"Yoh," Anna said and you tried to plaster a sunny smile on your face for her benefit. "I hate it here."
"Well, I would think that most people would…unless one has an unnatural liking for disgusting, unsanitary public restrooms and cheap motel rooms," you said, training your eyes on the endless expanse of road before you, the burning black asphalt snaking out into the mountains for what seemed like forever.
Anna shifted in her position and studied you. "Not funny." But her voice lacked the warmth beneath the sarcasm that she usually had, the smirking amusement that used to hide in the shadows behind her eyes and you fought the urge to wince. She had been cold and distant lately…well, colder and more distant than usual and you had a sinking feeling that this conversation was going to take after dozens of other disagreements you have had with her ever since arriving in America.
"So…did you hear anything from Ryu when you phoned him last night?" you asked, trying to change the subject.
Her face remained expressionless. "Barely…considering that you wanted me to hang up after less than three minutes into the call," she drawled and you could hear resentment curling its way into her voice. But you knew that if she had stayed on the phone too long then that would have left your location vulnerable to anyone who might have the motel bugged or the lines wire tapped.
You hesitated and composed your thoughts while counting the number of painted broken white dashes on the road before speaking again. "Well…um…did you find out anything?"
"Yes. Business is doing well, Ryu managed to hire three waitresses, oh and…" Anna examined her nails casually as she reclined in her seat. "Apparently Hana believes that Tamao is his mother."
You couldn't think of anything else to say but manage a weak "H-How can you be so sure—"
"He calls her 'Tamao-mom' and asks when his father is going to come home," she fired back at you. "How do you think this makes me feel?" she asked icily.
"I…I'm sorry…I didn't know…"
She dismissed it with a simple nod of her head. "Well, not that it matters. I've handled worse things…like having to give birth all by myself with no husband around to help." You automatically recoiled in pain. You'll never be able to forgive yourself for not coming home when she went into labor. "But then again I also never was able to hold Hana in my arms. As soon as the delivery was done, Kino took the baby away. I never got to hold my own child, Yoh. I never got to see him."
"Kino would never—"
She sat up, her spine growing rigid and you could practically see the hairs prickling on the back of her neck as her tone devolved into something absolutely feral. "She thought that it would distract me from my duties as an itako and from concentrating on your progress in the Shaman Fight. It seems like I'm all about distractions to your family, right? Kino didn't want to tell you that I was about to give birth because she was afraid that it would distract you from performing adequately in the tournament," she spat out.
Your hands clenched around the steering wheel. "Anna, if I had known then I would've—"
"I want to go back home," Anna said abruptly, out of nowhere as she stared out the window of the cheap rental car you managed to haggle the dealer out of for a fraction of the cost back in Arizona. Or had it been New Mexico? You couldn't really remember anymore as every state, every city, every rest stop you made had begun to blur together into a singular drawn out memory of deserts and dust and heat.
"We might be able to check into a motel when we cross over into Nevada," you said carefully. But even you heard the own strain and tension edging their obnoxious way into your voice.
Anna tightened her grip on the metal handle of the car door, her knuckles flushing white. "Yoh, you very well know what I mean. I want to go home. To Funbari Hill," she hissed.
You inwardly sighed, knowing that that was her intention all along. You had really hoped that she would've been able to go a few hours before bringing Japan up again. "Anna…"
Your wife whirled around and glared at you. "Don't you 'Anna' me," she snapped. "I want to see my son. Our son. Hana. Or have you forgotten that you have a child waiting for you back at home?"
You had no idea how to tell her that of course you wanted to see Hana. You wanted him to grow up with a father because you yourself knew how it felt to not have one as a kid. You wanted to be able to be a "normal" family with a white picket fence and an SUV and drive him to soccer practice or kendo practice and run a business with your wife. You wanted to tell her that sometimes late at night when you both were half asleep underneath threadbare sheets at a rundown, seedy motel in some godforsaken part of the Midwest, you sometimes tried bargaining with the Great Spirit to trade in your supernatural powers just to have a shot at a regular life. "I…I haven't forgotten, Anna but—"
"It's simple, Yoh. We just…we just forget all of this crap that we're chasing, hop on a plane back home and see our child," she said, her eyes beginning to grow wild and you began to grow anxious because you couldn't even recall the last time you had seen Anna get so out of control. "All of this is so stupid. We always think we have a new lead, a new clue, a new trail and then we do the stupid thing and we begin to have hope!" She spat out a derisive bark of laughter. "And then where do we always end up? Stuck in reverse. Always going backwards and getting farther and farther away from what we're chasing like two blind idiots!"
It was beginning to get harder and harder to concentrate on the road and on the growing spiritual pressure that was emanating from your wife. "Anna, you know that we can't go back yet. You know that and I explained it to you and you agreed to it before we left for America—"
It was…unhealthy. This whole ongoing argument and tension had been plaguing your relationship with Anna for years now; it was a poison that was eating away at both of you and had been threatening to explode into a full blown fight eventually. There was no avoiding it. Though you appeared to be the perfect couple to everyone else, you still got into arguments. You still fought and squabbled and had disagreements just like every other couple out there. But this…this was different.
"Anna!" you managed to conjure from deep within your being with such force that you surprised even yourself, your foot jerking down to slam on the accelerator.
The blond woman abruptly shut her mouth, reeling back as if slipping into an endless ocean of silence, the waters of her glaring quiet completely isolating her from view.
You held your breath for several seconds before letting the repressed carbon dioxide escape from between the clenched crevices of your teeth as you began gently easing your foot off of the gas pedal. "Look, Anna, I know that this is…that this is hard," you began, trying to regain your composure which seemed nearly impossible now because you were getting frayed and worn at the thin edges of your being on a daily basis.
"Yoh," she suddenly interrupted, her voice serene. The contrast of the even keel tone in her voice with the fiery, spiteful words that she had uttered less than a minute ago was so sharp that it pained you to hear it. "You would let us go back if you actually loved me." Her calm words hurt more than any of the enraged blows and hits she had laid upon you countless times ever since childhood.
But how you could you tell her that you did love her? That the sole reason you weren't letting her move back to Japan was because you loved her, because it was too dangerous to leave America for both her and Hana. And then you began to regret that you never told her that yes, yes, you silly woman, I do love you! Those three simple words that you had come so close to saying so many times but refrained from doing so for the sake of her perpetual, precious pride.
And then that's when you saw it. A dramatic tragedy played out over the arcs and valleys of her face, her tired, fatigued face and it's a wonder that you just realized the bags underneath her eyes and—and—and was she crying? A veritable stormy tempest between her mind and her heart, between the logical rhetoric of the steely itako who knew her duties to herself, to her family, to the entire shamanic community, to the world and the desperate, damaged pathos of a heartbroken mother who hadn't seen her son, who would give up everything even her own safety just to be able to see her child's face for the first time in years.
Because at this point, Hana didn't even know that you and Anna even existed. If they died, Hana would continue living and the world would still go on. But a mother brings her child into the world. When Anna gave birth to Hana, she literally gave him life—part of her life. Part of her was part of Hana. And now that Anna was separated from Hana…it was no wonder that she was acting like she was missing a piece of her self. Like she was dying. She literally needed to be with her child.
She was broken and was just begging to be fixed.
"I hate you." The words seemed to surprise Anna as her eyes grew wider and wider and her mouth hung open around the last syllable and you saw her hands twitch in her lap as if they wanted to grab the words back and shove them back down her throat. But she was too far gone to even think anymore, and she couldn't remember any other words aside from the three that burned brightly in front of her and from within her being. "I hate you, I hate you—"
"Anna, stop, you…you don't mean that." And it sounded like water was rushing into the car, around you, rising higher and higher until you were underwater. You weren't certain of anything in the world. But the one thing you were sure of was that you loved Anna. And you began focusing on the small things, the sweat clinging to your palms, the rough texture of the steering wheel, the heat that was pounding mercilessly through the windows, the jackhammering of your heart against your sternum, your breathing, the little details that would assure you that yes, this is not some twisted dream and that yes, this was reality and you were in fact hearing your wife who you desperately loved just profess her profound, body consuming hatred of you so that…
…so that you didn't see a car heading at seventy miles per hour in the opposite direction shift into your lane.
"You never loved me, did you? You always hated me. You resented me and I know that you did and—" Her last words choked off as she saw the car barreling down the road right towards your own.
You weren't sure if Anna screamed or if the pure, unadulterated fear you saw was your own reflection or the sudden moment of clarity that came across the possibly sleep deprived or possibly drunk driver. But just one sentence rang through your mind. Not your own safety. Not the safety of the other driver.
You couldn't let her die thinking that you hated her.
And tires screeched, leaving permanent black marks on the already black asphalt. And horns were honked and the loud cries of both your cars hung in the air in the split second right before impact. And your arm slammed across Anna's chest, pushing her back in a desperate attempt to push her away from any and all harm and you could feel her frail body stiffen to prepare for impact out of fear and in the silence right before you blacked out you yelled at yourself that you were about to get into a car crash and you couldn't even let your wife have what she wanted.
And then you saw IV drips and hospital fluorescent lights and the faces of concerned doctors hovering above your own and the look of anxiety that Anna's nurse had that betrayed the fact that she knew a terrible secret about your wife. And then that's when you heard it.
The monotonous, absolute high pitched beep of the heart monitor attached to Anna that signaled that she was no longer alive. No neon green peaks or valleys of small glimmers of hope and life on the LCD screen. The nurses and doctors shielded Anna's entire body from view but you could see a lifeless hand, your wife's lifeless hand hanging off the edge of her bed.
"No. No, no, no, no. No, please. Why her? Why not me? No—"
And then your consciousness lit up like a burst of light and you're back in your car and you realize that—
"Yoh! Yoh!" Anna screamed and some small voice in the back of your head noted that the last time she was so concerned and panicked over your wellbeing was when Tokagero took over your body.
And then you realize that you had been just shellshocked as Anna's nails dug into your upper arm and she shook you. "I…we're…"
"You hit your head against the steering wheel," she said, beginning to calm down.
"But…but we…" You finally became aware that your entire body was shaking and so was Anna's. "We stopped in time." You grabbed her hand and it was probably the rush of post-accident adrenaline that inhibited her from immediately letting go of yours.
Tears that Anna probably didn't even know were streaming down her face were mindlessly wiped away. "I'm sorry."
"Let's go home," you said automatically.
Anna blinked in surprise before slowly shaking her head. "No…no, we need to stay here. We need—"
You firmly squeezed her hand. "No, you need to go home. We need to. Our son is five years old and we haven't even seen him once."
"Do you mean it?" she asked quietly.
You nodded. "Absolutely. The first flight we can catch. We're going home because…because this means a lot to you and if it means a lot to you, then it sure means a lot to me. You're more important to me than anything else in the world because…" I love you. "Because…" I love you. And then you realized that life was short even for a shaman and you didn't care if she impaled you with a knife or slapped you into the next country over because you loved her. You, Asakura Yoh, loved Anna. "I love you," you blurted out, the phrase so rushed that it sounded like some foreign three syllable word.
And you saw some wall, some barrier in your relationship with her that you didn't know was there the entire time break down. The first time either of you admitted to loving each other. The first time either of you admitted that your marriage was based on something more than the promise of a strong bloodline and tradition.
And this girl, no, this woman, this wonderful woman who was so used to being shunned, who was so used to a lack of love didn't know how to react and before you knew it, you were laughing because you were so happy to be alive, so happy to be married to her, and so happy to have a child with her. She clenched her fist as if to strike you and then turned away, closing her eyes, reddening. She lowered her arm and then brought it back up, bringing her fist precariously close to your face but you didn't even flinch because you were too busy still laughing.
"You're an idiot," she finally decided on, turning to stare out the window.
But you could see a small, faint hint of a smile, of pure contentment and joy flicker onto her face. And you knew then, just then, that this was completely the right thing to do. And that made it all worth it.