Kagome Higurashi woke at dawn on her 21st birthday to find her skin as unblemished as the day she was born.
At first, heart thumping in her chest like a snare drum, she’d checked all the usual places, the hereditary ones. The inside of both wrists. Just beneath the arch of her collar bone. The juncture where neck met shoulder.
There was nothing. Just skin — pale, smooth. Kagome could see the delicate jump of her pulse as she forced her wrists backwards, tendons straining, because maybe her mark was just faint. Maybe, if she held her wrist in the right light, it would be there. If she twisted it in the right angle, it would be there.
Because it had to be there.
She stripped in front of the floor-length mirror propped in the corner of her bedroom, shucking her pajamas off with such urgency she nearly tripped, craning her neck to examine the back of her neck, her shoulders, down the curve of her spine, the smooth expanse of her ribs. Then she turned to closely peering at the webs of skin between fingers and toes, the thin cartilage stem of her inner ears. Nothing. In one last, panicked attempt, she even parted her hair this way and that, because maybe her mark had just appeared somewhere on her scalp, hidden beneath waves of ebony hair.
But there was nothing.
She had come of age without a soulmate mark. Without...without a soulmate.
Dimly, Kagome registered a pitchy ringing in her ears, gradually growing both louder and more dissonant. Lights pulsed in the corner of her vision, and there was a strange, harsh gasping sound coming from somewhere.
Oh, wait. It was coming from her. Kagome hadn’t realized lungs could even make that noise.
Limbs quivering, Kagome sank down to the floor before her legs just gave out on her completely. She took several deep, shuddering breaths, feeling her heart batter against her ribs. An uneasy, roiling nausea settled deep in her stomach, and she wondered if a dash to the toilet was necessary, not that she had anything to throw up — she’d been too excited to do anything more than push dinner around her plate last night. Even though her mom had made all of her favorite foods, miso-grilled eggplant, shira-ae spinach salad, butterflied and battered mackerel. Her mom had slaved away in the kitchen for the entire afternoon, because Kagome had begged her for this and that little side dish, she’d... shit.
What was she going to tell her parents?
Numbly, after what could have been five minutes or fifty, Kagome forced herself back to her feet, consciously avoiding the sight of her body in the mirror. Mechanically she dressed, shoving herself into the first serviceable clothes her hand touched — dark jeans, dark green long-sleeved turtleneck, dark boots. Her face and hands peeped out, little shocks of white against the somber colors. Moving to the en-suite bathroom, Kagome’s arm moved robotically to wash her face, brush her teeth, slap on some lotion. All the while, her thoughts gnawed frantically on each other.
Why didn’t she have a soulmate?
Because everyone knew how it worked. As long as anyone could remember — hells, studying the centuries-old history of soulmate marks was practically the first thing on the elementary school curriculum — on the morning of your 21st birthday, a mark appeared somewhere on your body. Didn’t matter if you were yokai or human. The marks were typically small, no more than an inch or two — occasionally three — across, and black as sumi ink, like a deeply ingrained tattoo. Though, of course, soulmate marks were far more permanent: They were a sign that someone, somewhere, was the complement to your very being. That you were a small part of a tapestry beyond any individual’s comprehension. The surety that someone else out there needed you more than air, and that you, in turn, needed them.
Of course, not everyone found their soulmate. There was no guarantee that your soulmate would be from the same town as you, not to mention the same country. Most cruel was when soulmates weren’t even born in the same time period — rare, incredibly rare, but it did happen. Someone would come of age with a mark that had already faded to the silver of a healed scar. Who ever said fate was kind? Recently, global databases had sprung up online, where people could upload photos of their marks and run reverse image searches in hopes of finding the person with their sigil’s twin.
Was she so broken, Kagome mused bitterly, that she was fit for no one, living or dead? That her presence in this universe was so unnecessary she didn’t deserve a soulmate?
It didn’t help that her parents had found each other so early.
When she was young, Kagome had delighted in snuggling between her parents, tracing first the thin lines of the blazing sun on her mother’s wrist, then forcing her father to roll up the cuff of one pant leg to touch the matching mark on his ankle. She’d made them tell her again and again the story of how, on the first day of university, they had literally run into each other in the hallway. Made them describe again and again the burning warmth they’d each felt when they first touched, how their marks had flared a brilliant gold. How, from that singular moment, there could be no one else for either of them.
Kagome had thought it the very height of romance. The first time she’d heard the tale, she’d taken a pen and drawn a crooked little star of her own on her wrist. She hadn’t let her parents wash it off for a week, stubbornly holding her wrist outside of the bath to keep it dry as her mom helped shampoo her hair, because otherwise “how would her future soulmate recognize her?!”
Her throat tightened, and Kagome swallowed frantically to try and stave off the sobs that were threatening to break from her tenuous self-control. Because she knew, now, that there was no one to find her, ever. She was forever unmoored, adrift.
Facing herself in the mirror, noting the purple bruises under her eyes, hair she’d just scraped into a ponytail, Kagome tried for a smile. Her mouth twisted into some horrifying grin, teeth bared between dark lips. It would have to do.
She made her way downstairs to the kitchen, where her mother was already bustling about behind the counter, prepping Sota’s bento box for school.
“Good morning, Kagome,” her mom said warmly. “How did you sleep?”
“Not great,” Kagome admitted as she slid into her usual seat, pathetically grateful for this one truth she could tell.
There was already a small dish at her place.
Her mom had taken out one of the festive red lacquerware dishes the family only used during the New Year. On it rested a single daifuku sweet of white mochi, five tiny, black sesame seeds pressed into the top to form a petite flower.
“It’s tradition to eat something black and white the morning of,” Kagome’s mom said, sounding more than a little weepy. “Congratulations, darling. Your father would have been so proud.” She subtly brushed one finger over her own mark, now a faded silver. Taking comfort in the connection she had with her husband, even though Kagome’s father had been dead for years. It was that sort of bond.
“Thanks, mom,” Kagome replied, her voice also wobbling. Knowing her mother was watching, she picked up the sweet and took a bite. It tasted like ash, and she swallowed thickly, forcing the sticky lump down her throat.
“You don’t have to show me if you don’t want to,” her mother started, looking at her eldest daughter with some concern — she was being remarkably subdued — “but could I ask—? What does it—?”
Kagome’s heart dropped, mind going blank. What do I say? “Actually, mom, I don’t have a soulmate mark. Surprise.” I can’t do that to her. I can’t do that to myself. I can’t tell the truth. I can’t lie. I can’t...I just...What do I…?
The ringing from before began to press back on her ears and Kagome felt her heart start to pound again. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t.
“Mom, actually, I,” she started miserably, only to be saved by the clatter of her little brother arriving in the kitchen. Kagome’s mouth snapped shut. What had she been about to do?
“G’morning sis, mornin’ mom,” Sota chirped, swiping a piece of toast and plunking into his seat across Kagome’s, utterly oblivious to the rising tension.
“Sota,” their mom chided gently, even as she brought over the rest of his breakfast, “you interrupted your sister.”
“Sorry,” he said, not sounding so in the slightest. Catching sight of Kagome’s half-eaten daifuku, he pointed at her with his chopsticks and grinned. “Oh, yeah, happy birthday! Whatcha get for your mark? I bet it’s something dumb, like a poop emoji,” he teased. “Or a squiggle. Or a backwards kanji, Or...”
“IT’S A SAKURA BLOSSOM,” Kagome shrieked, then gasped and clapped her hand over her mouth.
Why had she said that?
Oh, no: Why had she said that?
The lie had just...spilled out of her. Sota had been needling her, and he always knew just how to get under her skin. It was something she wanted so badly. And now Kagome could see her mom’s eyes going misty with joy. How could she take it back?
Frozen at the kitchen table, stunned by her own shameless lie, Kagome tried to make her mouth move, to say “just kidding, I don’t have a soulmate mark,” but it felt like there was a vice grip on her throat just squeezing and squeezing until she knew she couldn’t stay in the kitchen, surrounded by her family’s love and kindness, for one moment longer.
She was tainting it all. She wouldn’t deserve a soulmate even if she had one.
Abruptly, Kagome shoved back from the table, causing her chair to screech across the floor. “School,” she croaked. “Don’t want to be late.” She knew her face must be flaming. Surely her mom would see the lie like it was branded over her. Surely she’d call Kagome out, ask her questions. Surely…
“Isn’t it a bit early? Your usual train isn’t for another half hour or so,” her mom asked.
“Told Sango I’d meet her before class,” Kagome lied. Again. This one seemed to come easier. It stuck less in her throat. Because no lie could surpass the one she’d already told. What was one more? And another? And another?
Kagome knew she’d be stacking lie upon lie every day for the rest of her life, until they buried her.
Throwing on a light jacket to ward off the lingering spring chill, Kagome slipped out the shrine house as quickly as she dared, shrugging her backpack over one shoulder. The boughs of the goshinboku that dominated the courtyard seemed to rustle disapprovingly at her as she set off for the nearest train station.
Honestly, the crush of humanity packing the car was a relief.
Tokyo breathed to the rhythm of the trains. Like veins, they spread out over the metropolis, their rattle the backing soundtrack to everyone’s day. You lived your life according to their whims, the pre-recorded beeps and wails like a siren call to the masses.
Smashed against the door, arms pressed to her sides, Kagome surrendered to the natural roll and sway of the dozens and dozens of commuters. No one knew her, no one recognized her: She was one anonymous, dark-clad figure among many. And yet, in this moment, they bore her up, provided a moment of interim respite. She didn’t have to hide, to pretend.
Even though every breath she took seemed to defy the natural order as she knew it, Kagome could be herself for a brief moment.
All too soon, the automated announcement was letting her know that “the next stop was Mita,” and as the doors of the subway hissed open, she flowed with the mass exodus up to the ticket gates and then out onto the street, towards the imposing stone archway of the Keio University Gate. Some days Kagome would stare up at it for a breath or two, amazed that she was even there, that she got to spend her days immersing herself in classical Japanese literature, poring over wafer-thin rare scrolls in the library, turning pages with white-gloved hands.
Today, it just felt like another reminder she was an imposter.
Hunching her shoulders, Kagome trudged into the shadow of the gate, veering right to the Old Library. It was still a solid 45 minutes before her first lecture of the day and since she wasn’t actually meeting up with Sango, she needed a place to kill some time.
Sliding into an empty table in the blessedly empty first floor lounge, Kagome slumped over, cradling her head in her arms. Vaguely she had the foresight to set an alarm to go off 10 minutes before her class would start.
What should she do?
It wasn’t like she’d have to be alone for the rest of her life, Kagome tried to reason with herself. Plenty of people never found their soulmates and still got married to someone else. And many of those marriages were good — built on a foundation of friendship and affection, sometimes even love. It wasn’t like knowing your soulmate was out there automatically killed anything you could possibly feel for someone else. And they were less legally binding commitments — if one person later did find their soulmate, separations were typically quick and mutual. Rationally, she knew she didn’t have to be alone forever if she didn’t want to.
But Kagome knew she could never settle for a partnership with the sting of a consolation prize. Even if no one in her family would blame her. She would blame herself, for trapping someone in a relationship she couldn’t fully commit to, if nothing else.
Thoughts like this swirled around and around until her phone alarm blared reprovingly, reminding Kagome she needed to make her way to the lecture room or risk being late — and extra attention from her professor was the last thing she was in the mood for.
The class went by in a blur. Thankfully it was a traditional lecture-style course, rather than a discussion-heavy seminar, which meant that Kagome could hunker down and, as long as it at least looked like she was paying attention and taking notes, no one would bother her. Normally she would have listened raptly to the connection between “The Tale of Genji” and hand-painted emakimono scrolls, but she set her brain-hand connection to autopilot and blindly copied the lector’s notes verbatim, not even knowing what it was she was writing. Maybe she’d review them later, make sure her handwriting was actually legible.
Sango was waiting for her outside.
Kagome spotted her best friend first, leaning against a nearby wall, head bent over her phone, nimble thumbs flashing. Kagome felt her own phone vibrate several times in quick succession, meaning she was probably the intended recipient. Sango’s hair was pulled back into its usual high pony, and she was wearing her typical functional high-waisted black shorts (she was historically impervious to the cold), thrifty-chic graphic T-shirt and cropped moto jacket.
Half-tempted to try and sneak away, Kagome lingered just in the periphery, not sure if she could handle her friend’s exuberance right now. Not sure if she could pull off another lie. In many ways, Sango could read her better than her own mother, after all.
But some small movement caused Sango to look up.
“Kagomeeeeeeeee,” Sango called out, striding over with arms wide, clearly preparing to smother her in a hug. “Happy Birthday!”
“Oof,” was Kagome’s only response, wind knocked completely out of her by the force of Sango’s embrace. Followed by “Mgth mgh hmmmmmmg.”
Stepping back after one last spine-compressing squeeze, Sango fake-wiped a few tears from both eyes. “Finally, our baby Kagome is all grown up. I’m so proud.”
“Thanks,” Kagome managed to say, praying her voice didn’t tremble too much. “It...doesn’t feel real. My mom made me a daifuku.” OK. That wasn’t a lie. Maybe she could pull this off.
But she caught a glimpse of Sango’s mark — the ear tips of the delicate cat adorning her friend’s sternum poking out from her collar — and felt her heart shrivel. Not that Sango was one to flaunt it, per se. But...it was right there. A prickle of white noise crackled distantly, and Kagome felt her pulse start to pound distractingly.
After staring at her expectantly for a moment, Sango finally rolled her eyes when Kagome didn’t offer up any more information. “Sheesh, girl, why’re you making me ask? I figured you’d be all up in my face with your mark, since you haven’t shut up about it since, I dunno, forever. Can I see it?”
“Oh, um, I can’t really… I mean… I don’t…”
God, why was she such a crappy liar.
“Awww, I get it Kags,” Sango said suddenly. “It’s somewhere a bit more private , isn’t it?” Her friend winked and gave her a cheeky nudge with one elbow. Kagome flushed, but managed a small nod, grasping at the excuse Sango had unwittingly offered her. She would never take her friend’s unwavering trust in her honesty for granted ever again.
“Yeah, sorry,” Kagome muttered. “Wish I could show you though. Shall we go to lunch?”
“Sure,” Sango replied, “I’m starving. Besides,” she continued as the two made their way towards the campus cafeteria, “you can just show me the next time we hit up an onsen.”
Ah, onsen. And anything else that required full public nudity: Things Kagome would never be able to do ever again.
She managed to pick a bit at her teishoku lunch, letting Sango carry the bulk of the conversation, making the minimum number of appropriate “mmhms” where necessary. God, she was so tired . Her chest felt hollow, like something essential had been carved out of her, leaving only a numbing sort of emptiness. Kagome knew Sango noticed her odd silence and fatigue, too, catching the little, searching glances her friend occasionally shot her way. She felt bad for making her worry. For one instant, she toyed with the idea of telling Sango everything, but in the end she just...couldn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Sango, but there was a burning shame about the whole thing Kagome just couldn’t shake.
Somehow she got through the rest of the day through sheer force of will, slogging her way through two more classes and fending off Sango’s increasingly worried attitude — managing to convince her friend that she was just tired from having stayed up too late and disappointed she couldn’t show Sango her sakura mark. After the fifth (or was it tenth?) terse “I’m fine,” her friend finally let it drop, though Kagome could tell she wasn’t entirely mollified.
She made it through the train ride home, a celebratory dinner with her mom, Sota, and grandfather (who tried to do some strange Shinto blessing on her), and then begged off board games under the guise of needing an early night.
She made it all the way back to bed, but not to sleep.
You’re a liar, Kagome’s thoughts tormented her as she muffled sobs into her pillow. You’re a fraud and a failure.
At some point Kagome fell into a restless half-doze, only to jolt awake in a cold sweat after a nightmare.
She had been standing in the middle of a busy thoroughfare, but no one could hear her or see her, even if she ran right up and yelled in their face.
And then she’d started to fade away.
First the color leached from her clothes. Then her hair and skin until she was nothing but a muted, ashen specter. In panic, she’d scrubbed furiously at her hands, trying to bring some life to her palms, wipe off whatever had gotten on her, but instead she’d just started to chip into pieces, like a crumbling statue. Soon she couldn’t feel her arms or her legs, and it was only when the crushing paralysis reached her face was Kagome able to force herself into consciousness, lungs gasping for air.
After that, Kagome decided she didn’t need sleep anymore.
Instead, she took to spending nights researching soulmate marks, throwing the full weight of her research experience into scrolling feverishly through long-archived message boards on her laptop, the flicker of the screen illuminating her increasingly pinched face and deep shadows under her eyes. She slept in snatches, when she literally couldn’t keep her eyes open. School was a blur. Did she even go yesterday?
Kagome chased down rumors and theories of people whose marks had appeared late, of people who claimed they had found their soulmates some other way, of marks that were actually invisible, that only appeared when exposed to the light of the full moon, or holy water or...blood.
She wasn’t quite at the stage of trying this last one. Yet.
But the depths of the 4chan forums brought Kagome to another breadcrumb trail her brain would not let go: tattoos.
They were illegal. Very, very illegal. She was beyond stupid to even consider getting one.
Anything that could be used to mimic or alter a soulmate mark was the highest of taboos. Most countries banned them outright, and while Japan had held out a little bit longer than most thanks to strong resistance from several of the yakuza enclaves, and even some of the more traditional Ainu activists, a scandal that happened when Kagome was still in elementary school had forced the prime minister’s hand.
It had all the hallmarks of a bad fairy tale. There had been a man obsessed with a woman he’d met online. Somehow, he’d found out what her soulmate mark looked like even though they’d never met and had a tattoo artist copy it perfectly. He’d staged a meeting, somehow convinced her that they were soulmates and took control of her life under the excuse that since they were fated to be, she was his responsibility. When she eventually met her real soulmate there had been a hostage situation...the woman hadn’t survived. The international public had been rightly horrified at the magnitude of the violation. The ideas it could plant in other unsavory or unhinged types.
So now, tattoos of any kind were illegal. People who’d had any were required by law to first register them with the government and then laser them off.
But as Kagome delved deeper and deeper into the internet’s back alleys, she started to find testaments from people who’d claimed they’d gotten tattoos to cover up or alter soulmate marks when it turns out their partners had been abusive. Or gotten little, hidden inkings to commemorate the death of a child or loved one. She created a username — FallenFlower81 — and started to ask, subtly, where someone could even get a black market tattoo. Who would (theoretically) do one. How you (hypothetically) paid.
It seemed like the best solution — this was a way she could pretend to be normal. Get a mark tattooed on her, pretend she had a soulmate, avoid being treated as some leper, or shipped off to some lab to be poked and prodded and treated like a case study. Make her lie believable, so she could move on with her life.
It was stupid, so stupid.
She couldn’t talk herself out of it.
Kagome was desperate, and someone noticed.
One night, she got a PM from a blocked username. She’d been scrolling through yet another archived forum, another night of dead ends, when the message icon popped up in the lower right corner of her screen. It was timed, set to expire and self-erase in two minutes, and Kagome nearly dropped her laptop in her haste to scramble for a pen and paper.
But now she had an address. And a time.
“This is your only chance. Order the Midnight Special. Don’t be late.”