Annor walked down the stairs of the granite-gray polished shrine. The downward steps were a long and toiling path, crumbling underneath the man's feet. Years of negligence had ground the paved stone to little more than a rubbled slope.
Strange, the man mused, the steps are so weathered for such a quaint shrine.
He quickened his pace, praying he would make it to the forest before the rain fell. The woods would not give much cover, but they were certainly better than the alternative.
His wishes did nothing to stop the downpour. His shoulders, however, remained decidedly dry.
“Evening, mister.” A young girl who could have been no older than twenty-five twirled her purple parasol in the rain. Her teal hair was reminiscent of the noon sky on a clear day, her azure eyes even more so. “You shouldn't be out here so late in the day. A youkai might come and eat you up, no?”
“I should say the same to you. I've passed through this road far more than you'd know.” Curious was Annor, looking into the deep maroon eyes of the young girl. Or were they crimson?
“You're right. However...” The girl giggled, delighted by no fathomable cause. “You have only the clothes on your back. I have an umbrella.”
“Even if you had no such thing, I wouldn't mind.” The man stared off into the forest. Shadows loomed precariously behind the woods. “The youkai here are dangerous. I'd feel better in a company of two.”
She stared with her piercing cerulean-colored eyes. Or were they turquoise? “Be honest. Your sweet talk is to keep your clothes dry. Am I wrong?”
“I am going to the village. And if you care to follow,” replied Annor, “then I'll gratefully take shelter under your umbrella.”
“So I'll follow.” She looked to the clouds. “In this weather, I don't have much else to entertain me, you see?”
“I'm thankful,” nodded the man. “And—forgive my rudeness—I did not introduce myself. I am Annor.”
Two-and-some seconds passed before the girl realized that the man had finished speaking.
“Ah—Tara. My name is Tara.”
Nightfall was soon to come, so Annor resumed his pace. Tara followed close to his side, sheltering the two from the harsh weather. Despite how flimsy the parasol looked, no water seeped through its frames.
For minutes, only footsteps and rain graced the road.
Annor elected to speak first. “Tell me, Tara, what brings you to the forest?”
Tara stopped in her tracks. Annor, following the umbrella, stopped with her. She stuck out her hand, catching stray raindrops with the tips of her fingers.
“Whimsy,” she answered in thought, resuming her footsteps. “Even though I hate this forest. But never mind me. What about you? Why are you so far from the village, Annor?”
“I visited the shrine nearby to pay my respects to the Hakurei. A child, after many a year, was born. Reimu is her name.” He glanced at the skies again. The rain kept falling. “But it is unfortunate that rain would damper a day like this.”
“Do you mind the rain?” asked Tara, glancing over to Annor. Her firm gaze held his eyes.
“A little,” admitted the man, turning his head away. “When the rain comes, I cannot help but feel despondent.”
“Don't feel insulted, but I'm glad that the rain fell today because, well...” Tara laxed her grip on the umbrella, letting it fall slightly. The rain nipped at her sandals. “This umbrella was meant for two.”
“Aren't you a little too young to court a man like me?” The man rasped a deep laugh, guttural in tone. “I did not imagine you to be a flirt.”
“What, were you surprised?” Tara stuck a tongue out playfully, winking at Annor. “Though, I wouldn't mind taking you if you are unwed.”
Annor put a hand to his chin, tapping it mindfully. The man almost stroked the girl's head but stayed his hand—he would not cosset her. “You still have another few years before you can make a joke like that.”
“It was not a joke, Annor.” Tara looked over to the man with weighty eyes, a slight frown covering her face.
Annor responded by lifting his left hand. A silver band rested at the base of his ring finger. Its appearance was as the smoky clouds above, dull and faded, its metal holding no glint in the light.
The girl laughed boisterously. “That flimsy thing is your wedding band? It's a wonder how your wife didn't already vanish for good!”
“She did,” he said.
Tara froze. “Ah. Forgive me, I have said something rude.”
Silence filled the air, save for the pitter-patter of the falling rain. Tara, with nothing left to say, stayed her tongue. Annor stroked the ring calmly, staring off into the road ahead.
“It is all right.” And, carelessly, he added, “It was my fault, after all.”
“That is only what you think, no?” Two fangled ruby eyes met the man's. Or were they rouge? “Coincidence is not so kind as to give you choice on the matter.”
Annor remained silent, sparing no response to the girl. Still, the girl waited. Neither of the two said a word, each waiting for the other to speak. Tara's gaze firmly held the man's in expectancy, a strange pertinacity in her eyes.
“You may share, for I won't tell a soul,” she promised.
Her prodding proved successful. Annor relented. “It is not much of a tale. She disappeared. My wife went out from the village to take care of an errand and never came back.” His expression darkened. A wretched crease lined his forehead. “I was foolish and did not escort her.”
“What good would that have been? If it were a youkai, then it would have been two who disappeared that day,” spoke Tara, knowingly. She leveled her gaze with the man. “You understand, right?”
“Perhaps that would not have been so bad,” he muttered.
Tara took a hand off her umbrella. She quivered, balling her fingers to form a fist, but then lowered them, scowling. She tightened the grip on her umbrella instead, holding it still with both hands. “I would have struck you for your stupidity if it didn't mean I'd lose my handle on the umbrella.”
Annor smiled wryly. “I would never have imagined such a young woman to lecture me.”
“It is because you say things only a fool would say,” Tara spat out, an irritable look stretched across her face. Then she sighed, “And I do not take you for one.”
“You think too highly of me then.”
“And your family? Do they think the same?”
Annor's expression remained unchanged but his shoulders shook slightly.
“I have no family to answer to,” he said. “I am an only child, and my parents and grandparents have long since passed away. My late wife's family will not speak to me anymore. They blame me for my wife's disappearance as much as I blame myself. I still await their forgiveness but I do not think it will come.”
“It is within the realm of possibility. Perhaps after a hundred years or so, they may forgive you.”
“Maybe. But I would be dead by then.”
“Unfortunate,” she said coolly. But the young woman looked cross; evidently she was upset at the notion. She hugged the handle of the umbrella, pressing it closely to her chest. “Unfortunate is the series.”
Annor stood still. He wondered if he could abate his bitterness by labeling his life as merely 'unfortunate.' It was an amusing thought. A rather disquieting thought as well, but amusing it was, nonetheless. Caught in his musings, he did not notice the rain fall onto his head and shoulders.
The girl continued along the road, only stopping when she realized her companion was afar behind. She stopped, called to the man, and waited patiently until he returned to her side.
he quickly ran forth. Tara waited patiently until he returned to her side.
“Annor,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Are you not lonely?”
Annor had not thought about it before. He mulled over the question, though the answer was not hard to find. “I am immensely so.”
“My offer still stands,” replied the girl, peering at him with garish eyes.
Annor held a downcast look.
“I do not deserve your pity.”
“It's not because of pity that I offer myself to you.” Tara looked at him in frustration. “Perhaps it is time you look away from the past.”
The man's eyebrows slanted downward, a distressing wrinkle appearing above the bridge of his nose. Tara's words had cut him, astonishingly so. Annor could not stop himself from looking so offended.
Tara waned. “Don't look at me like that.” She beckoned to him to follow closer underneath her umbrella. “You should forgive yourself. If your wife had a shred of decency to her name, which I believe you believe she did, then she would have forgiven you long ago.”
“I am not looking for her forgiveness,” he muttered darkly. “I have long since realized that it is impossible to search for such a thing.”
“Then what are you looking for?”
“I'm looking for a way to atone.”
The girl looked at him crossly. “Are you daft? Do you need some kind of selfish justification to feel better about yourself? You may bite yourself, but the past will never change. 'A way to atone'? All of that is garbage. Why do you need to atone? Do you think your late wife will curse you 'til time's end because you didn't know she'd be mauled to death by a youkai?”
“I suppose not...” he wavered. “But—”
“But what? There is no 'but' in this. Remember her fondly and keep her in your memory. Don't let it haunt you forever. How long will you mope around until you think it's time to let go? Years? Decades? The rest of your waking life? She'd cry at your worthless self-loathing.”
“...She would, wouldn't she?”
For a time, Annor said nothing more, watching the forest with his companion. The two of them hid underneath the umbrella. Though it grew dark, the night was peaceful. Or did it only seem that way because he was not alone? The man took a glance at his ring and allowed himself to smile.
“You are not wrong,” he finally said.
“With a heavy heart, you'll move on,” she said.
The two met the end of the road. The village was but a few paces away from them. Annor looked over to the sky—the clouds had long since parted.
I wonder when the rain stopped, the man pondered.
“This is where we part, Annor.” Tara smiled wearily, clacking the umbrella shut. She curtseyed, bowing with a gracious dip. “You make good company for a rainy night's walk.”
Annor acknowledged her with a nod. “As do you.”
“Just one thing, though.” The girl waited until Annor focused his gaze fully on her. “You should be more careful. Youkai can be anywhere, right? You never know when or where you might chance upon one.”
“I will keep that in mind,” replied the man. “And thank you, Tara.”
The original title was cut because THP doesn't have a long enough character limit.
Wherein a Man Takes a Journey Through the Forest, Meets a Youkai who Shelters him from the Rain (Though he is Unaware that His Companion Is Anything but Human), and, to This Youkai, Reveals the Nature of his Woes, Namely, That His Wife Has Passed, and That He Holds Himself to Blame for Her Place Among the Deceased, After Which the Youkai Affords Upon Him Some Measure of Peace Before Revealing to Him Her True Youkai Nature, Although of Course the Readers, Familiar With Her Identity, Doubtlessly Knew of it All Along.