When the words in his textbook begin to run together, Noboru pushes himself away from his desk and stands, rubbing the soreness out of his eyes. Studying is the only way to ensure he has the ideal life, and so he pushes himself to the limit no matter what each and every night, determined to keep his GPA up and prove wrong everyone who ever looked down on him for his quiet and timid nature. He has limits, just the same, so he stretches his arms over his head and makes his way to the small kitchen of his apartment.
There will be bags under his eyes in the morning, and he can already imagine the disapproving noise Miho will make when she realizes just how tired he looks. The two of them had become fast friends after their attempt at a relationship, an embarrassing few months at the end of which they both realized they were gay and disinterested in each other beyond friendship. Noboru still loves Miho though, the sister he never had and the best friend who keeps his feet firmly on the ground even though he rarely if ever takes the best advice she gives him.
Like sleeping instead of staying up until three in the morning to study.
He makes himself a cup of tea and wanders over to the sliding glass door that leads out to his balcony, the door opening soundlessly as he pads out onto the worn wood. The autumn evening is chilly but in just the right way, making the warmth of his tea that much more soothing. Noboru leans against the railing, staring up at the moon hanging fat and silver in the sky. Late nights might destroy him in the long run but at least he has a view like this.
There are precious few things Noboru holds dear in his life given that he has so little to begin with, no family to speak of and few friends. His personality is seen as a detriment to many and while he never has the heart to argue the point, he wishes more people would give him a chance because he has a heart bigger than most would ever assume possible and when he cares about someone, he always goes all out for them.
Miho teases him sometimes about how he ought to acclimate himself to club life, that plenty of men would be interested in someone like him, but Noboru doubts it. He can hardly keep friends around for more than a few weeks at a time, sometimes not even then with Miho being the rare exception. There is nothing exceptional or interesting about him, rather most people find him boring, too quiet and a killjoy at parties because Noboru never wants to take risks with strange drinks or anything that might result in injury. The last party he’d been to on campus was at the start of the year where he spent most of his time hovering on the edge of every group of people, not quite sure what he was supposed to do with himself. If any man showed interest in him, that man would sooner exit Noboru’s life the moment he realized just how ordinary he is.
Noboru sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose, shaking his head at himself. Getting down on himself in the middle of the night is a bad habit he has yet to shake, and Miho would be disappointed with him for letting his mind wander like this. Maybe he should finish his tea and go to bed after all before he ruins his entire night by going over everything he hates about himself.
Just when he’s sure he has the rest of his night figured out, a soft thump from below him catches his attention, his heart climbing up into his throat at the sound. Idiot, he thinks, you have neighbors and you know more than one of them uses the back lawn. The space of grass is ringed by a tall wooden fence and everyone in the apartment has access to the space, though Noboru has nothing to use it for himself. One of his neighbors might be deciding to spend the night outside since he knows at least one of them works third shift at a local store.
His heartbeat rings in his ears, though, so Noboru balls his hands up into fists and shakes his head. No. You’re going to look down there to prove nothing is there.
Resolved, Noboru leans over the railing and promptly has to clap a hand over his mouth. His eyes must be tricking him, exhausted from reading, his brain short circuiting from fear and fatigue, creating fantastic images in front of his eyes.
Two tigers creep slowly across the grass below him, neither of them paying him any mind.
Tigers. Tigers. Noboru reels away from the balcony and back into his apartment, a confused little sound slipping through his lips as he struggles to process this. There was no mistaking the quiet grace of the large orange cats, their fur broken up by the ink black stripes. Of course, this is impossible. Tigers are hardly native to Japan and if two tigers had escaped from any zoos in the area, there would have been an alert because while not inherently dangerous, a tiger is more than large enough to kill a human being. Two can easily do twice the damage.
Noboru scrubs his hands over his face with a frustrated groan. “You’re seeing things now,” he tells himself. “You need to go right to bed if you’re going to be doing this.”
His mind keeps replaying the small stretch of seconds, the beautiful cats making their way across the grass, shadows tucked up underneath them from the moon beaming down so directly on the yard. Noboru can’t seem to shake the image, imprinted on the backs of his eyelids even when he squeezes his eyes shut. Maybe I should just go see to prove it to myself, he thinks. Worst case scenario, this is just a dream and I wake up at my desk.
It would have seemed stupid to anyone else, probably, but Noboru has common sense on his side and just to prove a point, he checks his cell phone and the local news for any news of escaped tigers. The nearest zoo is kilometers away, and there was no way they could have crept this far without being noticed especially so far out of their native environment. And it would hardly be the first time Noboru has dreamed of tigers.
Miho would have had a field day if he ever told her about it, the sheer amount of times the beautiful cats had crossed his dreams especially on late nights when he should have been to sleep hours ago. Noboru knows little about dreams beyond the fact he can lucid dream, just a little, enough to know when he sees tigers he is well and truly out of it.
Noboru slips on his shoes and heads downstairs, trying to be as quiet as possible, aided by the cheap carpeting that muffles most sounds. Just a peek outside to assuage his concerns and the upstairs and to bed. Tigers can’t be loose in Japan, so he has nothing to worry about.
Sure enough, the lawn is empty when Noboru steps outside, closing the door quietly behind him before walking out into the grass. Tigers are large, heavy creatures but he doesn’t notice any immediate signs of passage in the grass, nothing pressed down into the shapes of even vague footprints. The lawn here is as it always is and Noboru sighs, dragging a hand down his face. Right, now upstairs and to bed before he starts hallucinating anything worse.
A low, deep growl from behind him makes the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
No, he thinks. No, no, no. Still, he cranes his neck just enough to see over his shoulder to see a familiar shape outlined against the wall of the building, tucked away into the corner of the lawn where the short trees planted here cast shadows.
The tigers are behind him. One of them has advanced, teeth bared, golden eyes glinting in the moonlight. Noboru swallows so hard his throat clicks.
“Oh,” he whispers, jumping when the tiger growls again. His knees weaken and then go out from under him, sending him crumpling down to the grass. “Oh, oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, I didn’t… But you’re not here. You can’t be real. Tigers can’t be at my apartment. ”
Instead of dissolving into shadows and nothingness, the tiger takes another step forward and bares his impressive teeth. Noboru feels the color drain out of his face, his entire body screaming at him to run anywhere as long as he can get away from here. The tiger is closer to the door than he is, so making a dash for the door is not going to save him, but he can’t imagine anywhere else he can flee for cover from such a powerful beast.
His eyes stray to the other tiger, pressed into the shadows, low to the ground. Even in the faint darkness, the moonlight ripples through the leaves, revealing a matted crimson stain in the tiger’s soft fur. Oh. Noboru opens his mouth, and no sound comes out.
He tries again, throwing his hands up when the first tiger takes another step forward. “Don’t! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I… Is your friend hurt? He looks like he’s bleeding.”
Noboru may have truly, utterly lost it by this point— Maybe this is a dream after all, because the first tiger pauses as if he can understand what Noboru is saying. His head swivels around toward the other tiger, who watches them with careful eyes. There is no mistaking the uneven way he breathes, the wound on his hind leg far too visible to Noboru’s eyes. It reminds him one one of the many documentaries he’s watched on poaching in various African countries and even throughout Asia, hunters determined to take down the largest and most beautiful of the wild cats to claim them as trophies. The thought makes him feel ill.
“You’re hurt,” he says, addressing the second tiger, and really, who talks to tigers? But this is just a dream. Because the second tiger looks right at Noboru like he’s listening. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Will you… Come out? Maybe I can do something about it for you.”
This fits into a dreamlike narrative, at least one of the many Noboru has had before now, his hands sifting through soft fur, always soothing and never frightening. The dreams might have been why he started studying veterinary care, knowing he could easily move up to a zoo veterinarian as long as he made sure his grades were high. With so many exotic animals in need of care, the job is in high enough demand that Noboru lunged for it with both hands, determined to make his dreams a reality. Maybe this is a sign he’s on the right path.
The first tiger walks up to him slowly, nostrils flaring as if expecting Noboru to make a sudden movement, lunge for a weapon. Instead, Noboru stays perfectly still even when the tiger walks around him, head butting against his shoulder, his back, discontent little noises making him quiver. When the tiger finally comes to stand in front of him once more, the second smaller tiger stands with some difficulty and limps over to him. The sight makes Noboru’s heart hurt.
“It’s okay,” he says, even though it very obviously is not okay. “Come here and let me see. I have… I know some things about animals. It’s okay, I won’t hurt you.”
The smaller tiger sniffs Noboru’s outstretched hand before butting his head into it, and Noboru squeaks as his fingers slide through soft fur. He takes it as a sign he’s fine and scoots closer to look, but it’s dark out here and the bleeding is coming from one of the black stripes. Fuck.
“I— I can’t out here, I can’t see,” he says, and the bigger tiger huffs at him. “I’m sorry!” He’s an idiot, talking to these animals like this. “What about… Maybe inside. With light?” The suggestion makes him feel bad a moment later and he strokes the smaller tiger’s head gently. “I’m sorry. It’s on the top floor and you’ll have to walk that far when you’re already in pain.”
The smaller tiger butts his head against Noboru’s head, gently. It doesn’t mean anything.
“Okay. Okay, just. Just follow me, maybe?” Noboru stands slowly, his legs still trembling, but he has purpose and starts toward the back door. This is insane , easily one of the most detailed dreams he’s ever had before and he hopes he can remember any of it in the morning.
They get only just inside the door when the bigger tiger chuffs, the sound startlingly loud in the quiet, making Noboru all kinds of jumpy, moreso than he already is.
“Please be quiet!” he whispers, patting the tiger on the head and regretting it instantly when the tiger growls up at him. “Stop! Shh! I have neighbors and you’re going to wake them up.”
How would he even explain this? It’s just a dream, he reminds himself. He’s still anxious.
The walk upstairs is a long and clumsy affair, Noboru comforting the smaller tiger who makes small pained noises on the stairs especially while desperately trying to hush the bigger one. By the time they make it to his door, Noboru feels positively exhausted, and he hasn’t even started yet. Letting them in feels strange, but it isn’t the first time he’s had a dream about tigers in his apartment, so this is comparatively normal for him.
And it shouldn’t be. He needs to figure this out as soon as he wakes up.
The smaller tiger stretches out on his floor without waiting for invitation and Noboru sighs at the sight, pinching the bridge of his nose before moving. It takes him a genuinely long amount of time to get the blood out of the tiger’s fur, especially with the bigger one walking around him like he might be a particularly tasty animal to pick out of the grass. Noboru might be insane by this point, but he thinks he can almost feel how anxious the larger animal is, worried about his companion. Who yelps when Noboru finally finds the source of the bleeding, a graze on his leg. It looks suspiciously like a bullet graze and Noboru’s stomach drops.
“I’m so sorry,” he says, his voice all kinds of heartbroken. “You didn’t deserve this, beautiful.”
The smaller tiger makes a noise up at him, but Noboru can’t exactly speak tiger.
When he uses an alcohol square to clean the wound, though, the tiger makes a pained sound and the bigger one is right in Noboru’s face, growling again.
“I’m sorry!” Noboru throws his hands up, irritated more than he is afraid as if that would make any kind of sense. “It’s alcohol, okay, it stings. I just want to make sure the wound is clean.”
The tiger sniffs at his hand before backing down.
By the time Noboru has a bandage in place, the wound well covered with gauze, he’s almost too tired to move and his eyes no longer want to stay open. The smaller tiger leans up to lick his cheek, a rough stroke that makes Noboru rock back a little. Then he finds himself pounced to the floor, the tiger nuzzling and licking his face as if in thanks. Blearily, Noboru pets his head and wonders how in the hell his mind came up with this kind of dream.
“Have to go to bed now,” he says tiredly. “I guess you can sleep on the floor or whatever.”
He only gets to roll out from under the smaller tiger before the beast flops down next to him, stopping Noboru from getting up with a paw that hits him on the side, batting him back down to the floor firmly. The bigger tiger watches them carefully before he comes to join them, stretching out in front of Noboru, all topaz fur and warmth and bright golden eyes watching Noboru carefully. It really isn’t fair, but this isn’t too unlike Noboru’s dreams, false awakenings flanked by soft fur and warmth and purrs that lull him into a sense of comfort.
It’s a dream. He might as well roll with it, right?
“Just once,” he says, the bigger tiger nuzzling his face gently. “Oh, you like me now?”
The bigger tiger licks his face, as if answering his question.
Noboru wants to argue, he really does, because his bedroom is such a short walk away and he deserves a long sleep in his warm, comfortable bed after all of this. But his bed will be cold to begin with and the animals curled up on either side of him are warm, slow breathing and soft fur and Noboru is too tired to think beyond that. He curls a hand in the bigger tiger’s warm fur and lets his eyes fall closed, not caring anymore. It’s just a dream. He’ll wake up at his desk anyway.
Morning deepens to afternoon before Noboru ever finds the strength to open his eyes, unusually warm, eyelids slit shut against the bright sunlight streaming in through his sliding glass door. He rolls onto his back and stretches, stifling a yawn against his palm, pushing himself up onto his elbows, his brain fuzzy around the edges. Something about tigers? He isn’t sure anymore.
Movement on his right has him swivelling his head to see an unfamiliar man stretched out on the floor next to him, cheek pillowed on his arm, tousled hair and chiseled and naked.
Noboru blinks once, twice, then screams.