Disclaimer: I don't own Rin-ne. It belongs to Rumiko Takahashi.
Death Is Calling Me
The next morning had Sakura racing down the sidewalk again. The multitude of ghosts, as if sensing a disturbance, flocked around her and followed. Their wails and cries filled Sakura's ears. There were requests to find long-lost relatives or questions if she could truly see. Some spirits mourned lost chances towards their dreams or careers. Others wanted one last message to be delivered to someone that they loved. Sakura wasn't sure which spirit wanted what. They all seemed to blend together in a brush of gray and white.
She didn't often rush to school unless she was being chased by one of them, the ghosts that had lost their humanity and were tied to the earth only by their malevolent feelings. But today she was late. Her alarm clock had rang for half an hour before Sakura had awoken and only because her mother had finally noticed that her daughter hadn't come to breakfast yet. Sakura had thrown on her uniform, grabbed her bag and rushed out without anything to eat for breakfast.
Even now her stomach grumbled in protest. At least she had had the foresight to make her lunch the night before and set it in the fridge or she would have forgotten about that as well. Sakura quirked her lips upwards. In hindsight, her tardiness was to be expected. She hadn't been able to sleep at all the night before because she was thinking about the latest encounter with Rinne Rokudo. She had been wondering all night what the shinigami had meant by his words, had come to the realization that perhaps he wasn't as bad as she had initially thought.
The ghosts were waving their hands in front of her, hoping for some slip, some sign that Sakura could see them and wasn't just a school girl rushing to class.
Sakura kept her expression blank, with only a tinge of anxiousness to hint at how desperate she was to arrive at the school on time. She would not let her mask crack.
There was one spirit that was trailing after her footsteps who particularly made her nervous. Half of his face was eaten by decay, revealing veined flesh where his cheek was. His right eyeball was exposed, rolling back and forth. Sakura could see burn marks all over the spirit's hands and legs; as if the fire had eaten half of his body before spitting him back out again. There was a heavy stench around him, of burnt flesh and paper. He wore the school uniform of her high school and though Sakura knew that he wasn't an evil spirit yet, she could feel the negative feelings within this ghost building as the moments went by.
In her mind, Sakura dubbed the ghost 'Ash.'
He had been following her to and from school since she and her mother had moved back to Tokyo. At first Sakura hadn't paid him too much attention, marking him on her mental list of ghosts to stay away from. He had had an aura which wavered between human sorrow and pure anger. Sakura hadn't wanted to make his negative emotions any more potent with careless actions and so chose to give him a wide berth.
Now it seemed that the darkness in Ash had grown anyways.
He was moving closer. The Goosebumps underneath her sleeves rose when Sakura felt his ghostly breath against her neck... as if he was trying to breathe her essence into himself.
Sakura kept her fingers near the yo-yo in her hands, in case she needed to defend herself again. Her body tingling with the urge to run away but her mind shouting at her to exorcise him (as Tsubasa would tell her) so that he wouldn't become a threat in the future. But her heart told her to wait, wait and see. Perhaps he wasn't an evil spirit yet... perhaps he was just curious to see if she had the sight...
From the corner of her eye Sakura saw Ash's hands move upwards, slowly, towards her neck...
Her heart pounded in her ears while her mind and body yelled at her heart to act instead of waiting as always...
She made a sharp turn left and collided into another body.
Sakura only just stopped herself from falling back and, upon closer investigation, saw that she had just knocked over a poor lady.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Sakura bent down to take the arm of the woman. The ghosts around them fluttered in curiosity, all eyes intent on Sakura alone. She kept her attention fixed on the woman in the kimono. "I should have been more careful. I hope you can forgive me, Miss."
The lady in the kimono hid her amusement behind her purple silk sleeve. "Ah, it's no trouble. We all have our clumsy days... wait..." Her eyes narrowed, "What did you call me before?"
Confused, Sakura repeated, "I called you 'Miss.' Is that alright?" She would hate to be rude to such a pretty young lady. Sakura very much liked the red flowers tied as a pin at the side of the woman's silver bangs. She had very short hair too, past her ears. It made her appear quite elegant. Something about the woman seemed very familiar...
The lady's eyes lit up, "Oh yes! Quite alright, dear! You are such a sweetheart! Apology accepted, no harm done." She brushed off the dust from her obi and gown. Then her eyes narrowed, looking at the air around Sakura. "Hm... where are you headed, dear? To that school?" The lady inclined her head towards the gates of Sakura's high school, which was only one more block away. The familiar barrier, shining blue and pink hues this morning, surrounded the school's property in a dome.
"Oh, yes, I am," she nodded.
The ghosts were still wailing. Now some of them were tugging at Sakura's arms and braids, hoping to get her attention. She could feel Ash breathing (if ghosts could still properly breathe) against her neck. Sakura made sure her smile was fixed in place.
"What a coincidence," the lady clapped her hands together. "I happen to be heading that way myself"-Sakura frowned and did not mention that it seemed that the lady had been moving away from the school before they walked into one another-"why don't I escort you to the gates?"
She wasn't sure how to politely decline such a request, particularly when Sakura felt it was her fault for nearly hurting the other woman. She could sense that the woman was not a spirit, just someone of living flesh. But that didn't always guarantee her safety. She had had very close run-ins with demons and other creatures before. Shinigami and damashigami very often felt almost the same as human beings in their auras. Sakura hadn't been around many to properly differentiate between the three. She tried to avoid both as much as possible. But it was only one block and Sakura was sure she could defend herself should the need arise.
"Alright. Just to the school."
"Perfect," the woman beamed, "My name is Tamako."
Sakura frowned again. That name sounded familiar but she was sure she had not met anyone by that name before...
"I'm Sakura," she returned.
They moved down the block quickly enough with light conversation about Sakura's subjects and how she was finding Tokyo. Behind them the ghosts continued to flock around Sakura, though they avoided Tamako with a strange nervousness, whispering cautiously. (Sakura noted this and observed Tamako quietly for any suspicious behaviour). By the time they reached the school gates, Sakura moved the conversation towards Tamako, asking what the woman did for a living.
"Oh," Tamako answered with a sly look. "I have two main jobs which keep me very busy, all night and day."
"I see," Sakura hovered at the gates, unsure what to say next.
"Well, go off now. It will be safe in the school, dear. I expect we'll be seeing more of each other," Tamako nodded, before she turned to walk away.
For several moments, Sakura stood there thoughtfully, wondering what exactly Tamako was. But then she heard the bell ring behind her and raced towards the building for her first lesson.
Neither Tamako nor Sakura had noticed the tiniest of cracks in the barrier, just hovering above the gate. Within the school, eyes gleamed in an orange hue. Just outside of the barrier, still hovering where Sakura had left the road and entered through the school's barrier, was Ash, his eyes gleaming in return.
Higurashi-sensei was very understanding. "It's quite alright, Mamiya-san. Everyone has their off days. Just don't let it happen again and I won't count this on your attendance, since it is your first tardiness this year. Try not to make this a bad habit. Now I believe we have some more Trigonometry to learn this morning."
Sakura let out the breath she was holding and nodded gratefully to her teacher. She walked to her desk, making eye contact with Rika and Miho who were both wearing equally relieved expressions.
'We thought you were ill again, Sakura-chan,' Rika mouthed. 'Glad that's not the case!'
She smiled and shook her head slightly, 'Just late. Sorry for worrying you,' She mouthed back.
When she sat down, she noticed that Rokudo was absent. His desk was vacant, save for the notebook laid open and the pen lying diagonal to the criss-crossed lines on the page. The last few words of the notes on the board were copied until the last line, where it seemed that the writing had stopped.
He must be in the bathroom, Sakura thought. (Or exorcising ghosts, another part of her whispered.)
Sure enough, Rokudo entered through the doors, panting lightly. There was sweat on his brow and his uniform looked dishevelled. His hair was messier than usual and his eyes were darting around, as if he expected someone to jump up and shout 'shinigami!' at him. No sooner had Sakura spotted this slip in the facade did Rinne smooth his features back into the immaculate and fake smile as before. Now there stood the false Rinne Rokudo, a charmer of all female students instead of the more familiar shinigami from before.
He went to his desk quietly, so as to not interrupt Higurashi-sensei's lecture. When he spotted Sakura, he said his customary greeting with that same bright (and disturbing) smile. "Good morning, Mamiya-san."
Sakura fought the urge to throw holy water on him, if only to make that fake air of happiness disappear. But then she remembered his words from the evening before ("Just as you never asked to be a spirit... I never asked to be an accursed shinigami.") and sadness came over her.
He's just like me, she thought. He doesn't want this fate either. She didn't know his reasons for acting so opposite to his nature and charming most of the female populace but she wouldn't judge until she knew the whole story nor would she seek to grow closer to him. He was still a shinigami. It was best to keep pretending she didn't know his secret.
She smiled, "Good morning, Rokudo-kun. It's a nice day, isn't it?"
Her brightness towards him was surprising. She could tell by the slight widening of his eyes. But Rokudo hid that again, strengthening his irritating smile. "Yes, it is."
He sat down and they did not talk to each other again for the rest of the period.
There were several text messages from Tsubasa waiting on her cell phone when she checked it just as the teacher ended the lesson for lunch. Rika and Miho were calling her over but Sakura told them that she needed to answer her friend. She stayed in the classroom, where she noticed that Rokudo was sitting there quietly at his desk, eating from a decorated bento box. She suspected that it was from one of his admirers but saw none of them flocking around him as was the norm.
Many paranoid thoughts raced through her head instinctively as explanations for this behaviour, but Sakura pushed them away. She had promised herself not to judge Rokudo solely because he was a shinigami. Perhaps he just wanted to be alone for the moment. She knew the feeling.
Sakura caught his eye just as she opened her inbox. His expression was torn between sombre (much more familiar and much more... more like himself) and content from the taste of the food. Rokudo gulped down the rest of his tamoyaki, looking embarrassed to have been caught with an expression outside his charming persona. Sakura only smiled at him and pretended that she had been looking intently at her messages the whole time.
She tuned out the rest of her surroundings and ignored Rokudo's curious gaze. Tsubasa's messages were long and panicked as usual.
(9:50 am) Tsubasa Jumonji:
I read your message, Mamiya-san. I emailed you all the information I could about any missing boys named Hinata. There are about three different cases around your area. I made sure to send all family profiles and circumstances surrounding the disappearances and/or deaths that I could find. Stay safe.
There were a few more text boxes, rather lengthy ones, following within seconds of the other.
(9:53 am) Tsubasa Jumonji:
What are you up to, Mamiya-san? I hope you're not trying to rescue some 'poor soul' again. You'll be putting yourself in danger! I absolutely forbid it! Do you want me to come back to Tokyo and help out? I can get there within a day, just give me a call. Take care of yourself.
(10:04 am) Tsubasa Jumonji:
I know you have class right now, just give me a call at your next break. Tell me EVERYTHING about this spirit, and I mean EVERYTHING. Don't do anything that could put you in danger! Worried about you.
(11:30 am) Tsubasa Jumonji:
Alright, I'm not sure when your next break is but you must have had one by now. Call me, Mamiya-san. I'm urgently waiting. Stay safe.
(11:45 am) Tsubasa Jumonji:
Is it your break yet? Speaking of which, I should ask this now because more trouble always seems to follow you even if you insist there is only one ghost problem now. Have the spirits been bugging you? Is your school still well protected? You haven't run into any more suspicious figures have you? Call me at your next break. Stay safe.
(12:05 am) Tsubasa Jumonji:
It's lunch time now. Why aren't you calling yet? That's it. I'm going to ask my dad to let me go to Tokyo for a visit! You owe me an explanation, Mamiya-san!
Sakura fought back the bubble of amusement inside her. Tsubasa was always overreacting when it came to her and spirits. He had never really grown out of it and Sakura wasn't sure why he worried so much when it came to her. She was just as capable at dealing with the dead as he was. She supposed that it was just one of the exorcist's many quirks.
She flipped open her phone. It was one of the older models that still flipped open and only had a number pad to type into. She preferred them to the newer phones (the ones with touch screens and game applications and so on) as they gave her a sense of nostalgia. It was light pink with a cell phone strap of a black cat hanging from it. Her mother had given it to her as a birthday present a few years back.
Tsubasa's number was one of the few she had on speed dial. It took two rings but the exorcist picked up as soon as she called.
"Mamiya-san!" He exclaimed, happy to hear from her on the other end of the line.
"How are you, Tsubasa-kun?" She smiled (though he couldn't see it).
"Fine, fine. More importantly, you have some things to explain..."
"Hinata is just an ordinary... boy," Sakura said, aware that Rokudo seemed to be eavesdropping. It was the way that his shoulders seemed to tense slightly and his chopsticks paused just before his lips. She turned her head towards the window. "I'm fine. I just want to help him out."
Tsubasa, seeming to understand that Sakura couldn't say much on her end, said, "Are you sure? Because I can come by, say I'm visiting the city..."
"..But it's dangerous. We don't know anything about this boy... anything could happen... like with Kain or with Yota. Let me come by. If you don't protect yourself properly—"
"What? As you tried to?" Sakura felt her voice rise higher than usual. She struggled to control the irrational anger that rose within her. Memories rushed into her head—her father's spirit, Yota-kun with that insane smile, Kain hunting, Tsubasa mercilessly destroying the souls of, of—and she shook them away. "No," she kept her voice neutral, "Last time you were here, things did not go well."
It still haunted her in her dreams, so much that sometimes Sakura wondered why she was still in contact with the exorcist. His methods were cruel and he didn't even seem to realize how much it hurt her. (That, of course, was unfair to say. Tsubasa stayed away from her because he knew that she disapproved of his methods. He was a good person for the most part.)
There was shuffling on the other end. Sakura had a feeling that Tsubasa had almost dropped his phone and was struggling to get it straightened against his ear.
"I was trying to protect you," he said with a strain in his voice. He paused. "I still am."
Sakura felt her heart tightened and she smiled again.
"Tsubasa-kun, I can take care of myself," she said calmly. "Please, just let me do this."
He was silent. Then there was a sigh. "I can never win, can I? Alright, but stay in touch. If you don't keep me updating on the situation, I'm grabbing the next train to Tokyo and I'm hunting that boy down."
"Alright, thank you so much, Tsubasa-kun. Don't worry about me, I'll be alright. Talk to you soon then," she agreed and she closed her phone shut before she could hear another one of Tsubasa's legendary goodbyes (which often included flowery and butchered lines of poetry).
She heard the scraping of a chair being pushed back beside her and saw Rokudo still looking at her intently. His bento box was three quarters done, some vegetables and rice still left around the corners.
"Is everything ok, Mamiya-san?" He asked politely. "I don't mean to pry but you sounded a bit distressed during your phone call. There isn't any trouble, is there?"
He said this in the same tone he used to speak to every other female in the school, one that had false sweetness and cheer when it was clear to Sakura that he would rather be left alone.
"It's nothing," Sakura said quickly, moving to grab her bag. Perhaps now would be a good time to meet up with Rika and Miho at the roof for lunch. There was still twenty or so minutes left of their break. "Just a friend."
When she peered up at him, she expected that same smile to be in place. But instead she saw his lips lower slightly into a frown. For a moment Rokudo was that melancholy shinigami again and she found that she preferred this Rokudo to the one she had to see at school everyday.
It occurred to her that her reply had been brisk and a bit rude. For those who did not know her very well, her manner could appear this way because of the careless way that Sakura spoke her mind without thinking of the consequences.
"Ah, I didn't mean to be so brusque before, at the beginning of the school year until now, I mean," she stood in front of his desk, hoping that her expression was apologetic enough. "I'm sorry about that; sometimes I don't pay attention to how I act. I hope we can be good…" She searched for words that would be appropriate, "classmates."
Rokudo blinked at her, caught off guard from her directness. It was refreshing to see that he was capable of emotions other than false happiness and dark brooding.
"I… Did I do something to offend you during the first month of school, Mamiya-san?" His smile had returned but there was curiosity in his eyes.
Sakura opened her mouth to lie, to say that she had been going through a difficult time at home or something. But instead the truth slipped out.
Rokudo appeared slightly bewildered. "I'm sorry?"
Sakura hesitated for a moment but decided that she might as well tell him the truth. "It's fake," she explained, "and it disturbs me."
The false and charming persona dropped automatically, as if a curtain had been toppled over to reveal the bare stage for what it was.
He frowned at her. "You can tell. How?"
But Sakura could guess what other thoughts were racing in his head. Does she know about me being a shinigami? Do I have to erase her memories? I have to find out or everything will be in jeopardy. She felt panicked and realized that her empathy was tuning into Rokudo's aura, something she hadn't known it could do. The paranoia and tense fear in his aura was something Sakura was familiar with, as she hid her ability to see from the spirits every day.
He's a shinigami, her rational mind yelled at her. But he's as human in his emotions as anyone else, her empathy, her heart, said.
"I just have the feeling sometimes… that you don't really like the attention," Sakura decided to say. She smiled sadly at him, "and I don't know why."
Rokudo did not reply, his brow scrunched in thought.
"Don't worry," she could sense his distress practically screaming in her ears. Sakura would need to ask Tsubasa if he knew anything about emphatic abilities building around shinigami because she couldn't remember this happening with Kain before. "I won't tell anyone."
"What?" He stood up, a head taller than her, "I don't understand… why wouldn't you…? I mean…"
The level of distrust and fear from Rokudo made her feel sad. Had he never had anyone to trust before? Sakura had misjudged him. Two months ago, it would never have occurred to her that shinigami could have their problems too. She had always been content to see them as figures she could not trust.
"It must be hard for you…pretending," She found herself saying, recalling her own bitter memories of lying to her classmates about the things she could see. "I'm sure you have your reasons for it and so I won't tell anyone, as long as you're not planning to take advantage of them."
Sakura nodded at him politely and turned to leave the classroom.
"Wait!" Rokudo was halfway across the room but had stopped, as if he were hovering on the edge of doing something reckless and pulling away. "I... Thank you."
Sakura only smiled and went out of the classroom.
Down the hallway, unknown to the two students, a pale figure's reflection flickered against the windows, eyes flashing orange...
Later that night after speaking with Hinata and playing a few games of hide and seek with the little spirit, Sakura informed him that she had a lead on possible suspects for his mother. She told him that she needed to check her email for the documents at home first before she could show him any pictures to see if he remembered any of the women. If not, they would go to each suspect's house and see if they could discern who was most likely to be his mother.
Hinata had been so overjoyed that when he jumped into the air, he caught Sakura off guard and spun her around in a circle. Sakura still felt slightly high from his euphoric emotions as she stumbled back home, past the park, promising to meet up with Hinata the next evening.
Ghosts trailed after Sakura, poking at her arms and making jokes at her stumbling walk. Sakura ignored them.
There was the small of burnt flesh again. It had been growing stronger every day, another sign that the ghost she'd named Ash was becoming more and more bottled with negative emotions as the days passed.
Sakura was beginning to worry. She wondered if she should reveal her abilities to Ash and try to put him to rest with words. Sometimes this worked, but other times, it merely agitated the ghost (or ghosts) and made them more vicious.
From the corner of her eye, she saw that Ash was moving faster, pushing the unfortunate spirits of a fisherman and a baker aside to the ground so that he was standing directly behind her neck. She caught glimpses of the charred bits of skin and raw flesh on his cheek. Sakura could tell that they were burn marks... almost as if he had been dipped into acid. She wondered if this was a recent death and when it had happened...
He was breathing against her neck.
Sakura's feet continued like clockwork, turning left at the next block, moving towards the residence area. High white fences and houses with red and black roofs greeted them.
Sakura's fingers slowly twitched to the yo-yo, the other hand to the holy water.
"...You smell nice..."
She nearly stopped in her tracks at the sound of Ash's voice. Of all things she had expected to hear, this was not it. Enamoured ghosts were particularly tricky to send away, not all of them could be easily rejected with a simple 'no.' The knowledge that she may have no choice but to exorcise the ghost with force weighed heavily upon her. She could practically feel the yearning in Ash for another girl... one that looked like her...
His fingers brushed against her arm, rushing through her corporal body like water. Sakura suppressed her shiver and—
There was a scream.
Sakura looked up and saw one of the girls from her school (one she recognized as one of Rokudo's admirers) rushing down the street, petrified.
"What's wrong? Are you alright?" Sakura stopped her.
"No, no, just run, there's a... that filthy thing! It's come back to haunt me, make it go away!" The girl screamed before she burst into tears and clung to Sakura tightly.
Uncomfortable and unsure of what to do, Sakura rubbed circles on the girl's back, trying to calm her down. "What's after you?"—Was it a ghost? Ash was still hovering around Sakura's neck, breathing her in. She really needed to do something about him. But first the girl—"Just take deep breaths and tell me everything you know."
"N-no... it's coming... I left it out in a box because no one wanted it anymore..." The girl trembled, "I didn't know it would come back... I didn't know that it would try and... and..."
"Try and what?" Sakura asked urgently. Ash blew in her ear, muttering about her scent. "Tell me."
There was a crash, Sakura looked up.
"...and ...eat me."
There she saw it. Stampeding down the street with powerful rumbles was the biggest Chihuahua she had ever seen. Its head was bigger than its body and its wide eyes were veined with blood vessels. Saliva fell from its lips, making its teeth glisten in silver against the sun. But it was not alone. It seemed that there were dark shadowy figures of what once had been human beings (or spirits) crawling against the dog, merging with it. It had become a combination of several negative spirits, gathering until its hate was fixated onto its former owner to the point where the poor girl could now see the dog's spirit...
But worse than that, Sakura felt her strength leave her as she slumped against the other girl. The amount of hatred gathered around the dog was greater than Sakura was used to, like a sun compared to a small firefly's light.
All of the other ghosts that had been with her had run away, afraid to be swallowed by the dog's aura. Even Ash had left, leaving one lingering breath by her throat.
The dog pounced upon them. The girl shrieked and abandoned Sakura, who was slumped against the sidewalk, in favour for ducking behind the next corner.
Sakura hissed out and whipped out her yo-yo, its blades expanding as it sliced the dog's chest. The chihuahua flew backwards, howling in pain. Smoke fizzed from its wound and many of the dark shadowy figures crawling on its body were sliced in half only to wiggle back together again as if they had never been broken.
The dog fixed its bloody glare at her and growled. Then it rushed towards her.
Sakura spun out her yo-yo again, making two more quick slashes, this time at the dog's two front paws so that it would be hindered in its ability to run. She heard a whimper and a thump, saw the dog attempt to lick its paws before she forced herself to get back up on her feet and run.
She felt like she was running under layers of heavy concrete. The dog's aura was thick and difficult to fight against. But Sakura bit her tongue, letting the pain snap her senses awake.
She found the girl hiding behind a trash can and pulled at her arm. "Come on, you need to run to a safe place. Get back to the school."
The girl's eyes were wide, "The school? But it'll just catch me there—"
"Get to the school," Sakura repeated again and though her voice was calm, there was a hard edge to it which the girl could not argue against. "I will distract it. Stay at the school until I finish dealing with this spirit and don't leave until I come back."
"But what if you don't come back?"
"Then stay till morning... and... and find Rinne Rokudo from my class. Tell him everything that happened, don't leave anything out. He'll know what to do."
"Rinne-kun?" The girl gaped at her. "But... I can't... he'll think I'm weird or..."
The dog was back, mouth open and teeth eager to meet them. Before its jaws could snap over their heads, Sakura pushed the girl to the ground, covering her with her body. They both grunted in pain and when they could stand again, Sakura yelled, "Go!"
The girl didn't need to be told twice. She scurried towards the direction of the school, where she'd be safe behind the barrier.
The dog tried to follow, but Sakura had flipped herself up (thankful she had taken gymnastics class in whatever town she and her mother had moved to, it was useful to know for times like these) so that she landed on the chihuahua's neck, amidst the other shadows.
Instantly, the chihuahua began to buck upwards like a wild horse, refusing to be tamed. Sakura held on with her legs, quickly pulling out one of her daggers as her yo-yo was swung like a lasso so that it looped around the dog spirit's neck.
Many of the dark shadows on the dog's body were bristling. They furled around Sakura, pulled at her arms. Negative spirits could touch physical objects and affect the environment around them, depending on how strong they were. These ones left stinging marks against her arms that she knew would become bruises. Their faceless heads and murky fingerprints hurt at the touch.
Sakura struggled against them, trying to press the dagger down towards the dog's neck, but the shadowy figures held her back... whispered to her images and flashes of hatred which made her eyes sting...
She slammed down her arms in a fit, forcing all her strength into one sharp attack. The dagger's silver hilt seemed to gleam with dark amusement as it dug into the dog spirit's neck, releasing hot smoke and fire. Sakura fell back, off of the dog's back as it howled in pain.
She too very nearly howled, feeling its pain echoing into her body as if she had been the one stabbed as well. The empathy was amplified by the presence of the dark shadows.
They were fluttering around the dog's body, like slugs crawling up in a spiral towards the dog's neck. They formed into a shapeless blob against the wound, throwing Sakura's dagger back at her. She barely dodged it, rolling to the side and then standing warily to her feet again.
The shadows seemed to hum towards the chihuahua that was breathing heavily and staring at her with such sharp hatred...
Sakura made the mistake of staring directly into its eyes.
Images flashed into her minds, as they always did when she looked directly at a spirit's gaze. Images of the past.
(Waiting, waiting, waiting, eagerly for the owner, a nice girl, a nice owner who fed him and played with him. Happy. Content. Wanting to please owner with tricks. The girl laughs and says, "I love you, Inu-san! Stay with me forever.")
(Sometimes owner forgets to feed him and her mother reminds her. Owner grumbles that she doesn't feel like it but she feeds him anyways. So she must be joking, she doesn't really mean it... she loves him...)
(Now its cold. Been so long. Owner doesn't play anymore. Owner forgets to feed him. It's lonely, so lonely. When he tries to lick owner's toes she shrieks and tells him to go—"Disgusting dog, I don't need one anymore, I'm old enough now. He's always making a mess in my shoes and eating my clothes..."—it hurts, why does it hurt?)
(He's so hungry.
So lonely and hungry.)
(Then one day. Owner comes to see him in his lone dog house. He perks up. It's been so long. Maybe she wants to play again. Maybe he had been forgiven. Maybe she will love him again.
But instead she tells him to get in a box and she walks him into one of the metal creatures and drives far. She dumps the box, dumps him, on the ground near an alley and she leaves him, even when he whines against her, even when he tries to lick her fingers again...
"I don't need you anymore," she says, "Someone else can have you..."
He yowls in complete and utter despair...)
(It's so cold. Cold is worse than hungry and lonely, because it feels like both at once... he's so tired... he wants owner... owner...)
(Then a voice, several voices, just as sad and hateful as him... gathering around him, whispering, "Make her pay... make her join you in sleep too... then you can be together forever..."
Yes, he thinks, together forever.
And he surrenders to the litany of voices.)
Sakura snapped out of the influx of memories, tears streaming down her face.
"Oh my god..." she breathed. "You poor dog..."
But the chihuahua was too consumed in rage to hear her or understand her. It was angry at the world, intent on bringing its owner and whoever stood in his way to destruction.
It charged towards her.
"No! Wait! Stop!" Sakura shouted. She flicked her yo-yo upwards again, slashing at the chihuahua's nose, wincing as it whimpered against the attack.
But then the shadows leapt up from the chihuahua's back and tackled Sakura, gathering around her arms and legs to hold them in place.
Sakura cried out and struggled against them. She began chanting some incantations Tsubasa had taught her, hoping they'd weaken the spirits but they did not budge.
Do something, Sakura! Her mind shouted at her, Exorcise the dog, kill the source for good! Don't hesitate!
"No," she whispered, voice shaking, "I can't... I can't do that." Not when she had just lived through the chihuahua's life, not when she understood its pain now.
Why are you doing this, Mamiya-san? She could picture Tsubasa speaking in her head. Don't you remember what happened to your father when Kain got involved? Didn't you learn your lesson? You can't save them all. They aren't meant to be saved. Spirits are damned. You know this.
The chihuahua advanced towards her, licking its lips and opening its mouth. She could see into its throat, could smell how disgusting and dreaded its stomach would be.
Still, she did not try and reach her yo-yo to activate it's other blades, the lethal ones which could extend once she pressed one button. The death blades that Tsubasa obtained and attached to her yo-yo, blades that could extinguish a spirit's soul...
"Please...," Sakura let her heart spill from her mouth. "Inu-san... Stop this, you don't want this."
Stop it, what are you doing, Mamiya-san? Tsubasa would yell if he were present. Are you trying to get yourself killed again? This doesn't always work!
She hadn't done this, tried this, since Kain. She'd been too afraid to, after what happened to her father and grandmother.
But something had changed.
(Just as you never asked to be a spirit... I never asked to be an accursed shinigami. But someone has to help you, no one else will bother.)
Sakura stared straight into the dog's eyes, just before they disappeared behind the image of his teeth and then... she forced all of her emotions, all of her soul into the dog's essence.
Suddenly she wasn't a mere human anymore, limited by mortal flesh. Now she was like air, part of the essence of the earth, fluid and free. She rushed into the dog's soul; saw it as a raging mass of dark shadows smothering tiny light.
Then she touched it gently and whispered, "I'm here..."
The shadows bristled and twisted, trying to grasp her soul. She fluttered between them, ducking between and around shadowy grips (remembering the last time this happened, she'd been struck... and she hadn't been able to save them but this wasn't like back then. She was different now).
The little light pulsed stronger until Sakura could see the light shape into the ears of the dog... She could hear its anxiousness resonate within her.
"Let's go home now, Inu-san," she said gently, watching the light grow with her words. The shadows were trying harder to grasp at her. "You can rest now. It won't be cold anymore, you won't be lonely or hungry again."
The dog's soul was quivering in the blanket of shadows and peered at her.
I'm tired, it seemed to say.
"I know," she said, "but it will be over soon," She gulped and fought back the emotions in her chest. "You can rest now. You won't be alone anymore, I promise. Come back with me."
The dog was hesitant... and then it forced itself free of the shadows and ran into her arms.
Sakura awoke, feeling bruised and battered, but satisfied when she saw the limp form of the dog in her arms.
He was cold and limp now, having been dead for a long time.
"Mamiya-san!" The panicked voice caught her in surprise. Sakura turned to see Rokudo running towards her. He was wearing an odd track suit, black with white lines running down on the sleeves and side of the pants. His school bag was slipping from his shoulder.
"Rokudo," She blinked.
When he reached her, he grasped her shoulders and looked her up and down, "My god... Where is it? What happened? You need to get medical attention..."
"I'm fine," Sakura said calmly. "The dog is gone now."
Rokudo seemed confused, "The dog is what? But Himekawa-san said that it was a rabid monster... chasing her... I left her at the school because it was... safer." His lie came out so fluidly that Sakura almost didn't catch it. She knew very well that the girl, Himekawa, would have told Rokudo everything out of fear for herself.
"Yes... a rabid dog only... but he's gone now," she indicated to her arms.
He looked down and his face went blank. "Oh," His tone was regretful. "Oh dear... it really was a rabid dog," He sounded surprised and then he was panicked again, "It didn't bite you, did it?"
"Oh, well..." She couldn't explain the injuries any other way. "I... no... but it did chase me and I tripped..." She wondered how she would explain the bruises.
"Then we should get you to a clinic," Rokudo steered her by the shoulders. He stared at the dog's body, "About that..."
"We should bury him first," Sakura found herself saying. "He needs to rest in peace."
Rokudo stopped, staring at her in the same way he had when he had thanked her earlier that day, as if he had awoken and was truly looking at her for the first (and now second) time.
"You... yes, of course we should bury him... but your injuries..."
"I will be fine. I want to put him to rest first. I have a feeling that he's been very tired for a long time," Sakura confided.
Rokudo studied her for a few minutes before he nodded, "Yes, he has been tired... come on, I know a place..."
He brought her to the outskirts of the city. Sakura's feet had blisters in them from walking so long. They hadn't taken the train because the smell of the dog's body was sure to draw attention. They hadn't spoken to each other and Sakura was surprised at how comfortable the silence was.
Rokudo's face was blank, as if he was in permanent deep thought. His movements were stiff and formal, like he wasn't sure how to interact with her. Sakura supposed, with the usual type of girls he dealt with that adored him without reason, he didn't know how.
They arrived at a stretch of grassy field by the highway where there were a few stick markers and mounds.
Sakura looked at him questionably.
"I bury other animals here, when I find them," Rokudo confessed stiffly. "We can bury Himekawa-san's dog here."
The open admission made Sakura smile brightly. She didn't know why, but she felt that this suited Rokudo very much, to care about the proper burials of the dead he encountered. She had a feeling that the animals buried here were once ghosts he had encountered and it made her happy to know she wasn't alone in that feeling.
"It's perfect. Then I'll get to work."
Rokudo's shoulders, tense before, relaxed. He had that look again, incredulous and bewildered. He nodded and ran to fetch the shovels from a box near the mounds.
"I'll help to," he said, surprising her as he began to join her in digging in the earth.
They fell into a synchronized rhythm, working together without a word. By the time they finished, it was late and each was covered from foot to toe in smudged dirt but Sakura didn't care. She let out a breath of relief and bowed her head before the dog's grave. She had chosen a tall abandoned stick as the marker, hoping that the dog would like it.
"I hope you are happier wherever you are," Sakura whispered. "I pray that Himekawa-sempai learns from her mistake."
When she looked up, she saw that Rinne had his head bowed in prayer as well. A few minutes passed by before he met her eyes again.
"Thank you," Sakura said. "For helping me bury him and..."
And for your words the other day. But she couldn't tell him that or he would know that she had seen him.
Rokudo shook his head, "No... No, I should be thanking you actually..." He stared down at the bruises and cuts on Sakura's legs. "We should really get those cuts cleaned... sit down, I have a medical kit..."
"So do I," Sakura pulled one out of her bag, before she sat down on the grass.
Rokudo stared at her incredulously again.
"You... are a very strange girl, Sakura Mamiya."
Opening her kit, she asked, "How so?"
He sat down next to her and took out the ointment and rubbing alcohol, deciding to help her clean the cuts on her other leg. He dabbed each cut with a cotton swab.
"Not many girls would have done that for a raging spirit."
Sakura tensed. "I'm sorry?"
Rokudo looked at her. "Was it a spirit? That's what Himekawa-san was calling it. A 'horrible ghost' haunting her for her crimes. It wasn't just a rabid dog... Himekawa-san was a neglectful owner."
Paranoid thoughts rushed through Sakura's head. Did he know? Was he going to tell the shinigami council about her sight? What did it mean?
Breathe, she told herself.
There was no proof that he knew yet. Besides, Himekawa-san had seen the spirit because it was so potent with rage that it had become visible. Therefore it wouldn't be too far-fetched to expect Sakura to have seen it as well...
"I'm..." She hesitated, "not sure if it was a spirit, exactly... but it was angry and it wouldn't rest, not until I tried to soothe it."
She tensed, waiting for Rokudo's eyes to narrow and shout, 'I knew it, you can see!' But he did not. Instead he was shaking his head and chuckling.
"Not every girl would try and calm down a rabid ghost or dog. Even though you got hurt for all your troubles, all you cared about was burying him," he pressed down a bandage against her calf, "You really are an odd person. Just what are you, Sakura Mamiya?"
"I could ask you the same, Rokudo-kun," Sakura replied serenely. "Not every boy buries the bodies of dead animals he sees either."
His features closed up and he looked away.
"I won't tell anyone," Sakura said quickly. "I think it's really honourable of you. I admire it."
He continued to look at the distance, staring at the long strip of road disappearing beyond the horizon.
When he spoke, he sounded distant. "...Is it really?"
Sakura felt confused.
"Is it really admirable?" He went on, "Really honourable? Or am I just wasting my time?"
"No," She said as soon as the words left his mouth, "you're not. I'm sure that, wherever their souls are now, that they appreciate what you did for them... I do, at least."
Rokudo was looking at her again, but this time, when he smiled, she felt it was genuine.
He did not ask further about the incident, but Sakura got the feeling that he was very angry with Himekawa-san for how she treated her dog.
"It's unforgiveable, abandoning Inu-san like that," he had said.
Sakura's empathy told her that his disgust for the situation went deeper than that but she did not ask about it.
Rokudo insisted on walking her home. They took the subway back and then walked the rest of the blocks to her house.
When they reached the door, Sakura turned to Rokudo who was standing awkwardly by her.
"Well, thank you for accompanying me," she said, bowing her head. "I'm really grateful."
"It was no problem," he replied hurriedly. "I was glad to help a friend."
Rokudo noticed this and his face became blank again.
"We... are friends... aren't we?" He paused and seemed to struggle with his thoughts. "Because, well, I'd like to be."
Sakura stared at him.
"Well," Rokudo's words broken into a ramble, "I don't have anyone I can really be myself with... and you... well you know that I'm not really like that at school, so I thought... maybe we could... talk, sometimes, or just... do whatever it is friends do."
She could feel his earnest and honest feelings flowing. There was a hopefulness and desperation... and underneath it all, was a loneliness so akin to Sakura's that she found it startling.
It was a bad idea. Her mind was yelling at her to refuse. He was a shinigami. He would find out about her sight if she grew closer to him or attempted to be friends.
But he wasn't just a shinigami. He was far more compassionate than any of the shinigami she had known and he felt the same loneliness that she did.
Her friends Miho and Rika were wonderful. But they didn't understand her need for silence and peace at times. They didn't understand how worried she was every day for their safety since they were now associated with her.
Rokudo understood, even if he didn't know it yet.
She found herself nodding before she knew it and realized that she had probably wanted this, his friendship, since she had heard him say those fateful words from the other night.
(Someone has to help you, no one else will bother.)
"Of course we're friends, Rokudo-kun. You can talk with me whenever you'd like."
The relieved smile she received in return erased her doubts, because there, she could see glimpses of the real Rokudo shining through.
Just down Sakura's street, watching the two teenagers grin at each other, Ash hovered.
It's her... she's so beautiful... But who is that boy? That other man?
His eyes narrowed when Rokudo placed a hand on Sakura's shoulder before leaving the Mamiya residence.
I won't let her get away... not like my darling Misora... this girl, Sakura Mamiya will be my love...
Shadows gathered around him, caressing the burnt side of his boy.
...even if I have to drag her to hell with me.