Reiko isn't coming back.
I have always been weak; it is no secret. But seeing his body dragged behind them, lifeless... This is a new kind of weakness. My knees give out, and I collapse against his body, my breath hitching in my throat around a shameful wailing noise. It hurts to touch him. I can feel my body shifting wildly, more wildly than it has in years, but I can't stop it despite the ache already seeping deep into my skin and bones.
The tone of Mother's voice turns all my muscles to rock. My chest spasms; a last, choked sob escapes, but I seize onto my faint sense of control. I push away from Reiko's body, but I can't bring myself to stand. I kneel beside him and stare at my fists clenched in my lap, concentrating on maintaining the copper-brown color of my skin. I can't look at the hunters around me; I know the silent, pitying sort of judgment I'll find on their faces. And I can't look at Mother and Father. They are feeling their own grief, and it is selfish of me to add shame to their heartache.
But I can't help feeling as if someone has ripped open my chest and rearranged the organs there. What will I do without Reiko?
Father's voice is hot with anger. Dread forms like a stone in my stomach, a heavy weight that makes following Father difficult. I'm used to the dull, constant ache of my weakness, but my whole body is throbbing after yesterday's loss of control. But it's the dread that makes following Father unbearable. He has been preparing Reiko's body. That he would call me into the shaman's spirit house when the ceremony has barely begun can only mean something is wrong.
"What is this?" Father asks, pulling back the unlaced leather of Reiko's right boot. He's laid out on his stomach. His back is a gaping wound, red and angry, the skin ripped away in long gouges. I can't pull my eyes from it. This isn't what Father brought me to see, but I can't focus on anything else. How can anyone see past the horror of Reiko's ruined body? The sight of the wound that killed him makes my balance waver and sick rises into my throat.
"This," Father says sharply, pointing to the side of Reiko's leg.
The lines are still stark there, even in death. Such was Reiko's control. My breath hitches again, but I fight back the sobs. I can't stop the feeling of shift in my body, and I know Father will see it, and the shaman will see it. Shame burns up my insides. I study the lines on Reiko's leg to steady myself.
Reiko was the embodiment of control. No one ever understood that the way I do. Even seeing the artistry of the lines sprawling across Reiko's skin, as finely drawn as any of the family adornments, it's clear that Father does not understand the control and practice that went into drawing them with his own pigment. Black at the center, spiraling outward in arcs and angles - deep, rich brown, and then lighter, until eventually the lines blend away into his skin. It says strength, control, focus, composure, stillness. The design of my name is at the center.
"Why is your brother's body marked this way?" Father asks. There is a hard edge to his voice.
"He was training me." My voice is small. "He was helping me learn control."
"The blind leading the blind." The bitter quality to the words is like a slap. The shaman makes a deep sound of assent in his throat. He sits in the corner of the room, still - so still I could almost forget he's there.
I reach out, hesitant; I run my fingers across the lines on Reiko's skin. Father slaps my hand away, and the breath leaves my lungs in a startled rush.
The shaman's voice has a deep, resonant timbre that rolls away into the trees, sealing his words about Reiko away into the life around us. My hand is still afire after Father's slap. It doesn't ache so much more than the rest of my body, physically, but it is hot with the anger that brought Father to touch me.
I can't remember the last time he touched me.
"Reiko was a stone," the shaman says. Nature opens hungry ears to hear it. I can't stand the judgment in his voice. I want to fall over Reiko's body again, to protect him from what they think of him, but I don't dare. "He never shifted his form. Given his weakness, his control was admirable. We must all respect the restraint it took him to hold so tightly, to keep from shifting constantly with the whim of every emotion."
No one looks at me, but I can feel all of their attention focus in my direction. My ears burn. My thin strand of control frays at the edges. I concentrate on the lines Reiko formed for me, drawn of his own precise control from the substance of his own body. It's hard to practice without being able to watch the change of color play across my skin, but it feels easier somehow. It helps to control the emotional pull on my shifting, focuses it on my leg instead of ranging uncontrolled across my body.
"Reiko was a great hunter. He was graced with skill uncommon to one without a spirit guide. With his keen aim, he brought much bounty to our family. His spirit will guide the aim of hunters for generations to come."
That's all he has to say about my brother.
Hunters push dirt over his body, and men turn from the burial, leaving Reiko's body to feed nature.
"Wess." Mother's voice has command to it.
There is silence, and then her footsteps moving away, Father's heavier ones with hers. She listened. They both did. Maybe it has to do with the way I'm holding one form. I don't know if it's the right one, but I can tell that I'm still. "I wish you were here to tell me if I look like myself." My voice doesn't carry. It is for Reiko's ears alone, only he can't hear me anymore.
"Do you want to see what you really look like?" Reiko asked. His hands didn't pause as he looked up at me. The stone in his hands was quickly assuming the shape of an arrowhead as he chipped away at it. He was so sure in his movements, so sure in everything.
"What do you mean?" I asked. I shifted constantly - I didn't know whether I even had a natural form.
"Sometimes when you're sleeping, you relax into a single form. It's always the same. It looks like this." His body shifted, like a ripple rolling across someone's reflection in the water. He settled into a form shorter than his normal stature, with longer hair and wider, lighter eyes. His jaw was softer and his cheekbones were less sharply defined, but he looked much the same as himself.
"I look like you," I said.
He smiled, and his form shifted back to normal. The sound of stone chipping away at stone filled the silence for a while.
"Why don't you shift for the others?" I asked. Reiko barely ever shifted for me, but I made no mistake. He was just as capable as any of the hunters, and yet he never shifted, even to reveal his spirit guide.
"You need something permanent," Reiko said. "How can they expect you to learn control when everyone's always changing all around you?" He set his work aside and looked up, meeting my eyes. "I know you can learn to control it, but you need something solid to focus on." He paused, and then a smile lit his face. "Here. I have something we can try. Take off your boot." He pulled loose the laces of his right boot and pulled it off, turning on the cot so that I could see the side of his leg.
A point of black bloomed on the skin of his leg, twisting outward three different ways from the central focus. In a matter of moments, the symbol for my name colored his skin, stark black against the tan of his leg.
If the others could have thought to try such a thing, it would have taken them hours. Reiko had control beyond what the best of their hunters could dream of, but they all judged him nearly as harshly as they judged me.
"I want you to try it," Reiko said. He held the design there as if it was nothing.
"You can't expect me to be able to do that." My voice was low, withdrawn. "That would take... so much control, I can't even imagine..." My skin shifted three shades darker, emphasizing my doubt.
"Just try it. Just try controlling this one thing. It's complicated, but it's small. Don't worry about the rest. Just this one thing." He tapped my leg where the design would go.
"I'll try," I said. There was doubt in my voice that day, and many days thereafter. But there were also small victories. I could never sustain the design, but when I concentrated on it, more often than not, the rest of my body stopped shifting for a time.
Reiko celebrated my small victories. And now he's gone, and no one will have that kind of faith in me again.
But it's worse to have him remembered as nearly as great a failure as I am. No one knew how powerful he really was, and it was my fault. Reiko may have been willing to make that sacrifice, but I'm not.
I squat down to yank my bootlaces loose. When I pull the leather away from my leg, I can see Reiko's design there, a perfect mimicry. Moisture blurs my vision, but despite the surge of emotion, the design does not waver. I lace the boot back up and straighten, looking down over Reiko's final resting place. He was the only constant thing in my life, but now I will have to make my own constancy. I hold the design he created for me in mind, and I can feel that it is still perfectly formed on my leg.
"I will wear this in memory of you."
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