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Shallow Graves

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Blood dripping down his walls was so not how Kikkou wanted to start the supposed adventure buying a new home was supposed to be. The huge semi-detached house was old, well-kept and gorgeous. And the price had been high enough to suggest nothing weird had been going on with it. He shook his head. The previous owner had been all laughter smiles and joy. He should had known that a person who wore so much gold all the time would be off, one way or another. But the damned place had been clean, came with all the furniture and, apparently, the neighbor (neighbours ?) liked to keep the garden all neat and pretty. What more could a man want ?

Not bleeding walls, apparently.

He’d be terrified if he hadn’t grown up in a brand new flat with slamming doors and shifting shadows. This, though, was new. And taking it to the next level. Backing off from the mess that had managed, somehow, to spell “Intruders will be dismembered” in dripping red, he turned on his heels and almost ran from the room. He’d find the lying ex-owner and force him to take the thing back. There’d be a line of potential buyers anyway, he was sure of it, the guy wouldn’t lose neither a note nor a day. Yes, that was a good idea. Pushing his glasses up, he flipped through his phone while keeping the innocent looking building within his line of sight. True, going all the way to the garden just to call did sound a bit excessive, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

Now if only the man would pick up…

- Yes ? – The voice sounded unfamiliar but Kikkou did hope it was just sound distortion and not a wrong number. Had the man changed numbers and disappeared from the face of the planet in the couple of days it had taken Kikkou to move his minimal belongings. Still, one had to have hope.

 - Munechika-san ?

 - Yes ? – Oh. So it had been distortion. Good. He prepared for a rant and almost choked. A few metres away, a man with a sloppy long ponytail was grinning at him from the other entrance’s pillar. The neighbor ? – Yes…?

 Damn, wrong time to get distracted.

 - I would like to revoke the contract for the house. Permanently. – Better to show he was firm from the very beginning. – I just want my money back and then we can both go our separate ways.

 A soft, rustling laugh was all the response he got. There were some other sounds, muffled voices, more distortion, all while the guy from across the low fence kept leaning on the pillar, long fringe swaying in the breeze, and smiling at him. Was his neighbour on drugs or something ? What was with the smiles ? The previous owner, that guy…Did they grow weed in the backyard ?

- Sorry. Usually, you would need to speak to Mikazuki about that…

- Who am I speaking with right now ? – Interrupting was rude but the man had picked the phone and claimed his name was Munechika. And his patience was wearing thin. The smiley neighbour looked at his own front door like he’d heard something, and then returned his attention back to Kikkou.

 - Sorry ? Well, Mikazuki says it’s all in the contract. – And then the jerk had the audacity to hang up on him. While his walls were bleeding. And the man with the long hair was walking towards him. Kikkou knew his mouth was hanging open at the rude dismissal he’d just become the victim of and later he would blame it for the fact that he didn’t run to his car and abandon it all when his soon-to-be-ex-neighbour leaned on the fence between them and kept smiling. What was with the guy ?

 - Welcome ! Do you need help moving in ? We can come and carry stuff, show you all the hidden nooks and crannies, since, you know, Mikazuki is Mikazuki, but it’s a great place. Tons of natural light, will do wonders if you have potted plants. I would be careful with the attic, of course, but otherwise it’s lovely. Oh, and what kind of cookies do you like ? – Yellow eyes. The man had yellow eyes and green hair. Not that Kikkou himself could judge anyone, but still. Odd combination. The few seconds of silence allowed him to digest what had just been said, the other man giving him time to think about it all while still keeping the warm expression.

 - The walls are bleeding. – He wasn’t sure why that was the first thing he said, but it was an extreme situation.

 - Oh, that ? The house is built on top of a cursed shrine. – A light shrug. – You’ll get used to it in no time, promise. Do you want someone to come and cleanse it ?

 - The house is built on top of what ? – The smile drooped a little around the edges. The man was acting way too casual about the whole thing. Too casual. – Doesn’t it bother you ? The bleeding walls ? The scratches ? The weird letters on the mirrors ?

 - They like Ishikirimaru. – The stranger shrugged a little. – I am guessing they’re trying to show dominance or something since you’re new. But seriously, those cookies ? Chocolate ? Macadamia ? Chocolate and macadamia ? Because I make a mean…

  Kikkou decided that was enough. The breezy was the other man had waved his problems away had grated through his nerves and he could feel an eyelid almost start to twitch.

 - Look, the owner, no, not him, someone else just hung up on me. Do you know any other way to contact him ? It’s a bit urgent. – The smile still on the man’s lips he tapped his cheek with a thoughtful expression and hummed.

 - That must’ve been Kogi. He’s usually nice, you probably caught him in a bad time. Hmm…I only have Mikazuki’s phone which, I am guessing, you already called. How about you come in, we can have some tea and you can tell us all about that piano I saw the workers carry in, okay ? Come on, Ishikirimaru just put the kettle on…

 And before he knew it, he’d been ushered through some hidden little gate in the fence and along a path of round white rocks. After a sharp turn under the low sweeping branches of a willow he realised he could no longer see his own yard. Which shouldn’t had been possible as he was sure the properties were mirror to each other and he definitely did not have the space for an actual forest. Or a whole neighbourhood of tilted little houses that had him pause and try not to gawk.

 - Um…Excuse me…

 - Nikkari.

 - Nikkari. But what is… Where is all this yard space coming from ? – The man blinked at him, little smile still on his lips.

 - It’s always been here ? – That’s what he got for asking it in such way.

 - I mean, aren’t our houses mirror images of one another ? – Nikkari turned and headed for one of the natural green tunnels under another willow tree. Kikkou was about to get murdered. He just knew it. He would end up in his new neighbours’ basement, in a freezer, possibly in pieces, and they would never find his body. Because they were definitely going far and he was sure the guy had slipped him something and this was all a drug haze messing with his brain.

 - As far as I know, yes. Here, just be careful with the yokai. He doesn’t bite but I wouldn’t step on him. Right, fuzzball ? – The grey mass of fur on the ground by a huge rosebush twitched a little.

 - Is it a cat or…a mutant raccoon ? – For the life of him, Kikkou couldn’t guess. The…animal let out a soft purr, twitched a little more, curled into itself even tighter and settled down.

 - Hm ? It’s a yokai ? We’re just looking after him while his owner is on vacation. Nue, this is… - It took Kikkou a moment to realise it had been a question. His brain was still stuck on the fact that this was supposed to be a yokai. Called Nue. It didn’t even look like the old pictures of a nue he’d seen as a child. Yes, the stranger had definitely slipped him something although the logistics seemed complicated. All he had to do was wait until it wore off, though. He’d play along for now, to buy time, but he’d get his money back for the house. He would. But right now…

 - Sadamune Kikkou.

 - Nice. Kikkou, can I call you that ? So, this is Nue and he’s a good boy. Aren’t you ? – And then the man leaned to scratch the…animal…somewhere. Honestly, Kikkou couldn’t really tell which side was its face or back or legs or anything. It was just a ball of oddly textured fur. It twitched again under the stranger’s fingers and shuffled a little. Only, it didn’t stop this time. He stepped back as fast as possible since the ball was unravelling…And it just kept unravelling until it was a long but still rounded shape of fur that seemed to follow the same direction. That was when Kikkou finally saw its front.

  Its face looked like it had a pale grey domino on, eyes milky blind and in the same solid colour everywhere, and a little nose. The rest of whatever it was was covered in long shifting hair in seemingly moving shades of dark grey. He had to admit it was kind of pretty even if the face was a bit disturbing, and it looked like it would be fluffy to the touch. What was more disturbing, though, was the lack of limbs, at least from what he could see.

 - Um…Where are its legs ? – Nikkari looked up from where he was kneeling and scratching it under what Kikkou guessed was its chin.

 - Oh, he doesn’t have legs. He moves just fine without them, though, don’t you, fuzzball ? – It chirped again. Where was the sound even coming from ? – Here, you want to hold him ?

  Kikkou very much didn’t want to hold…him but when Nikkari grabbed him by the wrist and pulled down, he was too surprised to fight it.

 - Hey, wait… - The creature blinked at him, and didn’t that look way too weird, and then…moved. With what he could best describe was a rapid float/crawl it reached his hand where his new neighbour was holding it and then went up his arm.

  He froze. Both figuratively and literally. It wasn’t cold, not really, but something in him felt chilled to the core. Also, he could feel it touching him but it was too light for something the size of a huge dog. No pointed touch, no feet or paws or claws, just a slither of kind. He couldn’t even breathe, all he could do was stay still while it crawled up his arm and looped around his shoulders, settling with a huff he felt on one ear. He still didn’t dare to move, though. Whatever that was, it was obviously born out of his feverish mind but for the moment that didn’t make him feel better. Or make the creature feel less real. He could see, from the corner of his eye, the grey shape of it on both sides of his shoulders. It was so big it went around his neck and shoulders and still didn’t fit. Although it should’ve hung and been uncomfortable, it didn’t show any signs of that. Just moved a little more and started purring.

 His neighbour, even the comedian, smiled brightly at him.

 - See ? He likes you. – Kikkou really didn’t want to know but he had to ask.

 - What would’ve happened if he didn’t ? – Nikkari stood up and waved to the path, turning his back on him.

 - Come on, this way. And, - He carded a hand through his long fringe, Kikkou guessed. – nothing. He’s easily spooked. Protective, but only in extreme situations. Otherwise, he’s a good boy. You can pet him, actually. He’s affectionate and he likes you.

Not like he had much choice, he though. Stepping carefully around more potted cacti, he reached up slowly and touched right where he guessed the yokai’s forehead would be, the place where light grey fur split, giving space to the darker. It really looked like it was wearing a carnival mask. One fingertip that he would deny was trembling pet right there.

Kikkou wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Smoke ? Thorns ? Sting ? It was…He dared to place his entire palm there. It was warm and soft and almost like it wasn’t completely there. He could feel the fur but the touch was almost not there. Still, it rubbed onto his neck and kept purring and that, along with how he still had all his fingers, told him it liked being pet. He could do that. Yes. He could keep petting the literal demon napping on his shoulders. Not like he had much choice.

 - See ? Told you he’s a sweetheart. Oh, here we are. Apologies in advance if the tigers try to climb on your head, it’s a work in progress.

  Tigers ? What…But his train of thought went sideways as he stood there, trying not to gape at what should had been, on theory, the back side of the house. Which should had, on theory, been the same as his. Only that was most definitely not even close to where he’d stacked all his big boxes.

 On the side where, technically, he should have seen his own house, was a thick natural wall of thorny plants climbing pretty high and all he could think was that he definitely hadn’t seen that from his side. The rest of the yard looked like an illustration from a book with fairytales. Tall trees, plants, bushes. A literal forest dripping with blooms. Little stone paths and fountains. Chirping birds. Where was he ?

Because when he’d walked in and out of his own house, and driven around the block a few times, there hadn’t been any forests anywhere close. What, the hell…

The creature, no, Nue, moved a little, shuffling and making tiny purring sounds until his frozen brain got the hint and he raised his hand to keep petting it. Maybe the touch would ground him and force the picture in front of him to make at least some sense. He could hope.

Nope. No such luck. The forest kept looking like it had been there for centuries, the crawling plants still looked like they waited for a misstep to bite a limb off and what he would swear was a tiny white fox darted right over his foot and disappeared in a jasmine tree that was touching the ground.

- I have a question. – Nikkari turned to him, sunshine smile still in place, and waved at him to continue. – What is this place ? Seriously, I don’t even care what you roofied me with. What is this ?

  The smile changed. Just a little but Kikkou saw it happen. It went sharper, a little sinister. Like the guy knew all the secrets of the world and Kikkou was entertaining him by asking about them.

 - Our backyard. I told you, we can have tea and cookies, and you can tell us about yourself. No drugs, promise.

 “Us” ? Who were “us” ? The man had mentioned another name, Kikkou knew it, but the illogical perceptions were messing with his head in a way that didn’t allow any deep thoughts.

 - Come in, it’s going to start getting cold soon. You wouldn’t want to be outside on your first evening, would you ?

  Evening ? He’d been at his front yard dialing the previous owner at noon. And it had been only fifteen minutes or so… What did the other man mean by…

 Kikkou took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. The question never left his lips. The soft wind had swept Nikkari’s long green fringe to the side, revealing his other eye. If the picture at their meeting had been a little odd but charming, now, with the heavy darkness numbing his senses one by one, the stranger with the flowing hair and one yellow and one red eye was more than intimidating. He was almost otherworldly and Kikkou had the irrational thought to pull Nue down from his shoulders and hug him. Because he had no idea where he was, what was going on or who, or even what, the other man was, but what he knew was that there was no escape. Nowhere to run or go. All he could do was obey.

 - You mentioned chocolate ? Is it white ? – The smile softened around the edges, just a little.

 - We have white chocolate. Welcome, and make yourself at home. We love guests.

 

Chapter Text

  The house was lighter than he’d expected. For some reason Kikkou thought he’s see a haunted house décor, with blood and broken glass and skeletons or something. But the hallway was full of light wood and when he walked in, slippers on his feet, the living room was even more welcoming.

  Low furniture, more light wood and modern surfaces. Open space. Air. Huge windows with breezy white curtains. Lots of glass cases full of colourful…things he couldn’t really see from that far. Nue rumbled on his shoulders and he buried a hand in his fur.

 - Here, take a seat and I will get you some lemonade. Oh, Hototogisu. Isn’t Ishikirimaru here ? – It took Kikkou a second to notice the other person in the room.

  The young man on the couch looked up from magazine in his lap and obviously tried to glare at them both. Kikkou placed him around their age, a little younger, maybe in his late teens. The white hair looked natural, though he wasn’t sure about the teen’s deep set eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. The black ripped jeans and the loose t-shirt, on the other hand, kind of fit the look. Or would, if it were fake and it was an effect he’d been going for. If not, Kikkou would offer a quiet dark room and at least 12 hours of no disturbances.

  Also, this was obviously not the man his new neighbour had mentioned earlier. Great. How many people lived across from him ? Not that he was staying, of course, with all the drugs and/or weird stuff that seemed to be going on around. But still. One had to wonder.

  The kid on the couch shrugged, sliding the glossy magazine on the cushion without breaking eye contact. He felt like he was daring them to mention it, though he had no idea why. Was the magazine some weird porn or something ? Not that he had any right to judge, not even teens, with what he’d started doing around that age.

  But Nikkari seemed to be waiting for an actual answer, creepy smile again on his lips, fringe covering half his face, and the teen tugged on the rips of his jeans a couple of times before curling his lip in distaste.

 - Emergency call. – It was even, quiet and spoken to the kitchen island and definitely not to them.

 - That’s fine, he can meet our new neighbour another time. – His host nodded, seemingly to himself, and then turned to Kikkou. – You mind if I borrow Nue ?

  If he hadn’t been looking at the teen on the couch, Kikkou would’ve missed the reaction. The boy startled, eyes jumping to them, and then almost curled into himself without actually moving a muscle. It would be impressive if it wasn’t so disturbing to observe.

  Leaning forward a little, because Nikkari was considerably on the shorter side, he allowed the yokai to do its sliding crawling move and slip in the other man’s arms. His back felt almost cold without it.

 - There… - Nikkari pet the creature and then turned to the boy on the couch. – You want to take him for a walk ? He’s been sleeping all day and he can use the exercise. Right, little one ? – The last was obviously directed to the yokai and it chirped in joy. Whatever they had given him was too strong, damn it.

  The boy murmured something but still got up. And while Kikkou had seen some odd in his life, the teen’s gait was just…wrong. He couldn’t put his finger on what, exactly, was missing but his entire posture was kind of stiff, a little lopsided and he almost limped with both legs in different ways. It actually smoothed out in the few steps it took him to get to them and take Nue silently, not meeting anyone’s eyes, but it was still visible now that he knew where to look. Accident ? Issue from birth ? He knew it wasn’t his place to ask or even guess but…

 - So, this is Kikkou, he’s our new neighbour. – Nikkari was still smiling though his one visible eye was serious again. – Kikkou, this is Hototogisu. He’s staying with us for a while.

  Kikkou nodded but the kid didn’t turn to look at him or acknowledge him in any other way. He just took Nue out and in a second they heard the front door.

 - So, lemonade ?

 

 - Now, I am sure you have questions. – The welcoming smile was still firm on Nikkari’s lips a few minutes later when they were both sitting around a carved dining table, suspiciously blue lemonade and cookies filling the space between them. Kikkou crossed his legs and leaned back.

  His host had fiddled with his own hair for a moment and now his ponytail was much higher and neater. The bad thing was that he couldn’t not look at the man’s different eyes. And they were creeping him out, especially that close. But said host had asked him something and he had to respond.

 - Why was your little brother trying to hide he was reading a historical magazine ? – Starting easily. Or, at least he thought he had.

  Nikkari’s smile twitched on his face, confusion there for a second and then gone, and then frowned lightly.

 - My little brother…? – He looked around like he was expecting to see someone else in the room. Wait. Was the teen his…friend’s nephew or something ? From the tone, he’d guessed a carer or a warden. Older brother. Definitely not a parent, and not only because the age didn’t match. Nikkari blinked a few more times before waving with a slight twist of his lips.

 - He’s not anyone’s little brother. We’re looking after Hototogisu for the time being. Hopefully, - The other man shrugged, ponytail slipping over one shoulder. – it will be permanent.

 - So, not related ? – Nikkari leaned back, seemingly looking for answers on the high ceiling.

 - Ishikirimaru offered to drive him home after he got discharged. Got into a fight and broke several fingers. – His host exhaled and Kikkou considered the option that he might have overstepped with the questions. – Kid couldn’t give an address. So he took him to the police. Hell, one of our closest friends is a lawyer of the highest level. And yet even he couldn’t find any records of him anywhere. No birth certificate, no hospital records. Taroutachi even ran his fingerprints for possible petty crimes or passports under a different name or, well, anything.

 - Nothing ? – Nikkari took a sip from his glass.

 - Nothing. He doesn’t exist. – Talk about a turn of the conversation. How was one supposed to react to that ? – So Ishikirimaru got him here, distracted him with Hakusan’s pet fox and we got some sugar in him. It’s been a week and he’s still around, so we’re hopeful.

  And the peak of Kikkou’s compassion recently had been feeding the stray cat behind his old building some leftovers. Ouch.

  - And he hasn’t said anything about the size of your backyard ? – And the smile was back. Kikkou pushed his glasses up his nose. He shouldn’t have said anything.

  - He disappeared there the first night before sunrise. I found him sleeping in the empty fountain when I got back the next day with a butterfly on his nose and Nue on top of him. We figured he’d fit in.

 - That’s the test, huh ? – Nikkari twirled his fringe around a finger.

 - Nue ? Yep. – He popped the “P” and grinned. – And you passed. – Propping his chin on his palm, the other man’s smirk twisted to one side. – Can’t exactly run away now.

  Kikkou pushed the chair back. As slowly as possible. Nikkari didn’t move, except to follow him with his eyes, grin still firm on his narrow face. Back, through the front door and stumbling down the corridor of cacti, ivy and heavy blooms. He had to get back home. He…Had to. Hand touching the slim red rope around his neck, he searched for comfort in the familiarity of the knots under his shirt. But this time, this time it didn’t work.

 - Hey… - Hands around his upper arms and he froze, looking up. And up.

 

   The stranger with the short hair and green peacoat looked down in concern.

 - Hello ?

  Kikkou stepped back, the stranger letting hands fall to his sides in surrender, and then sidestepped, running down the cobblestone path. And then.

 

  Daylight.

 

  What ? It was bright daylight. He wiped his glasses on his shirt, just in case. He was in his neighbour’s front yard, his shiny new house across the fence, and the noon sun was burning the fresh green leaves on the huge canopied trees.

  Kikkou looked down at his watch. Noon. It was high noon. The lorry was still on his lawn. Only minutes had passed. But it had been night time…

  He jumped over the low fence and headed back for his own front door. Even the ghosts looked better than the neighbours right now.

  The men from the moving company had left, doors locked and all, and it was just him with his thoughts. With a last glance to the other front yard, he opened the front door of his new home and stepped inside.

  Boxes, boxes everywhere. He sighed. Water first, to flush whatever was in his system out, and then he could take the sheet off the couch, crash on it and not rise for a week. Maybe the ghosts would get the hint and help with the unpacking. That was what good housemates did, after all. Why was it so dark ? After his neighbours’ dark garden, he needed some actual natural light. Not like…

  There were graffiti on his wall. He stopped, rubbed his eyes and then put his glasses back on. That, surprisingly, didn’t help. There were still writings he was sure hadn’t been there last time. Dark red, stylized like dripping blood, because of course they were, they spelled… He tilted his head to the other side. Squinted a little. Walked a few step to the right to look from a different direction.

 “Get out before they get you” ? He shook his head. They hadn’t even tried to make it threatening, to rhyme or be creepy. Just a slice of annoying vandalism. And those were silk wallpapers ! His wallet would start weeping soon, he just knew it. Call the police ? He wasn’t sure how much they could do but if they could find the kids who had broken in, maybe he could get some of his money back ? It was worth the try. After all…

  He froze, one foot in the air and a hand almost touching the wall.

  There was a body on the floor in his hallway. It was too dark to see details but there was an actual body just laying there. He…He had to get away from it. Right now. Right. Now.

  He registered crunching under his feet, tripped a few times, almost fell once. There was the sound of glass breaking, followed by voices he didn’t know.

 - Hey. – Kikkou stopped, finally seeing where he was. Which, apparently, was his own gate, one bare foot on the sidewalk, face way too close to a mop of white hair. – Yo.

  It was the teen from before, holding the biggest cat Kikkou had seen outside of photoshop. The things was massive and seemed content to be carried around. Unlike him, who really wasn’t content with anything.

 - There’s a dead body in my house. – The kid didn’t even blink at the statement.

 - You’re barefoot. – Okay, what ?

 - Didn’t you hear what…

 - Yeah. You’ll cut your feet. – He hoisted the cat up, obviously looking for a better grip and nodded towards the other house. – Ishikirimaru just got home. He can check you out. – He wrinkled his nose. – Blood. Gross.

 - A dead body. In my house. – The teen stared at him for a moment before sighing heavily and handing him the immense beast he was holding. – What are you doing…

 - Take him. I’ll call someone. – Good plan though he was seeing a few flaws.

 - They will need a statement.

 - Nah. You should really get him home, though. Before someone walks by and sees him. – It took Kikkou a second to realise the teen was talking about the cat. Only…He looked down to the thing squirming in his arms. It was most definitely not a cat.

 - Hey, Nue. Look, I can’t just leave the corpse there and go get roofied again. I think I just sweated the last of whatever that was, I’m not willing to risk it a second time.

   The teen sighed again.

 - There’s nobody dead in the house. Come on, move it. – Kikkou pushed his glasses up his nose and blinked at the kid. Seriously, what was his name ? He also realised his arms were free because Nue, in full…yokai visage was around his shoulders again.

 - I know what I saw. – He got a shrug for that.

 - People are still coming and about to see him. Told you, you’re getting all kinds of gross stuff on your feet. Move.

 

  And that was how he’d ended up back in their living room, with Nue back around his shoulders and an actual pile of baby snow tigers in his lap. Tea, biscuits and loaf cake, too. Nikkari, the teen who’d been reintroduced as Hototogisu, and a stranger who’d smiled at him and told him to call him Ishikirimaru. He was back at the very place he’d been running away from. At least Nue and the kittens were keeping him warm.