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The Half-Life of Recovery

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When Takemikazuchi first writes, he writes with lightning painted on the page: Never trust Kiun.

Brushstrokes slash and splinter across the fibers. He's sloppy, careless, his child's arms barely able to keep his sleeves from dragging through the ink. It's his own personal script, a language of spikes and broken edges and jagged hearts.

He writes in hairline fractures of the sky.

It's nothing as official as code -- his shinki would be able to decipher it over time, he's sure -- but Takemikazuchi lets his thoughts leak into each gesture, seeping out of him like invisible blood from his fingers and wrist. He embeds a litany of meaning into each unique drawing, no matter how crudely performed, allowing the black slashes to stand as proof of the dragon buried within his chest.

His shinki review his kanji in painstaking comparisons during their writing tests. Not only must Takemikazuchi be able to demonstrate that his handwriting has not changed, he must also list how much knowledge was reborn with him, and what must be trained. They only check for kanji, hiragana, and the newly budding katakana system: they do not ask if he is capable of more. The only one who sees his paintings is Kiun, who watches over him not out of loyalty, but because he is Sekiun's spy.

Concealed inside his drawings, Takemikazuchi creates a new language, one belonging only to him. He scrawls anger and despair in every line he paints. Ink is the only way he is allowed to manifest. Ink is his electricity.

Kiun praises him with each picture. Kiun lies to him as often as Takemikazuchi lies back.

Every year on the anniversary of his death, they make him go and apologize to the graves.

At first, he weeps. His shinki seem to enjoy that. They draw themselves up proudly behind their robes and superiority, and watch with murmured approvals as Takemikazuchi mourns the ghosts which he destroyed, obliterating them from their second lives. They lecture him on the decades upon decades of fear they endured. He lowers his eyes in shame at the stories of the terror they had lived through, the ways they would huddle in hallways and back rooms together and hope for the storm to pass.

But eventually, as Takemikazuchi gets older and the tears still flow, they order him to stop. Their smiles turn to frowns; their pleasure to disapproval. He tries to apologize to the graves directly, speaking his thoughts out loud instead, and this earns equal refusal. He cannot grieve for the dead. This, too, is forbidden.

The old master would never be considerate enough to regret.

He tries to apologize for not acting properly, and they yell at him for that as well.

Takemikazuchi does not want to resent the twice-deceased. Ghosts are weaker than gods; ghosts should be protected, since the gods could not save them in their mortal lives. But every time he goes out to the graveyard, he feels as if the stones are laced to his legs, chained to his throat, dragging him down in obeisance. He cannot bow -- his shinki berate him about that as well, for a god to not be made humble even by his flaws -- and so he can only clutch the flowers he has been provided for offerings, crushing their stems as he sits and waits for his shinki to tell him that he has mourned for the proper length of time each year.

He is forced to stay indoors until he finishes growing up. He was reborn as a child; any visible youth would be cause for suspicion. Until he can pass as an adult, in the prime of his strength and maturity, he is not allowed to leave the estate. His shinki make polite excuses for him at the coming of each Divine Council, and turn away inquiries at the gate. He is absent from his shrines, lest he accidentally encounter other gods before he is ready. The prayers of his believers trickle up like gossamer spider threads -- a steady whisper of pleas that wish for protection, for courage, for the strength to fight and survive -- and his shinki tell him not to concern himself yet, that they will handle everything for him.

At first, he doesn't mind. He's tired all the time, tired and weak and aching, a pain in his chest that worsens whenever he's around his shinki for too long. Their gazes are like brands against his skin. It's difficult to endure them, and he pulls his bedding over himself like a shield, waiting for the agony to pass.

Sekiun always takes care to examine him during these times for blight, his eyes narrowed with clinical distaste. He never expresses relief whenever Takemikazuchi's skin is clean. His disapproval is the most piercing of all, like molten needles sliding between Takemikazuchi's ribs, metal tips nestling in his lungs.

"This must be one of your first and most important lessons, my lord," Sekiun says after one afternoon spent checking Takemikazuchi's health. His thin fingers are as brusque as his tone. "Whenever you feel that one of us is stinging you, you must never punish us all until the pain stops. Do you understand?"

"But why would I do that?" Takemikazuchi whispers, genuinely puzzled. His head is pounding. The sheets feel too hot. "If someone's unhappy, I want to know who it is."

Sekiun's lips press together in a flat line. "We shinki will take care of helping one another," he announces. "You do not need to know their identity."

Relationships are the next thing that Takemikazuchi is drilled in, trying to memorize which god he had been friends with, and which god had never overcome a grudge. The old Takemikazuchi was thankfully constant in his temperament, even if that temper was uncontrollable; his previous incarnation loved decisive action and taking chances, and boasted proudly of his victories on the Near Shore. He was easy to incite, easy to bait. Consequences were always secondary concerns, if they were even brought up to begin with.

Old arguments must be inherited. Takemikazuchi will have to pretend to be friends with faces he has never seen before, regardless of how he feels. His shinki tell him that he is lucky, that his divine nature is the same from incarnation to incarnation, and he need only follow his instincts -- to a point. Beyond that, and he will have erred. Beyond that, and he will be a risk to them all.


There are differences already, however, between how Takemikazuchi behaves now and how his predecessor lived in his final days. Sekiun keeps them charted in his personal archives. His nigi-mitama is being nurtured, his ara-mitama rechanneled. And -- even though he knows it would please Sekiun -- Takemikazuchi makes silent promises of his own to the graves, ultimatums drawn in his soul that he will force himself follow, invisible walls between himself and his predecessor to keep the two from ever blurring.

He will never embrace the lightning and go wild. He will never turn his powers against the lives in his care. He will never become the nightmare from their past.

It still isn't enough.

For the first decade of his life, Takemikazuchi's shinki are his only company. They are his entire world.

As his body takes time to mature, Takemikazuchi's shinki work steadily on lesson plans which center more aggressively on his ara-mitama. Its nature can never be altered -- his four souls are what they are, shaped around the original human needs that birthed him -- but it can remain appeased, remade to be subservient to his shinki's standards.

He is dutiful in his lessons, memorizing the warning signs of his own behavior. He learns a dozen ways to swallow his words and listen to his shinki's advice, even if he seethes on the inside. Many of the warnings baffle him with their common sense: to always protect the Near Shore, to not allow ayakashi to fester, to ask his shinki first before accusing them. All are matters which he would follow anyway, regardless of if they were outlined in Sekiun's instructions or not.

After lining them all up together in his mind, he plants his hands on the tatami and forces himself to accept the unpleasant conclusion, the outline that is pieced together like the wrappings for a corpse. Everything that Sekiun is telling him not to do now is an offense that his predecessor had already committed. Everything would lead to the same fatal result.

If Takemikazuchi is a god whose nature is so easy to twist into harm, then he must obey whatever rules exist to prevent that.

He takes well to the other stories, however -- tales about how often he would bluff and bluster, how much he would crow a challenge even while facing threats that cowed weaker gods. It frightens him how well he fits into his role. It would be comforting if it required effort to pretend to be his predecessor, but every recorded reaction feels like an instinctive choice, pre-written in his heart like a theater script to follow. All he has to do is close his eyes, and act naturally.

The consistency is chilling. Nothing's changed between him and his predecessor. Such eternity should be honored; such eternity is the gift of gods. Instead, Takemikazuchi's divinity feels like a disease festering inside him, just waiting for the day when it will destroy who he seeks to be in this life, reducing him to nothing more than a raging copy of his past.

He reviews the scrolls in search of loopholes, hoping for ways he can find a different course than one which will lead inevitably to ruin.

"But what if I don't want to become like this?" he asks Sekiun when he reaches the end, and finds no clear answer. "Why do I -- why do I have to follow any of these rules?"

His shinki’s brow draws in a sharp furrow. "You must, my young lord. If you wish to avoid the same mistakes as your predecessor, you must atone for the punishment you inflicted on your shinki."

You, you, you, Takemikazuchi thinks. Sekiun uses the same word for both of him.

The greatest rule they impose is that of his lightning. It cannot be called upon, they say. He must close it away forever. They lock up the scrolls that talk about how to summon it, and forbid him to try on his own.

"You must make an excuse for why you no longer use your own lightning," is the decree, unshakeable as a mountain. "Kiun shall take on that role for you. Say that you value him enough that his strength is sufficient. Say that you have no need to summon it yourself."

"I don’t," he whispers, a hiss that cuts off halfway, because he's not sure if he's supposed to scream the words or not.

In the end, he's not sure what exactly he means: I don't value Kiun. I don't need myself.

Over time, the pains in his chest lessen, though they return at predictable intervals. His shinki have an aversion to his voice whenever he raises it for too long. If he approaches them from behind, or an angle out-of-sight, they startle and panic. Several do not like it when he points directly at them. All of them fear an upraised hand.

On the anniversary of the clan's death, their communal distress rings through him like twelve chiming bells. The pealing grows softer over the years, but never fades entirely.

He cannot quiet his voice. To act meekly is against his nature. He can't wear one face in public and another around his shinki; they don't want him to, either, afraid that even a secret change in behavior might someday be revealed. He bottles up what he can, packing his electricity down tight. He destroys sheet after sheet of paper, drowning tables in ink.

His shinki are pleased with his first tantrum -- but not too pleased. He watches them scatter like a handful of flung toys, cringing back as if they expect the air itself to explode and smash them against the walls. A few of them lift their fingers, crook their arms in front of their bodies in preparation of drawing a barrier line. Their breathing is rapid, terrified. They look ready to attack, ready to shriek, ready to die.

In that instant, Takemikazuchi can finally see the difference between them in horrifying clarity, as if he were standing on a cliff and staring down into a vast abyss with no mercy in sight save oblivion. Takemikazuchi is more powerful than they are. Takemikazuchi is a god, and they will always, always remember what he can do to them.

Agony floods his chest; he can't figure out if the source is himself, his shinki, or both. He doesn't know what he could possibly do against them, if they did try for murder. He doesn't know if they've tipped over the edge into a decision, if he's just now proven that he couldn't learn the lessons correctly and they've chosen to start over again. If they're gathering themselves to kill him a second time, just in case. Just in case.

Eventually, Sekiun asserts control, stepping forward into the gap between them. "Behave yourself," he chides Takemikazuchi first, and then turns to the other shinki. "And all of you, stop cowering! The young lord is no threat in his current condition."

Like ice splitting beneath a pick, the tension shatters; the shinki lower their hands, murmuring ashamed apologies as they bow. Takemikazuchi forces himself to nod, but he does not miss the words: in his current condition.

That evening, Takemikazuchi does his best to ignore how his shinki shy away from him during dinner. He can only manage by keeping his eyes down as much as he can, not looking at anything save his dish. There is no conversation; the only noises are of chopsticks against ceramic, mouths chewing, throats working to hurry through the meal.

When he finally asks for more tea, one of them flinches. They drop their chopsticks in their hurry to refill his cup, stumbling over a panicked apology.

He cannot imagine ever punishing them for such a trifling thing -- but he must have, once. More than once. Many times, enough that they remember it whenever they look at him: he is stained forever by his former incarnation, a threat in waiting for them to trigger.

He will never be like his predecessor. But to them, he will always be.

Even though the survivors have not been memorialized by gravestones, they are just as much his victims.

As he gets older, his clothing naturally changes, keeping up with lengthening proportions. Each day is one step closer to being an adult. Takemikazuchi watches the gaps in height reduce themselves, shaku by shaku. Only when he reaches eye level to Sekiun does he realize the mistake in his excitement: now he can see his shinki's expressions clearly, their disapprovals no longer cloaked by distance.

But growing taller means one day closer to being free from the estate, and Takemikazuchi has been waiting for years. Sekiun hmphs at him as they go through another clothing switch, checking the garments which no longer fit him and replacing them with fresh sets. Takemikazuchi is too delighted by getting rid of the pile of smaller clothes to pay much heed as the shinki roots through a chest of robes, unpacking musty fabric and shaking them out to reveal dazzling colors, creased by deep folds that attest to how long they've been stored away.

Sekiun picks the first one off the top, and gestures impatiently for Takemikazuchi to stretch out his arms so that the length of the kariginu jacket can be measured across them. The sleeves are too long on each side, but not by much. Takemikazuchi delights at first in the patterns, the weight of the silk -- and eagerly pulls one on, and then another on, wanting to try out each design in a tempest of fabric. They're still too loose on him -- he’s not a full-grown adult yet -- but he can guess how perfectly they will fit once he’s finished. They will look magnificent: proper garb for a proper thunder god.

But Sekiun's face is clouded as Takemikazuchi shows off one jacket with a pattern of golden waves, and -- with a jolt -- Takemikazuchi realizes where exactly these robes must have originally come from.

"We could get rid of them," he blurts, already starting to tug off the collar. Thinking of the very same cloth being worn by his predecessor makes him queasy, as if he's pulled on a layer of skin over his bones, a second body that can never be removed. "I could have new ones made."

Sekiun holds up a hand to signal a halt. "No," he forces out, his mouth twitching around a scowl. "Some of these were the previous lord's favorites. A few were gifts from other gods. Your predecessor would never have discarded them lightly. You... must wear them, my lord."

With that, the shinki pulls his shoulders rigid and gathers up Takemikazuchi's discarded robes, sweeping them into his arms like limp corpses. "Dinner will be ready shortly," he announces, and then is out the door before Takemikazuchi can rescue anything for himself.

It takes more courage than Takemikazuchi expects to keep the new jacket on. He considers, briefly, about yanking it off anyway and fleeing back to his chambers to find something else to change back into, outgrown or not. He considers wearing nothing else, and learning weaving on his own.

Fine, he decides stubbornly, jerking up his chin in defiance. If this is what they wish of me, so be it.

The confidence lasts until his first step into the main hall. His mind blanks as quickly as an arrow set loose from the string. His feet come to an immediate halt and refuse to lift; defenseless, Takemikazuchi scowls belligerently at the room, terrified of being asked to sit down.

He knows when he has been noticed when one of the shinki glances up and falls quiet. Then another, and another, like a wave picking up around the room, echoing the mounting tide of dread in Takemikazuchi's chest that threatens to engulf him completely.

The silence sweeps full-circle until every shinki present has frozen into immobility at the mere sight of him -- and in that moment, Takemikazuchi knows just how clearly he resembles a perfect mirror of his past.

As he continues aging through the last few years of adolescence, Takemikazuchi's studies switch course to the general duties of godhood. There are ceremonies for courts and shrines, procedures and formalities which are as much a part of Heaven's work as battle on the Near Shore. If Takemikazuchi had reincarnated normally, he would learn through attending such matters directly; as things stand, he must be tutored privately.

Each lesson is an agony of boring formalities and chants. Takemikazuchi struggles to keep from falling asleep each time, schooling his expression to hide any scowls. In Heaven's ceremonies, he must be a respectful participant; in human shrines, he must be appreciative of their devotion, but so far all he can muster up is irritation.

But then, one afternoon, as Sekiun goes through the proper way to gesture with the shaku baton, the shinki's sleeve slips back enough to reveal a long scar curving over the meat of his forearm. The mark isn't clean. The welt is thick and gnarled and dark, like an old burn that still holds fire on the inside, simmering like embers alongside the bone.

The sight startles Takemikazuchi fully awake. Sekiun has never made mention of an injury before, and has always been careful with his garments. Too careful.

"Was that from when -- when you fought?" he asks despite himself, unable to keep from reaching for the answer even when he knows it will hurt. "When the succession happened. Did you get injured then?"

He expects the darkening of Sekiun's expression, but is surprised when Sekiun's gaze drops and flicks to the side, as if ashamed. The shinki's voice, when he speaks, is flat and empty. "No. Your predecessor had once been displeased with the arrangements of the ikebana one afternoon. It was my responsibility to oversee their placements that day. Thus, he..." Sekiun's voice trails off. When it resumes again, it is even more distant than before, strained and light as a butterfly floundering on air too thin to hold even its fragile weight. "He wished to impart the lesson of diligence upon me."

Takemikazuchi swallows hard. "Oh."

Sekiun leaves after that, gathering the ritual implements with his sleeves pulled firmly down. Takemikazuchi does not watch him depart. He is folded in the corner, kneeling carefully on a cushion with his fists on his thighs and his thoughts balled up equally tight.

He knew that his predecessor willingly damaged his shinki. He knew it, but seeing the evidence makes the horror that much more real. Time doesn't erase scars completely -- but it does soften them, reducing the angry redness into a duller pink, and then into only a silvery flatness which glistens at certain angles in the light. Even knots and gnarls smooth themselves down as mortals grow older, leaving a sleek paleness of skin where once thick wads of tissue had clumped.

But shinki never age. That scar will last forever. Sekiun will wear it for the remainder of his days, unchanging. It has healed a little, tamed down from the wound that first put it there, but it will never become fully innocuous, a mere afterthought on the skin.

Every time Sekiun sees himself -- dressing in the morning, washing in the bath -- he will have to remember that pain. Any time another shinki might see it, Sekiun will have to make up a story for the cause. He will have to claim to have earned it during a heroic battle spent defending his master, when it was his own god who put that wound there. He will have to lie forever, and only the other seniors will know the truth.

Sekiun cannot be the only one.

Takemikazuchi has wondered about his death more than once. He's never stopped thinking about what it must have been like for his shinki to have become so miserable that they brought his predecessor low -- and that simply willing a god dead hadn't been enough to destroy him in the first place. Actively slaying him had been the best thing to do in his shinki's eyes. And now, afterwards, none of them sting him when they think back upon it -- which means that in their minds, they acted correctly.

Killing him was a righteous act.

After seeing the evidence on Sekiun, Takemikazuchi can't deny it, either.

He goes to bed that night feeling nauseous -- this time from his emotions alone. The night creeps in and he lies awake, staring at the ceiling, listening to the distant noises of his shinki in other parts of the estate, going about their own lives in rooms kept carefully isolated from his own.

Knowing the truth only makes things even more confusing now. His shinki have the choice to let things be different this time. They have the option to learn how Takemikazuchi might manifest in this new incarnation, to see how he might grow up in a new way, a kinder form.

Instead, his shinki want him to repeat the past exactly. They're choosing him to become their own tormentor reborn. They want him to be this way, even while it sickens them. They'll have him act out this mimicry for the rest of his existence, all to hide their own shame, despite knowing how they invoke a ghost that will haunt them for centuries.

They will never stop regarding him with hate. They demand that he becomes a copy of what he once was, even if it's a god they detest.

There is no way out.

He will never be free.

When they deem him strong enough for battle -- barely on the edge of adulthood, but close enough that he will pass a quick inspection of age -- they pick his armaments for him, starting with Kiun. For once, Takemikazuchi doesn't care. It's his first time off the estate, and he finds himself giddy with the freedom, eager to see more of the world that he's been told about only through poetry and story. It's a new world: a new realm filled with opportunities to test himself, and discover if he truly is a god.

He takes to his patrols with enthusiasm, ravenous for each sight on the Near Shore. His shiki grumble about the hours -- early to leave, late to return -- but Takemikazuchi ignores them, revelling in every moment that he can soar across the earth. Ayakashi are everywhere. He picks them off with growing confidence, slipping around the human towns and relishing the satisfaction of a task well done.

Even so, the thrill of battle becomes all too routine after a while; the ayakashi are no threat. They are nuisances at best when pitted against Takemikazuchi's shinki, eager to flee like cowards rather than fight a Thunder God. Battle skill is -- disappointingly -- already part of Takemikazuchi's inheritance. He has no need to be taught; it is embedded in every inch of his divinity, and the meager ayakashi he encounters don't last long enough for him to even practice sufficiently.

Kiun alone slaughters ten ayakashi effortlessly one week, without Takemikazuchi even having to draw a blade. Any praise Takemikazuchi might have voiced only roils in his throat like soured wine. He listens to the other shinki mutter to each other over that evening's dinner, and tries not to acknowledge the dull pang in his chest when Sekiun announces that it is time for new recruits to be found, so they can fight alongside the master instead. The pain comes from him -- it must come from him. All his shinki are nodding eagerly at the news, after all.

Naming new shinki should be cause for celebration for him as well. As a new beginning, they will know only the Takemikazuchi of the present, with no spectres to haunt them. Yet, even after being given permission, he is instructed to use the same family name: un, the syllable chosen by his predecessor. Each of his future shinki will belong to the existing clan, adopted into a legacy that Takemikazuchi cannot touch.

When he summons his new shinki in their instrument forms, watching blades and staves and armor shimmer into place around him, he can't help imagining each of them seeking to turn their barriers upon him. Their bright, eager faces would twist to loathing and mockery. Their smiles would turn into sneers as they allowed their own blight to slowly creep over their bodies, warping them into ayakashi, until Takemikazuchi finally sickened and died.

But he names them anyway, gathering and testing new ones eagerly to see if they are compatible. Even with an inherited clan, they are his, his choice, manifestations of his personality and not his predecessor. They represent his will and his will alone in this world.

He writes this wish in no lightning at all, this feeling too precious to commit even to painting: he will never hurt his shinki the same way that his predecessor did. He will not torment them, he will not strike out. He will not delight in their suffering. He will not do the million things that the senior shinki have lectured him, the truth of which he can see in their eyes still when they flinch from him and try to hide it.

He will be better than his predecessor somehow.


He calls for Ōki out in the fields that summer, just the two of them out in the waves of long, untamed grass. The estate he has been granted is vast, with gardens that stretch on for miles, and even more land growing wild beyond that. A long time ago, they might have been plowed for crops, or cleared for practice grounds; now they are empty and unattended. The hands that should have tended to them have been obliterated. Takemikazuchi knows who is to blame.

There is no one else around as he releases Kiun from instrument form, and flings out the question that's lived in his mouth ever since he was first told of the shinki's youngest status.

"Did you help kill me?"

He half-hopes for an immediate denial, and struggles to suppress the disappointment when Kiun averts his eyes. "I was new, my lord," is the soft, slow answer. "I did not understand what was happening."

"But you did help," Takemikazuchi presses. "Or at least, you didn't protest."

"I was on the outskirts of the fighting," is all Kiun replies. "I did not strike against you."

The silence and refusal turns Takemikazuchi's stomach queasy -- that, or it's Kiun's own uncertainty, causing him to want to end this discussion immediately and pretend it never happened. "But you didn't defend me either, Kiun," he snaps. "How is that the service of a loyal vessel?"

"It was chaos, my lord," Kiun insists softly. His hands tighten against the fabric of his jōe robe, loose fists too cautious to assert themselves fully. He wets his lips, and looks about to speak further -- but does not, and the silence stretches longer and longer between them, gathering weight like an avalanche about to strike.

Do you also feel it was justice? Takemikazuchi wants to ask, but can't, not with seeing how Kiun’s face is haunted, his eyes staring at the ground and surely seeing nothing. Kiun, who must be thinking of the past in detail by now -- but who has not stung Takemikazuchi even once throughout the entire conversation.

That is answer enough.

He wonders how Kiun would have looked, covered in his blood. Kiun creating borderlines, pinning his previous incarnation in place to be devoured. Kiun, smiling that same pleasant, benevolent liar's grace as he watched his god be ripped slowly apart by blight.

There isn't any argument that he can make for demanding a new guide. Kiun didn't even choose that role for himself -- Sekiun skipped out of that duty, and forced him into the role. Kiun must resent his task; not even his approval is real.

And if Takemikazuchi loses Kiun, then -- then. If he loses Kiun. Then the only guide he would have would be one of the other seniors, someone who would not even bother to fake patience when snapping out an order for Takemikazuchi to straighten up his behavior, to be a proper thunder god, to be better this time.

There is nothing Takemikazuchi can do to change things.

There is nothing any of them can do.

During one evening's report, when they have all returned to Takama-ga-hara and have gathered for dinner, Takemikazuchi does not even bother to greet his shinki properly as they sit down for the meal. No one seems to care. The seniors have the honor of sitting at Takemikazuchi's table, but the furnishings are long enough that there is room for all the newest shinki, who still shift their eyes and murmur with nervous delight to each other as they fret about their table manners.

"The Near Shore patrol went well today," Takemikazuchi comments, plucking a slice of fish off his plate. "I'm quite pleased with the performance of the latest shinki. No injuries, and little damage to the area. Some of the ayakashi tried to run off, but Kiun was swift enough to catch them."

"I understand the coordination of the new shinki went very smoothly," one of the seniors comments, turning their approval towards their peer instead of their god. "Congratulations, Kiun."

Takemikazuchi snorts. "Kiun's only usefulness is in being my lightning," he declares, jabbing at his rice. "He's little better than an extension of myself."

Is that why you're so hard on him, he half-expects to hear, but none of the shinki dare to speak up -- or, more likely, none care enough to speak, care enough to press the issue. Care at all. They’ve found their equilibrium in this hushed balance of bitterness and performance. So long as they can keep up appearances, they are content to survive.

It's good enough, Takemikazuchi thinks. They will never love him, but love was never part of the role they outlined for him. Maybe this kind of recovery is the most they can hope for: this strained half-life for all of them, where at least things aren't getting worse.

Takemikazuchi makes sure to smile too much after he becomes an adult. He makes sure to show his teeth. His senior shinki must surely hate him still -- there's no reason for them to stop -- so he layers himself in the armor of their loathing, taking it into his grasp along with their instrument forms. He wonders how many of them cringe to be laid against his skin. He wonders if any of them are counting down the days until they fail in their protection, so that they can simply passively allow him to perish underneath their watch.

No. That would be even more humiliation upon them. For that's all he is: a source of past and future shame.

He stops using the seniors entirely in combat, keeping only Kiun, and even then not by choice. The relief -- on both sides -- is undeniable. The elders do not laugh or smile around him, but the tension seems to drain out of them a little more with each passing day, and Takemikazuchi is inwardly grateful: if he cannot make them happy, at least he's not damaging them more.

He is a warrior god, but with no war to fight. There are no battles waiting to help distinguish him from the past. Without a foe worth defeating, a myth of his own to weave, Takemikazuchi will never be recognized as more than a walking memory -- he will never be able to claim this life as his own, never be able to stand apart from the god that his shinki see in their minds each day.

All he can do is walk over the charred fields of past victories, ones that don't truly belong to him, as if they have placed his younger self in a casket and are now heaping ashes upon ashes on him, rotting blooms that he is forced to treat as precious flowers.

His newer shinki don't know the whole truth. But they've been warned about his temper, to watch for warning signs; they can guess what the gravestones in back represent. Even if they don’t know what happened to Takemikazuchi himself, they can guess how Takemikazuchi might have happened to their own predecessors.

He wouldn't put it past the elders to warn all the newer shinki about him, to take the newcomers into the back rooms, talking behind his back, teaching them to look at him with contempt.

He wouldn't put it past the elders to warn all the newer shinki about him, to take newcomers aside and educate them in whispers, teaching them to look at him with contempt. They must be doing it. Otherwise, Takemikazuchi could be free of his past simply by sending his senior shinki to their deaths, pushing them past their limits in battle, so they can prove how little they care by either dying or letting him die. He could get rid of all the seniors in this manner, one by one, erasing his own history and making up new stories instead for the memorials in the gardens.

Except he never will. He won't follow in those footsteps. He won't hurt them directly -- he won't, he won't. He's made his vows.

He could release his shinki more peaceably, too, but they're all he knows. He shivers when he thinks about it -- shivers and rages and roars for sake to calm his nerves, tries to blot out the very idea. It's within his rights to remove a shinki if they don't satisfy, even if Heaven might question him. Unlike them, he has nothing to fear from the truth.

But without his senior shinki, he'd be completely lost in his new life, scrabbling through the written warnings on his own. Takemikazuchi is a god that only the seniors know; a reborn Takemikazuchi has no direction. And he's not the only one who would suffer, not by far. If the fact of his reincarnation were found out, the consequences would be swift: Heaven would decide his new guide for him, would excommunicate all his shinki, and his new vessels have done nothing wrong. He would be responsible for a second extermination of his clan after all.

He doesn't want to hurt them. They don't want him to hurt them either. No one wants him to truly be his predecessor -- but his shinki are all so afraid of him being anything else, and Takemikazuchi understands why, because if the truth were ever found out, he wouldn't be able to protect them.

Every path he looks down is just another reflection of his previous self's callousness, and following any one of them would only prove Sekiun right: that Takemikazuchi is little more than a shallow repetition of his previous life, unable to do anything but endlessly repeat the same mistakes.

Kiun is exactly the manifestation of the god that they want, Takemikazuchi thinks. Only Kiun. Obedient and powerful and forever chained to Sekiun's will. Impeccable in social situations, observing formality and reining Takemikazuchi back in on a daily basis. A perfect puppet who demonstrates over and over that he does not care about Takemikazuchi, only for Sekiun's approval.

Kiun is the god they want. Only Kiun -- who is the sole member of the twelve who speaks to Takemikazuchi gently, even if every word is only to serve his own standards of behavior. Kiun, who cautions Takemikazuchi to not fight, to always stay tame, to always obey Sekiun. To never seize glory for himself, finding a battle that will belong to him and only him, and which will finally make his shinki see who he is now.

Kiun is the restriction placed across him, existing so that Takemikazuchi cannot. Kiun does not want him to be free, either.

It would be easier if Kiun openly hated him the same way as the other elders. At least, then, Takemikazuchi would never keep hoping, never keep wanting for Kiun to step forward and help him carve a new path.

At least, then, Takemikazuchi might have no lightning at all, and no reason to miss it.

In the end, Takemikazuchi stops painting. He discards the scrawled reminders to himself, cautionary warnings in ink and parchment. Not because there is any risk of being deciphered -- his letters have changed from scroll to scroll -- but because there is no way he could ever forget the warning now, not after hundreds of years with the lessons drilled into him, unceasing.

Never trust Kiun. Never trust any of them. Never trust himself.

Obedience to his senior shinki has walled him in: his anger and stubbornness have kicked and fought over the centuries, matched with the despair of knowing that none of them can change, because none of them are allowing each other to change. They all play their parts in shallow caricature, terrified that any deviation will cause everything to come tumbling down and shatter forever. If Takemikazuchi should misstep and truly become the creature of his past, then they will have failed again. All of them.

Takemikazuchi included.

War has been locked down by Heaven, transformed into avenues of industry and commerce for Japan. Ayakashi do not rage across the Near Shore as they once did, terrorizing mortals in visible forms. The battles which still plague the human world stay off Japanese shores, and out of Takemikazuchi's jurisdiction. Even those conflicts are increasingly performed with machines and chemicals, legal rights and business transactions.

He should not find frustration in it. The fewer wars which plague humans, the better; if their hate is expressed through different battles than what he holds dominion over, then he must accept it. He is not so foolish as to rip open the path to Yomi simply to release enough ayakashi to fight.

Yet, without a battle, he has nothing. His thoughts claw at the inside of his skin. They bubble up until Takemikazuchi claws at his shinki in turn through his words, his disdain, his endless hopeful challenges to them to step up and find a battle worth fighting. His body has grown, but his heart remains trapped in the shape of a small child, still cringing beside a graveyard of twice-dead ghosts. If someone could call his name like a shinki, his essence might burst free and turn him into --

Nothing. Nothing. He can't allow himself to lose control.

Even if he wants to.

His newer shinki revere him, seeing him as a hero of the ages, an illustrious deity whose glories are recorded forever in the Kojiki. His older shinki have never ceased their loathing. Between both sides, Takemikazuchi hopes always, again and again, for just one of them to prove otherwise, to willingly set aside the legend of the Thunder God and see who has been standing there for centuries instead.

None of the old do. None of the new, either -- who surely have been warned and whispered to, but who only know Takemikazuchi's temper through the restless ways he seeks out fights, pushing himself and them towards any hint of chaos. They may have heard stories, but all they know is him now, and he wants so badly to be able to declare a new memory for his name, one that will force the clock into the present day.

Someday, there will be a threat grand enough for Takemikazuchi to finally embrace, an enemy that will bat aside lesser gods and be acknowledged by the heavens as an echo of the monsters which once threatened both Shores. He will lead all his shinki into a battle fit for the Kojiki itself. He will not falter; he will not flee. On that day, that enemy will save them all from this communal misery -- whether through glory or through death.

Whenever Takemikazuchi calls for Ōki, he paints words across the sky itself now, without any need for a brush. If it was up to him, he would scrawl his bitterness on the heavens. Kiun, logically, should broadcast the same echoed resentment: his shinki's electricity should be laced with an equal amount of poisonous bile, bound to a role he never wanted.

But Ōki doesn't obey that impulse. Kiun's words are different. His lightning is a storm's joyful dance, a counter-stanza of electrical poetry that glitters over every act of destruction.

Takemikazuchi's lightning left scars on his vessels, and horror lingering in their eyes. Ōki's lightning is beautiful, radiant, an explosion of power that has no need to be ashamed. It has no fear of running loose. It has no terror of not holding back.

In every inch of Kiun's power across the sky, different words take shape before Takemikazuchi's eyes, in a new language that he wants to believe is real: this is your storm, the dragon in your heart. This is your true reflection.

You are already different with each day.

But Kiun is full of lies. All of them are. Takemikazuchi knows what the seniors believe. He knows what he can and cannot do, what he can and cannot be. He knows there is nothing he can trust; he knows there is nothing inside him that should be trusted, just in case he never overcomes his own nature.

All they can do is wait, letting the years crumble away both past and future. All they can do is carry on the lives they have now, and know it will never be enough.