A rose is a rose is a rose.
The woman who wrote those words must have not known a thing about roses.
Well before he delved into the profession of picking the most heavily guarded vaults and pilfering the prized treasures from those feared by all who valued their necks, Youko Kurama had dominion over every like of flora and fauna.
Since he was a child the act of willing the most insignificant of leaves into dastardly demons' blades or manipulating the natural properties of herbs and blooms to best suit his needs had come as easily as breathing. Before learning to quell the affinity, vines crept towards his skin as he walked the forests, seeking the light he radiated just for them. Grasses would yearn and stretch to caress the bare of his feet.
As if on their own volition they proffered themselves—begged to be of use at his disposal. The fox stole every advantage they granted. There were innumerable options in his arsenal ranging from the subtle poisons of the graceful laurels and hemlocks to the stiletto teeth and bone melting sap of the exotically carnal red dragon flytrap. Yet his preferred weapon of choice was a blossom so understated in it's simplicity and elegance.
A single white rose.
He basked in the sticky sweet irony of meeting his opponents in battle, of shedding their life-blood, with a symbol of innocence and sympathy. The velveteen white-gray petals so close to the glittering silver of his oft unruly and ratted hair made for the perfect calling card.
One he'd made the novice mistake of flaunting in his arrogance the night that he had slipped up and fell prey to the Spirit World's damnable hunter. Kurama was forced to flee to the only place where such an infamous ghost as himself would be able to hide without detection or recognition long enough to reconcile his power.
The Mortal Realm.
Life as a human infant was droll.
Before being mobile, the newly renamed Shuichi—a popular name at the time that was light, airy, and left him feeling bitterly disappointed in the creativity of his body's progenitor—spent a lot of time on self-reflection. Simple at first, as his mind adjusted to its young host. The demon spirit explored memories from his past, had run through every flaw in his encounter with the bastard hunter perhaps a thousand times. He planned out his future a hundred steps ahead. Calculated the hours until he would be strong enough to strip the heavy baggage of his mortal flesh and restore himself to his former glory.
There was little else for him to do in that state.
Once the parents had introduced mirrors to their baby's routine, Kurama began to contemplate the affects that his demonic Youki had in the body. It had resulted in the blazing crimson of the boy's hair —of his new hair—and eyes greener than the waxy leaves of the cherry tree that he could see out the bedroom window from the containment of his wooden crib. Such coloring was not native to his skin's Japanese heritage. It was an odd curiosity that aided in the passing of time.
It was such a strange thing, to experience growth a second time after having lived for centuries. For a moment he had entertained playing the part that was stolen, to see just how seamlessly a fox spirit could integrate itself into the humans' society. The challenge did well to busy his frustratingly underdeveloped brain and emotional reflex when he was not lost adrift to sea in his thoughts. Eventually the facade grew tiresome and once his speech and reading comprehension were restored to a level that could better satiate his intellectual appetite, the task was deemed unnecessary and ignored.
The father of his human body fretted over his son's lack of enthusiasm, but the neighborhood aunties praised and cooed over his quiet mannerisms and serious disposition. Little did they know that his 'politeness' stemmed from apathy and a shallow loathing for their petty conversations.
Kurama never played with other children. They were filthy little cretins, every last one of them. He preferred instead to watch that dizzying world grow around him, fast and unrefined.
The human lifespan was so short that it was a wonder they managed to accomplish anything in the time allotted to them. It explained why many of them focused on such narrow skill sets while ignoring whatever other potential they had. Weak human stomachs and constitutions required constant nourishment and shelter, so they were forced to work relentless hours to afford survival and enjoy the meager scraps of their lives so graciously granted to them by bosses and hovering clouds of debt.
Their freedom of choice was an illusion so artfully constructed by their cage of a society.
They were mice.
The Fox suspected that such overwork was partly to blame for their abbreviated lives.
That thought was nearly confirmed when Shiori's husband was killed in an accident at the power plant where he worked. At the time he had only been their son for five years. The man was barely twenty eight. Not even a child yet by Kitsune standards, a babe still clinging to its mother's tit.
The death settlement had been substantial, enough to maintain their current standard of living until well past the human woman's eventual demise—not that he intended to stay that long. Yet even without the need for money, the skittish woman still conformed to her societal and cultural expectations. She played the part of the dutiful widow, homebody and mother.
The door of her birdcage had been left open, she had free reign of the mortal realm and all it offered, but still she refused to explore, keeping instead to that which she was familiar.
What a disappointment.
To fill her with a time with a semblance of meaning and distract herself from the human emotions clouding those liquid onyx eyes, Shiori immersed herself in the local Neighborhood Association. She'd met with her collective weekly, volunteered on local projects and occasionally extended hospitality to families with school age children down on hard times.
Those were the worst; when strangers were invited into their homes for a bath and warm meal. It forced him to socialize with children that he avoided like the flesh rotting bacteria that they no doubt carried like fleas.
Sometimes Shiori's altruism ran so long that she would be late to retrieve him from the hell of youngling containment that they chipperly coined Daycare.
It wasn't so nettlesome when the hours stretched long past the departure of the last of the snot ridden beasts, leaving him alone with the younger of the two caretakers—her senior would break protocol to leave early on those days. She used the time to work on college assignments or read. Both workers preferred him over the other children, so the young lady brought extra snacks to share between them after hours. She never mocked of belittled his quest for mental stimulation, even
allowed him to flip through the pages of her informationally pregnant psychology textbooks.
It was on such a night that Shiori shared with him news about their small community that captured his interest for the first time.
He'd just popped a chocolate mushroom into his mouth, savored the muted sweetness with his human senses, and turned the page of the text to continue a particularly gripping section on cognitive dissonance when the matriarch of his household scuttled up to the glass doors. She shifted a stack of fliers from one arm to the other and fumbled with the door handle. He watched her the way one watched a beetle on its back; with a bland disassociation.
"I'm so sorry for being late again." The woman said to the college student behind the counter once she finally figured out how door hinges worked. "I've inconvenienced you."
"It wasn't any trouble at all." The part-timer replied with the politeness typical of their culture. "Shuichi is a pleasure."
As the women spoke about the activities that the kids did that afternoon—he was grateful when it wasn't mentioned that he sat most of them out—Kurama closed the book, deposited it carefully on the front desk, went about collecting his few personal effects, and changed out of his indoor shoes. He waited patiently in the Genkan space at the exit while they finished talking, exchanged paperwork and bowed their farewells.
Dutifully, Kurama took the mother's feeble hand in his own when she offered it and led them home.
"It was a very exciting meeting, today." She said in her usual routine of filling his silence with her own day's events. "As part of the local beautification project we had made several suggestions last year and one was finally approved!" He took one of the fliers when she leaned them towards him. There was a picture of a domed building on the front overlaid with landscape plans and sketched shrubs.
"They're converting the old recreation building into a botanical dome. We're in the process of renovating now, but soon enough we will be ordering plants. It is a big project and it will be a lot of hard work, but we're hoping to open it to the public in a couple of months."
The Silver Fox mused over the potential flowers and succulents to be displayed that were listed on the back of the paper. "Mostly local plants?"
The human woman beamed at him, excited that she'd prompted a response from her son.
"For the time being. By fall we plan to have a rose garden started with different types and colors. The climate controlled rooms will take longer, so exotics will be pushed further back. Did Miss Takeo let you borrow her garden encyclopedia again?"
"Yes." He lied.
"That's very nice of her! The stores are beginning to stock marigolds; we should plant one in a cute pot for her as a thank you!"
Marigolds were a terrible choice. An ugly, overwhelmingly bitter blossom with a morbid song. Not one you would give to extend gratitude.
Casually he offered an alternative. "She likes sweat peas."
"Then we'll need to find sweet peas for her. Oh, I know! We could build a little trellis for them to climb in the pot! Wouldn't that be fun Shuichi?"
A shrug was his only reply.
The smile on her lips wilted.
She was quick to recover as she squeezed his hand and filled in the blanks to their conversation. "I think it will be! We can get the supplies tomorrow and start working on it this weekend. By next week I should be able to take you to the work site to show you around. They'll gear you up with a hard hat and booties; it'll be just like a field trip!"
The stream of words didn't cease until they made it home and Shiori left him to prepare their dinner.
It was pitiful, really, how strongly she fought to embrace him even as he pulled away. She clung desperately to the notion of a family that died along with her husband, to a son that was never truly hers.
If all went according to plan, his demonic energy will have mostly recovered by the time he'd turned thirteen years old. When that time came he would leave the mortal realm and cast off his human body like an empty shell. The woman would lose the last person that she believed to have left in the world.
She couldn't bring herself to realize that she was already alone. If the human knew what was best for herself she would need to give up on him.
The sooner the better.
Over the next few years Shiori took him to the botanical garden often. It'd become her main project when he had let his interest slip during one of their visits. Kurama found himself enthusing over the heartiness of the hydrangeas that they'd just received and complaining about the poor drainage in the pallet beds that the younger volunteers had been building.
To be honest, the project would have been a complete failure if not for his subtle involvement during those first months.
If he hadn't 'accidentally' broken that window, they would have never thought to replace the UV resistant glass with panes that didn't restrict the sun from nutrient starved succulents and vines in the full-light wings. Newcomers and middle school students working the beds for extracurricular credit were a constant threat looking to over-water his more delicate fauna.
The Fox could have easily made the garden flourish with a mere caress of his Youki, but it was more fruitful to make sure the mortals learned how to properly care for it themselves so that it could continue to thrive long after he resigned his existence in that world.
Each time he walked through the somewhat humid corridors his thoughts drifted to the battlefields of his past. Years of disuse had seen his skills fall soft, but without the prevalence of demons beyond the power of insects in the human realm there were no opportunities for him to hone his growing energies. The delicacy of his grade schooler's body also posed a hurdle that he would need to overcome as he grew.
As it was, the powder white rose known far and wide to have been the pretext of death when facing the notorious Youko Kurama no longer suited him. The flesh of humanity was irony enough for humility and innocence if he were to fight in that state.
No foe would have expected quiet, mortal Shuichi of being a ruthless demon, thief, and murderer.
No, he was in need of a weapon distinct to his new form.
If he were to continue along the theme of irony, the nymph-like petals of the anemone tempted his hand. The popular grave flower whispered sweet nothings of sincerity, but also served as a double agent to the more ancient tidings of ill will and misfortune.
Though, perhaps that was a bit too direct.
The young boy brushed the white skirts of a Tsubaki flower. It smiled at his touch, blossom opening to the zenith of its bloom.
Maybe the waiting patience of the ravishing camellia was more befitting his situation, as he yearned to chew free his leg from the trap he'd self-imposed on his soul.
"Oh, Shuichi!" Shiori called out from the archway separating the native flora from the imports. "The roses are budding! Come look at this one, it will be beautiful!"
The small, sleeping buds on the bush in question were deep red like crushed velvet.
The shade near identical to the red of his hair.
They too were no good.
A rose no longer suited his narrative, no longer played upon the satire of his preamble.
A scoff left his lips, his annoyance unrestrained.
The Kitsune spirit ghosted over the bushes, his gaze paused for a moment on the pained look twisting the woman's face before dismissing them both. He continued to look for ideas as far from the rows of ornamental hybrids as possible.
Later that night—well past the time constraints of his bedtime—as Kurama made his way down the stairs to fetch a drink of water, a strangled sob stayed his feet. From the kitchen he could hear the click and shuffle of Shiori's favorite slippers that were a size too large for her feet. They paced back and forth across the linoleum floor.
"He hates me, Mai." She said. He imagined her worrying the thick black cord of their wall phone with one hand while holding the clunky receiver to her ear with the other. The hush of her voice didn't make it sound any less heavy and broken.
"I don't know what to do... I don't know what I did wrong. He hasn't been the same since Koichi—Was it wrong of me to believe that I could be a good enough mother without him? I'm doing everything I can for Shuichi, but he looks right through me." She paused, allowing another sob to spasm involuntarily through her lungs.
"I thought that too, but its not just his age. I can't remember a time it hasn't been this way. I can't take it much longer. The harder I try, the further my boy gets from me... At times... I just want to stop trying. Is that not a horrible thing to say?"
Kurama should have been overjoyed by this new development. The woman had finally realized the futility of her actions and emotions. Not far in the future she would give up on him completely, her contempt for him would grow and she would feel no remorse when it was time for him to go, leaving behind the corpse of her son.
Yet, why instead did her pain give him an itching discomfort?
Realization slapped him in the face two months later.
He stared, bewildered, as Shiori struggled to pick herself up from the kitchen floor before him. The puddle crept closer, staining his white socks and forcing him to pull backwards. The sight of blood had never before made him feel so uneasy. His small hands flinched when they scraped across shards of glass from the shattered bowl that he'd stubbornly tried to reach on his own. He knew that the step stool wasn't level, but he had risked it anyway out of pride—he refused to acknowledge the woman, let alone beg her assistance like a helpless kit.
Unfortunately for him, the supernatural grace of his former self had yet to be trained into his scraggly, fawn-like limbs.
"Are you alright, Shuichi? Were you hurt?" She asked him. The ink of her eyes shook and glittered with rolling tears of pain, but it was concern that filled the husky panic of her voice. Concern for his well being.
But he wasn't the one bleeding out on the floor.
''You foolish creature!" He wanted to shout at her. "For once, worry for yourself!" But he was unable to speak.
Some of the cuts were so deep that he could see the whites of bone past the mangled sinews of flesh. The use of her hands may never fully heal because she had selflessly thrown her son from harm's way, putting herself in the thick of it. Her love for him so pure that she had acted without a second's hesitation. Her existence was secondary to his own. And yet.
Kurama had done absolute nothing to deserve her sacrifice. He'd spat upon her since having been reborn into the mortal's domain.
His back hit the wall, denying him escape. The Fox in boy's clothing shook his head, both in answer to her question and out of shocked denial.
On her knees, his body's mother cradled her dripping arms.
"Oh, thank goodness." Her sincerity burned him. The blue apron that she wore to do dishes was sullied beyond saving.
Not unlike the red of his hair.
"I'm so happy that you are not hurt."
And she smiled.
Pushing through the pain, Shiori rose to her feet. She disguised her fear and agony better than any demoness. All he could see was the unconditional love that she held for the monster that had stolen the life of her true child.
"Don't touch anything, I'll clean this up, alright? There's too much glass in here, go on."
Over the trials and tribulations that befell the thousands of years he'd lived, never before had he seen a being use love as a strength. She wielded it like a glaive. He'd never seen a woman before so unwavering in her determination, demon or otherwise.
Was that what set the human race apart?
Was that their might?
At that moment Kurama—no, Shuichi—felt... proud.
While she may not have begot his soul, she had still birthed him. She'd helped him to walk and spent countless hours training his vocal cords to speak. She'd consistently given him her everything while he'd done nothing but take like a selfish, ungrateful child.
Shiori was not just the mother of his body. She hadn't been for a long time.
She was his mother.
The attachment had already formed, had been growing for years. It may not have been love, exactly, but it had the potential to be with the right nourishment and acceptance. It was something that he could work on; he owed the woman that much at the very least.
Shuichi called the EMS from the phone in the hallway. They kept him on the line until they'd arrived to their family home. The moment he was safe in the trusting care of medical professionals, Shiori had allowed herself to relax. And as soon as she did, she collapsed from blood-loss.
It was a few days after that when Shuichi had asked to go back to the botanical gardens, initiating the trip for the first time.
His mother still had bandages on her arms and would for the next couple months. She had gotten fifty-two stitches and temporary repair work done to a lacerated ligament that required further surgery. The scars were going to mar her skin for the rest of her life.
It was a war getting her through the crowd. It seemed every step they took brought the concerned attention of another familiar face. Shiori was well known and loved throughout the neighborhood and every person who saw her wanted to extend their consolation and offer their assistance in whatever way possible. There was already more food in their refrigerator than they could possibly eat on their own.
If anything had grown within him during his reprieve in the human body, it had been patience. So he waited until their waves passed, allowed his mother to take her time to dance around each encounter with modesty and gratitude.
Shuichi had asked her to show him that bush again, under the pretext of young curiosity, to see if the buds had bloomed in their time apart. When they finally reached the heart of the garden, under the leaded glass dome that had been built in the late thirties, they were greeted by swaths of color. Cheery yellows, dimpled pinks, soothing lavenders—every color in the floral spectrum aside from blue was on full display in the room's summer warmth.
"This one here." Shiori directed him to the exact same plant as before, even as similar, nearly indistinguishable varieties flanked it. "Isn't it lovely?"
It was a hybrid rose.
Normally he considered hybrids to be the lesser flower when compared to their older, more sophisticated cousins. Wild roses, naturally, won his favor, but climbers, cabbages and ramblers all held a sexual appeal that was nearly lost to crossbreeding. But that particular bush had a rich scent, so rare in tea roses breed for appearance alone.
"We're not supposed to take cuttings." She told him as she fished and fumbled a pair of clippers from the gardening bag that she always brought with her when she volunteered. Her hands shook and the metal bit into her palm when she snipped the stem of a perfectly poised blossom. "But I'm sure they won't mind just the one."
He accepted the clipping. The dainty thorns were sharp and precise, the petals looked as though they had been crafted from the finest suede. The richness of the greens and the deep heat of the reds matched his own unnatural coloring with surprising accuracy.
"I knew it." His mother said, once more drawing his attention. "Its as if that rose was made for you!"
The sheer joy on her face brought a warmth to his chest that spread through his limbs like hot cider on a cold autumn's night. It was a new sensation, but not entirely unwelcome.
Shuichi offered a small, reserved smile in return.
Roses captured the spotlighted attention in the gardens of nearly every culture, both in the human world and within the depths of the demon realm. As such there were innumerable meanings and associations bestowed upon them dependent on color, size and society. He had chosen the white rose in his past for the virginity and innocence of their gentle, unsoiled nature. Just the opposite, the red rose was the rising star of voluptuous beauty, passion, courage and respect. But above all else, it symbolized ever enduring, unconditional love.
Unconditional love for a demon once feared and abhorred. No doubt incapable of returning it in earnest.
The irony satisfied his craving.
The changeling almost laughed aloud when he read the small metal plate tucked among the leaves that stated the flower's registered name among breeders and gardeners.
The young boy twisted the flower between his fingers and thought of the deadly power that he could unlock from within it. Of the secrets they would share together in the electric thrum of battle.
"Thank you mother, its perfect."
Dark Secret: End