Ootengu opens his eyes to an ordinary off-white ceiling. It might be the strangest thing he ever woke up to as of yet. For a time even keeping his eyes open is a struggle and after what feels like a few hours but might as well be minutes he finally finds the strength to turn his head to the side.
The room is bare, almost disturbingly so. The window panes are closed, but there is enough light filtering through that it could be anywhere from morning to the middle of the afternoon. The house is silent around him but feels well lived-in and the futon he is lying in is warm, giving off the faintest smell of flowers and cleanliness.
When he manages to turn his head to the other side, he is greeted by the sight of a half-naked purple-haired yokai lounging luxuriously on a rolled futon
“You sure took your time to wake up.”
The matter of him waking up in an unknown place, a human place, with no recollection of how he got there is momentarily put aside in favor of more pressing concerns. Like the fact that an unknown yokai is watching him, and that Ootengu was weak enough not to notice. His fingers twitch against the bedding but nevermind reaching to try to find his fan, he doubts he would manage to hold it. He doesn’t remember ever being this exhausted, even sitting up seems an impossible task in this state. Far beyond the way his body screams at him at the mere thought of moving, he fears the way his spiritual energy has dwindled to a dangerous level. As low as it is, he is surprised he succeeded in keeping a physical form.
The spirit facing him does not seem in any hurry to attack, which is almost stranger than this whole situation considering what an easy prey he makes at the moment. He tracks Ootengu’s every subtle movement and shifts, and curves his lips in a slow, amused smile that reminds him of a big cat.
“Please don’t get up on my account..” He waves his hand dismissively. “You’re only occupying my room after all.”
The door slides open before Ootengu can find an answer to that and a red clothed woman carrying a tray enters briskly. “For the last time, Yasha, this is still the recovery room. No matter that you spend enough time in it to call it your own.”
She sets the tray down by his futon and kneels beside it. Behind her the yokai, Yasha, seems more amused than offended by the chastising.
“Can you get up ?” The woman’s voice fits her expression, calm and to-the-point. There are ribbons and lycoris flowers tied in her hair, and she carries herself with the same unsettling blend of human and otherworldly demeanor he has seen in spirits of mortal origin. When he finally shakes his head, she gestures to Yasha to move behind him. He tenses at the first touch of hands on his back, then wills himself to relax as the other yokai helps him up.
The woman has taken the opportunity of him being manhandled into a sitting position to sort through the items on her tray, and Ootengu eyes it warily. There are various dishes - he recognizes miso soup and rice porridge, all kinds of food for the sick and recovering, a small teapot and an incense burner.
She waits patiently for him to return his gaze upwards and smiles wryly. “I am guessing you have questions. You may ask them.”
“Why am I here ?” He feels as if he hasn’t spoken in years with how rough his voice sounds, and the harshness of it hurts his throat as he forces the words out. “Where am I ?”
“We are near the outskirts of Kyoto. This is Abe no Seimei’s residence.” She says slowly, as if talking to a child, and he feels as if a stone dropped in the pit of his stomach.
“My name is Higanbana, I am one of master Seimei’s shikigami. We were ordered to retrieve you after the battle in Kokuya-zan.” She continues, but as she says battle all he hears is defeat. For him, for his master...
“Why am I here ?” He asks again. “Is your master the type to like gloating about his victory to his enemies, or does he plan on extracting some kind of information from me ? If that is the case I warn you, although you have no hope of getting to my lord through me it does not mean that I would betray the trust he placed in me. I would rather die than-”
He tries to straighten up by himself and advance on her as he speaks but the hands on his back follow him, the barest hint of a pull is enough to cut his movement short and slump backwards, his already unimposing figure made pathetic by his state of weakness.
“Now hold on, we may be getting a bit ahead of ourselves here.” Yasha pipes up from behind him. “Well, I did get tasked with keeping an eye on you by my lady but it is more a ‘Please make sure he doesn’t hurt himself getting up’ kind of watching, not the prisoner in chains thing.” A pause. “I mean unless you’re amenable, then…”
Higanbana clears her throat pointedly and Yasha trails off.
“Yasha is Kagura-sama’s shikigami. The two of us were tasked with taking care of you for now. There are other shikigami in the estate, but I expect you will not see much of them, all received instructions to not disturb you.”
“All of this does not answer my question. If not to use me, then why has Seimei brought me here ?” Ootengu feels his already limited patience grow thing, and the way Yasha is patting his shoulder placatingly is not helping in the least.
“For now, nothing. Seimei-sama only wishes for you to rest. I have nothing more to tell you.” She stands up gracefully and Yasha follows her movement to stand by the door. As they prepare to leave, Ootengu’s eyes return to the tray.
“You know I do not need to eat anything you brought. Human food is useless to us.”
Higanbana has her back to him as she busies herself with lighting the incense burner on a low table.
“I am well aware. With such low levels of spiritual energy, however, you need any help you can get sustaining your body while you try to recover.”
Ootengu clenches his fists at the burn of anger and shame at the truth of his state being spoken out loud.
“If you are aware of this much, then you know that at this point no food is going to make a difference, your master already bled me dry of all my power when we fought. You best tell him to come share his triumph quickly, else he has to make do with his own shikigami.” A beat. “Or is that what he wants, why he brought a fading yokai in his own home. Tell me, Higanbana, is your Seimei the kind of Onmyoji that forces his contracts on vulnerable spirits ?”
The words tumble out of his mouth, bitter and challenging but his outburst finally gets a reaction out of her and he watches as she stands up slowly, her back straight and head held high. By the door, Yasha’s mouth has set in a firm line.
“I won’t dignify such baseless accusations with an answer, you will find your own in time.” She says, and her voice is as cold and dark as the waters of the Sanzu river. “The only thing I will tell you is that Seimei-sama only brought you here because Hiromasa-sama asked him to. You can meditate on that.”
She turns heel and the door slides shut behind both Shikigami as the scent of agarwood starts wafting through the air. The supposed calming smell is anything but, and he looks down to glare at the dishes Higanbana left behind. The aroma is mouth-watering, despite the fact that human food should only give off a mildly pleasing scent to him at best. His stomach growls and reminds him that he hasn’t tasted food for several years. The last time had been in his mountain, when a bashful teenager had brought him a handful of rice balls stolen from a kitchen. They had been quite terrible, squashed from being carried carelessly for several miles, and stuffed with pickled plums far too sour for his taste. It had been the best meal he ever had.
Ootengu picks up the bowl of soup, looking at the pieces of vegetables, tofu and fish floating in. As he told Higanbana it probably will not make much of a difference for him at this point, and although he would rather die than be bound to some Onmyoji against his will his body betrays him and he brings the bowl to his lips. The broth is warm and rich, with just the right amount of miso and dashi, and he chokes on it as he forces it down. The rice porridge follows the same path and his stomach feels uncomfortably full after so long without eating. As he puts the bowl back on the tray he notices a small plate hidden behind the teapot and picks it up, looking curiously at the small piece of leaf-wrapped sakuramochi on it.
There had been no villages and no shrine humans came to worship at on his mountain, no matsuri in the spring nor offerings for the new year. Only demons and beasts came and the hunters who tracked them, so as he bites in the wagashi he wonders at how simple human food can taste like this, light and sweet and utterly addicting. Truly fit for a spring day.
Eating has steadied his hands and as he looks around him to take in every element of the room he considers getting up. It is only when he sees a neat stack of clothing on the opposite side of the room that he notices that he has been stripped down to his inner clothes. He stands slowly and takes careful steps towards his belongings. His white sokutai is torn and dirtied, and even his current clothes are not as immaculate as he usually keeps them. The cracked tengu mask has been left on the ground by the pile but on it lies his fan and bamboo flute, completely intact. He hides the instrument back into the folds of his clothes but takes the fan in hand, comforted by the feel of it even if the most he could use it for is would be to call a small breeze.
If the strongest of his winds hadn’t been enough, if the power his master had given him hadn’t made any difference, then… All of it probably had been for nothing. Even without ignoring the outcome of the last confrontation between his master and Abe-no-Seimei, he knows that there is no way the one he had failed would be willing to offer a second chance to a powerless shikigami. The rules of humans and yokai are the same, recognition and fulfillment only awarded to the strong, and by losing his fight he has proven himself unworthy of both.
There is a hole in his core, a dreadful emptiness where his link to his master used to be and he feels its absence more keenly than he ever did loneliness before he was bound.
His hand opens, letting the fan fall to the tatami and he doesn’t bother picking it up, instead dragging himself back to the futon. He lies in it, feeling the most lost he ever has in his life and closes his eyes.
Sleep doesn’t come.