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Dirt For Blood and Bark For Flesh

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Namimori itself was a rather average town. Sharing a border with Kyoto and Kokuyo, it was smack dab in the middle between tourist central and deserted ghost town. Kokuyo used to be a farming hotspot, most of its population farmers or the likes of agricultural enthusiasts. After a hard-hitting recession, many of the citizens moved to cheaper areas of land, causing the remaining residents to dwindle.

 

Namimori, more urbanized with its multiple strip malls and large, though secretive, amounts of Yakuza, stayed rather unaffected by the recession. Enough traffic passed through, due to how close the city was to Kyoto, rendering business to grow as usual.

 

Unlike many cities surrounding Namimori and Kokuyo, there was no governing assemble. The jurisdiction of Namimori and Kokuyo were maintained and controlled by the Hibari Clan, who own most if not all of Namimori and roughly 40 percent of Kokuyo.

 

Tourists were a common sight, passing through on their way to Kyoto or coming to see the famous ghost-town that Kokuyo made its name out of. It was common for tourists to be caught by the shoulder or arm by a kind resident and given the normal warnings.

 

There were three rules of Namimori, that all who stayed or passed must know and heed by. Three simple rules, laid out by the Hibari Clan and enforced with utmost importance.

 

Rule One: Do not disturb the peace.

 

The Hibaris were known for their strict moral codes and their easy-to-rile tempers. Having familial connections in the Chinese and Russian Underground, they were infamous throughout the Japanese coasts and smaller cities.

 

Rule Two: Harm to residents of Namimori will not be tolerated.

 

Under the protection of the Hibari Clan, the crime rate and percentages of kidnappings and missing children were close to none. No one was stupid enough to go against the feared force that stalked the streets in the form of black-clad individuals and the Respected Prince with his metal tonfas and steel eyes. Hurting anyone signed your death certificate. The Clan was territorial and possessive and protective. Everyone knew it.

 

Rule Three: Stay out of The Forest.

 


 

 

There was an invisible line where the forest and The Forest separated in terms of distinguishing them as severed locations. There was a point after venturing past the old Namimori Shrine and slipping through the canopy of trees and uprooted veins of dirt-caked roots that you left the forest and entered The Forest. The air was different, the trees a little less lively in their browns and greens and the sounds of the wildlife all but muted. It was as if you stepped into a completely different universe, a portal to the world of the Fae, some believed.

 

No one would be caught dead in The Forest. There had formed an unspoken agreement to never enter The Forest after the Hibari Clan dragged a mutilated body from its depths, bark and twigs replacing the corpse’s veins and bones. Bled dry and mangled like a doll rung out of water, the corpse was identified as Sawako Sachi, an elderly lady who’d gone missing three weeks before hand. She’d always been a kind woman, making small snacks to hand out to the Clan individuals left to patrol her street.

 

Her funeral had been a respectful affair of the entire Clan attending.

 

After that, children and teenagers were warded off and adults banded together in a effort to make sure no one else went into The Forest. There was something ancient and unspeakable about the trees and the dirt that coated that Fae land. Something that screamed at them to stay away.

 

For years, they listened. Tourists were chased away when they grew too curious and children grew up with The Forest acting as their punishment for being bad. For years, it worked.

 

Until one day, during a crisp fall morning, a small body slipped past that invisible line between the forest and The Forest.

 

Sawada Tsunayoshi, small in stature and wide in eyes and hair, stopped after both feet touched the earth of The Forest and breathed in. Rumors were that you’d feel a thousand eyes penetrate you the moment you entered the no-man land. Rumors were that your soul would instantly leave your body, stolen away by the monsters who lived in the bark and the sap that clung to the trees. Rumors were that the Fae enchanted The Forest, that it was merely a portal to the other side that no mortal should ever encounter.

 

Rumors were just that though; rumors.

 

Tsunayoshi breathed in the faint scent of nature, smelling that musk of damp ground and wood. There was a bitter sweetness in the air, like nutmeg or anise flowers. The leaves danced shadows across his skin as they swayed in the wind, their colors bleeding from greens to yellows and dark reds. The tree’s bases were a bit darker than closer to the Shrine, he noticed, but decided it didn’t matter.

 

Nothing mattered because Tsunayoshi came here to die.

 

He walked further into The Forest, the tension in his shoulders slowly dissipating in the air the more distance he put between himself and civilization. His body ached, bruises blossomed on his flesh like paint droplets from a haphazard brush stroke. His uniform was rumpled and ruined, the collar splattered in blood from a bloody nose that wouldn’t stop in time to not stain. His usually vivid brown eyes were murky, nearly matching the dark brown of the trees fencing him in. The trees loamed over him, seeming to close in at all sides, forcing him on a path to a unknown destination.

 

He followed, mind growing numb to the cold that clawed up his spine and settled in his bones.

 

Despite the steadily dropping temperatures from high heat to cool relief, it felt bitingly chilly under the shade of the towering vegetation. The shadows clung to him like a blanket, mimicking protection as his feet stumbled and slipped on tree roots and upturned rocks.

 

Careful, the wind seemed to sooth in his ear, watch your step my sweet. Tsuna followed the relatively clear path down a rather steep incline, nearly toppling over. If a tree branch seemed to sway in the wind and catch his hand or a root snagged his pant leg before he toppled, he didn’t seem to notice.

 

With single minded like determination, Tsuna settled at the base of the incline and looked around. The path had ended, leaving him in a fairly large clearing surrounded by a circle of trees that made a roof of holes leaves and intertwining branches stories above his head. White and yellow flowers laid in patches, their names escaping him as a small river streamed off to the left.

 

It was peaceful. Beautiful. Otherworldly.

 

The perfect place to die.

 

He could imagine himself laying down in in the river and just sinking down, slowly exhaling any air that’d keep him afloat. He could see himself climbing those stretching trees and just pitching backwards, falling back and hopefully snapping his delicate neck. He visualized the tree roots intertwining with his eroding corpse, braiding through his crumbling bones and filling his bled-dry body with budding weeds and veins of dirt. He almost tasted the musky moss growing inside his chest cavity, replacing his heart and organs with maggots and worms finding new home in his empty shell.

 

He imagined it and craved it and breathed it in like a feverish gasp.

 

Tsuna looked for a nice spot to sit and found a rock big enough to comfortably seat him and went over to it. Moss covered the base of the rock, dew glistening on the jagged surface. He sat, his breath leaving his lungs in a loud exhale. It almost seemed disrespectful, to ruin the quite so suddenly, but the wind cherished his cheek with a light touch and he caught his breath for a moment.

 

He sat there, slowly digging the toes of his shoe into the moist dirt under him. Silence hung heavily in the air like a impending doom and he focused on the worms or ants that squirmed out of the way of his shoe’s path.

 

The dirt was replaced with a illusion of his white-eyed body, half buried under the soft ground. Torso and half his arm protruding from the unforgiving grave of weeds, flowers, and decaying leaves.

 

Tsuna tilted his head back, staring up at the stretched ceiling of poked holes and insect-eaten leaves, bracketed by twisted branches of trees grown to close together. Like a natural house, they created a barrier between Tsuna and the rest of the world.

 

The image of seeing this sight as his last was vivid in his mind, beckoning with a urgant want that he couldn’t control.

 

The air was crisp, the temperature at that point where the shadows were cold and the sun was too hot, leaving you uncomfortable until night fell. The smell surrounding him was one of freshness and decayed vegetation, of wet wood and rotting flowers.

 

To breathe in such pure, untainted air as his last would be a honor.

 

A leaf broke off from a branch and fluttered down to him. It landed on his bent knees and he picked it up, smoothing his index finger  over it. It was darkening around the base of the stem. No doubt changing with the seasons.

 

Another leaf fluttered on him, then another. He stared, mezmorized, as leaf after leaf fell upon him like gentle snow. The colored leaves circled him like a protective barrier, keeping him safe from the world that seemed to try to swallow him whole.

 

He’d gladly let it. Gladly sink into The Forest, become one with it, if it meant he could stop. If it meant the constant pain, constant disappointment of ever looming failure would stop.

 

Imagined himself half submerged under the base of a tree, corpse laced through the roots that seemed to dome up above the surface like a hut, branches and twigs stabbed through his chest and neck in ways to kill him the fastest, the most painful.

 

The sunlight peeking through the cracks of his hiding spot was glowing orange, signalling the setting sun. Tsuna’s mind was sluggish, slow, as he realized belatedly that his mother was probably wondering where he was.

 

His mother. It would be cruel, wouldn’t it, to suddenly disappear without even giving her the proper farewell. He was like a marionette doll as he jerkily picked himself up to his feet. He’d be back, tomorrow, with his partings completed and mind settled.

 

He left in a random direction, not up the incline that he originally came through. It wasn’t until he was in his nightly bath that he realized that despite going further into The Forest, he’d still emerged at The Shrine, where he’d entered.

 

He washed the dirt and blood from his body and tried to calm the thoughts of plummeting into the river in The Forest and let the rockbed from the current mangle his body like a paper in a shredder.

 


 

 

He found himself back in that clearing, plopping down on the rock not two days later. The night before had been bittersweet, Tsuna’s words to his mother nothing but vague.

 

“I love you, mom. I’ll always love you.” His mother had stared at him for a moment, eyes unreadable, before she’d beamed and proceeded to hug him. Just a little too tightly her grip was, as if she was trying to chain him to herself. He’d let her latch onto him, let her have that last hug, because the next day he’d be gone from the world.

 

Tsuna shouldn’t have been surprised that his last day alive would be as painful as any other day. His right eyes was swollen shut, bruised and dry blood smearing his cheek from his possibly broken nose.

 

Whoever said people weren’t stupid enough to cause trouble with the Clan guarding the streets was an idiot. They couldn’t be everywhere at once and Tsuna had learned a long time ago that the infamous Hibari Kyouya could only be so many places at once.

 

Tsuna’s bullies learned quickly, too.

 

Tsuna looked to the river and stumbled over, checking his reflection in the rippling water. His murky visible eye was entranced with the rippling water, so tempted to just drop his face into the water and never lift it back up.

 

Instead, he scooped up a handful of water and splashed his face, hoping to wash away the dried blood. He repeated the motion three more times before dropping his hands. With the blood washed away, he didn’t look as bad. No use in dying while looking like he’d been trampled to death. He was doubtful his body would be fine, but it was better to put his mother more at ease with a more peaceful appearance.

 

He flopped back onto his back, normal eye closing as the warm light over him soothed his aching body. He could feel his uniform soaking from the river water that’d raised and washed over the bank. The contrasting temperatures caused goosebumps to chase up and down his bruised body.  

 

A blade of grass tickled his cheek and he closed his good eye, exhaling. To just stop breathing, just stop thinking, would be a much desired need at that very moment. Water droplet clung grass blades intertwined through his fingers and wrists, his covered feet dipping into the water of the river.

 

It’d be so easy, right now, to just stop existing.

 

The trees rustled and a faint chirping echoed throughout The Forest. Tsuna laid there for another hour before he opened his eyes. He was laying on the unforgivingly cold stone of the pathway of The Shrine. He stared up at the darkening sky and sat up, looking back.

 

Not today, it seemed.

 

His mother was extra enthusiastic when he entered the house that night. Tsuna didn’t make any comment on her one-kiss-to-many to his face.

 


 

 

A girl with purple hair was curled up on a bed of flowers when he slid down the incline, her locks framing her bruised face like a picture of angelic purity. She looked like the picture of a immortalized death, the light streaming through the cracks spotlighting and highlighting her delicate features. Her pale skin looked like it was cold to the touch, her chest barely moving from her hundled position.

 

The flowers poked up and surrounded her like a coffin filled of petals, giving her a almost respectful burial.

 

Then her purple eyes shot open at his entrance and she lurched up, wide stare fixated on him.

 

He met her gaze straight on, both alarmed there was someone else there.

 

“You-how- why are you here?” The girl stuttered, drawing her knees up to her chest. Her legs, previously covered by her long skirt, were coated in random bruises. Her purple eyes went from Tsuna’s eyes to his own bruised face and her shoulders relaxed slightly.

 

“I came to die,” Tsuna answered and moved to his rock. The grass and weeds seemed to curl around him as he moved. The girl watched him warily, something like understanding darkening her expression.

 

“You too?” She asked softly, gaze dropping. Tsuna plopped down and nodded, tilting his head back.

 

“...I’m...I’m Nagi,” the girl whispered finally, still curled up. Tsuna opened his eyes and turned his gaze to her. Her eyes glistened like the rippling river behind them. Tsuna’s own eyes burned like the setting sun through the holes of the leaves enclosing them.

 

“I’m Tsuna,” he introduced.

 

They stayed silent until they both had to leave. Tsuna helped Nagi through the dizzying maze of trees, hand cradling her trembling fingers. She squeezed his hand once, softly, before slipping away like morning mist.

 


 

“Haha, this is kind of weird?”

 

Tsuna and Nagi looked up, sprawled out on their backs against the soft beds of flowers and grass. Leaning against a protruding tree trunk for balance as he descended the incline, Yamamoto Takeshi studied the two. “Sawada-san?”

 

“Yamamoto-san?” Tsuna asked, blinking as he sat up. Nagi sat up as well, pressing into his side. They’d just been sharing their visions of desired death when the athlete had interrupted them. “What-what are you doing here?”

 

“I don’t know, really,” the tanned teen laughed, fake and grinding to their ears. “I just kinda..wandered here?” He looked around, eyes bouncing between their surroundings. “I’ve never been to The Forest.”

 

“Have you come to die?” Nagi asked softly, more so mumbling into Tsuna’s shoulder than addressing the newcomer. Yamamoto studied them again, eyes growing heavy as he let his gaze slid away.

 

“...I wonder.”

 

Yamamoto plopped down next to Tsuna without word and the three fell back onto the ground below.

 

“I don’t really wanna play baseball anymore. I’m growing to hate it.”

 

The leaves rustled, as if pleased.

 


 

 

His mother never commented on the dirt that clung to his uniform. She never made a note of the leaves that stuck to his hair or the flowers that tickled at his ankles or fingers. She continued to wash his clothes and hug him tight, and hope he’d return that evening.

 

He had so far, and so she would keep silent, praying The Forest wouldn’t take away her precious child.

 

Yamamoto and Nagi were two new faces she’d been ecstatic to have in her house. They’d come in one evening, shadowing her son, their appearances similar in dirt clumped skin and murky eyes. She’d beckoned them in, given them towels and fresh clothing (sizes too big for the two guests but it would do), and had sent them to clean up.

 

She’d called Yamamoto Tsuyoshi, informed him of his son’s whereabouts, and had set two more plates at the table.

 

She saw the weeds and twigs that clung to the teens and the shadows that twisted up them like thorny vines, and smiled just the tiniest bit brighter to chase away the darkness.

 

They came the next night and the next until it was a rarity that they didn’t follow Tsuna home.

 

Nana didn’t mind and just prayed The Forest wouldn’t take her precious children from her.

 


 

 

Tsuna’s head was tilted up, studying the distance from the tallest tree branch. Would a drop from that height break his neck? Crack his head open? Would his spine shatter like glass or would he be impaled by the stiff branches buried into the dirt at the base of the tree?

 

“Too painful,” Takeshi commented from behind Tsuna, sprawled out as he counted the falling leaves. Nagi was using his stomach as a pillow, trying to catch the fluttering leaves. “Come lay.”  Tsuna abandoned the tree and Takeshi let the shorter teen use his arm as a pillow as the three just stared up at the peeking sunlight.

 

A yelp startled the peace and a silver blur crashed through the clearing, stopping just before the three. Emerald green met three murky stares and silence fell on the four.

 

“You must be new,” Takeshi spoke up, keeping his grip on his two friends. “A tourist?”

 

“I-I just moved here,” the teen responded, eyes taking in their scenery. “Where-where are we?”

 

“Didn’t you hear the rules?” Nagi asked instead, clinging to Takeshi’s side. “You have to stay out of The Forest.”

 

“The...The Forest? Why? How comes you can be here then?” The teen asked, Japanese thick and stilted on his tongue. A foreigner, lost to his curiosity and led to them for it.

 

“You get lost in The Forest, if not here for a reason,” Tsuna spoke up, head tilting to the side. He met those eyes and saw something flicker in those jewels. He smiled faintly. “But that won’t happen to you. You were called here, just as we were.”

 

The teen’s jaw worked to form words but no sounds came out. Takeshi took Tsuna’s words as initiative to lay back down, Nagi and Tsuna returning to use him as a pillow.  After a pause, the newcomer settled beside Tsuna, hands trembling and eyes glistening.

 

“I’m Tsuna,” Tsuna introduced as he slowly laced his fingers with the teen’s. His fingers were warm, long, and delicate like a pianist’s, but coated in thick burns and calluses that hindered their beauty. “This is Takeshi and Nagi.”

 

“I’m Gokudera Hayato,” Gokudera introduced in a whisper, tightening his hold on Tsuna’s hand. “I shouldn’t have been born.”

 

Nana was more than eager to put out a new plate and fix a bed for Gokudera, after finding out he’d all but illegally made his way from Italy to Japan to escape a hostile situation.

 


 

 

The day Reborn came to Namimori, he was given the three Rules by a kind cafe owner. He’d raised a thin eyebrow at the Rules, silently wondering on the last one. The Forest? When he’d asked about it, he’d been turned away with horrified looks and hushed voices. Apparently it was something he couldn’t know about.

 

“Not worth it.”

“Better if you don’t know.”

“Stay away, boy.”

 

His student-to-be, Tsunayoshi, was different from the reports he’d received from the teen’s father. Unlike the notes and comments, the murky eyed child had friends. He was silent and listless, eating only to make his mother happy. He was housing The Smokin’ Bomb Hayato , treating him like a precious friend in the ways they held hands or brushed shoulders. He went to school, left at the end of the day with Hayato and that Yamamoto Takeshi teen, and would meet a girl at the top steps of The Shrine.

 

Reborn would watch as the four teens disappeared into the trees and bushes of the forest that outlined The Shrine, taking to waiting for them to return. Something in the air around the trees unsettled him, making him want to stay clear of the greens and browns. So he’d wait, until as the sun dipped down, they’d reappear.

 

After introducing himself to his charge, Hayato had stepped in front of him and had stared Reborn down.

 

“You can’t have him,” the explosion expert had stated matter-of-factly, his expression detached from his tone. “He is already claimed.”

 

Reborn didn’t know what he’d meant at the time. He didn’t know if he wanted to.

 

(And months later, as he settles on a moss-covered rock and watches his student and friends bask in the spotted sunlight, he will know. He will know because he too had become claimed by a force unseen and unknown, in the way the sun kisses his cheeks or the flowers sing to him with their buds and vibrant colors. He will know because he sees the weeds and grass and river course through their veins like blood, giving them life.)

 


 

 

Nagi dreams of climbing the trees and laying amongst them like they’re her hammock. She dreams of seeping into the sap-filled bark and never emerging, hiding away in the darkness and suffocating. She dreams of flowers blooming from her gaping chest, born from her broken body.

 

She wakes and lives, wishing for her dreams to come true. She lays with her boys, letting The Forest sing soothing lullabies to her restless mind.

 

She dreams of a field of endless green and a single Sakura tree, of a boy with death in his soul and blood on his hands. She dreams of them laying together, hand in hand, and awake to a feeling of loss.

 

Nagi lives for the day, skips school, and finds herself at Kokuyo Land. Abandoned, it was nothing but a skeleton, a phantom of the same eeriness that The Forest was. There, she meets Rokudo Mukuro and his ragtag team of convicts and leads them with her, letting the dirt and the roots seep into their skin and make home in their hearts.

 

She wakes and lives, and Mukuro wakes with her.

 


 

 

If you asked any student of Namimori Middle, they’d immediately answer, “Sawada? He’s fucking weird.”

 

Sasagawa Kyoko would hold her tongue, smile gently, and not respond. She would not answer in those same crude words, or even think them in the darkest corners of her mind. Instead, she would let her gaze wash over Tsuna and his two friends, watching as the invisible roots continued to curl around their forms.

 

Because they were of The Forest, just as she was trying to fight being, and she knew that Tsuna was not weird or spacey or anything else. He was merely living in a world that wasn’t his anymore, as she was fighting to stay in.

 

She heard the whispers in her walk home, in the wind as it tried to guide her down a street that she knew wasn’t supposed to be there. She heard it in the rustling of trees, of the softness of the gardens she’d pass.

 

She was being called and she was trying her best to ignore it. She ignored it until her brother fell victim, his mind drowning in the screams that echoed for him. She ignored it until he left with Tsuna and them on their way to The Forest, and then she finally gave in.

 

Tsuna looked up from his shoes, flanked by Hayato, Takeshi, and Ryohei, as Kyoko stopped at his locker. She smiled, gentle and brittle.

 

“I’ve decided to listen,” is all she said and they were off, joined at the steps by Nagi, Mukuro, and Reborn.

 


 

 

Hibari Kyouya finally gave in one day, during a winter afternoon after it had freshly snowed. He’d ignored the beckoning calls his entire childhood, locking himself away in steel-like conviction and biting violence. He could not listen, could not go, because that would be breaking one of the Rules.

 

Until he couldn’t handle it anymore. He followed silently and came upon them, sprawled out and thriving amongst their company. They looked at peace, the dark shadows that clung to them eaten away by The Forest.

 

The residents of Namimori were always under the misconception that The Forest was of murderous intent, of evil and darkness. They never understood that The Forest protected what was hurt, mended what was broken, cherished what needed love.

 

Kyouya knew. Kyouya knew it all along.

 

He stared at the brown haired teen in the center of the clustered teens and baby-not-baby, and met eyes the color of dying leaves. He could see The Forest thrumming under his skin, in his voice and in his blood. Could see the root ripping up and tearing out any lingering thoughts of death and sadness. He wondered, as he made his way over to the group, when they’d realized that they didn’t want to die anymore.

 

Because The Forest wouldn’t kill them, wouldn’t let them die, but leech out the pain and replace it with blossoming flowers in the sun.