Chapter 64:

The Returning Departures


There was little sound in the hall of the hospital building a thick atmosphere. It had already been tense with Saki and the nurse, yet their conversation only made it worse. The suffocating atmosphere left a silent wall around Saki that buried the deep panic in her mind. ‘Why am I hesitating? What’s this that I’m feeling?’ It felt like something invisible wrapped around her body.

The nurse flipped through the loop of keys to find the one for Takako’s room. “You ready, Miss?” Saki’s blank look went mostly unnoticed by the nurse. The door quietly swung open into the white padded room. “I’m sorry to intrude, Dr. Shiotani! Miss Yamazaki has a visitor.”

Across the room near the opposite corner was a man crouched down distracted by the patient in front of him. He wore a white button up shirt and formal business pants. There was a sense of professionalism coming from him, but also an air of informality that preferred to be more hands-on. It was a conflicting image.

“Doctor?” the nurse repeated once more before starting to turn back towards Saki. “Really caught in his work…” She returned to the hall where Saki waited. “Miss? Miss Furukawa?” The nurse reached out to Saki, taking her hands softly to get her attention.

It had been the physical contact that snapped Saki out of the crippling trance. “…eh? I’m sorry! I must have spaced out for a moment.”

“It’s okay, Miss. This can be an unsettling place for people.” The woman moved aside, inviting Saki into the room. “The Doctor is still examining her, but you can wait inside.”

“You sure it’s okay?” The nurse nodded politely to her. ‘What was with that before? It was almost tangible…’ Saki eventually took the step and entered the bright cell. She had to adjust her eyes a little to the difference from the hall. The entire room was quiet. It gave her an awkward feeling like an intruder in someone’s house. “I’m sorry for interrupting you, sir!” Saki had quickly bowed to the back of the man trying to make her presence known. However, there was no further response other than the empty out of place feeling. “…I-I’ll just wait here…”

The doctor continued without any movement it seemed. She patiently waited and wondered if she should be doing this with Yuki missing. When the time finally came for the doctor to move Saki reacted quickly by standing up. The man turned towards Saki.

Shiotani was a young man still from his appearance, but had a mature, experienced look in his eyes. The striped tie that he wore was pulled loose around his neck with the top button of his shirt undone. He looked worn or fatigued, but Saki couldn’t tell which.

“I’m sorry if I bothered you, sir!” However, she soon realized that the doctor wasn't even looking at her. He had probably not even known that she was standing before. Shiotani walked to the door before it seemed to fully register.

Once he turned his eyes he came to a stop. He shifted himself back to face Saki, reading her. “I’m sorry that I didn’t notice you.”

“Oh no, that’s okay! You were doing something very important!”

“Still it was rude of me.” Shiotani began to run this hand through his hair while approaching Saki. “You’ll have to forgive me. I have a tendency to zone out while I’m working.” A friendly smile grew on his lips as he looked a little embarrassed for admitting his weakness.

Saki became a little flustered by the man’s openness. “I’m so sorry, sir!” For a brief moment Saki’s eyes darted over to Takako before returning to Shiotani.

He had picked up on Saki’s concern. It was hard to tell that she was a healthy high school student only two weeks ago. “A friend of yours?”

“Eh? Oh I guess you could say that…we’re probably more trackmates to her than friends…”

“She must be important to you…”

“Yes…” Saki’s mind began to wander. ‘Is she important to me? Why did I come back?’ She focused on Takako hoping for an answer. ‘…I guess she is…’ The presence of the doctor snapped her back and reset her thoughts. It was then that she jumped startled by a realization and bowed quickly. “I’m sorry I didn’t introduce myself! I’m Saki Furukawa!”

Shiotani waved off Saki’s formality, presenting a shy smile. “It’s fine Miss Furukawa! I don’t mind!” He felt compelled to return the act though and bowed back to put her at ease. ‘…Furukawa…so she’s the Furukawa’s daughter…eldest if I remember…explains a lot…’ The air was still a little awkward between them, but he tried to turn his smile into a friendly one again. “I’m Doctor Masanori Shiotani, pleasure to meet you.”

Chapter 64 – The Returning Departures

Across the town at the Tsuji Shrine things haven't changed as much physically. The surrounding area looked like it went back into the feudal era with nature in control rather than man over the environment. It was like the rest of the town.

Activity in the shrine increased since yesterday. Normally, light on business the entire shrine grounds were crowded with worried people. Many that had hardly ever been very devoted followers suddenly wanted advice and safety. The unknowns had frightened them and sought comfort. It meant that Seiji’s grandfather was never allowed to rest.

Shoji was too young and inexperienced to help in the same capacity as that of their grandfather, but he had found his own way to help. Whole families were on the grounds meaning there were numerous children running around. Shoji kept them mostly entertained playing with them using some of the things in their shed, which held all of the ceremonial tools. It was enough to keep them busy and quieter through the shrine. However, the one that should have been helping their grandfather was missing, Seiji.

“Hrmph…” Seiji strolled down the thick ass grass pathway a few blocks away from the shrine. He left in the morning having had enough of the damn crowds. Doing the ‘Shinto thing’ was never for him, but could help a little. By morning his patience ran out and he needed to be alone.

The solitude of the neighborhood was depressing as hell to see. All of the damn overgrown plant life got in his way. “There really is no end to this… Shit, it’s almost too hard to believe…” He dug his hands into his blue jeans pockets and tried to shuffle on, but the damn nagging feeling in his head grew stronger.

Seiji took a turn up the street, what used to be one, sending him further away from the shrine. The short walk up it ended with him abruptly coming to a stop. His eyebrows narrowed in frustration. “No! No! …NO!” He pulled at his legs to move forward, but he could only manage a few steps before he stopped again. “Damn! Shit! I hate this!” Seiji turned around looking towards the damn shrine.

“Dammit!” Seiji marched up the steps of the Tsuji Shrine. He already heard the low murmurs of the crowds. The thought of having to listen to their stupid asses was already making him regret turning around. “I can’t believe I’m doing this…” His hand sunk deeper into his blue jean’s pocket causing him to slouch a little. The further he went up the stairs the slower his walking became.

Near the top, Seiji came to a stop staring up at the torii. Seiji turned his head away looking towards the stone steps. Near his foot there was a small ass rock, most likely dislodged from traffic. A puff of frustrated air came out of Seiji mouth before he kicked the rock away into the surrounding forest. “…time to get an ear full from the damn old man…”

The remaining few steps quickly finished and Seiji stood atop the hill. He already lowered his eyelids in annoyance from seeing all of the damn people. “There’s even more of them than before… Man, this is a pain in the ass…” Seiji began to turn around back towards the stairs, reconsidering his decision. Unfortunately for him he did not have enough time.

“Boy! Where have you been for the last six hours?!” His grandfather’s voice could pass through stone and still be hard clear. Once his voice had managed to entangle Seiji where he stood, their grandfather marched out from the smaller shrine off the side of the approach.

Seiji made a slow and awkward turn towards the old bastard. He tried to convert his troubles into a mask of pleasantness, but it only partially worked for him. “What’s wrong, old man?” A disguised sigh came from his lips calculating his next move. “I just got back from escorting a family to their home. They were feeling uneasy about going back alone out there so I walked them back.”

The lie was played and their grandfather measured it out. He searched Seiji’s for hints of the truth. “It took you six hours to walk them back?” The shitty test had begun.

“They lived really far away.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”

“I did, but you know how busy we’ve been today.”

There was a hint of electricity in the air from their friction. “Why aren’t you in the robes if you were on official business?”

‘Damn old man, persistent to the end…’ Seiji rotated his arm a little like he was stretching. “Those things are stuffy and annoying to move around in. If I’m supposed to be protecting them I want to be able to move.”

“Watch your mouth, boy! You must follow the traditions regardless of your discomfort! Go and get back in them now!”

Sparks were almost visible to the passing people, turning them away out of fear. Seiji crossed his arms and leaned over to his loud ass grandfather. “I can do my work without them just the same, old man!”

“…why you…” The defiance from Seiji started to make their grandfather burn with anger. He may have been short, but his presence normally made Seiji back off. Unfortunately, Seiji stood his ground longer than usual.

“You’re back, brother!” Shoji shouted across half of the shrine grounds. The noise disruption broke all of the low murmuring from the people visiting. It also drew their attention towards the fight.

Gaining a lot of unwanted interest, they broke apart and cleared themselves up before Shoji arrived. Seiji knelt down to receive his kid brother, overjoyed to see Seiji. ‘The old man’s got him wearing the robes too now… No, actually I bet Shoji begged to wear them…’ The size was a little big on Shoji from Seiji’s eye. “How’s it going, Shoji?”

“It’s been tons of fun! I’m finally getting to show off all of the training from Grandfather, Seiji!” Shoji's face beamed with excitement simply talking about it. He bounced around in front of Seiji holding out the couple of tools of their trade. The most predominant was the baton with paper streamers.

Seiji gave him a warm smile not wanting to upset his brother. “I see!” He tried to start making more of an effort to not fight with their grandfather in front of him.

Most of the items in his hand disappeared into his baggy sleeves, but some paper talismans remained. “Hey Seiji, check this out!” Shoji held up a single talisman near to his forehead with his eyes closed. In a swift fluid motion the paper straightened out and his arm threw the talisman across the open grounds. It came to a stop on a pillar of the main house where it stuck firmly. Shoji looked back up at Seiji glowing. “See! It’s just like in those manga Yuki showed me one time! It took me all morning to get it to work!”

“That’s impressive, Shoji!” Seiji gave Shoji a pat on the head. He caught a glance of their grandfather looking like he had just been split in two. In the old man’s eyes Shoji was wasting their supplies by playing around and littering their home. The thought made Seiji laugh a little on the inside.

“I’m going to go get changed. I think you have some new visitors, Grandfather.” Seiji distracted him to save Shoji from a lecture. Their grandfather had turned to greet the new visitors; Seiji walked off with Shoji. He sent Shoji back to play with the children while he entered the house.

Inside their home was the only empty ass place in the shrine grounds. In his room were his clothes resting on a hanger waiting for him. Seiji may not have been a real Shinto Priest, but seeing him in the robes gave comfort to the patrons. Providing counsel wasn’t his talent. He sure as hell made an extra effort to keep himself hidden from anyone that might recognize him (he had an image to keep).

He reached out touching the linen and silk layers feeling some hesitation. It was only to stop the damn fighting. ‘It’s times like this when I wish you would have taken us with you mother when you left… Shoji likes this sort of life, but I’m more like you… You could never accept it…’ Seiji grumbled to himself trying to shake out the shitty past.

A few minutes later Seiji stepped out of his room in full robes including the peaked hat. ‘So uncool…really…old man…bastard…’ The phrase ‘wearing your emotions on your sleeve’ couldn’t have described him better. By the time that he reached the doors of their house he had a fairly placid look on his face (very much not Seiji).

Seiji made a slow round through the grounds checking on anyone that looked worried or concerned. His fake expression and general roughness gave them an awkward feeling, but he was able to help most.

Near the back of the grounds Shoji played with the children. He ran ahead of them still carrying around the talismans. Every few support columns or poles that they ran by Shoji would show off to them by throwing them. It was small entertainment, but they were kept happy. ‘He really gets into it…’

“Excuse me, young priest,” said an elderly voice from behind Seiji.

Seiji tilted his head back to catch the man that was addressing him. He was taken back a little forcing him to fully turn his body to face him. ‘What’s with the clothes?’ The man wore a very formal attire, but no longer in style. In fact, they had not been in style for several centuries.

The old man wore a confused yet gentle expression on his face. “I’m sorry to trouble you, but could you help me.”

“…um…ye-ah…. What do you need?”

“See I’m going to be meeting His Imperial Majesty the Emperor tomorrow, but it’s my first time to the court.”

The response made Seiji pause for a moment. ‘The Emperor? Really? I guess it’s possible, but it seems a little strange…’ It seemed odd to pick their shrine when they weren’t even in the same city. “What will you be meeting about?”

“I’m representing my village to ask for aid. We have a lot of bandits that keep pillaging us and we need some samurai to protect us!” The elderly man started to become a little hysterical as he seemed to be thinking of his village. There was desperation in his voice, but also the hint that he was hoping for a meeting rather than having an appointment.

Seiji was able to pick up the intentions, but he used very arcane words. He was able to still understand him, however something was making Seiji feel uneasy about the old man. “I’m sure it’ll be—“ A foul odor blew in on the wind interrupting Seiji. He turned away for a moment feeling something strange in the air. His eyes caught a glimpse of the ema that clattered together loudly like a signal. “What? This smell…is like death…”

The air settled down and the scent disappeared leaving Seiji confused. However, he quickly turned back to the old man planning to apologize for interrupting him. “I’m sorry—“ When he looked in front of him the man was no longer anywhere he could see. “What’s going on here?”

Suddenly a woman’s voice screamed a horrible ghastly sound. It wasn’t the end though as more screams ran throughout the grounds. Seiji searched around from where he stood. Out of the wall of the small shrine next to Seiji appeared a pale and translucent woman with blood coating her clothes. The sight made Seiji’s eyes grow wide in shock. “A ghost?!”