Kitsune Wedding (A Prize of Victory side story)

BY : blackfox
Category: Bleach > General
Dragon prints: 1357
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or its characters, nor am I profiting monetarily from this story.

Occasionally, Prize of Victory commentators have asked whether or not the living took notice of the negative changes that occured when Aizen usurped the Spirit King's Throne and some wondered how the last fifteen years and the unbalanced Realms affected them. I hope that this short fic answers that question. NovaAlexandria has seen this and it meets with her approval. It would probably be for the best if readers are familiar with PoV1 and PoV 2 before they read this. I've supplied explanations for the Shinto-specific terms at the end of the story. I've used the hillside Inari shrine depicted during the last anime filler arc as a reference. Picture it as a well-maintained place of worship rather than an abandoned ruin. Reviews and feedback are encouraged and appreciated. Enjoy this little side story into the life of a holy man whose evening just got interesting.

 




Kitsune Wedding

Yoshida Takashi, the ninety-year-old shinshoku of a hillside Inari shrine that had been in the family for centuries, stared down at his open palm and felt beads of sweat break out on his wrinkled forehead, despite the early morning chill in his bedroom.


‘It can’t be,’ he thought, as he realized what he held in his trembling, gnarled hand.


‘It just can’t be.’




After one of the most oppressive winters on record, spring had finally made it to the forested hillside overlooking the most unlucky city since Mt. Vesuvius had buried Pompeii and Herculaneum under countless tons of ash. He’d been up early, sweeping the courtyard in preparation for the morning purification rituals. His oldest son, now retired from his job as a building inspector, puttered about the shamusho, readying the good-luck charms, ritual sake bottles and offerings for sale there. Since the ‘Karakura Incident’, visitors of all sorts had made the shine a popular destination. While plenty of them came to honor Inari, to pray or to make offerings in the hope that doing so would bring them luck, most came to gawk at the town where hundreds of thousands had lost their lives fifteen years ago. The ten-year anniversary of the tragedy brought scores of people from all over the globe, drawn by the area’s reputation and some of them had been downright disruptive.


The elderly priest wasn’t looking forward to the nonsense that would descend upon the shrine like a plague of cicadas when the weather grew warmer. While most of the foreign tourists were harmless, if a bit fixated on the macabre, Takashi knew that before the summer was over, he’d have to make at least one phone call to the authorities to deal with some of the more troublesome visitors.


‘Camping without a permit, acting disrespectfully, carousing, climbing over the shrine walls in the middle of the night… then there was that one time I found a pentagram, of all things, chalked on the paving stones in the courtyard! What’s wrong with some of these young people? Have they no sense of shame?’


Occasionally, a television crew would drive up in a few vans, toting a blow-dried celebrity as a narrator and ask if they could either interview him or shoot footage of the city below for their segments. He usually declined to allow both, referring them to the prefecture office of the Jinja Honchō. If they wanted permission, they could seek it from his spiritual superiors. He would not be the one to anger the goddess or her messengers with cameras and snoops in what ought to be a sacred space.


Unless, of course, they wanted their cameras purified. That he could do, for the appropriate donation.


Takashi’s great-granddaughters had already caught the bus down the hillside into Karakura. The twins had been mere infants on the day that their parents had vanished, along with the majority of Karakura’s citizenry. He and his late wife had taken his eldest grandson’s daughters on that fateful day, while their mother ran errands in town. Neither had returned to claim their children and it had fallen to the rest of their kin to step in and provide a home for them. When his son Ichirou, upon his retirement, had finally moved back to the ancestral home near Karakura five years ago, he and his wife had brought the two girls with them, to the old man’s delight. He’d become a widower during their time away from the area and Ichirou insisted that his father needed the help around the shrine. Takashi knew better. His son needed something other than fiddling with that shamisen of his to fill the hours that work used to consume, though the move back to Karakura surprised him. After losing his only son and daughter-in-law, Takashi’s child had had nothing good to say about the city. He still only went into the town for necessities and his churlish attitude while doing so had been motive enough for Takashi to begin taking the bus to Karakura on his own.


‘Sometimes I suspect that, in his head, he’s even older than I am. One would think having the twins underfoot would have kept him young.’


His son’s understandably grouchy demeanor aside, Takashi took the opportunity to teach both young ladies everything they needed to know to become fine miko, though whether or not either would carry on the Yoshida family tradition and become priestesses remained unclear. Aoi had mentioned a few colleges in Tokyo and Sendai, though she was two years away from graduating high school. Her sister, Maya already had her sights on a program in environmental studies in Osaka.


He hoped he would live to see them earn their diplomas. His bones and the muscles that moved them complained loudly of late, letting him know that they didn’t appreciate the extra efforts that he took to keep the shrine tidy and the goddess happy. However, such had been his lot since he’d been old enough to carry a broom and he knew these stones far too well to let things fall into disarray.


Straightening, he pressed one hand to the small of his back and sighed.


To the best of his knowledge and his deep dismay, none of his descendants had inherited the family’s ‘sight’ and sometimes Takashi despaired that he would be the last of the Yoshida to perceive the departed and the comings and goings of the spirits. Maybe that was why he’d hung on as long as he had. He hated the idea of leaving this place in the hands of those who were spiritually blind. His grandmother, a priestess of great renown and greater temper, had thankfully lived long enough to train him. Maybe one of his more far-flung grandchildren or great-grandchildren would come forward, or show the telltale signs.


‘If so, they’d better hurry it up. I’m not getting any younger.’


Then again, there were plenty of downsides to having the gift. Over seventy years ago, on Sulfur Island*, he’d seen friends as well as foes succumb to bullets, mines and flamethrowers. Upon dying, their enraged spirits transformed into masked monstrosities that tore at one another the moment they grew claws and teeth. Black-robed Shinigami would then descend upon the horrifying combatants, destroying both in a flurry of blades and black ash. Those soldiers’ willingness to carry the war into the afterlife rather than surrender was merely a testament to the hatred and desperation that burned on both sides of that battle. Takashi considered himself fortunate to have survived a place that the government still considered an open tomb, with his body and mind intact. That he’d done so thanks to being knocked unconscious by a falling rock wasn’t something he bragged about, nor had he initially seen spending the rest of the war as a prisoner a ‘lucky break’.


His son’s birth, four years later, made him reassess his opinion on what constituted ‘luck’.  


‘The universe must have a perverse sense of humor, giving a Shinto priest the wherewithal to see the dead. Such things belong to the monks and their sutras. Ghosts have no business lingering here.’


All of those terrible memories had come flooding back the day of the Karakura tragedy and he’d prayed that whatever he had witnessed had been some sort of hallucination. Unfortunately, over one hundred thousand missing people, their clothing and shoes scattered all over the city, told him that no, he hadn’t been mistaken. When the authorities arrived a few days later and asked if he’d seen anything unusual, given the view of the city from the shrine grounds, he’d shaken his head and said ‘no’. The lie tumbled easily from lips trembling with grief. Telling the truth to the authorities would have brought scorn upon his family and might have earned him some time in a padded cell.


There were things that the officials and the police wanted to hear and Takashi knew that what he had to say wasn’t one of them.


The government, after a year of ‘investigation’ that yielded no bodies, no culprit and no motive, issued an official explanation that involved some sort of nerve agent let loose by terrorists, which didn’t do much for Japan’s international relations and spawned countless conspiracy theories, both in Japan and worse, abroad. The superpowers pointed fingers at one another and smaller, more restive states. Accusations of ‘secret weapons of mass destruction’ flew like dead leaves during an autumn storm. For a while, tensions ran hot and the possibility of a war between two very large nations, with Japan uncomfortably in the middle, reared its ugly head.


Thankfully, as the years went by and nothing similar to what wiped out Karakura’s citizenry occurred elsewhere, saner heads prevailed. That was just as well, because the natural calamities, which began occurring with increasing frequency in the last five years, required those governments’ money and attention The return of life to Karakura’s empty buildings also helped. His superiors had called upon him, along with the priests and priestesses of much greater, far richer shrines, like Ise Jingu and Fushimi Inari Taisha, to help purify Karakura with a matsuri. Doing so had a practical purpose. In a nation with so little usable land for building, letting Karakura fall into ruin or demolishing perfectly good buildings was out of the question. Once multi-national teams of observers and scientists had declared the land free of pollution, the water clean and the air fit to breathe, people and businesses began to trickle back, until the city boasted a growing population. There was even talk of reopening a second high school. Takashi wondered if his great-granddaughters would transfer to it, since it was closer by five miles to the shrine.


Something black moved in his peripheral vision and he spied a small cat sitting next to the temizuya, its dark fur blending in with the shadow cast by the stone reservoir. He’d seen the animal, on and off, for the last few days, slinking around the shrine on silent paws. The creature had done nothing more than spend a few minutes in his presence before it went about whatever it was that preoccupied cats during the day. It never stayed long and so Takashi did not feel the need to chase it away, though he did see it regarding him from the top of the wall that morning, with a pair of eyes that gleamed like gold coins in the sunlight.


‘Do me a favor,’ he silently asked the cat, who was busy washing its face with one paw, ‘catch some of the mice who keep trying to build nests in the wall of the shrine hall… and stay out of the temizuya. There are no fish in there for you!’


Takashi finished cleaning the kitsune statues, giving each stone fox a good rubdown before he straightened their red bibs. Then he checked the purification trough to make certain all of the ladles were present and the water sufficient for those who came to pray. When he glanced back at the wall, the cat was gone. Either it had decided to move on or maybe it had done as he suggested and made a late breakfast of a bit of vermin. He wished it good hunting and hoped it wouldn’t encounter one of the local foxes. Inari’s sacred messengers were one thing, but the regular, red-coated variety wouldn’t hesitate to add a small cat to their menu.


On such a nice day, it was easy to lose himself in his appointed tasks. His body performed them more slowly than it once had, but it knew the rhythms of long familiar work, lulling him into a meditative state with each stroke of the broom.


Such peace could not last. While his eyesight was still good, his hearing wasn’t what it used to be. A voice he didn’t immediately recognize spoke up behind him. He fumbled the broom in surprise.


“Yoshida-sensei,” it said and the elderly priest felt his heart leap within his chest as he turned around to confront its owner. He saw silvery-white hair, designer spectacles and a fine suit. For one terrifying moment, he wondered if there was some ceremony or ritual scheduled that day, before recognition set in.


“Ishida-sensei, you startled me,” he wheezed and pressed his hand to his chest. The physician bowed, his expression becoming briefly apologetic.


“I’m terribly sorry, Yoshida-sensei. I did not mean to do so.”


Takashi blinked and then let out a ‘whoosh’ of breath. Waving one hand, he quickly brushed any resentment aside.


“Yare, yare… that’s alright. The wind in the trees does the same thing sometimes. Unlike it, you’ve the decency to express regrets. What can I do for you?”


Ishida Ryuuken, scion of the Ishida family, bowed to Takashi once more and straightened his glasses. One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Japan who did not know the director of Karakura’s hospital, the man who had saved the lives of every patient under his care and the majority of his employees by inadvertently getting them out of harm’s way. The authorities had interrogated the physician regarding his convenient decision to shut down the hospital for mold mitigation, but when he provided more than enough paperwork indicating the closure had been in the works for at least three weeks, their investigation moved on. 


The rest of Japan remained enthralled with the accidental hero, making a reluctant celebrity of the man. It didn’t hurt that he hailed from a wealthy, prestigious family and like many others, had lost his only son to the tragedy. He also had a young, gorgeous second wife. There’d been some whispers about the last as well as several nasty rumors about the age difference between the spouses, prominently featuring the term ‘gold digger’, which he thought was uncharitable.


‘I really should stop browsing the tabloid headlines while I’m at the convenience store,’ Takashi resolved, though it was hard not to read things when the store placed the newspapers at eye-level in the checkout line. Ishida Ryuuken’s’s second wife was very pretty and had seemingly come out of nowhere. Maybe not as pretty as his wife Kaguya had once been, but she was definitely easy on the eyes. The members of the Diet and other dignitaries that comprised the social circles with which the couple associated all had very nice things to say about Ishida Yuzu, especially her culinary skills, but how much of that was real and how much of it was diplomatic dross he couldn’t say. Eventually, the gossip turned from the May-October aspects of the union to whether or not it would bear fruit. Even he had to admit a birth announcement would have been a fine thing, but so far, nothing had materialized.


“I’ve come to ask you how much the going rate would be for a shinzenkekkon.”


That… was an unusual request. Takashi couldn’t help wondering why an already-married man whose only son had died long ago would inquire about such a matter, but he went ahead and named the proper sum from memory. Ishida appeared to ponder the cost for a minute or two.


“How many will be attending the event?” Takashi thought to ask. The shrine only had room for so many guests.


“Sixteen or seventeen, including the couple. My staff will be in charge of the reception at the family estate.”


“I see. If I may ask, is this for a family member?”


Perhaps someone on his young wife’s side of the family was ready to tie the knot.


“Not really, though I’ve come to enjoy her company while she’s been under my care.”


‘A patient then. That seems a bit generous,’ he mused, before another possibility occurred to him.


“Ah… you’re the nakōdo?”


If so, that made much more sense to the elderly priest. Young people these days needed all the help they could get, given Japan’s dismal birthrate and their seeming inability to commit to anything more permanent than lunch. The same cursed curiosity that led him to peruse tabloids also fueled his questions, which were just this side of ‘too familiar’. He justified it by telling himself that a priest had to know all aspects of what a worshiper might require. One could never be too well informed.


“Merely one facilitator. Those responsible for the union of the two in question will attend, however. I’m afraid that I must also ask if you could conduct the ceremony within the next three days. I realize this is somewhat short notice. My deepest apologies.”


Three days? That would be stretching things. Then again, this was Ishida Ryuuken, hero of Karakura Town and savior of the sick… and the man was doing this on behalf of someone else.


“I shall have to consult with the shrine schedule, you understand, and the luckiest day for a wedding won’t be for another five days,” he warned. Picking up the broom, he motioned for the physician to follow him to the office, where his son kept all of the shrine’s documents. There might already be another wedding scheduled, now that it was finally spring and the trees were in bloom. “You wouldn’t want to do anything on butsumetsu. It’s an ill-omened day.”


“Then in two days?”


“On tomobiki? A better choice, as long as it doesn’t happen at noon. Are you certain the couple can’t wait for a more auspicious day?”


Ishida’s mouth thinned a bit at the question, though Takashi considered it a valid concern. The best day to marry was taien, but tomobiki was all right, if one discounted the one unlucky aspect of the day, in that there was the risk of the dead pulling the living into the afterlife with them. The doctor didn’t look as if that would be a deterrent.


“I’m afraid not. Time is something we don’t have.”


The old man frowned at that. If the patient didn’t have much time, did that meant that she, if he’d heard Ishida correctly, was seriously ill? Bringing illness onto the shrine grounds was a firm ‘no’. He was surprised that the physician would suggest something like that at all. The purification required afterwards would be almost prohibitive! Now he regretted naming the regular price. However, he could throw up a roadblock of sorts.


“We do require a deposit, with the remainder paid on the day of the ceremony.”


“A new policy?”


“Not really. This shrine tends to attract many people with strange agendas, thanks to its location. We find that we have fewer cancellations this way.”


“Half now and then half upon completion of the rite?”


“Yes. Again, may I ask, is your patient up to going through with a wedding?”


This time the doctor’s expression grew wry, and Takashi knew he’d guessed what really concerned the priest.


“I believe she is. Both are quite eager for the rite. It’s something considerably overdue at this point, but that is my private opinion. The circumstances weren’t favorable, until recently.”


Takashi nodded as Ishida fell into step behind him, knowing better than to pry further. Once they reached the office, Takashi slowly made his way to the desk to pick up the binder in which his son kept the cleaning, appointment and ceremony schedules. Flipping to the appropriate page, he scanned the day in question for any potential conflicts and wished his son’s handwriting were better. He also wished he’d thought to bring his reading glasses from his bedroom.


“You’re in luck. We have the morning free,” he said as he looked up, only to find himself alone, talking to no one. He was certain that the man had followed him in, but there was no one else in the small room. Then he noticed the stack of thousand-yen notes on the desk, each of them new and crisp. There were fifty of them, the exact amount of the deposit. Setting down the binder down, he did his best to hurry up and catch the physician. They hadn’t even set a time yet and a proper ceremony would take up to an hour, if the families needed instructions. He’d have to excuse one of the girls from school too, to act as a miko and help him during the rite. At the very least, there were forms to fill out and he required a signature along with the deposit.


When he reached the courtyard, he saw his quarry standing before the shrine’s bell. The physician reached out, grabbed the rope and gave it a good shake. Then he bowed his pale head and closed his eyes.


Takashi wasn’t certain what made him hesitate as he approached. Part of it might have been that even if he had some unfinished business with the man, he didn’t want to interrupt someone in the middle of a prayer. The other part involved the weary expression on Ishida’s face. As he drew closer, Takashi could see the shadows beneath the man’s eyes and the deep lines around his frowning mouth. The harrowing emotion he glimpsed when the physician looked up stopped him in his tracks.


At that moment, Takashi decided that he didn’t want to know what it was Ishida had asked of Inari, though he did get the impression that it might be one of those even the gods could not grant.


Unfortunately, with the deposit paid, he needed more information. Ishida eventually straightened, clapped twice and bowed again. A handful of coins fished from his pants pocket clattered into the offertory box before he turned around. Those grim eyes passed over Takashi’s stooped form as if he was just another one of the stone foxes that adorned the grounds. The priest cleared his throat, as loudly as he dared and motioned with one hand.


“Ishida-sensei, please… I shall need to know what time of the morning you wish to reserve…” he began, but trailed off as the man turned away.


“Late. The wedding party will arrive late. Please be prepared, Yoshida-sensei.”


“But… our shine only conducts ceremonies until three in the afternoon! Surely the morning would be…” he called out, giving up any pretense of trying to remain polite in the face of such strange behavior. Neglecting to indicate a time would throw the entire day into chaos.


“We will be along late. There will be an additional twenty-thousand yen for the trouble. We shall see you on Wednesday.”


With that, Ishida Ryuuken quietly turned his back and walked to the gate, waving one hand to dismiss any protests the priest might make. Stunned, Takashi simply watched him go as another round of wind blew a fresh batch of needles from the sacred trees to the stones below.


‘Late? What in the world did he mean by ‘late’?’ he fretted, before the breeze reminded him that he had many thousand-yen notes lying on the desk in the office, and that he’d left the door wide open.




‘Late’, to his disgust, turned out to be ‘not at all’.


He and his son had waited for the entire day, cleaning and preparing the main hall for the stated number of guests. When the clock had struck three, Takashi’s son had decided that it would be a good idea to relieve his granddaughter at the shrine’s shop. Aoi, who had dutifully taken time off from school to act as miko for the ceremony and who had ended up with the task of selling fortunes, fox-shaped ema and other offerings instead, seemed happy for the break. She sullenly let her great-grandfather know that she’d probably have to make up a few quizzes after school and miss her club activities as a result of  ‘other people’s thoughtlessness’. The three musicians, two drummers and a flutist hired for the ceremony packed up shortly after that. They didn’t grumble, thankfully, as Takashi had paid them for their time out of Ishida’s deposit.


Takashi himself held out until nearly sundown, as the light faded behind the hillside to the west and the sky took on the same flaming red color as the painted wood throughout the shrine. It was far too early in the year for crickets, but if it had been summer, he had little doubt that he would have heard them as he’d closed the shrine’s gates and made for the house down the hill, where his family waited for him. It did his heart good to see one of his great-granddaughters lingering near the path to escort him the rest of the way. The last thing he wanted to do was to slip on something in the dark.


‘Strange. One would think that someone who wanted a ceremony enough to pay all that money ahead of time would see fit to arrive before the shrine closes.’


He shook his head and then paused as his stomach noisily reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since noon. Maya-chan giggled at such a loud sound coming from such a wizened body, giving his hand a squeeze as she matched his pace. Aoi was still in a grumpy mood throughout dinner, but thankfully, Takashi’s daughter-in-law was a good cook and supper a fine distraction. After a half-hour of discussion, the consensus around the dinner table seemed to be that something might have happened to the bride, if her health hadn’t turned out to be as good as Ishida-san claimed. His son gruffly said that he expected to receive a note of apology in the next few days, if that were the case. Takashi’s daughter-in-law reminded him that he had the remainder of the deposit on file to make up for the no-show.


“Fifty thousand yen, for sweeping and handling shrine sales you would have made anyway, seems fair, even if you had to pay for the musicians to sit around,” she’d remarked and Takashi reluctantly nodded. His Kaguya would have said the same thing, had she still been with them. Later that evening, as he’d snuggled into his futon, his reading glasses set aside and the thick blankets pulled up to his chin, he decided that it wasn’t worth worrying about tonight and that Inari had better things for him to do than fuss over spilt sake and idle instrumentalists.


The next thing he knew, Takashi felt a weight on his chest, making it hard to breathe. He also sneezed, once, then twice as something irritated his nose by tickling beneath it. On the third sneeze, he opened his eyes and squinted up into the shadowy room, afraid that the pressure bearing down on his torso was the heart attack about which his doctors, two of whom he’d outlived, had warned him.


The cause of his distress wasn’t an issue with his heart, but rather what sat on top of it, peering down at him with eerie yellow eyes. For a second, he and the black cat, most likely the one that had of late frequented the shrine, regarded one another, before Takashi’s emptying lungs reminded him that he’d need to replace the oxygen in them soon. He was about to struggle, to shove the animal off of him with one gnarled hand, when the encounter took a turn for the surreal.


“Well, well, Yoshida-sensei. Sleeping on the job, are we?” the cat said in a gravelly, remonstrative voice. “And here we paid good money for a necessary service! Tsk, tsk!”


He blinked up at the cat as it once more lashed his nose with its tail, earning a fourth sneeze for its efforts.


“Waaa-choo!”


“Hurry up, priest! The wedding party will be here soon! Your vestments are over there!”


The thing leapt from where it sat, thankfully eliminating Takashi’s risk of death by asphyxiation. His eyes tracked its movements as it padded to the one chair in the small room. On the seat, he could see a stack of folded silk fabric, with his black eboshi placed neatly on top of the pile.


His ritual garments ought to have been stored at the shrine, not in his bedroom. Throwing back the covers, he stared hard at the cat, then back at the robes before saying anything.


“You’re speaking to me.”


“So I am.”


“How?”


The trespassing cat gave him a look that seemed downright disdainful.


“For a man who knows the spirits when he sees them, and don’t think I’m unaware of your talents, Yoshida-sensei, you certainly ask some silly questions. Now move it… or do you wish to see my other form?’


“Now, now… let’s not be hasty!” he replied, holding up his hands and deciding that he’d be better off interacting with a cat than whatever dangerous beast she might truly prove to be if angered. “Give these old bones a moment.”


Takashi considered the possibility that he was dreaming as he rose from his futon and proceeded to dress as best he could in the moonlight that filtered in through the window. The more he thought about it, the likelier such a thing seemed. He had been ruminating about the missed wedding, beginning around eleven-o-clock that morning and hadn’t really stopped doing so until bedtime.


When he’d more or less managed to put his ritual robes on straight over his sleeping yukata, he heard the door to his room slide open.


“Oji-san?”


Aoi mumbled this as she pushed the screen to the side, eyes droopy and yawning hugely. She wore the red hakama and white kosode required of a miko and had pulled her hair into a less-than-tidy ponytail. Her sandals dangled from her fingers as she slumped, half-asleep, against the doorframe. The cat trotted up to the teenager and with a great leap, landed on his great-granddaughter’s shoulder.


“No yawning! Look alive! Let’s get going, both of you. Tomobiki won’t last forever!”


He turned and peered at his alarm clock, squinting at the glowing green digital numerals. According to the timepiece, it was nearly ten-forty-five.


“O…okay neko-chan,” Aoi replied and turned as if sleepwalking, making for the front door at the end of the hallway. The cat, looking over the girl’s shoulder at him, motioned with its head that he should follow. With nothing better to do, he tried to chase the fog from his brain and did his best to hurry behind them as quietly as he could.


If this was a dream, it was an awfully chilly one. It was still early spring, and the cold nights had a tendency to exacerbate his arthritis. He heard the cat whispering things to his great-granddaughter as they made their way back up towards the shrine. What concerned him wasn’t that he was groping his way along the path, until Aoi slowed down and allowed him to catch up to her. What bothered him was the steady gleam he could see through the trees, as they got closer to the wall that divided the shrine grounds from the rest of the hill.


‘That’s odd. I thought I turned off all of the lights and put out the lanterns in the main hall when we left.’


While not every lamp in the shrine shone, someone had turned on the fixtures that lit up the temizuya, as well as the ones surrounding the main shrine and the adjoining hall. From the thin sliver of bright yellow coming from under the shamusho’s closed door, someone had been in the office too. Takashi wondered, as he and Aoi tiredly stood in the middle of the courtyard, what would happen if he pinched himself. Would all of this vanish? Would the lights go out? The temptation to do so was strong.


“Good grief! What did ya do, dig ‘im outta the family tomb?”


The waspish voice belonged to a young lady with blonde pigtails in a dark blue kimono, who opened one of the doors of the shrine’s main hall and secured it. She couldn’t have been any older than Aoi, but something about her scowl made him very reluctant to get near her and it wasn’t just the unnecessary crack about his age, nor was it the sheathed katana she’d shoved through her obi.


“Hush, Hiyori! Show some respect! Is everything set up the way I told you I wanted it?”


“Yeah, yeah… I brought the sake bottles, cups, the sakaki and all that from the office. Yuzu-chan’s got the shinsen though. Inari’ll be thanking us for bringing ‘er some good cooking.”


“How about the chairs?”


“They were already set up. Probably decided that they’d put things away tomorrow. Yeesh! It wasn’t as if Ishida-san didn’t tell ‘em ‘late’.”


“Excuse me… young lady? This shrine only takes reservations for ceremonies that start before three in the afternoon. I believe I mentioned this to the good doctor when I talked with him the other day!”


Takashi’s attempt to use reason to talk his way out of the dream failed as the skinny little thing glowered at him. He could see a hint of a bottom fang when her snarky reply rolled over him.


“Look, he also said there’d be extra in it for ya! When folks go to that kinda trouble, it usually means ‘keep things flexible’. Still,” she said as she trotted down the steps and circled both he and his still-groggy great-granddaughter, eyeing both of them before handing him his onusa, “I can see why Ishida-san chose this shrine and you, for this li’l shindig. There ain’t too many people who can see us anymore.”


The cat sniffed at that and dropped to the courtyard pavers. Then it scampered to the top of the stone stairs that lay just beyond the main gate, leading up to it from the road. The girl, Hiyori, sighed and followed the animal.


“Seriously, Yoruichi, how long does it take t’ travel from the mansion? Twenty minutes, tops?” he heard her complain. Reaching up, he gently fixed Aoi’s ponytail, smoothing it out and undoing a few tangles, the way he’d once done for his daughter. She was missing the flowers and the bindings for her long hair and her ceremonial garb looked as if she’d thrown it on over her nightgown. However, with a few deft movements of his fingers, he brushed away as many of the wrinkles he could see. It would have to do. Any wedding party that included a talking cat, he thought, could probably forgive the presence of a slightly rumpled miko, especially one with make-up tests the following day.


Against his better judgment, he walked towards the main gate, stopping a few feet away from the cat and the blonde girl. Both seemed fixed on something far down the hill. Then the cat looked up at its companion and spoke again.


“We’re taking a risk as it is. If Ishida-kun tells us to stay in the shadows to avoid a patrol detecting us while we’re out here, we do as he says. Besides, don’t tell me that little bit of Quincy ‘tech’ he gave everyone doesn’t intrigue you. You were part of the 12th Division, if I recall.”


For some reason, the girl managed to look both gloomy and irritated as she glanced at a thin, white bracelet on her wrist. It certainly didn’t seem like anything special to Takashi, and the topic of conversation was very confusing, but he supposed that was the nature of dreams. They rarely went the way one wanted them to go.


“I was Urahara’s step-and-fetch-it girl and you know it! Don’t care how it works, jus’ that it does. Ya better not let him hear ya calling him ‘kun’ either or he’ll shoot ya!”


“He’ll be aiming at a moving target, if that’s the case… but I’ll take that under advisement, oh etiquette expert. Speaking of which, no throwing anything at Zaraki this time.”


“Then tell ‘im to stop being a boorish jerk-face! Hey! Is that them?”


Hiyori stood on the tips of her toes and peered down the hillside, and Takashi couldn’t help doing the same, squinting into the darkness. It was a shame he’d left the flashlight the family kept on top of the refrigerator behind, but there was little help for it, now. What he saw confused him, as it was far too early in the spring for fireflies. Then he realized that the bright pinpricks of bluish light twinkling in the shadows were moving too deliberately. As they approached, Takashi recognized them as lanterns.


Then a second set of lights appeared, this time from the more familiar direction of the road. Yellow headlights illuminated the asphalt at the base of the stone steps. Takashi heard the sound of an engine cutting and two automobile doors opening and closing. A second set of lanterns flared to life when the headlights went out.


“Ah, good. They’ll be here in a few minutes, if they pace themselves.”


“Oji-san? What’s going on? Who are these people?”


He supposed that it might be wishful thinking on his part, that in this dream, Aoi could see the spirits who had dragged them from their beds, but Takashi decided that it really didn’t matter. If she couldn’t see them in real life, she could certainly see them now.


“The wedding party that should have been here this morning. Aoi-chan, I need you to remember your part in the wedding ritual, even if we are in the middle of a dream. Can you do that?”


Aoi nodded, then yawned once more and stretched a bit.


“Okay, Oji-san, I can do that.”


Confirmation that he was in the grip of a particularly vivid dream came when the so-called wedding party made it past the torii and he got a good look at the latest round of visitors to the shrine. Yoshida Takashi had dealt with people bringing in all sorts of strangeness to the sacred grounds in the last fifteen years. At his age, he’d thought he’d seen it all.


Evidently, the universe had decided to save the best for last.


Three spirits he recognized as Shinigami, their dark robes fluttering around them, walked through the gate. Only the small violet-eyed woman struck him as normal, if on the short side. Her two male companions had outrageously colored hair and the taller one with tresses as red and as long as an oni sported a set of tattoos that would make any Yakuza thug jealous. That one also wore the traditional striped hakama one usually expected of a groom and a worried expression. He kept impatiently looking behind him, as if waiting for something important and possibly breakable, to arrive.


The next to appear was a man in a garish pink and green kimono, carrying a folded red umbrella under his arm. The garment he’d wrapped around himself might not have been as flamboyant on a woman, but on a man who was as wide as he was tall, with a mustache and hair the hue of fresh sakura petals, it was utterly outlandish.


“I think my eyes are bleeding,” he heard the cat mutter under its breath, before it raised its voice to address the entity wearing the abomination. “We dug through your old ruined lair for this? I should have burned the box when we found it!”


“What part of ‘subtle’ did ya miss, Hachi?” Hiyori sighed in a manner that suggested she’d made similar comments in the past regarding his sense, or lack thereof, of fashion. The furry caterpillar on the Buddha’s pink lip quivered, indicating mild indignation at the negative feedback.


“This is perfectly acceptable attire for a springtime celebration and as it so happens, I’ve been saving it for just such an occasion. Please note the plum blossoms on the patterning.”


Takashi, somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer amount of lime green flooding his field of vision, silently agreed with the blonde and saw that his great-granddaughter was in the middle of a similar reaction as the beach ball with feet walked sedately forward and bowed respectfully to shinshoku and miko alike.


“My deepest apologies for my compatriots’ lack of tact. Thank you, in advance, for your services today.”


The elderly priest nodded faintly, and then returned the bow. He straightened just in time to see the next arrivals. They made the rotund gentleman look like a study in understated conservatism.


“Yay! We’re here Ken-chan! Finally!”


Three more crossed the shrine’s threshold and this time Takashi’s jaw all but dropped at the size of the Shinigami who strode through the torii. He was taller than an American or a European tourist, easily topping seven feet, not counting his wild mane. With a frightened whimper, Aoi ducked behind Takashi as the one-eyed, rabid-looking warrior approached, one companion clinging to his shoulder and the other held securely in his arms. The little girl riding his back and holding the lantern aloft giggled before jumping down, the white bangle around her small wrist jangling.


“That was fun! The tree branches made it like an obstacle course!”


He saw the tattooed Shinigami blanch as the Shinigami child with the bubble-gum colored hair and eyes said this at the top of her lungs. The groom moved purposefully towards the three, his eyes narrowing. The larger of the two scowled down at him and with surprising gentleness, lowered the white-clad woman he held to her feet.


“There ya go, Abarai. Told ya I’d get her up here in one piece!”


As the ceremonial hood covered the majority of the bride’s face, the only things Takashi could tell about her were that she was pleased, as he saw a set of full lips smiling broadly up at her hulking mode of transport and that not even the many layers of the elaborately embroidered, snowy kimono could disguise her advanced pregnancy. Much of what Ishida alluded to regarding his patient’s health became clear, including the comment about the ceremony being ‘long past due’.


Takashi didn’t mind if the bride and groom had celebrated a bit early. Most couples did these days. Better late than never, he’d always said and if the way the tall young man fussed over his intended was any indication of his feelings for her, there would probably be more ‘celebrating’ later on, at least until the child arrived and sleep deprivation set in. He’d been down that road himself, more than once.


“Thank you, Kenpachi,” he heard her say as the huge Shinigami scratched the back of his neck and looked away. The surprises hadn’t exhausted themselves yet though. Takashi’s waking mind wasn’t creative enough to come up with what sauntered next through the wide red gate. The two female Shinigami, at least, appeared human, but he certainly couldn’t say the same for the other four spirits. Two of them looked like odd amalgamations of teenagers and beasts. The other two wore bone masks on their jaw and their eyes respectively, sniping at one another as they trudged towards him. Takashi also wondered if there was some sort of trend at work regarding pink locks. The one with the long, cotton-candy-colored mane and the glasses of bone gave his blue-haired companion a particularly irritated look and held up one finger as he provided a sarcastic answer to a question Takashi hadn’t heard.


“Yes, I’m certain the formula will work, Grimmjow. We’ve been over this.”


“I don’t like ‘ifs’, Seventh. Too many things can go tits up with an ‘if’ that big!”


“I’m well aware of that. Oh, and thank you oh-so-much for your vote of confidence, Sixth. It’s heartwarming.”


“Ya can’t warm what ya don’t have. Look, I’m not saying that I think this Urahara was off his rocker, or that what he found out about Aizen and that damned blade of his was wrong, but seriously, there’s no way to test this shit out! We’ll have to go in blind!”


“Your daughter has already agreed to help me in that endeavor.”


“Wait, she did what? When the fuck did I give you permission to…”


“Papa! Language! You’re at a shrine!”


“I agree with Ajuga, sir.”


“No one asked if you agreed, kid.”


“Szayel-sama, perhaps we should have this discussion after the reception,” the pretty Shinigami with a scandalously short skirt and a dark braid that snaked down her back suggested. Takashi surmised that she and the pink-haired demon were together, since they walked arm-in-arm, with the woman holding her lantern aloft for them both.


“Very well, Nemu-chan. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can get back to the laboratory.”


“C’mon, Szay! Can’t you be a little happy? I’ve never been to a wedding before!”


One of the chimeras, her blue eyes shining brightly, bounced on her furry hind legs and swished her tail back and forth excitedly. Her more human-looking ‘Papa’, if Takashi followed the conversation correctly, grumbled at his daughter.


“That’s because they’re completely unnecessary, brat. Abarai belongs to her and they have a cub on the way. That’s enough to seal the deal for our kind. This is useless human and Shinigami crap.”


Before Takashi could take umbrage at the outright disrespect coming from the sour-faced spirit, yet another voice chimed in, this one sounding far more levelheaded.


“Grimmjow-san, I disagree. If we win, it will matter. Our allies will want proof she’s on our side and some of the angrier ones might try to seek vengeance,” the other female Shinigami with them pointed out. This one could pass as one of Aoi’s classmates if she abandoned her black uniform and the sword at her hip in favor of contemporary clothing and a bookbag.


“Humph. We’ll see about that. If they’re dumb enough to try for someone who was once Aizen’s Third, I don’t think a piece of paper’s gonna stop ‘em. Red’s kidding himself.”


The exchange bewildered Takashi, as did the mixture of entities. He knew what Shinigami were, slayers of the restless dead, tasked with those duties by the Buddha and Heaven. Therefore, the presence of masked demons, with bits of bone decorating their faces and bodies, with ink-colored wings, tails, fur and claws made little sense. The hole in the gut of the one with the jawbone mask worried him, because he’d seen that sort of thing before. The two groups of spirits, denizens of the afterlife, ought to be going at one another with everything they had, as he’d seen them do both during the war and in the skies over Karakura. Aoi’s fingers trembled as she grabbed at his sleeve, distracting him.


“This is a very strange dream, Oji-san. Can I wake up now?” she pleaded softly.


A reasonable question, he conceded, one he wished he could answer.


“Let’s see where this goes, Aoi. If you wake up, you’ll still have to take tomorrow’s test and I’d hate to have to handle this wedding without you. You’ll have to do your grandfather’s part, while I sing the noritos,” he whispered back. It wouldn’t do to have the dream version of his great-granddaughter bowing out and leaving him to conduct an imaginary ceremony all alone.


“Wonderful, you’re all here! I have the food for the offering!”


The night wind wafted over the scent of something warm and savory filled his nose. From the way everyone except the bride and groom turned to stare at the shrine’s entrance, the congregation had gotten a whiff of it as well.


‘I think this dream is complete now, as there’s little room for more insanity,’ Takashi decided.


Ishida Yuzu, clad in a tasteful, navy blue dress and jacket, her hair in a demure bun at the nape of her neck, came into view as she reached the top of the stone stairs. He’d only seen pictures of her before this and those certainly didn’t do her justice. The priest had to hand it to his slumbering brain; it had whipped up a truly lovely version of the woman. The source of the delicious smell was the tray she carried before her. Takashi’s mouth watered and he wondered if he was in danger of drowning while he slept because of it.


Her husband wasn’t far behind her, wearing a different suit of the same gray shade he’d worn the day he’d come to schedule the wedding. He also wore the same severe expression. Takashi saw him reach into his jacket and pluck something from his inner pocket, which turned out to be a package of cigarettes.


“Dear, not right now. Smoking is forbidden on the shrine grounds.”


His wife’s gentle chastisement, delivered with deceptive sweetness, made the physician sigh and put them away. Reaching up and pushing his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose, Ishida Ryuuken reluctantly followed her as she wove through the gathered spirits and presented the tray to him.


“Good evening, Yoshida-sensei. I hope you don’t think this is terribly forward of me, but I didn’t think you would have time to prepare the usual shinsen at this hour. Will this do?”


She pulled back the cover to reveal a plethora of freshly made mochi, wrapped in seaweed and probably stuffed with all kinds of tasty things as well as little fried tofu Inari-zushi rolls, their corners pricking up like foxes’ ears. Normally, he’d refuse them, as the making ritual offerings for use during a ceremony was the work of shinshokus and mikos, in a dedicated space just for this purpose and requiring a period of abstinence and meditation before any utensil touched the raw ingredients.


Then again, he was admittedly drooling and if he longed to taste the food she’d made, even if it wasn’t real, he was certain Inari’s messengers would want to sample her gift too.


“Oh, why not? Is everyone here?” he asked, raising his aged voice so that the assembled humans, Shinigami and the restless dead alike could hear him. The small conversations here and there ceased when he motioned for them to line up and informed the motley gathering of what they needed to do once they’d entered the hall.


“Remember, Ken-chan, no fighting!”


“Knew there was a reason I stayed away from these kinda places.”


“Hachi, do you have the parasol?” he heard the short Shinigami woman with the dark hair ask. The groom turned on his heel and warily regarded her while she summoned the gaudily dressed, obese spirit over to the bride and groom’s side.


“We don’t need an umbrella, Rukia! It’s nearly midnight and there’s no sun!”


Takashi watched as ‘Hachi’ produced the thing, undid the clasp that kept it closed and shook it out before opening it. A hush fell over the rest of the party.


“You’ve gotta be kidding me!” the groom groaned.


“Hey, it was the best I could find on short notice, Renji. At least it’s red… and it is tradition after all!”


Several of the others, upon seeing the umbrella’s silkscreened pattern of cartoon rabbits, began to snicker, while the redhead reached up and smacked his inked forehead in agitation.


“I knew it. I just knew it…”


“The umbrella is fine, Renji-kun. I think it’s sweet.”


The groom left off lamenting his fellow Shinigami’s taste in accessories to look down at his bride. Her soft, girlish voice and a quick touch to the groom’s sleeve instantly mollified him. The one called ‘Rukia’ regarded the groom smugly, folding her arms across her chest while the young man with the orange hair standing next to her grinned.


“Come on, Renji. She’d find a way to include bunnies somehow. Be glad it isn’t stenciled on the cake at the manor,” he said matter-of-factly, “or on your hakama.”


“…says the man with at least seven pairs of Chappy underwear his wife bought for him.”


“Hey! That’s none of your business, Yoruichi!”


“It is when I have to deal with your neglected laundry, Strawberry.”


The cat had come to sit at the bride and groom’s feet and in a much more authoritative voice than Takashi could muster, called out:


“Alright! Let’s get this thing underway. The bracelets have a time limit after all.”


The feline’s order made the rest of the guests move and when he saw the spirits line up for the procession, he had to stifle hysterical laughter. The pink and green walrus stood immediately behind the bride and groom, holding the silly, rabbit-laden umbrella over their heads, to protect them from the nonexistent sunshine. The rest, demons and Shinigami alike, found places, two by two, behind them, with the physician and his wife taking the last position. Fortunately, Ishida Yuzu handed Aoi the tray and his miko would make certain that he purified the victuals before he put it on the altar as a legitimate offering. After some last minute instructions to the couple and an explanation to which the bride paid very close attention, he led the ludicrous looking crew inside.


Takashi had conducted countless wedding ceremonies over the last six decades. Most were solemn affairs and treated as serious business by all involved. The rites weren’t complicated, but the overseeing priests who had written them down during the Meiji Era created them for humans, not spirits.


While the bride and groom stood before the little table containing the cups and Aoi scurried to finish the preparations the one with the pigtails hadn’t completed, the rest of them filed in. He found his shaku jammed in the hand not carrying the onusa. Three of the Shinigami, the one-eyed giant, the young man with the bright orange hair and the petite violet-eyed woman, peeled off to stand in front of the three backless chairs normally reserved for the groom’s parents or elder relatives. Hachi, Hiyori and the cat took the bride’s side. The others found chairs but remained standing until Takashi began the task of purifying the lot of them, shaking the onusa over the odd crowd and chanting a few prayers he hoped would leech out any corruption among them. Considering that only three of the wedding guests were flesh and blood humans, he gave the linen streamers attached to the wand in his hand a few extra shakes, especially in the direction of the one with the blue hair and the scowl.


The rest of the ceremony was just as strange, though Takashi had to admit that Inari’s messengers were very pleased with the ritual offerings, if the tiny lights hovering and dancing around the tray were any indication of their opinion. They also seemed fascinated with at least two of the guests. They rushed in a cloud to envelop the two chimeras and the cat-girl’s eyes darted after then. She even extended on of her clawed hands to bat at a stray spark, the way a kitten would try to catch a dust mote suspended in a sunbeam. It eluded her easily and Takashi heard two different sets of laughter in his head as the little lights withdrew and congregated behind the altar.


He saw Aoi cock her head to the side, as if listening and he put aside the melancholy and frustration he felt, knowing that the real Aoi didn’t have his gift.


Once he’d handled the mass purification, it was on to the noritos, the sung prayers announcing the intent of the couple behind him to marry to Inari’s messengers, as well as asking them for the goddess’s blessing. If any union required divine help to succeed, it would be one between such disparate spirits. Takashi came close to mangling the bride’s surname, but his experience paid off and he got through the tongue twister with his pride intact. While he’d been busy, Aoi had shrugged on another layer of silk, found the sakaki-branch she was to use for the dance and when he’d finished reciting the last norito, his great-granddaughter began to move in the complex pattern of the kagura he’d taught her when she’d returned to the shrine at the age of ten.


Takashi thought he heard one of the masked monsters lean over and whisper to the other about the lack of music. Maybe it was unkind of him to think poorly of the comment, but the silence wasn’t his fault. If the spirits had wanted auditory accompaniment, they ought to have dragged his son into the dream and his shamisen with him, or better yet, showed up while the musicians were still here.


A rush of sparkles swirled around the altar and surrounded his drowsy great-granddaughter. By the manner in which Aoi danced, he had little doubt that they sang to the girl with voices only she could hear and if that was the case, the kagura had done its job and amused the messengers. Then Takashi saw the lights do something rare; they split in half and began to coalesce into two, vaguely fox-shaped forms. He’d seen the messengers materialize only a handful of times since taking over for his great-grandmother. The routine wasn’t long, but she performed it well. Once finished, she bowed to the altar and then to the wedding party. She even received a thunderous round of inappropriate clapping from the one-eyed giant before the pigtailed girl silenced his outburst by violently throwing her sandal across the hall at him. It whizzed behind the heads of the bride and groom, and hit its target in the forehead, ending the outburst. The cat hissed at Hiyori, who in turn muttered something along the lines of ‘he had it comin’.


He and Aoi moved towards the ewer that held the warmed sake and his great-grandchild began to pour the rice wine into the two shallow cups on the little table in front of the couple, before anything else could happen. Leaning forward, he watched as the groom brought his cup to his lips twice before taking a small sip from it on the third go. The bride, instead of focusing on the cup before her, watched her soon-to-be husband avidly, until it was her turn. Takashi’s position allowed him to take a closer look at the woman below the enveloping white hood.


He expected to see the elaborate black wig that usually accompanied a bride’s wedding ensemble, a throwback to the days when it was thought that wives grew ‘horns of jealousy’ that needed hiding from polite society and their future mother-in-law. Instead, he beheld an enchanting pair of eyes the color of polished steel and astonishingly blue-green tresses that someone had pinned up an intricate European style and decorated with sprigs of apple blossoms. He also spied a real pair of curled horns that framed a very pretty face, attached to a bony skull mask perched atop her head.


A nervous tick developed at the corner of Takashi’s right eye, deepening the deep crow’s feet there.


It was the horns and the irony that accompanied them that nearly undid him, made him almost throw his hands in the air, hike up his ceremonial robes and try to run as fast as his aged legs could carry him from the lunacy. While Takashi managed to keep his face very still, he simply couldn’t help the small, pained noise that began in the back of his throat. He tried to cover that up with a cough and a gentle reminder to the bride that she needed to partake of the saké as well, in the same manner as the Shinigami standing next to her. When she hesitated and placed one hand on her belly, staring down at the cup dubiously, the priest leaned in even farther over the table.


“You only have to drink from the cup three times. Three times three for good luck. A tiny sip won’t hurt,” he whispered to her. The groom shot him a grateful look before they resumed the ‘san-san-kudo’ portion of the ceremony. He could see Aoi struggling to stay awake as she poured the next two rounds. It had to be nearly midnight and if they wanted to finish this on a lucky note and on a semi-lucky day, they needed to get to the vows and soon.


Fortunately, the rest of the ritual went smoothly, with the bride and groom sharing a conspiratorial smile as they each placed a tamagushi offering on the altar, the stem of each green branch facing the sacred trees. As neither seemed inclined to indulge in, nor had mentioned, the Western tradition of a ring exchange, Takashi decided to move ahead.


“Now repeat after me, and no whispering! The kami will want to hear you,” he insisted, which earned him a giggle from the bride and a good-natured grin from the groom that still managed to look menacing, thanks to the tattoos that covered his eyebrows. With an eye on Inari’s messengers, Takashi then drew in a deep breath and began the recitation he gave to every groom, the same one he’d uttered nearly sixty years prior.


“I will marry this woman, no matter the health situation. I will love this person, respect this person, console this person, help this person until death and I shall remain faithful. This I vow.”


If his eyes didn’t deceive him, he thought he saw Hiyori, now minus a sandal, glaring at the big Shinigami on the groom’s side. The giant holding the sandal held it by the ties between his thumb and forefingers and appeared to be contemplating throwing it right back at the girl, if the wide and somewhat-less-than-sane smile on the brute’s face was any indication. The footwear was in the air a second later, hurtling back towards its owner. A few murmurs from the bride’s family’s chairs made Takashi look up in time to see the one called Hachi clap his hands together and move his chubby fingers, twisting them just so. This resulted in the creation of three golden cubes of light that imprisoned the problematic pair and the sandal in mid-flight.


The groom, oblivious to the brewing fight behind him, earnestly mimicked every line Takashi gave him. Blessedly, the bride followed suit, though she did so while looking in a sultry manner at the Shinigami next to her, who for some reason seemed fixated on the bride’s lips instead of the altar.


Somewhere behind him, he could hear the kitsune laughing, as if Takashi had staged the whole thing for their benefit and entertainment. Unfortunately, they were finally at the point in the ceremony where the two families had to share the ritual sake with one another and the couple, to symbolize the joining of the two clans. The way things were going in the background, he and Aoi might have to bandage a few ‘family’ members before all of this was over.


Takashi sighed and the groom blinked, suddenly remembering where he was. The exasperated priest motioned for Aoi to pour sake into the appropriate number of cups and place them on the sanbo.


The drama wasn’t limited to the next of kin. At the first sign of a fight, the blue-haired demon with the jawbone mask had perked up, finally interested in the proceedings, while the two female Shinigamis made as if to keep the rest of the spectators from being drawn into a potential scuffle. The hyperactive child he’d first seen with the giant kept bouncing in her chair, excited over the skirmish-about-to-happen. Her disappointment when the cubes appeared was almost palpable.


“Will the families come forward?” he nearly begged, wanting to cut short any mayhem. Hachi raised one of his eyebrows as he looked at the cat, who nodded its small head. The cubes vanished, and the sandal fell straight down to land on the floor between the two groups with a ‘thud’, creating a demarcation point of sorts. His great-granddaughter scurried to hand out the sake to each side and when the giant reached for the bottle instead of a cup, she surprised everyone by smacking the Shinigami’s hand and glaring fiercely at him. When Hiyori started laughing under her breath, Aoi gave her the same treatment, minus the rap across the knuckles.


“This is a serious occasion! Please respect the house of O-Inari-sama! If you can’t, then leave!” she snapped at both of them. Takashi was at once gratified that his descendant possessed the spine to put two fearsome creatures of the world beyond in their place for bad behavior, and shocked that she would do so in the middle of a rite. The real Aoi would never have spoken out of turn, let alone struck someone.


“Is the bride’s family in agreement with this union?” he inquired shakily. The sartorial tragedy in green took a few steps forward and held up his cup, speaking calmly and clearly for everyone’s benefit.


“We are as good as the bride’s family, and as one of the nakado, I hereby give my blessing to them.”


“Treat both of ‘em right, Abarai and I won’t hafta come looking for ya,” Hiyori added in a much lower, more menacing voice as she lifted her cup.


Takashi had never seen a cat roll its eyes before and the sight was quite comical. The little feline followed up the expected and time-honored threat to the groom’s life from the bride’s kin with something a bit more elegant.


“As the other whose actions brought about this union, and as the Heir to the Shihoin Clan, I concur.”


Then it was the turn of the groom’s family. To Takashi’s surprise, neither of the men stepped forward to speak first. Instead, the short, dark-haired woman advanced and raised her sake cup. When she spoke, her tone and her words reminded him of his long-dead commanding officer. She had the same steely resolve in her eyes and her voice as she fixed them on the couple.


“I, Kurosaki Rukia, representative of the Kuchiki Clan and Shinigami of the 13th Division, of the Gotei 13, endorse the union of Abarai Renji, Fukutaichou of the 6th Division, and Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck. We will stand by them in the coming days and wish them every happiness, as well as good fortune.”


She certainly sounded like someone who had stepped out of one of those historical dramas on television. The orange-haired man nodded and only now did Takashi notice that he and this ‘Rukia’ wore matching gold bands on their left hands, though he lacked the white bracelet that the others, save for the doctor and his wife, sported around their wrists.


“Yeah, well… Rukia and I both approve and I know it’s the real thing with you two, so we’re happy for you. Just take care of each other, okay?” he asked sheepishly, which earned him a nudge in the ribs with his wife’s free elbow. Then it was the mad-looking giant’s turn and Takashi braced himself.


“As yer former Taichou, I gotta say that ya done good Abarai. Knew ya were smarter than ya looked when they promoted ya. Probably why Nel-chan here puts up with ya. If anyone gives either o’ ya, or yer brat any trouble, Yachiru-chan and I’ll have a ‘talk’ with ‘em. That is, if ya don’t school ‘em yerself.”


While all of the spoken approvals seemed sincere in their own way, the last struck the priest as the most frank, though he found the wide, shark-like smirk that accompanied it very unnerving. He heard a soft ‘thanks, Kenpachi-Taichou,’ and realized it came from the groom, who had taken to staring at the floor with brightly colored cheeks. Aoi made certain the couple’s cups were full and the entire wedding party proceeded to drink, symbolizing a completed union. He half-expected the giant to throw the sake cup into his mouth after the alcohol and start chewing on it, but that thankfully didn’t happen. Even the cat partook, daintily lapping from the cup placed on a corner of the chair on which it sat.


Then it was just a matter of the proper number of bows from each party to one another and Takashi motioned for Aoi to bring the tray of offerings and hand out a mochi to each of the guests. They had no trouble consuming a portion of the meal as the flickering kitsune curled around several pieces of fried tofu the old man carefully set aside for them. The masked ones made appreciative noises and he heard more than a few compliments aimed at the physician’s wife, who blushed becomingly. What was left of the rice wine disappeared along with the food, though the two chimeras made faces as they partook.



He did not miss it when the kitsune dissolved into shimmering light and from there, swirled away. The guests of honor knew when to retreat and he bid them goodbye. If he was lucky, Inari would soon grant him a soft pillow for putting up with this madness. He also hoped she had a sense of humor when her minions related tonight's events to her.


With the offerings consumed, he presented the newlyweds to the rest of the assembly and that, mercifully, was that. Takashi watched as everyone dutifully filed out of the hall, back into the courtyard, with the couple the last to leave. Aoi shuffled about behind him, closing doors and putting away the wood and cloth folding chairs, yawning and murmuring about rude spirits, impropriety and flying sandals the entire time.


‘Well, it’s good to know her tetchiness is consistent,’ he reflected as he tottered out the door.


Takashi ended up standing next to the cat as the young couple moved off to a quieter spot. The rest of the wedding guests tossed handfuls of coins into the saisenbako. Those made clattering sounds as they hit the bottom of the box, jingling against one another satisfactorily.


“I apologize for Hiyori and Kenpachi’s behavior, Yoshida-sempai,” the cat said quietly, its yellow eyes on the bride and groom as the two shared a few discreet kisses. Usually, he’d run anyone making such a public display of affection off the shrine grounds, and had done so with a few foreign visitors who had the temerity to try making out behind the kaguraden. This of course was different, because he was dreaming and because he could see that the bride seemed saddened, even as the groom’s hands traced along her cheek.


Wrenching his attention back to the rest of the guests, noticed the pigtailed blonde and the giant as they eyed one another, obviously spoiling for a fight. For a moment, it also appeared that the one with the jawbone mask might join them.


“I presume this isn’t the first time those two have gone after one another,” he observed.


“I’m afraid not. Neither one engages their brain before they act. Your miko was right to chastise them.”


“My great-granddaughter’s temper is a pot on slow simmer. Occasionally, the lid rattles,” he explained. “Life will teach her when to hold her tongue and when to let it boil over. Speaking of which,” he said and gestured towards the two he’d just joined in matrimony, “frowns so early in a marriage aren’t a good sign.”


He looked down at the cat when its tail began to move back and forth and when the animal spoke, there was real regret in its tone.


“Her husband goes to war in two days’ time and she must remain behind, for obvious reasons.”


That… did not sound promising, but he decided to take the advice he would have given Aoi and listened instead, hoping an explanation would be forthcoming. However, the cat had other ideas and trotted into the lantern light.


“Listen up people! The bracelets our hosts lent you, the ones that allow you to interact with the material world, will expire soon and we need to get from here to the Estate without attracting any attention. Let’s leave this place cleaner than when we got here!”


Everyone but the bride, the groom and the Ishidas scattered, dousing lights and closing doors. Aoi had just emerged from the haiden with the offering tray, cups and dishes when Ishida Yuzu hurried over and took it from her, bowing deeply and complimenting them both on the ‘wonderful ceremony’. He wanted to ask, now that everything was over, why the need for such secrecy, but the cat’s mention of an impending war of some sort was enough of a clue. Another glance at the two he’d just joined revealed the groom placing a light kiss on his bride’s mouth in the semi-darkness, then stealing a deeper one than was proper for such a setting.


“There’s plenty a’ time for that at the Estate, you two…” he heard the behemoth say as he walked up to the newlyweds and without preamble, swept the startled bride into his arms in much the same way he’d carried her up the hill. When the groom looked like he wanted to growl at the other Shinigami, the big man scoffed.


“Last time I do this, Abarai Fukutaichou. Consider it a wedding present.”


The Shinigami child he’d arrived with bounded up to the three and tugged on his sleeve, just as the lights in the office went out. The lanterns that the wedding party had used to navigate their way up the hill sputtered to life and one by one, he saw the host of spirits and Shinigami take their leave by two’s and three’s.


“That was interesting.”


“I thought it was sweet, Diaemus. They looked really happy…”


“Yes, until that bit with the sandal. Girl’s got good aim. I’ll give her that much.”


“He wasn’t supposed to clap! And he wasn’t supposed to be leering at the miko!”


“And that sandal was supposed to stay on your foot, Sarugaki!”


“It just looks like a leer, though I will concede that most of his expressions resemble one another.”


“You’re not helping, Hachi… and Ichigo, you stop laughing this instant!”


“Geez… fine, Rukia!”


“Do me a favor, brat.”


“What’s that Papa?”


“Don’t make me come to one of these on your behalf.”


“You liked it. You ate two of the mochi, Papa. I saw you.”


“I admit nothing.”


“C’mon Ken-chan! There’s s’posed to be cake! Cake!”


Takashi watched as the child, with an agility that made the old man envious of the young, climbed to the top of the giant’s shoulder and stuck there, grasping the collar of his uniform. She blinked down at the groom, and then giggled, as if she found his reaction to the much larger man appropriating his new wife hilarious. Kenpachi’s disquieting grin was back too.


“Fine, Yachiru. Are ya comin’ to yer own reception? Would sort of look stupid if yer wife,” and here he gently bounced the bride in his arms, until she squeaked in protest, “was the only one doin’ the cake cuttin’!”


The three of them vanished, leaving a rush of displaced air in their wake and a startled groom staring at and an empty spot in the courtyard.


“Why you…!” the redhead snarled and went after his former superior, disappearing in a flash not three seconds behind them. From what he’d seen so far, Takashi surmised that the reception would be just as chaotic as the ceremony. The voices of the guests faded as they made their way back to wherever they’d come from, leaving only the doctor and his wife standing at the torii and the cat at his feet. He wished his ears were better, but he did pick up the tail end of their conversation.


“She looked beautiful! Thank you, Ryuuken. It can’t have been easy to unpack that kimono.”


The doctor regarded his young wife for a moment and then sighed deeply. The shadows made him look almost as old as Takashi’s son, who was well past sixty and his fingers strayed towards the pocket with the cigarettes, though he didn’t take them out.


“It wasn’t… but what good is silk entombed in a box? Kanae would have been pleased, all things considered. Shall we go? I don’t like the idea of them arriving back at the Estate before us.”


The blonde giggled and took a few steps towards the gate before turning back.


“I understand. Yoruichi-san?” Ishida Yuzu called, turning towards the cat. The feline took that moment to stretch out, the animal elongating and showing its front claws before returning to a sitting position.


“I’ll finish up here. Go on. I’m not one that needs to rely on those bracelets to hide in the shadows or touch Living World matter.”


The young woman bowed again to Takashi and his great-granddaughter, letting them know she’d return the dishes after her staff had washed them. They then proceeded to walk down the steps and the cat, a blot of darkness against the equally dark stones, looked up at him expectantly.


“I think you’ve done more than enough to earn a peaceful night’s rest.”


“Oji-san? I’m tired,” he heard Aoi say and when he turned around, he noticed the girl was just about asleep on her feet, as did the cat. It leaped on to the head of one of the stone komainu and used that as a launch pad. The cat landed on his great-granddaughter’s shoulder, sinking its claws into the fabric of her top to gain some traction.


“OW!!”


“My apologies, but it would be best if you helped your elder make it home. That path can be treacherous.”


Aoi winced as the sharp points pricked her shoulder, reawakened by the application of pain, but she extended her elbow for Takashi to grab. With the cat acting as a third set of eyes, they slowly made their way back to the house. The door was as unlocked as they’d left it and he found his way back to his room, the floorboards creaking slightly under his weight. Aoi staggered down the hall to her bedroom in her sock-clad feet, along with the cat.


His room was as he’d left it, unmade futon and all and he really wanted to sink into the mattress, pull the covers over his head and move on to the next dream. His training dictated that he at least take care of his ceremonial garb before he damaged the garments. Therefore, he dutifully folded the vestments, laying them on the seat of the chair in much the same order he’d discovered them. Whatever magical force had brought them here could bloody well put them away.


‘What sort of uncouth barbarian gets into a shoe fight in the middle of a wedding? Honestly!’


His arthritis was really beginning to bother him. Maybe when he woke up, he’d take an extra painkiller. The aching in his hips had worsened over the winter, leaving him with a low-grade hurt for which his doctor had given him some very nice pills that took the majority of it away for much of the day. Was one supposed to feel pain in a dream, or the nippy air creeping up one’s legs? It seemed quite unfair for those to plague him while he slept.


The door slid open behind him and he expected the cat to walk through it, slinking through the shadows to sit on the wide windowsill.


“Ah, I see you’re still up, Yoshida-sempai.”


There were, to the best of his knowledge, only three females living under this roof and the voice that piped up over his shoulder sounded like none of them. Startled, he turned around, afraid that the weird dream was about to get weirder.


He was right.


The pretty woman leaning on the doorjamb, her skin gleaming like polished mahogany in the moonlight, regarded him with the same spooky yellow eyes he’d seen on the cat who had accompanied him home. He did not think it a coincidence, but the alternative was something his brain simply could not accept; her messengers might have observed the rite and enjoyed the offerings, but for a goddess to make a face-to-face visit? He wouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume this dream, his dream, was that important.


She carried a red and white bundle in her arms and Takashi recognized his great-granddaughter’s ceremonial clothing.


“Y… you’re not really a cat, ne?” he stammered, taking in the sort of curves that one usually associated with winding mountain roads and lazy rivers approaching the ocean. He also recognized the cloth that covered them, wrapped around her body in a makeshift sarong.


“I told you I had another form.”


“Is that the kitchen tablecloth?”


“I’m afraid so. Your miko is already asleep. You should join her.”


Her long purple hair swished behind her as she sauntered over to the chair and added his ceremonial garments to the stack of cloth in her hands, placing his eboshi on top so that the heavy silk wouldn’t crush it. Hefting it all in one, unwieldy-looking bundle, ‘Yoruichi’ favoured him with a dazzling smile as he slowly sank to his knees on the futon. The alternative would have involved his legs giving out and he was still enough of a man to want to avoid damaging his pride in front of a lady… as well as avoid a broken hip. At his age, one was just as likely an outcome as the other was.


“Who are you?” he inquired feebly and flinched when she silently made her way back to the door.


“Someone who is grateful that a priest like yourself still exists. There are few people these days who can see us and fewer still attached to a shrine. I also thank you on behalf of Abarai Renji and his bride. He did not want to leave her without giving his name to the child she carries.”


An awful suspicion grew in the back of his mind when she mentioned this and he couldn’t help risking another question.


“You said he was going to war… do you mean like what happened over Karakura?”


The woman’s eyes went to the window rather than him, for which he was grateful.


“So you saw that. Hm. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised.”


“Please, Shinigami, spirit, whatever you are… my grandson and his wife disappeared that day. What happened? Will it happen again?”


He heard her let out a long ragged breath and saw her shift the weight of the clothing in her arms to her other hip. The guilt he saw on her face took him aback, as did the slump of her shoulders.


“We failed. We failed miserably and the monster that consumed the souls of those in Karakura now holds Heaven by the throat. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, something lucky occurred and we must seize the opportunity it afforded us. There’s no better time than now to try to win back what he stole and make him pay for his crimes. It might be our only chance to set things right.”


Her words made very little sense, but then, nothing else this evening had made sense either, other than keeping the Inari and her kitsune attendants amused. A quick look at the clock told him that it was no longer tomobiki, that midnight had come and gone. Today was sakimake, and the day after…


“You attack on butsumetsu. It is the worst possible day for any endeavour,” he observed and the woman sighed again, though the sound was more determined than before.


“It will be butsumetsu for the tyrant as well… and I have always had a contrary nature,” she chuckled ruefully. “We will do our best to make up for that day, Yoshida-sensei. You have my word.”


Takashi’s aching fingers twined together and he bowed at the waist, wracking his gray matter for a way to help separate and remove the sorrow from the resolve he heard in her promise.


“Then I will recite a prayer for you tomorrow. For some reason, the myobu and byako were pleased tonight. Perhaps they carry will carry your wish to O-Inari-sama. May she grant you her blessing, Yoruichi-san.”


When she seemed surprised by his offer, he quickly explained, “The prayer… it was one I made frequently, when I was much younger, before a battle… before I became a priest. There is no reason I can see why I’m sitting here, in the middle of this dream, talking to you, when better, stronger soldiers than I did not come back from the war. Perhaps the aspect of the goddess that protects blacksmiths and warriors heard it and took pity on a frightened youth. It did not bring us victory, but it gave me luck enough to survive.”


The lovely woman was silent for a long minute, and the only noise between them was his breathing and the whistle of the wind around the house’s eaves. Then she lowered her lashes and pivoted on her heel.


“I would like that, Yoshida-sensei. You’ll have the rest of your payment in the morning, for services well rendered. Oh, and a small word of warning…”


He bowed low over his bent knees, eyes firmly on his coverlet.


“What would that be?”


“Begin training your replacement. She will need to know what to do with her gifts sooner than you realize,” Yoruichi said ominously, “especially if she has the nerve to slap someone like Kenpachi.”


It took him a moment or two to understand what she really meant. When he did, he was surprised at how little dread her revelation engendered.


“I see. Then I’ve not much time?”


“More than you fear, but less than you’d like. Thank you again… for everything.”


When Takashi raised his tired head again, the woman was gone, along with all of his ceremonial clothing. Weariness gripped him, and the cold room helped him make the decision to put an end to this nonsensical, nocturnal charade. He rose on aching legs and closed his door. Padding back to bed, he burrowed under the covers as deeply as he could and closed his eyes, hoping against hope that this would be the last he would dream of cats and sandals and unexpected weddings at an hour when intelligent, sane people slept.


The rest of the night was mercifully uneventful and he woke just before dawn. The sky outside had lightened to a bluish-gray and he reached up to rub the sleep from his eyes.


Something in his hand crinkled when he moved it.


Turning his head, Takashi discovered a roll of paper money in his palm, fingers tightening around it reflexively. At first, he thought he might still be dreaming, but the very real bills were a solid lump under his fingertips. The pains that plagued him on cold mornings were back as well, but he sat up anyway, gaping at the money as his brain tried to remember where he might have obtained it.


The answer came to him when he put on his glasses and began to count them out.


Seventy thousand yen later, in a grouping of notes not easily divided into two halves without a trip to the bank to make change, the old man realized that his hands had begun to shiver of their own accord.


He held the exact amount that Ishida-san owed him for the other half of the wedding fee, with an extra twenty thousand yen… payable upon completion of the rite.


It was at times like this that he wished he were just a tad younger, that his limbs would move faster and less painfully as he crawled out of bed. Doddering around his room in his bare feet and his sleeping yukata, he tried the window latch to see if anyone had snuck in, only to find it firmly shut.


There was no good way around it, but there was a way he could be certain he wasn’t succumbing to some mental disorder or finally entering his dotage and taking leave of his faculties. Tossing his heavier bathrobe over his shoulders and tying it closed, he walked as purposefully as he could towards the bedroom that his great-granddaughters shared. On his way down the hall, he noticed the kitchen door was slightly ajar and pushed it open to peer inside the room. Nothing seemed wrong at first glance and he was about to continue on his way when a little voice in the back of his mind told him to look again.


The tablecloth, one of his daughter-in-law’s recent purchases, was missing.


‘’No, it should be there,’ he thought, truly rattled now. ‘Perhaps it’s in the laundry. That has to be it…’


Yet even as he prayed he knew, knew where the thing had gone. Sobered, he squared his shoulders and hurried to the twins’ door.


Takashi hesitated before firmly rapping on the wood. A minute later, he heard the rustling of bedding and faint footfalls. The door slid open and an exhausted Aoi groggily regarded him. Her dark hair, tangled and snarled, was simply a fright, but his concerns were for matters other than her hairstyle.


“Oji-san?” she whined, rubbing at her sleep-swollen eyes. “I doan’ have to be up for another half-hour yet!”


“Come with me, dear.”


“Huh?”


“To the kitchen. We need to talk.”


Takashi, with his great-granddaughter staggering behind him, retreated to the kitchen, his slippers making a shuffling noise on the bare floors. He opened and closed drawers until he found the spare tablecloth, spreading it out over the wooden surface with one hand, as the other still held the folded money. Aoi watched him flounder with it, and then made an irritated sound and finished the job while he fetched the kettle. Putting it gingerly on the stove, he switched on the burner and motioned for her to take one of the chairs. She did and immediately buried her face in her folded arms.


“Whadowehaftatalkabout?” she slurred, already showing signs of falling right back to sleep. “I didnsleepwell…”


“It was an interesting wedding, don’t you think?”


He prayed he was wrong, that she would ask him what he was talking about, or start snoring at the table. Instead, she went still and raised her head, eyeing him like a wary owl over her forearms. Takashi’s heart subsequently sank as he pulled the tea, teapot and two cups from another cabinet. He kept his back to her as he measured out the leaves, trying to decide how to broach the topic, settling on a simple observation.


“I’ve never had someone throw a shoe during a ceremony, no matter how much the families of the bride and groom hated one another and that’s saying something. I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”


That brought forth a reaction, as he grasped the wooden tray with both hands and brought it to the table. He congratulated himself on not dropping anything, as shaky as his grip was with the addition of the cash.


“Oji-san… you…”


“…and that fellow with the eye patch! I’ve seen smaller trees!”


“There was a black cat and he said…” Aoi began, before she trailed off. Takashi waited for her to come to the same disturbing conclusion he had earlier. “Did… did we dream the same thing?”


Favoring her with a sad smile, he sat down next to her, to wait for the water to heat. His spotted, aged fingers loosened and Takashi dropped the money on the table before her. Once she figured out what it was, his great-granddaughter just stared at it as if it might bite her.


“I don’t think so. I don’t think we dreamed at all.”


Aoi kept biting her lip, until he reached out and patted her gently on the shoulder.


“Not many priestesses have the temerity to righteously dress down misbehaving spirits. It seems there’s quite a bit of your great-great-grandmother in you, dear, goddess help us all. You begin your training today and you’re taking the rest of the week off from school, I’m afraid. Your sister and your grandparents too. I need all of you to stay on shrine grounds for the next few days. Perhaps it will afford us some protection.”


She said nothing, her eyes fixed on the wad of money. Takashi tried a different approach and moved his hand to hers, finding her slender fingers twitching in agitation.


“How long have you been able to see O-Inari-sama’s messengers, Aoi? Why did you not say anything?”


Coaxing the answer from her took a few minutes. He remembered a similar conversation, over seventy years ago, around this very table. He’d sat where Aoi’s fingers worried the tablecloth’s fabric, just as scared as she was, for the same reasons.


“Since the day we came to live here. I tried to tell Maya-chan… but… she said I was lying, making things up… so I just…I didn’t say anything to anyone. If my own twin doesn’t believe me, why would anyone else?” Shame and guilt twisting her youthful features. Takashi wanted to rest his forehead on the table, but reached up and rubbed it instead.


‘Five valuable years wasted. Maybe if I’d been more observant, instead of reading all of those gossipy headlines… ah well, it’s time I’ll not get back and if that cat was right, I’ve none left to squander.’


“Aoi-chan, you’ve no reason to be ashamed. I was older than you are now when I became a priest, but much younger when I began to perceive the myobu and the byako, and the spirits. The ability to interact with the otherworld has been a family birthright since… well, since the time of the first Emperor. Maybe even farther back. What I am certain of is that you are the rightful Heir to this shrine. Perhaps I should be thankful that band of lunatics visited last night. Had I remained ignorant, and had you remained silent,” he admonished, waving a finger under her nose, “O-Inari-sama and her kitsune might soon have had to try to deal with a spiritually blind head priest… and that just won’t do.”


The implication wasn’t lost on his great-granddaughter, but before she could voice her fears for him, he patted her hand and rose to fetch the hot water. Pouring a small amount into the pot and letting it sit for a moment before draining it, he poured more water over the leaves and let them steep.


“Truthfully, I never expected to live so long, and yet I find myself greedy for more time, if only to pass on what I know to one who has the wherewithal to use it. Someday, Aoi-chan, I hope you will do the same. This,” he declared, looking at the money, hoping that it wouldn’t turn into dried leaves or pine needles in the office vault as the legends said it might, “will go into the safe, until next week. As for the shrine…”


His expression grew thoughtful, as he hearkened back to the woman’s last words, before she’d taken his clothing and the family tablecloth. The former he expected to find at the shrine and he didn’t begrudge her the latter.


“… I shall train you first in a prayer for luck, right after we open for the day. I made a promise last night, after all. With Inari’s blessing, the young couple that wed last night stands a good chance of reuniting, much like your great-grandmother and I. It’s a prayer with a proven track record and this family is proof of that. However, right now I need you to help me with another very important task.”


“What would that be?” Aoi asked tentatively as he decided the tea was fit for consumption and poured two cups. His hoary white brows knit as he gave her a serious look from underneath them.


“Help me come up with a plausible fib to tell your grandmother regarding the tablecloth the spirits took. Our very lives may depend upon it.”

 




Disclaimer: If one has the opportunity to attend a Shinto wedding, DO NOT, under any circumstances, emulate Hiyori and Kenpachi’s behavior. Ever. I mean it. There is no such thing as an ‘informal’ Shinto wedding. The wedding presented here is for the disembodied ONLY. Any tomfoolery on the part of the living in a Shinto shrine will result in harsh treatment.

 


Glossary:


Shinshoku: a generic title for a Shinto priest at a local shrine.


Shamusho: the office attached to a Shinto shrine, where one can speak with a priest or an administrator about rituals, purchase the necessary charms or offerings and fortunes.


Jinja Honchō: The Association of Shinto is a religious, administrative organization that oversees about 80,000 Shinto shrines in Japan.


Shamisen: a three-stringed, long-necked musical instrument. The musician plucks the strings with a pick called a bachi, to create its distinctive sound.


Miko: a woman, usually young, who assists shrine priests in ritual or clerical work. Long ago, they used to be intermediaries between the gods, entering trance states during rituals using dance, song and music.


Sulfur Island*: the literal translation for Iwo Jima. Not a place from which many Japanese combatants returned.


Matsuri: a large public festival, which can be religious in nature or secular, depending on the location and purpose.


Temizuya: a water trough used by visitors for ritual purification of the hands and mouth before praying at a Shinto shrine.


Kitsune: The Japanese word for ‘fox’. At a shrine dedicated to the god/goddess Inari, the myobu (a black male fox) and the byako (a white female fox) act as messengers for the deity and will have two fox statues, adorned with red bibs, flanking the main gate or before the main hall.


Shinzenkekkon: Lit. Marriage before the gods. Another name for the official Shinto marriage rite.


Nakōdo: a matchmaker. The one who acts as a go-between between potential spouses and arranges meetings between the two. Sometimes an elderly family friend or an elderly couple known to both parties. Sometimes, nakado can be a Vizard Kido Master and a meddling Head of a Noble House… in the loosest sense of the word.


Butsumetsu: in the old, Japanese six-day way of counting the days of the week, the worst possible day to plan to do anything. A very unlucky day (4th day of the week, an unlucky number), as it’s the day on which the Buddha died. In terms of doing or planning anything important, it’s a day best spent hiding under the couch. On Sakimake (3rd day of the week), one can expect bad luck in the morning and good luck in the afternoon. Taien (5th day of the week) is the best day to do anything, and a lot of people who have Shinto weddings try to get married on this day. Tomobiki (2nd day of the week) is not as good of a day as Taien, but as one is supposed to have good luck at all times of that day, except for the noon hour, it’s a decent ‘runner-up’ sort of day to schedule a ceremony. People of Takashi’s generation were much more likely to follow this ‘lucky-unlucky’ delineation of days than the young people of modern Japan are, but it’s still something of a tradition. The Western equivalent of getting married on butsumetsu would be scheduling one’s wedding for a Friday the 13th.


Ema: votive tablets made of wood or other materials bearing illustrations of horses or other things relevant to the shrine. You can buy them at the shrine office, write your wish or prayer on the back and post them.


Eboshi: A tall, black headdress worn by Shinto priests during rituals and ceremonies.


Sakaki: (Cleyera japonica) a flowering evergreen tree native to Japan and Korea. Worshippers use the branches in Shinto ceremonies and they serve as offerings to the kami, especially during weddings.


Shinsen: food offerings meant for the kami (and which participants can share with the kami later) for a ritual, prepared by the priests. Sometimes shrines will allow outside offerings of food from worshippers, but priests usually purify them first.


Onusa: A ritual purification wand, with long plaited strips of linen, silk or paper on one end, used to purify objects and people.


Torii: A gateway marking the entrance to a sacred area. Typically painted red.


Noritos: spoken or sung codified prayers, recited by the priest. The norito sung depends on the ceremony.


Kagura: a ritual dance, performed by a trained miko, to entertain and appease the kami.


Shaku: a wooden wand used as part of the priestly vestments.


Haiden: a shrine’s hall.


Sanbo: A tray used in ritual to hold offerings for the kami


Saisenbako: an offertory box usually made of wood and placed before a shrine, for coins.


Inari: the goddess/god (the deity can take either male or female form, but for the purposes of a story in English, I chose to treat Inari as a female because of English’s required, gender based pronouns) of rice and all things related to rice, blacksmiths and by association, warriors. The pedigree of the god/goddess is complicated, but roughly 1/3rd of Japanese shrines are thought to be dedicated to Inari. According to traditions that date from the X century, foxes act as Inari’s messengers. Artists usually depict them as either two white foxes or one black male fox (myobu) and one white female fox (byako).


References used while researching information for this story: (all can be found on the web via Google.)



Kyoto Weddings: Honeymoon and ceremony planning

The Encyclopedia of Shinto (no longer being updated)

Wiss travelospher: Visiting a Japanese Shinto Shrine - Travel 101 Tips

Kokugakuin University: An Encyclopedia of Shinto

Tsurugaoka Hachimangu: Shinto Weddings

Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, Stockton CA

Kyoto Vistors' Guide: Walking with Foxes at Fushimi Inari Grand Shrine

Oinari - Fox - OnmarkProductions.com

tofugu.com: Is Today Your Lucky Day? (explain the old six-day week and each day's lucky or unlucky aspects)



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