He breathes. That’s the only true thing he knows – before he even starts to think consciously - he’s breathing, he’s spreading his wings out but he can’t seem to move, and the sky above him is the color of wood. He breathes, but it’s slow like the wind funnelling out of a cloud, and that’s when he realizes – sits up and feels pain erupting all over him, like glass grinding into every cell – he’s covered in flesh, not feathers. He isn’t the same.
“Human,” the man before him says, beaming. “Wonderful! This hijutsu – the Shinrabansho – is truly magnificent.”
Shiratama, he realizes upon later reflection, probably had it easier, because she never belonged to the sky in the first place. He imagines her innocently snooping around for some fish, when the man catches her and rips her ribcage open, snapping it shut only when he has placed a heart inside. And now she feels. As he feels. But they don’t know what to do with these feelings, they don’t know what to do –
He learns. He gets used to it. He still trembles on his feet sometimes, still walks into walls. The man says it is human to be clumsy. He teaches them speech, teaches them to use their tongues to speak as humans do, even if Shiratama still purrs half the time. The man teaches them writing, as well, and they fumble with the brushes in their hands, splashing too much ink on the pressed sheets of rice. And Bird – because he knows that what he is, that’s what the man calls him – Bird knows they’re learning to be human, and he isn’t sure he likes it.
Neither of them are saddened much when the man tries again – on a human corpse this time – and screams, dries up like the ditches in summer, falls to the floor. Bird thinks about the black lines painted on the man’s face, appearing all over his flesh; thinks about the giggles that hang in the air for seconds afterwards, the echo that rings, you got your wish, didn’t you? But nothing stirs inside of him, not even when Shiratama paws the man’s brown and withered face, beats it with her palm to check if he’s not only sleeping. “He – stopped – moving.” Bird’s words still have a tendency to melt into hooting; he has to halt after every effort. “Nothing – here. For us.”
Their hearts are young. They bury him as best they can, take all of his scrolls and secrets, and leave without regrets.
They survive for a long time without needing much. They thirst, they get hungry, but neither of the pains are fatal. When they come across danger they use the man’s scrolls and lessons, learning and recalling jutsu to save themselves. It isn’t enough. Bird soon realizes that he needs a name, a birthdate. A family, because he looks too young to be walking these streets – sometimes with his cat, sometimes with his sister. His robes are too big for him; he needs sandals on his tender feet. He needs an answer to the question, why is your hair so white? He needs an answer to where are you going?
He accepts the sticky rice from the lady with a powdered face and chews it thoughtfully. “I don’t know.”
“Where are your parents?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where are you from?”
The sky. “I don’t know.”
He knows nothing, at first, but he learns. Eventually he figures out the right things to say to fill in the gaps, and he constructs a new story each time. Or, when he doesn’t know enough, he does something with his lips that makes the people furrow their brows and stop asking. It’s a little bit later when he learns what this technique is called.
“Why do you smile so sadly?”
He looks at his feet, where Shiratama is staring intently at him, but keeps his lips stretched the same way.
“I don’t know.”
The first song he ever hears is the song of death. There’s a commotion in the city, the sound cutting through his sleep, where he’s lying behind some crates in the back of an inn. Shiratama is a girl that day – she uncurls from beside him and sits up, frowning. It’s been so hot, lately, they don’t know what to do with themselves except lie around panting. “This is new,” he mumbles. She nods. They make their way towards the large crowd, following the sound of ringing bells, the smell of incense.
“What’s going on?” He tugs on the sleeve of an old man who looks as though he’d rather not be there.
The old man looks at him with his face scrunched up, as if he can’t quite believe the question. “Yeah. Sickness. He was bedridden for days.”
He blinks. “Died?”
The old man sighs in frustration. “You don’t know what it means? He’s gone. He isn’t coming back. Ever.”
“But he’s right there,” Bird wants to say. Instead he answers, “Oh. Thank you.”
The old man mutters something under his breath and walks away. Bird looks at the crowd of people in front of him. There’s a man on a stretcher in the middle of them, his face covered by a sheet, and he is very, very still. For the first time Bird realizes that the sound of the people weeping makes up half the music. Their heads are bowed, and the their scuffling and sniffling reminds Bird of dried branches, of wounded creatures.
It is war time when he decides he doesn’t like this. He doesn’t like getting pierced all the way through in the stomach, and the attacker gawping when he pulls the sword out and returns the favour. He doesn’t like the fact that every home they come to is destroyed, no matter how charitable the owners are. Half the roof falls on Shiratama, until only her paw is sticking out in a pool of blood – it takes a long time before she crawls out of the rubble, one ear bent, still pink and furless in parts. His own leg is twisted more than he thinks it should be. He spends a long time bending it back while the city bursts into flames around them.
He doesn’t like watching people die. The woman who fed them and let them sleep in her house for twelve weeks is now just a muddle of limbs on the floor, slashed all the way through like fish after gutting; her two children are headless on either side of her. They had all been so kind to him, to Shiratama. Now he thinks it might have been better if they weren’t. He strokes the woman’s hair – the only part of her that remains recognizable – and he doesn’t want this anymore, there’s nothing good about it.
You got your wish, didn’t you?
This hijutsu – the Shinrabansho – is truly magnificent.
The answer is in that echo, in the words that appear like ink on a person’s skin. The knowledge that will set them free.
They run into some ninjas on their way out of the village. Shiratama’s ankle gets torn by a shuriken, and two kunais wedge themselves perfectly on either of Bird’s shoulders – he pulls them out, grimacing, and fires them back at whoever threw it, with practiced accuracy. Their attacker slams into the wall, yelping with pain. Shiratama dashes towards him and holds a knife to his throat – Bird doesn’t know where she got it from, and decides that it would be wise to stay armed himself.
“Tell us about the Shinrabansho,” she hisses, as Bird draws near.
“I don’t know any – aargh,” his face crumples up as Bird pushes one kunai deeper into his shoulder. Bird knows how it hurts. Now there is fear in the ninjas’ eyes. “You’re not human,” he mutters, teeth gleaming red with blood. “You’re both – not human – not -“
“Where is the Shinrabansho?” The roughness of her voice is natural; Shiratama doesn’t think it is important to pick up human affectations in her speech. Language is enough. But this ninja wouldn’t know that, and his eyes are getting whiter, growing wider -
“The owner just got murdered.” He says it in a way that reminds Bird of laughter. “Better luck next time.”
Shiratama retracts her arm. Bird pulls out both of the man’s kunai and tucks them into his belt. The ninja sags to the floor, blood pouring from both shoulders.
“He’ll die anyway,” he answers, when the cat glares at him.
One day he thinks that perhaps they haven’t been trying hard enough. Things have grown peaceful since the war ended – at least on the surface world, because the world of Nabari is always stirring, however quietly – but the deaths haven’t stopped at all. Bird gets old. Bird gets young. Bird grows big and small and sometimes he thinks why do I bother? and spreads his wings and flies. But they won’t find any information if neither of them are human, and it’s obvious that Shiratama would rather not be the one forced to communicate with people. He turns into his true form less and less often – he can’t control it the way she does, it isn’t easy for him – and he feels the heart the man put inside him growing softer and more tender by the day.
“Like something you cook,” Shiratama says, giggling. “Poor Bird. Wingless for so long, and now weak, like them.” She says the last words as if they taste bad.
“I’m not the one getting stroked and petted every day,” he answers.
“An adopted son? Really, Bird.” She scoffs at him and crouches, shrinking until she has turned into a cat.
“At least I’m not the house pet.”
Those are the roles they play now, as they slip from family to family, sometimes not under the same roof, but always in the same area. They continue with their charades, with their search, and the world changes – slowly at first, then so fast they can barely recognize it one decade from the other. Trains run almost as fast as speed spells. People put away swords in favour of guns, things that smoke and shoot, easier to learn and oftentimes more accurate than a throwing star. Where before they would sometimes sneak out to watch the latest play, see the latest road performance of song-and-dance, now they have moving picture screens, bigger than human life but in many ways false.
The only thing that remains constant is the dying, some of them more painful than others. Bombs drop from the sky. People jump off buildings. Trains crash, taxis crash, people turn sick, their teeth and hair fall out and the hospitals are always full of the stench of people dying. Bird turns twenty under one family’s name and very nearly moves on to university when his then-father is shot dead by gangsters. His then-mother cries and breaks things, cutting herself by accident. Bird hunts the gangsters down and kills them, swiftly, snapping their necks with his fingers. He never goes back to that home, and turns young again, wondering when it will all finally end.
He’s in that awkward age for the eighth time, all bony elbows and limbs and then-parents tutting about what to do with his hair when he realizes that he wants to understand flesh – this thing the Shinrabansho gave him, this thing that isn’t his. He wants to understand because yesterday the neighbor’s daughter leaned in too close and turned red in the face, and he keeps thinking about how hot her breath was, against his cheek like that. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, biting her lower lip in a way that made her look – somehow – a little more attractive. He can’t understand it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have – I was only –” She didn’t finish her sentence, just hurried away quickly, shooting a glance back at him before disappearing into her own yard.
“Shiratama. Can you turn into a girl for me?” There are distinctions now – people aren’t just humans anymore – and Bird is a boy, more of a boy than he has ever been. (He still thinks of himself as Bird, even if he’s gone through several names already: Kazuya. Kensuke. Akito. None of them fit.)
She complies, though not without a rough hiss, and she has barely had time to change completely before he touches her, gently, on the stomach, slides his hand up over her chest and threads it into her hair. She stares at him, completely impassive, even when he leans in and their noses knock together. He brushes his lips against hers, clear of whiskers now, and he tastes the fishy spit on her tongue, the cracked skin of his own mouth. He lets a significant amount of time pass before he pulls back. Her expression hasn’t changed at all, and he is fairly certain his hasn’t, either.
“Did you feel anything?” Heat, maybe? Tingling? Something hammering away inside the chest?
Her cheek twitches with irritation. “You are strange, Bird. Strange and too curious. I can’t believe you’re wondering about idiot human things. Isn’t observing enough?” She wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, not like a girl at all. “I’m starting to pity you.”
He ignores her. “I didn’t feel anything, either.” He stretches out, laces his hands behind his head and decides that these experiments are stupid. In his mind he sees the neighbor’s daughter, her face inches from his, and he hears her whisper I’m sorry. “You can change back into a cat now.”
Shiratama does, without any further comment.
Bird arrives at Banten as a toddler. It’s not something he planned, really – he carelessly turned into his own form and couldn’t control it, and Shiratama was forced to drag him towards the city, alternating haphazardly between human and cat, since he could barely walk. He could remember, of course – the memories would never go away – but whenever he’s a very young child, the comprehension of what he is and what he has to do is limited by the facility of a child’s brain.
Someone pulls him into an orphanage immediately – a child sleeping with a cat behind some trash cans, how terrible! – and just a few months later, he is adopted by the Aizawas, who take an immediately liking to this thoughtful child with hair the color of snow. (“Trauma, most likely,” the orphanage director tells them solemnly.)
The years pass quietly by, peaceful and bright and peppered with things like school and trading cards and bright red lunch boxes. The wars, the endless deaths, those first few days snatched out of the sky – are decades, centuries behind them. His parents call him Kouichi, and for the first time since he has been given an artificial name, he finds himself thinking, I am Kouichi Aizawa, sometimes more certainly than I am Bird and I will never die. His parents would prefer it if he didn’t play with stray cats, so he and Shiratama meet in secret – sometimes in the playground, sometimes on the way home from school. Sometimes near the Rokujo household, where she lives now. Where they both know the answer lies.
Shiratama can’t try taking it on her own, and he’s still too young to do anything about it. Waiting is the problem. Something happens – he isn’t sure what – and the urgency of finding the Shinrabansho disappears, before either of them can take proper note of it. It’s gone into hiding, again. It isn’t immediately present. The power of it still lurks somewhere, but he doesn’t really want to think about it, not when middle school is so fun and he’s re-learning things like math and coloring and he’s gotten very good at talking, walking, and living like a human.
“Not to mention feeling like a human,” Shiratama snorts. She doesn’t even have to turn into a girl anymore for him to understand what she wants to say. “Please, Bird, we can’t screw this up any more.”
My name is Kouichi Aizawa, he thinks, thankful that she can't read his mind.
He runs a hand along her spine, idly, and doesn’t answer.
“Bird,” she growls. He looks down at her, and sees himself reflected in her eyes, huge and sharp with feline fury. “I don’t want to continue like this anymore. Or are you starting to forget what it is we want?”
He thinks about the homework he has due tomorrow (about insect-eating plants, for Botany). He thinks about the curry his mother promised to make for dinner, and the way she had smiled so warmly when he told her he wanted it with potatoes. The Aizawas – his parents – are old. He does not really want to think about them dying – them, and his Botany teacher, and the rest of Banten, wrinkling up and shrivelling and being consumed by disease while he and Shiratama are blown about by the wind, by the careless giggles of the Shinrabansho, drifting in and out of his dreams.
“I’m not forgetting. I’m just...” He pinches the bridge of his nose, sighing deeply. There’s a smell in the air, of things soon to change, and he knows that once he enters Junior High he’ll have to start searching for their cure again. This is the first time I have had all the answers, he wants to say. All the answers except one.
Shiratama has turned still as a rock beneath his fingers, waiting for his reply. He pats her on the head, right between the ears, and she reluctantly lets out a purr. “I’m just enjoying the peace while it lasts. It won’t be for long.”
The Shinrabansho turns up sooner than expected. Kouichi has trouble working difficult jutsu he hasn’t done in a while, although the rush of battle helps his senses sharpen, and the increasing amount of victims reminds him why time is precious, why they still have so much to lose. Why he can’t get attached to this life, no matter how sweet the idea seems. They don’t know about him yet – not him, or Shiratama, or the fact that they’ve hunted the Shinrabansho for so long and have no plans of letting it slip away from them again – but he finds their company to his advantage just the same. The World of Nabari swallows up the surface world, and for the first time Bird – Kouichi – is not alone.
It’s silly, how they fit together like this. Miharu, so skinny and frail, so skilled at using his talents, at flashing that deceptive smile. Thobari-sensei who is the most irresponsible kind of adult, who flinches away from public transport and who takes no pleasure in ninja activities at all (whatever he says, and Kouichi has lived too long not to notice how being part of this world pains the teacher). Raimei, who stamps her foot and is never careful enough with her ribs, and who sometimes makes him feel tingly, even if she claims he isn’t her type. (He thinks about it, once or twice. How soft her hair might feel tangled up in his fingers. How warm her breath might be against his cheek. How he will feel something if she comes that close; he knows it.)
He’s going to lose them, one after the other, and the idea of it makes his eyes burn sometimes, makes him laugh while remembering the first time they ever heard the song of death. How long has it been, since they first learned of it? Now they’ve become experts on the topic, stirred with a strange feeling of longing whenever another heart stops, another breath extinguishes. Sometimes it’s awful, and ugly, but most of the time it’s silent and peaceful and beautiful.
“It’s because they’re kind,” he murmurs one day, watching Shiratama gnaw through a fish. “They’re so kind and they just have no idea.”
“Humans are greedy and selfish,” Shiratama retorts. “That’s why we’re existing like this.”
“Maybe, but they’re also kind.” He rests his chin on his knees. “You’ve observed them for so long, you have to agree with me.”
She says nothing.
“Are you lonely, Shiratama?”
She licks her paws. “Loneliness is a human thing.”
Kouichi laughs. It sounds forced and artificial, like the first time he tried it. Like these bodies they have been given, and the breath in his lungs, never entirely gone. “Yeah. You’re right.”
He wipes his glasses on his shirt and looks up at the sky, and wonders when it stopped being home.