Content warnings: Violence, intrusive thoughts, suicidal thoughts.
Notes: Written for Jashi Week: Morbid Monday.
The journey to Aku had been peaceful one thus far, but unease stirred within the hearts of the two travelers.
Failure, said the assassin's.
Murderer, said the samurai's.
They thought they'd finally overcome these hurdles.
Ashi had extinguished the source of the voice that told her what a weak, useless creature she was. Her body had been cleansed of the hateful dark magic. She hoped that with it, her past, too, could be cleansed from her mind. Alas, the voice of her deceased mother continued to echo in her head. Kill the samurai, the voice said, Kill the samurai, or let him kill you, you pathetic excuse for a daughter of Aku.
Jack had confronted the inner demon that had been tormenting him all these years; the gods had seen to it that he'd finally reached a state of inner peace. Yet, even adorned in a clean gi and his sword at his hip, seemingly returned to who he was both in mind and body, he still could hear the voice that had gradually chipped away at any hope left in him. Murderer, it sneered, How can you carry that sword when you have blood on your hands? It's never too late to finish yourself off…or let the woman do it for you.
Then you can both have fulfilled your purpose, the voices seemingly joined in unison.
The seeming blessing of peace on the journey had twisted itself into a curse, allowing the thoughts they believed they'd been finished with to fester in their psyches once more.
A shadow loomed over them, and both looked upward to meet the face of a hulking man--or machine?--in their path. His appearance evoked a strong western sentiment, complemented by the guns holstered at his hips. He turned his gaze downward to meet Jack's, examining him thoroughly before a toothy grin with a toothpick clenched between it spread across his face. Neither was ready to pass judgment, but Ashi balled her hands into fists. This man, after all, may be here to--
Kill the samurai.
The man let out a hearty laugh.
"No mistakin' it," he said, spitting out the toothpick, "You're the samurai Aku's put a bounty on, aren't you? Better say your prayers, because y--"
Jack had no time to finish listening to the man's warning, much less reach for his sword when Ashi flew like a thrown dagger towards the man and landed a kick at his face. The impact of the blow and the enemy's own shock at such a slender person packing that much power had easily knocked him off his feet. Ashi gave him no room to catch his breath before she landed a barrage of punches all over his body. She tore the guns from their holsters, her hands just barely wrapped around their enormous barrels, and prepared to swing them at the man's face. Jack dashed forward, reaching for his sword in preparation of joining in Ashi's attack when--
--the sickening crunching of bones could be heard, and he felt a splash of a thick substance against his cheek. Jack froze in his tracks as he saw Ashi lifting the guns, her knuckles covered in blood before she continued pummeling their opponent with them. There was no mistaking it; this man they were facing was a human being. Jack didn't anticipate having to face one again so soon.
He chose this path, Jack told himself, shaking his head and reaching for his sword again.
How do you know? another voice in his thoughts countered, He could have been another innocent. Just like the woman in front of you.
Jack's fingers trembled against the handle of his blade. His legs collapsed beneath him and he brought a shaking hand to his mouth.
Meanwhile, Ashi was clenching her teeth, growling wildly and rapping the man against his face with increasing force and quickness, each hit spattering her face with blood. With every hit she concentrated on the sounds it produced around her--the pained cries of the barely-alive man, the squelching of beaten, pulpy flesh, the whistling of the barrels as she swung them through the air. She was drowning out the thoughts clouding her mind until they were barely a mumble. Part of Ashi wanted the man to hold out long enough that she could clear her mind entirely.
You're too easily distracted to succeed at something like that.
Ashi gasped and hit the man with a blow that finished him off. She fell to her knees, her breathing rattled.
You see? You can't even do that much. You may as well die.
Ashi turned to see Jack in a similar position before her. Her eyes widened; she'd assumed Jack had just let her attack while he saved his strength, but it appeared the battle that unfolded before him had sapped him of it, if anything. Why? Surely he'd seen enough death that it'd become little more than a stroll in the sun for him. Considering the training she and her sisters had been subjected to and how well he thwarted them off, he must have experienced even more rigorous training than them.
He's all bite and his fangs have finally dulled, her mother's voice hissed, You want to save your soul and the samurai's too? Kill him.
Jack's voice roused her from her thoughts. She looked up at him, now apparently recovered enough to stand up and smile, if weakly. Ashi nodded, and stood up to join him.
They continued their journey in the same dead silence they had been before running into the bounty hunter. Their pace had slowed, both shaken by the event in different ways that furthered the agitation of the thoughts echoing in their heads.
"That was an impressive battle," said Jack, striking up conversation in a desperate attempt to distract himself from his thoughts, "I never got to see how you handled yourself while I was out…you are a truly gifted individual."
"Th-thank you," Ashi said, still unused to receiving praise. She was unsure of what else to respond with; something had come over Jack during that fight, and she didn't want to potentially reopen any wounds he was currently nursing by bringing it up.
Such a worthless samurai, you had the perfect chance to kill him.
"Uh…sorry, I'm not really good with talking like this," said Ashi, "I never really had any sort of practice with it."
"Oh….oh that's fine!" Jack said with a nervous chuckle, "I…never had, either, to be honest. I'd been so concentrated on my training all these years before I came here, to the future…and I seldom had any traveling companions."
"That sounds awfully lonely."
"No, no, it is perfectly fine! I mean, it was lonely and I suppose it wasn't fine, but…it means we have something in common, does it not?"
Ashi smiled sadly to herself. "I suppose it does. I was a pretty lonely person myself, too. Even now, I can still feel that loneliness tugging at my heart…"
Silence. Ashi turned to see Jack wearing a concerned and pensive expression, as though he didn't know what to say next. Ashi was all too familiar with that.
"B-but don't worry about me," Ashi reassured him, "I'm much less lonely now that I've seen things through your eyes."
"That is…good to know. I'm glad." Jack gingerly rubbed the back of his neck. "I feel the same…the loneliness still lingers…but it's dulled since I met you, since you reminded me of the ideals I held so strongly to, that I'd thought I'd betrayed, that…I still feel I've betrayed."
Ashi glanced to the side and stared down at the cracked earth, eyes narrowed. "Even with all the good it's done me, I feel like I've betrayed my own ideals as well," she sighed, "I can still hear my mother's voice…telling me how worthless I am for failing to uphold them…telling me to kill you."
Tell her she's right! Tell her you're a failure as well! You can still save her if you just let her do it!
"So…you hear those voices as well," Jack said softly, "We have more in common than we realize, it seems."
"What do they tell you, Jack?"
Ashi covered her mouth as soon as she said that, realizing the thoughtlessness of her questioning him about something personal like this. I still have so much to learn.
You have no more to learn, her mother's voice slithered back into her mind, Anything more you "learn" are mere distractions from your quest, your purpose!
"I…I'm sorry," said Ashi, "You don't have to answer that."
"No, no, there is no need for you to apologize, but your consideration is appreciated." Jack smiled, looking at the same area of gravel Ashi had set her sights upon. "Ashi…before I answer, I want to ask…how…do you feel about…killing a human being?"
Jack was about to follow up with "You don't have to answer that either!" when Ashi merely shrugged at his question.
"Not much, I suppose. It was what I was raised to do. Now…it's just something that needs to get done when it needs to get done. When I'm in danger, when someone I care about is in danger. That's all."
"I see…" Jack went quiet for a moment before formulating his answer. "Your sisters…they were the first and only human beings I've ever killed. Then, when I met you face to face, I realized they were innocents. But does that truly matter? From birth, we all start out innocent…I may have been defending myself, but…I still feel I've failed in following my ideals. I feel I don't deserve to live."
Ashi stared wide-eyed at Jack. "Wow…no wonder you were so shaken up about that man. You're not used to this at all."
"I don't believe I ever will be. I don't want to be."
Ashi frowned, uncertain yet again of what to say. Jack, who couldn't kill, and she, who could kill, but couldn't kill Jack. What a funny pair they were.
"I thought when I killed my mother that I was done, I was free," Ashi said, looking up at the sky, "But it looks like her grip on me is as powerful as ever. I still feel like a failure, like I don't have any purpose in life and whatever purpose I did have is gone--that, like you, I may as well die. I don't know if I'll ever be free of her grip."
Jack let the meaning of Ashi's words sink in. So she had thoughts telling her to die as well. She was in a much different position than he--his thoughts were ones that were gradually born out of nothingness, but hers had been inflicted upon her at birth. He wasn't sure if he had the right to compare his situation with her own. He was sure of one thing, though--Ashi put in to words what he feared most about himself as well: that these thoughts would never truly go away, that he'd be battling them for the rest of his life.
Yet, somehow, he didn't feel a sense of fear at this thought.
"I…cannot imagine what you've been through," he started, trying to approach the subject as thoughtfully as possible, "But…I feel a connection with what you've said. When I confronted myself, I thought I was finally free, too, before it came lurking back. And…I, too, know not of when I'll ever be free of it. But, I do know one thing…"
He stepped forward to place his hands gently on Ashi's shoulders. "I know that I'm not alone anymore. I'm not the only one having these thoughts…"
Ashi nodded, squeezing his hand. "We don't have to struggle alone anymore. We can fight these thoughts together, just as we'll fight Aku." She grinned. "I think we put up a pretty good fight already just by talking about them."
Jack brought his fingers thoughtfully to his chin with a smirk. "Hmm…yes. It would seem that talking about them is their weakness."
"So let's not hesitate to talk about anything bothering us, we wouldn't want those demons tormenting us again."
"But," Ashi said, returning Jack's gesture and placing her hands on his shoulders, "Leave the killing of humans to me."
"You're right, you're not cut out for it." She winked at him. "So leave it to me. Think of me as your hired bodyguard."
"I…uh…." Jack stammered, then straightened himself. "Fine. But only if I may remind you regularly of how you're not a failure and that your life has value and purpose simply by living. Think of me as…hmm…your hired guardian spirit."
Ashi groaned sarcastically. "You sap. You have a deal."