Chapter 20:

river of three crossings

Our School is Perfectly Ordinary

Shun doesn’t feel anything.

More specifically, he doesn’t feel any pain. The hard, flat surface of concrete against his back makes his shoulder blades ache, and he can still taste blood mixed into his saliva when he swallows. His neck still feels intact, probably. And he’s definitely not dead either.

His eyes fly open.

When he looks down, he sees that Miwa’s curved, obsidian blade is literally embedded in his throat so he decides now is a good time to shut his eyes and pretend he doesn’t see it.

“Huh,” comes Miwa’s voice from above him, sounding perplexed. “You’re not dead.”

Hearing that, Shun is so offended that he opens his eyes again. Miwa is peering down at him through her glasses in scientific interest. She’s no longer holding her oversized scythe, so he can almost pretend all that was just his wild imagination.

Shun’s legs feel wobbly, but he forces himself upright and touches a hand gingerly to his throat. He’s fine. He’s not hurt at all. And then he backs up several feet to put a healthy distance between himself and the girl that just tried to kill him.

She makes a face at him as if she thinks he’s overreacting, and then she sighs.

“You know what? Fair.”

“No, that wasn’t fair,” Shun croaks. “Why did you try to kill me?”

“Gasp, I wasn’t!” She blinks at him innocently. “I was trying to extract your soul.”

“What. What the hell? Isn’t that the same thing?”

Miwa shakes her head frantically, and Shun tenses when she raises a hand as if to summon the scythe that she just tried to extract his soul with.

“I’m a shinigami, a grim reaper,” she explains, tracing the shape of a crescent moon in the air with her index finger. “My blade should sever your soul cleanly from your mortal body and send you to the afterlife—”

“I don’t need any euphemisms,” Shun interrupts impatiently. “No matter how you try to phrase it, it doesn’t change the fact that you tried to kill me.”

“I didn’t!” she wails. “I’m not a murderer, I’m a shinigami! The souls I reap are already dead!”

It takes a long moment for him to process that.

“Wait,” he says. “So what you’re saying is…I’m dead?”

“Well, no,” says Miwa, and she bites her bottom lip. “You look fine to me.”

Shun’s legs can’t hold him up for much longer, so he sinks down and draws up his knees protectively toward his chest. He’s not sure what he’s feeling. Relief? The subsiding of the panic from a near-death experience?

He wants to ask her why she tried to kill him—or rather, reap his soul—but he also doesn’t want to know. So he just sits there in silence, letting the leftover adrenaline run its course.

Miwa is quiet too, like she’s trying to figure out how to word her thoughts. She keeps her distance, which Shun is grateful for. It gives him the time to process everything and allow his heartbeat to slow to a normal pace.

“So uh…” he says after a long and heavy silence. “Now what?”

“Geh, I didn’t think that far,” Miwa squeaks. “I don’t suppose we could try again?”

“Try what again, let you kill me again?”

She nods. “Yeah, it might’ve been a mistake!”

“I think you’re the one making a mistake!” Shun says, indignant. The earnest delivery of her objectively unsettling statement is horrifying. “What if I really die?”

“Then that means you should, and I was right,” Miwa says, reaching into the air as if for her scythe again.

“Wait, be reasonable,” he says pleadingly. “If I die, who is going to tutor you then?”

That actually does bring her up short. She looks at her open palm, and then she looks back at him.

“A dead man is making a good argument,” she says sadly. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding! Don’t make that face. I’m actually really relieved—I didn’t want to send you to the afterlife if I didn’t have to.”

“Somehow, I don’t believe you,” Shun mutters under his breath. “Seems like you were perfectly happy to cut my head off.”

“No, I would never!” Miwa says, indignant. Then she tilts her head. “I guess boss has gotten wrong intel before.”

Now you tell me this?”

“But it’s weird that you can see my beloved Fumiko,” she continues. “A reaper’s scythe is like the light at the end of the tunnel, you should only be able to see it if you’re close to death. Ooh, or mayyyyybe it’s because of all the times I let you poke it when we were kids since I didn’t know any better.”

“Gee, I wonder which one it is.”

“You can’t get too close to death,” Miwa says, making an ‘X’ shape with her arms in front of her chest. “That’s what I’ve always been told.”

“What happens if you do?” Shun asks.

She hesitates. “There is no precedent. You see, reapers operate alone. I…didn’t mean to get close with you guys, I’ll have you know. I just wanted to experience an ordinary life for once, and then I was gonna disappear.”

Her tone has gotten quieter, more subdued. The way she says she plans to disappear—she’s dead serious. He’s never seen her this serious before.

“Disappear?” Shun repeats. “Where will you go?”

Facing the front of the school, Miwa gazes off into the distant horizon. Against the blue sky and the afternoon sunlight, her hair burns a deep orange-red like wildfire. Quietly, Shun pulls himself to his feet and closes the distance between them to join her. Before the flame flickers out, it’s a wordless affirmation that he doesn’t want her to disappear, despite everything.

“Anywhere is fine, I ran away from home anyways,” she says faintly. “Boss promised not to tell my dad where I was as long as I was meeting my monthly quota. And then…it was you. Why did it have to be you?”

She’s crying, Shun realizes. The corners of her eyes are wet, and she’s fighting to keep her voice level. When she blinks hard, a tear rolls down her cheek.

“I wanted,” she says, her voice flooding with a pained, almost desperate sense of relief, “to make the last days of your life the best they could ever be. Ugh, I’m so glad the boss was wrong. You’re so stupid, Takeuchi. Stupid, stupid, stupid…”

“What did I do?!”

“You should’ve stopped me from slicing you in the throat with Fumiko!” Miwa says, as if it’s the most obvious thing ever. “What if you had really died? I would’ve been so sad!”

“Wow,” Shun says, his mouth dropping open. “Really. Wow. You only use your brain to memorize the birth and death dates of the entire Tokugawa shogunate, don’t you? I literally tried to tell you—”

“It was nice, the short time we had together,” Miwa cuts in, her voice growing solemn again. “Thank you for being my friend. Now, and back then too.”

“Okay, now you’re just being overdramatic,” he says exasperatedly. He’s done with this, he really is. “You seriously don’t have to leave or anything. Yeah, you scared me a bit and I think my reaction is perfectly normal—but you’re still my friend, Miwa. Nothing will ever change that.”

She’s looking at him in disbelief, her lips quavering. “Even though I tried to send you to the afterlife?”

“I’ll get over it,” he sighs. “It was a mistake, right? Mistakes happen. How can I fault you for it?”

Miwa sniffles loudly and blows her nose against her sleeve.

“But why was I on your boss’s hit list, anyways?” Shun asks. “Am I actually destined to die soon, or something?”

“I don’t have the answer to that,” she says. A hiccup bubbles from her throat, and then she coughs lightly. “Once your time is up, I will send you across the Sanzu River for free. But I’m no fortune teller, I’m just a messenger. As long as you're not dead yet, you’re still alive.”

“Helpful,” he says sarcastically.

Miwa lets out a small giggle. “Did you mean it, Takeuchi? When you said we’re still friends?”

“As long as you don’t try to kill me with that gigantic scythe again, I’ll think about it.”

“Hey! Her name is Fumiko!”