The walking was endless, and unbearable. The scenery never changed, the surroundings the same runny mixture of colors in a sunless, starless sky. Was there day? Was there night?
The boy wouldn’t know. He’d forgotten everything except tiny snatches, ghosts dancing in the shadows of his mind that he could never quite hold onto. The only things he was conscious of now were the aches in his body and the cold wind his kimono couldn’t quite keep out. Yet he kept going, knowing nothing except that there was some destination that he had to reach, somewhere he had to get to no matter what.
But for now, there was an inn. It was time for a well-deserved rest.
He wandered past the other wanderers, people of many shapes and sizes, colors and ages. Some would greet him, some ignored him, some would just push right past him – they had some place to be, just like he did. He didn’t really care, as he was too focused on his own destination: a hot bath.
(The first time the boy had taken a rest in one of the springs, he’d given himself a thorough once-over, in an attempt to remember who he was, and why he was here. He knew it was no use – he felt he wasn’t supposed to remember – but his curiosity drove him to all the same.
His lack of memories was, however, balanced out by quite the collection of scars. A lattice of white lines up and down his arms and legs, on the backs of his hands, a few on his eyebrows, and the hollows of his cheeks. They meant nothing to him now.
The scars on his throat, however, were another story.
He couldn’t see them, but he could feel them, by brushing them with his hands. They were massive, each one almost the size of his finger, though he supposed his fingers weren’t terribly large; and they spoke of wounds so great he wasn’t certain how he could have survived them.
… Had he survived them?
And that was when the flood came.
Thousands of images spun behind his eyes, drowning him with emotions – pain, suffering, guilt that crushed him completely – and faces he couldn’t recognize but desperately, desperately wanted to. Hands were grabbing at him, hurting him, begging him for something – but for what? What did they want? What had he done to them? What had he –
– and the next thing the boy knew, a hand was shaking his shoulder – a kindly old woman worried for the child hugging his knees and crying apologies to the empty air. She took his hand, and led him out the door, and he resumed his travels, memories fading as he walked.
He decided not to think about his scars anymore.)
The inn seemed to be real, this time. The boy had encountered some in the past that were suspect - where the innkeeper’s aura was dark and cold, and their eyes glowed with peculiar menace. Other travelers had circled the inn over and over, around and around, but couldn’t find an entrance, and collapsed.
And when they collapsed, they changed into monsters.
Maybe collapse was inevitable, but the boy didn’t want to be a monster just yet.
(But, as he entered the inn, old and run-down as it was, a voice in the back of his mind whispered, Who’s to say you aren’t one already?
The boy elected to ignore it.)
Instead, he undressed and entered the spring with his eyes closed, a towel balanced precariously on his forehead. For once on his seemingly endless journey, he could relax.
“Yes, relax, of course, of course, must feel nice… but for how long??”
It was as if the water had run cold in an instant.
The boy’s eyes shot open wide to see a stringy-haired figure sitting across from him, a paper mask obscuring her features – save for a smile that set his hair on end.
He recognized her, suddenly, from an earlier inn; a misshapen creature had been clawing at the Temari guards, attempting to break through onto the wanderer’s path, when a woman drenched in gore had extended a hand and pulled it kicking and screaming back into the darkness.
(The creature had piercing green eyes. He wasn’t sure why he remembered that.)
Now, that same woman stood before him, kimono stained crimson, shoulders shaking in low, hoarse laughter.
“You can’t run from your sins, boy. Remember that? Remember it? You can’t, you can’t, haha, haha…”
The boy’s shaking mirrored hers, though hardly from mirth. The woman drew closer, and closer, and though he couldn’t see her eyes behind the mask, he could feel the power of her gaze.
“Why don’t you give up now? Don’t you know you belong with me? You deserve it. You deserve every teeny-tiny ounce of pain I’ll give you, hee hee.”
Her face was mere inches from his now, and his instincts were screaming at him to run, to get away – but he was frozen where he sat. He felt cold fingers clamp around his wrists, and force them up, up - was she trying to make him strangle himself?
No. Making him touch the scars on his neck.
Memories came in flashes. Images – people – parents sobbing, sirens sounding, the screaming of monkeys, the smell of burnt flesh, the sound of glass shattering on the table, a syringe in his hand, thrusting into his –
- and suddenly, the fear began to fade away.
Trying to keep the images in his mind was like trying to catch the wind between his fingers, but nevertheless, he knew. She was right. He wasn’t the kind of person who deserved a journey, or a destination.
He didn’t deserve anything at all.
“Come on, boy. Come on. Come on. Come. Come…”
The woman extended a bony, ashen hand in front of his downturned face, beckoning him with a finger. Her frigid aura and rotten, foul breath was making him dizzy, jumbling his mind. And in that instant, he decided. This was his fate. Slowly, he stretched out his hand to meet hers, her giggling a distant wave of sound in his ears, and -
“My, my, what do we have here?”
A man’s voice snapped the boy back to reality, and he backed away from the woman in panic, hitting his head on the hard stone wall. The woman whirled around, water droplets flying, and hissed like a reptile.
“Do not interfere, worm!”
“If I’m intruding upon some sort of… illicit love affair, then I’ll take my leave. But considering the expression on his face, I believe that assumption would be mistaken.” He gave a thin smile. “And it’s terribly rude to call people names, you know.”
“But don’t you want to join us, too? Hasn’t the journey been loooooong? The blood on your hands will catch up with you eventually…”
“Well, if it’s going to catch up with me, then I really should be going now.” He turned to the boy, eyes suddenly serious. “Care to join me?”
The pull to go with the bloody woman was stronger than ever before – he wanted to hurt, to be punished for these sins he couldn’t remember, and he somehow sensed that she’d know exactly what he deserved.
Yet… somehow, the pull wasn’t strong enough, this time. He didn’t know why, but he felt like that was a first.
So he nodded at the man, rose from the hot springs, and made his way to the door. The woman made no more complaints or attempts to bring him back to her. She, too, knew he had made his choice.
The boy didn’t look back, but even if he had, she had long since faded away.
“Ah, that was certainly a fright, wasn’t it?”
The man sighed and sat down cross-legged, his back leaning against the outer wall of the inn, where the pair had paused for a breather after the hot spring incident. He took off his round hat (all the travelers wore them, though the boy had no idea why) and spun it idly on his finger, short green hair spilling out onto his forehead as he did.
The boy said nothing, staring at his feet. He could still feel his hands shaking.
“I’m just glad I arrived when I did, I suppose.”
The man’s eyes were on him, now, he could feel them. The boy looked up, meeting that gaze warily, though he wasn’t sure what he was wary of, exactly. He was getting the sense that a defining part of the identity he’d lost was a general lack of trust.
But he should be grateful, shouldn’t he?
The man smiled, and dipped his head in acknowledgement. “It is no trouble at all.”
Yes it was. You could have gotten hurt, too…
But before the boy could say so, the man had already continued.
“Pardon me for inquiring, but have we met before? I’ve encountered many people on this terribly long road, but somehow I seem to recall your face in particular.”
The boy frowned. “No, I don’t think so…”
Yet there was something about the weariness in the man’s eyes, and the smile that carried a hint of mischief, that struck him as incredibly familiar.
“Oh, well. We’ve met each other now, have we not?”
The boy thought that was the end of it. He had stood up on trembling legs, taken a few deep breaths, adjusted his small round hat, and had set off once more on this unknown journey alone.
But that man had decided to follow him instead, and since the man’s legs were much longer than his own, the boy couldn’t outpace him.
The man kept attempting to make friendly conversation, looking mildly disappointed when the boy said little, or nothing at all, or turned away his head as if not to see him.
Eventually, the man gave up, and took to whistling as he walked, or idly patting his hands on his thighs like a child drumming on a school desk.
This continued for a while. Silently. Uncomfortably.
Then, suddenly, the boy heard the man come to a stop.
(He should have been relieved that he was being left alone, but oddly he felt the need to look back.)
The boy stopped as well, and turned on his heel to face the man, who had stopped to look up at the dark, inky sky.
“Does it feel to you like the sky shouldn’t look this way?”
Somehow, the boy was inclined to agree. So he nodded.
“So I’m not losing my mind, then. That’s somewhat reassuring.”
The man smiled lightly, squinting up at the black expanse, then continued walking with a contemplative expression. (The boy didn’t know why he followed, but he did.)
And just as suddenly as he’d stopped before, the man spoke up again.
“I can’t quite put my finger on why, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re no longer in the world of the living.” The man rested his chin on his hands, deep in thought. “Something to do with the way our kimono are tied…”
The land… of the living…?
Fragmented images flashed behind the boy’s eyes.
Yes, there was… there was something before this, wasn’t there...
The man shrugged. “Though I suppose it’s just a theory…”
“I think you’re right.”
The boy unconsciously placed his hand on his throat.
“You sound so certain! It’s nice to see a youth with such confidence.” The man watched him with amusement, though not mockery. “What makes you say so?”
The boy moved his fingers to reveal his neck, exposing the ugly puncture marks that marred his skin. “These.”
(He’d... made those himself, hadn’t he?)
The man’s eyes widened in shock. “My, those look awful! And on someone as young as yourself…” He tut-tutted, shaking his head, then gave a sad sort of smile. “Though I suppose I hardly look any better!”
He jostled the fabric of his kimono to reveal a scar on his chest – a single, sharp wound across his heart.
The boy’s head started buzzing again at the sight of it, but only for a moment.
“Yes, these certainly don’t look like survivable wounds… One can’t help but wonder how we got them.”
“...I did something wrong.”
He half-expected the man to contradict him, but considering they both had near-complete amnesia, he guessed that didn’t really make sense. Instead, the man just stood there. Watching him. Waiting.
“I don’t know what, I can’t remember it, it makes me sick trying to remember it, but… I did something wrong. A lot of things.”
The boy looked up at him, confessing a sin he couldn’t even recall.
“And I can’t ever take them back.”
The man met his eyes, and for once, the weariness in them seemed to outweigh the mischief.
“Ah. You too, then.”
He put a careful hand on the boy’s shoulder as if to comfort him, and the boy felt a little bit like crying. But he didn’t.
The man continued.
“Someone I met with a while back – running the most delightful stamp rally, I must say – informed me of a rumor he’s heard from travelers passing through. It’s said that not all people in this world are allowed to travel as we do – some are handed to that woman as soon as they arrive.”
The woman from the hot spring…?
“Therefore, though we’re far from free of sin, mayhap there is some reason we’ve been permitted the pleasure of this long trek into nowhere.”
The man gave a wan smile.
“We’ll almost certainly fail, but methinks ‘tis worth a try, no?”
The boy cast him a doubtful look; but despite his dark words, he seemed sincere.
The man clapped his hands and smiled pleasantly. “Ah, wonderful. Let us go then, friend.”
“We can’t be friends. We don’t know each other.”
“Ahaha, well, we don’t really know ourselves, do we?”
The boy had nothing to say to that.
“Hmm…” The man twiddled his thumbs, deep in thought. “Perhaps we could make up new names to help us pass the time.”
“…They’d just be fake.”
“I suppose you’re right… Oh! I’ve a much better idea!” He leaned over, almost conspiratorially, to the boy, as if relating a secret. “I’ve forgotten most everything about my past, yet I seem to remember a song. Someone very important must have taught it to me…” The man’s forehead crinkled in contemplation, but gave up with a sigh. “Ah, well. No matter. Would you like to hear it?”
The boy didn’t think he liked music much back when he was alive. Yet, there was a warmth in the strangely carefree smile the man wore that stirred something inside him – he wasn’t sure what.
So he found himself saying, “Sure. That’s fine.”
The man began singing in an off-key but very enthusiastic manner, in a language the boy recognized but didn’t understand, ignoring the occasional odd look given by a fellow traveler. And as the inn shrunk behind them, the boy walked at his side, and tried in vain to repeat the lyrics the man gave him, and had a very strange thought.
Maybe, with this “friend,” this journey into the unknown might not be so bad.