The Memory of Trees
by murinae


Disclaimer: Nope, I don't own Konjiki no Gash Bell, or it's newest incarnation "Zatch Bell!!" I don't know what'd I do with them even if I did own them, to be honest. Besides hang on for dear sanity.

Continuity: This doesn't have an exact place in the timeline, but it might make sense to place it after the England arc (episodes 18-22 in the Japanese Anime continuity) because of the mention of the acorns. No real spoilers are involved though.

Warnings: Kiyomaro curses a bit in the fic. Bad Kiyomaro! No biscuit for you!

Domo Arigato: Lots of luck and lollipops to Hatsunoutena and Imbrium, both of whom had to unenviable task of betaing this piece. Believe me, it wasn't easy nor was it fun, but these two helped me make it somewhat readable.


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The Memory of Trees
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Once upon a time before spellbooks, in a land which had been somewhat demon free, Takamine Kiyomaro had considered himself to be a pretty smart guy. He may have been a little lonely, yes. And perhaps spending all of his time ravenously reading books became a little tedious, now and then. But on the whole, if there was one thing in the world Kiyomaro thought he could count on, it was that if he needed to know it, if it was worth knowing, he could probably find it in a book.

It only took two days with Gash, however, to show him the error of that assumption.

Unfortunately, Kiyomaro was currently learning that a box of acorns, when kept in a shoebox under his bed, would inevitably spawn hordes of wriggling white wormy things. Given a choice, he would've quite happily gone on with life ignorant of this fact ... and he would have been especially grateful if he hadn't had to learn about it at three o'clock on a Saturday morning, when the squirming mass finally invaded his bed.

"AUUGH! WHAT THE HELL?! WHAT IN THE HELL IS THIS?"

"Kiyomaro?! What's wrong?" Gash rolled out of his futon as Kiyomaro thumped to the floor. Several other thuds and muttered curses followed, along with the sound of rustling cloth.

"Gash! Get the lights!"

A pattering of feet sounded as Gash complied. "Unuuu ...why are you taking your clothes off?! Are you going fishing?"

"No! I'm not going .... How in the ... what the ... ?!" Having stripped down to his boxers, Kiyomaro stared in goggle-eyed disbelief at the tiny, wriggling forms that crawled on his clothes. Dropping to his hands and knees, he tracked the squiggling line as it snaked under his bed.

Gash peered over Kiyomaro's shoulder. "Hey! That's the box for my collection!"

"Your collection?! You were collecting WORMS?!"

"No!"

"Then what WERE you collecting? Because whatever it was, it chewed a hole in the box and escaped!" Kiyomaro pointed emphatically at the small hole, which still leaked grubs and various woody bits. 

"But they were only acorns." Gash blinked. "Wow! Acorns can turn into BUGS?!"

"OF COURSE NOT! Just ... just get a trash bag from the kitchen! NOW!"

"Um ... Kiyomaro..." Gash circled him, trying to get a better look.

"KITCHEN! TRASHBAGS! NOW!" As Gash skittered off, Kiyomaro dumped the shoebox into the wastebasket near his desk. Hauling the bag out of the can, he stomped on it several times for good measure.

WORMS! THERE WERE WORMS! IN MY BED! Kiyomaro buried both hands in his hair.

"HEY! You squished my collection!" Gash protested as he returned with the trashbags.

"I'm gonna squish YOU if you don't clean this mess UP!" Kiyomaro forced himself to take a deep, slow breath. "Look. You get each and every one of those ... things ... into a trash bag. And double bag it. Wait ... triple, no quadruple bag it. Then put it outside with the burnable garbage."

"You want to burn them?!" Gash's mouth dropped open. "You can't ...."

"YES. Every. Last. One. Of. Them." Kiyomaro ground each word through his teeth. "If it squirms, if it wiggles, if it's disgusting, it's toast. And you better get all of those acorns up too!"

Stripping his bedsheets, Kiyomaro dragged them, along with his pajamas, to the laundry room. Luckily, his mother was a relatively heavy sleeper; she hadn't stirred even with all the yelling. The whooshing hum of the washing machine went unnoticed.

When he returned to his room, Gash was diligently picking up the various grubs and acorn bits and stuffing them into a trash bag. He glanced up at Kiyomaro when he entered. One look at Kiyomaro's face seemed to convince the little demon to return his task at double speed.

Yanking a new change of clothes out of the closet, Kiyomaro stalked to the bathroom.

At least the hot water felt somewhat soothing as he scrubbed, trying to rid himself of the eerie, crawling sensation. As if the battles weren't weird enough -- now this! Ugh. Will it ever slow down?! Please, if there is a higher power, please don't let us ever encounter a worm shooting demon. I'd take the "incinerate you to a crisp" sort of blast any day.

Stepping out of the shower, Kiyomaro sighed as he leaned his head against the steam fogged glass. He didn't have to look at his reflection to know that there would be dark circles under his eyes. Again. I'm just glad tomorrow's Saturday. Maybe I can catch a nap, later.

The days hadn't been kind, as of late. Wincing, he prodded at the newest cut on his forehead. A few more inches and . . .  he rubbed his face. Don't think about it. We survived and we'll survive the fighting yet to come.

Now if I can just survive the bits AFTERWARDS as well ....

He poked his head into his room. Gash, apparently, had finished his assigned chore; there wasn't a wriggly worm in sight. Instead, the little demon sat in the middle of his futon, clutching something close to his chest. Gash's head was bent forward. His hair hid his face and expression.

"Unnuu! Kiyomaro!" Gash hurriedly wiped a forearm across his eyes.  "The worms are all gone, I promise!"

Kiyomaro narrowed his eyes. "Then what do you have in your hands?!"

"Uuuh ..." Gash blinked, then ducked. "Don't be mad!"

"Gash ...."

"It's just one acorn! It fell out when you shook the box." Gash hunched protectively over the seed. "It was the smallest one! The worms didn't get it ... I looked very carefully!"

"But I told you to -- " Kiyomaro pinched the bridge of his nose.  "Ugh ... I ... it's ... you do know that acorns aren't supposed to be kept in collections, don't you?!"

"Of course I know that! I was just keeping them safe from the chipmunks, cause it's cold outside. I was gonna plant them in the spring. But the bugs got them instead." Gash stared at the lone acorn in his hand.

Keeping them safe from the chipmunks? Kiyomaro stared at the ceiling, counting to ten slowly. He reached twenty, before realizing it wasn't going to help.

"Tsukushi-dono from the greenhouse says that acorns can grow into big, big trees and can live for hundreds and hundreds of years! Thousands even! But they're so small when they start." Gash fidgeted, fingers tightening even more around his treasure. "I can't throw away the last one. It needs me to protect it, more than ever!"

The demon's eyes flicked up to the cut on Kiyomaro's forehead. "I tried to protect all of them. But I know I'm not very good at that either."

Kiyomaro could handle the foot-stamping, tear-shedding tantrums that Gash frequently threw. He could handle when Gash wailed and screamed. But this ....

The golden eyes filled again, threatening to overspill.

Kiyomaro cast about helplessly for some distraction. Finally, he just grabbed the acorn out of Gash's grasp.

"Kiyomaro! Don't!"

"I am NOT going hurt it. Just go put on some warm clothes."

"Kiyomaro!?"

Instead of answering, Kiyomaro headed toward his closet, pulling out a thick winter jacket as well as a pair of sweat pants. "I'm going to plant the damn thing before more worms come out."

"But it's still winter outside!"

"Acorns are strong. Even if they're small, they still manage to become big trees, right?" Kiyomaro zipped up his jacket. "Just hurry up, okay?"

Ten minutes later, they were both shivering in the night air. Kiyomaro tugged his collar higher against the wind. His breath and Gash's trailed in a misty white banner behind them. Except for their echoing steps, the streets remained silent and still in the predawn darkness. No dogs barked to mark their passing. Not a single stray alley cat appeared to hiss and rattle at the trash bins. Even Umagon had been too deeply asleep to notice their departure. It's like we're the only creatures alive out here.

Kiyomaro tucked his arms close to his body. "C'mon, let's get to the park and get it over with."

"No, not the park!" Gash shook his head.

"Why not the park?! It's the closest place!"

"Because Naomi-chan'll pick on him there, and he won't have enough friends. It has to be someplace special. Some place with lots and lots of other trees and enough light so he can grow really really big."

"What do you mean it has to be `special'? And he?! It's an ACORN! What do you mean by `he'?!"

"Well, that's because Donguri-dono's a HE, Kiyomaro!" Gash snickered.

"DONGURI-dono?!"

"That's his name," Gash informed him gravely.

"It has a NAME now?!" Kiyomaro blinked.

"Of course Donguri-dono has a name. It's Donguri-dono," Gash said. "Let's plant him by the lake. He'll like it there."

"The lake?" Stopping dead in his tracks, Kiyomaro gaped at the demon.  "But that's ... we'll be walking for forty five minutes! Just pick a spot with some dirt, dig a hole, and drop the acorn in. It doesn't care!"

"Unuu! He does care!"

"I am NOT going hiking at four o'clock in the morning!"

Gash stared at him. "But that's the best place... don't you want him to be happy?"
 
"But it's just a damn acorn!" And what about me and my happiness?! I'm the one freezing my ass off here. Thrusting his hands into his pockets, Kiyomaro craned his head back 'til the night sky filled his vision. The stars glittered sharp and clear; he could see all the familiar patterns, name each one by heart. He could cite their magnitudes, triangulate their distances, and pinpoint the galaxies in which they spun. He knew all of this from his books.

And it means SHIT knowing any of that now. I'm cold. I'm cranky. And I want to sleep in a worm-free bed!

"Please, Kiyomaro?"

Aw, crap. He rolled his eyes, throwing both hands up in surrender. Well, at least the stores will be open by the time we get back, so I can go buy some bug bombs. "Whatever. Just hurry up."

They hiked in rare silence. At several points in their journey, Kiyomaro had expected Gash to start babbling, but the little demon seemed content to glance occasionally at him, inexplicably smile, then turn away. By the time they had reached Gash's special spot, dawn was breaking over the edge of the horizon. Gash knelt down in the dirt, digging with both hands and looking for all the world like an overeager gopher.
 
"You don't have to dig all the way to America!" Kiyomaro huffed, thrusting the acorn towards Gash. "Here! Take it, drop it in, and let's GO!"

"But he's so small," Gash said. His fingers felt chilled as they brushed Kiyomaro's hands and gently took the acorn. "The very smallest one. And it's so cold."

"You don't have to tell me that. I can't feel my nose anymore," Kiyomaro muttered. "Look. You can't keep ...  him ... in my room forever. He needs space! He needs air! He doesn't need to sprout any more worms!"

"I know. I just wish ..." Gash rubbed at his eyes.

"Give it a chance to grow." Kiyomaro shrugged. "You've done a good job trying to protect it, okay? But it doesn't need that anymore. And small things can sometimes surprise you."

Gash stared long and hard into his cupped hands. His mouth tightened into a firm line. Without further protest, he placed the acorn into the hole, then bent down to murmur something to it.

Though he could see Gash's lips moving, Kiyomaro couldn't quite catch the whispered words. Giving the acorn one last pat, the little demon scooped the earth back into the hole.

"When we get home, can you make a mark on the calendar for me?" Gash asked as he wiped the last of the dirt off on his jacket. 

"Uh, why?"

"Cause I promised to come back in a hundred years. He'll be sooooo huge by then," Gash flung his arms out wide in emphasis. "So I gotta remember today; it's his birthday right? I hope he remembers me too."
 
Kiyomaro blinked. "Uh ...Gash? Trees don't think. They don't have birthdays, and they don't remember anything. So we don't have to come back." 'Cause there is NO way I'm gonna throw a birthday party for a friggin TREE!

"How do you know that?" Gash challenged. "Maybe they do remember! I'm not saying that we have to do it every year! He'll be shy at first, cause he's small. But in a hundred years, he'll be huge, and I don't want to miss his big birthday. I know I have to go home before then, but maybe ... maybe I'll be king, right?"

Gash voice grew hesitant. "Or maybe there will be a kind king on the throne. Maybe that'll mean we can come visit the human world whenever we want."

>From his kneeling position, Gash seemed absurdly small against the towering trunks.  "I mean, right now, I don't remember if we can come here whenever we want. But if there's a kind king, then maybe we won't have to wait a thousand years to come here, just to fight. So me or Tio or Canchome or someone good has got to win. 'Cause I wanna see Donguri-dono in a hundred years. And I wanna see you too, for lots longer than that."

"A hundred years ...?" Kiyomaro paused. How long do demons live? If the battles are spaced every thousand years ...

"Come on, Kiyomaro! We have to celebrate together. You'll be done with school by then, right?" Pushing himself to his feet, Gash balled both of his hands, his stance defiant. "So you CAN come, even if it's a weekday. Don't you want to ... you don't want to see me?"

Kiyomaro stared at the small mound of piled earth.  "No. It's not that."

It's not like I haven't thought of the possibility that I might ... It's hard not to, not when yet another powerful demon shows up, and we both nearly ... 

"Then w-what's ... wrong?" Gash's voice wavered. "Your face is all weird."

But I never thought of it like this. Not of mortality in terms of acorns under the ground, and how slow it must be for them, in the process to become trees.

I won't be able to see what this seed finally becomes. I won't be able to know how high it'll finally arch, how wide around it'll get, how deep the roots will dig and spread.  It won't be enough.

It sliced through him, sharp and quick -- like the sudden, jolting impact of a spell gone awry -- the thought of not knowing, of not being able to know or find out.

Even with all the trouble, even with all the mess, it won't be enough. I'm not gonna have enough time with him ...

"Kiyomaro ... Kiyomaro, I won't make so much trouble anymore. There'll be no more worms!"

"Gash, it's not that! A hundred years ... it's a long time. It's a very long time. Human's aren't like ... uh ... dem-- uh ... trees. We don't exactly live ..." Kiyomaro fumbled to a stop, watching as Gash's entire body tensed further, golden eyes growing wide.

He could almost pinpoint the exact moment when realization began to dawn, could see it in the sudden whiteness of Gash's knuckles and in the way the little demon had begun to grit his teeth, ever so slightly. So many people thought that Gash was thick or stupid. But it's not that. He's just so young.

"Humans ... aren't like trees?" Gash's voice didn't hold any real puzzlement, as far as Kiyomaro could tell. Instead, there was a sort of a willed ignorance to his tone. Like the verbal equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and chanting loudly.

Kiyomaro licked his lips, slightly surprised at how he could still sweat, even if in reality, the chill was probably enough to cause frostbite. "Um. What I mean is, in a hundred years, I'll probably be ... err... well de--"

"No." Gash stopped him mid-word, his hands slashing down as if to physically cutting off the possibility. "No! You'll be here."

"Gash --"

"You'll BE here!" Gash's voice lowered to a growl. He had turned around, hunching over as if he had been kicked in the stomach. "I'll protect you to the very end of the battles. I promised, right? I'll protect you better than ever, so you'll BE here."

"That's ... not the point. I know you'll always protect me. But humans just don't live --" Kiyomaro found he couldn't go on. He knelt instead, reaching out, but Gash pulled away. "I'm sorry."

He tried, one more time. "Gash ..."

Gash jerked out from under his grasp once more. When Kiyomaro tried to approach, the demon merely retreated further. The small shoulders shook slightly. Kiyomaro knew, if he looked, he would probably see a wet face, with closed eyes and teeth that were clenched tightly together.

He looked away instead, breathing in the sharp, winter scent of the wind and the more muted scent of loam. The woods were waking now, and a few birds had begun to chatter. The sun's still coming up, he thought, then wondered why it felt so odd to think that.

And it took until the sun had fully risen over the horizon before Gash turned to face him again. The demon's movements were slow and jerky, and his fist were still balled. The knuckles were still bone white.

"Are you ..." Kiyomaro began.

Gash stared up at him mutely.
 
Some genius I am. I can't even ...
"Gash ..."

"I'm cold," the little demon said as he wrapped his arms tight around his waist.

Sighing, Kiyomaro rummaged around in his pocket, and found his school handkerchief there.  Lately, he found himself carrying it at all times, even when he wasn't in school. He extended the small square towards Gash. When the little demon merely blinked, Kiyomaro grumbled and waved the cloth again. "Clean up. Then we'll see about getting home and getting warm."

"Kiyomaro ..."

"Truth is, I don't know. I don't know where I'll be in a hundred years. I don't know if I can be here. I don't know whether you can come back or whether or not there'll be a kind king." Kiyomaro shrugged. "So no promises."

Gash twisted the handkerchief roughly. "I ... you ... "

"But ..." Kiyomaro knelt down awkwardly, patting the little lump of raised earth. "I'll do my best for as long as I can.  And I will see you as king one day. So stop worrying. You're forgetting one important thing."

"W-what?"

"We still have time now, Gash. Okay? We still have time now, and afterwards ... we'll figure it out as it comes. "

Gash finally stopped mangling the handkerchief and used it to scrub at his face. After snuffling into it a few times, he stuffed the cloth down the front of his shirt. He then stuck a hand into his back pocket, rummaging furiously.

"Got it!" he said. To Kiyomaro's surprise, he withdrew a handkerchief and held it out. "Your face is kinda messy too."

Kiyomaro touched his face and found it wet. He felt his cheeks redden as he accepted the handkerchief. "So. Everything all right?"

"No," Gash said softly. One hand strayed to the front of his shirt, toying with the handkerchief there. "But for as long as we can .... "

"Yeah." Feeling the flush beginning to color his ears, Kiyomaro looked away and cleared his throat. "Hey -- what did you say to Donguri-dono?"

Gash shook his head. "It's a secret."

"Oh really?"

"Yeah. But he'll remember. He'll always remember. Even if we can't come back in a hundred years."

Kiyomaro turned toward the rising sun, then simply nodded. "Come on, let's go buy some bug bombs."

"Uh. Kiyomaro ... I kinda let the worms go in the garden. Don't be mad!"

"Gash!"

"Unuu!"

-owari

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End notes:

Nothing much to say or see here. Except ... that was a bit more angsty than it should've been. Um. Erm. I honestly don't know what happened and how the heck I went from acorns to angst. My brain must be wired funny.

Anyway, if you liked it, hated it, or just want to zakeru me for fun, go right ahead! Any reviews are highly appreciated. ;)

cheers,
muri


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