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the crow and the curse

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On a frigid winter’s night, during the busiest birthing season in a decade, a child was born in a small fishing village at the base of a mountain. While that in itself was not unusual or remarkable there had been many oddities surrounding his entrance to the world. 

 

The attending nurses wore pitying looks for the mother as there had been a meteor shower that night. Many in the region knew the lore that a shooting star on one’s birthday represented the heavens shedding a tear for that child being born. His mother, Tsuki, was just happy to hold her son after a thirty-six hour labor. She ignored the twinkling of falling stars outside her small home while lovingly stroking her baby’s wispy black curls. Shame the boy’s mane wasn't thicker for all the heartburn she’d endured.

 

A selfish yet fleeting thought since up until moments ago the rosy cheeked baby in her arms had been considered a stillborn. When the child emerged, bloodied and pale, a triumphant cry never came. Tsuki loudly wept from pain and heartbreak while the nurses worked to save her and the baby. At the foot of the bed, his father gnawed his fingernails down to near stumps while pacing back and forth. The man couldn’t decide whether to feel sorrow or relief. 

 

“If it worries you so much, I will call for my grandmother,” Tsuki’s voice is rough with dehydration. “She’ll repay the money you spent on me and you can clear your hands of us. He’ll take my family’s name and that will be the end of your involvement.”

 

No one expected either of them to make it through the night. He wonders if in her grief she may have promised a deity something in exchange for the life of this child. It would explain why the nurses had to hastily remove her womb after the child had been born and why the boy in her arms had the sickly sweet scent of magic around him.

 

If he were a better man, he would have prayed at a temple for the well being of the child who shared his blood. Considering every sign of ruin surrounding their boy’s birth there would be no god to listen to such a plea. A soft sneeze from the newborn interrupts his thoughts. He steels his resolve, firm in his belief that he won’t be fooled by what must be a demon in the guise of a baby.

 

“He will take your name then and have no ties to my investments or estate. Do whatever you want with him. I’ll be gone in a month’s time.” The man pays no attention to the stunned looks on the nurses’ faces as they clear the bloodied sheets from beneath the resting mother, only keeping his eyes on the cursed baby that would only bring misfortune. Tsuki’s dark grey eyes cut the alpha a glare so cold that it made him shiver despite the roaring fire in the hearth. 

 

That would be the last time either of them would see that man. And still, Tsuki couldn’t bring herself to despise the alpha or her rotten luck in life. Both had combined to bring her the sleeping bundle in her arms. 

 

“We don’t need him,” the woman murmured into her son’s hair. “We’ll be just fine on our own.” Their journey would be hard, but they would have each other. Everything would be alright in their world all because he had been born into it.

 

On the tenth of February, in the early morning light with the sun and Pegasus moon still visible among all the fallen stars, Tsuki Kurusu named her beloved child who had seen both life and death, Akira. 

 

---

 

Since he was old enough to remember, maybe even before, Akira knew there was something strange about him. Often seeing things that everyone around him swore weren’t there. Hearing the whispered songs of flowers and trees. Spending hours playing with the beings that hid in the shadows. None of it really frightened him but it certainly didn’t help him win over any of the folks in his village.

 

Knock that shit off. You’re just talking to yourself.

 

But he wasn’t. There was someone right there, asking him for help.

 

Honey acting like that won’t get you many friends. 

 

He already has friends. Some with wings and lots of eyes. Some with long teeth and no bones in their body. The pictures that Akira drew along with the descriptions were even more terrifying.

 

Still, Tsuki knew that no matter what, her son wasn’t cursed. She didn’t care about shooting stars or the crying heavens. Akira had been and always would be a blessing. So when she asked why he would want to talk with these scary shadows of his, Akira, with eyes gray as a storm cloud, would smile and point to something she had no way of perceiving.

 

“Everyone needs a friend.”

 

The kids in his neighborhood knew to stay away from him. They’d received enough scoldings from their parents and the local priests. By the time Akira was old enough for school he became known as the Fell Star. Come too close to his cosmic light and you’ll rue the day. It had to be the reason the boy’s own mother grew more sickly by the day.

 

Every kiss she laid upon his head added a fresh streak of white to her hair. Tsuki, the beauty of the Sakana Inn, was wasting away all because she insisted on keeping her demon spawn close to her. No one understood how she was able to love that boy. And no one needed to. Tsuki loved Akira with her body and soul until the day she died, leaving behind a nine year old who’s entire world fell apart at her last breath. 

---

 

Ten Years Later

 

Akira would consider himself a kind person. His mother had done her best to raise him to use his manners. And after she had passed, the priestesses at the orphanage really hammered them in. He can admit he’s empathetic to the plights of others to a fault. A people pleaser his Mom used to call him. And unlike back in his youth, most kids love him, despite all of his oddities. The spirits of children are some of the most honest in the world. If he made it in their good graces then he’s gotta be doing something right. 

 

Yet Akira has always struggled in extending that same kindness to himself. For example, if he could go back in time and punch his past self for thinking that walking across the country was a reasonable way to save money he would do so without hesitation. 

 

The cruel sun had been burning into his skin all day, giving his shoulders and neck a horribly tight feeling that was sure to be a mess of peeling skin later. Along his arms and legs were deep bruises that made his bones ache with each step. The poor boy had given up trying to put feeling back in his feet days ago. 

 

The summer season in his old village had never been this hot, but maybe that was due to the near constant cloud cover and proximity to the sea. Summers in the Tokyo region seemed to be their own special level of hell. Akira had already tied his dark hair up high on his head into something resembling a ponytail. He wishes he could clip his sticky, dark bangs back to give his forehead relief but he’s focusing on the task of holding a wiggling child while on top of a moving bus. 

 

Said child had nerves of steel because while she was enjoying all the turning and jolting the omega was ready to throw up from anxiety. Even the other rooftop passengers looked fine, making him wonder if this had to be a common way to travel in the city. Well, common for folks like him who were down to their last dollar. 

 

The mother of the little girl calls his name over the loud engine. Her white smile is so big it looks like it’ll split her face in half, causing her daughter to erupt into giggles on Akira’s lap.

 

“You look like you’ll be sick. We should be at the stop soon, hang on just a little more okay?” 

 

Akira gives her a shaky thumbs up, doing his best to hold back the jumpiness of his stomach. It’s probably a good thing he didn’t eat breakfast. Absolutely unrelated to the fact that he doesn’t actually have anymore money. Despite his nerves, Akira is sure to take in the beautiful architecture of the new city. His mother’s old map had said that the city at the center of this region was called Shibuya. Seeing it in reality was like coming into a new world.

Towering shophouses in shades of tangerine, emerald, and aquamarine stack on top of each other with various kinds of plants popping out their windows. The paved roads are filled with more vehicles than Akira recalls ever seeing on his long trip from the seaside. How many people could a city possibly fit? Hopefully no one will mind one more resident.

 

The bus shifts again and the resulting gust of wind is scented with mysterious spices and baking bread. Akira’s growling stomach almost makes him decide to splurge the last of his coins on one of the food carts lining the street, but he knows it would be a terrible idea. Arguably almost as bad as leaving his village one summer day entirely on impulse. He’d turned nineteen earlier this year and was ready to seek out his fortune in life. So, he gathered his belongings, bid the orphans and his favorite priestess Kawakami a fond farewell, then laced up his boots and started to walk. 

 

He didn’t really have a plan. Barely even a dream. But somehow he ended up having the luck to be in the right spot at the right time. Such luck led him to finding a letter from someone named Crow who was looking to pay an exorbitant salary for an assistant deep in Yongen Forest in Tokyo. 

 

And so to Tokyo he went.

 

The sign for the bus station comes into sight and Akira pulls all his remaining strength not to pass out when it feels like the earth is moving beneath him as they slow to a stop. The mother rubs his shoulders, which stings just a bit, and gives another bright smile.

“Thank you sweetness, Aya is one rough rider but she settled pretty well for you,” a pair of boys climb off their mother’s back and collect their sister from his lap. 

“It’s no trouble, you definitely had your hands full ma’am,” he offers as he stands on shaking legs. He follows the woman and her children as they shimmy down off the side of the bus. The captain of the bus begins shouting at the “freeloaders” to move along before he calls the cops. Akira follows the family onto a sidewalk lined with even more shops. 

 

“Psh, ma’am. Just call me Tae,” she flips her blue angled bob over her shoulders. “You’ve met Aya,” she tickles the baby under her chin eliciting a loud giggle. “And these rascals are Shinya and Kaoru,” she points to the other kids respectively. The boys seem to be shyer than their baby sister and give small waves behind their mother’s legs.

 

“It’s nice to meet you all,” Akira greets with a bow. Tae suddenly grabs his hand like she would to either of her sons and pulls him out of the way of a fresh wave of people coming down the sidewalk. It’s crowded considering it’s an off day for workers, making it ideal for most to get shopping done. Tae doesn’t let go as she pulls him forward. “Oh! Thank you for the welcome.”

 

“Someone’s gotta watch out for the country bumpkins. I know you mentioned you’ve never been to Shibuya but man it shows. Are you traveling far?” Tae asks with a lilt in her voice. Akira likes the way she purrs her r’s even as he blushes from how badly he’s already struggling to fit in.  

 

“From Sakana actually. It took me six days to make it to the closest train station, then four more by train, and then two more weeks of walking,” Akira recalls the long journey resulting in all the battery to his body. Tae looks back at him from over her shoulder, not even trying to hide her surprise. A common reaction since most people don’t expect a “pretty boy” like him to be able to do any sort of labor let alone travel the cross country on his own. 

 

Akira always takes a certain pride in proving others wrong.

 

“That far on your own? I don’t believe it, you are much too small for that kind of trip, practically a baby,” Tae clicks her tongue in disapproval. Honestly it was kind of nice since it’s been some time he’d been on the receiving end of someone’s concern. 

 

“I mean, I get by.”

 

The group suddenly stopped at a store that smelled divine. Several types of meat hung in the windows, showcasing their unique cutting technique. If Akira remembers correctly from a book he once read, this was done with a sword that had been burned right before the cuts were made. 

 

“In honor of a successful trip and to return the kind favor of holding Aya let me feed you,” Tae proposes as she tugs him into the shop. Even if he hadn’t just been toddling along in her grip he would’ve been a fool to refuse that generous offer.

 

Inside the store the walls are decorated with  motifs of aqua and jade stone while dark wooden tables rimmed with gold sit low to the ground. Plush, velvet pillows serve as places for the few customers inside to sit. A few of them wave at Tae and her children but none pay Akira any mind. Behind the counter stands a tall, broad man with a cap slung low over his eyes. The color nearly matches his grey hair underneath. As he finishes wrapping a package for a customer, he spies the group of them coming, causing a crooked smile to spread over his stubbled face.

 

“Dada!” Aya screeches from Tae’s arms, waving her chubby hands towards the man. The proud parents make a trade off over the counter, while Kaoru and Shinya latch themselves to their father’s legs with matching bright smiles on their faces. 

“Akira, this is my husband and mate Munehisa. Munie this is Akira, he is a far traveler and I’m feeding him, so watch the babies,” Akira waves timidly and Mune just nods with a shy smile. Akira can respect a man of few words. Since Tae had finally released his hands, he follows her swaying hips to the back of the shop where a locked door hides a staircase leading to the second floor where he assumes the family lived. 

When she brings him through a new door Akira is impressed at how much can fit inside a small apartment. He’d understood that since more people lived in such close quarters that the living spaces of the region were smaller. But actually seeing a kitchen, living room, and based on the hanging clothing, even a laundry room combined? Remarkable!

 

“Your home and shop are very beautiful. Are most places in Shibuya like this?” He questions while settling into a large couch made of the same material as the cushions downstairs. Akira wonders if they came from a set. Tae fires up the stove and begins plucking different spices off a shelf.

 

“Mmm, some, but those like us are pretty few and far between. My husband and I are originally from a region further north. We came to Tokyo about, oh, thirteen years ago. Munie loves to hunt and I love to cook so we decided to open an eatery in this spot,” Tae works like a conductor leading an orchestra in the kitchen not missing a beat while answering him. “It’s much cooler there so we miss it more when it gets hot like this.”

 

Akira feels the sting of his shoulders once again. The sun can fuck all the way off.

 

“Well it sounds lovely just based on that.” Tae huffs a smokey laugh as she finishes plating the meal with an exaggerated flourish.

 

“Maybe one day your wandering legs will take you there,” She presents a bowl on the table and pats a chair for him to come sit. Despite creaking joints Akira makes his way over and nearly drools at just how delicious it looks. He takes a fork and spears a chunk of meat, enjoying the sizzling sound it makes, and plops it in his mouth.

 

“Oh my god,” he moans with absolutely no shame. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten.” 

 

Tae cackles loudly as the young man shoves more into his gullet. After the last two days of only eating nuts he’d foraged from the woods this felt like a meal that should be served before kings. Sure it wasn’t the longest Akira had ever fasted but going so long only eating food for sustaining themselves versus enjoyment would make anyone uncomfortable. 

 

They continue to eat and make conversation. Though they’ve only just met, Akira finds her incredibly easy to talk to. Perhaps there’s a special kind of bonding that occurs when you hold someone’s baby on top of a bus while they pat your arm and make sure you don’t tense up and fall off. Akira thinks if he ever marries (fat chance) he’d want Tae and her family to be there.

 

As the meat settles uncomfortably in his shrunken stomach, Akira’s hunger induced brain fog clears enough for him to remember to pull his well loved and worn map out of his pocket.

 

“Miss Tae, would you please mark your shop on my map? I don’t want to forget my way here.” She smiles and takes the map, and with a pen that was left on the table she draws a star and her name on the location of the store. 

 

“There, now my favorite little wanderer can always find his way back to me.”

 

They finish their meal and Tae serves them coffee. Akira isn’t sure why someone would have coffee this late in the afternoon, but he strives to be a good guest. He likes the way Tae serves it. Rich and sweet cream, little sprinkles of cinnamon, and she even adds a dash of salt. The coffee the fishermen drank in Sakana was so bitter it made Akira swear the stuff off.

 

Once they finish and Akira has talked his way into helping wash dishes in thanks, Tae’s brood of children come crashing up the stairs and into the apartment. While their mother shouts at them to get off the table, Akira looks out the window above the sink. That fiery asshole in the sky is finally getting low enough it should be okay to keep on going with less risk of passing out from the heat. He hadn’t planned on staying so long but he can’t say he regrets it.

 

“Are you sure you can’t stay the night? The boys can share a bed and you can take one of theirs. I don’t feel right sending a kid out into the dark.” A part of Akira really wants to take her up on the offer, but if he doesn't leave he’ll just be even further behind on his schedule. He’d already burdened the family enough for the day anyway.

 

As he explains as much, Tae’s dark eyes stay worried, but she reminds the young man to come back anytime. Mune silently hands him some package jerky that Akira is too stuffed to eat but knows will be devoured in about an hour or two. Kaoru and Shinya walk him out of the store and point the way to the bus station. He turns to wave at the boys multiple times and the sight of their exaggerated waves reminds him of the kids he’d left behind in Sakana. He hopes his absence from the orphanage at least puts some more food in their bellies.

 

Unfortunately for Akira, it’s still hotter than the devil’s own taint even at sunset but thankfully the streets are less crowded. He keeps his pack close to his side as he follows the directions the boys had given him. The neon yellow sign for the bus station comes into sight and the teen, now full of Tae’s cooking, is able to book it up the hill. Let nothing dismissive be said about the power of a mother’s homemade meal. His bangs quickly stick to his forehead again but his ponytail flicks over his neck making the tiniest of breezes. He’d have to get a haircut soon.

 

The station is smaller than the one from before, consisting of two benches, a trash can, a glowing lamp, and an overhead arch which Akira assumes would keep passengers dry in the rain. A few people walk past on their way downhill and shyly averts his gaze, keeping heavy breathing quiet. He plops down on the bench to roll his ankles in circles and stretch his shoulders the best he can.

 

His bag isn’t even incredibly heavy, only filled with some clothing and a few trinkets, but the way it slings across his body puts stress on just one shoulder. It usually falls on the one he’d injured last winter falling off the roof of the chapel trying to fix the shingles. It is a miracle he didn’t die, but still it’s annoying how the socket flares with pain when a thunderstorm is coming. 

 

Opening up his coin purse, Akira counts how much money is left over while he waits. Even with how much he had avoided spending on traveling, hence his still numb feet, there’s barely enough to pay for this bus ticket. He only got away with riding on the roof of the last one because Tae took pity on him, practically tossed him over the side, and held him the whole time. There was no way in hell he’d be capable of doing that on his own. He digs around the mess of bills and coins to find Crow’s letter and make sure there are no other buses, trains, etc. to pay for and that this should really be the last stop.

 

Maybe this really was a bad idea. Leaving everything he’d ever known behind because of what? Boredom? Though considering all Akira’s really giving up is the company of other orphans and cranky priestesses, a life of being a homeless youth in Shibuya already sounds leagues better. 

 

This had better work out or else he’d have some choice words for this Mr. Crow. 

 

A familiar mechanical huffing alerts Akira to the bus coming up the hill. Akira watches as it comes to a wheezing stop in front of the station, opening its doors shortly after. This bus captain seems much friendlier than the one from earlier. He assists an elderly man down the steps before the rest of passengers are allowed to get off. He even goes back on to grab his luggage for him. Once all the people clear, the captain notices Akira hanging out on the bench and shines a dazzling smile his way. 

 

“Mind if I break for a smoke?” He asks with a voice that’s somehow light as a cloud, yet thick as syrup. He’s dressed in a navy blue suit with a matching cap lopsidedly perched on his wavy brown hair. On the lapels of his jacket he’s got a pin with the name Maruki on it. 

 

Akira shakes his head and resumes waving his pinkened hands by his face to cool down. Seriously fuck the sun, he’s sweating like a hog.

 

“You new to the area?” Maruki asks as he lights up. Akira winces before nodding. God, is he that obvious? Maruki takes a drag before exhaling into the night sky. 

 

“It’s the footwear. Don’t see a lot of farm boots out this way. Plus you got on a tank top, when most locals know that’s the quickest way to fry your shoulders,” Maruki gives that same smile from before, brown eyes shining behind thick glasses. “Pretty thing like you should cover up.”

 

“Um, thank you, sir. I think.” Maruki laughs loudly, finishing his cigarette and tossing it into the ashtray on top of the trashcan. He moves to the still open bus doors and  waves Akira inside. When he tries to pay for the ticket a hand covers the collection tin. 

“Don’t worry about it, looks like you’re my last rider tonight.” 

 

Akira thanks him, trying to hide overwhelming joy at saving the last bit of money to his name and takes his seat in the bench behind the driver’s seat. Maruki pulls some knobs to close them up and start the bus. Before Akira knows it, they stutter and start off uphill. Some time passes as they wind higher and higher above Shibuya before the captain breaks the silence. 

 

“So pretty boy, where can I drop you off? Not too many stops along this route you know.”

 

Akira takes a steadying breath, remembering the directions from Crow’s letter that he’d been rehearsing. This was the part that needed to be done exactly as written.

 

“Take me to the very end of the route at the top of the hill, where the forest meets the mountains.” He does a good job keeping the tremble out of his voice. The captain gives him a look over his shoulder but quickly gets his eyes back on the road. “Please.”

 

“It isn’t my place to tell a kid where to venture. But, you’re new around here so you might not know it. That forest up there is cursed,” Maruki warns gently. “Too many people go up that hill and never come back down. Legend has it a beast with blood red eyes and a single horn spears wanderers right through the heart.”

 

Akira swallows the lump forming in his throat. Okay maybe he had been riding high on the feelings of freedom and adventure just like the heroes in the stories Kawakami used to tell him but now as they pass fewer homes and the winding road grows darker, a weight that isn’t Tae’s meal settles in his stomach.  

 

After finding Crow’s letter, he gathered as much information as he could about Yongen forest during his travels. Most people hadn’t heard of it, and those who did said it was a mysterious forest abandoned and claimed by the fae. He took that one with a grain of salt since they had been drinking, but shit maybe they were right. Akira tries to recall any information he might have heard about the creature Maruki mentioned but can’t think of anything. 

 

Perhaps it was just a rogue, one horned moose. 

 

Oh god, maybe he had bitten off more than he could chew chasing after this fantasy. Hell, maybe the big mystery of Yongen Forest is that you climb a hill and get stabbed to death and since no one comes back down that’s why it’s a fucking mystery. Okay now he was just working himself up. He takes a steadying breath then uses thin fingers to massage his temples in an attempt to physically rub the worries out of his head. It used to work when he was a kid anyway.

 

It was too late to turn tail and go back to Sakana and what good would all of this have been if he didn't even try? He’d always been impulsive, much to the dismay of those around him. Akira had always believed in fate and trusted in the signs it left him that only he could see. This was his chance at a fresh start so he needed to trust in his luck. 

 

He still prays to any listening deities that he isn’t actually just plopping himself into the hands of an elaborate serial killer. The gentle sway of the bus combined with the hum of the engine makes Akira start to feel drowsy. He knows he should do his best to stay awake. He is on a bus alone with a man who keeps calling him pretty after all. But he’s so tired and so close to the end of his trip. Surely a short nap can’t hurt. Plus he’s always had good instincts. If this Maruki tries anything funny he knows his body will wake him up. 

 

Akira places his bag of clothes between his shoulder and the window. It takes less than five breaths for him to fall asleep.

 

---

 

A burning orange sun rests behind a mountain range inviting the lonely moon to come out. Twinkling stars arrange themselves to tell a story to their enamored guest below them. They dance and sing, shining as brightly as they can. How they long to reach the creators who tell their stories.

 

Are these gifts enough? They ask. What more can we do?

 

Akira finds himself in a river, naked as the day he was born. As he closes his eyes he can feel the muted pulse of something he’d long forgotten thrumming along with his beating heart. The mountains cradle the sun behind its peaks allowing it to rest. The forest around him joins in on the song, a soft and sweet hum, echoing back its own wish that the stars would come down to play.

 

We miss you. When will you be back? 

 

Something is burning in his chest.

 

Did you find someone better?

 

Why can’t he breathe?

 

Come to me.

 

Is this what dying is like? It feels familiar.

 

I’ll take care of you.

 

---

 

With a jerk, Akira snaps awake with a fresh crick in his neck and the feeling that he’d run ten miles in his sleep. Naps were supposed to be refreshing, not whatever the fuck that was. His head spins as he tries to recall what he’d even dreamt. He thinks he was swimming. Naked maybe? It’s a blur at this point.

 

“We’ve arrived sleeping beauty,” Maruki announces as if he hadn’t been the one to brake check the mechanical beast. Akira squints out the window and only sees darkness. Then far away, at the bottom of the hill, there’s Shibuya. Lit up brightly, filled with people safe inside their homes. Akira envied them a little. As he gathers his bag, Maruki stands to see him off. The captain places a hand on Akira’s sunburned shoulder (ow) and offers him a new pack of cigarettes. He smiles softly at the confusion that must show on the teen’s face.

 

“For luck.” 

 

Two words said softly, but with such finality that it almost feels like Akira’s being sent off to the cold embrace of death itself. Still, his manners dictate that he accept the gift. He quietly thanks Maruki, and places the pack in the back pocket of his bag. Akira turns to step off the bus with trembling legs and into the soft dirt. Maruki gives him a salute as he closes the doors and makes a wide, smooth U-turn to make his journey back down the hill. 

 

This station must get a lot less traffic since it has no benches or signs or anything at all indicating it’s even a bus stop. Just a lonely lamp light giving off a friendly glow. It’s only as Akira watches the bus disappear over the ridge back to the livelier city below, where he could be eating his heart’s content of Tae’s delicacies, that he realizes he hasn't a clue what he’s supposed to do next. Crow’s final direction had just been “wait for me.”

 

For now, he decides it’s best to wait by the lonely lamp out in the open. What good would come from venturing ahead and getting lost in the vast forest with only his pack, the jerky from Mune, and a lighter to guide him. If Crow says to wait then it’s best to stay put.

 

He went through all this trouble to guide Akira here, surely he won’t leave him out here to die.

 

Looking out towards the forest, the stars in the sky begin to vanish, barely peeking through the umbrella of leaves like scattered pieces of a never ending puzzle. The air is rich with the perfume of the dampened earth and something almost sweet that he can’t quite identify. It must have rained sometime while Akira slept. The soil releases a fog that grows thicker the further into the forest he looked. For such a vast wilderness it was eerily quiet. No animals in sight, not even the sound of crickets or cicadas. 

 

Akira hopes everyone just decided to go to bed early. 

 

The night air comes with a chilled bite that raises the hair on his neck. What had been the perfect outfit for summer travel, a loose grey tank top and some worn denim shorts, quickly became the bane of his existence as it did nothing to combat the cool forest. Akira relieves his ponytail from its duty, hoping that if his neck is covered maybe it’ll keep him a little warmer. He goes to find a spot on the ground that isn’t too wet but still within the ring of light provided by the lamp before settling down. He uses his bag as a pillow once more. If he’ll be hanging around while he waits to be collected he could at least be comfortable. Akira tries to fill the silence by singing a few working songs; it barely fills the eerie quiet all around.

 

By the time he’s sang every tune he knows five times over, and is trying to remember the vulgar one the fishermen would sing that always made Kawakami blush, Akira hears it. 

 

The faint rustling of leaves sounds like a crashing boulder in comparison to how silent the forest is. The low note dies in his throat as he lays still as a corpse and strains his ears to try and hear anything else. His heart is racing and every nerve in his body screams to say “fuck it all” and run back down the hill.

 

Akira grabs the nearest thing to him, a rock the size of his palm which given his size might not be helpful at all. Minutes pass of listening and shallow breathing, that admittedly makes him a little dizzy. Just as he’s ready to slap himself for being so sleep deprived to make up hearing noises and scaring himself a twig snaps right behind him. 

 

Akira’s body is barely turned over before he’s up and sprinting down the steep hill without breathing. He holds the air in his lungs, trying to get as far away from the noise as possible. Too terrified to even look behind at whatever is thundering against the earth. The pace is starting to match his own stride. Akira’s hands shake violently and when he remembers that he still has the rock, he turns to throw it with all the strength in his body and then some. 

 

There’s a satisfying smack against whatever creature is pursuing him. Unexpected however is the canine sounding yelp, followed by a human sounding groan that comes after. There’s still not a chance in hell Akira will stop though.

 

The hill feels steeper beneath his feet. There’s trees everywhere and Akira is quickly starting to lose his shit because he doesn’t know where he’s going and he’s going to fucking trip and break his neck because he’s stupid and oh god he’s panicking this isn’t good— THUNK . Shins crash against what must have been a boulder and the teen goes flying. 

 

“Gotcha!”

 

A scream bubbles in Akira’s throat and comes loose when what he can only pray are human arms catch him around his narrow waist. A large hand clasps over his mouth, muffling the scream that had built and burst out. Akira’s body, completely worn out from the run and impending panic attack, crumples into the hold as he starts full on ugly crying. Big, fat tears roll down cheeks and pool on the hand still over his mouth. 

 

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” the hopefully not murderer huffs over Akira’s warbled shouting. He releases the hand over Akira’s mouth after the ravenette calms his wailing into soft hiccups. Next the arm holding him up gently sets him back on the ground and Akira immediately crumbles to his knees. Instead of looking up into the face of a red eyed one horned beast, there’s a man with worried brown eyes staring down at him. Probably bewildered at Akira’s sudden hysterical breakdown. 

 

The parts of his tanned face Akira can see over his black face mask are flushed and he’s slightly out of breath. He runs a hand through his exposed blond hair from under his purple hood and looks on as Akira wipes his cheeks roughly with the heels of his hands. He knows he’s just smearing more dirt and grime around, but the tears don’t stop and neither does his pathetic whimpering. He has got to look like the world’s biggest crybaby idiot.

 

“Look, I’m sorry I scared you,” the blond man’s voice is cautious and muffled by the mask. “I swear I thought you were sleeping! Then you started running and I got scared because I thought you had seen something but then duh—” he flicks his own forehead “you were obviously running from me!” His cheeks raise, and Akira can tell he’s smiling. The completely non-threatening boy reaches into cloak and pulls out a black kerchief. Akira gratefully takes it and begins to dry his face of tears and snot. Some first impression this is. 

 

After his face is dry, the man offers his hand to help Akira up. 

 

“There we go, so if you’re hanging around Yongen forest I bet you’re the new assistant, right?” Still exhausted and with his mind all over the place, Akira  just nods dumbly and begins to follow the man back up the hill. Surprisingly, they hadn’t made it that far and in less than five minutes he can see the glow of that damned lamp. Oh, and the bag Akira had abandoned with the last of his worldly possessions. Real smart Kurusu. He leans to pick it up off the ground but the man holds up a hand to stop him and grabs it instead.

 

“Let me get it, payback for scaring five years off your life. Y’know you really shouldn’t be out here after the sun goes down. Didn’t your boss tell you that?” The man’s tone seemed disapproving but more towards the aforementioned “boss” for not telling their new employee such a simple rule.

 

“Ah, no, they didn’t,” Akira murmurs. “I’m actually waiting on someone named Crow? Are you not him?” The man looks down at Akira and once again he can see brown eyes crinkle with a smile.

 

“Pfft nah, he wishes. I work with him too, kind of. He sent me to collect you. Name’s Skull by the way. Didn’t think you’d give me my second workout of the day like that though,” Skull snickers and Akira can feel the rest of his self esteem wither away as he shakes the energetic man’s hands. The urge to jump into the nearest ditch is going strong. 

 

“Ah don’t look like that, it’ll be fine c’mon.”

 

Akira normally prides himself on being a strong, independent, person but it’s still dark and scary despite Skull’s flashlight lighting the way. So he gives in, sticks close by and clutches Skull’s purple cloak as he guides them deeper into the fog of the forest.