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As soon as Satoshi left, Kazunari started recollecting his few belongings, restlessness invading his mind, his pacing frantic. Once he had finished packing, he tried taking some rest, make himself ready to endure the next night in a better shape. Yet sleep eluded him completely. He was so full of anxiety, of corroding and nervous hope, that evening arrived before he’d been able to take even the shortest of naps.

He knocked on Ueda-san’s door before leaving his house. After paying for water and electricity bills, Kazunari bid her farewell with vague explanations for his sudden and obliged departure. He had an elderly relative waiting for him in Osaka, told her with a straight face.

He visited the grocery store across the street one last time, stocking his backpack with onigiri that would make a quick meal for the night. At last, when there was almost no trace of sunlight over the city, he headed to their rendezvous in Suginami ward, two hours on foot to the west. It was an area located in the perimeter of Tokyo, and Kazunari guessed Satoshi had chosen it as their first step to go find a quiet place where to settle in.

The Ōmiya Hachiman Shrine grounds were deserted at his arrival. The place filled him with an eerie and inert feeling, a wariness similar to what he felt during the first nights he spent in Minamata. The few decorative lanterns still lit provided almost no light, and although the scenery was peaceful, calm, there seemed some subtle tension hiding underneath, a threat waiting to be unveiled. He’d been around a bunch of scary incidents so far, enough to make him become easily freaked out, paranoid.

He made the customary omairi round to the temple, starting from the basin, where he rinsed his hands and mouth. He opted not to ring the bell at that ungodly hour, it wouldn’t be appreciated by the priests resting in the grounds, but he completed the Shinto practice by bowing and clapping twice. He wouldn’t commend to that or any other God, not actively, but he highly believed those rituals had a purpose, an effect on those performing them. Luck would be on his side this time, he repeated in his head.

Offering a donation in exchange, he wrote his most secret wish in an ema, a small wooden plaque that he hung among the prayers many other people had left before.

One hour later, the diligent staff who had been polishing the oratory building was nowhere to be seen. Kazunari was alone in the shrine grounds. He took a seat in the stone steps leading to main hall, as if he were a child who’d been promised a bunch of sweets after the wait.

Time passed by in dismay. Midnight was long gone. Kazunari resembled a wretched kid whose hope had started to wane, an eager boy wondering if he’d been abandoned.

At five o’clock a tear ran down his cheek. It slid along his jaw, hot and pungent, to drop over his static, freezing hands. He’d been crouching in the hard stone stairs for hours, as a statue, his form withering alongside the time left before daybreak. It was a sterile gesture, the muted crying did not change his rigid posture, not even his face. He was used to this. It was just another round of the hollow tears he’d already shed, knowing himself alone in the world.

Dreadful questions arose. Had he imagined it all? Had he finally lost it? It all had seemed way too real to make such assumption though. What if Satoshi hadn’t been able to make it to a safe place before transforming? Had he been hunt and- and…

But the worst of scenarios, the one Kazunari didn’t want to picture, was by far the most plausible. Satoshi had probably backpedaled, again. He had trusted his words the previous night, had wanted so badly to do so but… lost in his usual dilemma, Satoshi had probably chosen to dump him. Out of consideration, afraid to hurt him. Wasn’t Satoshi, right then, ripping him open? He wanted to scream, to find him and beat those stupid fears out, lavish him in furious fists. But Satoshi was not there to do so and he could only cry, howl in impotence, just as he did on Minamata the morning he thought Satoshi gone for good.

His one and only wish, the pleading that hung uselessly in the middle of the shrine domains, wouldn’t fulfill. Not then not ever.

Don’t leave me alone, it prayed pathetically.


*

The first light of dawn awoke him. The shrine grounds were still devoid of activity, and he was grateful for it. He didn’t want anyone asking why he’d slept there, didn’t need any display of compassion, even if he could use some kindness in his situation.

He refused to reflect on the reasons anymore. Satoshi was simply not coming back to him, he had to be at least assured of that or he would go nuts otherwise. With that irremediable fact in mind, what ought he do of his life from then on? He had told his landlady he was heading to Osaka, lying again to get the apartment back would be beyond bothersome. Besides, he had not shown up at work in all day, with no excuse whatsoever. All of that would seem rather expendable, as there were always countless of decent apartments and boring jobs around to pick from. But truth was, that even though his current life had been a failure, he had tried so hard, had invested all of his energy in creating the false shell he’d worn, that mask of functional man that had crumbled the moment Satoshi returned from the dead. Yet, on that new morning… prolonging such a farce would have been rather laughable. He was too spent to continue any longer. 

He stretched to pick up his knot bag, his muscles sore and joints rusty, and ready to leave, he raised his eyes to the horizon. What he saw got him feeling like immersed in a fairytale-like scene. The dim and crimson light, still matte and distorted over the landscape, bathed the wide patio and intricate buildings in the shrine. The wildness surrounding it shined in a myriad of oranges, auburns and warm yellows that made the place look otherworldly. Gentle breeze rocked the foliage, trees and shrubs spreading colorful petals of its spring flowers in the air. In the center of the pavement, its silhouette cutting proudly over the red cedars behind, a copper colored animal, magnificent as dreadful, standing still. Its blazing eyes were focused solely on him.

All exhaustion and melancholy gone, Kazunari stood up in anxious hope, his body about to break under the emotional strain of the last day. He took a few steps forwards, cautious and trying to appear serene. The Mujina didn’t even blink.

Was it safe? Was it waiting for him? Could it have come for him, this… this beast? Memories of its brutal jaws closing over his neck flowed free, and a terrible, visible, shudder ran down his spine. But what other motive could there be for the Mujina to be planted there, looking his way as if it knew him, as if confirming Kazunari’s hypothesis?

He was beyond caring at that point. Had already been there, and he wished not to revive the corroding terror the Mujina had once provoked on him, when he lay defenseless against its outbreak. But with the little wit he was capable of at the moment, he stated jokingly - worst that could happen is monks getting royally pissed off at the blotch of blood in sacred ground. He went ahead in stealthy movements, anticipation and intense fear tangling in his gut. He did not, could not, tear his eyes from the animal; but neither did it, and Kazunari took every breath waiting for the pounce, the awful end.

But when he finally met with the creature, it just turned around, delving into the woods. Kazunari was left in utter chagrin. Was that gesture meant to express rejection? Had it come to pay him a proper goodbye no more? The animal turned around again, keen eyes on him once more. Kazunari managed some hesitant steps ahead, and the Mujina continued forward too, its fierce eyes still on Kazunari.

Oh,” he produced eventually, “understood.”

As he hurried to catch up with the Mujina, his chest swelled impossibly. It filled of long denied air, all despair releasing from his taut chest, the ill-omened knot dissipating from his stomach. He couldn’t believe it, but he had come. Still amazed at the turn of events, and unable to utter a word or even spill tears of joy, he used the only way of communication available. Kazunari’s unsure fingers spread out in his need to show Satoshi some kind of gratitude, he dared lace them in the coarse fur of the Mujina, still intimidated, as if expecting to be burnt by the touch.

Nothing of the sort happened though, no reaction besides a grave sound resembling a purr.


*

They kept walking side by side, heading north towards Nerima, a ward scarcely populated and consisting of farmland where daikon radishes and other produce were grown. Around evening, they reached its border and left Tokyo behind.

After the first day of hiking, Kazunari was eager to behold how Satoshi turned into human. When the first ripples shook the Mujina, he decided to take some prudent distance. He observed the whole process, enraptured, lean skin and graceful limbs taking the place of the crude pile of hair. Minutes later Satoshi eyed him, and once assured there was consciousness in his gaze, Kazunari ventured towards him. He covered his quivering body with a plaid blanket, the same that had covered his own body in that cellar, when the house of his family was burning to ashes. He offered Satoshi some of his spare clothes too, and decided they should go find an inn to stay the night. But there was another pressing issue to take care of first.

“What happened?… I thought you weren’t coming. That you had-”

“Kazunari. Please. Stop it… I’m not leaving, you should know by now. Sorry to make you worry. I had to be sure.” Kazunari listened with interest, but there was a shadow of anger in his face. He was trying to maintain a serene approach for once, but… had Satoshi done this on purpose?

“Last summer, you told me I would always be within you after mating. It’s crazy, but maybe you were right… it was like that between members of our kin. My parents would be aware of the other’s whereabouts, could communicate with each other. I mean, even during day. I had to be certain about it, that the Mujina was no threat to you. That I-it could approach you safely.”

“Couldn’t you have warned me?!”

“Kazu. Don’t.” It was stern. He wasn’t going to tolerate any further misunderstandings, any more unnecessary fighting. Any more doubt. “It had to be proven before our journey started. You wouldn’t have left my side if we had met as humans yet something went wrong when I transformed, right? You stubborn fool.”

Satoshi was right. He would never have accepted to part ways with him no matter the danger, just as he had done when they lived in Minamata. He chose to duck his head down and stay silent for once, for which Satoshi was immensely grateful.


*

The room they rented had two futons. Lain on them, the paper lamp already devoid of flame to light the place, they both stared into the blank ceiling, only a solid wooden rafter garnishing it. It wasn’t long after that Kazunari left his bedding, still with some hint of hesitation, and came into the warmth of Satoshi’s quilt. He did still marvel at the blessing of having those arms embrace him again.

Both slept in peace, worries left aside for the first time in ages.


*

When Kazunari woke up next day, it was to the same old distress. There was no trace of Satoshi in the room. He panicked, harrowing scenarios making his brain hazy as so many times before.

He was dressed and out of the inn right away, and only after he entered the mountain track from where they emerged the day before did his heartbeat come into a healthier pace. He noticed the distant shape turning clearer with each fretfut step he took into the woods. Just as he had prayed for, Satoshi had been capable enough to wake up before due time, and had since been waiting for him in the outskirts of the road inn.

They went like this for days, renting humble rooms at night, having their meals in the villages they found along the road. Their pace was unrushed, the trip sort of a ludic walk. Satoshi always managed to stay at the left side. Trying to hide the damaged skin from him at all times, Kazunari assumed.

They didn’t have a defined destination on mind, but weren’t either walking without aim. They just went ahead, leaving towns and cities behind, the pressure of civilization gradually subsiding as days turned into weeks. They were somewhat heading north, they acknowledged, both agreeing to find the most desolate and unlit place within their land. They were forced to sleep out in the open once the inns became nowhere to be seen. In the first of those nights, they made a campfire and snuggled together in order to procure some more warmth, the cloaks they were carrying insufficient against the low temperatures on such latitude.

It was the first night they were truly alone, and faint caresses soon turned into vehement kisses and wandering hands, a fire that had been left untouched for too long flaring violently into life. A pleasant haze driving his movements, Kazunari’s fingers brushed in insolence over Satoshi’s crotch. He only managed to make Satoshi painfully tense, the constrained look Kazunari spotted in his face enough to ditch any further attempt on it. Aware of Kazunari’s confusion, Satoshi averted his eyes, but his discomfort was still palpable for the other, and thus Kazunari stopped in his intentions all together.

They were still lying together, but they shared no kisses, no touches, no words anymore. Satoshi wouldn’t look up to him either, but Kazunari decided to brush it off, he didn’t want to be the source of yet another fight between them. He was nonetheless concerned about the unexpected outcome his demands had generated. Last time they held each other Satoshi had been a pain, dragging his reticence to absurd lengths. Was it going to be like that forever?

It took some time, but eventually Kazunari’s alert, questioning eyes fluttered under the fatigue and he drifted away. Only then did Satoshi dare look at him. He hated to make Kazunari question their relationship, he was afraid of the things that might have cross the other’s doubtful mind after what just happened. He’d rejected him. Something he should avoid at all costs, for he knew belonging was the only thing Kazunari had ever asked for. But he just… that kind of intimacy had unbounded awful memories, making his whole being clamp involuntarily under the blunt touch, as if something horrible were to happen in exchange for the pleasure. A conditioned response he seemed unable to tame, at least for the moment.

He didn’t even need to name the other reason. The gift their night together had left imprinted in him. Satoshi wasn’t willing to undress and look, be looked upon, not in his current appearance. He felt damaged, like he should rather be hidden, scorned at or loathed, but never touched or desired at all. Satoshi traced his fingers along his own crippled neck. He couldn’t be worthy of Kazunari’s fondness, let alone his lust, not with the way in which that atrocious scar had ruined him.

He just hoped for them to be able to work it out despite it.


*

A last trip on boat took them nearer to their new home. They climbed into the shaky rowboat of an amicable fisherman on a chilly night, and landed on the opposite shore in the early hours of morning, hurrying to find the woods before the sun made its appearance between the frosty hills surrounding them. Having a tasteless soup around the campfire, they both mused about their concluding journey. None dared say it had actually been uneventful, too easy. As if voicing their astonishing record of time without incidents might break their spell of good luck.

They continued on their path, exploring inhospitable lands, never looking back. Never regretting what they were leaving behind.




*





Tokyo in the early 20’s.


The Ōmiya Hachiman Shrine, in Suginami special ward, Tokyo.


Epilogue

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801rabu

November 2016

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