There was no concept of time in the underworld, and Shiro sometimes wondered how long had it been since they had gotten there. He often reminisced about his family, his friends, his village… were they alright? How long had it been since his parents had last seen him? The memories were still very clear in his mind, but did his parents still think of him? Were his parents still alive?
He also wondered if Kuro thought about these things. When they were sitting together under the maple tree like this, it was easy to forget about everything they had endured. But still, every time he looked at his friend, Kuro seemed like a ghost of his former self; a hurtful reminder of what he had sacrificed for Shiro’s sake. Shiro didn’t even know if he had any memories of their human lives, as Kuro had been unable to speak since he had woken up with half of his soul. Along with their masters, Shiro had been working hard to help him recover this ability, but it was a gradual process. Hangan had praised his efforts the first time he noticed Kuro was slowly starting to communicate again, but the black mujou often preferred to keep it to himself. He had always been quiet and reclusive, but Shiro missed their conversations.
In their village there used to be a beautiful maple tree, very similar to the one in the underworld, which had provided shade for their many encounters during the hot summer days, and shelter from the snow during the colder months. They would often sit under the shade and talk about many, many things. Kuro used to love that tree, and Shiro had learned to enjoy playing under its leaves.
He missed it.
Sighing and trying to push these thoughts away for once, the young mujou put a smile on his face and slid closer to his friend, picking one of the maple leaves from the ground and waving it in front of Kuro’s face. “Hey, Kuro! Lady Enma said she wanted to talk to us, remember? We should head there, I don’t want Mister Hangan to be angry at us for being late again,” the boy said, jumping to his feet and holding a hand out for Kuro. “Let’s go?”
Kuro stared up at him for a second, then nodded and took his hand. Shiro helped him to his feet with a grin, to which Kuro responded with a small, shy smile. But a smile nonetheless.
Shiro did not let go of his hand as they made their way to Enma’s Hall.
The Hall was unusually peaceful. Lady Enma would often have people – loud people – around, much for Hangan’s terror, but today there were only four people around the place: their masters, Shiro Mujou and Kuro Mujou, Hangan, as usual, and Lady Enma herself. When the boys walked in, they were greeted by the Lady of the underworld with a warm smile. “Ah, here they are! We have an important task for you today, boys!” She said, beckoning them closer with a wave of her hand.
“Shiro, Kuro,” Shiro Mujou stepped forward, speaking to them in his usual kind tone, and sounding almost if he was hiding a smile behind his words. “We have seen the progress you have made in your training, and we believe you are ready to start taking on missions by yourselves,” he announced, proudly. Shiro grinned at Kuro, surprised and excited.
Kuro Mujou nodded. “That’s right. We won’t give you any hard missions for now, though. Since today is your first day, we got you an easy one: There’s this old man who’s going to die soon, and we want you to go there and guide his soul. You know how it works, you’ve seen us doing this many times, right?” Shiro was quick to nod, his eyes wide. He was glad their masters believed they were advancing in their training, but the announcement was also worrisome. Without Shiro Mujou and Kuro Mujou to help, Shiro was afraid he would be unable to stop Kuro if he lost control. It was not a frequent occurrence anymore, but it was still hard to predict how Kuro would react to certain situations, being as unstable as he was.
He didn’t voice those concerns, though. If Shiro Mujou and Kuro Mujou believed they were capable, he was not going to question them. With a deep bow, Shiro accepted the mission: “T-Thank you for having faith in us, we will do our best!” Kuro nodded his head once in agreement, remaining silent while Enma and Hangan watched them with knowing smiles.
“Yeah, yeah,” Kuro Mujou waved his hand to dismiss their formalities. “As I said, it’s just an old man, so things should go smoothly. Now, if you are ready, you can go.”
The village where the old man lived was, unfortunately, very familiar to the young mujous. Shiro was not quite sure of how much their masters knew about their human lives, so he was willing to believe this was all an odd coincidence, but being back to the village where they had been born and raised, and most importantly, where they had died, brought him a somewhat uncomfortable sense of… nostalgia. He remembered walking down these streets with his parents, playing with his friends along these alleys, eating and playing with Kuro under the maple trees…
When he glanced at him, Kuro’s eyes were wide and glazed over, staring straight ahead. Shiro knew Kuro’s memories of this place were not as good as his own, so he slowed down and gently took his friend’s hand in his. “Come on, Kuro. Master Shiro Mujou and master Kuro Mujou said it was an easy mission. Let’s finish this quickly so we can go back, alright?” He squeezed Kuro’s hand; the gentle smile on his face matched the tone of his voice as he attempted to comfort his friend and keep him calm. “If we do well, we will be mujous soon! Don’t you think that’s nice?” Kuro looked at him, eyes unmoving, but he slowly nodded his head.
“It’s… nice…” The white haired boy murmured, squeezing Shiro’s hand back. “Being a mujou… with Shiro…”
Shiro nodded encouragingly. “Yes! So let’s do our best!” And Kuro nodded again. Once again, Shiro did not let go of his hand as they made their way through the familiar streets, heading to the old man’s house.
There were people buzzing around in the streets, going from building to building and place to place, but Shiro could not recognize any of them. Had it really been that long since they had died?
They hadn’t been there in a long time, but it seemed like despite the people, nothing else had changed. The houses, stores, everything was in the exact same place as they had been back when the boys were alive, and the path leading to the old man’s house was starting to look a lot more familiar than Shiro wanted to admit. He could feel Kuro growing more and more tense with each step they took, and although Shiro tried to hide it, he was starting to tense up as well.
As they walked the path seemed to be narrowing down, but the houses seemed to be getting bigger in contrast. Their village had never been very big in size, but just like in any other town there were discrepancies when it came to people's lives; the bigger houses in more remote streets were reserved for the people who had more money, and of course, to the people who had important roles in that society.
Their final destiny ended up being an extremely familiar door. Shiro had been there many times, knocking gently on the wooden walls and waiting at the door to invite Kuro to go out and play. The house was fit for the village chief and his family, a beautiful construction, but it was now old and clearly in need of repairs. The grass around it had not been trimmed in a while, giving the place an even bigger look of abandonment. It was odd to see a place they both knew so well in such a state. Shiro began to wonder again just how long had passed since they had left, but the thoughts quickly flew from his mind when he felt Kuro squeezing his hand again, calling his attention back to him. Turning to the other, Shiro quickly noted his body was rigid and his breathing coming out in short gasps; the memories from his life were certainly coming back all at once, so in an attempt to calm him down, the white mujou swiftly stepped in front of him, unceremoniously dropping his matoi so he could hold Kuro’s face in his hands.
“Kuro, you don’t have to go. I’ll go alone. You can wait here,” he was quick to say, searching for Kuro’s eyes. “Everything is alright. You can go back and I’ll meet you at Sanzu river,” Shiro tried to hide the worry in his voice, but he found himself failing miserably at that task. Kuro didn’t look at him; his eyes were downcast, but Shiro was glad to notice his breathing was beginning to slow down at least. “Kuro, you can leave it to me.”
Looking slightly calmer, Kuro looked up at Shiro, eyes still wide and glazed over just as they had been on the way to the house, but Shiro could see a small flame of determination alight behind them. They wanted to become mujous. Together, so they would never have to be apart again. “I… want to go…” Kuro said, finally blinking as he got out of his head and took notice of Shiro’s hands on his face, grounding him. “I want…”
With a relieved smile, Shiro nodded. “Alright, let’s go together, then. Promise you will tell me if you start feeling bad again?” Kuro’s breath caught in his throat, but he nodded. Shiro let go, picking up his matoi from the ground and stepping closer to the house, giving Kuro one last glance before carefully opening the door. It would be okay, he thought to himself; they were together, they could handle this.
On the inside, the house still looked exactly as Shiro remembered, and that thought made him instinctively reach out for Kuro’s hand again. There was no one around, but they still moved slowly. It was unnecessary, since their mujou powers allowed them to stay invisible to humans, but they couldn’t bring themselves to move any faster than this. Much like the outside, the inside of the house was in need of repairs: there were a couple tiles loose, some of the paper doors had small rips and holes on them, and the wind chime was broken, twirling near the large window but making no sound anymore. It seemed deserted and dusty, too, as if the rest of Kuro’s family was long gone.
The silence was unnerving.
The walk to the main bedroom was a short one, and ragged breathing could be heard coming from the other side of the paper door, breaking the otherwise quiet atmosphere.
Shiro took a deep breath before sliding it open.
Neither the streets nor the houses had changed since the boys had passed, but in front of them was a clear proof of the inevitable passage of time. Kuro’s father looked nothing like Shiro remembered him. Bald and wrinkly, thin and fragile; he was clearly a man nearing the end of his time on Earth, far from the vibrant chief he had once been. A man on his deathbed, waiting for his soul to be taken to the underworld and not unlike so many others Shiro and Kuro had visited during their training... But he was not like the others.
At the sound of the door sliding open the man opened his eyes, his head turning towards the sound before his expression changed to one of sheer surprise. Or shock. Shiro could not tell which one.
“What is this?” The hoarseness of his once loud voice betrayed just how old and tired he was, but the anger was almost palpable in the words that left his mouth. “The ghosts of the past have come to haunt an old man on his deathbed?” He asked, weakly waving his hand in an attempt to drive them away. “Go! Let me pass peacefully!” His eyes were fixed on a point behind Shiro as he spoke, and he knew very well the old chief was looking straight at Kuro.
Shiro managed to smile through the feelings that were resurfacing, silently stepping closer in an attempt to shield Kuro from his father’s view. His next words were calm, just like his master had taught him. “Oji-san, we are the underworld emissaries. We came to guide your soul so you don’t get lost on your way. Please, come with us," the boy said, as sweetly as he always spoke.
But the man didn’t seem convinced. With the little strength he had left, he snorted. “How can I trust two pathetic children such as yourselves to guide me? The stupid child who offered himself up as a sacrifice and my sad excuse for son,” his eyes bore into Kuro’s, his tone switching from angry to disdainful. “Do you know just how much you have embarrassed me? My own child, interrupting the sacrificial ceremony and getting himself killed in the process. I cannot believe I have raised such a weak son,” the old man spat on the floor with the last of his strength. “Leave.”
Before Shiro was able to say anything a rattling sound came from behind him. Turning around he was met with the vision of Kuro, hands shaking as he strongly gripped his scythe. His head was bowed, but the energy emanating from him was unmistakable: Rage.
“Disgusting…” Kuro's voice was barely louder than a whisper. “You make me sick!” He yelled, storming towards the old man, scythe raised and ready to strike.
“Kuro! No!” Yelled Shiro. The sound of his matoi falling to the floor again was muffled by his voice as he jumped in front of Kuro, frantically wrapping his arms around his body in an attempt to hold him back. “No! Remember what master Shiro Mujou taught us! We don’t have to fight harmless souls, Kuro! Please!” He begged. Kuro struggled against his hold, mindlessly trying to break free, but Shiro, in an impressive demonstration of strength, didn’t budge. He kept his feet planted firmly to the floor.
Kuro’s rage and his struggle was enough to knock both of their eboshis off their heads, but Shiro held on. “Kuro, please! Calm down Kuro, please,” he lowered his voice, whispering urgently as he pressed his forehead to his friend’s shoulder. “Please… I’m here, we are together, it’s alright,” Shiro kept murmuring words of comfort, arms tight around Kuro. He held on, until he felt the other boy slowly starting to relax in his grip. “He can’t hurt us anymore, Kuro.”
At these words, Kuro finally broke. His scythe fell from his hands as he rushed to wrap his own arms around Shiro, hands clinging to his clothes while his body trembled in Shiro’s arms. “Shiro… Shiro…” He repeated his name over and over, and Shiro could only stroke his hair with a gentle hand, smiling softly and trying to regain his breath.
Kuro had never spoken of his family life to him, not when they were alive and definitely not after death, but Shiro was starting to understand just how much his best friend had endured, all by himself, in his brief life. Kuro had always been quiet; they would frequently play together, but Kuro had never enjoyed the loud activities the other children used to like. In fact, when the boys were together they would often watch the clouds, feed the stray cats around the village, pick up flowers and leaves, or simply draw and play games together. Shiro had always felt like Kuro found comfort in these small things, remembering how he used to dread the time when it got too dark to stay outside, when he had to return to his family for dinner... Now, Shiro understood why.
“See? We are alright, Kuro,” he gently hushed the other boy, waiting until he was sure Kuro was stable enough to let go of him and turn back to the old man, who had been watching silently up until now. There was something about his expression that Shiro could not place, but it didn't matter. They had a mission to complete.
His smile did not falter as he stared into the man’s eyes. “It’s time,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“Your boys did very well, I’m impressed,” Enma said, nodding approvingly at the two older mujous, having watched the whole mission with her Eyes of Enma. “I have to admit I did not think they would be able to pass this test, but you didn’t even have to intervene. Very impressive,” she praised.
Shiro Mujou accepted her compliment with a deep bow. “They are very dedicated students, Lady Enma,” Kuro Mujou nodded in agreement.
“I can see that,” she nodded again. “You did a good job training them. Even you, Kuro Mujou,” Enma chuckled, amused, her eyes moving to the older brother as he snorted.
“Of course, I would never hear the end of it from a certain grandma if I didn’t rise up to the challenge,” he crossed his arms, but a fond smile made its way to his face regardless. “Most importantly, it seems like Shiro has become very good at handling Kuro’s outbursts… those brats have grown into fine mujous, after all.”
Enma hummed. “Indeed. Soon, you two will be able to pass on your duties to them.”
The two stared at her. Kuro Mujou couldn't stop himself from shaking his head, baffled. “What?!”
Kuro’s father had been quite hesitant to agree, but in the end, the young mujous had convinced him to leave his body behind and go with them. Oddly, the man was silent the entire way back to the underworld. Many souls, Shiro had noticed, would talk to them on their way; they would point to buildings and mourners, and tell stories about their lives. The silence was odd, but none of them dared to break it. It was more comfortable like this, he believed, and there was not much to say anyway. Kuro hadn't spoken since his outburst at his old house, but he was unable to stop taking furtive glances above his shoulder to look at his father. The old man did not look at him, though. Much like Kuro would usually do, he kept his head down and eyes trained to the ground as he walked. It was a strangely familiar behavior.
The boys walked ahead of him all the way until they arrived at Sanzu river. Shiro stopped, turning to him with the same smile he had kept on his face the entire time. “We can’t go further than this. You have to continue your journey by yourself now,” he explained, gesturing towards the boat waiting for its passenger, another habit he had picked up from his master.
The man nodded, walking past the children and heading straight to the boat.
Until he stopped.
Without turning to the two, the man started awkwardly: “Son, I–” he cut himself short to swallow around a lump in his throat, but still refusing to face them. “I… apologize for the things I’ve said. You were a good child,” he paused, but Kuro said nothing. Instead, he merely stared at the man’s back, eyes unblinking. “I should have recognized that.”
With those simple parting words, he stepped into the boat without giving his child one last look. Kuro remained silent, but eyes followed the boat as it left the shore, and until it disappeared into the horizon. There was no way to know what he was thinking, but Shiro didn't need to. Both of them could feel the weight of the man's last words.
At last, closure.
“Kuro?” Shiro called, finally breaking the silence once the boat was gone. “We need to report to master Shiro Mujou and master Kuro Mujou,” he said, his hand finding Kuro’s and squeezing it gently. “Let’s go?”