IMPORTANT NOTE: This actually a collaborative story that AkisMusicBox and I wrote together (you can find her awesome work on Ao3) so I am not entirely to blame for this coming to fruition. But, I fully participated. I regret nothing.


CHAPTER ONE:
Tell Me About Your Worries, Asshole

She still remembered the decree passed down from the Spirit Realm as if it hadn't occurred twenty years prior. A shudder passed through her as the words echoed in her head.

'Unfortunate as the accident may have been, you died in the Sacred River with a heavy burden on your heart, tainting the spiritual energy of the waters and bringing strife to the surrounding lands. As such, you are tasked with resolving the grudges of seven thousand humans before you are allowed to reincarnate.'

It was unfair. This man appeared before her — the primary cause of the ordeal of monotony and bitterness her life had become — wanting her help. He was the one who said those harsh words. He was the one who sent her running towards the river in hopes that her most beloved friend and fairy prince would appear to soothe her. She never saw the rock that obstructed her path as her eyes overflowed with tears that refused to stop.

But the rock upon which she'd fallen headfirst she knew all too familiarly as well as the river that filled her nose and lungs. They tied her to that place as sure as they tied her to the memories of that ethereal-looking boy who, she'd convinced herself, was the magical spawn of the river itself. The boy she hadn't seen in the years following that one blissful summer. The person she would much rather be facing instead of the one she faced now.

He's the reason I'm running this pop-up bar in the first place! And he has the nerve to show up here. He couldn't have known, but still! The resentment in Kyoko's heart threatened to boil her alive, manifesting only as a hateful glare towards the man sitting at the table. She supposed it was probably a good thing that he hadn't yet figured out who she was. Or, rather, who she used to be.

The sound of the bright red tent's door unlatching drew her eyes away from her unwelcome patron to see Ren entering with an armful of groceries. His free hand fished out something from one of the bags and he held up a package of noodles bearing a gold label.

"I got your favorite," he said, with a very self-satisfied smile. "The last four on the shelf even."

She noticed his smile fade once the tension in the room finally reached him. He looked from Kyoko to the man at the table, raising one eyebrow at her before he sprung into action. Holding out one of the bags to her, he waited for her to take it before pushing past her towards the kitchen area.

"Can you spare a moment to help me unpack these so I can get the eggs prepped for tonight's special?" he called over his shoulder.

What on earth had she done to deserve someone so observant that he could quickly pick up on the situation and give her the out she desperately needed? With a quick but reluctant bow to their patron, she followed behind Ren.

"Do I need to kick him out?" Ren asked in a low voice while carefully cracking open a small army of eggs and depositing their contents into a bowl. "Is he harassing you?"

She shook her head, stacking the packages of noodles together before putting them on the shelf behind her. "Maria sent him here as a client. She just didn't know that he and I have… history."

Ren cocked his head to one side. "Just 'history' or are we talking about history?"

"I'm not sure I understand the difference." Kyoko wrinkled her nose in confusion.

"Is he someone you pissed off at the grocery store or is he someone from your distant past?" he clarified.

"The latter," she grumbled. "He's the whole reason I'm in this predicament in the first place and I'd rather string him up by his toes than help him."

She saw Ren pause for a moment in thought, looking up at the LED screen displaying the current count of 6,997 grudges remedied.

"Then isn't it a good thing?" he suggested. "You can settle his grudge and maybe even resolve your own at the same time. Not everyone gets that opportunity."

The slightest tinge of regret haunted his voice towards the end and Kyoko wanted to kick herself. Though, she wasn't sure how she would manage it when one foot was already firmly stuck in her mouth. Ren was mostly candid with her about his situation when he started as her assistant one year prior. She knew enough about the emotional baggage he carried to avoid making flippant comparisons of their past lives.

He had to live with the consequences of giving in to the overwhelming guilt and forsaking his own life despite his best friend sacrificing theirs to save him. While his friend was slated to reincarnate into a life full of prosperity and celebrity in recognition of his selfless act, he was forced into the servitude of the Spirit Realm as law enforcement; wrangling wayward and corrupted spirits for years.

He said his assignment with her was a 'semi-retirement present' of sorts but never explained further. She still hadn't figured out what he meant by that.

Kyoko ignored his question in favor of mixing the seasoning for the eggs. The irony that the night's special was tamagoyaki was not lost on her. Droplets splashed onto the counter as she stirred the ingredients a bit more forcefully than she intended. Ren appeared beside her with a small bowl of sugar for her to add but she shook her head. He made a puzzled sound.

"He doesn't like it sweet," she explained, pointing her chin in the direction of their guest.

The ghost of a frown that pulled at the corners of his lips worried her less than the sadness she saw behind it. As much as she wanted to ignore those occasional curious reactions of his, something told her she wasn't ready to learn the truth behind them.

"What's taking so long?" their patron grumbled. He slumped his blond head into his hand. "You'd think with only one customer service wouldn't be so slow."

Kyoko gripped her whisk tighter to keep herself from launching it at Shotaro.

"Sorry about that," Ren said with a sweetness that should have driven their patron away instantly. "Boss Lady's recipe is worth the wait. Let me get you a drink while you wait, on the house." With a gentlemanly smile, he went to the cooler and grabbed a bottle of shōchū.

Sho snorted. "Boss Lady. I'm never working for a woman again, that's for damn sure."

Kyoko's temper was nearly boiling now, but the only thing that kept her to a simmer were the waves of pure hostility radiating towards Sho that were not hers. They rose goosebumps on her own arm, but it was morbidly fascinating to be defended by them instead of attacked. She poured the eggs into the pan.

Ren cracked open the bottle and poured the first shot. "I've heard that sentiment before. Problems at work?" He set the glass in front of Sho.

As always, Shotaro was oblivious to the feelings of those around him and was unfazed by the assault. "She's my assistant; she works for me! She's the one who should be dealing with problems." He took the shot as if it were water. He held it out to Ren. "Hurry up, will ya? Rude to keep a customer waiting."

Kyoko was surprised the bottle wasn't melting in Ren's hands. Sho took the shot and waves for another.

As the bottom of the eggs began to firm up, she started rolling them and exchanged a quick glance with Ren. Sho wasn't going to talk of his own volition, and at the rate he was drinking, they'd run out of booze before his lips loosened. They needed their ace in the hole.

"I'm back!" Maria yelled as she opened the door to the pop-up bar. The young woman's ringlets bounced as she looked at Kyoko. "All coupons distributed. What's next?"

"Grab an apron," Kyoko said with a knowing look. "I need you to serve our patron, Mr. Fuwa, and take over for Ren. Ren thinks the only heavy lifting he has to do tonight is that bottle and he is sorely mistaken."

Maria gave a quick nod and went to her apron hanging on the wall. Ren scoffed. "I had to handle deliveries all by myself this morning!" He put a hand on his back and gave an exaggerated wince. "Have some sympathy."

She waved her spatula at Ren. "Maybe if you'd have put the deliveries away instead of leaving the crates stacked in the corner, you could rest. Take notes, Maria-chan, finish what you start."

With a playful smile, Maria moved her curls over her shoulder as she looped the apron around her neck. She raised an eyebrow at Ren. "I think this customer requires someone a little more attentive."

Ren merely scoffed and passed her the bottle. Maria leaned her hip on the edge of the bar as she topped off Sho's glass. It took every ounce of Kyoko's will power not to swat the girl.

Maria had never had a strong, female hand guiding her while she was growing up. While her grandfather and father tried their best, they couldn't resist her sweet charm… and her ability to make human confess their deepest secrets with a single touch. They were a dangerous and somewhat isolating combination as a child, but as she grew, she learned to use it. Her attitude towards her power only matured with age. Grape juice to wine.

To anyone else, she would have appeared to have been handling her powers just fine. But when Kyoko first met her at the grocery store a month ago, the little spirits had been pulled to her, her own and ones of the people around her. The girl couldn't even stock a shelf without risk of bumping into a customer, so when Kyoko had practically drafted her into service of settling her grudges, Maria agreed on one condition. When the quota was met, Kyoko would remove Maria's ability. "It's too much," Maria said. "I can't handle everyone's burdens."

The look that Sho gave Maria was one Kyoko knew well, one he'd always give a new, attractive woman who dared enter his presence. The predatory look died instantly though. He merely shook his head and took his drink.

Maria chuckled. "Problem?"

"Any woman who appears in my life typically is." He tapped the ring on his pointer finger against the glass.

Maria raised an eyebrow. "That's a fairly loaded statement. Something fit for a change of beverage." She pointed a thumb to a shelf behind the bar, lined with jade, moon-shaped bottles.

Kyoko gave him a piercing look. "Not without some food in your belly." She laid a perfectly-rolled tamagoyaki on a plate and set it in front of him.

Sho gave Maria a conspiratorial look. "Is it worth it?"

Maria winked. "Best hooch in town. And the food's not too shabby either."

Sho grabbed the egg with his chopsticks and took an animated bite, like a child proving he ate his vegetables. Maria sauntered behind the bar and while she grabbed a bottle, Kyoko did swat at her apron. "Not too shabby, what kind of nonsense is that?!"

Maria's chuckle was disrupted by an almost lewd moan. Maria, Kyoko, and Ren whipped around to see their patron with a face full of egg and an expression of pure bliss.

Ren furrowed his brow, stitching together the laugh threatening to escape. "Keep it in your pants, boss. This is a classy establishment."

Sho shot him a dirty look and then eyed Maria. "What's the holdup?" he asked through a stuffed mouth.

"Coming, coming," Maria said, sauntering to his side, crescent bottle in tow. "It's been aged for an eternity, a few more moments won't turn the taste." She patted his shoulder.

Such a simple gesture, but Kyoko knew the power that a mere touch from Maria held. She was counting on it.

She smiled knowingly. He dropped his food and chopsticks in an instant. "I'm alone. I'm all alone. I was born that way and I'll die that way so everyone else can rot in hell."

Kyoko froze. "I'm sure you're exaggerating." She couldn't muster proper anger at that point because she had never seen him so defeated before. Eyes vacant, expression slack, posture slumped, as if Maria's touch had sapped him of all strength.

He could barely handle a perturbed look at Kyoko. "People try to be around me, try to leech off of me, and they always leave in the end. No one understands me and what I've been through. Even Shoko turned her back on me in the end!"

Kyoko saw the knowing look Ren was giving her out of the corner of her eye. He was right; it was time. Kyoko pursed her lips and nodded.

Maria poured the shimmering liquor into Shotaro's glass. It glittered like a diamond even inside of the tent. When stared at too long, however, it made the human eye grow heavy. Better to drink it quickly rather than dwell on the beauty.

"Tell me about Shoko," Kyoko said.

Sho sighed and in one, mechanical motion took the iridescent shot. By the time the glass left his lips, he lost consciousness and his head slammed on the table. Bits of egg flew into his hair.

Ren and Maria jumped. Kyoko merely sighed. "Always dramatic no matter the time or place." She wiped her hands on her apron, then tore the thing off. "Let's get to work."


A CROSSOVER FIC IS BORN:

AkisMusicBox: Come on, it's perfect! There's all this talk about grudges and forgiveness, it's a slam dunk for a one-shot! Just 5,000 words, we can do it!

AikoriIchijouji: ... FINE.

...weeks later...

AikoriIchijouji: [looks at word count, low whistle] Chapters?

AkisMusicBox: Chapters.