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The Obake's Soulless Boy

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The Fukurojuku Shrine has been abandoned by its followers and Shouta doesn't blame them. The torii gate is hollowed with termites, the purification trough is more algae than water, and the offering hall leaks from numerous holes in the ceiling tile. 

The first century of it’s abandonment went smoothly enough. The two yokai familiars did most of the basic upkeep while Shouta handled the more sophisticated fixes and basic blessings around the boundary where the shimenawa found itself fraying. By the second century of the erased God’s shrine, the two familiar’s loyalties started to slip through and it wasn’t much longer until they left to find a new lord. 

Godless, and without annoying yokai familiars to nag him out of the redlight district of the other place , Shouta was no longer bound to the shrine. He could leave and jump between the human realm and the other place however he liked. Promises to leave after one last fix, one last blessing, one last exorcism came and went as the years passed; however, Shouta’s always been a lazy cat.

Now, after a decade of Godless misguidance and only Shouta’s simple blessings to keep the border steady, the Fukurokuju Shrine’s following went from hundreds to only one. 

Upon his first appearance, Shouta would like to say the child didn’t startle him. He’d been in the main house, making tar to patch the roof when he heard it. It was very faint, a whisper in the wind that reminded him of his God's mindless humming, however, the more he strained to hear, the more it rang familiar. Someone was praying in the offering hall.  

Suspicious and intrigued, he crossed the compound to the hall - shrouded in his obake form and invisible to the human eye. Thoughts of the torii having finally fallen came and went. That would explain why he didn’t sense anyone’s passage sooner, but when he laid eyes on the boy, he knew. There was no light within the small body gorged in a tattered, muddied kimono. There was no darkness, either. A human child with a mop of forest curls, bright viridian eyes, a galaxy of freckles, and without a soul.

As the child prayed, kneeling on water-rotted wood, Shouta had thought he was a lost spirit. The boy certainly looked like he’d been attacked by the state of his clothes, emaciated stature, and the bruising on his exposed arms. However, even lost spirits have souls. The ones who don’t are consumed by the demon they shook hands with and can no longer walk the earth. 

This human child is an empty vessel - a walking, talking corpse. How he is alive, Shouta doesn’t know.

Without a soul, his prayer falls on deaf ears; and even if Shouta wanted to grant it, he couldn’t without truly hearing it. Time passes in minutes and the child doesn’t stay long. He claps his hands and ends his prayer with a light “Thank you, kami-sama” and he leaves. Shouta follows as he goes and even though he sees the boy pass through the unbroken torii gate, he’s still not notified by the barrier. He spends the rest of the week repairing the torii and casting his blessing to strengthen his tether to it. 

Two weeks pass with his usual chores and Shouta is yet again ignorant to the boy’s arrival. He catches the boy washing his hands and scrubbing his mouth in the filthy trough from the main house attic window. He almost rolls over to go back to sleep, unbothered by the soulless boy’s presence, until the whisper of a prayer begins again. 

Grudgingly, Shouta rises from his pillows. He stretches, all seven of his tails fanning as his claws rake the wood. In the offering hall, the boy is kneeling once again, but this time with a wooden basket in crooked hands. Shouta stays against the wall, watching how the boy gently places his offering down with a trembling spine. There’s no fear here, not that Shouta can sense, the boy is in pain. It radiates from his body like a heat signature.

“Kami-sama, I brought an offering this time. I apologize for the wait.” he clasps his hands together, and prays aloud. “Today, I pray for my mother’s happiness. A darkness has ashened her features and a great depression has proven her unable to rise from bed. My mother no longer smiles, no longer laughs, nor has the same delightful energy like she once was known for. I pray that she will lift from the depths soon and recover. Please hear me and grant my prayer. Thank you, kami-sama.”

Shouta follows the boy to the torii gate once more to make sure he goes. Another day, another prayer and he still doesn’t have answers.

Days pass quite the same, the boy comes and goes like a lost spirit. Sometimes he brings an offering, other times he doesn’t. More than not he smells like nature - soulless without a distinct scent signature - other times, he smells like blood from the cuts zebraing his limbs. What stays the same is his prayers for his mother. No longer is it simply for her happiness, but for her health, as well. She’s apparently sickly from not eating, sour from uncleanliness, and poses no energy to stay awake for long. 

It’s on the fifth occasion of trailing the boy to the torii gate, that Shouta finally reveals himself. The boy is one step from crossing the barrier when Shouta materializes in his human form, a black kimono pristine and not a fold out of place adorns his body. His hair is long and unkept, as is the stubble on his chin and upper lip.

“Your prayers cannot be acknowledged in this Shrine.”

The child whirls around, squeaking as his weak and feeble body almost tumbles out the torii. Shouta doesn’t move to catch the boy, he doesn’t care if the human falls and breaks himself. He simply stares and watches as the child’s face goes from surprised horror to openly gaping at him. This isn’t the first time Shouta’s revealed himself, so he isn’t put off by the reaction. 

“Are you” - the child gulps - “Are you the kami-sama of this shrine?”

“No. This Fukurokuju Shrine is Godless.”

“I…” he twiddles his thumbs and looks up at Shouta through his bangs. “I had a suspicion from the trough and state of the hall.”

“And yet you return.”

“I thought maybe this Fukurokuju Shrine was just too far away for visitors to attend.”

“Did you assume this shrine would hear your prayer clearer than the ones closer?”

The child doesn’t answer, but his silence is enough. 

“Well,” Shouta fills the silence and steps away, back towards the shrine. “there’s no need to come back. Go home to your mother. It’ll be dark soon.”

“Wait, familiar-!”

Shouta moves his hand in time to not be grabbed. He throws the boy a glare over his shoulder and the child shutters in his shadow. “I am no familiar.”

“I apologize.” Shouta quirks a brow at the way the boy bows with his entire body, lower than what he’s ever seen. “What’s your name?”

Shouta stills, his glare lifting. He finds himself more curious than offended. After a moment, the boy lifts his head, cranes his neck and peeks, still deep in a bow. When their eyes meet, Shouta doesn’t see any ill intent, no grudge, no dark meaning to possess him. This poor, soulless, ignorant child knows nothing of anything.

“A piece of advice, human,” he truly doesn’t know why he takes pity “do not ask for any other-worldly’s name. Especially a God’s. You’ll be eaten.”

His eyes widen and his head snaps back into place, arms stiffer at his sides and spine trembling from the position. “I’m so sorry!”

Shouta closes his eyes and sighs. “Straighten.” the boy does so immediately. “Names are the most powerful possession you can trade. Don’t ask, but most importantly, don’t give up your own full name. Understood?”

“Yes! Then… what should I call you?”

Shouta mulls over leaving without an answer. He has no obligation to tell the child, especially since this is the last time they’ll see each other, but he’s feeling forgiving. “They call me Aizawa.”

The boy shivers. Can he feel the power behind it? It’s not Shouta’s full title, but it’s a piece of it nonetheless. It has meaning and importance, and even though he gives permission, no lesser yokai uses it lightly.

The child slowly begins to smile, something small yet blinding - and intriguing. “And… And I guess some call me Deku.”

The name Deku chose for himself has power as well. Something important and Shouta senses it hurts him but he gives it so easily. To be called useless as a soulless child, it’s awful how fitting it is.

“I didn’t ask,” Shouta says and yet doesn’t regret being told. 

“It’s only fair that I introduce myself, too.”

He stares at the child a moment longer before turning and starting for the shrine again. Behind him, he hears; “Thank you for listening to my prayers, Aizawa-sama.” Shouta ignores him as he goes, ready to rest in his true form.

 

~~*~~

 

Two weeks go by and Shouta thinks that’s the end of the soulless child. The first few days he expected the boy any moment, wandering around the offering hall and checking the torii gate to see if he would be there - lurking. By the fifth day, he doesn’t miss his company in the slightest. He doesn’t miss the surprise every time he slips past the barrier, or listening to his ramblings, or simply watching him pray silently to himself. He’s content with keeping to his past responsibilities as if their paths had never crossed. 

Until the boy returned. Once again the child catches Shouta off guard. He’s sunbathing on the main house’s steps, trying to absorb every drop of sunlight he can before the storm rolls in, when he hears the voice before actually sensing a presence. 

“You’re a bakeneko.”

Shouta startles, scrambling off his back and readying himself on all fours. He’s ready to pounce, seven tails fanning out and puffing to seem bigger, a hiss on his lips. He swallows it down once he recognizes the child. They stare each other down - well more like Deku is staring down at Shouta given the high difference now - and Shouta can sense no danger or terror. If anything, the boy is intrigued to know of Shouta’s true nature. 

With raised hands, Deku says, “I’m sorry, Aizawa-sama. I didn’t mean to startle you. Were you napping?”

Shouta straightens and with a great sigh, morphs into his human form with a flash of bark light. In seconds, he is sitting with one knee pulled up, leaning back on his hand, and feeling more than exhausted. This is what he gets for relaxing in his truest physical form.

Shouta sighs, “Was I not clear previously?”

“I-I know this shrine is Godless,” the child stammers, looking off to the side.

Now that Shouta is properly looking, he takes him in. Deku’s face is maroon and blue around his right eye, another technicolor bruise peeking out from his ripped kimono collar, and his left arm is tightly wrapped in a sling. He reeks of casting plaster because of it.

“But I am without…” Deku’s voice wavers, and Shouta can see the build up of glistening tears in his eyes. He sniffles, straightening his spine as he takes a deep breath and squares his shoulders. “I am without shelter now, so I have nowhere else to go.”

Nothing more needs to be said, Shouta can tell from the way Deku’s entire being quakes that his mother has passed and the village shrine’s God has refused him. It doesn’t matter how big the masses are, no God would want an orphaned, soulless human child seeking refuge in their main house. 

However, this Fukurokuju Shrine is different. Hizashi-kami, the God of this once prosperous Fukurokuju Shrine, would’ve never turned down a lost soul - not even if they didn’t have a soul at all. 

“And you hope to seek shelter here?”

Deku bows deep, as low as when they first met and it makes Shouta frown. He can see the back of his neck and there is even more bruising. “If you will have me, Aizawa-sama.”

Shouta isn’t a people person. He doesn’t like any company if he’s being honest. The most he’s tolerated throughout the decades is when he was still a simple domesticated cat. Hizashi-kami had found him abandoned as a kitten and raised him. 

Maybe it was because he was raised by a God or it was because of the soul he was reincarnated with, but it wasn’t long before Shouta gained moral consciousness. He was awakened with an enlightenment that no other domesticated cat should have. Before long he could communicate with Hizashi-kami, and then suddenly one day he was able to transform into the obake he is today. 

A normal bakeneko’s awakening is fueled from resentment of their humans. They kill them, eat their flesh, and then bury their bones in order to copy their human shape. Shouta’s awakening was born out of unconditional love and affection. He took his own shape completely independent of Hizashi-kami’s features and remained loyal to the God. 

He’s an oddity in the other place , so maybe that’s why Shouta accepts the soulless human child so easily. 

“If you’re going to stay here,” Shouta says and keeps from reacting to Deku’s shock, “you’re going to help with the chores.”

Deku stumbles over himself, the dumb founded look remaining until he stands, bouncing on his heels. “Yes! Yes of course! What should I do first? Drain the purification trough, or mop the offering hall, or - or -!”

Shouta raises his hand, a heavy headache settling as he interrupts the child’s ramblings. With a voice volumed to talk over Deku, he says, “Let’s start with a bath and new dressings.”

“O-Oh,” Deku’s face falls, his excitement turning to embarrassment as he glances over himself. He’s worn the same kimono since he first came to the shrine, and it had been as well maintained as a child could manage until today. His cheeks darken all the way to his ears. “I… Of course. I should have washed up before coming.”

Shouta sighs, huffing as he stands and turns to step inside. “Come. I’ll warm the water.”

Deku hesitates, fidgeting with the fingers of his broken arm. “I-I’ll undress out here and you can leave the pot by the steps. You don’t have to warm in for me.”

Shouta pauses in the threshold, and lets the words sink in. No matter how dirty the follower, Shouta’s never seen anyone with muddied clothes undress before stepping in the main house. Never has he heard of anyone undressing outside of a village bathhouse, either. Also, not even the poorest of street beggars bathe cold. 

This child shouldn’t mind such unpleasantries. No one should be as quick to suggest something so savage - unless he was conditioned to expect a cold, humiliating bath outside. 

The sound of shuffling cloth makes Shouta glare over his shoulder. Not particularly at the boy unwrapping the first layer but at his casual mention of neglect. “You will not be doing anything of the sort in this Fukurokuju Shrine. Don’t think otherwise again.”

Deku freezes, cowering under Shouta’s gaze. “Y-Yes, Aizawa-sama!”

“Good,” Shouta steps inside. “Now come.”

 

~~*~~

 

A month passes and they’ve established a loose routine. 

In the morning, nothing happens until Shouta comes down from the attic. The child is always awake before him. His face is always washed, the futon is always folded along with the blankets, and the kettle is always over the center room fire. What time Deku wakes up to do everything, Shouta doesn’t care to ask, but he had to reprimand the boy for trying to grind tea leaves the first morning. Half ground leaves were spilt all over the floor and Shouta came down to find the boy sobbing on his hands and knees trying to scoop the mess into his unbroken hand to save what he could. 

Needless to say, heating the water is the only thing Deku is in charge of before Shouta rises and even then, the obake is worried over how he successfully lights the fire without fail. 

After morning tea, Shouta teaches the child simple words in reading and writing. The realization that he could do neither despite his age came with many tears on the boy’s part and countless comments of how truly useless he is. Shouta tried his best to calm Deku with reassurances, however, it was hard given having to call the boy by such a name. 

Lunch after the lessons - a bowl of rice - and then tending to the newly planted garden towards the back of the main house. Before, Shouta had no reason for human food so often. A bowl of rice twice a month sustained him enough, however, that won’t do for a human child who came to him malnourished and emaciated. 

Towards the end of the day was meant for true chores. Shouta continued with blessing the border and prepping the offering hall roof tiles for winter. Deku’s job is to sweep the offering hall, the plaza, the stairs leading from the torii - which he is always none too excited about but doesn’t complain. He can’t do much but sweep with his broken arm.

It’s this morning that Deku speaks up about the routine. 

“I don’t want to sweep today, Aizawa-sama.”

It’s hardly morning and Shouta hasn’t even had two sips of his tea yet. How the boy is continuously eager this early is a mystery. He scans Deku, the other freshly healed of all his bruising, face less hollow, and his arm is now only in the sling without the plaster. It’s hard to determine if he’s hurting without a soul to read, so trusting him when he says he’s alright is hard to believe some days. Perhaps today’s the day Deku opens up about discomfort and requests a day off. 

However, knowing the boy over the month, Shouta can only hope. 

“What do you purpose in exchange?”

Deku’s eyes bounce from the fire back to Shouta, losing his confidence just for a moment. As he hesitates, he squeezes the fingers of his injured hand. It can’t be pleasant. “I want to go to the market,” - his gaze travels again before snapping back - “The garden will be ready soon and we’ll need cooking oil and spices if we want it to actually taste good. Plus, maybe I can look into new cleaning supplies while I’m there because - because, um, nothing against keeping with traditions but what we have right now is old and falling apart. Then, maybe I could-”

Shouta raises a hand and Deku silences immediately. Mouth clamping, spine straightening, and his fingers are turning red from how hard he’s gripping them. This isn’t what he was expecting. He takes a long sip before regarding him, forced to make a decision on the spot given Deku’s eager pinched frown.

“And sweeping isn’t enough?”

“It… It just feels like I need to be doing more because I’m… here and,” he hesitates, looking at the cooling fire between them and doesn’t meet Shouta’s gaze again. “I don’t have a right to be.”

Shouta can’t keep his face neutral. His eyebrows knit and a frown settles in. “Who told you such? I certainly don’t recall requesting you leave.”

“Well, not you , it was… my village baptizes the children when they’re toddlers and… my high priest, um. Wh-When it came to me, he said he wouldn’t because… B-Because…”

His lip quivers as his fingers turn purple and something chirns inside Shouta that hasn’t ignited since Hizashi-Kami’s erasure. In a voice he tries to keep collected, he says, “Because you’re soulless.”

Deku flinches as if waiting for a strike or like the word itself was the blow. Both don’t stetty him. “Y-You knew and you still…?”

Shouta reaches across glowing embers and gently coxsts Deku’s hands to separate and holds them. The touch startles the boy, and even himself but he doesn’t let go. Deku stares at him expectantly, and Shouta doesn’t know what to say except countless curses towards the people who wronged the child before him. Only one thing comes to mind that isn’t damning:

“You belong here.”

Deku looks away, his eyes closing briefly and when they open again, there’s a wetness to them. Shouta reaches with a slow hand, lifts the child’s chin and moves to be in his line of sight. When their eyes meet again, Shouta is stern, “You belong here .”

Deku’s frown wobbles, his brows pinching high and tight as the tears collect but not yet shed. A huff, just short of a sob, “They - They said I’m - I’m unw-worthy.” Something high pitched comes from his throat, and it strikes Shouta’s heart. “I - I am n-not a child of any -any God. They -They said-”

“Quiet,” Shouta hushes, but the request doesn’t stop Deku’s borderline sobs. Going back to holding his hands, Shouta moves to look in his eyes again. “Repeat after me, I belong here.”

“B-But -”

“None of that. Now, I belong here.”

“I - I belong he-here.” The tears fall freely now.

“I belong to this Fukurokuju Shrine.”

He sobs openly, blinking heavily through relentless tears. “I belong - I be-belong to this Fuku- F-Fuku-” the rest is muddled through body shaking sobs and Shouta lets it slide. 

Once he’s settled, Shouta says. “Just because I am an empty vessel-”

“Ju-Just because I am an empty-” another high pitched sob and Shouta’s patient. “-I’m an em-empty ve-vessel.”

“-Doesn’t mean I am Godless.”

Deku blubbers through it and Shout lets his hands go so the boy can try to wipe his snot and tears away. 

“I’m worthy,” Shouta says.”

“I’m wo-worthy.”

“I can’t hear you.”

“I - I’m worthy.”

“Louder,” Shouta rises and pulls Deku to his feet.

“I’m worthy!”

“Again!” 

“I’m worthy! I’m worthy! I’M WORTHY!”

“I belong here!”

“I BELONG HERE! I - I-!” Deku sways, hands balled into fists, and Shouta watches the child think and then explode. “I BELONG IN THIS FUKUROKUJU SHRINE AND - AND JUST BECAUSE I’M SOULLESS DOESN’T MEAN I AM GODLESS!”

“Good!” Shouta yells and yanks the child into his chest. Deku freezes as his arms wrap around him and squeeze but it takes only seconds for him to melt. Shouta holds him while he quakes through gut retching wails, he’s patient with small hands fisting the back of his kimono, and he’s gentle as Deku’s sobs calm down and he guides them back to the floor. 

After a moment of nothing but the sounds of wet sniffling and hitched breathing, Shouta picks up his chin from a head of green curls and says, “If this Fukurokuju Shrine still had its God, Hizashi-kami would have adored you.”

“Y-You’re just saying that,” Deku mutters into his chest, sniffling.

“He took in an abandoned kitten, nurtured it until it became an obake and didn’t have to make it a familiar to remain loyal. Hizashi-kami was the epitome of joy and kindness.”

Deku is silent and Shouta allows him a moment to absorb all that’s happened this morning. 

“All right,” Shouta breathes, “We have two options. We can either go to the village market, or take a cat nap.” Deku quietly giggles at the phrase, it’s wet from congestion but it makes Shouta crack a smile. “What do you think, problem child?”