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Everblue...
By Rob Barba

 

Mata ne,
Rob
primary: rob@yogipigs.org secondary: mara@megami.net

AIM: Mitsukai com ICQ: 45925353
Mitsukai!
Sailor Moon AX:
Studio YOGIPIGS:
A Long Strange Webpage: (COMING SOON)

Back to life,
Back to reality,
Back to the here and now....
--Soul II Soul

everblue....
By Rob Barba

"You idiot! How the hell could you do this to me?"
"Look, Kogimi, I really thought you would like this place. It's nice
and quiet, and certainly peaceful."
"But there are no clubs around here! And what's this - hot springs? Do
I look like an old man to you? Really, Hikomei, I wonder why I even bother
with you sometimes. I should be enjoying the nightlife of Osaka or maybe
some overseas vacation spot like Shanghai or Hawaii, not some little out of
the way place in the backwoods!"
"Kogimi," Hikomei sighed, "it's a nice enough place, peaceful and just
the spot to get away from everything. Also, I thought that coming out here
and getting some peace and quiet would be nice for us. After all, we're
getting married in about three months, and -"
"Remind me again why I'm marrying you?" Kogimi snarled, wheeling and
turning on him with eyes filled with the purest anger. "Oh, that's right -
I love you. It's a shame that *you* don't think a little more about *me*,
though! I can't stand this place! It's so boring!" Angry as all get out
and completely unaware that she was making a scene in the small Japanese
rural town, the girl strode off, storming towards the ryokan. As she walked
away, she shouted back, "This had *better* be worth it, or I swear I'm on
the first train back to Tokyo!"


Hikomei sighed again, running his hands through his dark mane of hair.
Not for the first time, he wondered how Kogimi stayed with him, since she
seemed so volatile lately and all she wanted to do was argue. Granted,
people told him that she had many faults, but he never believed it, not his
Kogimi. It was simply too impossible to comprehend that his flawless ideal
could ever be as dark and cruel as many of his friends claimed.
He continued to see the same woman he had when he met her at a stable
near Tachikawa three years ago. She was so beautiful then, so maddeningly
gorgeous that from where he stood, his heart was caught and never, ever let
go. She was an equestrian for a living, one of those women who rode show
horses in parades or in tournaments; he'd only been there to do some
research for a short story he'd been writing. But it became more as he
tried to talk to her and was so flummoxed by her beauty that he could not
speak at all. That caught her attention, and he asked her out, to which she
agreed.
That had been three years ago. Now, they'd been engaged a year, and in
three months were to wed. But something was wrong, and he couldn't put his
finger on it. She seemed so mad lately, and nothing he could do would help
at all. Surely it couldn't be because he hadn't sold a novel yet - after
all, it took time to get into the writing business. Maybe it was because
her equestrian career was taking off, and she was getting to travel all over
the country for performances. It might have been because of a thousand
things that he might not be aware of. Or could it be he wasn't devoting
enough time to her? He did all he could, and every penny and iota of energy
he could devote to making her happy he did.


As he picked up both his bag and hers, he walked across the bridge
spanning the river and headed towards the peaceful little ryokan. He'd been
told about this place by a friend who felt the pair needed a couple of weeks
together alone, to sort out what little difficulties they had before they
became man and wife. The inn was special, nestled in the farthest part of
the small lakeside town of Kawaguchiko, under the shade of Mount Fuji. It
had stood the test of time, and many a famous face had stayed there, despite
the inn's strange quirks. It was a beautifully rustic place, and the hot
springs there were a gorgeous sight that many a visitor enjoyed and returned
to the inn for. Along with the ancient landmarks and the quiet little town
nearby, most people would consider the town a wonderful place to venture to.
The few problems were in the way the ryokan's rules were set up. The
reservation had to be for a two-week period, quite different and much longer
than what was normal for the average Japanese inn. Additionally, it was
separated from the rest of the town by a small bridge that led the land to
the large rock outcropping where it sat. Lastly, the grounds of the place
were said to be haunted by a zashiki bokko, a benevolent ghost who protected
the old in for reasons unknown - probably a myth, but local tales were what
made life so interesting, and for an author such as Hikomei, tales were
always important.

???

"Welcome to our little inn. We hope you'll enjoy your stay," the old
woman at the counter said, though Hikomei could tell that her pleasantry was
faked, and the reason for that was Kogimi, who was walking around the lobby,
her face engraved with a look of disdain.
"I'm hoping to enjoy my stay here," he replied. "I've heard a lot about
this place from friends and such. Is it really true that this place is
haunted?" Behind his back, he could just feel the vitriolic stare of Kogimi
as she stood, not believing her beau could ever ask such a stupid question.
The old lady nodded in kind admission. "Yes, we have our bokko zashiki
hina over there in the corner. The doll's been at the inn since time before
time, protecting it as it always has."
"A doll, you say?" The young man turned his attention to a doll in the
corner, noting the object seated gently on a small stand. A replica of a
beautiful young woman frozen in the eternal youth of artifice, the doll was
dressed in a beautiful gray kimono. The artesian who created the doll had
to be a master, as the figurine looked, if he had to guess, about his age or
so, and she seemed to be smiling with a pure, confident ease that seemed to
be unnatural for pieces made during the earlier periods.
"Yes, there's a legend about her and how she got here, and what her
purpose is. I'd tell you, but it might take quite some time, as it's a long
story."
Hikomei found himself immediately entranced by the doll. "Excuse me for
my forwardness, but I'm an author. If you don't mind, I'd like to hear it
sometime, if I could. I find the idea of a guardian ghost doll
interesting." Turning back to the old woman, he smiled and said, "Of
course, if I write about it, I'll change some of the details so you'll keep
your privacy. I would hate to see a place this wonderful ruined by
novelty."
For a minute she stood before him, gazing at him with her piercing,
knowing eyes. Then the old woman smiled and answered in a warm voice, "We
appreciate it, young sir. When I have a chance, I'll make sure you know the
story of the doll. In fact, if you and your la -*LOOK OUT*!!!" The last
was intended as the petulant Kogimi, chattering on her cell phone, steered
unintentionally on a collision course with the doll.
"...and then Fujiko dumped that boyfriend of hers," Kogimi continued,
oblivious to the world. "Figures she'd do that, since she's such a bitch
anyway, and - oops!" The young woman stumbled forward into the small
display stand, flailing her arms and trying to reach for purchase where
there was none. Finally she failed and tripped forward, knocking over the
stand and sending the doll tumbling to the floor, while she bounced off the
wall and was no worse for wear other than a slight tear to her blouse.
The whole of the room went quiet at the sight of what had just occurred.
The innkeepers stared in shock at the audacity of the young woman knocking
over the physical shell of the guardian spirit of the inn. Some of the
other guests of the inn looked bemused, unable to believe the uncivilized
behavior of the bratty young woman on the ground. Hikomei merely shook his
head in chagrin, unable to believe that she was making such a display.
"OOOOOOooooh, I *hate* this place! Ugly looking ryokan, ugly looking
doll, ugly everything, and *you* wanted to come here! Look at my blouse,
it's torn! Do you know how much it's going to cost to have it repaired?
Why did I ever agree to come here?" Busy canting her mantra of bitchiness,
she saw the key to their room in the hand of one of the assistants.
Snatching it from the young girl with a viciousness that bordered on the
obscene, Kogimi snapped, "Grab our stuff and let's just get this over and
done with!" Before he could even bother answering, she bolted up the stairs
immediately.
Unable to believe what his fianc?e had just done, the young man
immediately went over to the toppled display, gingerly setting the aged
stand to rights and with great care, gently dusted off the doll and
carefully placed it on the stand. Looking at the figurine, something moved
within him and he bowed to the inanimate object, whispering, "I'm sorry this
had to happen. You have my sincerest apologies." Facing the innkeeper, he
added, "I didn't expect this, and I'll pay for any damages that she's
caused."
The old woman nodded, seemingly in approval. "I appreciate that, but
you weren't at fault, and the doll knows that. Trust me, your willingness
to be straightforward with our zashiki bokko is appreciated by all. Now,
why don't you go take care of your lady friend and we'll deal with the rest
of the mess down here? She strikes me as someone who doesn't have an
appreciation of her surroundings as you do."
Nodding his thanks, he picked up the bags and headed up the stairs, off
to find his ill-tempered fianc?e. So far this vacation was turning out to
be a disaster, and the kami only knew what result would unearth itself by
the time this was all over.

???

Kogimi was furious. How *dare* he treat her this way, bringing her to
this stupid little roach nest of an inn, after the years together that she'd
put up with all of his eccentricities? Why couldn't he have been more fun
like he was at the beginning of the relationship, when they used to party
and go places? Granted, they still went out a lot and partied, but it
didn't feel the same anymore. She was a woman of the world, riding her way
to a bright future. Already, she'd been asked to perform for the Prime
Minister, and the guy who'd been the government representative, Kenzo, was
really cute, too. She'd gone out with him regularly since, and was really
attracted to him. He was everything Hikomei wasn't, and to be honest, Kenzo
was better in bed.
But was she ready to get rid of the relationship she had for three
years? Granted, Hikomei didn't do the job for her as much as he had, and
she was wondering what she saw in him. He was dashingly cute, and there was
a trace of a roguish person in him still, but the fact was, he'd turned into
a boring, neutered soul. He wanted to be a writer, but he wasn't living!
What about all that partying, all the fun they used to have? All he was
doing now was trying to get published, and he never thought of her anymore.
He just couldn't understand that she wasn't the same dull and dreary person
she'd been when they'd met; she had a more cosmopolitan attitude of the
world now, and he was letting his life pass him by while he worked on that
"magnum opus" of his. What a joke.
((He'd better convince me that there's some reason for me to stick
around,)) she thought, ((or not only am I catching the first train back to
Tokyo, I'm also taking a walk from our life. If he'd been a better lover, I
wouldn't need to look elsewhere, right?))


A minute later, the object of her thoughts came into the room, hefting
the luggage. "Sorry I'm running a bit behind, love, but these bags are a
bit heavy."
She favored him with her most vicious scowl. "You stayed behind to help
them with their mess, didn't you?" she accused. "You shouldn't have to
clean up their mistakes! That's what they have servants for!"
Setting both bags down, he responded gently, "But love, you were the one
who knocked the stand and the doll down-"
"So now you're siding with them? What kind of fianc? are you to take
their side against me?"
"But-but-bu...oh, never mind, " he commented, realizing he wasn't going
to win this argument. He never won arguments with her. Then again, until
recently he'd never had arguments with her, either. "Just, please, forget
it, okay? I'm sorry, and I won't do it again."
"Somehow I doubt that." She went over and grabbed her bag, then went
back to where she'd been standing from him, a symbol of the rift that had
grown between them. "So, what's there to do in this hick town, anyway?"
He sighed. "Well, there's the city center, the gondolas that take you
to the top of the nearby mountain, we can take a rowboat out onto the lake,
and things such as that."
Her attention was piqued instantly. "They have a city center here?"
That meant they had stores, and stores meant shopping. She still had his
credit cards - why should she use her own money, after all? - and the urge
for her to spend was so great that had she been a character in an American
cartoon, her pupils would have changed into yen symbols right then and
there.
Not noticing her sudden fit of monetary rapaciousness, he gave her a
soft smile, and said, "But personally, the thing I noticed most was the
garden path they have on the other side of the other side of the islet. I
was thinking that we could take a wal-"
"What, another walk? So you can do more 'research' for your next short
story? So you can commune with nature and talk to the cicadas and birds?
Interview them for their opinion? Sorry, but I don't think so."
"But Kogimi, I wanted to be-"
"I don't care why you want to," she snarled. "It certainly isn't for
me! All you think about is you, you, you! You mistreat me so damn much,
and I wonder why I even stick around anymore," she seethed. Grabbing her
purse, she stormed out of the room, shouting back through the open door, "Go
ahead and take your little walk alone; I'll be visiting the stores downtown.
I'll be back for dinner...or whatever passes for it at this hovel."
As her footfalls rung out from the steps, he looked at the space where
she'd been just a couple of seconds before. Unconsciously, he answered in a
whisper, "But I wanted to take a walk with you...because you always used to
love walking together...." Hikomei slumped to his knees, feeling that the
gulf that lay between him and his fianc?e was now wider than ever, and it
could end up a gulf too insurmountable to bridge.

???

A half-hour later, he found himself seated on a stone bench in one of
the clearings, sitting with laptop open and staring at the stone lantern
nearby for inspiration. But no inspiration was coming, as his mind was
roiling from something that he couldn't deny any longer: there was a rift
between him and the woman he loved, and that rift was tearing him apart.
What could he do to prevent it? She'd changed so much, and the sweet loving
girl that he'd been with for so long had in a manner of months changed into
a woman that he didn't know. How had it happened? He'd tried to be the
best future husband he could, devoting every portion of his soul into his
work, so he could build a life for them together. But now that life was
beginning to crumble, and despite his best efforts, he couldn't understand
why. He was completely and utterly in the dark, with no chance or hope of
seeing the light.
Hikomei closed his laptop and buried his face in his hands. He was
completely and utterly confused, wondering what had happened to the woman he
loved? Was she really even the woman he loved still, or had that woman
never existed? It only seemed like yesterday that they'd kissed, drinking
in the depth of each others' love and sighing the sweetest emotions. But
that time seemed so far away now, as though it were something out of a
history book rather than something that had only happened in recent memory.


"You seem so sad." Hikomei looked up, and standing on the pathway by
the bamboo glade was a beautiful young woman. She was the oft-spoken-about
vision of loveliness, with long black hair and soft blue eyes; any Japanese
person with blue eyes was rare and most likely the result of some gaijin
blood in their heritage. Yet she seemed so delicate and fragile, the ideal
Japanese girl, if one was to go by the stereotypical sense of beauty, with
no sense of the foreign at all. She wore a simple white blouse with a
sweater, and her dark skirt seemed to have a sakura imprint on it. Looking
at him, she said, "It's not good to be in such grief. You shouldn't be so
down. A handsome man like you should be happy and enjoy the fruits that
life has to offer you."
He stared at her, not believing what she was saying. In fact, he
couldn't believe what he was seeing. Something about her rang at the core
of his soul, as though a dream of his had come to life. Unsure of what to
say, he responded, "Oh, I'm not sad. Just thinking."
"Well," she said, making her way to the stone bench, "you do look down,
and it doesn't suit you. You probably look so much nicer when you smile."
Despite himself, a rictus managed to break onto his face, and she favored
him with a winsome pert of her own. "See? Just as I said."
"Who are you?" he asked, not unkindly. Though he didn't realize it, the
question sounded more along the lines of ((Where have you been in my life?))
than a simple request for identification.
The girl sat down on the stone bench, still looking at him with her pure
blue eyes and that enchanting smile of hers. "My name's Aoi. I was told
I'd find you here, because you wanted to know the story of the ghost doll.
It's a fascinating story, and I've found it interesting to hear since I've
been here."
The words snapped him out of his reverie. "The ghost doll? Um, sure!
Yes, I'd really like to know the story behind it, if you would, Aoi-san.
I'm Hikomei."
"Hikomei," she repeated, as though savoring the name. "A wonderful name
for a wonderful person."
"Thank you; you're too kind. But you're one of the servants? I didn't
see you earlier."
"I was there, you just didn't notice me. You were too busy picking up
the doll and being kind in lieu of your friend, who should have done that.
In any case, I overheard you talking to the innkeeper and asking her for
details. Since I had nothing to do at the moment, I offered to find you and
tell you the story. She told me you took a walk out here, and as you can
see, here we are." She smiled at him again and pressed her lips together in
thought. "But you wanted to know the story of the zashiki bokko hina,
rather than how I knew you were here, right?"
He nodded, hanging on the edge of his every word.


She closed her eyes, reciting from the script of memory. As she did,
images flowed in his mind, the words and cadence of her speech bringing to
life the ancient tale:
"Long ago, in a temple not too far from here, there was a young miko, a
shrine priestess whose beauty was known far and wide. Though she served
with honor, she was a dark soul, a spiteful girl who cared about nothing but
her own desires. Despite her calling and her so-called purity, she had two
lovers, a young farmer, and the son of the local daimyo. Through deception
and numerous falsehoods, she managed to keep the knowledge of the two a
secret from each other and the priest who ran the shrine - a miko who is not
pure is nothing but a harlot in holy clothing.
"One fateful day, the farmer asked for her hand in marriage. Flush with
the prospect and the fact that the daimyo's son was elsewhere on business,
she agreed. They were happily wed by the priest, and for months they lived
and loved as husband and wife should, a happy couple that seemed to everyone
to be the perfect ideal of a couple. Additionally, though she could no
longer be a miko, she still served at the temple, assisting where she could
and training her replacement.
"However, the daimyo's son returned, and finding that she still wanted
him, she continued her dalliances with him. Meeting in secret places and
enlisting the assistance of her trainee, the former miko soon wrapped
everyone in a web of conspiracy, desecrating the temple when she laid with
the daimyo's son there, and continuing her lies to her husband that she was
the only one for her. She also played the daimyo's son falsely,
coquettishly refusing his pledges of matrimony under a guise of needing to
take the time to ponder.
"But the gods know of evil and nothing can last forever. Through all of
this, the former miko's apprentice fell in love with the simple farmer, and
felt for his plight. Wishing to end the betrayal he didn't know he was
enduring, she made plans to expose her mistress and lover for who they were.
Bidding the farmer come to the temple, and requesting the presence of the
priest, she exposed the lovers for the sham and sins they bore. When she
revealed them, they had been pillowing on the altar space of the temple, in
defiance of the holiest of tenets.
"The farmer was completely heartbroken. There, the love of his life and
his thought-to-be beloved wife, was rutting like some common skillful woman
with none less than the son of the daimyo. Knowing that his heart could not
take the pain of her betrayal, nor would the daimyo's son allow him to live
to claim what that son coveted, the farmer took his simple knife and
committed seppuku on the spot, spilling his blood and entrails onto the
floor. But even as he did that, his last words were not of hate or
betrayal, but of love for his unfaithful wife. Then he breathed his last,
committing his sentence to death for the travesty of loving such an
unworthy, dishonorable woman.
"Stricken with grief and shock of what had happened, the apprentice miko
collapsed to the ground, holding the farmer in her arms and pledging her
eternal love for him. To seal that love, she took his bloodied knife and in
one clean slash, took her own life across the neck. Though she could not be
his mate in life, the final words on her lips would be that she would be his
love in the beyond, to always be there for him, and a minute later, there
were two corpses where there had been two wronged souls.
"The priest, infuriated by the whole of the ordeal, used his powers of
the sacred, calling upon the gods to right the wrongs that had been so
committed. Pointing his staff of office at the lovers, he cursed them both
to die and to return to the world of the living someday, to correct the
wrongs they'd done or face the prospect of suffering eternal torment. The
two were wrapped in the spirit light, and when the light had dissipated, a
female dog and a male rat remained of the two lovers. They would be denied
each others' company in this life, and possibly the next.
"To the farmer, the priest blessed his body and prayed that the innocent
man would find peace in his next life, to find the love and happiness that
he so richly deserved. Tapping the body with his staff, the priest sent the
farmer's body to the next world, where it would be prepared for his eventual
return.
"But for the apprentice miko, he had reserved the most important role:
for her silent love of the farmer, and her faithfulness to die for him, the
priest took her spirit and fashioned it into a ghost doll, charging her to
guide the path for the reunification of the faithless wife and the faithful
husband, and to also be wary for the return of the daimyo's son. Should the
wife return to the husband in the next life and choose fidelity that time,
it would be up to the spirit to ensure they did so, and she would be free to
continue on to the afterworld. If the wife chose the daimyo's son, and was
unfaithful in the next life, both lovers would be punished and the spirit
would be free to wed the man she loved."
"Did the spirits of the others ever return?" Hikomei asked, breathlessly
caught up in Aoi's tale. It was worthy of a rewrite, certainly, and while
it wasn't long enough to expand as a novel, perhaps with other stories, he
could create a collection of short stories that was sure to get him
published.
Aoi smiled once more, but it seemed wistful and said, as though she held
true sympathy for the ghost doll. "No one knows. Only the doll spirit can
answer that, and as you can tell, she's not exactly the most forthcoming of
persons, ne?"
"I guess not." Hikomei scratched his head, wondering about what to say
next. Finally, he settled on a "Thank you for your tale and your time,
Aoi-san. I truly appreciate it."
"Oh, don't be so formal! Just call me Aoi." As if trying to make her
point, she gazed at him with her namesake, the piercing blue eyes that were
not only the windows of the soul, but in her case the portal to his own.
"Okay, Aoi it is, then," he agreed, picking up his laptop and standing
up. Checking his watch, he said, "Oh - the time. I have to meet my fianc?e
for dinner."
"Fianc?e? She must be a very lucky woman to have someone like you," Aoi
mentioned, "especially since you're a writer. They say that those who craft
words are the ones who truly know what happens in this world. I wish I had
the chance to be one."
"You write?" He looked at the woman still seated on the bench with
increased respect. If she could weave words like she spoke them, she could
be a world-caliber authoress.
"No, I only tell tales, though I have many of them. But maybe I have a
way of doing that - if you met me here every day, and I told you some of the
stories I know, perhaps I could have my chance."
He nodded eagerly. How could anyone refuse an offer like that? "So
I'll meet you here tomorrow at the same time?"
In answer, she gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek, blushing as she did
so. "Of course. But you'd better go and meet your fianc?e. I'm sure she'd
be jealous if she saw us together, and I wouldn't blame her - you're quite
the guy."
"Thanks. I'll see you later, then." Taking one last look at his
newfound friend, he tossed his laptop in his backpack and walked down the
pathway, back to the inn.

???

Kogimi was seething, barely containing her disgust. The "city center"
looked like a backwater that this town was. In a bigger city, this would be
nothing but a collection of neighborhood stores that nobody cared about.
Yet because this place was so empty and worthless, this ramshackle
collection of knick-knack stores and second-hand shops served as a sort of
vibrancy of this burg...for lack of a better word.
The woman sighed; she deserved so much better than this. She deserved
the bright lights of the city, champagne wishes and caviar dreams presented
to her on a golden platter and a silver tray. Idly, she realized that if
she went to Kenzo, he would give that to her. He was a special assistant to
the Prime Minster after all, and he was no stranger to the finer things in
life, those very same things that she was entitled to.
((But I've had three years with Hikomei, and they haven't been all that
bad,)) she had to admit. ((Granted, if he were to shape up and be a proper
fianc?e, maybe I wouldn't have to spend time with someone else. But maybe
if Kenzo were here, things wouldn't be so bad.))
Suddenly she felt someone tapping her on the shoulder, and as she
turned, she felt the strong yet familiar lips of someone kissing her with an
insatiable hunger. She eagerly joined in and a second later had to break
off from the kiss, reluctantly pulling back for air.
"Hey babe, surprised to see you in town," Kenzo said, flashing her his
trademark grin that drove her into a frenzy. He was dressed in a polo that
showed off his lightly muscled frame, and he had that look of success that
he always had, that intangible look that made her desire him all the more.
"I might say the same about you," Kogimi commented off-handedly. "But
I'm here with a...friend, and what exactly are you doing here?"
"Oh, the Prime Minister is looking for a small town to take a vacation
in," he answered, "and you know me. Being a ministry aide, I had to come
check out this town myself. It's a bit boring for people our age, but it
should do for someone like him and his wife." Kenzo put his arm around
Kogimi and asked, "So where are you staying?"
"Um, Hik...er, Hikaru and I are staying at this little ryokan on the
other end of town," the young woman improvised. "She's, well, she's working
on some personal stuff, and I just thought I'd come along for the ride."
"Well, if you have nothing going on, maybe you'd like to have dinner
with me tonight? I'm having room service brought to my hotel, and perhaps
you and me could enjoy that pleasure...and others besides," he hinted.
"After all, you are my girl, right?"
She said nothing to answer that, merely kissing him once more in a sort
of response. Taking his arm, she said in an eager voice, "Lead the way, my
dear, dear Kenzo."

???

Hikomei sat on the balcony of the room, staring at the fattened marble
of the moon as it poured light down on the quiet town. The light from the
laptop's screen also shone, but it was a cold, fading light, just like that
in his heart. Something was wrong in the relationship that he and Kogimi
had, and something today had changed it, though he couldn't pinpoint it.
He looked over at the woman asleep on the futon, wondering why she felt
a thousand leagues away, instead of only a mere span of meters. She'd
skipped dinner with him tonight, saying she'd forgotten the time. As the
night wound down, they made love, but there was something mechanical about
it, as though she weren't really there, sharing their love with him. Also,
there was something stronger about the musky scent of sex this night. He'd
smelled that scent before, and it usually came when they'd made love only
hours after.
((But to have a scent like that, she'd had to have sex earlier. But to
that, she'd have to have made love with someone else. No, I must be
imagining things. We might be having problems, but she wouldn't.... Would
she?)) He looked at the still form of his fianc?e, and despite the fact
that he loved her, he also couldn't answer that question for the first time
since he knew her.
Unable to crawl back into bed with her due to that very doubt, despite
his love for her, Hikomei continued to stare into the night sky, searching
it for answers to questions never asked.
((Kogimi....))


Standing in a nearby wooded part of the islet, Aoi watched as her
newfound friend continued his separation from the woman that he was to
marry, feeling a distance that may as well have covered time zones. As she
gazed at him, she could feel his anguish, and she knew intently that he was
truly hurting, his pain so strong that even from where she stood, she could
feel it on an intimate level.
Her eyes blue eyes red from tears, she whispered, "Oh, Hikomei, how I
wish you didn't have to hurt so...."

???

Hikomei woke up the following morning, to find Kogimi already gone. In
her place was a small note that read, WENT TO CHECK OUT A SHOP IN THE NEXT
TOWN OVER. WILL BE BACK TONIGHT. The note was unsigned, and didn't even
carry the same tone of love as the others had. It stunned him - it didn't
seem that long ago that she'd add little flourishes and hearts to the note,
and now she couldn't even bother signing it?
There was a knock at the door, and he absently commented, "Please, come
in."
Walking in, holding a tray with tea and dressed in the servant's
kimonos, was Aoi, looking pretty as the proverbial picture. "Good morning,
sir," she said in a chipper voice, before realizing who it was. As soon as
she did, her smile grew even brighter. "Oh, Hikomei! Good morning to you!"
Seeing his mostly disarrayed state, she commented, "I must have come at a
bad time - you're not even dressed yet. I'm so sorry. Is your fianc?e in
the shower?"
"No," he sighed. "She went out to the next town over to attend to some
personal business."
"That's a shame," Aoi said. "This is a lovers' ryokan, and people come
here to be together, not to be apart. Which reminds me of the story of the
Princess of the Lake and her lover." Sitting down, she placed the tray down
on the small table and poured him a cup.
"Another story?" he asked. "Do you have the time to tell it?"
"Um, well, if I go ask one of the other girls to cover for me, I think
so. I'll be right back." She quickly raced out of the room, but was back
within the minute. "It's okay, they've got it covered." She sat down
again, and was surprised to find that he'd poured her a cup of tea. "Thank
you. You're so kind to a simple serving girl like me," she said as she took
the cup.
He shrugged. "You're no simple serving girl. You're much smarter than
that." She blushed, touched by his comment, but he continued, "Seriously,
I'm surprised you're here. You seem like a bright girl."
"I have a life here and a reason to be here," she answered, honesty in
her eyes. "This is my home, and though I'm sure I'll move someday, it
hasn't come yet. Besides, I'm hoping to meet the man of my dreams here."
For some reason, Hikomei felt slight depression at that statement. "Oh.
So what does he look like?"
"Well, sort of like you," she mumbled, blushing. "I...I mean, he's got
the, um, same build as you, with the same dark hair, warm brown eyes that
would make a girl go wild, and kind heart that you have." She pouted
slightly and admitted, "I'm envious of your intended. She's the luckiest
girl in the world."
"Yeah, the luckiest," he repeated, sotto voce.
Aware she hit a rough spot, she changed tactics. "But enough about
that. I promised you I'd tell you a story, and I will - but on one
condition."
"And that is?"
"That after I tell you the story, you're getting dressed, and we're
going out. There's a new museum in the next town over that I'd like to see,
and I don't want to go alone. Besides, it's always good to have a friend to
share the time with."
"You can do that? Won't you get in trouble from cutting out from work?"
"Nope, not at all. I said my friends were going to cover for me, right?
What I didn't tell you is that I asked them to cover for me for the whole
day."
Hikomei grinned; she'd outsmarted him. "I'm going to get dressed, and
you need to change out of your uniform as well, ne? I'll meet you
downstairs and you can tell me the story while we're on the way to the
museum, okay?"
She rose to her feet, a clearly happy look on her face. "See you
downstairs, then."


As she stepped out of Hikomei's suite, Aoi began humming a little tune
of joy. Walking past one of her friends, she instantly noticed the other
was staring. "Is something wrong, Michiko?"
"You look so happy! Tell me, you met someone, didn't you?" Michiko
asked.
Aoi looked at her friend. "Oh, if you only knew...."
"So which of the guys here is it? Hiroshi? Kenji? Sanjiro?"
"Someone better," the blue-eyed beauty told her friend. "The sort of
person I've waited my whole life for. But I can't talk, I have to get ready
for my date."
"Good luck, Aoi! Do your best."
"Thanks, Michiko. I will."

???

"Mmm...you're so good, Kenzo." Kogimi lounged gently against Kenzo's
chest, running her fingers across its bare form, feeling the press of his
body against hers. She'd left Hikomei early in the morning, and had Kenzo
pick her up. From there, they drove to the next town, and rented a small
sailboat to ride on the other side of the lake. The sailboat had a cabin,
and there was a lot more riding going on as well.
He kissed her tenderly. "You know, does your friend really need you to
stay there with her? I was thinking that since I'm on this 'arduous'
special assignment for the week, I could take a week of vacation afterwards
and we could go somewhere."
"Like where?" she asked as she began to kiss him lightly on his chest.
"Oh, I've always heard Bali was a nice tropical place, and the best spot
for vacations, too. The nightlife, walks on beaches, the works."
Her eyes lit with an interesting sparkle; the Indonesian island was a
tropical paradise, and certainly worthy of a person of her tastes. "That
sounds good. When do you want to go?"
"Well, I'll be done with this assignment in the next six days, so when
it's over, all we have to do is to head back to Tokyo, and hop the next
plane down to Bali. I'll make sure that I take care of the arrangements
tomorrow, and we can be ready to go in no time. What do you think?"
"I think I'm ready for you again," she cooed in sultry tones, reaching
down for his. Almost instantly he responded, and Kogimi chanted, "You're
nearly ready, but I think you need some assistance." She gently slid down
towards the item in question, commencing once more with her acts.

???

The face on Hikomei's watch cracked completely and without warning, the
anodized glass fractured in half, sending stinging microslivers onto his
arm. Like a man bitten, he shook his hand violently and instinctively, as
miniature beads of blood appeared. He gripped his arm, wincing more from
surprise than from pain.
Aoi dropped her soda in surprise. "Ara...are you okay?" Reaching into
her purse, she pulled out a handkerchief and quickly applied the makeshift
bandage to Hikomei's wrist. "There, all better," she said in her best
nursing tones. Guiding him to a nearby bench in the park they were walking
through, she asked, "What happened to your watch?"
"I don't know," he remarked, his voice bewildered. "It was fine just a
second ago...." Looking at it, the watch was still working nominally, but
now the numbers were faded a bit and the LCD screen was clearly cracked.
With some attention, it could be repaired, but it was more likely going to
be permanently broken beyond repair soon. "I know Kogimi's going to be
angry; she's the one who bought it for me."
"It looks expensive."
"It *is* expensive. Personally, I would have lived with a normal watch,
but she wanted me to have something that has more functions than the space
station. How many watches do you know that have a barometer?" he moaned
good-naturedly. Aoi giggled a bit at that, and he smiled in return, the
girl's good nature being that infectious.
She looked at it intently, and the smiles and laughter faded into
seriousness. "You know, some people would say that's an omen. I mean, I've
never seen a watch explode suddenly."
He gave her a weary look. "Yeah, but if that were the case, then I
would have to believe that there was something wrong with the relationship
she and I have."
"But isn't there already? I don't mean to pry, but this is the second
day you've been here at the ryokan, and you're with me, instead of her.
From what I know of you so far, you're a good man. But I can't help
thinking about her side of the story."
Hikomei looked at the other girl as though he'd been painfully slapped.
Looking for a way to get out of the conversation, he peered around and found
the nearby public restrooms. "Excuse me." Racing towards them, he hoped
that she didn't see his eyes welling. There was something about her words,
spoken in innocuous honesty that cut far too close to the bone, that rung in
his ears like a stereo blaring at full volume.
As he raced for the sanctuary of the facilities, Aoi could only look at
his retreating form, her lip beginning to tremble with the shame of the
sorrow she'd inadvertently inflicted on him and the pain of watching him go
through hell. "You don't know, or you won't see. You believe in her so
much, and she's poisoning you." Aoi looked up to the skies, tears welling
in her blue eyes. How could someone as kind as he continue to have such
faithful love in someone so undeserving?
((How can you believe her, Hikomei? How?))

???

Hikomei was already asleep by the time Kogimi showed up at their room.
Or so it seemed. In truth, he'd been only pretending when she came in,
completely drunk and whistling some strange tune he'd never heard her
whisper before. Slurring something sub-audible, she threw off her clothing
and crawled into the futon next to him, completely blasted. She "woke him
up" deliberately, not even bothering to explain where she'd been as it is
difficult to explain when one's mouth is busy. As the night previous, she
was far more aggressive in her lovemaking than he'd ever known her to be.
As she lay sated on him, she whispered something he couldn't really
decipher: "knz". Was it a name? A place? Hikomei didn't know. But what
was worse, and it was something he hoped he was completely imagining, he
could have sworn for a second that he caught the scent of a man's cologne on
her body. Hikomei never wore cologne.
((I must be imagining,)) he thought, ((shutting down the gnawing doubt
at the back of his mind. Now matter how many problems we've had, she
wouldn't cheat on me, would she?))
Yet the darkness of the nighttime room gave him no comfort as he held
the one he loved dear...
...and yet felt like he was holding a complete stranger.


Elsewhere in the ryokan, the doll twitched slightly. Something had
awoken it from its ages-old sentinel slumber recently, and that event was
the force of betrayal. The zashiki bokko hina blinked its painted eyes,
gazing at the ryokan it had been tasked with defending for so long. Though
times had clearly changed, some facets of human nature never did, and that
was the sign that it was needed. Additionally, the events occurring could
be *the* situation, the fork in the road that would lead to eternal peace
for the spirit.
Soon the answer would come. Soon it would come, and the spirit would be
called upon to do its deed.

???

For a change, on the third day, Kogimi wanted to do something with
Hikomei. For reasons inexplicable to him, the morning started off with sex,
but she was far more gentle and pliant, almost as though she was an entirely
different person last night. After that and a quick breakfast, the pair
decided to go out. As both left the ryokan for the day, Hikomei caught a
glimpse of Aoi while she was sweeping the engawa. She glanced at him and
the look in her eyes was unusual, something he'd seen before but couldn't
quite place it other than sorrow. Something was clearly bothering his
friend today, and it twinged at his soul to see her so sad. However, as
much as he wanted to go to her side, he knew that to do so might set off
Kogimi's jealousy and he wasn't prepared to do that. Having to reluctantly
satisfy himself with the promise to help her out later, he and his intended
set out.
They'd agreed on going out, unbeknownst to him, because Kenzo had been
busy with official duties, and thus left Kogimi to decide if she'd agree to
go on the vacation. To her, however, it was another choice. It was the
choice between the faithful and boring Hikomei or the chance of the future
with the much more flashy and entertaining Kenzo. To a degree, she'd
already made the choice, she realized, but she at least owed Hikomei a small
(if likely to be lost) chance to redeem himself. After all, though it
wasn't her fault that he couldn't keep up with her social climbing, that
didn't mean that without a tweak or two, he couldn't do it.
They'd chosen a ride on the sky gondolas to the top of the local
mountain, then for a walk in the forested park, followed by a quick perusal
of some of the historical sites. Kogimi knew that it was partly because of
his research and partly because of the low wages he made as a clerical
assistant; there was no way he could afford the sailboat rental, the car
rental to go to another town, or any of the other pleasures that Kenzo had
so willingly provided her with during his time here.
During the entire trip there, they made it mostly in silence. Something
about that bothered Kogimi. There had been a time when they were willing to
share everything with each other, every thought and dream. But since she'd
changed her goals in life and he hadn't, he became more boring to talk to
and he tended to piss her off a lot - why couldn't he just understand common
sense? When they did manage to have a peaceful conversation, he managed to
prove more and more why she needed a cultured boyfriend, one that was
capable of withstanding the tremors of her new life. Someone like Kenzo,
who was clearly already there thanks to his life of privilege.
She deserved so much more out of life than some uncultured idiot like
Hikomei, and if he didn't shape up soon, three years or no, she'd move on to
greener pastures with gusto.


Finally, they disembarked the gondola and stepped out onto the station.
The arrival center was the remnants of an old, crumbling hotel, cordoned off
by chain-link fence for the safety of the public. In one corner of the
dilapidated ground was a small house, likely the domicile of the person who
ran the upper gondola station. The area was empty and rightly so; who would
ever come here for entertainment or enjoyment? Granted, there was a time
when she would have, but that was before she developed truly refined tastes,
the sort that truly marked her as a woman of the world.
Meanwhile, Hikomei was truly at peace. Staring at the vista of the
expansive forest, the lake and Mount Fuji in the distance, he clearly didn't
see the look of disgust on Kogimi's face. To him, the beautiful blue sky
and the lush green of the forest, intermingled with the purple mountain
majesty of Fuji-san, meant to him a sign that everything was going to work
out, that though their relationship was crumbling, it wasn't so bad that it
couldn't be shored up in time, and everything restored to it proper place
and time in the universe.


*"HIKOMEI!!!"* Kogimi all but screamed in his face. "I hate this place!
Why did you bring me up here?"
He reeled as though he'd been slugged. "But-but-but you always said
that you wanted to see Fuji this way!"
She wheeled on him, disgust glittering in her eyes. "Yes, but I wanted
to see it from a helicopter or something, not in front of the Hotel
Condemnation!" She stabbed a finger angrily in the direction of the
derelict building, snarling, "I think I'm going to get tetanus just from
looking at the thing! How could you do this to me? Why couldn't you have
found a nice restaurant on a hill overlooking this? No, instead I get an
inconsiderate fianc? like you mistreating me!"
"Kogimi-chan...."
"Don't 'Kogimi-chan' me! You constantly hurt and wound me by your
thoughtlessness! You probably wanted to look around this place for some
ideas for your silly stories, all without even thinking about me!"
Regardless of whether there was no one around or not, Typhoon Kogimi had hit
full strength and was slamming against the shores of his ego. "Why do I
even put up with you anymore! Take me back to the ryokan, now!"
"Okay," he sighed, not wanting to deal with the argument that would
happen otherwise. In one fell swoop, she'd managed to do further damage to
the relationship, and even insulted his writing ability, the very thing that
he counted on to make a life for them together. If she could so brazenly
insult them, she had no faith in them, and by extension him. Which could
also mean she had no faith in them, either - and he didn't mean the writing.
His heart thudding in his chest and threatening to shut down, he nodded
sadly, turning around and heading back towards the gondola station. If he
had faced her, he would have seen a viciously victorious smile on her face,
glad that she'd won this latest round against a fianc? who was more and more
becoming a lover in title only.


As they approached the gondola, the pair encountered one of those old
ladies who did palm reading. Since it was a Western mystic art, usually
those old ladies who practiced it did so in the darkest night, usually in
shadow-soaked alleys and niches, with only the flicker of candlelight to
keep the luminance; it was purely for show and they played it to the hilt.
For one of them to be performing her arts in broad daylight was different,
and to be honest, it caught Hikomei's attention.
The old woman sat with her small table and two chairs, the faded red
cloth failing to give the scene a more sober appearance. Behind her was a
sign that read simply TWO HAND READINGS = 1000 YEN. The old woman herself
was a tiny frail thing that had managed to live through the years with
dignity and grace. Somewhat cheerfully hunched over the table, she gave the
pair a smile and in a creaky voice asked, "Would you care to have your fates
read? They remain on your palms, where the gods put them for the wise to
know."
Hikomei smiled, sitting down at the chair. Though he could sense
Kogimi's anger, his interest was caught and he definitely wanted the
experience. Fishing a 1000-yen note out of his wallet, he gave it to the
elderly woman who snatched it up in an instant then took his hand gingerly.
"Well, honored elder, what do you see in my fates?"
The old woman ran her fingers across his palm, "hrm"ing and "ooh"ing and
the usual sounds of intrigue and interest when dealing with that typical
situation. After a minute or two, she stopped, pointing to a couple of
wrinkles on the young man's hand. With a twinkle in her eye, she answered,
"You're destined for greatness, do you know? You will create great things,
and your name will be known far and wide." She paused, looking once more at
his hand and continued: "You will also have the love of a lifetime, the
faithful affections of a woman who will always be there for you."
Kogimi groaned, unable to believe his stupidity. "I can't believe that
you're listening to that! It's nothing but a pat speech she's memorized!"
The old woman fixed Kogimi with an even stare. "Young miss, if you
truly believe so, then you will find out exactly what the truth is when you
sit down. After all," she said, releasing Hikomei's hand to its owner,
"it's your turn." With a magnanimous gesture, she motioned to the seat
where he was sitting.
"You've got to be kidding me," the young woman snapped. "As if I would
ever do that!"
"Kogimi-chan, the rules said two for a thousand yen. You don't want to
deprive the woman of her work, do you?" That seemed to be enough to get her
to sit down and endure the trial of having her palm read.
The woman took the girl's palm and began to do the same thing that she
did to Hikomei's palm earlier. After a minute or so, she set down and fixed
Kogimi with an even stare. "According to your fates, you will receive the
reward you so richly deserve."
She smiled slightly. That had to be good, right? Yet, there was
something in the woman's eyes that hinted otherwise, something that just
didn't seem to click with those words. Why had he gotten a lengthy speech,
and she'd only received a few terse words?
The girl sighed. ((The woman's addled, and probably thinks Hikomei
reminds her of her husband or something. It probably doesn't matter what
she says, anyway, because I *know* I'm destined to receive that reward.))
She took one look at her fianc?, who was thanking the woman for her time and
something in her mind clicked. Maybe it was something that was at the edge
of realization, but it was the truth, regardless. Kogimi couldn't stand
being near someone like him anymore. Maybe once that was true, but she had
become more civilized, and he continued to enjoy living like one of the
commoners. It was as if two caterpillars fell in love and after the
chrysalis stage, one discovered it was a beautiful butterfly, while the
other was a plain moth.
A butterfly such as she had become would be wasted on him, and he could
even possibly drag her down back to his level. She no longer wanted to live
that sort of disgusting, common life. She had other things to do with her
world, and that life would include Kenzo, a man who truly appreciated the
kind of woman she had become.


"Well, since you're so busy flirting with that old bag, I guess I'll
just go shopping then," Kogimi announced imperiously, walking away from the
two at a brisk pace.
Quickly Hikomei said his thanks and goodbyes to the old fortuneteller
and moved to Kogimi's side. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means that I'm tired of all this!" She raised her hands in
exasperation, and she began to tremble in anger, approaching rage. *"YOU
TREAT ME LIKE SHIT, AND I'VE HAD IT!!!!! IF YOU DON'T SHAPE UP AND SOON,
I'M BAILING!!!!"* Not bothering to watch where she was going, she knocked
over a little girl as she headed towards the gondola entrance, barely making
an effort to grunt, "Out of my way, brat!" As the girl stumbled to the
floor, Kogimi petulantly sat on the bench, giving dark stares to anyone who
would dare to remonstrate or even attempt to talk to her.
Not at all pleased with his fianc?e's attitude, Hikomei bent down and
helped the young girl to her feet, wiping away her tears and handing her the
dusty doll. "Don't cry, hime-chan. Everything's going to be alright,
okay?"
The girl sniffled once, sobbing and clutching the doll to herself as
though it were her lifeline. Finally, the child looked at him with a smile
and said, "You're a nice man. Thank you very much!" Reaching over, she
gently pecked him on the cheek, then spun and looked at Kogimi. Pulling on
one eyelid and sticking her tongue out, she shouted, "An' you're a mean ol'
lady!"
"And you're a rude little brat! Someone needs to teach you some
manners!" Kogimi rose to her feet, ready to chew out the kid; she didn't
care whose it was.
Fortunately, the old woman's voice came from around the corner. "Aoko,
come child, we have other things to attend to."
Aoko called out, "Hai, obasama!" Staring darkly at Kogimi one final
time, she reached over and hugged her samurai in shining armor, chirping,
"Thanks again, mister!" before running off to join her grandmother.
Hikomei could only smile at the child's bubbly and carefree attitude as
she left. He wished he could feel that again; it had been so long since the
last time he had. There was something slightly familiar about her, though,
as if she'd seen the girl somewhere before, and that Barbie doll she carried
looked somehow reminiscent. But the really odd thing was that both toy and
owner made him think of Aoi, for some reaso-

*THWAP*

*"OW!"* He rubbed the spot on his face where Kogimi slapped him. "What
was that for?"
"*That*," she said, her voice full of venom, "is for being the spineless
jellyfish you are. You let a kid insult me for crying out loud, and all you
did was hit on her, you damn rorikon hentai!"
"Well, you were the one to push her and didn't do anything about it.
And she's just a kid, what kind of person do you take me for?"
"She's just a brat, and you helped her." Kogimi's eyes narrowed in
anger. "But if you feel so strongly about her over me, maybe you'd best
sleep alone tonight, 'cause you sure aren't going to be in my bed!" She
turned away from him, her thoughts turning once again to why she continued
to put up with him when she knew Kenzo was a much better find.
He rose from the bench, walking a few steps to lean on the railing. The
ride down from the mountain was spent in angered silence, and when they
reached the floor, she began to walk away from him at a fevered pace,
determined to lose him in the crowd. He tried to follow, to apologize, but
he lost her two blocks later.
As he headed back to the ryokan, his heart heavy, he began to realize he
was losing her in other ways as well.

???

When Kenzo returned to his room, he found Kogimi there, wearing nothing
but a smile. "My, aren't we eager?" he teased, beginning to undress.
In response, she slid off the bed, slinking towards him as sultry as she
could, sighing in a breathy voice and caressing her body to ready him for
their pleasures. Moving closer and nibbling on his ear, she cooed, "I
wanted to be with someone who really loves me for a change."
Kenzo wasn't sure what Kogimi meant by her cryptic comment. A couple of
minutes later, as he entered her, he didn't really care, either.

???

"I was wondering if I'd find you here," Hikomei commented. It was ten
in the evening, and Kogimi hadn't bothered to come back yet; he wondered if
she was going to come back at all. Ever. But that was his personal
problem, something he had to deal with. To him, a more urgent concern was
finding Aoi. He hadn't seen her at dinner that night, and she hadn't popped
in, even to say hello as usual. He eventually asked a couple of the workers
of her whereabouts, but they were tight-lipped about her, until a girl named
Michiko told her Aoi had some cleaning to do down in the lobby.
"Oh, hi, Hikomei. Are you okay? You look so sad." The girl was busy
cleaning something with great care, and he wondered what it was. A second
later, Aoi moved her soft cloth, revealing the spirit doll underneath it.
"Oh, the doll. I don't mind cleaning her, since after she's protected this
place for so long she deserves to be as clean as any of us. But you must
think me silly for doing something like that."
"Of course not," he answered. "You're always nice like that, Aoi, it's
what I like about you." As he spoke the words, something about them seemed
odd to him. "Like" didn't seem to be the correct word there, as though it
was out of place somehow. Maybe something else was needed, but he wasn't
sure. "Anyway, I saw you looking so sad this morning, and I wanted to see
if you were okay."
"You came looking for me? I'm touched. Thank you very much." Aoi
blushed, even in the moonlight. "But I'm okay. I just had...a sad feeling
this morning, and I feel awkward about it." Done cleaning the doll, she
gently set it down, whispering to it, "There, now you're the belle of the
inn again."
"No offense meant to the doll spirit, but I think you're the belle
around here, Aoi," he said with a slight smile. "You're also a very good
friend."
"Thank you." Aoi blushed, and somehow that seemed to make her all that
much more attractive for it. "But you didn't answer my question. Are you
all right?"
"I'm fine, really." His face still seemed troubled, however, and a
second later he amended with, "No, no I'm not. The relationship with the
girl I love is crumbling around me, and I'm not sure if I can save it.
Sometimes I wonder if I even if I should. She seems to hate me so much
nowadays, and I don't know why." He buried his face in his hands, adding,
"This is all my fault, and I don't even know how it happened."
"Don't blame yourself," Aoi said, reaching over and hugging her friend.
"You're a nice guy, and it's not your fault. Sometimes things change, and
they're not always for the good. But it all balances out in the end, and
everyone gets what they deserve. Remember what I told you about the legend
of the doll spirit."
"Yeah, but she never reunited with the man she loved," Hikomei pointed
out.
"That's where you're wrong," Aoi said, leaning up and kissing him.
Surprised, he soon found that he was willingly responding, and a barrage of
sensations flooded into his mind, all of them the best he'd felt in a long
time. But two other facts of nature immediately came to mind, and with
great reluctance he broke away from the kiss, looking at Aoi. Then at the
doll. Then at Aoi.

The faces were one and the same.

"You're the doll spirit," he gently accused, somehow not surprised,
though he wasn't sure why.
She nodded in the affirmative. "Yes, and I've been waiting so long for
you to return to me, my beloved," she responded. "I'm also-" she changed
forms in a flash, and the child he met this afternoon now sat next to him,
"-capable of changing into-" Another pulse of magic, and the old
fortuneteller was now his company, "-whatever shape I need-" A third
transformation, and she was gone, but the doll itself that had laid on the
silk cloth by her side stood up and waved, "-to protect my home and my
friends." A final change and the doll was gone, replaced by Aoi again, now
wearing a kimono like her doll form. "But I've been so lonely, waiting for
you to return to me, and now that may never happen." Tears welled in her
eyes, and great sorrow clouded her face.
The look in his eyes registered disbelief. Not that he could disbelieve
that Aoi was the legendary zashiki bokko hina herself, but rather what she
was implying, that he was the farmer from old, reincarnated to return to
her. "But I can't be your old love, Aoi. I don't know the first thing
about farming!"
"You're not supposed to remember your past life," Aoi answered, leaning
against him. "But I can, and you haven't changed, not where it counts.
You're still the sweet, faithful and loving man I knew back then, but the
difference is now you use a computer and paper instead of a rake and plow."
But a tear rolled down the ghost's cheek as she also added in a heartbroken
voice, "and you still belong to her. Worst of all, I'm duty bound to unite
you two if there's still a way." There was no mention of the rest of the
legend; she didn't know if it was going to come to pass.
Confusion registered in his eyes. Not only was he a reincarnation -
which he couldn't believe - but if that was the case, Kogimi was a
reincarnation of his unfaithful wife? ((But, I have to admit, at least
she's not cheating on me in this life, if we really were reborn. I think.))
"You'd do that for me?"
"I have to, I'm bound by honor." Aoi's eyes reflected an ancient and
endless pain. "It hurts, Hikomei, it really does, but that's what love
means sometimes. Sacrificing everything for love and loyalty." She kissed
him again, the tears running down her cheeks freely now, as she exclaimed,
"No one has ever loved you like I do, no one has ever been as faithful. But
I will do as I was bid, because I love you."
Hikomei looked at Aoi and found an understanding of his emotions. He
was attracted to her and maybe falling for her a bit as well; none of this,
however, made his position any easier. "Aoi, you're dear to me, but I can't
leave Kogimi. I don't know if she loves me any more, but I still love her,
and as long as she's stayed faithful to me, I can't abandon her."
"But she treats you like dirt! I've seen it! She even slapped me, then
berated you for helping me!"
"But you don't know her good side. I've seen it, and though it seems as
though lately it's a lot harder and harder to see, it's still there. As
rocky as our relationship has been lately, it's not as though it's
unsalvageable. We came here to repair it, and the fact that she came means
she still loves me."
"I guess you're right," Aoi replied, her tones mournful. "But it just
doesn't seem fair. I've been waiting for you forever, and now this...."
Hikomei nodded, taking her face in his hands. "Aoi-chan, if things had
been different, I would love to be with you. You're so perfect, and you
make me happy. But I still love Kogimi." He leaned in forward to kiss her,
and the ghost closed her eyes, waiting for the caress of his lips. Instead,
she felt them against her forehead, and another part of her eternal soul
fragmented. Standing up, he looked at her and said, "Look, I'm rather tired
and want to go to bed. Can we continue this tomorrow? I have a feeling
that Kogimi won't be around, and we can go somewhere."
She thought for a second. "How about the caverns? There's a hot
springs cavern near here, where a lot of people go. There's also some
private spots in there where people can talk." At first, Hikomei thought
she was being sly about her intentions, but he looked into her blue eyes and
saw honesty in them - it was the first time in a while, he felt, that he saw
that in a woman's eyes.
"Okay," he yawned in agreement. "I'll see you in the morning, then."
"Oyasumi, my dearest Hikomei," the ghost said with a sad smile before
vanishing, leaving the doll behind.
Hikomei looked at the doll, then picked it up, gently carrying it back
to its stand. Kissing it gently on the head, he whispered, "Oyasumi,
Aoi-chan," before heading up the stairs to his room.

???

The next morning, as Hikomei walked downstairs, there were sparse people
around, and he wondered where Aoi would appear. As he walked into the
nearly empty lobby, he was caught off-guard as the doll waved and winked at
him, then leapt into his arms, morphing into Aoi. She remained weightless
for a second or two as he adjusted, then her weight kicked in as he set her
down. "Aoi!" he playfully scolded.
She smiled, laughing softly. "You don't know how long I've always
wanted to do that." She snapped her fingers, and a pulse of light appeared
behind her; Hikomei looked and discovered a replica doll now stood where Aoi
had been for so long. Meanwhile, the ghost girl had taken the time to chat
breezily with the owner, to which Hikomei found that rather odd. Did they
know the secret of their mysterious employee?
"Aoi's more than just a worker here in the ryokan," the innkeeper
explained, seeming to read his thoughts. "She's part of the family. She
was here when I was born, when my father was born, my father's father, and
ages back. If there should be anyone who claims ownership of this place, it
should be Aoi, but she's just always been content to protect and live here."
Aoi smiled at the innkeeper. "No, the inn's been in your family even
before I was around. I'm just happy to live here." Leaning against
Hikomei, she asked, "Shall we go?"
The young man favored the ghost with a smile that warmed her ancient
heart. "Of course, Aoi. Of course."

???

Kenzo and Kogimi looked at each other for what seemed like the longest
time. It was clear on the look of Kenzo's face that he had some news to
tell her, but she had no inkling at all of what that could be.
Additionally, he chose a rather odd spot to do it. For the majority of the
morning, he'd been gone on ministerial duties, while she lay in the bed,
sated and feeling great. She'd ordered room service, and partook of all the
luxuries that she knew to be her gods-given right, things that Hikomei had
denied her merely by staying in that ramshackle old ryokan. It was a
"quaint" place in the same way that rabid dogs were "cute", but she deserved
red carpets and crystal chandeliers, not ragged tatami mats and dilapidated
paper lanterns.
When he returned, though, it was clear that something major had
occurred, but he didn't tell her what. Instead, he quietly changed and
suggested they take a walk. So they went to the Lovers' Cave, a local
attraction that was part museum and part shadowy romantic spot. They'd
taken in both of the aspects, but somehow to Kogimi it felt different. It
felt eerily for a second as though she were with Hikomei and not Kenzo.
However, her train of thought was interrupted as he finally addressed
her, leading her to a stone bench in one of the well lit areas of the cave,
the rest of the surroundings bathed in the dim, flickering lights. "Um,
Kogimi, I'm not sure how to say this, but I got word today from the Prime
Minister. He's been so impressed by my work that I've been...promoted. I
leave for my job in a little over a week, so I'm going to have to cancel our
vacation plans. I'm going to be assigned as the assistant consul general to
Los Angeles." After what seemed like a grand pause, he added, "I'm telling
you all of this, Kogimi, because I want you to come with me."
There was no word to describe the sudden and complete shock she suddenly
felt. ((Me, going to Hollywood? To live there?)) She was so out of it,
she almost missed the rest of his words.
"Kogimi, these past few months that I've known you has been like a
dream, the kind I never want to wake up from. I must be completely and
totally crazy to say this, but I want you in my life for a long time." He
fished a small box out of his pocket and opened it. "In fact, for the rest
of it, if you'll say yes."
Kogimi's mouth went slack in surprise. The ring was big. *Big.* The
diamond on it sparkled brighter, the gold in it shined redder than the
engagement ring she had secreted in her pocket. By comparison, the
engagement ring that Hikomei bought her looked like nothing more than a
trinket that one received in a box of children's cookies. Kenzo's ring was
probably worth more money than Hikomei would ever make, and it was certainly
a clue about the sort of life she would have available to her, a life that
she certainly deserved.
She paused and in holding out her hand. She was already an engaged
woman, and to be doing what she was doing was already scandalous should
others find out. Then again, it didn't really matter, did it? She was
entitled to a life of joy and wealth, and that was something Hikomei could
never give her; he wasn't the ambitious type. She deserved her dreams, and
if it meant doing things that were unusual, so be it.
Kenzo caught her pause. "Well, unless you have other things that are
keeping you tied to Japan...."
"No, not any more." She smiled, realizing something for the first time
in her life. Holding out her hand out she accepted his troth, becoming
finally engaged to the right man for her. Now, there was only one last
thing for her to do, and that was to get rid of the problem in her life.
She loved Hikomei, but she now realized she was just too good for him. He
deserved someone of his own class, some peasant girl who wasn't
sophisticated enough to understand he was a loser. Leaning and kissing the
right man of choice, Kogimi now knew she was finally on the path to the
right way of life.
"I love you," she told Kenzo as she broke the kiss. "I'll always be
with you, my dearest."


In the distance, there was an unearthly scream, one of pain and abject
horror. Both people jumped, caught off-guard by the sound.
"What was that?" she asked, gripping onto Kenzo like a lifeline.
"Probably just someone scaring someone else just for fun," he answered
in reply. "I was in these caves this morning while checking them out for
the Prime Minister, and they're completely safe. There's no way at all that
anyone could be hurt in them."

???

Standing in the darkness only scant meters from Kogimi and Kenzo, shaken
to the core, Hikomei witnessed his love's betrayal. He became so numbed, he
hadn't realized that the inhuman scream that had echoed in the cave had been
his own. He fell back, slumping into the wall and dropping to the floor,
not even having the strength to stand. The young man was in complete and
total shock, shivering like a live wire and muttering, "Kogimi...why? Why?"
The knife in the back appeared in his mind's eye, the metaphor burning
through him worse than any real knife could. He knew their relationship was
rocky right now, but this...this.... His mind shut down, unable to
comprehend the onslaught of watching the woman he loved most in the world in
the arms of another man, a man she promised herself to despite her own vows
to him. Vows that were now clearly lies, slaps in the face for all he'd
done for her. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could feel the world
laughing at him, viciously pleased at the birth of a new Pagliacci. He felt
his heart burst, and somehow he knew he was dying. If he wasn't dying, he
began to wish he were.
((Kogimi, our relationship isn't that bad, is it? It isn't so bad
you've fallen into the arms of another man.... What have I done? Kami,
what have I done?))


A pair of arms wrapped around him, but he couldn't feel them. Nor did
he feel the tears of Aoi as the ghost girl tried to comfort her
brokenhearted friend, watching him repeat fate once more. "Oh, Hikomei, I
didn't know this was going to happen. I didn't know any of this. I'm sorry
you had to see this."
Without warning, in a zombie-like state, he rose back to his feet, his
eyes showing a man destroyed. Barely acknowledging her as she looked up at
him, he said, "I'd...like to be alone right now, Aoi. I'll see you later."
Hikomei then shuffled off, the look on his face barely one of composure,
clearly one that said he was holding on together by the proverbial thread.
Within a minute more, he was swallowed up by the darkness, the black as dark
and cold as his hopes and dreams now were.
Aoi watched him leave, tears running down her cheeks. At the back of
her mind, she understood everything now. History had repeated itself once
more, leaving her love a broken man again, making her watch him die once
again, this time in spirit rather than physically. ((I wish I could take
your pain from you, I really wish I could.))
But she knew she couldn't. She knew the truth: the farmer's wife had
been unfaithful to him with the daimyo's son, and now centuries later, the
spirits of the same two repeated the same course of events. However now
there would be a different ending to the tragedy, and the zashiki bokko hina
would be called upon to do her true calling: not to defend the place that
she'd called home for so long, but to be the instrument of divine punishment
for the wife's repeated transgressions; and to be the one to heal her
would-be lover's wounded heart.
Watching Kogimi and her new fianc? continue to kiss while oblivious to
everything around them, Aoi's face became a mask of rage, her eyes glowing
with electric sparks of divine retribution. Turning, she walked through the
nearest wall, preparing for the events of tonight. When it was done, wrongs
would be righted for good.

???

It was the early evening, the moon shining on the whole of the land when
Hikomei came into the room, slightly drunk and not caring about anything.
His world was over, and now it was bathed in night and dark worse than the
starry blanket above. Chains of agony weighed him down and there would be
no future for him anymore, nothing at all. He wasn't exactly sure it
wouldn't get any worse.
Sitting in the room, packing the last of her bags, was Kogimi. She
looked so beautiful, more so than he had ever seen her before, but that
beauty was now an icy beauty of hatred, the look of the yuki onna as she
destroyed another man's life. She looked at him and made official what
she'd already done hours earlier. "Hikomei, I'm leaving."
"I know."
"I can't take this anymore. I love you, I really do, but you're no
longer my type. You didn't keep up with me." Her voice was too calm, too
pat for there to be any real emotion behind her words, he knew. How long
had she memorized these lines, how long had she waited to say these words
that she now spoke? "Even if you try to catch up, all you'll do is drag me
back down to your level. I deserve better, and you deserve someone of your
station."
"So you chose to find someone instead, is that right?" he said, his
tones flat and emotionless.
Her eyes narrowed in anger. "What? You think that I...?" She cleared
the distance between them in three strides and slapped him as hard as she
could. "How *dare* you! How dare you accuse me of cheating on you when you
know I would never-"
"I saw you, Kogimi," he said, his voice broken and his heart stinging
worse than the slap did. "I saw you when he proposed to you and you
accepted. You weren't wearing my ring. You're still wearing his." He
grabbed her hand and raised it to her face; sure enough, there it was, still
on her finger and glittering its proclamation of betrothal.
She snatched her hand back. "Yes, yes I did, and I'm happy I did, too.
In fact, I'll tell you now: I've been with him every night we've been here,
and he's better than you are!"
A tear rolled from Hikomei's eye, sliding down his cheek to impact to
the ground, a relative distance below. "Why, Kogimi? Why did you destroy
in a matter of months what it took us years to build? Why did you throw
away our love?"
*"Because love isn't enough!"* she snarled. *"Because he's everything
you'll never be! All you want to be is some starving hack writer, while
Kenzo is a man of importance and fortune! A year from now, I'll be basking
in the luxury I deserve, and you'll still be in that same squalor and filth
you call your life!*
*"You should be glad that I even bothered to go out with you! Yes, I
used to be the same as you, but thank the kami I had a chance to see what
real life is like, with real money, and I WANT THAT LIFE!*
*"You'll NEVER give me that life, and you'll NEVER HAVE ME! GOODBYE,
LOSER!"* Reaching in her pocket, she took his engagement ring and threw it
at him, the diamond cutting across his face and drawing a streak of blood.
Striding over to get her bag so she could leave for good, she then moved to
the door and said her final words, lines that ironically were probably the
most honest thing she'd said to him in ages. "Hikomei, for what it's worth,
I do love you. But you'll never be good enough for me, and I can't wait
anymore." Nothing more to say, she stepped out into the hallway, leaving
both the room and his life forever.


Hikomei looked at the space where the most important period of his life
ended, and whispered, "I love you, Kogimi. Sayonara," unable to believe he
was saying the words he never thought he'd ever have to utter. Wracked with
grief, he then passed out, his body painfully crunching against the wood of
the floor. But that pain would never equate to the agony he was feeling
now, the suicidal thoughts running through his mind. As his consciousness
shut down to save him from insanity, he remembered a conversation they had
only a week ago; ironically, it was about a couple they both knew, in
similar straits. Though Kogimi had never meant it to be prophetic, it
turned out to be very much so: ((They say that in a relationship, only the
girl feels the pain when the guy leaves. But when I saw Ashitaka after
Fujiko left him, I knew that was a lie - a man can hurt just as deeply as a
woman can, and a woman can be just as cruel and callous as any male.))

???

Kogimi walked down the steps towards the foyer, feeling finally free.
She had the right sort of fianc? she needed now, and she no longer had
Hikomei in her life. She wasn't worried about how he'd fare; if he was any
kind of man at all he should be over her in a day or so. If not, that was
his fault for being so much in love with her. ((No person should ever get
that much in love, and I'll never be that stupid to feel that way about
anyone!)) she vowed.
As she stepped into the lobby, she noted that the place was completely
darkened. It was also deserted. Not deserted as in nobody was around, but
in the sense of a haunted, abandoned place. The surroundings appeared to be
much older now, and were in some cases, completely decrepit.
There was a soft giggle behind her, coming from no one she could see.
"Is anyone there?" she said, adjusting her bag.


"You hurt him." The voice sounded like nothing she'd ever heard before.
It had a reverb to it, a thousand notes all slightly off key and singing as
one, merging into a single sonorous tone. "He loved you and you betrayed
him in the past, rutting like a dog while you were married. One thousand
years later, you've done it again, you whore!"
Kogimi looked around for the origin of the voice. "Who's there! Who
the hell are you to talk to me like that!"
"You stabbed him with a knife sharper than steel. You've even done
wrongs to me, and you and your lover will now pay for your crimes against
heaven and earth." The voice now had an origin and Kogimi wheeled ready to
punch whoever dared to accuse.
What she saw filled with shock. Still speaking to her in the same
unnatural, derisive tones, was the doll she had knocked over earlier in the
week, the so-called guardian ghost doll of this place. It stared at her
with glowing eyes, its tiny mouth moving with the words of hate and pointing
a small arm at her in accusation. "You unfaithful bitch! You didn't learn
the last time, and you haven't learned now. Now you will pay the ultimate
price for your crimes, you and yours!"
To Kogimi's horror, the doll hopped off its stand and began to grow to
full size, the object becoming the same height as her within a matter of
seconds.
"Wha-what are you?" Kogimi whispered, her mind unable to scream.
"I am your doom!" The doll, now completely human in scale, began to
crack and splinter, blood and gore flowing from the cracks. As it began to
crumble, the doll reared back its head and laughed, the banshee cackle
burning through the ears of Hikomei's former lover. At last, in a grisly
burst of red, the doll detonated, showering Kogimi in waves of blood and a
larger creature clawed its way out of the remains.
Covered in the horrific remnants of its arrival, the oni looked at
Kogimi with a dark hatred. Arching its back and screaming into the air with
a monstrous roar, the oni faced the woman and raised its hand back in a
killing stroke.
Reality kicked in for Kogimi and screaming at the top of her lungs, she
ran out the door, throwing her bag at the monster and racing for her life.
The oni laughed at her, a cruel chuckle that seemed to say it all.
*"You can run all you wish, but you cannot hide from your fate, Kogimi! I
am the Zashiki Bokko Hina, and you will pay for the crimes you have
committed!"*


Racing out of the inn, Kogimi expected to find herself in the outer
grounds of this islet. Instead, she found herself in hell. Spread out
before her instead of the normal forest pathway, bridge to the main bank and
the outer grounds of the ryokan, all covered under the starry blanket of
night. Instead, she bolted out into a world transformed. In place of what
she knew had to be out there, was a blasted, tortured landscape, filled with
beehive rock stalagmites, sulphrous pools of a sickly yellow something; and
sparse clumps of weeds growing in Escheresque gnarls. Looking at the new
surroundings she was caught in, she screamed *"Where the hell am I? Can
anyone hear me? Somebody help me!"*
The roar of the oni tore through the air once more, and Kogimi ran in a
random direction not waiting to see if she was being followed or not.
Fearing for her life, she moved as fast as she could, almost feeling the
claws of the beast behind her, knowing that at any moment unless fate
intervened, she was going to die. Her hearing, caught up listening for the
approaching footfalls of the demon, amplified every sound and made her wary
for any single noise that came across her hearing. Her eyes, searching for
the creature that hunted her, were so tied up in that function that she
never saw the object she tripped over until it was too late.
Spilling onto the ground, she turned to quickly look at what it was and
found, to her horror, that it was her beloved Kenzo. His face was a mask of
shock, a death rictus as his blank eyes stared beyond her and into a
frightening infinity. The rest of him was torn open, his entrails spilled
onto the ground along with his blood, all done by a gore-sheathed fan spread
out and lying on the ground next to his remains.
Kogimi screamed in shock, her eyes not comprehending what she was
seeing. She understood even less as Kenzo's corpse stood up, his face
morphing into that of Hikomei's. Moaning in her ex-fianc?'s voice, the
creature said, "You've done this to me, my love. Come, enjoy your
handiwork!"
She didn't stick around to enjoy anything, instead crawling away as fast
as she could and scrambling to her feet, turned to run. As she returned to
the upright position, however, she could see the oni in the distance, racing
towards her as fast as it could, murder in its eyes. Also now joining the
chase was the creature that looked like a dead version of Hikomei, now
transforming into a near (if dead) identical version of herself. The
ghoulish Kogimi screamed at the living one, "This is what you really are,
Kogimi, this is who you are!" The creature reached into itself, tearing out
more and more of its insides, then reached up to its face and clawed out its
eyes, laughing all the while as the gore spilled everywhere.
Not wanting to see anymore, Kogimi shut her eyes, unable to withstand
the onslaught of horror any more-


--and when she opened them again, she found herself in an ancient temple,
frozen in time. Nothing moved, and everything was silent. At the far end
of the temple, standing as statues, she could see five people, but they
didn't hear her, nor answer her calls. Confused and afraid she was still
being hunted by the demon, she walked forward and ran straight into herself.
Standing completely in the nude and clearly having just had sex in this
sacred place - ((I'd never do that! Then again, it could be fun,)) she
thought - was Kogimi, her hair different, set in a fashion that was in vogue
in the feudal age. Standing next to her was Kenzo, his hair also in a
feudal set, an arrogant look on his face that she usually found attractive,
but for some reason she thought was disturbing this time. Both of them were
looking at something on the ground, and Kogimi followed the line of sight to
its conclusion.
There, dead on the ground in a pile, were two people, a priest hunched
over them and looking at the feudal Kogimi and Kenzo with eyes of rage.
Somehow this man seemed faintly familiar to him, as if a dream, a faint
trace of a glimmer in her REM. However, the two corpses piled at the bottom
seemed all the more familiar, all too real. At the bottom, his blood
pooling around him like a funeral shroud, was a feudal equivalent of
Hikomei, dirty and in tattered clothing, and dead by his own hand. Laying
on top of him, though, was a face that tore into the deepest corners of her
nightmares, since the very day she was born.
"It can't be...it can't be...."


"You'd be surprised what is, and what isn't," an accusing voice
responded. Kogimi looked up and saw a replica of the dead woman, standing
in the same kimono that the doll wore.
"Aoi," Kogimi whispered, fear etched in her features and her voice,
surprised she knew the woman's name.
"No, I'm real, despite what you think. In a sense, more so than you,"
the ghost snarled, crossing the room with lightning speed and slapping
Kogimi hard across the face. Kogimi turned and instinctively returned the
blow, but it passed through Aoi like nothing. Aoi, in turn, spun and
clamped her hand around Kogimi's throat, a murderous look in her glowing,
unearthly eyes.
Kogimi frantically tried to tear away the crushing hand at her neck, but
her hands passed through Aoi's even as the ghost's grip grew tighter.
Fearing her death, Kogimi gasped, "Please...don't kill me."
"Why should I care?" Aoi intoned. "You hurt Hikomei. He loves you so
much and you stepped all over him! You merciless whore! He would have done
anything for you, and your selfishness has destroyed him, twice! At least
this time he has a chance to heal."
"Why, are you going to do something about it?" Kogimi asked. "You're a
ghost!"
"I know." An enigmatic smile appeared on the face of the guardian
ghost, and for a second, it appeared beatific. Unceremoniously, she threw
Kogimi against a far wall, then wiped off her hands. "Don't worry. I'm not
going to kill you."
Kogimi gasped for air, gulping it down in constant breaths. As she had
a chance to speak again, she fixed an imperious stare on the ghost and
answered, "then you can have him, and I can go to Kenzo, and everything will
be fine."
Aoi shook her head. "Nope. Personally, I wouldn't care, but I am the
guardian ghost of the ryokan, and you brought disharmony into my home.
Furthermore, you harmed Hikomei again, and it's my duty to teach you a
lesson." Approaching Kogimi with a deliberate slowness, raising her hand
towards her, that appendage glowing with a dark, ethereal light.
"I-I-I thought you weren't going to kill me!" The girl scrambled
against the walls, trying to find a way to escape, but every direction she
traveled in only brought Aoi closer.
The ghost smiled. "I said I wasn't, and I meant it." But as she placed
her hand on Kogimi's forehead, the ghost intoned with the fury of centuries,
"However, there are worse things than dying. *Far* worse."
There was a flash of black light and blood, and Kogimi screamed with all
the strength of her own soul.

???

Hikomei woke up softly in the middle of the night, trying to clear his
head of the dream he had. In it, he saw the end of his beloved Kogimi.
Maybe it was a symbolic result of what had just happened hours ago. She was
gone now, gone forever, and though he didn't feel it, he began to realize he
was actually better off without her. The woman that she'd been had changed
from the woman he wished to marry into someone he no longer knew. Had they
stayed together, divorce would have been the likely result, and though he
loved her enough to carry on, her faithlessness indicated she would have
bolted at the first opportunity.
Rubbing his eyes, he then came with a sudden clarity. When he last
remember, he had passed out on the empty room, a place not readied for
sleep, much less him crawling into the peaceful world of bed. The futons
hadn't been set up, and no one had come in to set him up for sleep, so how-
"I see you're awake," a beautiful voice said from the darkest corner of
the room. "Don't get up, beloved, you'll only hurt yourself. You had a
nasty fall when you passed out, and I was worried about you."
Hikomei knew that voice instantly, and it warmed his heart even more
than if Kogimi had decided to return to him. "Aoi?"
Out of that dark corner the light of the laptop screen came on,
revealing in its pale glow the face of the ghost girl. "Of course it's me,
Hikomei. I'll never leave you." Rising from her seat, she walked over to
where he was, and he noted that she wore nothing but a bathrobe. "As long
as you'll have me with you, my love, I promise I'll never leave, and after
centuries of being able to keep promises, I'm pretty sure you can take that
at face value," she said, leaning forward and kissing him. This time
Hikomei joined fully into the kiss, much to her delight.
As they broke free, Hikomei looked at her with tender eyes and smiled.
"You knew I was falling for you, didn't you?"
To his surprise, her answer was to undo her robe, revealing nothing
underneath. "Yes, and now we can show each other how much we love, my sweet
Hikomei." Casting the clothing aside, she gently helped him with his own
and she slid onto his quivering, needing flesh. "We were destined to be
together, my dearest love," she said in a breathy voice, "and now we have
that chance."
As the pair made love during the course of the night, Aoi opened herself
to him in the fullest way she could. As they found the clouds and rain, she
revealed her mind to him, showing all of her memories of him the way he was
and what she'd seen of him now. She showed him her centuries of waiting,
her life as an extended part of the innkeeper's family, and through it all
her never-ending faith that they would be together. As the hours of their
consummation continued, their minds became as one, and two souls that had
been separated for spans of time became linked together in a bond of love
that few had ever shared, save in myths.


Morning came, and Hikomei found Aoi still in his arms, resting gently on
his chest, her head rising and falling with his breath. It would be where
she would always be now, by his side. He didn't question how or why, he
just knew, and that filled him with a joy and peace that he hadn't felt in
what seemed like ages. The events of the night seemed like lifetimes,
thanks to her sharing every memory and part of her with him, and the young
man now knew he could not live his life without this woman at his side,
ghost or no.
Aoi sleepily opened her eyes, looking at Hikomei. Reaching up, she
kissed him gently on the ridge of his jaw, whispering, "Hello, my love."
"Ohayo to you as well, sweet Aoi-chan," he said, holding her tighter.
"So what do we do now?"
"We wait three months," she answered, "just like you planned, right?"
She reached up to caress his face, and in that action he noted that she wore
his engagement ring, the one he'd given to Kogimi. Somehow, it seemed even
better on her finger, perfect and beautiful and even more ideal there than
anywhere else.
He nodded, knowing that this would be better than he believed. He would
be married in three months, and it would be to someone he loved and now was
certain would love him as well. "Are you sure that you want to wait that
long, Aoi? You did wait for me for an awfully long time," he teased.
She gave him a sunny smile, one that warmed his heart and worked
strongly to heal the pains and agony of his final times with Kogimi. "I'm a
patient woman. If I can wait for you for as long as I have, I think I can
live with three more months." Having said that, she stretched up and kissed
him, whispering, "Ai shiteru, Hikomei."
He returned the kiss, eagerly. "I love you too, my dearest Aoi."

???

"...and the ghost and her lover found peace and happiness forever, and
for all time," the innkeeper read, finishing the book.
"Wow," Michiko gasped, blinking her eyes as she woke from a dream,
wiping a tear from her eye. "That's so beautiful. I wish I could find a
love like that."
The innkeeper grunted, setting down the book and brushed her graying
bangs from her eyes. "It's only a book. Things like that don't happen in
real life." Turning to someone by the counter, she asked, "Speaking of
which, aren't you gonna sign the thing? It might be worth a fortune
someday."
Hikomei took the book from the innkeeper, searching in his pockets for
something. Finally he turned to Aoi and asked, "Dear, I think I forgot my
han and pen again."
Aoi smiled at her husband. "That's okay, anata. I remembered them, but
you'll have to take Hinako so I can get them out of my purse." Aoi handed
their baby daughter to her husband, then began looking in her purse for the
missing items.
It had been two years since the events that had occurred, and in that
time, life had been more than a blessing for the pair. Not only had the
pair found love and started a family, but between Hikomei's writing talents
and Aoi's thousands of stories, the pair had become the most popular
husband-and-wife writing team in Japan. Their first work, _Zashiki Bokko_,
was currently the best-selling book in the nation, and there was even talk
of making it into a movie-not bad for a "fictional" story about a man and a
ghost that fell in love.
Despite their success, Hikomei and Aoi continued to return to the ryokan
often to see the people that had become her family. Now that she'd been
freed from her curse, she was mortal again, and wanted to enjoy that feeling
to the hilt, including her adopted relatives; also she wanted her daughter
to never know the pain that she'd felt as the doll spirit, but to know the
love and joy of life itself. Hundreds of years went into the creation of
this child that was so dear to her and her husband and Aoi was going to give
baby Hinako everything she could.
Both of them signed books for the innkeeper and Michiko (who, strangely
enough, met Hikomei's younger brother at the wedding and now was dating
him), then grabbed their bags and headed to the room they always used when
staying at the ryokan, their home away from home.


A couple of minutes later, a second couple came into the ryokan, the
wife reading a copy of the book. As they stepped into the lobby, she poked
her head out of the book, looking around in amazement at her surroundings.
"Wow...so this is the inn the book's based on. It's described exactly just
like here!"
"Yes dear," her husband sighed. Evidently he'd heard this a dozen
times.
The innkeeper, smiling with a twinkle in her eye, welcomed the new
couple to her inn. "You'll be glad to know, ma'am, that the authors are
even here right now, as guests," holding up her signed copy of the book for
emphasis. "Maybe if you get a chance to run into them, they can sign the
book for you."
"Really? That'd be great!" the wife chirped. Looking around the lobby
at everything, she finally worked up the nerve to ask, "So is the story of
the zashiki bokko hina real?"
"Dear, it's just a story," the husband chided gently.
"No, it is real," Michiko chirped up as she grabbed the keys to the
couple's suite. "It's just not the whole story. From what I was told, the
ministry official, unable to find the girl he proposed to, thought she ran
away and left for America without her. The doll decided that the official
was innocent, that he likely didn't know of the girl's crimes and couldn't
be blamed for courting what he thought was a single young woman. As for the
girl herself, after she confronted the ghost, no one knows what happened to
her." Michiko held a straight face for a second and said, "Just kidding.
Seriously, all Aoi and Hikomei did was to spin a modern version of the old
tale of our doll." Michiko pointed to a familiar corner of the lobby.
The husband and wife wandered over to the corner, staring at the glass
case. In the case was a doll, standing in the center of what looked to be
the remains of an extremely expensive engagement ring, the loop broken in
two as though something incredibly strong had torn the golden metal.
The doll itself was rather odd. Designed in an anatomically correct
fashion rather than the traditional cherubic Kyoto style, it looked very
modern, wearing clothing that was the height of fashion about two years ago
instead of the timeless kimono. The doll looked very realistic, more so
than a mannequin, and had it been life-size, it could have been easily
mistaken for a normal person. The doll stood there, a playful smile upon
its lips, and eyes that seemed to express the emotions of eternity. The
couple looked into those eyes and knew that this was no sham, that this doll
was truly a spirit. Pulling away and heading back to the counter, they
quickly grabbed their bags and followed Michiko up the stairs to their room,
wanting to get away from the doll spirit as soon as possible - especially
her eyes.
Eyes, that if one looked deeply enough into them, would see the soul of
Kogimi screaming in eternal punishment.

...end.

author's blues....
This story was initially supposed to be a sidestory for Libby Thomas' series
_A Duet of Pigtails_, but after careful consideration, I felt that it needed
a voice of its own. Granted, I might still do the _Duet_ sidestory (the
only real connection between the two is the name of the story itself and the
name of the female ghost), but I might not. It all depends on where I go
next and where the fingers that tap endlessly on the keyboard carry me next.



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