait. You want to start that now? The other shinigami won’t see you till tonight.”
“Sure,” Kazuki replied with enthusiasm, “the sooner the better. I used to be a detective in this town, so I can think of a few places to check out. You want to stay here, right?”
The tennyo stared back at him. It was true that time was against them. Not only did they need to find these serial killers, but they had to secure they wouldn’t lead more to her. Kazuki seemed to be fairly knowledgeable on handling the supernatural, so she could trust his lead, right?
“I wouldn’t slow you down?” She gripped her iridescent scarf, anxiously. “I’m not skilled with fighting or anything. That’s Dad’s thing. He says I should focus on my own personal power within.”
“Well, it wouldn’t hurt to ask around. We don’t need to fight anything today.”
Extending his hand toward her, he smiled warmly. There was that frustration in her body language he recognized. She hated being vulnerable, but she didn’t have anything to fight back. As her eyes glanced back at his open palm, he could see the spark of inspiration. She just needed a little push.
“I know you want to take charge of your own fate, Akiko. Little by little, you’ll find your footing. It just takes a first step to start that journey. Come on.”
Biting her lip, Akiko looked from the hand to his face. Kazuki always knew what she needed to hear. He almost seemed psychic. A big grin uncovered her teeth as she grasped his hand.
“If I’m playing hooky, I might as well do something with myself.”
Kazuki nodded toward the gate entrance, pulling her gently behind him. He could come back for his bokken and seeds. They didn’t need them to ask around town. He could already see a shift in Akiko’s mood. Her eyes beamed brilliantly. That was more like the tennyo he remembered so fondly.
Akiko pushed the gate open, so the barrier wouldn’t alert her father. Kazuki had already said they were taking a walk, so it was reasonable for them to leave without saying anything. He continued to hold her hand as they walked toward the nearby park.
She wondered what he had in mind. Who exactly could they ask questions about oni? Since he had lived in this town decades ago, he might have a better idea of where to find supernatural clues. It still baffled her to think this was Mamoru from all those years ago. Had he used similar methods to hunt her stalker?
“Let’s see...” Kazuki said out loud, glancing over the trees in the park. “Where was that old tree?”
“Tree? Why are we looking for a tree?”
“Did you know that tree roots connect one to another?” The youthful face looked at her perplexed expression. “They make up the oldest, most reliable network in the world. If we want information on what’s going on around here, we ask the trees.”
“Does being an old soul make you speak tree or something?” Akiko frowned at the explanation. It sounded silly, and she couldn’t contain her skepticism.
“No, silly!” He laughed at her question. Thumbing toward a particularly thick trunk of a tree, he seemed to have found what he was looking for. “We ask the kodama that lives inside. I think this guy might still remember me.”
Pulling Akiko closer, he guided her toward the tree. It didn’t have a shimenawa rope on it, so how could he be so sure this one had a kodama inside? The tennyo made a judgmental face, but Kazuki didn’t let it phase him. He knelt down to touch the bark.
“Good morning, old friend,” he spoke softly, as if waking a sleeping person. “It’s me, Kazuki. I need to ask a favor.”
After a pause, a soft glow grew in the shadow of the tree. A tiny, humanoid shape crawled over a root to come toward Kazuki. The spirit held no features besides the light of its essence. It paused at the sight of Akiko, but Kazuki reached down to let the creature hug his fingers.
“This is my friend, Akiko. She’s a tennyo, so you can trust her. We actually need to find out if anyone is trying to hurt her. An oni tried once. Have there been a lot of oni coming through the Veil in town?”
The kodama glanced up at them suddenly, clinging tightly to Kazuki’s middle finger. He frowned at the action, letting go of Akiko’s hand to reach down and stroke the spirit’s back. After a moment, the spirit nodded, crawling up his arm.
“Kodama’s voices sound strange when they project themselves,” he explained to Akiko, “so they prefer to whisper. Want to hear?” He beckoned her to come around to listen to the little one that was almost at his ear.
Akiko knelt down to lean against him. It was just to listen, but the close contact made her feel nervous. The spirit waved her to come closer, making a small smile sprout on her lips. How could she be put off by such an adorable gesture?
“Oni came last new moon,” said a voice that sounded like plucked strings on an instrument. “Three pierced the Veil. Talk of finding bride.”
“Bride?” Akiko grimaced at the thought of what those disgusting oni might be after. “They’re looking for a bride?”
“I doubt they meant for themselves,” Kazuki clarified. “They might be looking for a bride for someone to take back to the Spirit Realm. Yokai still spirit mortals away to mate, eat, or entertain. Tell us, Kodama. Do you know if they have harmed mortals here? The shinigami think they have.”
The little spirit nodded vigorously. Again, it hugged onto Kazuki. This time it clung to the side of his neck. It was clear that these oni were terrorizing the town, and the mystical neighborhood did not care for their appearance either. The behavior concerned Kazuki to see the spirit so upset. He stroked its back once again.
“What’s happened, my friend? Why are you so frightened? Oni don’t normally harm the trees. Has something happened?”
“Oni stain earth with pure blood.” The little voice shook more than ever. “Human girls’ necks eaten, left to bleed.”
“That’s horrible!” Akiko felt her stomach clench. Tears welled up in her eyes at the detail. Covering her mouth, she could taste the bile crawling up her throat.
“Thank you, old friend,” Kazuki said in a sad voice. He glanced at Akiko, patting her on the back. He had not intended to disgust her so much. “I’m sorry, Akiko.”
The kodama leaped from Kazuki’s shoulder to Akiko’s. Reaching for her ear, it nestled against her lobe. She could sense it wanted to comfort her. Lifting up a hand, she hovered above its head, unsure if she could touch it or not. Fortunately, it hugged her fingers as it had Kazuki.
“It seems you’ve made another friend today, Aki-chan,” Kazuki said in a more hopeful voice. “Kodama are very gentle, and they love company. They just get shyer every passing generation of mortals. Humans don’t interact with them the same as they once did.”
“I’d like more friends myself,” she said softly. “Do you like precious stones, little one?” The spirit nodded excitedly. “I’ll bring you some next time I come to visit. Dad might like to meet you as well. I think he misses immortal interaction. Would you like that?”
“Sing for us next time.”
Akiko gaped back at the kodama with surprise. The spirit seemed to be looking at her, as if waiting for confirmation. She swallowed a lump in her throat before nodding. The kodama jumped once with excitement. It crawled down her arm to the ground, turning around to look at Kazuki.
“If you hear anything else, let us know when we come back. Promise?” Kazuki extended his pinky finger down toward the kodama. It took the finger in its grasp, shaking it. “Thank you, old friend.” It scurried back to its tree, vanishing into the roots.
Akiko stood to walk back to the park trail, rubbing her scarf between her fingers. Kazuki watched her a moment, searching for hints to what was really bothering the tennyo. Her eyes were sad since the kodama had asked her to sing. He rose to catch up to her.
“Aki-chan,” he called, “what’s the matter? Did the kodama’s request bother you?”
Akiko paused, wrapping one of her arms around herself. She took a deep breath as she gripped her scarf. Kazuki needed an answer, or he couldn’t help her. As much as she trusted him, there were some things she had learned to not share. How selfish of her to claim he was trustworthy when she left him in the dark.
“That was a lot to process,” she said in a vague tone of voice. “The throat thing just hit home cause my mom’s throat was torn out when she died.”
“Forgive me. I had no idea.” While he sensed truth in her statement, she was clearly lying about what was bothering her. “Was that the only thing that bothered you though? You seemed to be cheering up a bit earlier.”
“Sniffing for lies, huh?”
“I did call it that last time, didn’t I?” Kazuki huffed softly at the memory. “Maybe.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” she said, guiltily. “I just need to figure out how to explain myself. Can you give me a little time?”
“Of course,” he said, stepping up next to her. He put an arm around her shoulders, coaxing her to start walking with him. “I can take you home for now. We got some good information today. I do have some other errands to do, but I can give you my cell number. Did you ever get one? I remember your dad seemed so irritable about them.”
“Nope, still no cellphone.” In the twenty-first century, being disconnected was frustrating at the high school level. “We have mirrors to contact people though. Dad could enchant one for you... if you like.”
Her cheeks warmed at the thought of being able to talk to Kazuki via mirror. It was more intimate than video chatting or telephone conversation. One could sense the intention through the spell, so emotions could reach through as well. If Kazuki was still good at brightening her spirits as he had before, she could just imagine the warmth that would pour from his reflection.
The walk back home wasn’t as awkward as she thought it would be. The mortal held her shoulders in a strong yet gentle embrace, calming her earlier anxiety. The last time he had held her had been as Mamoru. He'd been much taller then, leaving her ear at his chest. This body was closer to her own height, but he would still have time to grow more. Halfway to her house, she got brave enough to reach an arm around his trunk, pulling herself closer. Kazuki smiled in response.
“Should I leave for now?” He paused at the gate. The tennyo glanced up at him, shaking her head for a denial. “I have some free time still, so maybe I’ll finally get some tea. Haha!”
Suddenly, they both looked up at the sound of the front door opening. It wouldn’t have been strange if it had slammed shut, but it sounded as if it had been ripped open, slamming against the wall. Akiko reached to open the gate to see the scene inside.
“It was merely a suggestion, Karura,” Yoko’s calm voice spoke up. Obviously, this was the end of a conversation. “I only intended to present you the option.”
“While I appreciate the intent,” Karura replied with repressed rage, “for your sake, I will pretend this conversation never happened.”
Closing the gate behind them, the tennin and shinigami glanced at Kazuki and Akiko. Yoko’s face showed slight surprise to see them, but the stoic expression quickly returned. Karura smiled to see Kazuki at his daughter’s side, relieved of the anger he had been holding in.
“Did you have a pleasant walk?”
“Kind of,” Akiko said cautiously. She was holding onto Kazuki again, anxious of her father’s temper. “Are you okay, Dad?”
“I will come back later in the week,” Yoko spoke up, walking toward the exit. She paused next to the mortal. “I would have a word with you though, Mr. Kazuki.”
“I’m sure,” the young man said with a smile. Glancing down at Akiko, Kazuki shrugged. “I’ll come by tomorrow after school, Aki-chan. Promise.”
Akiko frowned. She had hoped to see more of Kazuki today. She had skipped out on school to see him. Now, she would be sitting around the house, bored. It couldn’t be helped though. He had other things to do. She couldn’t expect him to drop his life to cater to her whims.
“I have club after school,” she said with a little disappointment, “but I should be home around six. You could have dinner with us.”
“That sounds great,” he said, excited by the invitation. “Can’t wait!” Withdrawing his arm from her shoulders, she reluctantly released his torso. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Aki-chan, Karura!”
Turning to open the gate for Yoko pass, the shinigami noticed no reaction from the barrier to Kazuki’s touch. Karura had been correct that the mortal held no ill intent. Still, she had her own method of testing a soul.
“What did you want to discuss, Miss Takahashi?” Kazuki asked once he closed the gate.
“Karura said you possessed some spiritual ability. I am concerned about where that power comes from. I would like to see this ability before leaving the tennin in your care.”
Kazuki blinked back at the shinigami’s request. He stared into her blue irises, searching for her motivation in pressing this criticism of his assistance. Taking a deep breath, he shrugged his shoulders in defeat. He couldn’t do much if the shinigami cut him off from the tennin.
“How do you want to do this?”