Scars Run Deep
“What was that about, Dad? You never get mad at Yoko.”
Karura walked back toward the kitchen without a word. Akiko wondered if he was avoiding her question or just thinking about how to answer. It was rare to see him this upset without an enemy hovering over her head.
He had always been kind of a stiff. Even as a child, she remembered him this way. Her mother had been exceptionally patient with him, and her voice had a way of relaxing him. It didn’t take an experienced person to realize how much he had loved his mate. Since her death, he had fallen back on old habits, which Akiko imagined was his way of coping with the loss. He was a guardian to the core, and guardians seldom spoke their minds.
“Dad...” Akiko said as she followed after him. “Talk to me. You promised no secrets.”
“I did,” Karura replied with weariness in his voice.
This life was draining him as much as it was her. While blending in with the mortals was important, the tennin did not intend to cast their culture aside. He realized his pride might have played a part in lengthening their exile, but he hoped to return Akiko to the place of her birth eventually. Yoko was not from the Celestial City of Tendou, so she had no way of knowing how insulting her suggestion was to him. He glanced toward Akiko before answering her question.
“You should eat. I made enough for two meals. That should cover one lengthy conversation.”
Akiko hoisted herself up on the kitchen island to sit, pulling the breakfast bento to her lap. Opening the top lid, she smiled gratefully. He grinned at her childish expression.
“I hope you like it.”
“I always love your cooking. I’m the crappy cook.” She picked up some sausage with her chopsticks. The tennyo grinned like a monster eying its prey. Entertainment had to be grasped wherever she could find it. “No more dodging though. What did Yoko want to talk about?”
The tennin’s eyes drained as he reflected on their conversation. While he understood the shinigami’s line of reason, it would bring nothing but despair to both of them. He refused to give up hope that justice would prevail. They had endured for too long to back down now.
Akiko froze with the chopsticks hovering in front of her mouth. Damn. That was twice her voice had been brought up today. Now, she could understand why he had been cross with the shinigami. He understood the problem she was facing.
“Please eat, Akiko,” Karura urged, sadly. He reached to touch the hand grasping the bento. “You haven’t eaten anything today. I can only imagine how hungry you must be.”
“That’s the mortal realm for you,” Akiko said in a shaky voice. She finally bit the sausage in half, chewing a few times before swallowing. “Gotta eat to live. What did Yoko want with my voice?”
“She suggested that since you haven’t awakened it that we try to return to Tendou,” his voice was flat as he stared at the countertop, “but abstain your birthright. I told her that was not an option.”
Akiko hunched her shoulders, trying not to cry. The feathery patterned scarf around her neck suddenly became an eyesore, but she couldn’t bear to be without it. Pressing the cloth against one of her eyes, she rubbed the tears into it as she clenched her teeth.
“I’m so sick of crying over this...” Her tone was frustrated and angry. “Yoko really is a bitch if she thinks we can go back after all this time...! Like hell we’d give up the shrine! Mom would cry if we caved like that!”
Karura walked around the island to embrace his daughter. She clung to his trunk as she finally wailed. His purple gaze stared at the wall ahead of him. He had promised to protect her, but hearing her voice filled with such venom only reminded him of how little he had. Yes, her body was unharmed, but her soul had taken in more pain than anyone but he could understand. If he only knew how to nurture her wounds, maybe she could find some peace.
“I still believe you will find your song, Akiko. I haven’t given up on you.”
“I know...” The tennyo whimpered as she hugged her father. The embrace became more desperate as the fear of her realities weighed on her shoulders. “I just can’t... I can’t do it...”
“You will,” Karura said softly. Petting her midnight blue crown, he continued to stare ahead of himself blankly. “You will when you are ready.”
As Akiko wept bitterly into her father’s yukata, she wondered if he was right. She should be singing marvelous chords of her people right now. Instead, she was silent and alone. There was once a time she thought she felt music stirring within her breast, but the memory of Mamoru’s vacant eyes reminded her why she felt no reason to sing.
“Nice spot you picked, Miss Takahashi. I doubt anyone would hear me scream out here.”
Kazuki was trying to make light of the situation, but the truth was that Yoko had brought him out to an empty field near the highway. Since it was late morning, not many cars were passing by, and the few out and about would probably ignore them. He smiled, sighing lightly. He did not like this setup. Just what was the shinigami planning?
“You will stand still as I test your true nature,” Yoko replied some paces away. Her expression was placid and cold. It was time she grasped the source of that energy he was emitting from his soul. “If you move in any way to defend yourself, I will sense your cowardice and know how weak you are.”
“So basically,” he stared back at her with irritation, “it’s a game of chicken. You must have been something else in life, Miss Takahashi.” Kazuki lowered his arms to his sides, preparing for whatever test she had planned. Shinigami were usually distrusting and skeptical as part of the job, but Yoko was on a whole other level when approaching clarification. “If it will get you to stop glaring at me, then let’s get this over with. I have less than a week after all.”
The shinigami stared at the ground beneath Kazuki’s feet, making the mortal wonder what was coming. He watched her shadow disappear beneath her feet, as if sucked into the ground. Just as quickly, his own sprang up around him. He gaped for a split second before darkness engulfed him.
His black eyes darted around. As she had instructed, he remained still and unguarded. At first, he was unnerved by the void, but he eventually calmed himself, searching for a clue as to what to do next. Talk about extreme measures to give him the clear. Squinting in the nothingness, he thought he saw something move. It appeared to be a mirage in the wafting vapors.
A woman in a floral yukata sat on her heels, holding a knife to her belly. The position of the hilt in her hand was formal and rigid. As the context clues became more clear to him, it took every ounce of strength not to reach for her. The blade pierced through to her flesh, bleeding through the fabric as she tore across her abdomen. Her expression did not change, staring dead ahead of her. He screamed with sorrow as the disembowelment went on.
Yoko gaped at the cry inside her shadow. To the outside world, Kazuki had vanished into thin air, but those with true sight would see the black orb in front of her. He sounded distressed, but he was not resisting. As time passed with him inside the barrier, it became harder to maintain its form. His aura was growing denser, expanding within the orb. She would have imagined a dark presence birthing such an intense energy, but all she could sense was light.
Her orb exploded backward, making her stagger backward a step or two. The blue pools stared back at Kazuki. He was trembling with his arms pressed against his sides, gripping his fists as he tried holding in tears. The light she had sensed was glowing around him, white and clean. Guilt stung her chest as she realized how pure his soul was, walking up to embrace him.
“I’m sorry...” He grunted quietly. His legs were still grounded, but the emotions had shaken him to the core. Seeing those images had triggered his need to help, but he knew there was nothing he could do for the woman. The frustration at his own helplessness was embarrassing, realizing what he had seen. “I tried not to fight it... but I couldn’t help it...”
“No, you passed, Mr. Kazuki,” Yoko spoke gently. Wrapping her arms around his young shoulders, she reasoned that the darkness had been unable to stir up any within him, forcing his light to push it back. Either his negative desires were well in check, or they were too big for her own shadow to grasp.
“It is I who should apologize. I have never encountered a mortal with so pure an aura in the face of peril. I see why Karura trusts you with their lives. I feel terrible asking for your aid, but we could use someone with your strength of heart.”
“It’s okay...” Kazuki replied, collecting himself. He sniffled loudly, trying not to make a mess on her blazer. “I knew you weren’t a bad person, Miss Takahashi. Death is a difficult business, but I’m sure you’re one of the best if you take care of them. I’m truly sorry though. I didn’t mean to see your past.”
“My what?” The shinigami leaned backward to look at his face. What was he talking about? He shouldn’t have seen anything inside her shadow dimension.
“I saw a woman in the dark. It took me a minute, but I made out your face pretty clearly,” he said, looking back at her. The shoes made her equal to his height, so they stared at one another a moment. The look on her face shifted from distant professional to humbled soul as she waited for him to continue.
“You really were something in life. To choose ritual suicide speaks to your honor and devotion. You must have felt strongly enough to hold your head high through it all. I can tell how seriously you take your work. Karura and Akiko are fortunate to have you watching over them.”
“You saw...” Yoko gawked back at him in shock. “How could you see... my mara?”
“I’m old. We’ll leave it at that.” Kazuki shrugged as he sniffled one last time. “Was there anything else I needed to do? I still have to register classes for the semester today.”
Yoko withdrew her arms from his shoulders. She had not told anyone about her death. Only Lord Eiji knew anything about it. It was one thing to read a person’s eyes for intent and motivation, but to see their very being at their core was a gift that few entities possessed. Whoever Kazuki was beneath the surface, the shinigami felt she had just violated someone special, sacred even, despite her own scars being torn open.
“No,” she replied after a moment, “allow me to shorten your trip.” Waving a hand, a black butterfly sprung up from the shadow of her palm. “You are attending the university, correct?”
He nodded solemnly. The black butterfly was a token symbol of the shinigami, but he had never been this close to one of them before. It was kind of pretty, fluttering around Yoko’s hand. She pulled it close to whisper something before letting it fly off.
The space around them stretched as if it were shifting around them. In only a few paces, Kazuki found himself in front of his school. Yoko looked anxious, guilty for what she had done. Blinking away his awe, he put a hand on her shoulder. She looked back at him with surprise.
“Water under the bridge. Thanks for the lift, Miss Takahashi.”
He waved as he jogged toward the main gate of the university. Yoko watched him go for a moment, rolling around what she had just learned. Waving both hands in front of her, the black portfolio appeared in mid-air. She opened it to make a new note:
Request for Suzuki Takashi’s record of death.
The words dissolved once she finished writing them. Her butterfly perched on the edge of the portfolio as she waited for a response. It took longer than she expected, but words finally appeared on the page one after the other:
Request granted. Come see me, Yoko.