Hey guys. I'm back. I LIVE! And I am happy to announce the beginning of Part Two of this story! After thinking about it, I decided to just keep updating this story rather than creating an entirely new 'sequel'-type one, because I thought that might confuse some people.
I haven't had much time for my fanfiction lately, due to the fact that I've been working on a farm since school let out at the end of May. This means I go to bed really early, get up really early, and spend the time in between smelling like a combination of earth, sweat, and berry juice. However, berry season has just ended, so my siblings and I have a bit of a break before we have to get around to hoeing the fields for the fall crops, and I'm hoping to get a couple of chapters written before then. Actually, threatening to make me hoe the fields if I don't write would be a really good way to get me to be more literarily productive. :)
I should note that as Part Two begins, we have left Sotoba and returned to human society. With society comes culture, and here I have a confession to make: while I have been a consumer of their media since I was very young, I have never actually been to Japan. Practical research will hopefully help me pull off a believable Japanese setting; however, it is nevertheless possible that my American-ness may cause me to accidentally Americanize certain details which ought to be Japan-ified, if you know what I mean. I hope you'll bear with me despite these imperfections, and if you know of any relevant information which might be useful for me to learn about Japan, please leave it in the comments/reviews section! I will be very appreciative, and if I have any questions I will reply. :)
Begin part two!
The waking was slow. He was warm and comfortable, curled up in an enclosed space that folded over him. He wanted to stay asleep, but something intangible was brushing against his forehead. Cracking his eyes open, Tohru squinted up at a small opening at the top of his enclosure. Air was coming in through it, surrounding him with unfamiliar scents. The okiagari began to breathe regularly, testing out each one. For the first time in an eternity, the smell of ash was not among them.
Tohru reached out a tentative hand and pushed back the lid of the trunk he was ensconced in. He saw a ceiling above him, and the top of a window. Very carefully, he raised his head and peeked over the rim of the trunk. He was in a building, inside a room which had a futon and a dresser and not much else. The door to the room was slightly open, but all he could see outside was a white, blank wall. From somewhere nearby, he heard the sound of running water.
Paranoid about being left alone, Tohru lifted his photo board out of the trunk and struggled to climb out after it. His limbs were cramped and stiff, and his legs were stuck in an awkward diagonal position at the bottom of the trunk. Tohru grunted and pushed down on the edges of the trunk to give himself more leverage. He had managed to work himself halfway out when his squirming caused the trunk to topple over, and the okiagari's face met gracelessly with a woven tatami mat.
Grumbling sleepily to himself, he craned his neck to look up when the door opened. Natsuno was standing on the other side, wearing dark blue sweatpants, a towel around his shoulders, and a raised eyebrow. "Ah. You're finally awake. You sure took your time about it." The jinrou crossed the room soundlessly and knelt down, helping to maneuver the other boy out of the trunk. Tohru stretched his legs out and winced at the numbness pervading them. "Natsuno….we're here?"
"That's right." The jinrou nodded. "This is our new apartment. We're in Kokubu, about 60 miles away from Sotoba. We should be safe here."
"How did you…." Tohru trailed off, his eyes darting to Natsuno's wet hair and towel. "Hold on-! We have a shower here, don't we?!"
"Of course," the jinrou confirmed, only to lean back in surprise as Tohru shot to his feet, staggering slightly in his excitement.
"I'll be right back!" The okiagari raced out of the room in a flash, following the fresh scent of shampoo to a small, economical bathroom down the hall. His clothes were off just as quickly, and he didn't even bother to adjust the temperature before closing the door and stepping underneath the sudden deluge from the showerhead. The water felt amazing. He hadn't had a shower in so long, since before Yamaiiri had fallen. Tohru practically purred as he kneaded shampoo into his golden curls and ran a soapy washcloth over his body. Even though he had washed himself with rainwater, the pervasive ash in the air around the cabin had re-settled onto his skin, giving it a gritty, dusty feeling. Now the okiagari watched as the coat of ash flowed off of him in soapy rivulets, collecting at the bottom of the shower and draining steadily away. He bit his lip, his glee diminished by a dark voice in his mind that reminded him that even with this, he was still unclean. He closed his eyes and turned the dial up higher.
Tohru emerged from the bathroom dripping wet, a towel around his waist. He wondered shyly what he was supposed to wear. Getting back into his old clothes would just make him dirty again. Natsuno was sitting on a sofa in what he assumed was the living room, reading a pamphlet intently. Tohru hesitated, and the jinrou pointed toward the bedroom without looking. "New clothes. Dresser." The okiagari nodded and crept into the bedroom, his wide eyes taking in the details of his new environment. The apartment wasn't fancy, but it seemed to have everything they needed. A kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a closet, a bedroom, even (Tohru deduced from a quick glance out the window,) a small balcony for hanging out the laundry. He wondered what floor they were on. Closing the door behind him, Tohru ventured over to the dresser and began rummaging inside its drawers. Natsuno seemed to have made a trip to the store at some point; the drawers were freshly stocked with new pants, shirts, socks, underwear, even hats and sunglasses. Tohru puzzled for a moment over which clothes were Natsuno's, then decided they could figure it out later and selected underwear, a tan pair of pants, and a gray t-shirt. He slipped them on quickly and padded back into the living room, settling on the sofa beside Natsuno and eyeing the pamphlet he was reading. It was titled, 'Welcome to Hinode Apartments.'
"So this place is really ours now?" He murmured, nudging the jinrou's shoulder softly.
Natunso broke his eyes away from the paper and nodded. "It is. It took me a while to find it. I had to go through two cities. It'll do for us, I think. I looked at some other apartments in the more middle-class districts, but it's more difficult to rent over there. They wanted a security deposit, three references, and valid identification documents for all occupants. Downtown they really don't care who you are or what you do, as long as you pay the rent every month and don't damage the premises. I made sure to select an apartment at the end of the hall, so we won't have neighbors on either side."
Tohru peered around again, thinking that he had never been inside an apartment before. In Sotoba everyone lived in homes, whether large or small. There were no apartment complexes at all. A new thought struck him, and he frowned in confusion. "But even with less oversight, how did you get permission to rent here? They still asked to see your identification, right? Even if you took it from your house before you left, you're still only fifteen."
"Actually, I'm sixteen now. Technically. The night we went down into Sotoba, I came across a lunar calendar in someone's home and realized it was my sixteenth birthday. Although I don't know if birthdays count anymore now that I'm no longer aging. But my official age is now eighteen, so I'm considered an adult in the eyes of the law and allowed to live on my own."
"But how could you possibly-" Tohru questioned, sputtering to a halt as the jinrou pulled something from his pocket and handed it to him. It was an official resident identification card, with Natsuno's picture, name, and other information on the front. His birthdate had been moved back two years. "How on earth did you get a fake ID?!"
"It's not fake. It's real. Only the birthdate is faked. I know some people over in the Kirishima District." Natsuno said casually, taking back the ID. "Although I first used it to look for an apartment in Mizobe. I didn't want one in Kokubu, even though it's further out, because….well, because I used to live here."
"You lived here? In this city?" Tohru asked, glancing curiously toward the window. Natsuno grunted vaguely and looked away. The okiagari could see that he did not want to talk about it, but he also felt he was owed an explanation after being left alone for four days. "What….what happened?"
Natsuno sighed in apparent resignation and tossed the pamphlet off the sofa. Silence overtook the apartment, and Tohru wondered if he had touched a sore spot. Finally, the other boy shifted his shoulders and looked toward the blonde. "I was born in Kumamoto, but we moved to Kokubu when I was six years old. I lived here until I was fourteen, in a one-story house on the other side of the city." Natsuno pointed vaguely toward the west. "I did things that pretty much every kid does. I went to school. I took exams. Cram school occasionally. I joined some club sports that my parents forced me into. I never really liked being around people. Growing up, I didn't have many friends. But when I did form connections, I preferred to do it with kids who also didn't like people. I guess you could say, "bad kids." They knew how to do things like shoplift and fight and-" Natsuno twirled the ID in his fingers, "get fake IDs so they could buy alcohol. I was only minimally interested in their stunts, but I tagged along because I was bored."
Tohru gaped innocently at the jinrou. "Natsuno, you were a yankee!"
"I was nothing of the sort!" the other boy snorted sarcastically. "I didn't carry a big stick, at any rate. And I was a good student. One of the best. My school thought about selecting me to be class representative, but in the end they passed me over because I hung out with the wrong crowd, and my people skills….left something to be desired." Natsuno smirked in a self-deprecating way. "So that was one bullet dodged. But my choice of peer group worried my parents. They wanted me to be friends with the right kids. The ones with the best-educated, most progressive parents. That was the ideal they had in their minds. And when I couldn't satisfy it…." Natsuno's eyes narrowed. "They decided to cut me off from my social group by moving away from the city. Somewhere pastoral and idyllic, somewhere they'd romanticized in their minds as a place without violence, without crime. Sotoba."
"Aaah. So that's why…." Tohru thought back to his first impressions of Natsuno; the moody only child who never wanted to have anything to do with anyone. Back then, he had wondered what had happened to make him that way, but even after he'd gotten to know him, Natsuno had never been forthcoming about his past.
The jinrou tossed his head and frowned. "So I reconnected with some of those people near my former neighborhood. One of them has a brother who works for the municipal government, and he's more interested in money than in keeping proper records. That's how they sell the government IDs. I got mine as quickly as possible and ducked out before they could ask too many questions. Then I traveled to Mizobe and began looking for apartments. But at that point…." Natsuno leaned further into the sofa and sighed. "Unfortunately, I encountered someone else from my past. This time, from Sotoba. And….I came at a bad time. I was forced to leave Mizobe to avoid drawing attention to myself. I traveled further north and stopped here. Even though I don't really like the idea of living in my former hometown, Kokubu is large enough to give us relative anonymity. And it's only temporary. Just until we figure out….a sustainable long-term situation."
Tohru remembered the sleeve-length tears in Natsuno's blazer when he had returned to the cabin, as though someone had tried to seize him by both arms. Softly, he ventured, "But….if someone from Sotoba knows you're alive….then….are we safe?"
"I believe so," the jinrou murmured. "He only knows about me, not you. There's no way he could prove to any kind of authority that I am what I am, not when I have a regular heartbeat and respiration. He's smart enough to know that. And aside from that….he owes me a favor."
Tohru tilted his head quizzically. "Who was-"
"Anyway," Natsuno interrupted, returning his attention to the pamphlet he had thrown on the floor, "This is our new living area now. And I need you to help me hang blackout curtains over the windows."
"Huh?" the okiagari asked as Natsuno stood up and strode over to a cardboard box in the corner. From it, the jinrou lifted several pieces of thick, black fabric.
"Nailing boards over the windows would look suspicious, so I bought these at an antique store. They were essential during the Second World War, when the United States was bombing our cities. They're meant to keep light from getting out, but they'll also prevent it from getting in. You're going to have to be especially careful during the hours of sunrise and sunset."
Tohru nodded shakily, standing up to help the jinrou spread the fabric. "We won't be….I mean, we won't be going outside among humans, right? I don't….I don't think I could handle that."
"No, I won't be taking you outside for a while. You're not safe to be around. In the meantime, we're going to focus on teaching you to control the hunger that compels you to attack people."
"Control it?" Tohru missed the loop he was currently threading through the window frame. "Is that- is it possible? How-?"
"I don't know how exactly, but I know it must be possible. The Kirishikis did it," Natsuno pointed out, threading the loop for him. "That blonde woman came down into the village several times and walked around, spoke with people, played human. She wasn't overcome by thirst. She didn't lunge at anyone or bite them; their scheme would have been ruined right away if she had. They must have figured out a way to control it. Maybe it's a special method, or maybe it's just time and experience. Since they're not around for us to ask, we'll just have to try different methods and see if anything helps you."
Tohru nodded, lowering his reddened eyes to the floor. "I feel like a sick person. Or an addict."
"There's nothing wrong with the hunger itself," Natsuno surprised him by saying as they moved on to the next window. "Hunger is completely natural. It's the body's way of telling you it needs more energy. But no matter how hungry you are or what you're hungry for, you have to follow acceptable strategies for getting your food. Buying food at a store or accepting an invitation to dinner is fine; breaking in and helping yourself to someone else's sustenance is not. It's the same for okiagari."
Tohru sighed and paused in his task, feeling tiny shivers run the length of his spine. He remembered the unbearable visions in the cabin, and wondered if those ghosts had already followed him here. "I know," he whispered, wrapping his arms around himself. "It's just….the hunger is so bad. I lived for eighteen years as a human without ever feeling as starved as I did the first night I rose up as an okiagari."
Natsuno put a hand on his back and steered him toward the last window. He said nothing in reply, which worried the blonde boy. They mounted and threaded the last curtain, and Tohru trailed behind Natsuno into the kitchen, where the jinrou appeared to be making a list of food. The kitchen had a kotatsu table, a small refrigerator, a gas dai, a sink, several cupboards, and a bit of counter space. Natsuno looked up from his list and caught his eye. "Do you want anything in particular to drink? Okiagari can still tolerate liquids, right?"
"I'd like green tea," Tohru murmured, biting his lip and staring about the kitchen. It dawned on him that he would miss the process of cooking, preparing food with his family. The preparation, the half-hearted complaints. Searching the kitchen for the measuring cups after Tamotsu had put them away in the wrong drawer. Sneaking a taste and then being chased out by his mother. Setting the table with whatever they could find, and then the full feeling of finally sitting down to eat with his family. Tohru felt a rawness open inside his chest, like a black hole crushed by its own gravity. He breathed deeply and willed himself not to cry while Natsuno finished his list.
The okiagari looked up to see the other boy indicating toward the opposite side of the table. Tohru folded himself down onto the cushion and shivered, staring at the patterned grain of the wood. "Do you think…." he breathed timidly, "Do you think I could really learn to control it….so I wouldn't have to hurt people anymore? Do you think I could be safe for people to be near….to talk to? I want….my family….I…."
"Whether or not you can learn to master your predatory instincts, we'll have to see." Natsuno replied bluntly, tucking the list into a notebook. "As for your family, now that we're no longer in Sotoba, we have access to public records and other information that will let us know whether they survived. I can begin to search, but even if I find them right away, you may not be able to go near them immediately. Aside from that, there may be other….complications. That goes for my family as well." Natsuno stared at the wall, a calculating look in his eye. Tohru knew that 'complications' referred to the question of whether their families would even want them back. He shivered again, feeling the warmth of his memories fade.
Natsuno turned his analytical gaze onto him. "As for now, these are the rules. Our top priorities include keeping our undead nature a secret and making sure no humans are endangered because of it. To that end, you will have to stay inside this apartment until you show improvement in your ability to exercise restraint. I will stay with you at night. I'm strong enough to prevent you from attacking if anyone comes to the door, or god forbid, breaks into the apartment. During the day when you're asleep, I can run errands and gather information about Sotoba. If I ever need to leave at night, we'll just….we'll have to….I don't know, we'll figure it out later." Natsuno shook his head and stood up, striding back to the living room as Tohru followed behind. He turned and gave the okiagari a stern stare. "Understand?"
"I understand," Tohru murmured, curling up on the sofa and peeking over at the shrouded window. "May I look out the window? I've never really been in a city before…."
Natsuno huffed in dry amusement. "It's your apartment too. You don't have to ask permission to move around inside it. The only thing I insist upon is that you never leave it without me. The only exception would be if a fire were to occur, or an earthquake, or any other kind of emergency." The jinrou's voice faded as he wandered into the bedroom, and Tohru heard him gathering items from inside the trunk. "Go ahead, look out the window."
Tohru could hear a soft, undulating hum even before he pushed aside the pitch-black curtain. The first impression to meet his eyes was that of beads of light splayed out in every direction. The city below him looked like a tangled pearl necklace strewn atop a jewelry box. The moving headlights and tail lights of cars were held in place by boundaries of streetlights, and beyond those, there were all kinds of colored illuminations- neon and fluorescent, moving and stationary, porch lights and lanterns and the glow of late-nighters in the apartment complex across from them. From his vantage point, which seemed to be several floors up, Tohru gaped down upon the city as it moved by in an incomprehensible blur, seeming far too intricate to be a real place. He didn't realize Natsuno was standing beside him until he heard the jinrou chuckle softly. "I wish I had a camera so I could take a picture of your face."
"It's just so….wow." Tohru murmured, his eyes tracing the streets and failing to find any sort of order in them. "The lights are beautiful, but it looks really complicated. What if you get lost while you're out….?"
The jinrou shook his head. "I won't get lost. I know it looks like a mess, but there's a system to it. You just have to learn the system for finding your way, which I've already done, and you'll be fine. For you, that will come later." Natsuno turned and ambled back into the bedroom. Tohru took several more moments to stare at the city, busy even at this late hour. The speed and sprawl of it both amazed and terrified him, and he felt glad he would not be expected to navigate those streets without Natsuno's help. He slipped the curtain over the window and wandered into the bedroom after the jinrou. He was surprised to see him pulling back the covers and performing an ungainly faceplant onto the futon.
"You're going to sleep? It's still several hours till dawn."
The tousled-haired boy yawned, showing off a large set of fangs. "For you, maybe. For me, I spent last night closing the sale on this apartment. Then I got on a bus, another bus, and a small car, and walked the rest of the way back to the cabin. Then I carried a very heavy trunk out of the forest, walked to Mizobe, and took two more buses back to the apartment. And after all that," Natsuno shuddered, pulling the blankets over his face, "I had to go clothes shopping. Which I hate. So no matter what time it is now, it's time for me to go to bed."
Tohru smiled at his dour companion's grousing. He tip-toed quietly to the door and turned out the light. "Okay. Is there anything you want me to do until morning comes?"
"Mmmmmffff. Wake me up if anything goes wrong with the mounting on the blackout curtains. And look through this." The jinrou reached across the floor and tossed a rolled-up newspaper full of advertisements. "I'm thinking of buying a cheap TV so we can watch news reports about Sotoba. I know several networks are providing ongoing coverage of the story."
"All right." Tohru padded toward the door, turning back to glance softly at the dark-haired lump in the futon. "Goodnight, Natsuno."
In spite of the steady hum of activity from outside, the apartment complex was quiet. Tohru sat on the sofa, listening to the faint sounds of a radio from several floors below. He wondered what the hallways looked like, what color the building was, what the other tenants were like. He wondered about this strange new place he had come to. For a long moment, he was immersed by a flood of homesickness. The okiagari shook his head and forcefully reminded himself that the Sotoba he missed no longer existed. Even if he went back, it would still be gone. The only way forward was to start over in this new city with Natsuno, to try to be something other than a monster. Maybe the jinrou could show him how. He seemed to be pretty good at it.
Tohru whiled away the night comparing prices on televisions listed in the advertisements section. When dawn began to break, the blackout curtains did their job, blocking all the light from the interior of the apartment. Even so, Tohru could feel the rising sun as it coincided with the setting of his consciousness. He wobbled off the sofa and trudged into the bedroom, staring down at the tousled lump under the covers. Sleeping was the only state in which Natsuno looked his age, his face open and untroubled. Whenever he was awake he seemed like an early-sprung adult, although Tohru supposed he ought to be thankful for this personality trait. It had gotten them this far. In the end, Natsuno had gotten out of Sotoba after all….he had made it back to his big city. But now Tohru was too tired to keep his eyes focused on his former friend. Undefeatable exhaustion pushed the okiagari onto the futon, and as he passed into slumber, Tohru prayed fervently that even though they were not human, this new home would see fit to give them its protection against the dangers lurking outside.