A/N: See bottom of the story for glossary terms, which may or may not be correct lmao.
There were many things she regretted but taking the bullet was not one of them. The metal sliver, intended for her most beloved, had pierced right through her heart and torn through her spine. Right as the judge called order to the court and her best friend in the whole wide world screamed for a second chance as she held her limp, bleeding body in her arms.
It had been painful, she had to admit. It was the most painful thing she had ever had to endure as paramedics gingerly tended to her grievous wounds. And her best friend... Oh, how she had screamed as people of higher authority held her back, pleading for her to survive. Threatening to kill her herself if she didn't survive. In retrospect, it was almost amusing how, in a matter of moments, her relaxed demeanor had been torn to shreds.
Kale still remembered what the paramedics had murmured to one another as a pool of her own blood grew bigger and bigger, wetting her clothing and her hair. It was a miracle that she had survived that long. She owed it to good genes, she supposed.
"She's not going to make it," one had whispered.
"What do we do?" He had obviously been an understudy of some sort, or a new member that lacked the experience that came with being a veteran.
It was a cacophony of panic in the courtroom, with Kale's assailant being held to the ground by a beefy police office while guards evacuated the public - those snobby idiots who had come to watch the most famous trial of the century: Caulifla vs The People.
For Kale, she had only been there as a law student who happened to support Caulifla. The public had tossed her strange glances as they attempted to size her up and failed. But Kale had not minded being whispered about and ogled at - the one purpose for her presence was to support her Caulifla - who was her sister by everything except blood.
Blood. Kale had tried to shift her neck so she could see where Caulifla was being restrained. So much blood.
"KALE!" Caulifla had wept as the latter's eyes slowly drooped shut. "KALE! KALE! COME BACK TO ME!" Kale vaguely remembered thinking that Caulifla, though beautiful in many ways, was an uglier crier. "COME BACK TO ME! KALE, COME BACK TO ME!"
I'm sorry, Kale remembered apologizing silently as tears stung the back of her eyes. Please forgive me. I'll come back to you, sis.
I always will.
Death was not what Kale had expected. Finding herself at the edge of a /suicide /forest of all things was certainly an odd experience for Kale, especially when she was greeted by a cadre of other souls who had passed on.
It had taken a while for Kale to befriend and get used to all the other yōkai and /yūrei /living in the woods. They treated her kindly, though there were some particularly nasty /oni /that took pleasure in picking on her. She found that, as long as she avoided their /kanabōs, /she'd be fine. Once, an /oni /had swung his /kanabō /at her and she had merely stood unmoving, thinking that the iron club would pass through her harmlessly, seeing as she was a ghost. To her absolute shock, she had been thrown to the side, her belly burning with pain - pain that had quickly disappeared as her wounds healed.
Kale had learned to avoid the /oni /after that incident, especially when the spirit Ameonna chided her for it.
"Honestly," Ameonna had said, clicking her long tongue. "You really need to be more careful, Kale, and more respectful of the /oni/."
The saiyan had bowed her head in shame, her kimono grazing the grass as she dipped her waist. "Sorry, Ameonna. I'll make sure to do that next time."
Ameonna, a rain spirit that many considered unlucky, was a loner by nature. It was a miracle in itself that the two introverted beings had managed to open up to each other enough to become well acquainted. Now, Ameonna served as more a mother figure to Kale than anything else. Kale could not remember how many times she had cried into Ameonna's shoulder about her death.
"I want to go home," she would cry softly, finding comfort in the fabric of the wide sleeves of Ameonna's furisode.
Unlike how she was portrayed in the typical Japanese folklore that Kale had studied back when she was alive, Ameonna was truly kind and seemed to have infinite patience for Kale's troubles.
"You /are /home," Ameonna would say, stroking Kale's unbound hair. "You're part of the Spirit World now."
"But I don't /want /to be part of the Spirit World." Every time Kale said this, she would cringe, knowing how whiny and ungrateful she sounded as the words emerged from her mouth.
As much as Ameonna tried to insist that the Spirit World was now her new home, Kale knew that the rain spirit would never understand. Kale was different from all the other spirits who had died violently like she - she yearned for life. They did not. There was still so much for Kale to do - things that she could never do in the Spirit World. She had had a budding law career when she was alive, a loyal and caring best friend despite her rebellious tendencies, a boyfriend who she found out was going to propose after the trial - she had been quite literally living the dream.
And, in one blink of the eye, everything had been taken away from her.
But she did not regret it.
Someone had to die that day.
She was only grateful that it had been her and not Caulifla.
The dead didn't age, did they?
It had been nearly fifteen years since Kale had died and she couldn't help but wonder how Caulifla was doing. Her best friend would be in her mid thirties by now, likely raising afamily if the trial had gone her way - which Kale had faith that it did. Caulifla had been part of an underground organization which specialized in fighting rings. It had been a particularly brutal practice, one which involved snatching small children away from their families, mutilating them, and forcing them to fight one another. It was a life that Caulifla had not wanted, and she always vowed that she would one day escape it. Kale could only hope that Caulifla had been successful and that her past was now behind her.
Kale smiled bitterly, something that wasn't unusual for her nowadays.
Not even the breathtaking sight of /bake-kujira /jumping through the Spirit Lake could move her hardened heart. The ghostly whale skeleton mostly liked to playfully splash about Spirit Lake when it wasn't haunting the shorelines of Shimane Prefecture.
The saiyan spirit peered into the lake, where a whole other world existed beneath the surface. One that she was welcome to visit but didn't. Instead, whenever she was feeling particularly bored or wandering aimlessly, she would glance into the glowing waters to admire her youthful complexion. That face - that unwrinkled, unworn face - was something that she had come to hate with a vehement fire. It was... unnatural. Unreal. Unwanted.
Kale pinched her cheeks and pulled them down, trying to imagine what she would look like if she was still alive. She released her skin and her cheeks bounced back up to its plump, smooth shape. /Young. /She blinked at her reflection. Well it could have been worse, she supposed. She could be horribly disfigured like some of the children Caulifla used to cut open against her will.
It was only then that Kale realized that /bake-kujira /had disappeared from the Spirit Lake, likely having wandered back to the Shimane Prefecture. The ghost whale was luckier than Kale in a way - it could come and go anytime it pleased. Kale, on the other hand, was eternally bound to the Spirit World, which existed within the suicide forest. Kale had never bothered to remember its proper name.
What she hated most about the Spirit World would have to be its location. The forest was teasingly close to where a small town was built. One filled with laughing, /living /children and vegetable farmers. It was like something that had come out from a fairy tale. Kale wouldn't have even believed her eyes if not for the towering telephone poles and copper cables that provided all the first world essentials such as electricity and wifi.
Wifi. Huh. It was a word that Kale had never even thought would enter her head ever again, especially after being trapped in the Spirit World for so long. She sat back on the grass and combed her hair with her fingers.
She did not notice a /bakeneko /come up to her until he was basically sitting in her lap, meowing for attention.
"Oh, hello." At the sight of the shapeshifting cat, her dour mood brightened. She stroked his chin and he purred, curling against her torso, it's flank rising and falling with each breath. "Where's your /tanuki /friend?" She smiled sheepishly. "Sorry... I can't seem to remember your names all the time."
The bakeneko /nodded in understanding and proceeded to write out his name in kanji, then the /tanuki's.
"Tsuki," Kale read out. "Is that your name?"
The cat shook his head.
"Oh, so Tsuki must be your /tanuki /friend right?"
"It's a nice name," Kale said. "The moon... I remember being fascinated with the universe when I was in high school." Remembering that the /bakeneko /likely had no clue what high school was, she laughed. "Right, I keep forgetting." She felt a pang in her heart but ignored it, choosing to focus on the other character instead. "Kuri... That's your name, huh?" Kale beamed. "It suits you. Not to mention I used to love to eat chestnuts when I was still..." She faltered.
Kuri mewed in concern and rubbed his body against Kale comfortingly.
Kale forced a smile on her face. "Never mind, Kuri. So where did you come from?"
Kuri tugged on the hem of her kimono with his teeth and led her to the edge of the lake.
"Oh." Kale stared impassively at the lake. "It must be nice down there, right? I think the Yōkai Festival is being held." Her stomach grumbled at the thought of all sorts of delicious foods. She smacked her belly."Quiet, you," she mumbled, slightly embarrassed. "The dead don't need to eat."
The /bakeneko /meowed one last time before jumping into the lake and disappearing beneath the calm waters.
Taking in a deep breath, one that she knew was utterly superficial, Kale dove in after the cat.
"I'm home, Caulifla," Cabba declared, holding a box in one hand. "I bought a bunch of interesting new books for my English class..." He set the box down on the floor and threw the keys onto the coffee table, where they usually kept it."Caulifla?"
He clicked his tongue as he saw beer bottles strewn across the floor of the kitchen. Worry overwhelmed him for an instant before he managed to calm himself, having been in his fair share of stressful situations. Cabba collected all the bottles and placed them neatly in the recycling bin.
Caulifla had been drinking again. The female saiyan was normally sober, but always had the urge to crack open a bottle or two after a particularly stressful day at work, especially when she thought of... her.
Even mentioning her was taboo in this household and Cabba did not dare try his luck with his middle aged guardian. The boy had only just turned nineteen after all, the same age /she /had been when she had died. He didn't need an angry Caulifla trying to strangle his scrawny neck. Being a teenager in the twenty first century, Cabba had other things to worry about - things like school, girls, volleyball and the part time job he had managed to secure just last week. Important teenage stuff.
After he finished dumping all the empty beer bottles in the correct bin, he washed and dried his hands and headed over to Caulifla's bedroom, where she was sure to be.
"Caulifla?" Cabba pushed open the door, which was slightly ajar. His suspicions were correct -Caulifla was indeed lying down on top of the covers in her bed, sleeping off the hangover she undoubtedly had.
The sight saddened him. If he could erase that fateful day from history, he would in a heartbeat. It was the least he could do for the kindness that Caulifla had shown him when he had been snatched from his mother's arms as a twelve year old child. She had been atwenty year old adult whose only wish was to escape the hellish, immoral life she led and to become a Tenkaichi Budōkai champion like her idol, Son Goku. She had nearly paid off all her debts to the cruel man who had brought her up as his own daughter and expected her to pay him back for all the expenses he had wasted on caring for her. Caulifla had nearly been free of him. Until Cabba came and Caulifla voluntarily took him up as her acolyte, teaching him how to fight - how to /really /fight.
There were three words that Cabba always remembered. Three words that had emerged from her foul mouth.
Fight and survive.
Always followed by Or give up and die.
Then came The choice is yours.
She had even saved him from being mutilated or permanently disabled by pretending that she had disfigured him by pouring sulfuric acid down his throat and charring his vocal cords. It was not only until the organization had been shut down did Cabba start uttering words again.
Now the fierce tiger lay half-dead. It was a pathetic sight to take in. Becoming a Tenkaichi Budōkai champion was a dream that had long faded away. She hardly looked after herself anymore - her once lean muscles were now as good as atrophied in Cabba's opinion.
Cabba closed the door. There was nothing else to see.
He just needed to get away from it all for a while. Then he would return and cook Caulifla a nice, hearty dinner.
Just like he always did.
Every single day.
There was an old abandoned train station that Cabba liked to frequent. It was his favorite hangout - one that got him constantly teased by his friends. After all, what business did ateenager in his last year of high school have with such a musty old place? All the other kids hung out in /edgier /places.
Cabba snorted. While other adolescents enjoyed partying in noisy environments and whatnot, Cabba preferred the tranquility that the train station offered. It was a simple structure, with only one platform and railway tracks that only went in one direction toward Japan's most famous suicide forest - the Aokigahara.
Cabba simply sat on a cold, hard wooden bench, curling up in a fluffy knitted sweater and pulling up his red scarf so that it covered his mouth. The saiyan never really did like the winter chill. He was more of a summertime person. Winter meant overdressing and shoveling the driveway. Not even hot chocolate and roasted marshmallows were enough to compensate for the cold, blowy days.
The train station sat right on the very edge of the western side of the Aokigahara, where it was rumored that spirits would emerge from the trees and have their fun at the station, which was why nearly everyone in town avoided it, Cabba obviously being the only exception.
Frankly, Cabba did not believe in spirits. It was bullshit. There had been no spirits around when he was tied to a wooden post and mercilessly flogged while Caulifla could only watch helplessly as an unwilling spectator. Weren't spirits supposed to punish bad people? He didn't know as he wasn't very well versed in Japanese folklore, but he supposed that would make sense. Wasn't it frequently told that evil always got their comeuppance?
A crow cawed and took to the skies, the sudden din bringing Cabba back into reality. He nearly startled when he realized that it was already past sunset. Just how long had he been sitting out here? My butt must be frozen numb by now.
Stretching, he stood, his snow boots scraping against the concrete of the unused platform. He curled his fingers inside his mittens and shoved them into the pockets of his pants. As he walked along the platform, he pondered on what he would cook for Caulifla tonight. Curry? Nah, we had that last night and there's not enough curry powder to make any. Oyakodon maybe? I'll have to hit the twenty four hour store for some ingredients. Do I have enough money? As he tried to remember the amount of /zeni /he carried in his pocket, his ankle rolled and he fell to the side.
"Ahh!" Cabba tumbled off the platform and onto the hard, unforgiving rusted railway tracks. At once, blackness surrounded him. Then, miraculously, he managed to stand. There was no pain where he had hit his head. He rubbed his temples. "Weird... Could have sworn I landed funny."
He was about to return to his journey to the store when a bright light flickered in the distance. Cabba narrowed his eyes. /What the...? What is that? /His heart nearly stopped when a certain possibility entered his mind. It can't be... Atrain? He clambered back on to the platform just in case. The last thing he needed right now was to be run over by a runaway train. As the light neared, Cabba could tell that it was indeed a locomotive, painted a deep, velvety red with golden stripes running down the side of its carriages. He stuck his arm out and waved at it, hoping that the conductor would get the message and halt - the rest of the railway tracks no longer existed and were instead blocked off. No matter how strange this was, Cabba wouldn't be able to live with himself if he didn't try to stop a potential railway accident.
Cabba sighed with relief when the train stopped at the platform. "Thank god. What's a train doing out here anyway?" When nobody came out, Cabba contemplated on calling the police. He pulled out his phone, only to find that there was no signal."Weird." He walked alongside the train, noticing the words"MOONLIGHT EXPRESS" painted in white above the golden stripes.
Cabba whipped around to face afurry visage. He paled. "What."
The... monkey(?) snorted and crossed his arms. "Come on, I don't have all day." He tipped his head to one side when Cabba continued to gape. "Haven't you ever seen a /fūri /before?"
"WHAT?! A WHAT?!"
The monkey clapped its hands over its ears in a familiar pose. "Calm down, no need to yell. Just get on the train. Don't you want to go to the /Yōkai Festival/?"
Festival was the only word that didn't go out the other ear in Cabba's case. Festival meant people. People meant safety. The town was about a mile away. But did he really want to get on the train with this... /fūri? /His head spun as rationality was discarded in favor of curiosity. Curious as atanuki, Caulifla would always say while shaking her head at him.
By now, the /fūri /had long given up on waiting and was now trying to /push /Cabba into the train carriage, despite their vast difference in size. Automatically, Cabba's legs started moving and he climbed up the set of three steps and into the carriage.
He could only hope that he wouldn't regret it too much.
But when the train chugged onward and into the Aokigahara, Cabba knew that life as he knew it was over.
"Kale, I'm so glad you could come," cooed Ameonna, holding a yakitori in one hand. Even someone as introverted as the rain spirit had come to celebrate the Yōkai Festival.
"I thought it might be time to give it a shot," Kale said quietly, shrinking into her kimono. She never did like crowds, despite being well acquainted with almost all of the /yōkai /and /yūrei /in the Spirit World. There were even a few /oni /that she was on good terms with, her nice-girl attitude having won them over. This year was her first time attending the /Yōkai Festival, /despite spending thirteen years residing in the Spirit World.
Ameonna smiled gently at what she interpreted as Kale finally accepting her existance as a /yūrei/."You won't be disappointed. There's food and dancing and, at the end of the seventh night, we're all given a floating lantern to make a wish. Then we all let it go at the same time. It's beautiful, Kale."
"It's thanks to Kuri that I'm here." She glanced downward at the purring yōkai. "He insisted."
Ameonna nodded, nibbling her yakitori. "Do you want me to accompany you or would you rather explore on your own?"
One part of her desperately yearned for Ameonna's company but Kale politely declined. "No thank you. I'd like to navigate myself."
"Okay. I'll see you later then but I think Kuri wants to come with you."
Indeed, Kuri had now shapeshifted into a human, grinning playfully. Kale giggled and nudged him gently. "Of course you can come, Kuri. But behave, alright? I heard that you caused a lot of mischief with Tsuki last year."
Kuri gave her a mock salute and held out his pinkie, which Kale gladly took.
"Pinkie promise," Kale said, finalizing the vow. "And if we see Tsuki, we'll ask him to do the same."
As Kuri and Kale walked through the pathway, they checked out each and every store, Kuri patiently waiting while Kale fawned over every single food item there was, her saiyan appetite prominent.
"Fan?" A storekeeper prompted, handing her a folding fan. "Fan? You want fan?"
"Thank you," Kale said, graciously accepting the present. She unfolded it and blinked in surprise. "It's beautiful." The design was of the wind carrying away a scatter of cherry blossom petals. In the backdrop, Mount Fujiyama stood tall and proud against the cloudy blue sky.
"I take inspiration from the local," the storekeeper said proudly, his mustache twitching."Local good, yeah?"
"Yes," Kale murmured, thinking of the nearby mortal village as she stroked the wooden handle of the fan and traced circles around the apex of Mount Fujiyama. "Local good. Local /very /good. Very beautiful too."
Kuri put a hand on her shoulder as she hid her face behind the fan.
"Shy?" The shop owner said, scratching his head. "If shy shy one, go there, ah?" He pointed to the stall opposite his. "Have beautiful mask one."
Kuri pulled Kale away gently by the sleeve of her kimono.
"I'm not that shy," Kale protested weakly. "I... I've had thirteen years to get over my social anxiety." At Kuri's unimpressed expression, she gave in. "Fine. If it makes you feel any better, I'll get a mask you cheeky bakeneko."
The shapeshifter clapped his hands in delight.
"Which mask are you interested in?" asked the stall owner. Kale blinked. He looked exactly the same as the man who had given her the fan!
"Are... Are you related to the fan man?" Kale inquired. Though the other man had a much thicker accent...
He smiled, scratching his mustache. "I guess you could say that. Are you new around here? It's only newcomers that ask about my relationship with my... brother."
She shook her head. "No, I've been here for a while now. I guess I just never found any joy in attending the festival." Even now, it took Kuri to get me down into this world. Kale glanced upward at the rippling, watery sky. What a strange phenomenon, she mused. Could people see her dismayed expression in the sky whenever she peered into the waters of Spirit Lake?
"That's a shame." The mask man clicked his tongue. "Here." He handed a fox mask. "It's a popular design and it's the last one. I think it suits you."
"Oh. Thank you." She took the mask and placed it on her face, glancing at Kuri. "How is it?"
Kuri gave her a thumbs up.
"It looks wonderful," the shopkeeper added, adjusting his hat. "Though some males will be disappointed that you decided to hide your pretty face. But who am I to judge?Anyway, have a nice night, folks."
Kale had devoured almost everything by the time they made a lap around the entire area. Kuri merely shook his head at her antics.
"Is there anywhere else we haven't been?" Kale wondered.
Kuri's throat bobbed as he thought. Then he nodded and pulled her sleeve, leading her away from the crowd in a random direction.
"Where are we going?" Kale asked. "I don't want to get lost down here..."
But her faith in Kuri was not misplaced as he halted then and there at a glowing train station.
Through her mask, Kale could make out fireflies and glowing pixies surrounding the area. Nearby, a crystal clear brook babbled as the water spilled over the rocky riverbed.
With another tug of the sleeve, Kuri bade Kale to sit with him on a sturdy wooden bench. She did, and Kuri held her close, a purring noise erupting from his vocal cords.
"Thank you," Kale mumbled, knowing that Kuri had brought her here to enjoy the serene night sky. Said sky was of the same texture as everywhere else but Kale could clearly see two moons floating high in the air, one full and one crescent. Both were colored differently, with the crescent one being blue and the full one being pink. It was just another quirk of the Spirit World. If she squinted hard enough, she could see moon bunnies (the children of /Tsuki no Usagi/) in their clouds as they lazily drifted around the moons.
They sat in comfortable silence, the smile on Kale's face unseen by Kuri behind the fox mask she was wearing.
Then there came a noise. It was a quiet one which Kale would not have noticed had Kuri not alerted her about it. In the far distance, a ghostly light coming toward them. Perking up, Kuri transformed back into his cat form, his ears pricking excitedly.
"The Moonlight Express," Kuri said softly.
Kale jumped. Kuri can talk?! She relaxed when she rationalized it out in her brain. Of course he can. I guess he's just a cat of few words. Which meant this'Moonlight Express' was important enough to compel Kuri to speak.
"I wasn't aware that there were trains in the Spirit World," Kale said, leaning back on the bench."Where do they all go?"
"I don't know. Only the Grand Witch knows that."
Kale had often heard tales of the Grand Witch. Everyone in the Spirit World had. She was a legend among all, having sacrificed much to create a realm for all lost souls and monsters to roam; the very realm that Kale was bound to.
At last, the locomotive came to a halt at the station, the all the carriage doors opening at the same time. Out hopped two small creatures, both of them equally furry. Kale recognized the monkey-like beast as a /fūri /and its companion as a /tanuki/. When Kuri greeted the /tanuki /excitedly with a wave of his tail, Kale realized that the little raccoon dog must be Tsuki.
Kuri and Tsuki circled each other playfully for a few moments, the /fūri /howling in excitement.
But Kale did not pay any heed to them. Instead, her attention was focused solely on the bamboozled boy that emerged from the first carriage, his arm shaking ever so slightly as he lowered himself to the ground. He was not particularly tall, being around the same height as Kale herself.
And when he glance confusedly at his surroundings, Kale knew that he did not belong in the Spirit World.
The /fūri /nipped at his heels. "Come on, slowpoke! What are you waiting for? Join the party!"
"Party?" The stranger rubbed his head. "I... I don't understand."
"Boy, you sure are dull. Haven't you ever been to a party before?"
The /fūri /snorted."Yeah, I can see that. Best find someone and stick with 'em. I have to run the Moonlight Express and Kuri and Tsuki are too busy sniffing each others'asses to bother." He flicked his constantly moving tail at where Kale stood, her kimono rippling lightly in the evening breeze. "According to Tsuki, she's pretty nice. That girl /yūrei /is your best bet."
"Wait!" The boy cried when the little monkey hopped back in the already moving train. "When will you be back?" His eyes grew panicked. "Please don't leave me here!"
"I'll return on the seventh and last night of the /Yōkai Festival," /the /fūri /promised, waving one spotted hand. "See you then!"
But the train was already leaving, its stripes becoming a golden blur against the atmosphere.
Cabba could not believe his luck. Just what had possessed him to hitch a ride with a /monkey /on a train? He had done many a stupid things in the past, but this one really took the cake. And now he was stranded here until the monkey returned on the seventh night or whatever. Caulifla was going to kill him and mount his head on her wall. That is, if she didn't render him into a bloody paste first.
He sighed. No use complaining now. He had brought this upon himself. There was a distinctly gentle footfall and Cabba turned around to face a girl garbed in a traditional kimono. Her face was hidden behind a fox mask and she held an elegantly crafted fan in one hand. He recalled one of the monkey's parting words. According to the monkey conductor, this girl was the best chance he had of navigating his way around this... strange world.
"Hello," he said warily, bowing at the waist to the girl. It seemed like the right thing to do, although such etiquette wasn't really forced upon anyone nowadays. Still, it didn't hurt to be polite. "I'm Cabba."
Thankfully, he did not receive any haughty snorts or snickers. The girl bowed back, though not as deep as he had. Her mask nearly slipped off but she pressed it back onto her face before any of her features could be revealed.
"What should I call you?" Cabba asked, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly. He had never been the best at communicating with others, considering his rather unique background as an underground child fighter. The most worrying things his classmates had ever had to face were breakups and final exams. "The... the monkey said you were, uh, /y-yūrei/?" The word definitely did not roll of his tongue as well as it had for the monkey. "Is that your name?"
She shook her head, her ebony curls bouncing as she did so. "You can call me Yuri." The words were slightly muffled by the mask she wore but the bell-like quality of her voice came through nevertheless.
Cabba held out his hand."It's nice to meet you, Yuri." When she didn't take it, he let his arm awkwardly fall to the side. "S-sorry... I guess things are different around here, huh?"
But then Yuri startled and she moved her hand up, the sleeve of her kimono sliding upward to reveal more olive skin. It was as if she knew what it was but had not greeted anyone in such amanner for a while. "N-no, it's okay. You... You caught me off guard. It's, um, nice to meet you too."
Cautiously, Cabba took her soft, smooth hand, shaking it. At best, her grip was weak. It was Cabba who exerted all the necessary force required for a hearty handshake while Yuri limply held her hand up.
"How long until the end of the festival?" Cabba inquired, noticing how Yuri scratched skittishly at the hand that he had shaken. "I have someone at home, you see. She's like... my carer." Actually, it's more like I'm her carer.
Yuri scraped her nails against the side of her white and red mask in an almost sheepish gesture. "Oh... Actually, we're on the sixth day of the festival. There's one more day left."
Cabba's stomach sank but he supposed it could have been worse. "Right. Thanks, I guess. Hey, uh, do you mind if I stick with you?" At the curious tilting of her head, he hastily continued, "I-I'm not trying to hit on you or anything. Sorry if Igave you the wrong impression. It's just that, I have no idea where I am. Iwant to go back to town but I don't think I can do that without the Moonlight Express."
"Town?" Yuri echoed, her voice wavering. "You..." She turned to where the cat and raccoon dog were observing them curiously. "K-Kuri, I didn't know mortals could come here..."
"Mortals?" Cabba muttered, growing increasingly puzzled.
The cat licked his paw and drew it over his ear. "Very few can," he mewed, his voice raspy from disuse. "Even I do not understand it all myself. In any case, he is here and you're going to have to look after him."
"While /we /raid the snack stalls!" chimed the raccoon dog. Cabba vaguely recalled the monkey calling him Tsuki. "It's all on you now, Kal - I mean, Yuri."
As the two animals skittered away, Yuri turned back to Cabba. "Let's not wander too lost. It's my first time here as well. Do... Do you want some food?"
"Sure thing," Cabba said, his stomach growling in agreement. He hadn't had anything to eat since lunch. Lunch. School. He groaned. How was he going to explain his absence to his teachers? He didn't want to write yet another self-reflection for the vice principal to read. One could only degrade themselves so many times.
"What's wrong?" Yuri asked as the walked alongside the babbling brook, which, Cabba had to admit, gave a certain rustic charm to the place.
"If I'm going to be here for another day, I'll miss school," Cabba said miserably, hanging his head. Funny how he never used to worry about such trivial things. Schooling was seriously taking a toll on his priorities. Just a few years ago, he fought for survival and /lived. /Just to live out this tedious, never ending lifestyle. He smiled weakly at Yuri. "But I suppose that they don't have school around here. Sorry about that. We just met and I'm already complaining to you..." She probably doesn't even know what school is if she's what I think she is... a ghost person? I shouldn't be troubling her like this. "Hey, what did you mean by mortals before?" This will confirm it. If talking animals existed, then Cabba could force himself to stomach the idea of spirits and whatnot.
"You're a mortal," Yuri explained. "You're still, uh, alive... I think." She entwined their fingers together, surprising him. "But somehow you're in spirit form. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to touch you. If you were in your physical body then I would just pass right through you." She released his hand and adjusted her mask. "This must be really big for you... Sorry if I'm being blunt... Don't freak out?"
"It's okay. I'm, uh, still kind of disbelieving... But everything makes sense. Kind of. A little." He hummed, looking up at the full moon. Not too far away, a crescent moon also floated among the clouds. "Where am I, Yuri?"
"The Spirit World." The answer was automatic, as if she was reading something off a paper. She rubbed her arm and Cabba suddenly felt the urge to take off his scarf and wrap it around her. It was a cold evening after all. Did ghosts even get cold though? "It's nothing like the human world." She pointed up to the two moons. "As you can see... But it's beautiful."
"Do you have a lot of friends here?" He picked up a stick of curry fishballs and took a bite."I bet you're pretty popular." Even if she's nothing like those ditzy girls in my class.
"Not really." Yuri's answer was softly spoken, even for her. He supposed that it was a sensitive subject. "I'm... acquainted... But not friends..." She put a finger on where her chin would be underneath the mask. "There's Ameonna. But she's more like a mother than anything else."
"What happened to your real mother? Isn't she in the Spirit World with you?" Cabba winced when Yuri stiffened. /Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid! /he berated himself mentally. This is why you can't get a girlfriend! So insensitive! "Sorry." God, that was a pathetic apology.
"No harm done..." Really, this girl was too nice. Cabba made a mental note to be more careful with his words. "My mother..." Cabba blinked in surprise. He hadn't actually expected her to answer such a personal question. "My mother is alive. She resides in the mortal realm."
"Oh. Uhh, what's her name?Maybe I've met her before."
"She doesn't live in the village next to the forest. She lives in Tokyo, actually."
... Never mind then. "I've never been to Tokyo before." That's a lie. The fight organization was in Tokyo. "I've always wanted to go." Wait! That means she hasn't been in the Spirit World for long!
"Mm..." She stiffened. "I-I don't remember my mother's name."
Now that was a surprise. How could anyone forget the name of their own mother? Cabba patiently waited for her to elaborate, quietly eating the rest of his fishballs.
"It's the purgatory taking effect," Yuri explained, her voice carrying a sad tone. "Soon, Iwon't remember anything that I left behind in the human world. Soon, I'll just be another soul drifting around." She laughed harshly, something that further shocked Cabba. "I won't be able to go to heaven you know. I'll be stuck here forever. Because of the circumstances... of my death."
"Can't you make peace or something?"
"It doesn't work that way. It's not like the folklore... It doesn't work that way. Ameonna's been here for centuries." Yuri cleared her throat. "I... don't really want to talk anymore. S-sorry."
"Nothing to apologize for," Cabba said immediately. "But thank you for confiding in me. So, where to next?"
"I'm going back to my house in the forest," said Yuri. "Since you'll be here for a while, you can stay with me. Have you eaten enough yet?"
The motherly tone her voice adopted silenced Cabba for a moment before he nodded dumbly. He had never received any kind of maternal words from Caulifla. And his own parents were dead, his mother having fallen ill and his father committing suicide after her.
"My house is up there." Yuri pointed up to the sky.
"We're at the bottom of Spirit Lake right now. We'll have to swim up to the surface."
"Ehh?! How do we do that?"
Yuri giggled behind the mask."Sorry, I keep forgetting you're not used to this. Just move your arms about like this and kick your legs like you're swimming." She repeated the action, which made Cabba blush.
It looks so ridiculous... Cabba swallowed his pride. "Like this?" He started moving his arms and legs in the motion that she was demonstrating.
"Yes." With that, Yuri started to float upward, Cabba following suit.
Yuri laughed again. "I know. I don't come down here often so I find it fun as well!"
Cabba smiled, though he knew Yuri wouldn't be able to see as she was ahead of him.
"We've nearly reached the surface. Just keep swimming."
Yuri broke the surface first, followed by Cabba. It was then that he realized where they were. "The Aokigahara..." Deep, deep into the woods...
"Oh, that's what it's called," Yuri said absentmindedly, the name of the suicide forest having been lost on her likely as an effect of the purgatory. "Aokigahara. It's abeautiful name. Are you sure it's a suicide forest?"
Cabba swam to the shore with Yuri, unsure how to answer her question. Especially when he had one of his own, one which he had been itching to ask her all night.
"Yuri, I'm dead, aren't I?"
"Yuri, I'm dead aren't I?" Kale definitely wasn't expecting those words to come out of Cabba's mouth. But she supposed that he was bound to ask the dreaded question eventually. She just wished that she wasn't the one who had to answer it.
Kale's own heart hurt as she said this, "Probably. I don't know any other instance where a soul has left the body." She had purposely avoided outright telling him that he was dead.
Cabba visibly drooped."Yeah, I thought so..." He tried to crack a smile but it ended up being more of a grimace. "I remember hitting my head. Hard." He slumped, sitting defeated on the shingle, dry despite having just gone for aswim in the magical waters of Spirit Lake. "How... How am I going to tell her?"
Kale sat next to him and rubbed comforting circles on his back, removing her mask with her free hand to look him in the eye. But before she could, he pressed his face into the palms of his hands. "How? I'm all she has left. /Had /left." Kale hummed, thinking that Cabba was taking this surprisingly well. It was not his own demise that he was concerned about, but the welfare of the one who had been under his care before he had died. "I owe so much to her. And now I can't even pay my debt."
"You're not afraid of death," Kale acknowledged cautiously, fiddling with the mask that she had placed in her lap, her hair curtaining her face as she hunched over.
Cabba turned to look at her, though he only saw ebony locks. "No," he affirmed. "I'm not. Everybody's time comes one way or another. We don't know when or why, but that's just how the world works. I just wish I'd been more careful when I was still alive. At the very least, I shouldn't have left behind so much baggage." Alook of guilt consumed his features. "Oh god, I didn't mean it like that. She's not baggage. She's not." Tears welled up in his eyes and drew his knees close to his chest, weeping softly.
For once, in her thirteen years of existence as a spirit, Kale was at a loss of what to do. This... as sad as it may sound, she had never dealt with a situation like /this /before. Nearly everyone in the Spirit World accepted their losses and had cut ties with the mortal plane. On top of that, he was male. She didn't mean to sound sexist, but she had never heard of a male crying before. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that men also had emotions.
"My house is this way," she mumbled, standing up and pulling the sleeve of his knitted sweater. "Come on."
"O-oh, okay. Uh, do ghosts sleep?"
Kale halted for a moment before resuming her pace. "Yes," she said finally. "We can, but it's not necessary. We only sleep when we feel like our soul needs healing or refreshing."
A dry chuckle. "Hah. I'm going to need to sleep for the next twenty four hours to recover from this."
"Try not to... Otherwise you might miss your train."
That got him out of his funk."Wait. So I can still return to the mortal world? I don't understand."
"Huh, you're right." That was a factor that Kale had forgotten to consider. The Moonlight Express was going to return to pick him up. So was he dead or not? And if he was dead, how could he travel back and forth between the two realms when she couldn't?
"Maybe I'm not dead," Cabba said, sounding hopeful. "Maybe this is all a dream."
Kale pinched him, making him wince. She tilted her head to one side as they arrived in front of a simple structure. "I don't think this is a dream."
"Yeah... yeah, me neither. But maybe there's a chance I'm not dead. Maybe my soul just randomly slipped out of my body temporarily?"
Let him believe what he wanted, Kale supposed. "Maybe," she mused, tucking strands of hair behind her ear. "Maybe." /But I highly doubt it. /She removed an extra futon from the cupboard and set it up for Cabba. "Here."
"Thanks, Yuri." It was only then that Cabba managed to get a good look at her face, and even so, it was dark enough so that most of her facial features were shrouded in shadow. But, nevertheless, she looked vaguely familiar.
"You're welcome," said Yuri, smiling warmly. "I've never had a visitor before, actually. Aside for Ameonna that is." There was something wistful in her eyes."Sometimes... I would cry myself to sleep... or try to anyway. But Ameonna would come and comfort me. Until I slept. And then she'd be gone in the morning." She shook her head, looking slightly embarrassed. "Sorry."
"No worries." Cabba climbed into his futon. "Hey, uh, sorry to bother you again but do you have any clothes? Like, male clothing?" I'd rather not sleep in the same attire.
"Don't worry about it," Yuri said mysteriously, her eyes lighting up in the darkness."I'll have that sorted by tomorrow morning."
"Oh, um, okay." He coughed awkwardly. "Goodnight then."
Yuri lived up to her promise. The next morning, a new set of traditional clothing was folded in a neat pile next to Cabba's futon. Where the girl was, he did not know. Shrugging, he changed into his new clothes, sighing in relief when his body lost all the heaviness it had from his clothing. It was a curious thing. Yuri claimed that he was dead but he still felt very much alive. Even his clothes had remained on his body.
Outside, the birds were chirping merrily, their singing distorted by the buzz of insects. Cabba scratched his head. Isn't it winter? Why would there be cicadas around? Maybe seasons didn't exist in the Spirit World. Maybe it was eternally summer. That possibility alone made the place much more appealing to Cabba, being a child of the summer rather than the winter.
"Good morning, child."
Cabba startled, whipping his head back. "Wh-who are you?"
"I am Ameonna."
The /yōkai /had long flowing raven tresses that cascaded down her back like a waterfall. Her face was rather flat and she had a long, long tongue. A tongue that reminded Cabba of a lizard. He shivered.
"Oh. Yuri talks about you a lot. You must mean a lot to her."
For a moment, Ameonna looked almost confused before nodding her head. "Yes... Yuri... is a wonderful girl. Her life was snatched away from her too soon."
"What happened to her?"
Ameonna's dark eyes gleamed and she raised an eyebrow. "That is not my story to tell. And don't bother asking any other /yōkai /or /yūrei. /They have too much respect for Kale to ever go around violating her privacy."
"Sorry. I didn't mean to pry." He tugged on the side of his garb nervously. "Could... could you tell me more about the Moonlight Express?"
Ameonna smiled. "I was wondering when you were going to ask that. That I will gladly answer." She sat cross legged, gesturing for him to do the same. Once they were both settled upon the tatami mats, she cleared her throat. "The Moonlight Express only crosses the Spirit World and the mortal world for a few times every once in amillennia. It serves a bridge between the two worlds, though the conductor will only let a select few on board. The rest of the time, the Moonlight Express remains in the Spirit World, travelling through the Aokigahara."
"Does Yuri know about this?"
"No." The answer was blunt. "No, I've never told her of it. It was only by chance that she found out last night."
"Why did you keep it from her?"
"Because I don't want her to get her hopes up. She will never be able to permanently stay in the mortal realm, no matter how hard she tries. She is eternally bound to the Spirit World. Even if she crosses over on the Moonlight Express... she will only have a few minutes before the Spirit World literally drags her back."
As she said this, Ameonna was stone faced, her eyes hard as flint. But even so, Cabba could see that there was something she wasn't telling him. "What aren't you telling me, Ameonna?" He breathed out.
There it was. The look lapse of concentration. The perfect time to strike. He had caught her off guard. And, judging by her expression, she seemed like she needed to get this off her chest. "Yuri... If she leaves... she will fade away into nothing. After those few precious minutes, she will fade if she does not return before the time limit. I fear that she will be unable to leave the mortal realm because of her... sentiments." She stood up almost angrily. "I've answered enough questions. Have a good day, Cabba."
As quickly as she had came, she was gone. Cabba heaved a sigh and stood up. Well that could have gone better.
Kale turned her head, surprised to see Cabba bounding up to her. How had he found her so quickly?
"Good morning," Cabba said pleasantly.
"Good morning," Kale replied, smiling before turning back to continue observing the human village that this high part of the forest overlooked. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah. Thanks for everything, Yuri. What are you doing?"
Kale didn't reply, too utterly fixated on the human town, where everybody looked as tiny as ants from the hilltop.
"That's where I come from."
"Is it nice down there?"
A pause. Then, "Very nice."
Kale sighed, stepping back into the shade. "Sorry. I..." She winced. "I didn't mean to remind you of something so painful."
"It's no problem." Cabba watched the people as they went about doing their daily activities. He craned his neck as if he were trying to spot someone. Perhaps the person he had mentioned before - the person that he cared for? /Had /cared for when he was alive? "She saved me."
Cabba smiled wistfully."She saved me from a very bad outcome. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be alive right now."
"She sounds wonderful. Are you like siblings then?"
"Yeesh, I wouldn't say siblings. We have a pretty large age gap. She's thirty three and I'm nineteen. She's technically my guardian but sometimes it's more like the other way round. She... she doesn't really take care of herself. Not ever since..." He shook his head. "She lost so much. She's so brave... I would have gone mental by now if I were her," he added quietly. "She's amazing. Ireally look up to her. I just wish she would take better care of herself. She never did get over her loss."
Kale nodded numbly, sitting back in the grass. "When I was alive, I had a best friend. We did everything together. She was a good person trapped in a bad life. I vowed to do anything for her. Even... even..." She swallowed a lump in a throat as fresh tears stung her eyes. "E-even die for her..." She placed her hand over her heart, where the bullet had pierced her on that fateful day."And I did."
They slipped into silence.
"I miss her," Kale sniffed. "I-I m-miss her every day. She's the one person that I'll never forget, with or without purgatory." She rubbed at her eyes, which were becoming increasingly bloodshot. "I've forgotten my mother and my father... but never her. Never, ever her. In a way, she was the only family Iever had." When she had been alive, it was Caulifla who took care of her. Her parents were always too occupied screaming at each other about bills and whatnot. Caulifla had rescued her from that life, just like how Cabba's guardian had rescued him.
"And she'll never forget you, Yuri," Cabba reassured. "If she was even half the best friend you were to her, she'll never forget you."
"She was more than half of me... she meant everything to me. E-everything." She swallowed back her sobs. Swallowed back thirteen years of anger and sorrow which stewed in her belly. "I'll never see her again. I tell myself that that's okay... But... but it's not. It's not okay. I want her back. I-I w-want her b-back!" It was no use. The high walls that she had built around herself collapsed. And it was not Ameonna that had done it. Not Kuri. Not Tsuki. But Cabba - the stranger that she had met just last night. She had always prided herself on letting her relationships simmer before allowing herself to show such weakness in front of them. And now all that amounted to nothing. Not when thirteen years of turmoil and turbulence were released in one moment. So she allowed herself to cry -allowed herself to scream and shout and howl in agony.
"I WANT HER BACK!" Cabba hugged her as she sobbed. "I WANT HER BACK! WHERE ARE YOU?! WHERE ARE YOU, CAULIFLA?!" As she wracked her body with each sob, she vaguely felt Cabba stiffen against her. But she paid him no heed.
"No... no... Anyone but her." Caulifla stared blankly ahead, hollow.
They said that the eyes were the windows to the soul.
So why was it that Cabba could only see emptiness?
His eyes snapped open, meeting darkness. Cabba shifted in his warm futon, almost regretting the movement when heat escaped from beneath the cover. He was now staring into Kale's back. She wore her kimono as usual. She never took it off.
Kale, Cabba reminded himself even though he had not called her Yuri in his mind since she had cried on his shoulder that morning. /Kale. This is Kale. /Just thinking about her made his heart hurt. So this is where she had been all this time. In this... Spirit World.
He whistled. Are you awake, Kale?
Kale moved, sitting up."You're awake?"
"Yeah." Cabba propped himself up on his elbows. "Listen... About this morning - "
"Don't apologize... um..." He exhaled. "It's about Caulifla."
"Oh! Do... Do you want to know more about her?"
" ... Yes. But I want to tell you something too."
"Okay. I'll go first... umm... Caulifla..."
"There's no rush," Cabba said patiently. "Maybe... Maybe start off with the trial?"
"You know about the trial?!"
Cabba blinked at her outburst."Everyone knows about the trial. It was the biggest trial in the century."
In the darkness, Kale chewed her nails. "R-right... The whole thing was recorded." Her voice grew bitter. "My /death /was recorded." She shivered."Caulifla... She was being trialed for a number of things, mainly her involvement in that terrible organization. I'm sure you knew what they did."
"All too well." His words came out more resentful than he expected.
She went on to explain. It was something that Cabba had heard many times before from Caulifla, but it was refreshing to hear the same story from a different perspective, especially one as unique as Kale's. To her, Caulifla had been her rock. Her knight in shining armor. The one that she could depend on.
When she finished, Cabba knew that she had not endured her storytelling without shedding a few tears. Quietly, he got up and lit an oil lamp, setting it between them so he could see her lovely visage as he spoke.
"Caulifla is my guardian," Cabba began. "When I was young, I was taken from my parents by those child snatchers. Caulifla... she nearly had all her debts paid by the time I arrived. I don't know what she saw in me. I bet I looked even more pathetic than all the others. But she rescued me. She taught me how to fight, how to... kill. How to survive. And it's thanks to her that I did. She sacrificed everything for me."
"The Raven," Kale breathed. "You're the Raven. The killer of the night."
"Was," Cabba corrected, twitching uncomfortably at the use of his stage name. "But I'm Cabba now. No one else. I'm my own person." He hoped that he sounded more convincing than he felt.
Kale lowered her eyes. "We should probably get up now. It's already evening and the floating lanterns are going to be released soon." Indeed, the sun had set, having been hours since they decided to take an afternoon nap together.
Cabba picked up the oil lamp."Let's go."
"Kuri!" Kale, who was wearing her fox mask again, exclaimed joyfully as the cat leaped into her arms."Are you here for the floating lanterns too?"
He nodded and rubbed against her arm, purring in delight.
"What do we do?" asked Cabba, setting the oil lamp on a table filled with other oil lamps."Do we just get a lantern...?"
"There should be multiple tables manned by some spirits," Tsuki said, twitching his nose. "They give out floating lanterns there for free and give you a brush and paper to write down your wish."
"Can we wish for anything?"
"I guess. But normally everyone just wishes for another year of peace and prosperity. You don't get to keep anything material from the mortal world when you cross over, so..." Tsuki scratched his furry chin in contemplation. "Some of the /oni /that attend wish for new clubs to whack people over the head with. I know that Ameonna wishes for people to be kinder to her every year."
"She wishes for the /oni /not to pick on you sometimes," Kuri added, his voice barely audible over the excited buzz.
"That's so kind of her." Kale's voice was noticeably thicker than it had been before."I... I should thank her later." Some unspoken words hung in the air, though no one aside from herself were aware of what those words were.
Tsuki clapped his hands together. "Well! What are you two waiting for? Go get some lanterns! Me and Kuri already have ours."
Indeed they did, Kuri holding his lantern with his tail, which he had transformed to make it into aprehensile limb. Tsuki had his in front of him, his striped tail curling protectively over it. Cabba could only make out a few strokes of kanji written on the wishing paper, which was stuck onto the side of the lantern.
Kale tugged Cabba's sleeve."I think there's a table over there."
"Oh, okay. Is there still time to eat anything?" Last night's yakitori was really good.
"Sorry, but we're already kind of running late... We need to hurry."
They arrived at a plain wooden table. The spirit running the table smiled toothily at them, giving them each alantern each. As they unfolded their paper lanterns, the spirit asked,"What are you going to wish for this year?"
The two saiyans exchanged aglance, even though Cabba couldn't see Kale's face behind her mask. Weren't wishes supposed to be private?
"We'd rather not say," Cabba said, hoping he didn't sound too abrasive.
The spirit seemed confused."Oh. Well, alright."
"Wishes aren't normally kept private." Cabba jumped as a man with messy black hair that fell over part of his face approached them. There was something oddly familiar about the man.
"Kuri?" Cabba tried. But how...?
He smiled. "Yes." Then he bowed to the spirit behind the table in apology. "He is unused to our customs."
"That's quite alright." The spirit smiled wryly before handing both Kale and Cabba each a calligraphy brush and a pot of ink along with a sheet of rough paper."Here you go."
"Thank you." This time, Kale answered, dipping her head as she did so.
The spirit stepped back, allowing them to use the table to write their wishes down. Cabba touched his brush to the paper before withdrawing, a dot of ink visible where he had touched the material. /What should I wish for? /He wrote the first character: Caulifla. He did not notice Kale's eyes travel to his paper before he continued. When he finished, he stepped back, admiring his handiwork. Unlike others, Cabba wasn't exactly gifted when it came to delicate crafts like calligraphy. For him, it was already a struggle writing characters in normal ballpoint pen. In sloppy penmanship, the phrase Caulifla to be happy, even for one fleeting moment was scrawled on Cabba's wishing paper. He gathered it up and attached it to the lantern. "There we go."
"It won't fly unless we light a fire," the spirit said, doing just that with his /hands. /Now a flame burned brightly within the lantern. "There we go. You're all set."
"It's really crowded," Cabba remarked as he and Kale tried to walk down the marketplace, getting jostled left and right by all sorts of ghosts and monsters of legend. He grabbed Kale's hand, which was warm. "Let's try not to get separated." Just as the words left his mouth, a particularly large /oni /tore Kale out of his grip just by walking past. "Okay... Easier said than done."
Kale laughed softly, the sound music to Cabba's ears. "Everything is. Easier said than done, Imean."
"Yeah... Wait, I have an idea." He removed the red scarf he wore around his neck, the very same one which he had brought on his person when he crossed over to the Spirit World. With deft hands, he tied one end of the scarf to his wrist and the other end around Kale's wrist, giving the scarf a good tug for extra measure. "There!Now we don't have to worry about being separated too much."
"It's starting!" Kale's eyes lit up as thousands of lanterns were hoisted up into the air. Almost the entire bazaar had gone silent as everybody stood as tall as they could and held their lanterns up. She followed their example, Cabba repeating the action as well.
Then the countdown began, with almost everyone joining in, their voices resonating across the marketplace as they chanted.
Cabba's hands began to sweat, his fingers twitching around the delicate paper material of his lantern. He tried to catch a glimpse of Kale's lantern, wondering what she had written down as her wish.
Beside him, Cabba could see Kale's arms start to tremble in anticipation, nearly letting go of her lantern at times.
Without thinking, Cabba leaned in and pressed his lips softly on the side of Kale's mask.
"O GENKI DE!"
In one moment, thousands of lanterns were released all at once, lighting up the sky in a flurry of red and orange, wishing papers flapping in the breezy night as they set sail for the Spirit World's two moons. Moon bunnies, in all their wispy glory, descended from their high place in the sky to knock about and play with the lanterns, chattering in delight.
Cabba craned his neck, smiling, ignoring the near condemning stare that Ameonna was giving him.
She was glad that she had chosen to worn her mask tonight. With her face hidden, she could cry freely without drawing any unwanted attention. Kale sniffled, the sound lost in all the din that followed as the lanterns were released, soaring across the skies as one single entity.
Not too far away, she could see Tsuki and Kuri doing a little jig, the latter now back in his cat form.
And beside her...
Cabba put a hand on her shoulder, his face flushed. "Sorry if that was a little forward of me... I meant it as a friendly gesture. You seemed nervous."
She touched the side of her mask where his lips had brushed. "I-It's no problem. You... you were right... I was nervous. It calmed me. So thank you." Eek! I thought I was over this... social anxiety problem... She wiped her sweaty hands on her kimono. "The Moonlight Express will be here by now..." All the celebrating seemed to fade away, leaving Cabba and Kale in their own little pocket dimension. She swallowed. "You need to go now."
The other saiyan blinked, his eyes clouded. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do. Are you going to see me off?"
They headed toward the train station, unaware that a certain rain spirit was following their every move. When they arrived at the simple structure that was the platform, the Moonlight Express could be seen chugging toward them in the distance, getting closer with every breath drawn.
He turned to her. "I guess this is goodbye." Moving forward, he embraced her. "Thanks for taking care of me."
"You're welcome." Kale's voice was breathy as she tried not to choke on the sob rising in her throat. "Take care, Cabba."
"Finally, I'll get to see whether I'm dead or not." A laugh. "If I am, then this is definitely not goodbye."
Kale smiled, though she knew that he could not see the action underneath her mask. For the first time since she had first gotten it from the vendor, the mask seemed to be little more than an obstruction on her face. "I hope that you're alive. It'd be strange... if two people died while they were the same age. They would have to make nineteen an unlucky number." She squeezed him tighter, something that was reciprocated as she felt his arms clench around her shoulders. "Please don't be dead. Caulifla needs you." Her voice broke. "Please. Please don't leave her. Please don't leave her like I did."
They stood there, arms locked around each other, afraid that they'd be torn apart if they used any less force. Finally, the Moonlight Express halted in front of them, letting off arolling wave of steam.
The little monkey /yōkai /tittered as he jumped off the train. "All aboard! Come on lovebirds, break it up, break it up! The Moonlight Express is about to go on its final ride!"
Reluctantly, Cabba let go of Kale, his conflicted emotions visible on his face. He reached his hand out to brush his fingers against Kale's own digits, untying the scarf that bound them together with his free hand. "I'll see you again someday. I promise."
"Not too soon, I hope," Kale quipped.
Resolve steeling in his eyes, Cabba stepped forward and pressed a kiss on the forehead of Kale's mask, drawing back with a gentle look in his irises. "Until next time."
Kale bit back that annoying sob again as his warmth disappeared. No more tears. "U-until next time..." No more tears.
And then he was gone, though the doors of the Moonlight Express were still open.
The /fūri /hopped about Kale. "Aren't you going?"
"I-I..." She shuffled toward the open doors, reaching longingly.
"Kale!" The sharp voice of Ameonna rang through the air. "What are you doing?" The rain spirit stalked up to her, flanked by Tsuki and Kuri, both padding alongside her on all fours.
"Ameonna!" Kale cried in surprise. "You... You're here?"
Kuri shapeshifted into a human, his eyes dark with concern. "Kale..."
"What do you think you're doing?!" Tsuki squawked unhelpfully. "You'll fade if you go! It's aone way trip!"
"Fade?" Kale echoed, puzzled. "Tsuki, wha - "
"Quiet, /tanuki/," barked Ameonna, her long tongue slithering out. She turned to Kale."Please... please, child, don't go. Stay with us. There is nothing in the mortal world for you anymore. You risk your very existence by crossing over."
"B-but..." Kale glanced at the doors of the Moonlight Express, the pure yearning in her gaze hidden by her mask. "Caulifla..."
"Won't remember you," Ameonna finished cruelly, earning glares from Tsuki and Kuri.
"H-huh?! H-how could you say that?!"
"Kale," Kuri tried again, only to be cut off by Tsuki.
"Hey, back off, rain-bringer! You're spreading your bad luck everywhere!"
"You little prick!" Ameonna lashed out at Tsuki and he jumped backward onto the wooden bench."Stay out of this!" She brought a hand to her face, knowing that she was being unusually cruel. "Kale, I'm sorry for my hard words... But Ispeak the truth. You must not return to the mortal realm. I beg of you, Kale."
"Ameonna..." Kale removed her mask, her eyes bright with tears. "Ameonna, I want to return to the land of the living!" She /kowtowed /at her feet and stayed there, her body wracking with each sob. "Please, Ameonna! I hate my existence in the Spirit World... I am doomed to wander here forever and forget everything about who I am. I don't want that fate! Caulifla waits for me in the living world..." She inhaled, the sound ugly, before resuming. "I promised her that I would return! For thirteen years I have carried that promise with me... So please..." The skin of Ameonna's feet smelled of incense, the scent flooding up her nose. "Let me return... I will willingly sacrifice my existence for her. I always will." She lifted her head. "I love her, Ameonna. I just want to see her one last time."
The rain spirit was silent before she recovered. "Stand up, my child." She gently helped Kale to her feet. "I... I..." She changed her question. "Is it really worth it? You... you will get but a few minutes with her before... before you fade."
"Yes," Kale replied without hesitation. "Yes."
Ameonna's tongue snaked out as she lapped Kale's tears away. "Then I will dry your tears for you." Her eyes were filled with sorrow. "I..." She stepped back. "I will miss you, child."
Kale rushed forward and embraced Ameonna, much to the latter's surprise. "K-Kale? Why? Even after those words I said..."
"You're my mother," Kale said simply, burying her face in Ameonna's clothing. "In every way but blood."
Ameonna stroked her hair."And you are my child. In every way but blood."
As they pulled apart, Tsuki hopped onto Kale's shoulder, slightly unbalancing her. "Whoa, Tsuki!"
"You little idiot!" bawled Tsuki, pinching her cheeks. "Why are you leaving us? You're signing your own death warrant!"
Kale patted his head. "I'm sorry. But I'd rather see Caulifla again and not exist than keep existing and never see her again."
"But what if Caulifla comes to the Spirit World?"
"She won't." Kuri spoke up once more. "Kale is here because she has attachment to the mortal realm and died extremely violently. When Caulifla dies, it will be with no strings attached, and she will be floated straight up to Heaven and be judged by the legendary Lord Enma."
"Oh." Tsuki flattened his ears. "Oh..." He tried to wrap his short arms around her head."Waahh! Kale, I'll miss you!"
"I'll miss you too. I'll miss all of you." She rubbed Tsuki's cheek and kissed him between the eyes. With a sniffle, Tsuki left his perch on her shoulder to join Ameonna. Kale smiled at Kuri. "Hey..."
"Kale," Kuri said, mild annoyance in his voice, likely from being interrupted so often. "All I ever wanted is for you to be happy." He drew her into his arms. "So you'd better be happy. Okay?"
"Mmkay," Kale tried to speak but was muffled by Kuri's male kimono before lifting her head."I'll... I'll miss you Kuri. You were my best friend for thirteen years. Even if I did keep forgetting your name... Sorry about that."
"I'm glad to have that honor." He kissed her nose and Kale's heart twisted. "Goodbye, Kale."
"Goodbye, Kuri. And behave yourself. You're so immature when you're with Tsuki."
A laugh. "I can't promise that unfortunately. Even an old cat like me needs some time to unwind." He let go of her. "I won't keep you any longer." He glanced at the monkey that was tapping his foot impatiently. "Caulifla is waiting for you. So go greet her."
"Kale!" Cabba cried when the girl joined him, sitting down on the opposite seat, her mask placed firmly on top of her face. "But how?"
"I wouldn't have been able to find any peace if I stayed," she explained, her voice slightly distorted by the fox mask. "I'm going to see Caulifla again."
"But you'll fade." He winced. Me and my big mouth... Ameonna was counting on me!
"I know." Kale took off her mask and smiled weakly as the train started moving noiselessly - a mere whisper in the wind; a ghost in the night. "But it's worth it. Anything to see Caulifla again."
"Even... even your existence?"
That pounding headache did not go away even when she exited the house, dressed in a sweater and pants. Caulifla groaned. Of all the times for Cabba to disappear, it had to be now. The boy had been gone for a over a day. Caulifla had combed the entire town with the help of some neighbors but to no avail. She refused to believe that she was dead, and had snapped at Old Lady Reynolds when she raised the possibility.
Cabba couldn't be dead. Surely the universe wasn't that cruel... was it?
Caulifla shuddered. Do NOT think about that. Never think about that.
She had vowed that, by this evening, he would be safe and sound in her arms. She would yell at him and pinch his ear before ordering him to make them dinner because she had been living off cheap takeaway for the past twenty four hours. Then he would roll his eyes and shake his head in exasperation before asking her want she wanted for supper, to which she would answer 'oyakodon' because why the hell not?
She tapped her chin, shivering when the breeze grew particularly cold and violent. Where would an antisocial nerd like Cabba spend his time? She already checked the school and the library.
She turned to face abespectacled boy. "Yes?"
"I heard Cabba's missing and you still haven't found him yet."
A vein popped on her temple."Yes. Did you come all the way here just to tell me that?" She had noted that he was puffing and panting, obviously having run from quite far away.
"N-no!" He backed away, holding his hands up in surrender. "Cabba protects me from bullies at school... so we have become friends..." He cleared his throat. "I remember him mentioning something about the old train station..."
Without even thanking the boy, Caulifla sprinted off. She knew of this place, having studied a map of the area. But that was way out of town. Why would he go there of all places?
Ten minutes of running later, she found herself facing the train station, which was a rundown structure of asingle platform. "Cabba!" she called, running up the stairs, through the archway and emerging on the other side, where she faced railway tracks.
Caulifla froze as she saw what she never wanted to see.
Cabba's stiff body strewn across the railway tracks.
With the strength of a thousand men, she picked him up and laid him on the platform. "CABBA!" She pressed her ear to his chest frantically, searching for a beat. There was none."CABBAA!"
This can't be happening.
This isn't real.
Caulifla screamed, shaking him."CABBA!" She hunched over, sobbing into his clothes. "WAKE UP!WAKE UP, CABBA!" I CAN'T LOSE YOU TOO! "FUCKING WAKE UP!"
The sun had long set over the horizon. If she had bothered to look up, she would have seen the train coming toward her, its lights bright with hope.
As she cried into Cabba's cold, unmoving chest, white haze surrounded her. Behind her, the Moonlight Express had arrived, in all its shining glory.
Kale's breath hitched as the train stilled, its doors opening wide for the two passengers to get out. This was it. Then the Moonlight Express would disappear and reappear in the deepest, darkest depths of the Spirit World for the next millennia. This was the last stop.
She glanced at Cabba, who was now standing next to her, holding her hand. "It'll be okay."
Kale nodded numbly, making sure that her mask was placed firmly on her face. She didn't want to give Caulifla too much of a shock so quickly.
Step by step, they exited the train, the monkey conductor wishing them goodbye.
"This is it," Kale breathed out, announcing her thoughts. "I..."
Cabba squeezed her hand.
And then Caulifla looked up.
"What... what..." She put her hand over her mouth, tears spilling out of her eyes and pooling at her chin. "Is... Are you real?"
"I'm real," Cabba reassured her, moving over to where she was hunched over his own limp body."I'm back." He glanced over to Kale. "How do I return to my body?"
"I don't know. Just... do it." Like she would know. She didn't even have a body to return to. And by the end of tonight, she would be nothing more but a whisper in the wind.
But that was okay.
Inhaling, Cabba closed his eyes and stood over his body. His soul form flickered. As he dematerialized, his physical body glowing brightly, he flashed one last smile at Kale. Then he was gone.
His body shuddered as his soul returned to its rightful place. Color returned to his cheeks, much to Caulifla's shock, and his heart began to beat once again. But he did not get up. Kale sighed. She knew that this was going to happen. Cabba was likely going to be out of it for days.
"What the hell?!" shouted Caulifla, slapping Cabba's now rosy cheeks. "Cabba?! Get up!"
"He won't," Kale said softly, moving forward, the hem of her kimono flapping in the wind. "His body has been without a soul for a while. It'll be at least a day before he wakes up." Her lip trembled and she swallowed, glad that the mask was hiding her face.
"Soul?" Caulifla parroted, baffled. "Soul?! What are you talking about?!" She glared."Who do you think you are?"
"I..." Kale drooped, burying her masked face in her hands. "I..."
"Well?! Answer me!"
Beneath the mask, Kale cracked a smile, her own tears now falling freely. She hasn't changed at all. Just as loud and hard headed as always. I'm glad. Slowly, she pried the mask off, her raven hair whipping around her.
Caulifla fell to her knees as the mask clattered onto the floor, forgotten.
"I... I've missed you... /sis/."
Caulifla reached out for her, flinching when she passed right through her. "K-Kale?" She shook her head."You're not real... YOU'RE NOT REAL!" She laughed harshly and passed a hand through her spiky hair. "I've been drinking a lot more than I used to lately... I must have consumed some pretty strong stuff..."
"I'm real," Kale insisted. "I'm real, sis." Her crying grew more pronounced and she wiped her continuous tears away with one wide sleeve. "I came back."
On trembling legs, Caulifla stood and took a step toward her. Her hand passed through Kale's ghostly figure once again. "You're dead," she said flatly. "That's why we can't touch. Isn't it?"
Kale nodded somberly.
Caulifla tried to pull her into a hug but merely walked in and out of her. "Oh. That part doesn't matter. I have you now. We can be together again. I... I'm happy. I'm so happy you're here." But Kale wouldn't meet her gaze.
"... Sorry." She glanced down at her hand, which was fading fast. "Caulifla. I have to go soon."
"Go? Go where?" Her voice started rising. "But you just got here! Don't go yet!"
"I have to." She flickered. "B-but wait! I need to tell you something!" Her arms had disappeared. Soon would be her legs.
"Kale? Kale, what's happening to you?! You're disappearing!"
"I love you, sis." This time, she tried to embrace her. Tried. "I love you. I don't want to leave you."
"Then stay! I just got you back!"
"I can't. I can't, Ican't. I'm sorry. But I love you. I love you so much, sis. Do you know what Iwished for?" Kale sobbed. "I wished that I could see you again. It's real. The floating lantern wishes are real. My wish came true."
"Kale, what are you saying? KALE!"
Caulifla jumped forward to tackle her into a hug as her face eroded, her body thudding painfully on the ground.
"I love you, sis."
Then she was gone.
A/N: FINALLY, IT'S DONE!
I just needed to get this idea out... Otherwise my head gets all cluttered.
Yōkai - a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore
Yūrei - spirits kept from a peaceful afterlife
Oni - a kind of yōkai that are commonly portrayed as hideous, gigantic ogre-like creatures with sharp claws, wild hair, and two long horns growing from their heads
Kanabō - a spiked or studded two-handed war club used in feudal Japan by the samurai
Furisode - a style of kimono distinguishable by its long sleeves
Bake-kujira - supposedly a large ghostly skeleton whale and is said to be accompanied by strange birds and fish and haunts the Shimane Prefecture
Bakeneko - a cat that has changed into a yōkai with the ability to shapeshift
Tanuki - Japanese raccoon dog
Fūri - a monkey yōkai
O GENKI DE! - TAKE CARE!
Tsuki no Usagi -rabbit of the moon
Ameonna - a female spirit illustrated in Toriyama Sekien's Konjaku Hyakki Shūi as awoman standing in the rain and licking her hand
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