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Origin Story

Chapter Text

There was one benefit of living in Ishikari, he supposed.

When Gaku felt his brother’s fist crack against his face—when the force of it sent his head snapping to the side, his body thrown through the air—at least he fell into snow. Nearly anywhere else in Japan, his body would have bounced off concrete or asphalt, bones shattering and skull cracking. But not here: the snow was soft, and it immediately eased the pain blooming across his cheek, cutting off the swelling before it started.

He’d long learnt was pointless to move, to try to stand up again—so he didn’t. Gaku let the ice sit against his cheek, feeling the chill melting against the heat of his skin.

His brother was still hovering above him, hands clenched and twitching. He paused for a moment, fists shaking, waiting for a reaction they both knew would never come. Eventually, the older Mikohara turned his head and spat into the snow, lips curled up in a sneer. Those bruised hands buried themselves into the pockets of his coat, defeated.

“You’re fucked up, Gaku,” he snarled, turning on his heel and stomping off.

Gaku blinked with one eye buried in the snow, and watched as his sibling walked away. He knew that already.

His brother was gone, but he still couldn’t muster the strength nor the will to move. So Gaku let the snowflakes flutter down against his skin, leaving the harsh cold to gnaw at his fingers. He hadn’t bothered to put on a hat, or a scarf, or even a pair of gloves. Not because he enjoyed the weather—he couldn’t say he felt strongly about it, one way or another—but that sharp, prickling frost was at least something.

And something was better than nothing.

Though, ‘nothing’ didn’t sound so terrible right about now. The nothing was something that he knew intimately; familiar and comfortable, like an old friend. You didn’t have to pretend for the nothing: it simply accepted your emptiness as its own, swallowing everything in a silent gulp. Absorbing and burying you, like the steadily falling snow.

Slowly, Gaku closed his eyes.

He didn’t know how long he lay there, allowing himself slowly get erased by the winter. His body no longer felt the cold, the fresh bruises, the pain that was usually beating in time with his pulse. All there was was the occasional sound of the tall grass, a dry rattling ringing in the breeze.

All this to say that when he felt something, soft and vaguely damp, being clumsily draped over him—Gaku didn’t so much as twitch. It took his sluggish brain a few seconds to even acknowledge the weight of that something, and he forced his frozen eyelashes open, the frost clinging to the corners of his eyes. It took a moment for his bleary vision to zero in on the tiny silhouette, standing somewhere him.

Two blue eyes blinked down at him and said: “Cold.”

Gaku blinked and didn’t move. “Pardon?”

“Cold,” the boy repeated, one of his mittened hands motioning vaguely down in Gaku’s direction. Slowly, Gaku shifted his arm, piles of snow sliding off his coat. His hand, stiff and frozen, struggled to find the scarf that had been thrown over his neck. The fabric was plush, still warm with the heat of someone else’s skin.

The boy stared down at him, his face nearly silhouetted by the white sky above them. “Nii-chan looked cold.”

Oh. Gaku forced himself up onto his elbows, his hard and frostbitten clothes moving with him, ice cracking at the joints. He really had been out here longer than he’d thought. “I’m fine,” he said, tugging off the scarf and holding it out to him. Tentatively, the boy took it back, clumsily wrapping the fabric around the lower half of his face. When he decided he was finished, he turned back to Gaku with wide eyes, his breath escaping in little puffs of air through the folds.

Then his nose seemed to scrunch up in delight, the corners of a smile peeking over the scarf. Two mittens grabbed hold of Gaku’s sleeve, tugging insistently. “Nii-chan,” he called, his little boots scrambling in the snow. “Play with me!”

Gaku was half-pulled to his feet, one bare hand pushing itself off the frozen field. The boy was practically vibrating with excitement, jerking Gaku’s hand up and down like some crude attempt at a handshake. How old was this kid, anyway? Three, maybe four, probably. Definitely too young to be out here on his own.

Not that that was any of Gaku’s concern. He jerked his arm back, holding it high and out of reach. “No.”

The boy stared up at him, his cheeks red with cold. “Why not?”

Gaku’s lips screwed into a frown, eyes narrowing. There must have been a thousand reasons, easily—but now that he considered it, he couldn’t come up with an answer. Not a satisfactory one, at least. There was no point in going home when his brother was in one of these moods. His parents wouldn’t notice his absence, or even care if they did. Frankly, he would probably end up just aimlessly wandering through town until the sun set and he was forced back to the house.

The boy was looking up at him expectantly, eyes sparkling as he rolled back and forth on the balls of his feet. Gaku stared down at him for a long second, before reaching forward and tucking the ends of the scarf into the child’s coat. “What’s your name?”

“Sa,” the boy began, before giving a short sneeze. He wiped at his nose with a soaked mitten before trying again. “Satoru.”

“Okay, Satoru,” he replied. “I’m Mikohara. Mikohara Gaku.”

“Mm,” he muttered, his brow furrowing. “Mi—miko—” There was another moment of effort as the boy’s face curled in on frustration, before two gloved hands grasped at his sleeve once again. His expression melted into one of easy joy, tugging at the fabric as he exclaimed: “Gaku-nii!”

Gaku sighed, allowing himself to be led by Satoru’s tiny hands. Close enough.

 

 

By the time he walked home the next day, Gaku had already written Satoru off as a one-time irregularity: an anomaly, a brief blip in his schedule and nothing more. An outlier that could promptly be considered, assessed, and discarded.

Which wasn’t to say that their afternoon together had been unpleasant. Even he had to admit that time had passed… marginally faster than usual. Satoru was a pleasant enough distraction: something to keep his thoughts from becoming as beaten and numb as his skin. But Gaku was pragmatic: the odds of that same boy being in that same field, at the same time, two days in a row, was just—

“Gaku-nii! Gaku-nii!”

He raised his head, just in time to watch Satoru trip and fall face-first into the snow with a soft whump.

Gaku sighed and trudged towards the younger boy, gently slipping his hands under those small shoulders and lifting him up to his feet. Satoru’s features were squeezed up in displeasure, clumpfuls of snow sitting stuck to his face. Gaku bit down a scoff and began to wipe it off with his bare fingers, feeling the heat of Satoru’s skin burning under his touch. “You should be careful,” he mumbled. “Or you’ll get hurt one day.”

Satoru squeezed one of his eyes open. “Like Gaku-nii?”

His hand stopped, fingertips hovering against the boy’s frozen cheek. “What?”

“Gaku-nii,” he began, impatiently wiping at his face with his sleeves, “has ouches.”

‘Ouches.’ He had to suppress a snort at that. Dully, Gaku wondered if Satoru knew everything that stupid word encompassed: if the little child in front of him had any idea about the kicks against his ribs, the knuckles in his gut, the blood dotting his porcelain sink. The more he thought about it, the more he could feel a vaguely surprised, unsettled something sinking into his stomach. The fact that Satoru of all people, a child, had seen, had noticed

“Gaku-nii,” he whined, impatiently tugging at the older boy’s frozen fingers. “Snow castle?”

“Of course,” he said absently, plucking Satoru’s bucket from where it had been dropped. “Let’s make some snow castles.”

 

 

Somehow, impossibly—Satoru became incorporated into his routine.

As always, Gaku would wake up half an hour before his alarm and trudge into the bathroom. He’d brush his teeth, comb his hair, and wipe away the blood that had only cropped up in the night. Only when his face was properly clean could he properly assess the damage. With a practiced precision, Gaku would take stock of his own skin, counting the cuts and the contusions—a mental checklist, clicking like an abacus in his mind.

Then, unfeelingly, he would stare at his empty reflection in the mirror and fish out the bandages. His fingers would run along the adhesive edges in all the right ways, keeping them securely stuck against his skin. He would rub creams into the darker bruises to help them heal faster, before those too were covered in band-aids and gauze. Only when his wounds were dressed could Gaku dress himself too, trudging out of his room with the smell of antiseptic clinging to him like a second skin.

And on his way home from school, he passed by that field.

For better of for worse, Gaku had rules—little things like don’t cry out and there’s no point in shedding tears. Likewise, he had one for Satoru. Gaku told himself that he wouldn’t go unless someone called his name; told himself that he only stepped over the bank every time because it would be more effort to get Satoru to leave him alone. Told himself that if one day, if that boy didn’t come rushing out of the tall grass, it wouldn’t bother him in the slightest. Not at all.

Gaku never had to find out if that was true. Like clockwork, fifteen minutes after the final bell rang, just as he rounded the bend onto that cracked road, he’d hear the patter of little feet crunching through the snow. Every day, Satoru rushed forward with little arms waving wildly, a smile and a cry of Gaku’s name on his lips.

Frankly, it was impressive how much time they spent doing nothing. Sometimes, they built snow castles only to crush them; Satoru marched upon them with great roars and exaggerated motions, like the movie monsters he must have seen on TV. Once he was done, he usually turned his four-year-old destruction on Gaku. The older boy simply hummed and gave some non-committal agreement, murmuring: “How terrifying.” And that was, apparently, enough.

Sometimes they made snow angels or went “exploring” across the empty lot. Only once did they play hide and seek: while finding Satoru was easy enough—the boy often forgot he had legs, which would poke out of wherever he’d buried himself—but the opposite was not apparently true. Satoru had struggled to find Gaku and ultimately sat down in the snow, wailing and upset. It had taken the rest of the afternoon to calm him down, with Gaku repeatedly promising that he wouldn’t hide on him again.

And on the most active days—the ones where Satoru ran around the field, expending all the energy contained in his tiny limbs—their afternoons usually ended with Gaku sitting cross-legged in the snow, a napping Satoru in his lap, content to simply watch the snow fall.

But no matter what, Gaku always left just as dusk began to creep up on them. He said his goodbyes before Satoru’s mother—who, he’d deduced, worked in the small business next door—came looking for her son. He’d leave Satoru in that field with a promise to see him tomorrow, and go home. Eat dinner. Let his brother release his pent-up frustrations. Do his homework. Take a bath.

Gaku raked his fingers through the shampoo suds in his hair, staring at the blood dripping down onto tile. Rinse. Repeat.

 

 

The routine continued uninterrupted, like soldiers marching in a military line, the days stretching into weeks. Until it didn’t.

Something was wrong with Satoru.

And more importantly, Gaku didn’t know what it was. A four-year-old could, frankly, only have so many motivators and emotions; the world was simple when you couldn’t even count to ten, and simple problems often had simple solutions. Most of Satoru’s minor tantrums were easily fixed with a pat on the head or some half-hearted speech about courage.

But this—this was different. For some reason, it always started just as the sky was beginning to get dark: Satoru’s face would turn pinched, his mittens curling into little fists. At first, it was small—the demand for one more game, one more snow angel, please Gaku-nii? But Gaku always had to leave, and he told Satoru so, hastily gathering his things and trudging back towards home.

It only got worse from there. More than once, Gaku had to wrestle Satoru to the ground to get the boy to give him back his pencil case. One evening, Gaku walked back to where he’d stashed his backpack only to find his books missing, the bag packed full of rocks and snow. Once, when he’d thought Satoru was napping in his lap, the kid had even attempted to tie the laces of Gaku’s boots together. (Luckily, Satoru didn’t even know how to tie his own shoes, so it was ultimately a moot point—but the intent was there.)

All of that had, somehow, led to this: Satoru, standing there with a piece of lumber in his hands, blocking the path back to the road. Gaku felt the last of his patience leave him in an irritated exhale, words snapping out through grit teeth. “Satoru,” he snarled. “Move.”

“No,” the boy puffed. His entire lower face was buried in his thick scarf, but Gaku could still see those little eyes, narrowed into a glare between his bangs.

“I have to go home, Satoru.”

“No!” The younger boy was yelling, now; he bumped the lumber against the ground with a stomp of his foot, clearly on the edge of a full-blown tantrum. Gaku huffed and gripped the straps of his bag, pulling the weight tight against his sore shoulders. He didn’t have time for this: if he missed dinner—or, if his brother came looking for him—

Gaku glared and pushed past the smaller child without another word, his eyes focused entirely on the road.

Only to feel two arms and at least one leg wrap around his shin. Gaku continued to walk, feeling the drag of Satoru’s small body in the snow. Every step was punctuated by a loud cry of frustration from below, Satoru’s shouts only intensifying when Gaku refused to stop. Out of spite, he continued to push forward, vaguely hoping Satoru would just fall off.

After nearly twenty steps forward, Gaku was forced to acknowledge that that wasn’t happening. But he couldn’t very well walk the whole way back to his house like this, either, a wailing urchin strapped to his leg. Gaku stopped and planted his feet in the snow, and with a harsh sigh, reached down to peel the toddler off. “Satoru—”

This time, the voice muffled into his pant-leg was quiet. “No,” he mumbled, burying his face further into the fabric. “No, Gaku-nii. Not home.”

Gaku pressed his hands to Satoru’s shoulders, gently easing the younger boy away from his leg. To his surprise, Satoru allowed it without much resistance. But his face was puffy and red, tears and a little bit of snot smeared across his cheeks as he hiccupped. “G-Gaku-nii,” he began, reaching up to rub at his eyes with his mittens, “gets the ouches when he goes home.”

Oh. Oh.

Gaku stared wide-eyed down at the sniffling child in front of him, his fingers curling into Satoru’s shoulders.

This boy—he wasn’t even old enough to be in kindergarten yet, but he’d figured it out. Gaku logically knew that Satoru didn’t understand what he was saying, didn’t actually know what happened when Gaku left at the end of each day. Satoru had no idea about his brother’s rage, his nearly-broken bones, the bloody bandages buried in the bathroom’s garbage can. He probably couldn’t even understand the concept, let alone the reality.

Still, Satoru had managed to piece together the simple cause-and-effect of it.

If he let Gaku walk out of this field—if his Gaku-nii “goes home”—then he was going to get hurt.

Satoru was still standing there, staring up at him with resolute eyes, despite his shoulders jumping and hiccupping under Gaku’s hands. The realization was crashing down in Gaku’s ears, an impossibly loud white noise that was drowning out his thoughts. He didn’t know what to do with this information, didn’t know how to process it because—

Because he didn’t understand.

Why did Satoru even care? No one else did. His parents certainly didn’t. When his body crashed against the walls, his father buried his nose in his newspaper and his mother drowned out the sound with the tap. Gaku knew his teachers had figured out something, but all they offered him were pitying glances and a blind eye. On the rare occasion Gaku stopped at the convenience store for juice, the clerk stared at his bandages for a second, before simply shaking his head and asking for change.

Not that Gaku blamed them. He didn’t. Everyone had their own lives, their own problems. They didn’t need to trouble themselves with his—and likewise, he didn’t have to care about theirs. That was just the way things were. Why take on somebody else’s issues, when you already had to carry your own? You could only afford to care about yourself—though Gaku even found that to be a struggle, most days. It just didn’t make any sense to focus on anyone else.

And yet—and yet—

Gaku released his grip on Satoru’s shoulders, taking one step back, and then two.

“I,” he stuttered, his knuckles white as he clutched the straps on his bag. “I—I have to go.”

Satoru only gave a small whimper as Gaku turned tail, and fled.

 

 

When his brother’s knuckles crashed against his body that night—even when he could taste the blood, bitter and metallic on his tongue—for some reason, Gaku still thought of Satoru: shivering and crying in the field at dusk. Small, defenceless—and alone.

 

 

The next day, his walk home from school was painfully slow.

Not because of the contusions on his legs or the scrapes on his knees—he’d long learnt to trudge through those as if they were nothing. He didn’t even need to limp anymore, simply acknowledging the pain as it came, before pushing it into a corner of his mind. Boxing it away, like one of the crates in the family warehouse. Sealed, stamped, and forgotten.

So he couldn’t say why his steps slowed as he began to approach the field, or why his eyes resolutely refused to look over. He kept his gaze focused on the road ahead, counting the cracks in the pavement. If Satoru was, for some reason, still there—if he was playing as he always did and didn’t call out, chose not to, then—

Then that would be fine. Perfectly fine.

He wouldn’t care in the slightest.

Gaku continued to walk along the road, tracing the edge of the field.

He got half-way before he heard that familiar sound. “Gaku-nii!”

His shoulders immediately melted, a tension he hadn’t even recognized bleeding out of his muscles. Gaku turned—just in time to watch Satoru once again trip and fall face-first into the snow, with another soft, familiar whump. An unfamiliar feeling hummed inside his chest, buzzing and warm as he stepped over the bank.

“You have to stop doing that,” he muttered, lifting Satoru back to his feet, as he always did.

And the boy smiled up at him as he always did, extending his hands above his snow-covered head as he declared: “Play with me, Gaku-nii!”

Despite himself, Gaku felt the corners of his lips twitching up. “Okay.”

For some reason or another, Satoru was like a ball of pure energy: constantly seeking Gaku’s attention, demanding a new game, another dash through the dry grass, laughs bubbling up from his mouth. These were the days that would usually end in Satoru suddenly running out of power, like a toy whose batteries had given out. But today, he just kept going—as if his excitement simply couldn’t be contained beneath his skin.

In pure exasperation, Gaku lifted the boy and tossed him into a snowbank. All Satoru did was spread out his limbs and laugh, before demanding Gaku do it again.

Before he knew it, the sun was dipping low in the sky, the light turning warm with the coming sunset. Gaku was ruffling the hair on Satoru’s head—a habit which, somewhere along the line, had become tradition—when a shadow fell across their shared vision. His body reacted instinctually, the muscles tightening and tensing as he turned.

An adult: a stranger, someone whose face Gaku had never seen before. His eyes fell into a guarded, narrow stare—but before he got a chance a single question, Satoru answered it for him.

“Mama!” he cried, rushing from behind Gaku, his arms open wide.

The woman gave a small smile, crouching down to accept her son’s embrace. Once they were next to each other, Gaku was immediately struck by how similar Satoru and his mother looked: the same dark hair and sharp blue eyes were on both their faces, practically mirror images. The woman turned those eyes towards Gaku now, one hand combing through her son’s hair. “You must be the ‘Gaku-nii’ I’ve heard so much about.”

Immediately his spine was straightening, his face falling back into a polite impassivity. Out of habit, he gave a slight bow, his hands pressed against his thighs. “Mikohara Gaku,” he elaborated. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

The woman’s smile warmed then, and she wrapped her child up in her arms before standing up straight, snow sticking to her knees. “Please, call me Sachiko. It’s a pleasure to meet you too.” A small, teasing glint was there in her eyes, and she looked down at the toddler clinging to the front of the coat. “To be honest, I was starting to think you were an imaginary friend of his or something.”

Satoru blinked back up at her, then back at Gaku, before beaming up at his mother again and tugging at her scarf. “Mama, Mama,” he whispered, his voice insistent and tight.

Sachiko only laughed, detangling her son’s tiny fingers from the fabric around her neck. “Did you ask Gaku-nii yet?” The child shook his head, pressing his cold fingers against the warmth of his mother’s throat. Sachiko gave him a smaller, more exasperated smile before turning her attention to the boy in front of her. “Satoru wanted to know if you’d join us for dinner.”

Gaku stared blankly up at her, his brain taking a second or two to process the invitation—then he turned his sharp gaze to the child in Sachiko’s arms. Satoru immediately buried his face into his mother’s shoulder, but Gaku didn’t miss the not-at-all guilty smile on his face first. It took a moment, but the realization hit him like a delivery truck.

His infinite energy, the endless distractions and games.

Satoru had been stalling for time.

Gaku didn’t know what was worse: that the four-year-old could be so conniving, or that he’d completely fallen for it. He pressed his lips together in dissatisfaction, before turning his gaze back to Sachiko. “My mother is expecting me,” he replied.

It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a lie: his mother would expect him to be home by dinner. Anything less was ‘bad form,’ as she put it. But Sachiko’s smile didn’t falter as she adjusted her grip on her son. “We can call her from our place and let her know,” she said. “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you spending one evening at a friend’s house. Besides,” Sachiko added, giving a short wink, “I could use another mouth to feed. We bought too many groceries yesterday.”

Which Gaku immediately heard as we’ve been planning this since yesterday. Plotting must run in the family. Quickly, his mind was processing through the possible excuses, each one discounted almost as quickly as it appeared. He probably could come up with some reason if he really tried, but so much effort put into avoiding a simple dinner would be suspicious in and of itself.

And the last thing he wanted (or needed) was Satoru’s mother involving herself in his home life. Already, Gaku could see how the whole thing would play out: she would take interest for a little while, pretend that she bothered to care. But it would just be useless, in the end: like everyone else who looked too long, it was only a matter of time until she looked away.

He just had to keep up appearances until then. So Gaku let his grip loosen on his backpack’s straps, offering Sachiko another low bow. “Thank you for having me.”

 

Chapter Text

He never really bothered to imagine where Satoru lived, but this was—Gaku stopped and turned the words over in his head. Small? Meagre? Modest, maybe. That was definitely the politest word he could think of. The building looked old, its outside walls stained with salt damage and rust. Quickly, he counted the doors leading to each home; without even stepping foot inside, Gaku could tell that each unit must be pitifully small.

Yet, despite that, the Fujinuma residence wasn’t unclean or unwarm: a wave of cozy heat met him the second Sachiko opened the door, carrying with it the smell of laundry detergent and cooking rice. A space heater rumbled away in the living room, glowing a faint red. In the entryway, hooks sat waiting on the wall, child-sized hats and sweaters hung up to dry.

Gaku stopped in the entrance, giving a short bow to the home as he slipped off his boots. “Pardon the intrusion.”

He called his mother as Sachiko cooked by the stove, his fingers tightly clutching the receiver. Once he got past his parent’s apparent surprise, getting permission to stay for dinner was… surprisingly easy. For better or for worse, she didn’t seem to care either way. And if she didn’t, then Gaku wouldn’t either: he felt nothing as he hung up the phone, turning his gaze back in Sachiko’s direction.

As if sensing the attention, she turned back to him, a wooden ladle buried in the pot and a hand on her hip. “Do you like your curry spicy, or mild?”

He blinked up at her. “Whatever is fine.”

Sachiko gave a little hum at that, bringing the spoon to her lips for a taste. “Are you sure?”

Gaku nodded, but the woman’s eye didn’t leave him, heavy and knowing.

“It’s okay to like things, Gaku-kun,” she continued, breaking her stare as she returned to stirring. “And it’s okay to say you don’t like things, too.”

There was a long beat of silence, the bruises under his sleeves suddenly aching. One look in her eyes, and Gaku got the immediate sense that this woman was—formidable. Not someone he would trifle with, if he could avoid it. So he didn’t bother trying: he turned towards the other room, slipping around the kitchen table with purposefully unhurried steps. “If you excuse me,” he muttered, “I’m going to go play with Satoru.”

He felt the weight of her gaze against his back, even after he crossed into the other room.

But any lingering concerns were instantly drowned out by a pair of bright blue eyes. The boy looked up at him, still lying face-down against the floor, his legs kicking aimlessly at the air. Broken and blunt crayons were scattered all around, and a messy scribble had been scratched onto the paper in front of him, little more than a jumble of mismatched colours. The sight eased some of the weight sitting in his lungs, and Gaku took a seat cross-legged on the floor, staring down at the rumpled page. “What are you drawing?”

Satoru turned back to the paper, rubbing more colour across one of the figures. “Gaku-nii and me.”

He stared back down at the picture, before tapping his finger against the taller shape. “Is that me?”

“Mm,” Satoru said, nodding as he stared intently down at the page.

“I’m red.”

Satoru looked up then, his eyes alight. “Just like Wonder Guy!”

Gaku raised a single eyebrow, and Satoru looked—he looked downright scandalized, his brow furrowing with purpose. The boy immediately scrambled to the corner of the room, shuffling up to the small corkboard leaning against the wall. He watched as Satoru plucked a cheap mask from where it was pinned before rushing back, insistently pressing the plastic against the older boy’s bandaged cheek. “This!” he continued. “See! Wonder Guy!”

Gaku gripped the toy in his hand, turning it over. The design was vaguely familiar: brilliant and bright red all over, with a black visor and gold details cheaply painted onto the face of it. Clearly it was supposed to be… some kind of superhero character. The kind that Gaku had heard his classmates talking about, once or twice. An elastic was strung across the back, so it was intended to be worn, but the mask was almost comically big compared to Satoru’s smaller head.

Gaku raised an eyebrow at it, before glancing back down at the four-year-old still beaming up at him. “And you think I’m… like this.”

“Mhm!” Satoru nodded, still trying to push the mask onto his older friend’s face. “Gaku-nii’s like a hero!”

He stared blankly down at Satoru, holding the toy above his head and out of the reach of those shorter arms. “Why?”

Satoru’s gave an irritated whine, his bottom bouncing back down into a clumsy sit. “Even when Gaku-nii gets ouches,” he began, his face filled with a childish intensity, “he always gets back up! Just like Wonder Guy!”

Gaku stared down at him, thoroughly unimpressed.

Obviously, Gaku had never believed in heroes. It was a flawed concept to begin with: humans simply didn’t look beyond their own problems, didn’t go around choosing to “save people.” No one interfered in his life, so he didn’t interfere in theirs; that was just the way of things, and he’d long since accepted it as the way of the world—just like everyone else had. As far as he was concerned, heroes were like unicorns and dragons: a fairy tale, something told to children to help them sleep at night.

But even someone like Gaku could see that Satoru’s definition of a superhero was far too wide.

After all, Gaku had never struggled for anyone or anything in his life. He had never found something worth fighting for, something worth protecting. There wasn’t anything noble in the constant bruises, the screams he’d learnt to swallow, the blood dripping into the bathroom sink. He wasn’t even sure why he got up every morning, other than simply following the motions of routine, combined with having nothing better to do.

And yet. Satoru’s bright, insistent eyes were still there, a smile stretched across his face. Everything in him exuded fondness and pride, staring as if Gaku somehow held the entire world in his hands. Looking up at him like he was a hero.

So Gaku held the mask up against his face, the mask pressing against the blood-stained gauze on his face. “Sure,” he muttered, his voice muffled by the plastic. “I’m just like Wonder Guy.”

 

 

It wasn’t long until Sachiko called them into the kitchen for dinner. He ate the curry mechanically, occasionally looking up to stare at the younger boy sitting across the table. Satoru ate eagerly, as if his life depended on it, clutching a wide, plastic spoon in his fist. Sachiko did most of the talking, for all of their sakes—politely asking Gaku about his school, his hobbies, if he lived in the area. He answered as minimally as he could, carefully balancing secrecy and formality, turning the spices over on his tongue.

By the time they had cleared away the plates, a steady, thick snow was falling outside the windows. Gaku was already twisting his scarf around his neck when Sachiko brushed the curtains aside, staring disapprovingly at the weather. He could already see where the conversation was going, and didn’t even flinch when she finally spoke. “Will you be alright getting home, Gaku-kun?”

“I’ll be fine,” he replied, quietly shrugging on his coat. The warm food had—finally—done Satoru in: the boy was slumbering on the main room’s floor, not even waiting for his mother to make his bed. So Gaku made sure to speak softly; leaving would be much easier without Satoru tugging at his clothes and begging him to stay. He’d been through that enough, as of late.

But, clearly, Sachiko was intending to do it on her son’s behalf. She turned away from the glass door leading to the back, watching him like a hawk. “Why don’t you call your mom and see if you can spend the night?”

“Thank you for your concern,” he replied immediately. “But I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you, Sachiko-san.”

A soft hand fell on his shoulder, and Gaku froze to a stop underneath it. Sachiko gently crouched down in front of him, meeting him at his level, eye-to-eye. “You aren’t an inconvenience, Gaku,” she said, her eyes serious. Then, her gaze melted into something warmer and over-all less intimidating, an easy smile on her lips. “And I definitely wouldn’t want my son to be walking home in this weather. I’m sure your mother will understand.”

For a long second, he watched her, his fingers hovering on the buttons of his coat. Sachiko gave a knowing hum, then, propping her hand against her cheek. “You know,” she said, smirking, “Satoru will be sad if you leave before he got a chance to say goodbye.”

Demon. Gaku frowned, before tearing his eyes away to stare at his boots. “I’ll… give her a call, then.”

 

 

His mother agreed to the sleepover easily, and Gaku held the receiver to his ear long after she’d hung up. A part of him thought she would put up more of a fight: he was staying with a family she’d never met, after all. He’d never so much as mentioned Satoru before, let alone Sachiko. They could have been convenient lies, as fictional and deliberate as any lie ever was. Or worse: a malicious reality, waiting with bated breath for Gaku to stumble beyond his parent’s reach.

And yet, she said yes. Just like that.

Gaku listened to the dead line drone in his ear, a dull and toneless flatline.

Slowly, he set the phone down, letting to it clang against the receiver.

He stared at the phone, as if waiting for it to ring again.

Sachiko slipped back out of the other room, something tucked under her arm. Quietly, she slid the door nearly closed behind her, leaving only the smallest of cracks open. Despite the darkness in the living room, Gaku could still see the corner of a futon, the covers rising and falling with each of Satoru’s tiny breaths.

Sachiko walked back up to Gaku with a tired smile, holding out a pile of clothes. “I bought these for when Satoru got a bit bigger,” she whispered, “but I don’t think he’ll mind if you break them in first.”

Gaku looked down at her hands, and accepted the bundle without a word. It was a set of carefully folded pyjamas: a button-up shirt and loose pants, patterned with blue stripes. He slowly brushed his thumbs against the flannel, feeling the threads. The fabric was still crisp under his touch, new and unused. It even still had that new-from-the-store smell, sharp like plastic and packaging. All it was missing was the tags.

No matter which way he looked at it, Satoru was barely four—he wouldn’t need something in this size for years. Gaku pressed his lips tightly together, his fingers curling into the fabric. “Thank you, Sachiko-san.”

“It’s my pleasure,” she replied, before nodding towards a door down the hall. “The bath should be ready by now. Go ahead and clean up, and I’ll make you a bed.”

He nodded again, turning his back to her. Gaku moved sluggishly towards the bathroom, like a machine with rusted parts, his muscles stuttering with every step. His carefully crafted routine was—for better or for worse—out of reach. He kept his face even and impassive, but under his carefully crafted mask, Gaku was a train that had jumped the track: flailing and careening with sparks under his feet and a screeching in his brain. Without the iron keeping him steady, there was just—freefall.

But there was nothing to be done about it. All he could do was wait for gravity to swing the other way again, throwing him back on course. So he didn’t give Sachiko another glance as he slipped into the bathroom, quietly shutting the door behind him.

Immediately, he felt the heat, thick with moisture and the smell of soap. The bath hadn’t been sitting there for very long, but the steam had already coated every surface, turning every tile slick and wet. Gaku could feel it licking at his pores, seeping through his clothes and plastering them against his skin. With practiced motions, his bruised fingers began to unbutton his clothes, his shirt and pants falling to the floor.

Then, he stopped, his head turning to stare at the mirror above the sink.

Fog coated the surface, and with a hand, Gaku wiped the condensation away. Out of habit, he analyzed his reflection—but it was the same as it always was. The same dull, dark eyes. The same mottled, black bruises. One of the bandages on his cheek was peeling in the steam; he absently pressed his fingers back against the ridges, trying to stick it back against his skin.

It fell away again, limp and useless, just barely hanging on.

Gaku stared at the mirror, watching the fog creep back in. “Like a hero, huh.”

Drops of water were rushing down the glass, sliding across his face. He looked away from it, turning his attention to the tub. His feet padded across the room in wet slaps, and he inhaled deeply, staring down at the water. As always, he sank slowly into it, his body waiting for that familiar pain: the sting of searing heat on fresh wounds, iron-hot and biting. He settled under the water, and waited for that discomfort to come.

After a minute, Gaku opened his eyes, and stared forward at his feet.

Nothing hurt. Well, he supposed that made sense. He hadn’t seen his brother since that morning, and the beatings—as a general rule—only came after school. He’d circumvented going home entirely, which meant avoiding those fists altogether. Not the intended outcome, admittedly, but not an unwelcome one, either.

He wriggled his toes without a single aftershock of pain, and Gaku let himself sink down under the water, the bath rising above his nose and mouth.

For the first time since he could remember, he just let himself soak, something warm settling in his bones.

 

 

Gaku hadn’t realized how different waking up in someone else’s house could be. Back home, the morning was structured: time was allotted for every step, an assembly line creating the person known as “Mikohara Gaku.” He had expected that that wasn’t going to be possible—he didn’t have his supplies, or a bathroom he could commandeer as his own.

What he hadn’t expected was how… relaxed everything was. Satoru was barely even awake at breakfast, his little eyes blearily blinking at the world from his booster seat. More than once, Gaku had given his face a poke—and it took a few seconds for the toddler to even acknowledge the action, his face scrunching up in annoyance. “Gaku-nii, stop,” he whined, rubbing at his cheek.

“You have to eat,” he muttered back, turning his attention back to his own plate. Everything always felt worse on an empty stomach. Satoru pouted in his direction, but spooned the rice into his mouth all the same.

Gaku got ready with pin-point precision, even in an unfamiliar environment. He didn’t question why the first aid kit had been left out on the sink, nor where the new toothbrush—still shrink-wrapped in fresh plastic—had come from. Sachiko had laundered his clothing in the night, and Gaku slipped back into them without complaint. No one would notice that he was wearing the same thing: his wardrobe was static enough as it was, filled with dark pants and button-up shirts.

But the fabric was softer than he remembered, and an altogether not unpleasant smell clung to his clothes. It was a scent he had always associated with Satoru, and he found he didn’t mind being wrapped up in it, now.

When they finally stepped out of the house, it was with a half-awake Satoru still dozing against his mother’s shoulder. Gaku’s school wasn’t far from where Sachiko worked—obviously—and they walked there in companionable silence, fresh snow crunching under their feet. Gaku’s own mother had never walked him towards school, but it felt oddly natural when Sachiko did it.

Just once, Satoru blinked his eyes open, and stared down at the older boy. “Gaku-nii,” he mumbled, his words slurred against the lapels of his mother’s coat, “no ouches?”

He pressed his lips together, staring straight ahead. “No, Satoru,” he assured him. “No ouches.”

If Sachiko heard—and it was impossible for her not to—she pretended not to notice, clutching her son close.

They stopped only when they reached the edge of the field, steps away from the entrance to Sachiko’s work. It was only a few blocks to school now, and Gaku bowed down low, his hands clutching at the straps of his bookbag. “Thank you for having me,” he said.

“It was our pleasure,” Sachiko replied, gently setting Satoru down on his own two feet. The boy swayed for a moment, before reaching to clutch at his mother’s coat for balance, a sleepy yawn stretching his face. Sachiko laid one hand on her son’s head. “You’re welcome anytime, Gaku-kun,” she added, her voice oddly serious. “Don’t be afraid to drop in, even without notice. Okay?”

She stared at him, and he realized she was expecting an answer. So he forced himself to nod, murmuring: “Okay.”

Sachiko watched him for a second, but was apparently satisfied by whatever she saw, looking back down at her son. “Satoru,” she said gently, “say goodbye to Gaku-nii. He’s going off to school.”

Satoru sluggishly nodded, before giving a small wave with his free hand. “Bye-bye.”

“Goodbye, Satoru. Sachiko-san,” he added, giving another short bow. Without another look, he turned on his heel, continuing his route to school. Behind him, he could hear the Fujinuma’s voices, fading away a little more with every step. Gaku took a long, deep breath, tasting the cold Ishikari air on his tongue once again.

Somehow, he’d made it through—and once the morning bell rang, everything would be back to normal. Back to routine. The way it always was, and always had been.

For some reason, that didn’t bring him any relief.

 

 

School passed by in the same blur it always did. Gaku did his work diligently, keeping his nose buried in his books and pretending to care. He answered when called upon; the problems were all simple and mundane, only bits and pieces of what he’d already picked up in his spare time. During break, the chatter of his classmates swelled around him, and he plastered that charming smile on his face.

Here, he wasn’t ‘Gaku-nii,’ with his bloodied nose and bandaged body. He was ‘Mikohara-kun’—the understanding class rep who lived without a care in the world, save for the love letters tucked into his shoe locker every week.

(And if he listened attentively when someone brought up some superhero show, it meant nothing.)

The afternoon trudged by slowly, and Gaku turned his face towards the windows. Somewhere along the line, this too had become a habit: watching the weather, keeping an eye on the thermometer hanging outside the classroom window. Satoru was outside for most of the day, playing in that open field. Gaku knew if it got too cold out, that Sachiko would convince her boss to let Satoru wait in the staff room next to the space heater.

But it didn’t stop his stomach from twisting every time the mercury dipped lower, crawling below zero.

There was an itching under his skin by the time the final bell rang, and Gaku began to pack his things, biting at the inside of his cheek. He didn’t know what this feeling was: this irritated buzzing in his bones, the sensation of something sinking deep into his chest. He could deal with pain on his skin, the cuts and the bruises and the hairline fractures. Somehow, this—whatever ‘this’ was—was worse.

He gave the quickest of cursory goodbyes to his classmates, and stepped out of the school gates, immediately turning down that familiar road. The weather really had gotten worse since the morning: it was cold like the day he had first met Satoru, where every breeze felt like a splash of frozen water, cutting through his clothes. So he ducked his head down and walked a little faster, his hands buried deep into the pockets of his coat.

Gaku got to the field quickly, his chest rising and falling heavily, his breaths coming out as deep puffs of air. He immediately spied Satoru, his dark blue coat stark against the white snow—and Gaku felt his shoulders slump in relief. The knot that had formed in his stomach slowly unravelled, and he stepped up and over the bank separating the grass from the road.

The boy looked up from the snow castle he was trying to build, instantly dropping the bucket in favour of raising his hands, both arms waving above his head. “Ga—”

“Gaku!”

His eyes widened, and Gaku turned around—just in time for his brother’s fist to slam into his face.

He staggered back, his feet scrambling to catch his weight in the snow. Somehow, he managed to stay standing, the familiar taste of copper and metal pooling in his mouth. Gaku felt his mind jerk back to reality, watching as his brother stalked towards him, fists shaking and teeth bared. “Where the fuck were you last night?”

Satoru. Gaku inhaled slowly, and resolutely refused to look over, his gaze trained on his sibling. “Nowher—”

The next blow landed against his nose, crashing against cartilage with familiar crack. This time, Gaku went down hard—his back slamming against the packed-down snow, dry grass and twigs snapping underneath his weight. He’d long gotten over the instinct to reach for the wound, but he could feel the blood pouring down his face, hot and thick. With a wince, he tried to push himself to his elbows, at least—but was rewarded with his brother’s boot, burying itself deep in his stomach.

“Bullshit!” The next kick came faster, deeper—and the one after that, and the one after that too. Gaku coughed as the air was punted out of his lungs, splatters of red staining the snow underneath his face. Squeezing his eyes shut, he resisted the urge to curl in on himself; that always made it worse in the end, the target shifting from his torso to his head. Instead, he forced himself to go limp, his body skidding a little with every blow.

Somewhere above, his brother cursed again, the heel of his foot landing against Gaku’s shoulder. “This is your fault, you know,” he growled, kicking him onto his back. Gaku couldn’t help but cough as some of the blood hit the back of his mouth, the red bubbling against his lips. Still, he cracked his eyes open, staring up at his sibling’s rabid eyes. “If you’d just come back last night—if you’d just been home, then—!”

His words were cut off with a dull thunk.

Gaku blinked up at him, every breath rattling under his ribs. For a brief moment, neither of them moved—and it took Gaku a few seconds to recognize the long piece of wood that had just bumped against the back of his brother’s head.

With wide eyes, Gaku dropped his gaze down, to the person holding the end of the lumber between his little hands. Tears were streaking down Satoru’s face, his shoulders jumping with every hiccup—but he held on to his makeshift weapon, glaring up at the enemy. “L-leave,” he stuttered, swallowing thickly, “leave Gaku-nii alone!”

Gaku stared at him, a chill burying itself in his gut. “S-Satoru—”

“‘Gaku-nii’?” His brother’s lips twisted into a sneer, his eyes darting between the two younger boys at his feet. “Don’t tell me you’ve been playing house with this brat every day.”

Say something. Gaku could feel his mind running a mile a minute; there has never been a problem that didn’t have an answer for, never a situation he couldn’t talk his way out of. He parted his lips, trying to force the words onto his bloodied tongue—but his brother’s attention was already elsewhere, his entire body pivoting towards Satoru’s shaking form. “Hey, kid,” he said, his fingers flexing by his sides, “did your ‘Gaku-nii’ ever tell you about minding your own business?”

Gaku could see the moment Satoru’s bravado shattered, his stiff fingers suddenly losing their grip. The lumber flopped to the ground, and the boy took a few slow, frightened steps back, his hands curling into little nervous fists against his chest. “I—h-he—”

“Obviously not,” his brother spat, planting his feet in the snow. Gaku felt his breath catch in his throat; he knew that stance, knew what it meant. His broken body forced itself onto his elbows, a long line of blood slipping from his lips. Not fast enough: he watched as his brother’s sneer twisted into a humorless smirk, his right hand clenching tight. “Let me give you a life lesson, kid.”

In that moment, Gaku became aware of a lot of things: the way Satoru’s eyes widened, his shoulders hunching in on themselves. His brother’s leg swinging back, bracing to lean into the punch. The way his own pain fell away, buried beneath something he’d later recognize as adrenaline. But more than anything, Gaku was aware of the way his eyes narrowed—the way his teeth grit, his lips curling back into a snarl he’d only ever seen on his sibling’s face.

Like a math problem, Gaku could feel his mind tallying up the signs, the conclusion snapping together in his core. For the first time, he could feel that fire burning in his belly, the steam leaving his mouth in a ragged pant. His feet scrambled against the snow, his body vaulting forward, staggering through the air. There was a name for this feeling: something like fury or rage, but Gaku didn’t care about that now, because—

Gaku-nii always gets back up! Just like Wonder Guy!

Gaku’s fist crashed into his brother’s face, and they both went down.

 

 

Chapter Text

They fell into the snow in a mess of limbs and blood, bright red seeping into his brother’s gakuran. The world continued to spin in slow motion in front of Gaku’s eyes, and he savoured the shock he found on his sibling’s face, tasting it like bitter metal on his tongue. Before the older boy got the chance, Gaku coiled his fingers into another fist, the way his bruises had taught him to.

The blow landed against a bone, and the impact shuddered up through his hand. It would hurt later, he knew—but it would hurt his brother more, and that was enough to keep him swinging. His brother’s body shuddered underneath him, yelling profanities and curses, but Gaku didn’t hear it: didn’t hear anything but his own pulse beating in his ears, pounding like a war drum, fueling the flames in his veins.

He’d only gotten a scarce few hits in when his brother’s elbow smashed into his chin. Gaku felt his teeth clack painfully together as he was thrown back, and two rough hands fisted in the front of his coat, slamming him back against the ground. The back of his skull bounced off the frozen field, and black dotted his vision, obscuring everything but his brother’s glare.

“You fucking kidding me?” he snarled. “You’re going to start fighting back now?”

Gaku dug his nails into his brother’s hands, but he next punch still came, sinking into his eye socket. “Why?” he snarled, dragging his younger brother up by the collar. The fabric twisted around his neck like a noose, sinking into his skin. “Because of some fucking kid? Seriously?”

The fabric was strangling his vocal chords, his throat throttled and wheezing for air. The pain was trickling back in, one of his eyes squeezed shut, every bone aching under his muscles. Still, he continued to claw at his brother’s wrists, raking red lines into the skin—but the grip didn’t slip an inch. Black was creeping into the edges of his vision, and with what little breath he had, Gaku gave the only answer he could. 

He lifted the corners of his mouth, baring his bloodstained teeth, and smiled.

In that moment, Gaku could have sworn he saw fear on his brother’s face.

And then it was gone: his brother’s face, his eyes, the fists that were knotted in his shirt. The oxygen surged back into his lungs, and Gaku’s shoulders hit the snow, blood splashing down his throat again. Immediately his body heaved, mechanically moving onto its side, his bruised ribs pressing against the frozen ground. With every cough came a light splatter of red, and he pressed his hand to his mouth to try to keep it all inside.

Distantly, he could hear his brother yelling a string of frantic curses. Through the corner of the eye that wasn’t already swelling shut, Gaku could see someone there, standing between the two of them. They were taller—an adult, he realized—and his brother stumbled away, hands twisting at his sides. There was a reason the beatings were only ever when they were alone, far away from grown-up eyes—and a panic seeped out of his brother’s pores like sweat.

Not that Gaku could blame him. Sachiko Fujinuma’s chest was rising and falling fast, her breaths fogging in the winter air. Strings of black hair had fallen loose from her ponytail, sticking to her forehead. Despite all that, her tone came out steady, her eyes never tearing away from the older Mikohara. “Gaku-kun,” she said, “are you alright?”

He wiped away at the blood from his nose, nodding. “Yes.”

“Good. Take Satoru inside.”

Satoru. Gaku’s good eye widened, and he craned his neck, ignoring the ache that shot down his spine. It didn’t take long to find him: the boy was in the exact same place as before, his boots seemingly rooted to the ground. But fresh tears were still running down his red face, his shoulders stuttering with every uneven breath.

Gaku grit his teeth and pushed himself to his feet. Step by step, he forced his legs to stagger over. Satoru looked up at him, his face scrunched and hiccupping. Wordlessly, the boy reached up—and Gaku obliged, slipping his hands underneath Satoru’s shoulders. There was pain somewhere under his skin, but as always, he pushed it aside; instead, he focused on Satoru’s weight against his chest, two small arms winding around his neck.

Without a single glance back at his brother, he walked away, clutching Satoru tight.

 

 

Predictably, Gaku did not go home that night.

For better or for worse, Satoru had refused to detangle himself from his coat, gripping at Gaku’s collar and burying his face there with a hiccup. And Sachiko had calmly, but adamantly, would not allow him to return to the Mikohara residence—and he found himself too tired to argue with the ice in her eyes. It was all he could do just to nod, his grip tightening around Satoru’s still shivering form.

Slowly, they made their way back to the Fujinumas’ home, a heavy silence blanketing their footsteps like snow.

Sachiko gently shut the front door closed behind them, the lock clicking back into place—and Gaku swallowed thickly, watching the woman through the corner of his good eye. Over time, he’d developed a talent for picking apart the way someone moved, pulling at the loose threads in their muscles. To anyone else, he wondered what Sachiko must have looked like: relaxed, probably—perhaps even happy or warm. But there was a tension to the way she shrugged off her coat, a tightness at the corners of her mouth that he couldn’t ignore nor deny.

Sachiko looked down at them, and forced a smile. “Why don’t you two go get settled in the living room?” she suggested, hanging her jacket on a hook. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Gaku shifted his hold on Satoru, and nodded. He had at least half a dozen questions—what had happened when he’d gone inside, what she’d told his brother, what his brother had told her—but there was no urgency to them, no fear or concern. Just a mild curiosity, and little more. Something he found easy enough to ignore, his feet carrying him silently into the other room.

Gently, his shifted his hands from underneath the younger boy to his waist. “Satoru,” he muttered, tugging gently. But the only response he got was a choked-up and unintelligible mumble, muffled into the blood-caked collar of his shirt—and Satoru’s arms, tightening around his neck. Gaku tipped his head back and gave a small sigh through his nose. He could, theoretically, pull Satoru off of him by force—but it seemed like more effort than it was worth.

Besides, he found he didn’t particularly mind—especially when he still felt something hot and wet landing against his neck.

What were you supposed to do in situations like this? Stiffly, Gaku moved his bloodied hand to the boy’s spine, gently rubbing circles into the back of Satoru’s shirt. He supposed he must have cried like this once, too—maybe when he was much younger, softer and naïve—but he couldn’t remember it. Couldn’t recall what comfort he would have wanted, then. Especially since it probably never came.

Still, he shuffled through his memories, flipping through the categorized information like a rolodex in his brain. Things he’d seen his teachers do for the other kids, the times he’d seen a child screaming at the supermarket, a conversation between classmates at lunch—

Ah. Gaku blinked, and turned towards the TV. They were home earlier than usual, thanks to his brother. It was probably about the right time. Carefully, he crouched town in front of the little television set, one arm still clutching Satoru against his chest. His other hand pressed the power button on, listening to the high-pitched hum of the screen jumping to life.

One by one, he clicked through the channels until he found the one he needed—and then he sat back on the ground, cross-legged and waiting. Eventually, Satoru settled into something more comfortable as well, his legs twisting and body shifting until he sat sideways in Gaku’s lap. But his face remained resolutely buried in Gaku’s shirt, his breathing marred by wet hiccups.

Until the theme song came on. Gaku didn’t move, didn’t take his eyes off the screen—but his arms stayed looped around Satoru, and he could feel the young boy’s breath hitch at the sound.

The song set a bruising pace from the get-go, and Gaku couldn’t help but raise a skeptical eyebrow the moment Wonder Guy crashed onto the scene. He recognized the hero instantly, of course—Satoru’s toy mask was still sitting in the corner of the room—and the man immediately threw himself into a signature pose, offering a thumbs-up towards his loyal audience.

Today is a Wonder-ful day—to be a hero!”

Something shifted below, and Gaku stole a quick glance down. He could barely spy one of Satoru’s eyes, red-rimmed and wet—but attentively staring at the TV, half of his face still pressed against Gaku’s chest. Eventually, the opening music faded but the two of them continued to watch in silence, Satoru’s breathing slowly evening out.

The show must have been picking up where a previous episode left off. The cookie cutter city was already in ruins, courtesy of the monster rampaging on screen. And Wonder Guy already looked beaten, his suit battered and streaked in dirt; he stumbled on the spot, swaying from side to side. Satoru gave a sharp intake of breath, and Gaku did the only thing he could think of, giving what he hoped was a comforting squeeze.

The ideal thing in this situation would be to retreat, or at least, find a different vantage point. But it was immediately clear why Wonder Guy was standing his ground: the camera cut away to the child half-buried under the rubble behind him, their body intact but trapped beneath the fallen concrete. Tears ran down their cheeks, two clean lines cutting through the soot and dust.

And Gaku’s mind jumped right back to that field. To Satoru’s frightened face, staring up at the older Mikohara with wide and crying eyes. The way his brother prepared himself for the swing, his fingers curled into a tight, furious fist.

What would have happened if it had landed? Gaku could feel Satoru’s weight against his lap, leaning back against him; Satoru was so young, so small and breakable. Gaku knew, with a certainty that ached in his very bones, how hard those punches were. He’d spent a thousand nights pouring over his own wounds without a hint of feeling, but the idea of Satoru—beaten to a pulp, his little body covered in bruises and blood—

It made his stomach twist painfully with something he hadn’t felt in years. Fear.

At one point, Satoru had extracted himself from his place buried in Gaku’s shirt, fully immersed in the battle playing out on the TV. His little hands had moved to clutch at the older boy’s sleeves, keeping Gaku’s arms wrapped firmly around him. Together, they watched as Wonder Guy landed a Wonder Punch against the enemy’s jaw, sending the villain flying backwards. The fake wreckage crunched under his weight, and the hero gave a booming laugh, his hands on his hips.

“So long as there is someone who needs help,” Wonder Guy announced, pointing to the sky, “no matter how much you may try to beat me down, I will never be defeated! For I am—a hero!”

Gaku felt something roll back against his collarbone, and he looked down.

Satoru stared back up at him, his mouth parted and eyes practically sparkling. Gaku could feel a frown creasing on his face, so he finally broke the silence between them, muttering: “What?”

Satoru watched him for a second more, before his red and puffy face broke out into a wide grin. “Gaku-nii was so cool!”

Before the older boy even got a chance to respond, Satoru was thrashing around, his legs kicking excitedly at the air. “There, there was the bad guy—and then Gaku-nii came in like, like—!” He punched forward with a noise that sounded suspiciously like fwuah or bwahm!

Gaku watched it all with one raised eyebrow, but didn’t resist the small smile stretching across his face. “Really.”

“Uh-huh!” Satoru beamed up at him, both his hands reaching to clutch at Gaku’s arm. “Gaku-nii is the strongest!”

He bit back the indignant huff buried in the back of his throat. He didn’t know what fight Satoru had been watching, but Gaku could feel the outcome of this one with every ragged breath. His swollen face, his battered ribs—the evidence of his defeat was sitting familiar against his skin, bruising and dark. Frankly, it barely qualified as a fight at all: it was effectively a one-sided beating, the same as any other he’d had to endure. At the very least, it felt the same to him.

Gaku had lost the fight the moment he threw that first punch.

But Satoru didn’t know that. So he flexed his hands, his shredded knuckles stinging with the stretch—before dropping one hand on top of Satoru’s head, gently ruffling his hair. “Of course I am,” he lied. “You said it yourself. I’m like Wonder Guy. Which means no one can ever beat me.” And I won’t let anyone hurt you, either. “So don’t worry about me.”

Satoru nodded enthusiastically, his smile impossibly widening.

Two quick knocks against the doorframe made Gaku shift his head. Sachiko stood there with a first aid box balanced against her hip, a warm but exhausted smile on her face. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, crouching down next to them on the floor. “But it’s about time we tidy you up, I think.”

“Ouches,” Satoru murmured, quieter.

Gaku reached up to scratch at some of the dry blood sitting on his upper lip. “That’s fine,” he replied. Nothing was broken: he knew his body well enough to tell that much, at least. Which meant there wasn’t anything too serious, nothing he couldn’t handle on his own. “I can take care of it myself.”

“I bet you can,” Sachiko replied, flipping the box open. Gaku stared down at the familiar spread of gauze and antiseptic. It wasn’t quite as well-stocked as the one he had back home. “But that doesn’t mean you should.” She looked down at her son, still nestled in Gaku’s lap. “Besides, Satoru will help, right?”

He felt the younger boy’s eager nodding, and Gaku knew he’d been outplayed. Demon.

With the sound of Wonder Guy playing in the background, Gaku leaned back on his hands and allowed his wounds to be treated. Satoru’s little fingers were clumsy as they spread the bandages across his face, both his hands needed to smooth out the sticky sides. Gaku suspected there were more being used than were actually needed—more than once, he felt a band-aid being pressed somewhere that didn’t hurt—but neither he nor Sachiko bothered to correct him.

But it hurt more, when he didn’t know the pain was coming. Sachiko was as gentle with the antiseptic as she could be, gentler than Gaku ever was with himself. Yet the sting felt stronger than when he did it, as if it were sinking deeper into the wound, cleaning somewhere he’d never reached alone. Still, he didn’t flinch—that was a habit he’d outgrown a long time ago—and he simply sat and let them fuss until they were through.

Eventually, Sachiko snapped the box closed and held it out towards her child. “Satoru,” she called, “can you put this back in the bathroom? Under the sink?”

“Okay,” he murmured, holding onto the first aid kit with both hands. Satoru gave one last quick glance at Gaku, before shuffling quickly out of the room with short and heavy steps.

Gaku watched him go, and didn’t take his eyes away from the doorway, his fingers curling into loose fists. “What happens now, Sachiko-san?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

He could feel her gaze landing on his back, watching him out of the corner of her eye. “That depends on your parents,” she said, seriously. At least she wasn’t sugarcoating it, wasn’t patronizing; he could appreciate her honesty, if nothing else. “I called them while you two were in here. And I told them what happened.”

A stone sank deep into Gaku’s gut, dragging all of his organs and breathing with it. “What else did you say to them?”

“That you’ll be staying with me,” Sachiko said, “until your brother isn’t staying with them.”

Distantly, Gaku heard Satoru’s rummaging in the bathroom, things clattering around under the sink. “I see,” he murmured, but he didn’t, not really. The information was still flooding into his skull, the implications rolling one on top of the other, stacking up in clumsy piles in his brain. He wasn’t going home until he brother wasn’t there anymore. It was entirely possible that he wasn’t ever going to see his brother again. He might not even be going home again.

Any normal person would… feel something here. Gaku stared forward, out the door and into the kitchen, and waited for that something to come. When his emotions and eyes both remained dry, he gave up on waiting, drawing his knees close to his chest. “I bet my father didn’t take kindly to that.”

“That’s my problem, not yours,” Sachiko said, pushing herself to her feet and stretching her legs. “So don’t worry about it. You just get comfortable, and I’ll get an early start on dinner. Are you okay with fish?”

Before he could say anything, Satoru rushed back in, a clear plastic bottle held between his two palms. “Mama,” he called, holding it up. “Bubble bath? Please?”

Sachiko huffed, before ruffling at Satoru’s hair. “After supper, okay? Maybe Gaku-nii will even join you.”

Satoru turned his attention to the older boy, and Gaku gave him a small smile, the bandages on his face wrinkling with the motion. “Sure,” he muttered. “That sounds nice.”

 

 

The evening passed by uneventfully, which is exactly the way Gaku would have liked it. They ate a warm supper together, chatting about absolutely nothing that mattered. Then they took a bath, Gaku’s bruises and cuts buried beneath a layer of thick and sweet-smelling foam. Satoru spent most of the bath blowing the bubbles out of his palm and trying to dodge Sachiko’s attempts at washing his hair. For the most part, Gaku was able to sink down and relax, letting the heat melt into his muscles.

By the time they had changed, had a mug of hot milk and had crawled into their futons—Gaku could admit he was thoroughly exhausted, and he fell asleep almost instantly.

Until the voices woke him up again.

Gaku blinked blearily at the ceiling, and waited for a moment to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. Bit by bit, his mind came back to itself, but the voices still remained. No, those were definitely real—hushed, but clear, irritated and biting. Who… was that, then? Gaku could feel the cogs in his tired brain working; Satoru could barely string two sentences together, so that was out.

Slowly, Gaku turned his head, sleepily staring out towards Sachiko’s empty futon.

It took him a second for the sight to actually sink into his mind. When it did, he carefully sat up, detangling Satoru’s limbs from his side. The boy gave a small murmur, his legs kicking at his sheets—but he remained steadfastly asleep, and Gaku gave a relieved sigh at that. Gently, he tugged the covers back up to Satoru’s chin. Only once he had settled down again did Gaku turn his attention elsewhere, quietly crawling towards the door that separated the main room from the kitchen.

Silently, he slid the door open a crack, holding his breath.

“—doing is kidnapping,” a voice hissed, and Gaku felt his fingers curl tightly around the doorframe. He’d recognize his father’s voice anywhere. “I’d rather not get the police involved, but—”

“Gaku isn’t anywhere he doesn’t want to be.” Sachiko’s voice was flat and cold, but firm; all too easily, he could imagine that forced calm on her face again, harsh like frostbite. “And please, do call the police. I’ll happily explain why he’s staying with me in the first place.”

There was a tense moment of silence, and Gaku swallowed, straining his ears.

“Listen,” Sachiko began again, her tone soft. “I only have my one child, so I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through. But your son—both your sons—they need help, Mikohara-san. You have to know that.” There was a short shuffle as Sachiko’s feet shifted against the floor, her shadow moving in the corner of Gaku’s vision. “You’re a city councilor, aren’t you? You know there are facilities for children with problems—”

“You’re right,” his father snapped, and Gaku felt his fingers twitch against the doorframe. “You don’t understand. So do not pretend to tell me what to do with my family.”

Gaku leaned his forehead against the door, feeling the wood digging into the skin between his eyes. In the other room, Sachiko’s disappointed sigh cleaved the air in two. “I take it you brought some of Gaku’s clothes, like I asked?”

His only response was the sound of something heavy and soft thumping to the ground at her feet.

“Thank you.” Gaku could hear the bag getting nudged along the floor, the soft fabric dragging along the linoleum tile. “Have a good night, Mikohara-san. I hope you find your answer soon.” She paused, before adding: “For both of your sons’ sakes.”

There was a beat of quiet, and Gaku just barely managed to catch the tell-tale crunch of footsteps in snow. Sachiko must have been hovering by the door, watching as his father left—until she gently shut the front door, the lock giving a soft click back into place.

Which was Gaku’s cue to scramble. As discreetly as he could, he slipped the sliding door closed again, letting it blot out the light. In the near-complete darkness, he crawled back under his borrowed covers, tugging Satoru against him again. Luckily, the younger boy latched back on almost immediately, yawning even in sleep—and Gaku closed his eyes and pretended to do the same.

He counted his slow, even breaths until the door cracked open again. Sachiko tiptoed her way back into the room, the winter cold still clinging to her pajamas. Gaku didn’t open his eyes, but he felt her weight at his back as she settled into her futon again. The darkness settled back into place, painting shadows back into the corners of the room. A trickle of relief spread through his veins, and Gaku felt his muscles finally relaxing.

“I’m sorry you had to hear that, Gaku-kun.”

Gaku’s eyes opened, and he stared blindly forward, unsurprised. Demon.

“It’s fine,” he whispered back.

Neither of them said anything more that night.

 

 

Sachiko kept him home from school the next day.

It was—it was a strange feeling. He felt like a ship steering into foreign and uncharted territory. Gaku had never been permitted a sick day in his entire life: he was never the type to get a fever, and his parents never gave a second glance at the fresh bruises on his face. Missing class might as well have been the Mikohara household’s equivalent of a blaring siren—a meltdown at the core of their nuclear family.

All this to say that when Sachiko told him he didn’t have to change out of his sleeping clothes, Gaku—he just didn’t know what to do. He ate his breakfast mechanically, going through the motions of normalcy, trying to keep on-course. Occasionally he righted Satoru when it looked like he was going to fall, face-first and asleep, into his food. But after the dishes were washed and scrubbed in the sink, once the leftovers were packaged into the fridge, once his teeth were brushed and his face washed—

Gaku stood stock still in the middle of the kitchen, completely and utterly lost.

He stared blankly forward, thoughts swirling in his head, churning within his skull. Up until this moment, his life had had a semblance of control. Of course, there had been things—fists and beatings and blood—that were inevitable; all you could do was swallow it down and grimace in the face of it. But the methodical way he treated his wounds in the morning, the superficial conversations with classmates—even the minute changes to his routine, like his daily time with Satoru—at least those had been things he’d chosen.

Not to say he had any fondness for it: it had been little more than self-imposed marching line, beating to the drumming of his pulse. But now he felt out of step, his life tripping over its own two feet, even as his own heels remained firmly glued to the ground.

His fingers twitched at his sides, nails digging into the fabric of his pajama pants. Underneath his clothes, his heart was hammering against his ribs, throwing itself into his throat. He breathed slowly, every emotion wiped clean off of his face as he tried to settle on which one he was supposed to be wearing. His brain was ticking a mile a minute, creating a never-ending rattling in his ears.

There was only one solution, wasn’t there?

He would tell Sachiko he wanted to go to school. That these bruises and contusions were nothing his teachers and classmates hadn’t seen before. That he could, would work through the pain, just as he had done a thousand times before. Then everything would be back on track: he would get dressed like always, walk to class like always, and—

Something tugged at his sleeve, and Gaku forced himself look down.

Satoru blinked blearily up at him, his mouth screwing together as it tried to swallow back a yawn. A bit of food was smeared against the corner of his lips, not that he noticed. Instead, he rubbed at his eye with one fist, the other still clinging to Gaku’s sleeping shirt. “Gaku-nii,” he muttered. “Play with me?”

And just like that, he felt the tension flee his muscles in a flush—and Gaku dropped his hand on top of Satoru’s head, his brain dizzy from the whiplash. “Yeah,” he agreed, his lungs finally settling back into their normal rhythm. “What kind of game do you want to play?”

Two hours later, Gaku will wonder how he got here: standing with the futon covers draped across his shoulders, Wonder Guy’s mask firmly on his face. It was hard to do the signature pose without the cape falling off, every muscle and fiber of his body was still crying out in pain—but the look on Satoru’s face somehow made it all worthwhile.

 

 

Chapter Text

It took a little over a month for his parents to break.

Gaku didn’t know if that was longer, or shorter, than he had expected. Maybe he hadn’t really expected anything at all—they’d never showed interest or concern in his life before, and had no reason to think they’d suddenly start now. So, after a week or so of adjustment, he’d fallen into a new kind of routine at the Fujinuma household: one where he didn’t need to reach for the first aid kit every morning, and he went to sleep without a single bruise on his skin.

After a few days of living in their tiny apartment, Gaku had insisted on contributing somehow—which is how he ended up as Sachiko’s designated sous-chef, carefully cutting vegetables in comfortable silence at her elbow.

He thought about his blood family a little at first, but even those thoughts quickly fell by the wayside. Instead, he focused on the heat of Satoru’s hand in his as the toddler walked him to school every day, sleepily stumbling the whole way.

And it was—nice. Class was as tedious and monotonous as it always had been, his classmates idly chattering all around. But without the ever-present ache in his bones, Gaku found it (mildly) more tolerable. And once the day was done, he was all the more eager to leave, walking with quick steps to the field where he knew Satoru would be waiting for him.

He should have known it wouldn’t last—but at the time, he was content to just float through one day to the next, willfully ignorant and blissfully naïve.

That night, Gaku had offered to do the dishes after dinner; his arms were elbow-deep in soap and suds, his feet balancing on a stepstool in front of the sink. Satoru was too small to really be of much use when it came to cleaning up, but he stayed in the kitchen anyway, rabidly sketching at the table. Distantly, he could hear Sachiko pulling the futons out of the closet, the thick fabric giving an audible thump as it was shaken out. The silence was lulling and warm—so much so that when the phone began to ring, Gaku almost dropped his plate.

Satoru’s head snapped up too, but all he did was look in the direction of the machine, his legs kicking at the air. “Phone ringing.”

“I know, I know,” Sachiko called back, stepping back into the kitchen. She patted her hands against her jeans as she walked over, muttering something about the hour. After tucking some hair behind her ear, she lifted the receiver off the machine, pressing the speaker against her head. “Fujinuma residence, Sachiko speaking.”

For a second she was quiet, before giving a curious hum, leaning her back against the wall. “Mikohara-san,” she began, and Gaku froze. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

With stiff fingers, Gaku set the cup he was washing into the drying tray, pretending not to be listening as intently as he was.

His father—well, or mother, he supposed either was possible—must have had a lot to say, because Sachiko had gone completely silent, staring intently at nothing as she listened. Gaku resolved himself to leaving the rest of the dishes to soak for the night, twisting the tap closed and reaching for a dish towel. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his makeshift-guardian, standing unnaturally still as he wiped his hands.

“That’s a decision he’ll have to make for himself,” she said, her gaze flickering to her charge. “If he wants to hear you out.”

Gaku’s grip twisted into the towel, but he gave a curt nod.

Sachiko nodded as well, a confirmation to him more than anything else. “Yeah, tonight works,” she said, tangling the phone’s cord between her fingers. “You still remember the address, I take it.” Gaku could hear the sound of someone on the other end of the line, and Sachiko gave a small affirmative hum. “Exactly. See you soon.”

She set the handset back against the base with a small ring, before placing her hands on her hips with a short, irritated sigh. It only took her a moment to recover, though, immediately turning towards the two boys with a warm smile. “It’s getting pretty late,” she said, her gaze dropping onto her son. “Satoru, you should probably be getting to bed.”

The boy immediately frowned, his mouth opening in what was sure to be a whine. Gaku cut it off at the source, though, poking the boy’s cheek. “Don’t argue with your mother,” he chastised. This wasn’t a conversation he wanted Satoru to hear, either.

Luckily—and with some encouragement from Gaku—they got Satoru tucked in with minimal fuss. He’d developed a habit of falling asleep clutching at Gaku’s arm, but second pillow seemed to be a good enough substitute. Sachiko silently shut the door to the living room as Gaku began filling up the kettle; his father considered it rude when there wasn’t tea ready for guests.

At his side, Sachiko moved to start preparing the teapot. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Gaku?”

Not really. But then again, he didn’t think he ever would be, so he nodded.

“Okay,” she said, giving him a playful nudge. “Let’s give him hell, kid.”

 

 

His father arrived fifteen minutes later, and to Gaku, he might as well have been a stranger. Of course, he recognized him—but in a way, it was like he was looking at his parent for the first time, with fresh eyes. How he kept he kept his back deliberately, achingly straight; the fact that he brought his briefcase, even now; the pressed lines of his suit, crisp and sharp—all of it just screamed fake, and Gaku wondered how he had never seen it before.

His father cleared his throat as he took a seat at the kitchen table, his slicked-back hair shining in the light. Sachiko politely offered him some of the tea they had brewed, and he accepted with a slight incline of his head, his lips still pressed into a firm line. By the time they had all settled in, it was Gaku and Sachiko on one side of the table, and his father on the other—two opposing armies, staring each other down across the battlefield.

His father sipped at his tea, and as he set it down, he cleared his throat. “Well,” he started, laying his hands one on top of the other, “I would like to discuss terms.”

Of course he would treat this like a negotiation. Maybe once, that wouldn’t have seemed so strange, so completely out-of-place—but it was wrong here, at the Fujinumas’ kitchen table. Gaku forced his face to remain even, but all he wanted to do was scowl: it felt like a disrespect to this place, warmer and more like home than that house had ever been.

His father’s fingers tapped against his own knuckles, betraying the mask of calm on his face. “Tomorrow, Gaku’s brother will be leaving our home,” he explained, clinical and detached, as if he weren’t talking about his own flesh and blood. “We have found a residential program that would be willing to accept him. The minimum term is one year, with the possibility of being extended annually.”

Gaku straightened at that, blinking rapidly. He knew that Sachiko had said something along those lines, but—he didn’t think his parents would actually do it. They hadn’t done anything about the situation before, and frankly, he hadn’t expected that to change—especially now, after so many weeks away from home. If they had been serious about changing things, why had it taken so long?

Gaku’s brows furrowed. He knew why.

“So your neighbours finally noticed Gaku was gone, huh,” Sachiko said, thoroughly unimpressed.

“My wife and I just want our son home,” his father replied, without a hint of feeling.

Sachiko gave a low, disbelieving hum at that. “Speaking of you and your wife, Mikohara-san,” she said, leaning forward until her elbows were propped up on the table. “While your older child may have been the catalyst for Gaku-kun’s situation, I have to question why it had been allowed to reach this point in the first place.”

“Boys roughhouse all the time,” his father quipped back, clearly prepared. “We had not realized the extent to which our sons were escalating the situation.”

“Son,” Sachiko corrected, her jaw clenching.

But his father was having none of it, a single eyebrow rising above his glasses. “Which is why my other boy came back beaten black and blue the day you brought Gaku here,” he retorted, before holding his hands up placatingly. “But we are not here to lay blame, are we, Fujinuma-san? I trust we all want a mutually beneficial resolution.”

“I think you mean what’s best for Gaku-kun,” she countered, the stiffness in her shoulders betraying the calmness of her tone. Gaku watched her from the corner of his eye, but opted to remain silent; he wanted to hear what his father had to say to the adult in the room, before the man tried to placate him with empty platitudes.

“Of course.” A plastic smile was slapped onto his parent’s face. “As I mentioned, we have made the decision that outside intervention would be beneficial to my son’s development. In light of that, I don’t see any reason why Gaku shouldn’t be allowed to come home.” There was a glint in his eye, and he added casually, as if it were the easiest thing in the world: “And I think a judge would agree.”

Gaku felt like he’d been punched again, his eyes widening.

“You’re a single parent, aren’t you, Fujinuma-san?” he continued, his voice and posture completely relaxed, as if they were simply talking about the weather. He reached down for his cup, swirling the tea inside with slow, languid motions. “A lawyer would be quite the expense, especially on a single income such as yours. Besides, I’d rather resolve this issue amicably, if possible.”

You call this amicable? Gaku kept his lips firmly shut, glaring across the table. To her credit, if the threat had phased Sachiko, she didn’t let it show; her face remained even and steady, staring resolutely at the man sitting in her home and threatening her to her face. “You know, I still have friends at Ishikari TV,” she replied. “I wonder what they would say if they heard you talking like that, Mikohara-san.”

For a brief second, his father’s façade seemed to flinch—but then it was back again, as hollow as ever. “I don’t think anyone here wants this to turn into a public brawl, do we?” he asked, his fingers drumming along his cup. “We both just want what’s best for our children, after all. Speaking of which—how old is your son again, Fujinuma-san?”

This time, Gaku couldn’t swallow his irritation, snapping harshly. “Leave Satoru out of this.”

Finally, for the first time, his father’s gaze slid his way. “Gaku,” he began, a forced levity slithering into his tone. “Don’t you think it’s time to put a stop to this foolishness? Your mother misses you.”

Gaku suppressed the scoff in his throat. The only thing his mother missed was not being the gossip of the street. He stared blankly forward at his parent, unfeeling and unperturbed, his fingers entwined in his lap. Silent. His father waited a few seconds for a reply, but when it was clear there would be none, he casually turned his attention back to Sachiko. “We fulfilled the requirement you imposed on us.”

“You did,” she said, crossing her arms. “But it’s not my decision. You raised a smart kid, Mikohara-san.” She stopped and nodded in Gaku’s direction without taking her eyes off the man. “So I’m more than happy to let him decide what he wants for himself.”

Yet again, Gaku found himself in his father’s crosshairs—black eyes meeting black, impassive stares reflecting back into each other. In hindsight, he wondered how many of his habits came from the man in front of him; if he’d learned to pack every emotion away watching this caricature of a parent in front of him. Deep inside of his gut, Gaku felt that still-foreign lick of hate, curling in his stomach.

He wanted nothing more than to tear his father’s perfect world down. Wanted to watch his miniature dynasty and crafted persona crumble, like a statue torn from its pedestal. And if that meant waking up every day in this apartment, if it meant that he would spend every morning and evening with Satoru’s beaming smile at his side—then that would hardly be a loss. If anything, the idea made his blood buzz with something like longing.

But. His father’s threat was still there, skulking beneath the surface of civil conversation. This man was on the city council, with a pocket book filled with friends in the justice system. Was it so hard to imagine that he could have Sachiko dragged away in handcuffs? Gaku stared into that cool expression, and knew the answer immediately. Even if she somehow got a lawyer for free, even if she wasn’t found guilty—it would be a long and bloody fight.

For her, yes—but more importantly, for Satoru. Gaku felt a shiver trail up his spine. He already knew that the Fujinumas had no other relatives, no family except each other. If Sachiko was sentenced to jail time, then—then Satoru would have to go to an—

No. Gaku felt his fingers twitch, cutting off the thought before it had a chance to take root. Just imagining it made his intestines twist.

“If he’s not leaving until tomorrow,” Gaku said, his voice flat, “then I have until then to decide, don’t I?”

“That seems fair to me,” Sachiko agreed, tipping her chin in the man’s direction. “Unless you have any objections?”

The enemy tapped his fingers against the knuckle of his other hand. “Of course not,” he said, feigning empathy. “Take all the time that you need, Gaku.”

Which meant, in his father’s twisted tongues, that the clock was ticking. It was already relatively late at night; that left him a little under twenty-four hours to sort through the pros and cons, weighing benefits and risks behind his eyelids. Gaku leaned back into his seat, his hands gripping each other tightly under the table, staring down at his lap. At his side, Sachiko continued to talk, ironing out details for tomorrow night.

But Gaku found his attention pulled elsewhere.

The door between the two rooms was open a crack.

Gaku had seen Sachiko shut it, right after putting Satoru to bed. He dropped his gaze, trailing down that slice of black, until he caught two little bright eyes staring back up at him. The second he realized he’d been caught, Satoru scattered, disappearing back into the darkness of the room. Gaku frowned in his direction, before slumping a little in his seat.

Great. Now he was teaching Satoru bad habits, on top of it all.

“I’m going to bed,” he announced quietly, slipping away from the table without a single glance. He would say goodnight to Sachiko later, when they were alone—and he didn’t have the energy or the will to pretend to be civil for his father’s sake. Without another word, Gaku pushed the door open, staring with furrowed brows into the living room.

One of the futons had a distinct, Satoru-sized lump. Gaku slid the door closed again, cutting out the light and the voices from the kitchen, before sitting down next to the tiny bundle trying to hide beneath the blankets. The form shifted a little, rustling under the sheets, before going still as stone. For a second, Gaku considered just ripping off the blankets—but something about that felt wrong, like he was betraying something.

But he couldn’t really think of anything to say, so he did what he always did when it came to Satoru—he guessed. Gaku dropped his hand where he thought Satoru’s back was, rubbing circles against his spine, gently coaxing. It took a minute or so, but eventually a dark tuft of hair popped out of one end, glistening eyes peering up at him from the depths of duvet. “Gaku-nii?”

“Yes?”

“That guy’s scary.”

Gaku smiled a little at that, moving his hand to ruffle at his head. He had never been afraid of his father—but he never hid or fled from his brother’s fists either, so he supposed that didn’t mean much. “He isn’t very nice,” he admitted. “But don’t worry. He’s not going to do anything to you.”

I won’t let him.

“Okay,” Satoru said, his voice still tentative, thoughts clearly stringing together across his face. Even in the dark, he could feel Satoru watching him, the weight of those eyes impossibly heavy. But after a few silent seconds, that lump scooted closer, until Gaku could feel the child sleepily nestling against his side. There was a pleased sigh as Satoru finally found somewhere comfortable, settling down and steadily going limp.

Gaku gently continued to card his fingers through his hair, a motion that he hoped was relaxing. Clearly, it was working, because Satoru’s next words came slurred and muffled by fatigue.

“I wanna,” he yawned, “protect Gaku-nii...”

Gaku’s eyebrows shot up, his hand stilling on top of Satoru’s head. The boy didn’t notice, his breathing already even, quickly stolen away by sleep—and Gaku made sure to keep himself still, even as the air was kicked out of his lungs, as painful as his brother’s heel had ever been.

When… had anyone said something like that to him?

His lips parted, trying to whisper an answer, even if only to himself—but he couldn’t find one. His brother had never, obviously—but he couldn’t even scramble for some long-buried memory. Maybe, deep down, he had hoped it was there: some rose-coloured recollection from his past, like someone’s warm and gentle touch, promising to keep him safe.

But no matter what, it always came back to…

Gaku swallowed thickly, and his hand slowly slipped into Satoru’s own. Even in sleep, he felt those little fingers curling around him, holding on tight and refusing to let go. A broken breath splintered off his lips, and Gaku found himself pulling Satoru’s small body close.

He wanted to protect this, too. No matter what.

 

 

Chapter Text

Gaku woke up on Friday morning, knowing his decision had already been made.

But tonight was still so many hours away, and the time between was a carefully constructed ceasefire that he didn’t want to waste. So he decided to revel in whatever peace he could, feigning sleep long after Sachiko had slipped out to make breakfast. The clock ticked past the school bell’s time, and still he didn’t move, forcing himself to memorize every detail of the moment. The soft sounds of cooking in the kitchen, the way the dust sparkled in the sunlight, the slurred half-words Satoru sleep-talked into his shirt.

When Sachiko poked her head back in, she didn’t have to say a word; Gaku raised his head and nodded back in her direction, before resigning himself to facing the day. Gently, he dropped a hand to Satoru’s shoulder, slowly shaking the younger boy awake. Immediately he felt that face burying further into Gaku’s chest, like an ostrich trying to bury its face in the sand.

After this long, Gaku was willing to admit that Satoru’s habits had grown on him. He smiled fondly as he poked at the boy’s cheek, peeling the toddler off of him. “Come on, Satoru,” he coaxed, detangling them from each other. “Time for breakfast.”

As the boys ate, Sachiko continued to move through her own routine, slipping into her work clothes and brushing out her hair. Last time Gaku had stayed home, his skin still beaten black and blue, she’d called in from work too—but this time she just offered him a knowing smile, sliding a few crumpled bills onto the table next to his chopsticks.

“He likes the Children’s Centre,” she whispered in Gaku’s ear, before giving her son a kiss on the head on her way out. “Have fun with Gaku-nii today, okay?”

“Okay,” Satoru repeated, his spoon still sticking out of his mouth.

Gaku laid his hand on the money, the warm in his chest frothing up into his throat. Of course, he’d wanted to spend the entire day with Satoru: no matter which way things went, this easygoing every day was going to change. He wanted to soak up the last of it while he could. “Thank you, Sachiko-san,” he replied, quietly.

“It’s my pleasure,” she said with a small smile, before waving at them both as she pushed the door open. “Just make sure you’re home by dinnertime.”

The door closed behind her with a click, and Gaku released a slow breath before beginning to gather the dishes. He pulled the spoon out of Satoru’s mouth with a pop, before giving him a small tap on the nose with the round end. The boy scrunched his face up before rubbing at his nose with his pajama sleeve, sticking his tongue out at Gaku.

Gaku just huffed in response, dropping the dishes into the sink to soak. “Let’s go get ready,” he said, moving towards the bathroom. “We have a lot to do today.”

 

 

With one hand, Gaku patted at the pocket of his coat, feeling the money crinkle. His other hand clutched tightly to Satoru’s own, the wool of his mittens soft against Gaku’s palm. There was somewhere he wanted to stop on the way, and Satoru glanced around the shopping district with wide eyes, taking in the sights and sounds. Personally, Gaku felt none of that childlike wonder: with a slight tug, he pulled Satoru closer to his side as people crisscrossed their path, warily watching the strangers filter by.

But they managed to make it where they were going, and Gaku pushed the door open, listening to the bell above them chime. He held it open as Satoru shuffled in, and for a moment the boy’s mouth went slack as he looked around at all the bright colours and sweet smells. Then he turned back to Gaku, excitement brimming up in his eyes. “Candy!”

“Yeah,” he said, sliding his hands back into his pockets with a small smile. The store was filled to the brim with sugar of every kind; Gaku had seen it plenty of times on his way home, but had never bothered to stop in before. His fingers gripped at the money, and he added: “You can get whatever you want.”

Satoru’s gobsmacked face almost made him laugh. Almost.

The boy looked around with fresh eyes, paralyzed by choice. In a moment of pity, Gaku gave a long, exaggerated hum and began to walk down one of the aisles, pretending to peruse. Feigning interest, he plucked a lollipop from a jar on the shelf, turning it over in the light. There were only a few seconds until those clumsily footsteps shuffled after him, staring up at the candy. “What’s that?”

“A lollipop,” he answered, before plucking a few more. On second thought, having a few of them for later wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Holding the bouquet of lollipops in hand, they made their way through the aisles together, Satoru craning himself up onto his tip-toes in order to peer at the candy. Every so often, Gaku crouched down to his height, balancing on his heels and explaining the different colours and flavours. The difference between licorice and the little, star-shaped konpeito; how, despite how they look, pudding was not just melted mochi. It took time to get through all the rows, their hushed voices murmured between the cluttered shelves.

Predictably, it was a certain bright package that finally caught Satoru’s eye. He rushed up to it, a beaming smile stretched across his face as he plucked the bag from its spot with both hands. “Gaku-nii! Look!” he beamed, rushing back and holding the candy up for the boy to see. “Wonder Guy!”

“So it is,” Gaku agreed, taking the treat and inspecting it. Officially, it was actually ‘Wonder Gummies’—soft pieces of gelatin and artificial colouring, molded into the shape of the superhero’s mask. He handed it back to Satoru, who immediately took to staring at the character on the front, eyes shining. “Is that the one you want, then?”

“Please!” Satoru said with an excited nod, and Gaku offered him his hand again.

“Okay,” he said, lacing their lopsided fingers together.

They shuffled over to the cash, and Gaku dropped the lollipops and the gummies onto the counter, sliding them towards the old woman sitting by the register. He gave her a small, polite nod, even as Satoru tugged insistently at his hand, excitement brimming from his pores. “Good day.”

The corners of her eyes creased as she looked over them both, her fingers slowly tallying up the total. “Hello there, boys,” she replied. Her voice as soft and aching as the rest of her, dry like the pages of an old book. “A bit early for sweets, isn’t it?”

“It’s for later,” Gaku explained, at the same time that Satoru piped in, only his eyes visible above the counter.

“Gaku-nii said I could get whatever I wanted!”

“Did he, now?” she laughed, the total popping up on top of the cash machine. Gaku began tugging out the required bills from his pocket, something that proved increasingly difficult with only one hand. But he found himself unwilling to let go of Satoru around anyone that wasn’t Sachiko. Obliviously, the woman added: “What a nice big brother you have.”

Gaku could feel the tips of his ears heating up, and he dropped some of the bills down on top of the counter, looking down at Satoru. The boy didn’t correct her, unflustered, adding: “He’s strong, like Wonder Guy!”

“Oh, I bet,” she agreed with an amused nod, making the change. She placed the coins in a little tray and slid them back over to Gaku, who quickly began to pluck them back up. The woman continued to watch Satoru, a small and fond little smile on her face. “Do you know where you’re going to be eating the candy later?”

Satoru looked up at Gaku, who just said: “It’s a surprise.”

“Surprise!” Satoru echoed back.

“Ooh, exciting,” she said. “Well, I hope you two have fun. Be careful, it’s a bit nippy out there.”

“We will,” Gaku said, grabbing the lollipops and pushing them into the depths of his pockets. Then he picked up the bag of gummies, holding it out to Satoru: “Don’t drop these, okay?”

“Okay,” he said, taking the bag to cradle it against his chest. Then he turned back to the lady, blinking up at her. “Bye-bye, Grandma!”

She laughed with a little wave, and Gaku gave another little nod before leading Satoru back out onto the street. Steadily, they began to stroll down the sidewalk, Satoru was already chattering about something or other, his breath coming out in little puffs of fog. But Gaku was only barely listening, his head still back in that store, replaying the conversation over in his head.

Had Satoru just not noticed that she called him his big brother? His eyes slid down to the younger boy, his round cheeks steadily turning red in the cold. He wasn’t really old enough to lie so naturally, so it wasn’t a case of hearing it and deciding not to say anything. Either Satoru hadn’t realized she said it at all—or he’d accepted it as a fact.

Gaku turned his eyes forward again and he felt something ballooning inside of his lungs, fuzzy and warm.

He only wished it could last.

 

 

Gaku had only been to the Children’s Centre once or twice in his life. The building had never inspired anything in him other than an overwhelming sense of boredom, and that didn’t suddenly change now. Gaku bit back the urge to groan as the door closed behind him, his senses surrounded by fluorescent lights and the smell of aging plastic. As he unwound his scarf, Gaku glared around at the building that was the source of every mind-numbing field trip he’d ever been subjected to, and sighed.

Always his faithful opposite, Satoru was practically beaming at his side, his little feet rushing forward into the lobby. Gaku watched as the younger boy stopped at the foot of the giant bear statue, the animal’s shadow looming over him. The beast’s mouth was wide-open, frozen mid-bellow, rows of painted teeth shining dully. With wide eyes, Satoru craned his neck back, both of his hands clinging the bag of candies tight against his chest.

With slower steps, Gaku followed after him, his hands buried into the pockets of his coat. “Be careful,” he hummed, “he might try to eat you.”

Satoru’s eyes widened, and he took two quick and shuffling steps away. “Really?”

“No,” Gaku admitted, placing his hand between Satoru’s shoulderblades. Gently, he nudged the toddler forward again, looking up at the statue’s face as well. He could just tell him that it wasn’t really alive, but that seemed… unimaginative. The world would stamp out that childlike awe one day, one way or another—but Gaku refused to help it along. “He’s big, but he probably just wants to be your friend. I wouldn’t worry.”

The boy looked up at him, completely unconvinced, before turning his attention back to the beast. “Scary.”

“I know,” he said. “But he won’t hurt you. I promise.” Gaku paused and craned his neck around, staring down the mess of hallways and wings that branched out from the main room. Signs pointed every which way, subjects and exhibits color-coded on the maps scattered around. There wasn’t anything Gaku could pretend to be interested in, so he turned back to Satoru. “Where did you want to go first?”

And like that, Satoru’s face brightened, cheeks expanding like an excited balloon. “Everywhere!”

Gaku bit back a sigh. “Alright,” he said, offering his hand. Satoru’s fingers clutched at his own, the grip clumsy and tight. Just feeling Satoru’s hand in his managed to quell the irritation before it bubbled up, and Gaku gave a small squeeze, just to confirm he was there. “Let’s get going, then.”

 

 

When Satoru said everywhere, he really meant everywhere. Gaku watched as the boy scurried from one exhibit to the next, trailing a few feet behind and watching with thinly veiled interest. Both of their coats were folded over his arm, Satoru’s gummies tucked away into one of their sleeves—which meant the boy was free to rush around, bouncing back and forth across the hall like a pinball.

And while it was a Children’s Centre, most of the activities were not made for someone who was barely three feet tall. Which often led to Satoru trying to peer at something from the top of his toes, before turning to the older boy with his hands reaching skywards. “Gaku-nii,” he called, “up-up!”

“Okay, okay,” Gaku sighed, setting the coats down on the floor. The act of slipping his hands under Satoru’s shoulders was becoming increasingly routine, and he let the familiar weight rest against his chest. Eagerly, Satoru leaned forward, his palms pressed and breath fogging against the glass as he peered inside the fake ecosystem.

Dead and stuffed animals stood at attention on the other side, a pair of foxes stuck mid-crouch with teeth bared. Gaku couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the whole display; it was just a pale imitation of the wild. There was no fight there, no real struggle to survive—just a caricature of it, locked away behind glass. The whole thing just screamed fake, and something about it made something itch under his skin.

But Satoru seemed entertained enough, his hands curling into something like claws and growling at his own reflection. It was completely unthreatening, coming out more like a rumbling whine than anything—but Gaku played pretend for Satoru’s sake, stumbling back from the exhibit with a hushed whisper. “Did you hear that?”

The boy in his arms just laughed, playfully swatting at the arms holding him up. “Gaku-nii, it was just me!”

“Really?” he said, resting his chin on top of Satoru’s head. “Nope, I don’t believe it. It was far too terrifying.”

“It was! See?” He brought his hands up again, and let out another pitiful attempt at a roar, legs kicking at the empty air for emphasis. Gaku couldn’t help the smile he felt budding on his lips, and his fingers turned to tickling Satoru’s sides. A loud laugh burst out of Satoru’s mouth, every limb thrashing as he tried to squeeze himself out of Gaku’s hold. “No no no, st-stop—!”

“Y-you two look like you’re having—f-fun.”

Gaku’s body and mind swerved to a sudden stop, tires screeching in his head and alarms blaring in his ears. In a single breath every muscle shifted gears under his skin, clunking to military attention: playful hands immediately clamped down, his arms locked and shoulders hunching forward instinctively. By the time his heel was whirling around to face the voice, Satoru was already solidly secured against his chest, cocooned by Gaku’s larger frame.

Safely protected from the stranger—the adult—standing a few feet away. The man smiled down at them kindly, his face spotted by freckles and marred with nerves. Even though his hands were buried in his pockets, Gaku could see his fingers quivering, the fabric twisting and turning with every twitch. Despite this—or maybe in spite of it—Gaku levelled him with a seething glare, his feet taking three quick steps back.

“Ah!” The man held up his hands in a placating gesture, bending down—trying to lull you into complacency, Gaku’s mind provided, don’t fall for it. “S-sorry, I didn’t—didn’t mean to s-scare you!”

His eyes narrowed further, his breathing forcefully slow through his nose. This guy was more mouse than man—or he’s just pretending to be—but he was still bigger, stronger than either of them. Even his brother would have balked at the stranger’s height. He was thin enough that he could be made of twigs, but even a weak adult could overpower a child. If it came down to a fight—if the man tried to take Satoru from him

“I’m not scared!” Satoru wriggled in Gaku’s tight grip, his legs swinging in the air.

“Satoru, hush,” Gaku whispered, his voice low.

“S-Satoru, huh?” the man asked, balancing his elbows on his knees. Gaku bit his tongue and cursed in his own head. “T-that’s a nice name. I-I’m Jun, but the kids around c-call me Yuuki.” He turned his gaze to the older boy, his fingers lacing together, palms pressed tightly together. “And y-you are?”

Gaku continued to glare, Satoru’s hair brushing at his chin. The stuffed foxes were still snarling at his elbow, jaws snapping at each other’s necks, aiming for the jugular. “Isn’t it weird for someone your age to be talking to kids?”

The man—Yuuki, Jun, whatever—reeled as if he’d been slapped, eyes wide and smile faltering. There was a moment of silence, and Gaku could swear he heard the man’s heart beating inside his chest. A stiff laugh fell from Yuuki’s mouth, clunky like cardboard and just as thin—and he rubbed the back of his neck, his work gloves scratching at his skin.

“I j-j-just,” he started, before giving an awkward cough into his fist. “Y-you two should b-be—in school? Thought m-maybe—you ne-needed some he-help.”

The stutter had gotten worse, the man’s tongue stumbling over the syllables like a broken record. Gaku reveled in the dark satisfaction he felt uncoiling in his belly, power and pride rushing like a drug under his skin. The feeling was gratifying, addictive—but he forced the smirk to stay off his lips, tilting his head to the side instead. “Adults shouldn’t be hanging around in a kid’s museum alone, either.”

To his credit, Yuuki rolled with the punch, his shoulders jumping a little at the jab. “M-my family makes th-the lunches here,” he explained, showing the backs of his gloves. The words Shiratori Foods were scrawled into the fabric, the kanji drawn with thick marker strokes. “I w-was just leaving when I s-saw you two. Well,” he stopped, scratching his cheek. “H-heard, more l-like.”

Gaku could feel Satoru’s chest puffing out in pride, his lungs straining against the hold. “I roared.”

A laugh, natural and warm, rumbled out of Yuuki’s chest. “It was v-very good!”

A furious shiver crawled across Gaku’s skin, like claws tracing at his veins. One quick glance down and Gaku could see it: the way Satoru’s whole body seemed to inhale enthusiasm, until it looked like it was going to burst out of his skin. His eyes were shining, and even though his little fingers were clutching at Gaku’s sleeves—even though there was that beaming smile, stretched to his cheeks—

Gaku knew that look wasn’t for him.

He could feel a sneer curling across his face as he followed Satoru’s sight, to the man crouching in front of them. That sick satisfaction from before was quickly curdling into something—something bubbling and burnt, blacker than charcoal, that Gaku could taste in the corners of his mouth. He was vaguely aware of the way his grip was tightening, how Satoru was starting to squirm under the pressure—but he focused all his attention on the threat in front of him, that disarming stutter ringing like gunshots in his ears.

“Y-you know,” Yuuki started, pushing himself to his feet. “I-if you’re ever looking for a f-friend, I-I’m usually hanging around b-by the river—”

“We’re not,” Gaku snapped. He didn’t need anyone but Satoru and Satoru didn’t need anyone but him, and it was going to stay that way. And they definitely didn’t need strange men who approached kids when they were alone and “invited them to be friends.” He’d rather chew his own arm off, tear through the sinew and tendons with his teeth, than let someone like that anywhere near Satoru.

“W-well, if you change your m-mind, y-you know where to find me,” Yuuki said, straightening his spine with a nervous smile. “It-t was nice to m-meet you two!”

“Bye-bye, mister Yuuki!” Satoru chirped, waving with one hand. Gaku kept his mouth twisted firmly shut, lips curling distastefully on top of each other as the man walked past. He didn’t even deign Yuuki with turning around to watch him go, and instead listened until the footsteps faded away into nothing. Only then did he release the breath he’d been hoarding in his lungs, the air slipping past his teeth in an irritated hiss.

“G-Gaku-nii,” Satoru whispered, his hands tapping at the arms holding him in place. “Tight.”

His senses crashed back into him, and Gaku could suddenly feel the cords of his muscles digging into Satoru’s stomach. As quickly as he could, Gaku bent down and released his charge, the air surging into Satoru’s lungs with a small cough. Immediately his hands were on the boy’s shoulders, holding him steady as he raked his eyes over Satoru’s form. “Are you okay?” he asked, his voice frantic even to his own ears.

Satoru just gave another cough before nodding. “Uh-huh,” he muttered, wiping at his nose with his sleeve. Then his face brightened again, adding: “Yuuki was nice!”

There it was again: that roiling black that Gaku felt clawing up his throat, sitting thick in his windpipe like tar. He tried to swallow it down, so it sank into his fingers instead, making his nails curl into Satoru’s shoulders. “Satoru,” he started, bending down to look him in the eye. “You have to be more careful around strangers.”

Those big blue eyes blinked up at him. “Why?”

Because you’re too trusting. Gaku sighed through his nose, staring down at the four-year-old in front of him. More than anyone, he knew how easily Satoru opened up to strangers: it was how they had met in the first place, the reason they were even standing here to begin with.

But it wasn’t just any outsider, was it? Wonder Guy, Gaku, and now Yuuki—there was a pattern there. The craving for some kind of paternal figure that would be there when… when his own father wasn’t.

And if Gaku could see it, then anyone else could, too. All some man would need to do is throw Satoru the right compliments, a few warm smiles and choice words, and he could have him any way he wanted. Could hurt him anyway he wanted. Someone could lure Satoru into a car and he would never be seen or heard from again, and the very thought made Gaku want to pull out his hair and scream until his throat bled.

But all of that was too much for a toddler to take in, so Gaku just tried to force his heart back down his throat. “Not all strangers are nice,” he explained. “Some of them are very bad guys, okay?”

(Of course, that wasn’t the real reason he didn’t like Yuuki—but he selfishly kept that to himself.)

“But…” Satoru’s brow furrowed. “Gaku-nii will protect me from the bad guys?”

“Always,” he promised, the word echoing down and burrowing into his bones. “But what if I’m not there right away? What if I’m at school or something?” Gently, he began to the smooth out the wrinkles his hands had made, running his palms down Satoru’s sleeves. “Just—be careful around people you don’t know. Please?”

Satoru opened his mouth, before he seemingly thought better of it, slowly shutting it with a nod. “Okay.”

“Good,” Gaku sighed. Already, he could feel some of the tension seeping out of his shoulders, the lingering darkness rolling off his back. Slowly—and carefully, this timehe looped his arms around Satoru again, tugging him close. He promptly felt smaller arms hugging him back, those familiar and steady breaths landing on the crook of his neck. With a heavy exhale, Gaku’s heartbeat finally settled back into a human rhythm, the beating of his pulse slowing to match Satoru’s own.

This was dangerous. Gaku had never been dependent on anything or anyone, had never wanted to keep something and hide it far away from the world. Every logical instinct was telling him to cut loose, to excise himself before this consumed him like the infection that it was. But just the thought of a life without Satoru made his chest ache with a hollowness he couldn’t describe, let alone name.

No, it was too late to escape now. Satoru had already wriggled his way past every defense, his laughter and smiles spreading like a disease under Gaku’s skin. All he could do now was accept the diagnosis, terminal and permanent and everything he’d ever wanted.

He gave Satoru one last, quick squeeze before pulling back, his hand dropping to his pocket. “Here,” he offered, pulling out a single lollipop. “For you.”

Like a flicked switch, Satoru’s entire body seemed to buzz, tiny fingers eagerly tugging off the plastic and popping the candy into his mouth. A bright grin stretched across his face, red sugar already staining the corners of his mouth. It melted the last of the aches in his chest, and Gaku dropped a hand onto Satoru’s head, running his fingers through his soft hair.

These moments—he didn’t want to share them with anyone.

Somewhere in the hall, a clock was ticking—and Gaku looked up at the time, before turning back to Satoru with a soft smile. “We should get going,” he said, pushing himself to his feet and offering his hand. “There’s something I want to show you.”

And as always, Satoru took it without a second thought, smiling up at him with red teeth.

 

 

Chapter Text

The door was heavier than he would have guessed. Gaku pressed his hands against the orange metal and grit his teeth, his boots scrambling and sliding across the linoleum tile. Normally there would be a staff member around to do this, but clearly no one put in the effort when kids were supposed to be in school. So he shoved his shoulder against it as he pushed, listening to the hinges groan under the effort.

Next to him, he heard a little huff—and Gaku looked down to see Satoru, both his sticky palms against the door. His cheeks were puffed out, his entire face turning a steady shade of red as he tried to push. Gaku couldn’t help but bark out a single, breathless laugh; Satoru wasn’t really helping per say, but he could appreciate the sentiment.

Eventually, the back of the door bumped against the wall behind. Gaku stepped away, heaving and sweating, wiping at his forehead with his sleeve. The air on the other side was cool and dry against his skin, artificially maintained and climate controlled. Two small hands fisted in Gaku’s pant leg, peering into the darkness with curious eyes. “What is it?”

“The planetarium,” he said, trying to keep his panting out of his voice.

“Pla—planuh—”

“It’s a… star room,” he muttered, rubbing at the back of his head. Not that it looked like one right now: the domed ceiling was currently pitch black, as if something had dotted out the constellations with ink. The only way he could tell where the seats were was by following the little pinhole lights on the floor, their thin beams illuminating the stairs and the aisles. He took Satoru’s hand in his again and stepped inside, warning: “Watch your step, okay? And hold on to me.”

“Uh-huh,” Satoru muttered, clutching tight and sticking close in the dark. Slowly, they made their way half-way up the tiered aisles, before shuffling over to the centermost seats. After a rather pitiful attempt to scramble up into his spot, Gaku took pity and lifted Satoru onto the seat’s cushion. He left their coats hanging on the backs of the row in front of him, but not before he fished through his pockets, the plastic of the Wonder Gummies crinkling under his fingers.

“Here,” he said, tugging the bag open before holding them out to Satoru. “Don’t drop it. They’ll spill.”

It took a moment for Satoru’s hands to find the bag, but when they did he pulled the whole thing close, letting it sit in his lap. But his head was still craning around, looking elsewhere, his feet kicking anxiously back and forth. “Gaku-nii,” he whispered, a trickle of fear seeping in. “Dark.”

“Just give it a second,” he assured him, leaning until their arms bumped against each other. Satoru’s weight settled against his elbow, a tiny arm looping around his own in the black. Then Gaku heard it: the distant whirring of a projector warming up, the tell-tale buzz of speakers crackling to life. The room remained dark, even as a woman’s voice boomed through the sound system—and Satoru jumped, his grip clamping down on the older boy’s arm. 

With a small smile, Gaku leaned back in his seat, only half-listening to the announcer’s voice droning on about the wonders of space and the night sky. Instead, he opted to watch Satoru out of the corner of his eye. It was hard to see in the dark, but he could still make out the silhouette of small fingers, clumsily pushing soft candy into his mouth.

Then, bit by bit—one by one—the stars began to blink awake in front of their eyes. Altair and Vega came first, two lonely pinpricks of light; then the Milky Way flowed into view, a blindingly bright path cutting between the pair. Then came the others: dozens of constellations unfurling above their heads, hundreds of distant suns linked together by thin, web-like lines. The light rippled outwards in waves, crashing against the walls of the planetarium and landing against Satoru’s cheeks.

Gaku stared down at him, drinking in the pure awe he saw there. Satoru’s eyes were wide with stars, every constellation reflected in that deep blue. His head had craned back, head tilting to try to follow every twinkle, his candy sitting forgotten in his lap. Every couple of seconds, there was a little gasp from those parted lips, the smallest of smiles curling at the corners of his mouth. One hand reached out above him, waiting to catch an errant meteorite in his palm.

And something in Gaku’s chest burned, bright as a sun and just as warm. “Do you like it?”

“Pretty,” Satoru whispered, staring up through the gaps in his fingertips. “Like Christmas.”

Gaku looked back up towards the ceiling, the night sky spinning slow as music played. He’d never thought of it that way, but he supposed he could see the resemblance: all those little sparkles, strung up and shining bright. If he squinted, he could almost imagine it—every constellation turning into a branch of a huge tree, hanging in the sky above.

“Satoru,” Gaku said. The younger boy turned to look at him, the projector’s light catching in his dark hair. He smiled down at him, threading his fingers together in his lap. “This year, let’s get a Christmas tree together.”

Satoru’s eyes blew impossibly wide. “Can we?”

“Of course,” he said easily. His own family got one every year, if only to stick it in the window for optics’ sake. How hard could it possibly be to get one of their very own? It wouldn’t even have to be very big to dwarf Satoru—actually, it would have to be a bit small, to fit in the apartment at all. “We’ll find one that fits,” he added, staring back up at the stars above, “and then we can decorate it with all the lights you want.”

“And we can get a star, too?”

“Of course,” he said, holding out his pinky finger. “The best and brightest one. I promise.”

Satoru’s face broke into a large, gummy-filled grin, his sticky pinky slipping against Gaku’s own. “Okay! Promise!”

Then, with a click, everything went black. Gaku felt the finger around his own tighten, Satoru’s voice hiccuping in surprise. In the dark, he could feel that smaller body pressing against his own, even as his head whipped around, seeking light. Gaku set his free hand on Satoru’s shoulders, gently pressing him closer against his chest, rubbing circles into his back.

“Gaku-nii,” he whimpered, “is it over already?”

That distressed voice felt like a punch to the gut, more biting than his brother’s fist had ever been. Gaku desperately tried to swallow the feeling down; tried to scrub that unhappy tone from his ears with a forced smile, his voice forcefully uplifting and soft. “Another show should start in a couple of minutes,” he offered, keeping their hands firmly entwined. “Why don’t we watch one more time?”

The excited gasp in his ears was all the answer he needed.

 

 

Despite Gaku’s best efforts, outside of the center, the world had continued turning.

Four consecutive shows later, Gaku stepped back out into the winter air, blinking the fake stars out of his eyes. Satoru was lying motionless against his back, his sleeping head rolling against his shoulder. The cold nipped at his cheeks, the warm sun having long since given way to dusk’s darker hues; with a sigh, Gaku released a slow breath, watching the way the heat from his lips coiled into fog in front of his face.

This was nostalgic. Back in the field, the setting sun had always been his signal to leave. The streetlamps’ flickering had always chased him away from Satoru’s side, the night nipping at his heels. Forcing him back to his parents’ house and into his sibling’s waiting fists. His brother was probably long gone by now, banished to some anonymous institution somewhere—but the dread was still there, a learnt habit he couldn’t seem to shake.

Yet here he was once again: forced to leave behind the warmth he’d found, happily dozing against his back. The winter wind was soaking into his skin: a seeping, encroaching wet that made his bones chatter and his eyes burn. Gaku dug his teeth into his chapped lips, splitting the skin. After everything that had happened, even after his brother was banished from this town—

The results were the same. He had to go home.

In the end, had anything really changed?

There was a little squirm against his spine, sleepy whispers murmured against Gaku’s hair. He blinked and turned his head, glancing over his shoulder at the toddler still clutching at his clothes. Satoru’s face buried itself deeper into the crook of Gaku’s neck, trying to burrow into the warmth; he could feel a cold nose settling against his pulse, a yawn landing against his neck. With a small hop, he adjusted his grip under Satoru, flexing his fingers and staring up at the thick clouds.

With every breath, Gaku could feel resolve piling up inside of his chest. That’s right: he wasn’t going to let anyone separate them now. Not after everything they had been through, not after everything Satoru had done. Not after he’d unwittingly thrown a wrench into the mechanism of Gaku’s routine; a smile that managed to steer an entire life off course.

Even if it meant he lived with his parents, even if he didn’t get to wake up next to Satoru every day—Gaku was going to protect him, the only way he knew how.

He nodded to himself. Though his heart was still breaking in his chest—though his feet were rooted to the snow-crusted street, frozen to the ground—Gaku tightened his grip on Satoru, and took the first step towards home.

 

 

When he pushed the apartment door open, Sachiko was already waiting for them.

There was something bubbling on the stove, the smell of vegetables and broth pulling him in. As delicately as he could, as if handling something made of glass, Gaku shrugged Satoru into his mother’s waiting arms. The boy squirmed as he was shifted around, his legs idly kicking at the air—and Gaku couldn’t resist the amused smile he felt, tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Good day, I take it?” Sachiko whispered.

Gaku nodded, his stiff fingers pushing the buttons of his coat loose. Sachiko began to slowly poke at her son’s nose, watching the way his entire face curled in on itself in displeasure. With an amused huff, she set the half-awake Satoru down onto his feet. “Come on, wake up,” she said, her fingers gingerly pinching his cheeks, tugging lightly. “Or I’ll never get you to bed later.”

One of Satoru’s eyes blinked open, groaning through his stretched mouth. “Mooom.”

“Don’t you ‘mom’ me, young man.” She tugged off his gloves, before folding them over the edge of the heater. “Alright, shoes off, both of you.”

Dinner was pleasant and comfortable, like curling under a kotatsu after a day out in the snow. Sachiko had made a savoury soup, bits of vegetables bobbing in and out of the stock; Gaku spooned some into his mouth, tasting the layers of flavour that had soaked in. Bonito and miso and salt swirled on his tongue, and he reveled in it, holding each sip in his mouth before swallowing it all down.

A soft sigh passed his lips, hot like steam and the broth in his belly. Across the table, Satoru was alternating between sipping at his meal and eating his rice, a couple of stray grains stuck to his cheeks. At his back, Sachiko was still standing at the counter; the water from the sink is running, a white noise to quiet the frantic thoughts in his brain. Carefully, she turned a bowl over in her hands, scrubbing the sponge across the porcelain.

Outside the window, the snow was falling, a cold storm brewing just beyond what he could see—but in here, the world was warm. The smell of the soup, the soft light, the sound of dishes clinking in the sink—Satoru’s legs, swinging under the table, brushing against his knees—all of it felt like a blanket, wrapping itself around his body.

Satoru’s eyes moved to him, and he stopped, his spoon half-way to his mouth. “Gaku-nii…?”

Gaku smiled over at him, setting down his chopsticks. “Yes?”

But Satoru was already scrambling towards him. He didn’t even bother going around the table, slipping under his seat and rushing underneath the furniture. His head popped up between Gaku’s knees, his face twisted and eyes wet as he reached up for him. “Is it—is it ouches?” he whispered, fists curling into the older boy’s shirt. “Ouches hurt?”

Gaku blinked down at him, confused—before he felt something drip off his chin.

Slowly, his fingers found their way to his face. Something hot and wet was running down his cheeks.

Pulling his hand back, Gaku stared down at his damp fingertips, tasting salt on his lips. For the first time, he could feel the way his shoulders were starting to shake; how the tightness in his throat was trying to strangle the air from his lungs, like a noose of barbed wire twisting around his neck.

Still, he pushed the smile wider on his face, until he could feel it cracking against his cheeks.

“A little,” he admitted, his arms slipping around Satoru’s shoulders, stiffly hugging his only friend close. His bones were trying to cage in the swollen something in his chest, but the feeling was trying to burst out of his skin. Gaku swallowed it down like tar, forcing the poison back beneath his skin with a wobbling grin.

Behind his back, something warm encircled the both of them—and Gaku could feel Sachiko’s hair, brushing at the nape of his neck. Her arms were strong and safe, keeping him and Satoru pressed protectively together. Satoru was starting to sniffle, but his little palms were gently rubbing at Gaku’s shoulders—a clumsy attempt at assurance that just made him want to break even more.

Gaku bit at his tongue, defiantly clutching at whatever bit of crumbling resistance he had left. His eyes squeezed tightly shut, and he knew it was useless to stem the flow—but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try. Not when Satoru was looking up at him, worry and fear twisting his little features. Not when he needed his Gaku-nii.

Gently, he could feel Sachiko’s hand settle on his head, her touch soft and understanding. It settled something in his stomach, and Gaku grinned down at Satoru, baring his teeth and forcing a wet laugh out of his throat. “Don’t worry,” he said, giving him another little squeeze. “I’m—I’m like Wonder Guy. Which means I’m always going to be okay.”

Even when the world was ending—even when everything around him was crumbling to dust—the hero always smiled.

 

 

Gaku’s eyes were still sore as he packed up his things.

It was slow-going—mostly because of the way Satoru clung to him, as if Gaku would fall to pieces the moment they weren’t touching. Which, well—wasn’t exactly false. His voice was still shredded, sitting bloody and worn in his throat, and his whole body hummed with a tiredness he’d never felt before. In a weird way, he felt detached from the world around him—and Satoru was the anchor, clinging to his pant-leg and letting Gaku half-drag him around the apartment.

Even though his old one was still at his parents’ house, Gaku packed up his new toothbrush too, nestling it between his folded clothes. With a tug, he pulled the duffel bag closed, the zipper straining to keep everything inside. Satoru flopped down onto the bag as if he were the one who had done all the work, and for a second, Gaku actually thought the entire thing might explode in a colourful firework of fabric and shirts. But it didn’t, and Satoru just sat there, blinking up at the older boy. “All clean?”

“Mhm,” he muttered, reaching out to drag his fingers through Satoru’s hair. He could tell that Satoru hadn’t pieced it together yet—hadn’t tallied up Gaku’s tears, the packing, and Sachiko’s worried stares into a single conclusion. But that was fine by him: Gaku would rather have these precious few moments as they were, happy and unmarred. His heart was still ticking like a time bomb in his chest, chipping away at the time he had left—but Satoru was smiling up at him, blissfully unaware.

That’s all he’d ever wanted.

“Gaku-nii,” he whined, his face lighting up as he scooted closer. “Can we—can we go to the star room again?”

“Not tomorrow,” he admitted, crossing his legs. Satoru’s face fell like a brick, the smile wiped clean off of his face. Panic and desperation spiked underneath of Gaku’s skin; his mouth moved before his mind had a chance to catch up, the words clumsy as they stumbled off his tongue. “But I’ll take you back. Later. We can even go stargazing outside sometime. With, ah, hot cocoa. Would—would you like that?”

And there it was again: Satoru’s eyes widened, sparkling up at him like Gaku had just promised him the world and more. That look was so bright that Gaku wanted to bury himself in it, letting the soft supernova burn him into ash. Just seeing it, Gaku felt like he was able to breathe again—and Satoru leaned in, both his hands balanced on Gaku’s knee as he pushed closer. “And—and we can have cookies?”

He pressed a finger to Satoru’s lips, smiling softly. “If you promise not to tell Sachiko-san,” he whispered, shooting him a conspirator’s wink. Satoru immediately pressed both his palms to his mouth, trying to stifle his own excited giggle, gurgling up from his throat. But he nodded eagerly all the same, his hands still on his lips, as if scared of the secrets that might come tumbling out.

Then, like a trumpet calling him to war, the doorbell rang.

“Door!” Satoru exclaimed, stumbling to his feet. Gaku watched the scene as if he were somehow out of his body, screaming at his muscles to move. He needed—he still needed to explain things, still needed to let Satoru know what was happening, he thought he’d have more time. His arms reached out, his mouth parting as if to call him back—but he was too slow. He could only watch as Satoru scampered out of the room, his voice ringing from the kitchen. “Mama, mama! Door!”

Gaku watched where Satoru had disappeared, frozen.

But he could hear the sound of the front door opening; the pop of the doorframe becoming unstuck, the rush of cold air pouring in to their cozy home. The noise fired in his veins like a bullet, and Gaku scrambled forward, barely managing to throw the stuffed duffel bag over his shoulder. Staggering, he half-fell out into the kitchen, his head whipping in the direction of the door.

“Gaku,” his father greeted, brushing the snow off his shoulders.

But Gaku wasn’t looking at him.

His gaze immediately dropped to the boy, standing between them. Gaku could see a range of emotions crashing across Satoru’s face: the confusion, the realization, the surprise and fear—but it didn’t stay that way for long. The ugly emotions were already twisting into something darker, chased off by snarling lips and clenched fists. The four-year-old squared his shoulders and planted his feet, his eyes alight with a hate Gaku had never seen on his face.

“No!” he shouted, leaning his whole body into the word. “Go away! Go!”

His father eyed Satoru for a second, before turning his attention to Sachiko. “I see he’s taken after his mother in manners.”

Something dark passed across Sachiko’s face then, but if she had a retort, it never made it out of her throat. Satoru charged forward then with a wet and pitiful cry, both his fists raised for battle—and Gaku dove for him, his knees crashing painfully against the floor. But he didn’t miss Satoru this time, both his arms winding around his stomach and pulling him back. Not that Satoru seemed to care: every limb was thrashing, his eyes still glaring daggers into Gaku’s father.

“No! Bad guy!” he yelled, his voice shrill. His hands pushed at Gaku’s arms, actively trying to squirm his way out. “Go! Leave Gaku-nii alone!”

“Satoru,” Gaku whispered, trying to coax him into anything but screaming. “Satoru, it’s okay—”

“No.” This time, the word was quiet, and Satoru whipped his head around to stare at Gaku. It was just like that day with his brother: the way the tears poured silent down his cheeks, his face red and hiccupping with every breath. But the worst of it was the look in his eyes: so completely lost, searching Gaku’s face for answers and finding none. “N-no going, Gaku-nii.”

Gaku stared down at him, and bit the inside of his cheek. There were no comforts that could soften this blow, no little white lies that could take the edge off this ache, burning holes in both of their chests. His arms tightened around Satoru’s stomach, his own voice hoarse. “I’m sorry.”

Whatever thin barriers Satoru had fell away, then his face crumbling into a sob. Gaku swallowed thickly and steeled his face, because—because he was older, which meant he had to be the bigger one right now. So he loosened his grip, his hands gently rubbing up and down Satoru’s arms, his head ducking down to the boy’s level. “I’m still going to see you after school every day,” he assured him. “And we’re still going to go stargazing, with cocoa and cookies and—and whatever else you want. And we’re going to get a Christmas tree with a big star on top,” he added hastily. The smile on his face wasn’t real, but the lie came easily. “None of that is going to change.”

Satoru sniffled, his nose thick and clogged. “Promise?”

“I promise,” he said, squeezing his shoulders. “And I’ve never broken a promise to you yet, have I?”

The younger boy shook his head, bringing his sleeves up to his eyes. Gaku pulled him back in for another hug, feeling his heart shatter a little more with every hiccup sobbed against his chest. “I’ll see you on Monday,” he said, before pulling back. Satoru’s face was still wet, and Gaku rubbed at his swollen cheeks with the back of his fingers. “Can you be strong for me until then?”

Satoru nodded again, and Gaku knew that was probably as good as it was going to get. Slowly, he retracted his hands, forcing himself to his feet. His knees ached as they straightened out, and his arms felt numb as he lifted the duffel bag off the ground. It felt infinitely heavier than before, as if it were trying to pin him down to the floor, but he shuffled forward all the same, his eyes darting up to stare at his parent’s.

If anything, his father looked bored, a vague mix of apathy and annoyance clear on his face. “Let’s go, Gaku.”

Sachiko stepped forward, Gaku’s winter coat folded over her arm. “Here,” she offered, softly draping the fabric over his shoulders. It was still warm from where she had been holding it, and Gaku found himself leaning into the feeling, the heat melting away against his skin. It was already almost gone. Locking his knees, he gave a deep bow in her direction, his bangs hanging in front of his eyes.

“Thank you, Sachiko-san. For everything.”

Any sense of formality was quickly dashed as she threw her arms around him, pulling him into a tight hug. Gaku felt the heat rising to his cheeks, squirming self-consciously in her grip. His fingers awkwardly toyed with the strap of his duffel bag, its bulk wedged awkwardly between them. Like this, he could smell the shampoo clinging to her hair; it was almost too strong, the scent of cleanliness and comfort overwhelming his senses.

“You’ll always be welcome here, Gaku,” she whispered, her hands brushing by his pockets. “Anytime, even without warning. Okay?”

“Okay,” he echoed, ducking his head. He’d long since learnt that Sachiko would wait for an answer, even if he didn’t want to give her one. It was only the bare minimum of a reply, but she stepped back all the same, giving him one last pat on the shoulder before letting her hand drop. Immediately, Satoru was reaching for her, his hands blindly feeling for Sachiko’s through the tears. His chubby fingers tangled in between hers, gripping like a lifeline.

Gaku’s eyes wandered to own father’s hands, hidden and buried deep in the pockets of his trenchcoat. The two of them met eyes, black to black—and his father turned on his heel, the polished shoe squeaking against the cheap linoleum of the Fujinumas’ kitchen. Gaku could feel his bones stretching down beyond his feet, white roots trying to lash themselves to the floor—but he forced himself forward anyway, following his father out into the cold.

(He didn’t turn around. If he did—if he saw Satoru crying again, crying because of him—then he wouldn’t be able to leave.)

So Gaku kept his gaze squarely on his feet, watching as the floor gave way to cracked pavement, gravel and ice. His shadow became longer the farther he walked away from the doorway, his silhouette stretching towards his father’s car. The engine was still running, the exhaust pipe purring out smoke. The man marched straight up to the driver’s seat, climbing in without a single glance back; Gaku pressed his lips together, and crossed the headlights to the passenger’s side.

The air inside the car was stiflingly hot, the artificial heat licking at his cheeks. Gaku set the duffel bag down on the car floor before climbing in after it. The moment the door was closed, his father was shifting gears—and the car began to crawl forward, even as Gaku struggled to slip his seatbelt on. The buckle clicked easily into the mechanism, and he sank back into his seat, staring blankly ahead to the world past the windshield.

This was the right thing to do. Gaku knew that, deep in the marrow of his mind. But it did nothing to fill this hollow hole, slowly spreading underneath his ribs.

He leaned his head against the cold window, his eyes dropping to the door mirror.

Gaku’s eyes widened, and he whipped around in his seat to stare through the back-window, his hands gripping at his seat.

Satoru wasn’t even wearing shoes, but he ran as fast as his feet could carry him, chasing after the car. His bare soles slapped against the frozen ground, his toes slipping on the ice and sleet. Sachiko was already rushing after him, pulling her son back before he could reach the road—but in the darkness, Gaku could still see those little hands reaching out to him, his voice carrying over the rumbling engine and rolling wheels.

“Gaku-nii!” he screamed. “Gaku-nii!”

“Satoru,” he whispered, feeling his eyes burn.

The car turned around the corner, and Satoru disappeared in front of his eyes.

 

 

Chapter Text

Gaku was different.

Not different from his classmates—though, that was also true. But he had known that one for a long time, had long been aware of the growing gap between him and his peers. This was a new different; Gaku could feel how he wasn’t the person he once was, wasn’t the person who had once lived in that house. There had been some kind of tectonic shift in his bones, groaning and rearranging himself into someone completely new and unfamiliar.

And he knew why. Already, he could feel himself cutting up his memories into categories, sorting them into the boxes. In one of the dusty and forgotten corners of his skull, was “before Satoru”—a sterile place filled with blood and antiseptic, mechanical movements carrying him from one day to the next. And closer, always sitting at the forefront of his mind, was “after Satoru”—all clear blue eyes on cloudy days, and nights wrapped up in each other, painless and warm.

And between them: a clear line, the moment one Gaku died and another began to live, walking around with a dead boy’s bruises under his clothes.

Yes, Gaku had changed. But he didn’t realize how much until he was standing on his parents’ doorstep, watching his father’s key slide into the lock. Gaku realized he didn’t even know where his own key was; he used to have one, dutifully strapped to his backpack or tucked into his pocket, but it hadn’t been there in weeks. He also found he didn’t really care, listlessly watching as his father pushed the door open and stepped inside.

His parents’ house felt cold. The actual temperature itself was fine: meticulously controlled to a perfect degree, hot enough to be comfortable without being stifling. But it was devoid of the inherent warmth of the Fujinumas’ home, lacking the natural comfort that comes with being home. Back in that tiny apartment, there were signs of life: drawings taped onto the fridge, hats and gloves tossed in odd places, Wonder Guy stickers hastily slapped onto the furniture when the adult wasn’t looking.

This place was barren, in comparison. Every piece of furniture was arranged just so, all perfect angles and spotless surfaces, polished to a showroom shine. There were no blankets tossed over the couch, no pictures hanging on the wall, no signs of human life at all. There had been a scent to Satoru’s home, like worn tatami and cooking rice—but here, he could only smell fresh plastic and cleaning products, as if everything had just been sprung from its packaging.

Gaku hovered in the entryway, feeling the snow melting into his coat as he toed off his shoes. He left them haphazardly tossed by the door, his own little piece of rebellion.

At some point, his mother shuffled out of the kitchen, every step dragging and quiet against the hardwood floors. Gaku looked up at that familiar face, the one he had known all of his life—but she might as well have been a stranger to him. Distance had not made his heart grow fonder; if anything, he could see his other parent with fresh eyes, dissecting her with his gaze.

Even though she spent most of the day at home, his mother had always been impeccably dressed, slotting herself into the role of a successful, happy homemaker. But the woman in front of him had none of that now: her hair was messily pulled back into a bun, doing nothing to hide the dark circles smudged underneath her eyes. Her clean, pressed dresses had been swapped for a baggy sweater, the sleeves fraying at the edges.

“Gaku,” she said, forcing a paper-thin smile. Her voice was hoarse and croaked, and her fingers tugged insistently at a loose thread, trying to snap it in two. “W-welcome home.”

His father walked past them both without so much as a glance, and he didn’t miss the way his mother’s body sank, an immense weight dropping onto her shoulders. Gaku couldn’t think of anything he wanted to say to her—definitely not an “I’m home,” because he wasn’t—so he just nodded, his fingers flexing against the weight of his duffel bag.

A strained silence passed between them, until his mother crossed her arms, burying her shaking hands into her armpits and out of sight. “You, you must be tired,” she offered.

It was an out that he was happy enough to take, nodding again as he dropped his gaze to his feet.

“We can talk in the morning, then.” His mother stepped aside, leaning back against the wall as she chewed at her lower lip. Gaku shrugged his duffel bag onto his shoulder and moved to pass her, not even bothering to take off his coat. His brother was gone, but these walls brought back every bad habit he’d ever had: the need to keep his head down and stay out of sight, to swallow down the existential dread pooling in his gut.

Everything he’d managed to unlearn, thanks to Satoru. The boy’s smile flashed before his eyes, and Gaku gave a slow inhale, feeling the anxiety settle a little under his skin. He forced himself to walk, not run up the stairs, his free hand tracing the polished wooden railing as he stepped out of his mother’s gaze.

But being alone didn’t do anything to solve the apprehension, sitting heavy against his skin. The walls themselves might as well have been pushing down on him, pressing against his limbs and squeezing. The hallway seemed smaller and tighter with every step he took towards his room, his own uneven breaths impossibly loud in his ears. The house was bigger than the Fujinumas’ apartment, he knew that, he knew—but he felt like a hamster in a cage, trapped and spinning on its wheel, watching as the metal bars closed in around him.

All he wanted to do was get out of here, but—

Gaku’s feet paused outside of his brother’s room.

He’d never gone inside before. Self-preservation always kept him slinking past, his socked toes silently slipping across the floor. Even now, even knowing it was empty and the door was open, he found himself unwilling to look—as if some ghost of his brother was going to come out, fists swinging and fury spitting off his tongue. Gaku had never been truly afraid of his brother (and he still wasn’t, honestly)—but after so long without pain, the last thing he wanted to do was invite it back.

Despite this, he turned his head, and peered inside.

The room was devoid his brother in every sense of the word. The walls, once plastered in cheap posters, were bare, only bits of tape marking where they had been. The bookshelves were supposed to be packed with stupid action manga and random trinkets—but they were empty, the wood surfaces wiped clean of fingerprints and dust. Even the bed had been stripped of his brother’s blanket and sheets; Gaku immediately recognized the set that was usually reserved for the guest room, perfectly pressed onto the mattress.

He blinked at the sight. It was as if his brother had simply been erased.

Gaku leaned forward, grabbed hold of the doorknob, and simply closed the door.

In comparison, his own room almost looked… cluttered. Gaku stood in the doorway of this space that had once been his, but he felt no fondness for these four walls. He hadn’t thought about this place ever since he’d started staying with Satoru. Standing there, he felt this cold familiarity, not unlike running your fingers over an old and unpleasant scar. His first-aid kit was still sitting where he had left it: on his nightstand, where he could always reach it.

Gaku let the duffel bag slide off his shoulder, and it hit the ground with a dull thud.

Softly, he closed the door behind him, making sure the mechanism didn’t click as it snapped into place. With his foot, Gaku nudged the duffel bag in front of the door—why, he wasn’t quite sure—before slowly beginning to shrug off his coat. There was a fatigue that had soaked into his bones, making every movement sluggish and apathetic. All he wanted to do was crawl into bed, pull the covers over his head and pretend he was anywhere but here. (Anywhere Satoru was.)

He was so lost in his own head, that he barely caught the sound of something clattering to the floor. It took a second for the sound to actually register, and Gaku gave a slow and tired blink, before staring down at his feet.

The first thing he noticed was the Wonder Guy mask. The keychain was a small, cheap imitation: the kind you could get out of a gachapon machine for a single coin. The colours were off-center from the plastic mold, Wonder Guy’s black visor sitting lopsided against the indents of eyes. Gaku stared down at it for a long moment, his tired brain trying to make sense of the thing, sitting there at the tips of his toes.

There was also a key, hanging off of the metal ring.

Sachiko’s arms, wrapped around his shoulders. Her hand, brushing by his pocket. The words, whispered into his ear.

You’ll always be welcome here, Gaku.

He slowly bent down, his hand brushing against the key. The metal was still cold from outside, but he could feel it melting against his palm, warming against his skin. Gaku stared down at it, acutely aware of his every breath as they slid down his throat and grew in his chest. He shifted his fingers around, listening the way the plastic hit the key; he ran his thumb over Wonder Guy’s mask, pressing down hard, feeling the bumps against the pad of his fingertip.

It was real. He could still go back.

Gaku pressed the key to his chest, feeling his elated heart burst, its ghost beating hot against his knuckles. He could still go back to that place that was so bright and warm that it hurt, could still wake up and see Satoru smiling up at him again. Not tonight, he knew—not when his father was still suspicious and vengeful. It was too soon; he would find a way to blame Sachiko for it, and then everything he’d done up ‘til now would fall apart.

But even if it wasn’t today, even if it wasn’t tomorrow—even if it was weeks before he got the chance to walk through that door again—

Gaku could still go home. For now, just knowing that was enough.

He changed into the pajamas that Sachiko had handed him that day, reveling in the familiar smell woven into the threads. He brushed his teeth with the toothbrush he’d brought back with him, throwing the old one into the empty trashcan. Gaku pressed his fingertips to his face, feeling the way his skin moved without a single swollen bruise, practicing the faces that would always make Satoru laugh.

When he crawled into bed, it was with his key clutched in one hand, the teeth digging in to his skin. Desperately, he squeezed at his pillow, crushing the stuffing against his chest. When Gaku closed his eyes, he could almost pretend it was Satoru, sleeping soundly in his arms.

 

 

Morning eventually came, snatching Gaku back to reality. Blearily, he looked down at the pillow, wrinkled and squished against his front; the last bits of his dream—a sweet thing, filled Satoru and snow and stars—was already fading from the edges of his memory. Gaku blindly felt across the mattress, until he found the key, nearly lost in the blankets and sheets. In the light of day, he could see it better; could count its sharp little cuts, every little ridge still freshly-carved.

He slipped it into the pocket on his chest, relieved. So he hadn’t imagined it after all.

Swinging his feet out of bed, Gaku stared out at his empty room. It was eerily quiet: straining his ears, he could just barely hear the sound of his parents, moving around downstairs. Back at the Fujinumas’, it was hard to avoid the sound of Sachiko making breakfast—if Satoru’s sleeptalking didn’t wake him up first. There was never this—this stiff silence, settling over everything like a thick blanket.

Gaku took a long inhale, before he clapped both hands over his face. The sound rung through the room, cutting the silence in two. “Okay,” he whispered to himself, staring at the bedroom door. Rising to his feet, Gaku could feel the weight of the key against his heart, grounding him as he stepped out into the hall.

He padded down the stairs, stopping at the last step. That must be his mother pattering around in the kitchen—his father wouldn’t be caught dead in there unless there was already food on the table. In fact, Gaku could see him now: sitting in the living room, in his arm chair, his suit traded for a polo shirt and slacks. The newspaper was open in his hands, and they met eyes over the edge of the headline. After a second or two, his father turned back to what he was reading, shaking the creases out of the pages.

Gaku bit down a scoff, before turning and marching into the kitchen.

His mother was there, flittering from the cabinets to the stove, every move twitching and erratic like a hummingbird trying to escape a closed room. Gaku could see that the rice cooker was on, softly hissing out steam; something was sizzling on the element, the oil popping and crackling out of the pan. Softly, under her breath, he heard her curse, her hands furiously wiping out the wrinkles in her apron.

She whirled around, her hands planted on her hips. Her eyes locked on him, like a hunted animal, petrified in place.

Then, she screamed.

Immediately her hands flew to her mouth, aborting the sound. The ladle in her hand clattered to the ground, a trail of miso soup splattered in its wake across the floor. Her fingers were still pressed against her own lips, every gasping breath sucked through the gaps. But neither of them said anything, and Gaku just blinking up at her, his expression flat. He could hear the rustle of newspaper behind him as his father calmly turned a page.

Finally, Gaku said: “Good morning.”

“G—” she started, but the syllable stuck itself in her throat. Gaku reached down and picked up the ladle, before holding it out to his parent, silent and expecting. Her eyes darted between his face, his hand, and then the spoon, before she tentatively reached for the latter, careful not to brush against his skin. Something bubbled on the stove, the pot’s lid dancing against the rim, about to overflow. “Good morning, Gaku,” she tried again, forcing a wobbly smile. “Are—are you hungry?”

He nodded and moved to take a seat. As he pulled out the chair, his mother frantically wiped up the soup, her hand shaking as it scrubbed back and forth. Gaku sat himself in his usual spot, and stared at the empty seat across the table, where his brother used to sit. There was no place set there, and his mother quickly began to place dishes down in front of him alone, ignoring the empty chair on the other side.

“I tried to make your favourites,” she explained. “I hope you like it.”

Gaku stared down at the food, piping hot and fresh. Miso soup, plain white rice, some kind of grilled fish and vegetables. There was rolled tamagoyaki sitting off the side, and natto, sitting sticky in a little bowl. A picture-perfect breakfast by any measure, the kind of thing you would find in a catalogue. And Gaku didn’t hate any of it, per say—but he didn’t have a particular fondness for anything on the plate, either.

His mother was still standing there, her fingers twisting and tangling in her apron, a vaguely stricken look sinking into her eyes. Gaku bit back the snark building on his tongue and picked up his chopsticks. “Thank you.”

The tension left her shoulders in a flush, and she nodded, mostly to herself. “I’m glad. T-that you like it,” she added hastily, before scuttling off to the coffee maker. She topped up whatever was already in her mug. Gaku pushed the bland food into his mouth and forced himself to swallow everything down. His mother settled in his brother’s place, her chewed-up nails tap tap tap-ing against the ceramic.

Gaku’s nose twitched, and he stopped mid-chew. There was a sharp smell, not unlike the antiseptic he used to douse on his skin. He stared at his mother’s coffee cup, watching as she brought it up to her lips and sipped. His eyes slipped to the side, sliding across the countertop until they landed on a bottle of alcohol, sitting half-hidden behind the soy sauce and vinegar.

He slowly resumed chewing, his teeth sinking in deep as stared back at her. His mother released a long and relieved breath, before gently setting the mug back down. “Thank you,” she said, staring down at her not-completely-coffee. “For coming home.”

Gaku didn’t deign that one with a reply, chasing bitter words down with soup.

“Things will be better now,” she said, though Gaku couldn’t tell which one of them she was trying to convince. Her fingers continued to tap against the edges of the cup, like a metronome, desperate to track every second as it passed. Gaku nibbled on some of the pickled vegetables, the acidic taste burning on his tongue. “Is there—is there anything you want to do today?” she asked.

Gaku paused, before looking her in the eye. “My allowance.”

She faltered, her fingertips pausing mid-tap. “P-pardon?”

“My allowance for when I was gone,” he muttered, before turning his attention back to his food. He poked at the fish, splitting the flesh from the skin. “I’d like it now.”

“R-right,” she muttered, both of her hands moving to clutch at her drink. She brought it back to her mouth and took a longer sip, her throat bobbing up and down. When the mug clinked against the table, empty and finished, her eyes looked hallowed and far. Then, his mother flashed him a stiff smile, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “How much do I owe you?”

 

 

Gaku scribbled furiously into his workbook, his pencil nearly tearing through the page. He’d found a way to keep himself busy through Sunday, spending through his stockpiled allowance in one fell swoop. But Monday was dragging its feet, stretching out every class as long as it could. With every passing hour, Gaku could feel the anxiety and guilt curdling like a tumor in his gut, tangling itself in his stomach. His eyes kept darting to the windows, staring out at the winter beyond.

He’d told Satoru he would see him today. And he would (no one would be able to stop him), but Gaku knew he had to be good first. His compliance—and, by extension, his parents’ reputation—was the only leverage he had. It would be stupid to blow that now. Or so he told himself, over and over again. Frankly, that was the only thing that kept him from throwing open the classroom door and dashing out to Satoru right now.

Instead, he waited, biting his tongue and filling out math problems he already knew, an angry itch growling in the marrow of his bones. Above his teacher’s desk, the longest hand on the clock continued to inch towards the last bell, announcing every second as it passed. Tick, tick, tick.

And Gaku answered it, his pencil’s eraser striking his paper with a tap, tap, tap.

Just five more minutes. He resisted the urge to bounce his leg, his grip on his pencil tightening instead. His teacher was droning on about something unimportant, so Gaku filtered it out; he took a deep breath through his nose, gnawing at the inside of his lip until he could feel it bleed. It was oddly nostalgic: he hadn’t tasted his own blood since his brother had attacked him for the last time.

His tongue darted along his lip, prodding at the tangy, salty taste. Two minutes, still.

He wondered what Satoru had done all weekend. Of course he wanted Satoru to be happy, so he hoped he hadn’t just mourned the days away, wandering like a ghost through that tiny apartment. Too easily, he could see the boy reduced to a fit of hysterical sobbing, lonely and afraid. Calling out for his Gaku-nii who hasn’t there anymore. The thought alone chipped off a chunk of Gaku’s stone heart and practically shoved it down his own throat.

But. Gaku stopped tapping his pen, staring down at the page. At the same time, a part of him felt a sick, roiling satisfaction at the idea. No: it reveled in the thought, greedily rolling around in the notion like swine. Leaving Satoru’s side felt like someone had ripped out a hole in his chest, and no matter how much it hurt, no matter how matter how hollow he felt—as long as Satoru felt the same, then that was fine.

They couldn’t survive without each other. Gaku could feel a grin spreading across his face, all jagged edges and teeth. That was worth it.

The bell rang, drowning out everything else—and Gaku snapped into action, carelessly shoving his books into his desk. He didn’t need them, didn’t even have the space for them in his bookbag. Already, he was cramming his arms into the sleeves of his coat, throwing the straps of his bag over his shoulders. He half-stumbled as he burst through the school’s front doors running, his boots just barely thrown onto his feet.

His breath was clouding in front of his eyes, and the street was slippery—but Gaku didn’t dare slow down, the cold air burning in his chest. He was never particularly athletic, and he could only imagine what he looked like then: his face red and sweaty as he ran full-tilt down the road, his jacket open in front of him and his arms waving wildly at his sides. But that didn’t matter: nothing mattered except rounding the next bend, every step carrying him closer to that field.

So his feet slammed onto the cracked pavement, his hair whipping in the wind. As he tried to take the corner, a patch of black ice yanked gravity out from under him—and Gaku felt himself slam down hard, his body sliding across the slick surface. His elbows and knees were still quaking from the impact, a patch of his face already swelling with the promise of a bruise—but he started to scramble up again, his aching joints screaming under his clothes.

Limping and off-kilter, he took off again, his bookbag bouncing against his spine. His nose was running, and every couple of steps he was forced to swallow down the mucus building in his throat. But he could see the rickety building that Sachiko worked in, and just beyond, the first tell-tale blades of grass, hanging out over the snowbank. Gaku could feel his exhausted and battered limbs slowing, until his frantic run slowed into a swaying jog.

By the time he was standing at the edge of the field, his chest was heaving wildly, sweat-soaked bangs freezing against his forehead. There was a haziness in the corners of his vision as fatigue crept in, but it didn’t stop him from frantically scanning the monochrome field. He just needed—a single splash of colour, a sign that he was—

There: sitting in the snow with his knees pulled against his chest, his face buried into yellow scarf. For a long second, Gaku just watched him and let the relief wash over him, like oxygen to a drowning man.

(His mother flashed into mind, drinking from her mug with a desperation Gaku was starting to understand.)

But it wasn’t long before Satoru looked up, the melancholy in his eyes immediately crumbling at the sight of him. “G… Gaku-nii?”

He didn’t get a chance to say anything before Satoru was already rushing forward, his face twisting to make room for the tears running down his face. “Gaku-nii!” he wailed, both of his arms extended—and Gaku couldn’t wait anymore. He threw himself forward, tripping over the snowbank in his haste; he watched as Satoru lost his footing as well, falling face-first into the snow, landing with that soft and familiar whump. This time, he didn’t even try to get up—and even though his face was buried in the cold, Gaku could still hear the sound of his sobs, barely muffled by the snow.

His swollen knees dropped to a crouch next to the boy, the cold soaking into his pants. Gaku (finally, finally) slipped his hands underneath Satoru’s shoulders again, a wobbly smile planted on his face. “Hey,” he croaked, gently lifting Satoru back to his feet. “What did I tell you about being more careful?”

Hot tears cut two perfect lines through the snow on Satoru’s face, but he didn’t seem to care. Instead, he pressed his hands to Gaku’s chest, push down. His face was scrunched in concentration as his hands continued to pat at anywhere they could reach, kind of like a cat pawing at a human for attention. Gaku raised an eyebrow but didn’t question it, too high off the fact that he was with Satoru again to bother with the details.

After a few moments, Satoru stopped, nodding to himself before looking up at Gaku’s face. “N-no,” he started, hiccupping. “No ouches?”

Gaku could feel his heart melting, like the snow steadily slipping off Satoru’s cheeks. “No ouches,” he promised, unless he counted the ones he inflicted on himself just getting here. To prove it, Gaku opened his arms wide, invitingly—and Satoru threw himself in all too eagerly, burrowing himself against the older boy’s chest. Gaku let his aching arms drop around him, pulling Satoru close, feeling like the world was right again.

Giving one last, firm squeeze, Gaku detangled them, a bright smile gracing his face. “I brought something for you.”

Under Satoru’s curious eyes, he shrugged off his backpack, dropping it in the snow between them. Gaku peered inside to make sure—but the gift was sitting there as he had left it, clearly unbothered by his marathon sprint here. He gave a quick look at Satoru’s curious expression, giving him a quick wink before sliding his hands in. Gaku pressed his frozen fingers to either side of the cardboard box, and gently shimmied it out of his bag.

It had cost him the whole month’s allowance, but it was worth it to see Satoru’s face light up at the sight of the action figure. Gaku had noticed that—while Satoru absolutely adored his Wonder Guy mask—he didn’t own any of the actual toys. Let alone the one of the ones that lit up, the superhero’s voice booming out of the speaker on his chest.

Satoru carefully took the box from the older boy’s hands, his eyes wide and mouth agape. His mittens squeezed the box ever so slightly, feeling it crunch under his fingers, as if confirming it was real. Then he turned that questioning, stupefied, ecstatic gaze Gaku’s way, a huge grin beaming from ear to ear. “And, it’s—it’s for me?

“Yeah.” Gaku reached out and ruffled his hair, smiling softly. “Happy birthday, Satoru.”

 

Chapter Text

Satoru was five years old now.

It felt a monumental shift, somehow—yet, very little actually changed. In a way, things had defaulted back to the way they were, like someone had hit reset on reality. Gaku still woke up in his parents’ house, still ate an empty breakfast, still went to class. Still watched as the days rushed him by, and Gaku steadfastly refused to move, like a stone buffeted by a river. Watching the world race in front of his eyes.

But, he also still saw Satoru every day. With every step towards that field, Gaku felt his body get a little bit lighter, felt it become easier to breathe. When Satoru called his name, he was able to banish that sleeping something , waiting like a black ocean under his skin, ready to drag him down. Just living was a chore unless Satoru was at his side, keeping Gaku’s very existence above the water.

On the days where Satoru exhausted himself playing hero in the snow, Gaku was happy to just sit with the sleeping boy in his lap, counting his little breaths. If he tried—if he steadied his lungs and inhaled just right—he could sync up their chests, until they were breathing together in time. Gaku had never felt so connected to anything as he did then, and it pushed out the last of his emptiness, until his mind was as smooth and still as glass.

But the sun still set, and Gaku was still forced to say goodbye. Which was—well.

It was still painful: like something was shredding his organs from the inside out, trying to claw its way back to Satoru’s side before he had the chance to leave. But, at the very least, Satoru had seemed to accept that the ouches were gone for good. Even so, he still gave Gaku a once-over whenever he shrugged back on his backpack to go, his lips pressed into a worried line.

“Gaku-nii. Tomorrow?” he asked, fingers tugging on the end of Gaku’s sleeve.

“Tomorrow,” he promised, holding out his pinky. Satoru slipped his own finger into it without hesitation, and they would give a single shake, a solemn oath to make it through another day.

So Gaku would jog home, his hands fisted in the straps of his bag. His father had made it very clear that he wanted Gaku home immediately after school every day—as if there had ever been a chance that Gaku would abandon Satoru like that. Just the idea sent something bitter roiling through his stomach, making his teeth snap painfully together.

Luckily, his father didn’t come home until the evening himself: as long as Gaku made it back first, then his father would be none the wiser.

The car wasn’t in the driveway, and Gaku felt his shoulders relax under his coat. His mother had given him a replacement key for the one he had lost, and he pushed it into the lock. The house was quiet, save for the sound of something sizzling on the stove—and Gaku slowly removed his boots, putting them neatly off to the side. There were no hooks like at the Fujinumas’, and his coat was relegated to the nearly-empty closet, out of sight and out of mind.

This time, when he skulked his way into the kitchen, his mother didn’t scream. Small victories.

“Welcome home, Gaku,” she said, his head bowed over whatever she was making. There was a certain sway to the way she was standing, as if the floor was rolling under her feet. There was no alcohol on the counter tonight, which would have been a good sign, if there weren’t two of them empty in the recycling bin. He didn’t mention it.

Whatever was on the stove was burning. He didn’t mention that either.

“Do you have any homework?” Her voice was flat, like a machine reading a script.

“No.” It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a lie: his teacher had given them plenty. Gaku had just finished it all during lunch. He wasn’t willing to give up a second of his time with Satoru, especially not for something as inconsequential as math . He wasn’t an idiot.

His mother gave a quiet hum, her spatula limply stirring around the pan. She stared down at the burnt food with glazed-over eyes, and Gaku waited a second or two more before slipping out, silently making his way to his room. If she even noticed he was gone, she didn’t mention it; he shut his door behind him without a single call of his name to chase him up the stairs.

It was still early, but he changed into his pajamas, splashing his face with warm water. The longer it looked like he had been home, the better.

His father walked in half an hour later— half an hour he could have been spending with Satoru , Gaku thought bitterly and the three of them pulled out their chairs to eat. The wooden feet screeched against the hardwood floors, like nails on a chalkboard. His mother put the plates down on the table, barely managing not to drop them. Not that it would have been a big loss: the food was burnt, but they all ate it all anyway, swallowing down the acrid black.

“Gaku,” his father said, pushing away his barely-touched meal. His eyes were dark and calculating behind his glasses, his hands folded on top of the table. “I trust you came home right after school today.”

He sipped as his thin soup, trying to wash down the charcoal on his tongue. Across the table, his mother poked and prodding at her food with her chopsticks, her face pulled down by the bags under her eyes. Her voice was so quiet, strained—like a whisper, struggled to be a shout. “He did.”

Gaku’s eyes darted to her face, but immediately steeled his expression to a trained neutrality, shoving a glob of rice into his mouth.

“I see,” his father said, wiping the corner of his mouth with his napkin. None of them said anything for the rest of the meal, and Gaku swung his feet like Satoru used to do, just so he could feel something move.

Eventually, his father retired to the study with a glass of whiskey in hand—and Gaku placed his empty plate onto the counter, brushing by his mother’s elbow. Her dull gaze eventually found the dish, its surface practically licked clean—and she sluggishly turned her eyes to her only remaining son, blinking slowly. “Did… did you like it?”

“Yes,” he lied, his face neutral. But he met her eyes with purpose, adding: “Thank you.”

Her eyes widened for a moment, before her entire face seemed to collapse; pain twisted her features together, a contrite look that was equal measures shame and loathing. Her teeth worked at her chapped lower lip, tearing off the loose skin and making it bleed. With shaking hands, she picked up the plate, letting the porcelain clatter loudly into the sink.

“You should go wash up,” she whispered, letting the hot water run over her fingers.

Gaku made himself scarce.

Tomorrow, they would do it all again.

 

 

As much as every day felt the same, Gaku could feel the seasons changing every time he stepped out the door. The winter cold—biting and dry—had turned clammy and mild, sitting wet against his skin. The snow under his boots steadily sank, heavy with water as it melted into slush. When Satoru tripped in his scramble over to Gaku, it wasn’t into freshly fallen flakes anymore; instead, he tipped face-first into brown sludge, his entire front covered in mud.

(They had to sneak into Sachiko’s work that time, with Gaku’s hand slapped over Satoru’s mouth, carrying him kicking and whining into the bathroom to be washed.)

Satoru’s birthday had marked the beginning of March, which was steadily becoming April, winter giving way to spring. Soon, the cherry blossom trees would bloom and the nights will turn warm. Gaku was impatiently waiting for the weather, eager to finally take Satoru stargazing without the him shivering with cold.

But spring also meant that the school year was ending. Not that Gaku particularly cared: it was just another pointless requirement to existing, fulfilled like a checkmark on a grocery list. Every grade fused together into an endless stream of faceless figures, their names forgotten as soon as he got his final mark. Then there would, inevitably, be another classroom, another desk, another stilted introduction before it all started again.

Still, his mother always insisted Gaku dressed well for the opening ceremony—something about first impressions and starting on the right foot. So Gaku patted the wrinkles out of his slacks and adjusted the cuffs on his blazer, staring at himself in the mirror. The whole thing looked better without the bruises and bandages mottling his skin, but he still looked like he was going to a wake. Not something as wholesome as an elementary school classroom.

But Gaku knew how to pick his battles. So he conceded defeat and slipped out into the hall, quietly making his way towards the stairs. The sun was barely beginning to peek over the horizon, the sky still the washed-out blue of early morning; it lit his way as he snuck past the empty kitchen, his ears alert. His parents wouldn’t be up for at least another half-hour—leaving him plenty of time to slip out the front door, careful to silently shut the door after him.

The air was fresh and damp, and Gaku inhaled it all as he turned down the road. Though his bookbag was on his back, he walked in the opposite direction of school, his polished shoes tapping against the pavement. It was the only sound at all, and Gaku found himself basking in the silence. The town was still sleeping, blanketed by a hushed quiet.

It felt fragile, and he relished in being the one to shatter that peace. Gaku closed his eyes as he walked, leaning his head back and listening to the tap-tap-tap of his heels, echoing through the streets.

Before long, his legs stopped moving, planting him on familiar ground.

Slowly, his hand slipped into his pocket, his thumb running over the ridges of the key. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, he slid it into the lock with a careful ease, feeling the teeth grind and settle against the mechanism. His wrist cautiously turned, waiting for the snag that didn’t come. There was a dull thunk as the deadbolt rolled over, falling out of the frame.

Gaku swallowed thickly and pulled the key back out, before pulling open the Fujinumas’ door.

Sachiko turned from her spot at the sink, her surprise immediately turning warm. “Ah. Good morning, Gaku-kun.”

He stared at her from the doorway, feeling the spring sun burning a hole against his back. “Sorry for the interruption,” he muttered, shifting awkwardly on his feet. He had been so sure of this before—had felt it like a need, a magnetic pull nudging him to this apartment, to this moment. But now that he was here, he felt like a puzzle piece without a place—trying to force himself into a picture that was already full.

But Sachiko just smiled and waved him inside, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Have you eaten?”

He shook his head.

“Well,” she said, pulling a tupperware out of the fridge. “We’ll have to fix that.”

Gaku felt some of the tension seep out of his shoulders, and he finally stepped inside, letting the door close behind him. He toed off his shoes and left them in their place, sitting next to Satoru’s much smaller boots. Then he set his bag down in its traditional place, next to the umbrella stand, half-leaning against the wall. His feet carried him up and over the ledge that separated the entryway from the kitchen, scanning the floor for a familiar face he couldn’t find.

By now, Sachiko and Satoru must have eaten, which meant he was awake. So—

“He’s hiding, if you’re wondering,” she said, pushing the container into the microwave. She shot him an wry smile, amusement dancing in her eyes. Quietly, she mouthed: Embarrassed.

Gaku gave a small, curious hum at that, before walking around the kitchen table. The door to the living room was firmly and very deliberately shut, and Gaku crouched down in front of it, his elbows balanced on his knees. Gently, he knocked his knuckles against the door twice. “Satoru.”

There was a shuffle on the other side. “G-Gaku-nii?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” he called back, tilting his head. “I stopped by to say hello. Are you going to come out?”

“N-no!”

Gaku could feel his eyebrows slowly raising, and he propped his chin up in his hand, pensive. “Are you sure?” he asked, his fingers drumming against his own cheek. “I was really looking forward to seeing you. I’d be sad if I didn’t get to walk you to school on your first day.”

There a long second of silence, and Gaku patiently waited for a response, counting the threads built into the tatami door. Some of them were fraying. Meanwhile, he could hear Satoru moving around in the living room, shifting around before presumably settling down.

“I,” he started, before his voice dipped low. “I look stupid.

“I’m sure that’s not true,” he lied. Gaku had seen what the teachers made kindergarteners wear. Pragmatically, it made sense: you want to give them something uniform and easy to identify, but bright and colourful in case they got lost. Frankly, it probably did look ridiculous. He couldn’t fault Satoru for wanting to hide away where no one could see.

But Satoru was five years old now, which meant he had to go to school. Besides, Gaku could admit to himself that he was becoming increasingly curious about how bad it could possibly be. So he finally dropped into a proper sit, his legs crossing in front of him as he settled in for the long-haul. “Wonder Guy wears his costume every time he goes out to fight, right? And he looks cool. It’s just like that.”

“But it doesn’t look like Wonder Guy!” he huffed from the other side, the door shaking as Satoru flopped against it. “It’s silly and I don’t wanna go! And Mama can’t make me!”

Well. Gaku was pretty sure Sachiko could and would make Satoru go to kindergarten if she really forced it—but he really hoped to avoid a tantrum today, for all of their sakes. “Why don’t you show me?” he asked, entwining his hands in his lap. “I’ll let you know if you look silly or not. And then we’ll figure something out.”

A beat of quiet. “That’s a trick.”

Kind of. “It’s not.”

“It is!”

“It’s not,” he repeated, a small smile starting to cross his face. Satoru was already getting wise to his games, and Gaku couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride on his behalf. “Look, if I think that you look stupid too, then we can trade clothes. I’ll go to school for you and you can go for me. Deal?”

“… you promise?”

Gaku leaned forward, and slowly pushed the door open a crack. When Satoru didn’t start trying to slam it shut on his fingers, he slipped his hand through, his pinky held out. Gaku stared at the ceiling, until he felt Satoru’s tiny finger twisting around his own, giving him a nervous squeeze. Gaku squeezed back before detangling them from each other, his hands falling back onto his thighs. “Okay. Now let me see.”

All he heard was a long, high-pitched groan.

Then the door slammed open with all the strength a five-year-old could muster. Satoru stood in the opening, his feet squared and shoulders back like a soldier at military attention. Despite the pink on his ears, he puffed out his chest (and cheeks), staring Gaku in the eyes. But his hand betrayed his thin bravado, his fingers nervously gripping at the doorframe.

And Gaku bit back an amused grin, trying to steel his face into something as completely neutral and earnest as possible. The clothes themselves weren’t— terrible. A light blue poncho-like thing had been thrown over Satoru’s shoulders, the sleeves hanging loosely off his arms. The white cuffs on his wrists matched the oversized collar, poking out around his neck. Two rows of big buttons went down the front, keeping it clasped closed. A nametag was pinned to his chest, Satoru’s name written in big hiragana letters and locked behind a waterproof, duck-shaped frame.

If that had been everything, it wouldn’t have been so bad. A little silly, but nothing unmanageable.

But then Gaku’s eyes trailed up, to the matching duck hat on Satoru’s head.

It was like the bright yellow rainhats he’d seen younger kids wear—complete with two little wings, flapping on the sides. A pair of black, beady button eyes stared at Gaku from above the orange beak acting as a visor on top of Satoru’s head. Gaku stared at it for a second, his mouth opening before shutting silently, not trusting whatever was going to come out of his mouth.

Behind him, Sachiko added: “He’s in the Duck class.”

God, that was too cute.

Satoru’s eyes narrowed into a glare, and Gaku bit his tongue. He hadn’t meant to say that out loud.

“I meant ‘cool,’” he promised, straight-faced and serious. “You look really cool, Satoru.”

“You just said cute!” he huffed, his red cheeks impossibly puffing out further. Both his hands fisted self-consciously in the front of his coat, twisting the fabric as he stared down at his feet. There was a sniffle stuck in his nose, his voice crackling and quiet. “I—I don’t wanna go.”

Oh, no. No no no—Gaku could feel his heart drop into his stomach, dragging every single organ down with it. “Satoru,” he muttered, tucking one of his fingers under the boy’s chin. Satoru’s eyes were wet with still-unshed tears, but they resolutely refused to look at Gaku’s face, scowling off to the side somewhere. Gaku sighed, his voice going softer. “Satoru, please look at me.”

Satoru licked his lips, before doing as he was told, a hiccup making his shoulders jump.

“You look good,” Gaku said, careful to put feeling into every word. Satoru’s frown deepened. “I mean it,” he continued, offering a smile. “Honestly, I’m a little jealous of your hat.”

“… no you’re not,” he grumbled.

“I am.” Gaku finally dropped his hand from under Satoru’s chin, instead tapping it against his own. “I would ask you for it, but I think it might be a bit too small for me. Might be worth a try, though. What do you think?”

Satoru’s hands immediately flew to his hat. “You—you can’t have it!”

“Hmmm?” Gaku teased, bringing his hands up and wiggling his fingers, his mouth stretching out into a smirk. “I thought you didn’t even like the hat?”

“It’s mine now!” Satoru yelled. He twisted on his heel and dashed into the living room, crouching in the corner with both arms wrapped protectively around his head. “Mama, Gaku-nii’s trying to steal my hat!”

“I’ll succeed at stealing it, in a minute.”

"Mama!"

“Alright, that’s enough you two,” she sighed, the smile on her face betraying her tone. “Gaku-kun, I heated up some leftovers for you, so come eat. I’m not sending you off hungry. Satoru, I know you didn’t pack up your backpack like I told you to. Your teacher said you’ll need all your pencils, so don’t forget them.”

“Okay!” Satoru called back, his limbs still defending his newly-loved hat. He toed his way across the living room towards his bag, without ever turning his back on Gaku, sticking out his tongue. Gaku raised an eyebrow at the display, amused, before pushing himself to his feet. The smell of curry was wafting out of the kitchen, and he happily reclaimed his seat, rubbing his fingers over the stickers secretly stuck under the table.

It felt good to be home.

 

 

The sun had properly risen by the time they left the house. Gaku used his key to lock the door, and he half-jogged to catch up to Sachiko and Satoru, patiently waiting for him on the curb. Satoru was already clinging to his mother’s hand, but the instant Gaku was there, his fingers were greedily grabbing at Gaku’s too.

Gaku let the smaller palm settle against his, comforted by the fact that Satoru always wanted the contact as much as he did.

So that’s how they walked: Sachiko and Gaku on either side, with Satoru in the middle, stomping his rainboots into every puddle that crossed his path. None of them really spoke, the chatter of the morning moving all around them. Cars rumbled by, other parents and kids fell into step around them, the crosswalk light beeped as they crossed the road. Above them, the first cherry blossom buds of the season were still sitting in their trees, a canopy of white and pink above their heads.

Gaku lifted his arm with Sachiko, swinging Satoru between their linked hands. It was… nice.

Gaku heard the kindergarten before he saw it: the chatter of parents talking and children screeching, echoing from down the block. Immediately, Satoru’s feet began to slow down—and Gaku had to give him an encouraging smile and a tug to get him to keep walking. Other children were wearing similar outfits to Satoru’s own—the duck motif occasionally traded in for frogs and other animals. There might have even been a hamster or two.

They stopped at the gate, and Satoru immediately dove behind Gaku’s knees. He peered out from his hiding place, watching the stream of classmates filter through. “So many,” he muttered.

“They won’t all be in your class,” Gaku explained, dropping his hand onto Satoru’s head. “Only the other… ducks.”

Sachiko crouched down until she was eye-level with her son, precariously balanced on her high heels. “School is a lot of fun, Satoru,” she explained, leaning her arms on her knees. “You’ll get to colour a lot of pictures, and play on the jungle gym, and learn so many new things. I can’t wait to hear all about it,” she said, giving him a bop on the nose. “Do you promise to be nice to your new teacher?”

He reached up to rub at his nose, but nodded. “Promise.”

Sachiko gave one decisive nod, before pushing herself to her feet. As she stood up straight, she dug through her purse, the things inside clattering against each other. It took a moment before she found was she was looking for, and she brandished the disposable camera with a wide smile. Immediately her thumb was winding the wheel back, the plastic grinding against itself with a ragged creak. “Now, get together so I can take a picture!”

Satoru groaned, but Gaku just blinked at her. “Me… too?”

“Of course,” she said easily, waving them towards the kindergarten’s plaque, bolted to the stone wall. “It’s your first day of school today, too. Come on, closer, so I can get you both!”

Gaku awkwardly shuffled towards where she was pointing. Like a duckling, Satoru mimicked his steps, watching Gaku’s feet and moving his own to match. Automatically, their hands found each other—and Gaku felt his stiff, pinched expression melting into a soft smile. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Satoru adjusting his hat with his free hand, self-consciously patting it down.

Sachiko took a few more steps back, the camera held vertically in her hands. “Okay. Say cheese!”

“Cheese!” Satoru echoed back, just before the camera flashed in their eyes.

Gaku blinked a few times once it was done and resisted the urge to rub the black spots out of his vision. He felt Satoru’s hand leave his own as the boy rushed up to his mother, leaning up on his tip toes. “When can I see?”

“Not until I get it developed,” she explained, tucking the camera back into her purse. “But I’ll get it done as soon as I can. And you’ll be the first to see it, I promise. But for now,” she said, pulling him into a hug. “You have to be getting to class.”

Satoru reached up and held on to her skirt, burying his face in the fabric. “Are… are you gonna stay?”

“For a little while,” she admitted, rubbing circles into his shoulders. “But then I’m going to go to work, and Gaku-nii’s going to go to school. But we’ll see you once you’re done for the day, and you can tell us about all the fun things you did. Okay?”

Satoru’s grip tightened, until his knuckles were a nervous white—but he nodded anyway. “Okay.”

“Alright.” Sachiko’s arms were firm around him, giving him a long, maternal squeeze. Gaku leaned back against the wall and with his hands in his pockets, taking in the sight. He couldn’t remember the last time his own mother had reached out to him like that. Frankly, he couldn’t remember if it had ever happened at all. And if it had, then the memory was already snatched away, buried underneath his brother’s bloodied knuckles.

But Satoru got to have this. That’s what mattered now.

Gaku watched from afar as Sachiko reluctantly wriggled them apart, giving her son one last pat on the shoulders as she pushed him towards the gate. “Time for you to get going then. You don’t want to be late on your first day!”

Satoru nodded and walked forward, both of his hands balled into little fists at his sides. He made it about halfway to the door before he paused, his body suddenly shrinking in on himself as he spared one last, anxious glance back.

Sachiko waved at him, smiling. Gaku thought about it for a second, before taking his hands out of his pockets, and shooting the boy a pair of thumbs up.

Satoru blinked at them both, before nodding again—either to himself, or them, Gaku wasn’t quite sure. His fists latched on to the straps of his backpack, and he turned his back to them, taking off at a sprint. He nearly tripped over his own two feet at least twice, but he righted himself just in time, skipping up the school’s steps. Gaku watched until he slipped behind the kindergarten’s glass doors, following a teacher down the hallway and out of sight.

The bell rang, chirping out a song from a speaker somewhere.

Everything went quiet. The wind rustled through the trees above them, and Gaku let out a slow, relieved sigh.

All things considered, that went… better than expected.

And then he heard the sniffle.

The sound shot through him like a bullet. Gaku felt his spine snapping straight, both of his arms pressed stiffly to his sides. With wide eyes, he stared ahead at nothing, desperately straining his ears. He wanted to hope he had imagined it, but no—he could hear the hitch in her breath, the shudder as she sighed. Gaku swallowed thickly, feeling a trickle of sweat slide down the side of his face.

Then, like a rusted hinge straining to move, his neck slowly turned to look.

Fujinuma Sachiko was crying. Not the ugly sobbing that some parents were prone to—but the tears were rushing down her face all the same. Her eyes were still fixed on the kindergarten’s doors, even as she rubbed at her cheeks with her handkerchief, smearing make-up all over the fabric. “Sorry, Gaku-kun,” she said, giving a hoarse chuckle. “He just—grew up so fast, you know?”

Gaku stared at her with his mouth agape, and intelligently said: “Uh.”

“I can’t believe he’s already going off to school,” she whispered, trying to take a steadying breath. It wasn’t working. “I just hope it goes well.”

Oh, god. Gaku watched her for a second, before whipping his head back around to stare forward. This was completely out of his depth. Satoru crying he at least knew how to handle, but this was uncharted territory. What are you supposed to say to someone in this situation? Are you supposed to say anything? His fingers nervously tapped against his thighs, and his eyes darted back to her, his lips pressed into a panicked line.

Gaku swallowed thickly, taking two slow steps away from her, out of the blast zone. “He’ll… be fine?”

“Oh, I know,” Sachiko sighed again, tucking her handkerchief back into her pocket. “He’s going to have a great time, and make so many new friends.”

Gaku’s body froze.

“But we can’t stand here all day,” she said, swallowing down the last of the thickness in her throat. “You won’t be late, will you, Gaku-kun?”

He gave a stiff shrug, feigning an ease he didn’t feel. The motion felt obviously fake, so he forced his voice to stay calm, forcing good humour where there was none. “I didn’t really plan on going to the ceremony anyway,” he admitted. “But I’ll be there in time for homeroom.”

“Everything I said to him goes for you too, young man,” she smiled. “I can’t wait to hear all about it.”

Gaku shuffled awkwardly in place, before giving a curt nod. “Okay.”

They gave their hasty goodbyes, before turning and walking in opposite directions down the road. Although he could still feel the echoes of Satoru’s company in his soul—like a breath of fresh air for a drowning man—Gaku still shoved his hands into his pockets, glowering down at the pavement. The bubbling nothingness in his veins was surging up against his skin, trying to seep out from between his pores. But right now he didn’t care, couldn’t care when his ears were filled with those two little words, stuttering like a broken record stuck on repeat.

New friends. New friends. New friends.

Gaku snarled, kicking a rock down the road.

Satoru didn’t need new friends.

Not if he had anything to say about it.

 

 

Chapter Text

Some people claimed that they saw red, but Gaku never did. Instead, when emotions began to curdle in his gut—when jealousy and hate threatened to come pouring off his lips like sludge—all he could see was black. He could taste it in the corners of his mouth, sitting tucked under his tongue; could feel it, buried under his fingernails, itching to dig in and tear. It twisted and tangled his veins into knots under his skin, squeezing whispered promises out of his bones.

When Satoru was there—when Satoru was threatened—it exploded, like a tidal wave rushing over his senses.

But right now, in the comfort of his classroom, it just left him blank.

The mask of apathy sat heavy on his skin, a familiar disguise in the crowd of bored children. Gaku played the role of the dutiful student; he answered when called upon like he always had, sharing polite smiles with his classmates. It was little more than auto-pilot at this point: he moved like a tin soldier, aimlessly marching forward on rails towards nothing.

But it left his mind free. So as he stared down at his notes, Gaku sank back into his own head, allowing the black ocean to swim in front of his eyes. All too eagerly, he sank into the depths, feeling the cool, furious calm overtaking his senses. His pencil tapped against the page, his eyes hollow as they stared into nothing.  

Still, those two words rang in his ears.

New friends. New friends. New friends.

A feedback loop of the worst kind. Gaku forced himself to breathe past it, his eyes narrowing. Something in him was snarling and snapping its teeth, straining the chains of his self-control—but that didn’t mean he had to let it loose. Not yet.

No, if anything, it was the opposite: Gaku’s mind was, for the most part, calm—even like a perfect sheet of glass. Gifted with the time to think, he pretended to follow the lesson; but his brain was busily ticking through actions and outcomes, clicking through the gambling chips in his skull. A slight of hand, a bluff and a well-placed lie; every situation had risks and rewards, but there was always a solution. This was no different. He just needed to find it.

Present situation: Satoru would be making new friends—if he hadn’t already.

Desired result: for it to be just Satoru and him, forever.

Gaku could still see the crowds cramming through the kindergarten gate, dozens of threats children pouring out through the doors. Even if he managed to isolate everyone in Satoru’s class, there would still be the rest of the grade to worry about. And that was just this year: soon Satoru would be starting elementary school, and then middle school, and beyond. There would be no simple way to get the message across to all of them, no easy method to make sure they all stayed away.

Gaku paused, his pencil lying still against the page.

A smirk spread across his lips as he stared down at his notebook. It was so obvious, so simple, why hadn’t he seen it before? Satisfaction bled out of his bones, and Gaku brought his thumb to his lips, sinking his teeth into his own skin. Pain flared, and he let it bloom and spread, adrenaline rushing like a drug through his blood. 

He couldn’t get the other kids to stay away from Satoru. But he didn’t have to.

Not when he could do the opposite.

 

 

For the second time that day, Gaku found himself standing outside of Satoru’s school. Impatiently, he paced back and forth, his arms crossed and finger tapping against his elbow. Their schools officially let out at the same time, but Gaku was quick and efficient—especially compared to a bunch of five-year-olds. He managed to arrive just as the first few students were beginning to trickle out the doors.

Every so often he could spy a duck hat—often clustered with others like it, classmates gravitating together in a sea of strangers. Gaku’s eyes swept over them, before quickly discarding them from importance. They weren’t Satoru, and thus, they were disposable; nothing more than useless clutter that clogged his way.

But he continued to watch the door with a forced patience, irritation bubbling in his blood.

A pair of ducks began to hop their way down the few cement steps—and Gaku felt himself snarl.

Satoru laughed like a ringing bell, his face bright and trusting and looking at someone else. The girl at his side was chittering along like an idiot, one hand moving wildly to demonstrate whatever nonsense she was stuffing his head with. But the other was firmly wrapped around Satoru’s palm, their little fingers tangled together. Her hand squeezed his as she dragged him across the yard, and Gaku watched in horror as Satoru blushed, his entire body going stiff.

Whatever calm rationality had settled over Gaku shattered. Every instinct was screaming to go over there, to rip them apart, to make sure she never so much as thought about—

Blue eyes met his. “Gaku-nii!”

Gaku’s face burst into a smile. Satoru dropped the girl’s hand immediately—and something in Gaku preened, smug and relieved. His knees hit the pavement as Satoru ran towards him, his duck hat falling forward in front of his face. The boy blindly crashed into his chest, and Gaku couldn’t find it in him to chastise him; he just swallowed a laugh and wrapped one arm Satoru, the other gently tugging the hat back into its proper place. “Hello again.”

“You came to pick me up!” Satoru beamed.

“Of course. I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he promised, poking Satoru in the cheek. “Are you ready to go?”

“Uh-huh!” he squirmed in Gaku’s grip until he was twisting around, waving wildly. “Bye-bye, Atko! See you tomorrow!”

The girl from before turned away from her own mother. Her eyes found Satoru first, before wandering up to Gaku’s face, tilting her head. His fingers twisted tightly into Satoru’s coat, already pulling Satoru closer, locking him in his arms. A flicker of something flashed across her face—but then she gave a small wave back, clutching at her mother’s hand. “Bye-bye, Satoru!”

They turned to walk away, and Gaku watched them go, a silent roar shaking under his ribs. Only when they both had passed the gates did something in him ease a little bit, the rabid beast in his head simmering down to a hum. His tense muscles loosened their grip, and his clutching hands turned soft, gently patting down the wrinkles in Satoru’s clothes.

Satoru’s eyes were looking his way, all his attention and affection offered up on a silver platter. “I drew a cat!”

“Oh, really?” Gaku said, pushing himself to his feet. Playfully, he flipped up the bill of Satoru’s hat. “Not a duck?”

“No! A cat!” he huffed, pulling his hat back down with a pout. Gaku held out his hand, and Satoru immediately grasped at it, his little fingers wrapping around one of Gaku’s own. “I wanted to make him green, but someone said cats can’t be green, so he’s orange now.”

“I’m sure it’s very handsome.” Gaku eagerly tugged Satoru back out towards the road, a little faster than he’d intended, but his feet refused to slow down. Not until they were far away from the children and the people who would try to come between them. But Gaku still forced a smile, baring his teeth as his hand squeezed Satoru’s palm. “Why don’t we get some ice cream, and you can show me?”

“Ice cream?” Satoru exclaimed, half-jogging to keep up with the older boy’s faster pace. “Really?!”

“Why not? It’s a special day. We should celebrate.”

“Can I get chocolate sauce?” Satoru pulled at his hand, his expression serious. “Mama says I’ll just make a mess, but I won’t!”

Gaku gave a low hum at that. God knows he’d seen Satoru eat before—or, his attempts at eating, more like. There were probably raccoons who could manage to keep more on their plate. But Satoru was staring up at him with those big blue eyes, his fingers still squeezing at his hand—and Gaku knew he’d already lost, heaving a resigned sigh. “Okay,” he said, holding up a finger, “but, only a little. And you have to eat it in a bowl.”

Satoru’s face bloomed into a smile. “Yay,” he whispered to himself, his other hand pumping a little victorious fist. Facing forward, Satoru began to happily jump from line to line on the crosswalk, his mouth babbling everything that came to mind; Gaku happily lost himself in the sound, running his thumb along the back of Satoru’s hand.

They didn’t need anyone else.

Satoru just needed to understand that, too.

 

 

Of course, the bowl really didn’t help. Gaku frowned, wetting a napkin with his tongue. Immediately, Satoru tried to squirm away from it—so he gently took hold of the boy’s chin, holding his head still. There was brown fudge sauce smeared all over and around Satoru’s mouth, but Gaku had at least expected that to happen. That was normal, at least by Satoru’s standards. But this—

Gaku sighed, rubbing behind the boy’s ear. “How did you even get chocolate back here?”

“I ‘unno,” Satoru shrugged, shoveling more into his mouth. His feet swung back and forth from his spot on the park bench, his fingers sticky with fudge; Gaku kneeled in front of him, one knee on the ground as he rubbed at Satoru’s cheeks in vain. The boy’s tongue darted out to lick up the extra cream, but he only managed to smear it around.

His spoon moved far too slowly for Gaku’s liking, the melting ice cream piled dangerously high. “Careful,” Gaku tutted, catching a string of fudge in his napkin. He narrowed his eyes, before flicking at Satoru’s nose. “I’m starting to understand why your mother doesn’t let you have this.”

Satoru gave sheepish smile as he swallowed another bite, murmuring quietly around his spoon. “Thank you for ice cream, Gaku-nii.”

He couldn’t help but smile back. When Satoru looked at him like that—when his face was open with simple trust and adoration—the shadows in his soul were banished away, thrown off his shoulders and into the wind. Nothing else could make him feel that way. Nothing else could make him feel, at all.

He wasn’t going to share that with anyone.

“Well, that’s what friends are for,” he said, dabbing at Satoru’s lips again. “Speaking of which, Satoru… who was that girl you were talking to?”

“Atko!” he chirped, his entire face brightening—and the thick, acrid loathing in Gaku’s gut churned, throwing itself against the dam of his self-restraint. “She’s nice and likes Precure, which I told her isn’t as cool as Wonder Guy because it isn’t,” Satoru pointed out, his lips twisting into a pout. “But she said they look prettier, and—”

Gaku pressed the napkin to Satoru’s lips, his eyes cold as ice.

“Is she your friend?”

Satoru blinked down at him, blissfully oblivious. “Yeah!”

Gaku’s free hand snapped into a sudden fist. His knuckles cracked and popped, his fingers squeezing until the blood welled up under his nails. Somewhere inside, that beast, rabid and foaming at the mouth, snapped free of its chains; the dark intent flowed freely through his veins, leaking out of his bleeding palm.

Every instinct was telling him to follow the feeling: to find that stupid little girl and smash her skull into the pavement. He wanted to hear that satisfying crack again and again until all that was left of her were little pieces of shattered bone, scattered like eggshells at his feet. He imagined her empty brain smeared across the concrete, bloody grey on grey—and he let out a shuddering breath, his body aching with want.

(Then, when all was said and done, he could grab Satoru and run: never letting go, never stopping, never found.)

His fingers twitched.

(He could do it.)

Gaku took a deep breath, and slowly dropped his hand from Satoru’s face.

(But not yet.)

Instead, Gaku did what he did best. He lied.

The charade was easy, the moves rehearsed: the slight downturn on his mouth, the way his gaze dropped, the dip of his voice into something quiet and soft. Gaku swallowed down a thickness in his throat that wasn’t there, and he slipped the napkin from one hand into the other, pressing it against his bloody palm. “I… I see.”

Satoru watched for a second, before his eyebrows furrowed, his bowl and spoon set down in his lap. “G-Gaku-nii?” he asked, scooting closer. “Wha—what’s wrong?”

“Oh,” he murmured, pretending to look sheepish, even as crocodile tears sprung to his eyes. “Well, if you’re friends with Atko, then you will start playing together after school. You won’t be able to play with me anymore.”

“I-I’ll still play with you, Gaku-nii!” Satoru assured him, his own voice rising with thinly-veiled panic. “Atko will only be a sometimes friend!”

Gaku’s entire body twitched at that last word, that familiar hate surging up his throat—but he stamped it back down, burying it under his skin. Not now. Gaku just needed to go a little bit further; it was so close he could almost taste it, thick like the sweetest honey he would ever know. His thin smile wobbled on his face, and he sniffed through his nose.

“I-I know,” he said, his voice thick. “And when you’re playing with Atko, I guess I’ll just… go home.”

Then, he placed his hand on his own arm, and winced.

Satoru’s eyes widened. Gaku suppressed a grin.

“A-and—and you’ll get ouches?” Satoru whispered.

Gaku opened his mouth, prepared to spit the prepared lies, but Satoru was there first: surging forward, sticky hands grasping at Gaku’s coat. His face was a pale caricature of itself, twisted by guilt and pain. Tears were already starting to stream down his cheeks, dripping off his chin. His little fingers were shaking, but wouldn’t let go: too frantic, too terrified to do anything but cling on, his breaths trapped and tangled in his chest.

“B-but, but that’s not wh-what I—I didn’t want th-that, G-Gaku-nii—!”

The boy’s words were suddenly swallowed by his sobs, his voice little more than an anguished wail. Gaku never liked seeing Satoru upset—but he would be lying if some part of him didn’t savour this, seeing the depths of Satoru’s devotion on full display. It was like a feast for the hungriest part of his soul, and Gaku couldn’t help the pleased sigh that just barely slipped out of his mouth.

His hand landed on Satoru’s head, his fingers slipping through the soft strands. “Shh,” he whispered, a soft smile on his lips. His arms wrapped around Satoru, gently tucking him against his chest, the very picture of a loving older brother. His bloody hand rubbed circles on the back of Satoru’s coat, staining it red. Smirking to himself, he ducked his head to whisper in the boy’s ear. “I know you didn’t mean it, Satoru. You just weren’t thinking, right?”

The boy frantically nodded, burying his face in the fabric of Gaku’s shirt as he cried. “I-I’m sorry, I’m s-sorry—”

“And you won’t do it again,” he said, pulling back and away. Satoru’s face was flushed red, his tears cutting wet streaks across his skin. The sight sent electricity shivering down his skin, and Gaku’s hands gripped at Satoru’s head, forcing them to meet eyes. His fingertips pressed into the boy’s skull, clutching at him like a dying man seeking salvation. “You’re my only friend, Satoru. So I should be your only friend, too. We don’t need anyone else,” he insisted.

Gaku’s face inched closer, his eyes rabidly scanning Satoru’s face. “Okay?”

Satoru stared up at him, his eyes wet and red and oh so desperate for forgiveness. His tiny hands stayed twisted in his coat, as if his precious Gaku-nii was going to get hurt the second he let him go. His tiny chest heaved in panic, hiccups popping out of his mouth. All the while, the tears kept coming, even as his eyes darted across Gaku’s expression—searching for what, Gaku didn’t know.

But it didn’t matter. Not when Satoru, with his quivering lips pressed into a shaky line, nodded.

Real tears surged to Gaku’s eyes, splitting his face into a smile.

It hit him all at once, a wall of—of something Gaku had never felt before. His arms wrapped Satoru into a bone-crushing hug, euphoria and nirvana crashing into him like tidal waves. He knew he knew he knew Satoru would choose him. He always had, from the very first moment they’d met. When the rest of the world would have looked away, Satoru had found him, frozen and buried in the ice and snow.

Even if Satoru couldn’t understand now—he would, one day. When he was older—when the world reared its ugly head, threatening to swallow him whole; when Gaku was the only thing standing between him and cruel reality—then Satoru would know. Even now, Satoru’s arms wrapped softly around his neck, chasing Gaku’s touch—and the smile on his face twisted into something wild.

This was his and his alone.

“Thank you,” Gaku whispered, his talons digging in. “You’re my hero, Satoru.”

Satoru kept sobbing, and in the back of his mind, Gaku realized that this was the happiest moment of his life.

He buried his face into Satoru’s hair, whispering comforts and gratitude, still caging the boy in his grip. Satoru—his only friend, his only everything—continued to shake, every breath whimpered and raw. Gaku could feel his shirt soaking up his tears, the fabric sticking to his skin; could hear Satoru’s soft whispers of his name, rasped into the crook of his neck like a prayer. Gaku reveled in it all, pressing his lips to the crown of Satoru’s head.

This was all he’d ever wanted. And it would be all he’d ever need.

Slowly, steadily, Satoru’s breaths evened out. Gaku waited a few minutes longer, simply counting the boy’s heartbeats against his own, his fingers brushing along the nape of Satoru’s neck. Only when he began to squirm did Gaku finally release him, letting the Satoru retreat back onto the bench. His face was still flushed, drying tears still damp on his face. His eyes were downcast, staring at his own feet, hanging limp between them.

Gaku felt his heart clench a little at the sight. He looked down as well, and saw what was left of Satoru’s reward: the bowl upturned and forgotten, soft serve steadily melting onto the sidewalk. Gaku beamed, immediately leaning in and tilting Satoru’s chin up with a finger. “How about I go get you some more ice cream? How does that sound?”

Satoru blinked at him for a second, as if he hadn’t quite processed the words—before he offered a tired, wobbling smile. “O-okay,” he whispered.

“I’ll be right back then,” he promised, tucking a bit of Satoru’s hair behind his ear. Gaku pushed himself to his feet, rushing back over to the ice cream stand, already fumbling with his wallet. He would show Satoru: he could be his friend, his older brother—anything and everything Satoru wanted him to be. He could make him happy.

And maybe once they were both grown up, they could make this a town where neither of them had ever been: the two of them disappearing to some far-off place, until his brother parents the pain Ishikari was only a distant memory.

Gaku spared one last glance over his shoulder.

Satoru sat still on the bench, staring down at his ruined dessert. Alone.

Everything was as it should be.

 

 

Over his second ice cream, Gaku managed to coax more promises out of Satoru’s throat.

Namely, that he wouldn’t tell Sachiko about their little conversation. It was easy enough to do: Satoru didn’t want to upset his mother, now, did he? He was all grown up now, going to school on his own—he was allowed to have a secret or two. Besides, it was fun to have secrets with your friends, wasn’t it?

Or so Gaku had said, a grin stretching across his face.

In the end, Satoru didn’t end up saying anything at all. Exhausted from it all, he passed out the instant Gaku scooped him into his arms. Out of habit, Gaku’s feet carried him back towards their field, both of their backpacks slung over his shoulders. The sun was already low when he spied Sachiko’s workplace, so he stood on the concrete landing, silently watching the silhouettes get longer at his feet.

Which is how Sachiko found them: Gaku waiting on her office’s doorstep, her son sleeping and shivering slightly in his arms.

The awning cut a shadow across the Gaku’s eyes, and he stared out from the dark, a sharp smile slashed across his mouth. “Good evening, Sachiko-san.”

She blinked at him, before slowly smiling back, gently tugging the door closed behind her. “Nice to see you again so soon,” she greeted, her eyes immediately dropping to Satoru. Crouching down, she balanced herself on her heels as she stared fondly at him. “Someone had a big day, I take it. How did it go?”

“Great,” he answered honestly, but his fingers curled tight into Satoru’s clothes. “He drew a cat. We celebrated with ice cream.”

“I see,” she whispered, her eyes softening. Sachiko opened her arms invitingly, and Gaku’s entire body tensed. Every instinct was screaming against it, pulling on logic’s leash—but Gaku forced himself to dutifully deposit Satoru into his mother’s arms. He bit at the inside of his cheek, the boy’s warmth already fleeing his frozen skin.

“Thank you for watching him,” she said, tucking her son against her chest. “It’s a relief knowing he’s out here with you, Gaku-kun.”

Contradiction. Gaku’s eyes narrowed slightly, and he tilted his head, as if seeing Sachiko Fujinuma for the first time. On one hand, she wanted Satoru to make new friends—and those words stabbed into him like a knife, twisting into his flesh. If Sachiko had her way, then Satoru would eventually fall away from him. Not immediately, not completely—but bit by bit, like a satellite slipping out of orbit. Untethered and alone, freefalling through the infinite.

And Sachiko wanted that. She wanted Satoru to leave him behind.

But, she had also invited Gaku in. Sachiko had taught him how to handle a knife, whispering recipes into his ear. He always appreciated the nights the two of them had worked silently in the kitchen, the rice cooker steaming at their side. If nothing else, he was still grateful; still savoured the weeks he got to spend in her home, falling asleep with Satoru curled against his side.

At the very least, they both wanted the same thing: to keep Satoru safe.

And until Gaku was big enough to do that alone, Sachiko Fujinuma was necessary.

Burying the betrayal in his bones, he shrugged Satoru’s bag off of his shoulder, holding it out to her. “It was my pleasure, Sachiko-san.”

She awkwardly nudged the backpack up onto her back, the strap tangling with her purse. “Oh,” she muttered, twisting until her own bag was facing him, both her hands still full cradling her son. She nodded her chin towards the purse, a suspiciously eager smile on her face. “Before I forget—would you mind opening that up for me?”

Gaku stared at her for a second, before he looked down at her bag. His stiff fingers fumbled with zipper, awkwardly tugging; eventually, it came open, and Gaku couldn’t resist peering in. The contents of Sachiko’s purse were very different from his mother’s own: the make-up and disinfecting wipes traded in for bus tickets, hair ties and a wallet stuffed with small bills.

“It’s in the envelope,” Sachiko said. “Go ahead. Open it.”

The paper envelope was squeezed against the back, and Gaku carefully pulled it out with both hands. It was… light, and he looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. She continued to smile down at him, so he bit back a sigh and carefully slipped his fingers under the flap. A glossy finish brushed against his fingertips, and Gaku pulled its contents out.

The memory of that morning was still fresh—but Gaku didn’t recognize the person in the picture.

The Gaku in the photo might as well have been a stranger. His face was… warm, glowing with something gentle and genuine, the corners of his mouth curled in a smile. There was a softness in his eyes that Gaku had never found in the mirror; a happy contentment he’d never bothered to imagine. For a moment, he was stunned, staring down at the person that apparently wore his skin.

Then, his eyes trailed down. Satoru was clumsily holding hands with the Gaku in the picture, happily clutching at few of his fingers. Everything about him was vivid and bright, his cheeks dusted with eager pink. His smile was comically wide, as if he was trying to show off as many teeth as possible. Satoru’s colours practically leapt out of the picture, a stark contrast to Gaku’s gloomy black.

But they held on to each other all the same.

Gaku breathed past the tightness in his throat, blinked the mist out of his eyes, and looked back up at Sachiko. “Thank you.”

She just smiled, before finally standing, Satoru still cradled in her arms. “Hold on to that,” she said, winking. “We’ll need something to compare to, next year.”

Gaku’s grip tightened on the picture, warmth swelling in his chest. “Next year.”

 

 

That night, trapped at his parents’ table, Gaku met his father’s eyes.

There was something lurking behind his father’s glasses, dark and ticking like a time bomb. With a deliberate slowness, he set down his polished cutlery, threading his rough hands in front of his plate. Gaku could hear the moment his mother’s breath caught in her throat, her entire body going stock still.

“How was your day, Gaku?”

Gaku nibbled on his meal, staring him down.

He thought about the key to the apartment, hidden in his nightstand. Thought about the picture that he could feel, even now, resting in his pocket—the paper pressed stiff against his ribs, bending with every breath. Thought about the promise Satoru had made, the sound of his sobs like a sweet song in his ears.

He considered all of these things for a moment, and then his mouth stretched wide, all fangs as he grinned. “Fantastic.”

 

Chapter Text

Standing outside of Satoru’s school in the rain, Gaku realized that he was happy.

The thought hit him without warning. Of course, he’d had fleeting moments of happiness before—almost exclusively tangled up in Satoru—but they were little more than blips on a radar, in the grand scheme of things. Emotions were fickle that way: unreliable and unpredictable. In the rare moments that something actually stirred in Gaku, it usually dissolved in seconds, breaking apart like foam.

But this was different. This was a constant state of comfort, peacefully humming like a heater under his ribs. Gaku’s finger tapped against the handle of his umbrella. People often said that you never know your own happiness until it’s gone, but Gaku supposed he’d never really had it to begin with. In the face of such a dramatic shift, it was impossible not to be aware of the difference.

After all, it had been months since he’d needed to wipe up blood in the sink. Sometimes, just for the fun of it, he tried to remember his brother’s voice—the way he yelled, the words he used. It got a little harder every day, and Gaku found he didn’t miss it in the slightest. The very idea of his brother seemed oddly foreign now, like a piece of someone else’s history.

Now, he was happy—satiated by Satoru’s company, like a balm over his wounds.

The school’s bell echoed through the empty yard, and the sound washed out his thoughts. Gaku couldn’t help but smile, adjusting his coat and straightening his spine. The weather meant it would take longer for Satoru to appear, but Gaku would wait hours if he had to. But, he didn’t: within minutes, the boy burst out of the kindergarten’s doors like a hurricane, launching himself off the top step. His rubber boots crashed down with a splash, spraying water onto his bright yellow raincoat.

Arms outstretched, he bolted across the yard, leaving his classmates behind in the mud. “Gaku-nii!”

Gaku gave a small huff as he was half-tackled, nearly dropping the umbrella; he only barely managed to catch himself, curling forward and dropping a hand onto the top of Satoru’s hooded head. “Hello to you too.”

Satoru’s hands patted at Gaku’s leg. Stretching himself up onto his tip-toes, he felt through the damp fabric of Gaku’s pants—before he was seemingly satisfied, falling back onto his heels. He craned his neck back and stared up at him, blue eyes raking across his face. “Gaku-nii okay?”

Gaku’s released a pleased sigh, and he pressed his palm to Satoru’s wet back, pulling him closer. Ever since Satoru had made that promise, this had become increasingly routine—and Gaku would be lying if he didn’t adore every second of it. He raised an eyebrow, a playful smile pulling at his lips. “You tell me. No ouches?”

Satoru’s cheeks puffed outwards as he pouted, bits of rain splashed against his cheeks. Both of his hands, already clammy with cold, wrapped around Gaku’s warmer fingers. “Are we gonna play today?”

Gaku hummed, tilting the umbrella to stare at the cloudy sky. It wasn’t raining particularly hard—but it wasn’t the kind of weather he wanted Satoru to be out in, either. “I was thinking we would go home,” he said, already walking towards the gates. The rest of the students were beginning to spill out of the school, and he refused to risk Satoru’s eyes wandering their way. “What did you do in class today?”

“We were supposed to go outside and look at plants, but it was raining so we had to look at pictures instead,” Satoru said, pressing himself against Gaku’s side. The two of them stayed that way—walking tightly together underneath the umbrella, Satoru’s voice nearly lost in the drizzle.

They made it to the Fujinumas’ doorstep before long, and Gaku slid his own key into the lock, pushing the door open. Satoru scampered in ahead of him, plopping himself down in the entryway. His little fingers fumbled with his boots, and Gaku leaned the umbrella against the wall before crouching in front of him.

“Let me,” he offered, his hands settling on the wet shoes. Satoru huffed for a moment, but obligingly stuck out his foot. With one hand on his heel, Gaku slowly eased the boot off. He carefully did the same with the other, delicately setting them aside on the drying mat. Then he turned his attention to Satoru’s raincoat, his fingers reaching between the snaps and buttons, prying them apart.

Satoru squirmed, trying to lean away. “I can do it myself.”

“I know,” Gaku hummed, smiling up at him. “Indulge me.”

Satoru pouted, before eventually nodding with a wet sniffle. Gaku frowned. He pressed the back of his hand to Satoru’s cheek, and felt him shiver. Winter was long gone—but it was still cold out, in that way only a rainy day could be. The chill had a habit of clinging to your skin and burrowing into your bones. Gaku tugged the raincoat off the boy’s uncooperative limbs, moving to hang it by the door.

“Why don’t you get changed into something cozy?” Gaku suggested, haphazardly kicking off his own boots.

“Okay,” Satoru said, scurrying deeper into the apartment. Gaku watched him go, tossing off his own coat before moving to the fridge. The last thing he wanted was Satoru getting sick: if he was bedridden, then Gaku wouldn’t be allowed to see him. For days. Just the idea of Satoru getting sick—if anything happened—and if he wasn’t there

Gaku threw open the door to the fridge, glaring at the contents. Right now, his priority was warming Satoru up. Little boys generally didn’t like tea, so he pulled out the milk, popping open the cap and sniffing inside. It didn’t smell sour, so he set it down on the countertop, fishing through the cabinets for some honey.

By the time Satoru re-appeared at his elbow, the milk was already steaming in the pot. “What’s that?”

“Warm milk,” he said, stirring it slowly. Satoru’s school clothes had been swapped for pajamas, fuzzy socks wrapped around his feet. Gaku smiled, before slowly pouring the honey in. Satoru watched, entranced, clinging to the edge of the counter and peering in to see. Gaku couldn’t help but smile, drawing the moment out, slowly stirring in the sticky sweetness.

Bit by bit, he felt the honey dissolve against the wooden spoon, until even the steam smelled sweet. Gaku carefully poured the milk into a pair of waiting mugs. Bending down to accommodate Satoru’s height, he held the cup out. “Be careful, now. It’s hot.”

Satoru’s face turned serious, as if he’d been entrusted with the most important possible mission a five-year-old could have. With a solemn nod, he took the drink, gripping it with both hands. Without ripping his eyes away from the milk, he began to blindly inch back towards the living room, every step slow and deliberate. Gaku watched him go with an amused quirk to his lips, before pouring his own drink and abandoning the pot in the sink.

He grabbed a blanket on his way, and promptly dropped it on Satoru’s head.

The boy gave a muffled whine from the floor, limbs kicking to detangle himself. Eventually, his head popped up from between the folds, his hair mussed and nose scrunched. “Gaku-niiii…”

“You looked cold,” he said simply, sitting down on the tatami as well. Immediately, Satoru was clambering into his lap, cocooned in the blanket with his back flush against Gaku’s stomach. His toes wiggled as he blew on the milk, taking a tentative sip. Out of habit, Gaku dropped his hand onto Satoru’s head, detangling the damp mess with his fingers. “Is it good?”

“Mm.” Satoru craned his head back, a streak of white lining his upper lip. “Can we watch Wonder Guy?”

Gaku looped his arms around Satoru’s stomach, caging him in. “Of course.”

The TV flickered on, and Gaku rested his chin on Satoru’s head; if he tried, he could still make out faint traces his shampoo. The sound of superheroes wasn’t enough to cover up the rain, still pitter-pattering against the thin walls. But in his arms, Satoru was a bundle of warmth, perfectly nestled against his stomach—like two puzzle pieces that had slotted into place.

Gaku let his eyes slip shut, letting it all soak in, while he still could; he held his breath until it matched up with Satoru’s own, feeling their lungs expand in time. It was his favourite feeling in the world.

Satoru squirmed in his lap, nodding in the direction of Gaku’s abandoned mug. “Gaku-nii, your milk.”

“I know.” He pressed his cheek to the top of the boy’s head, sighing. “Hey, Satoru.”

He tilted his head back, looking up at him. “Uh-huh?”

Gaku’s fingers grasped at the blanket, hugging him tighter. He’d already thought about how he’d have to bring this up, but that didn’t make this any easier. Guilt was already twisting his gut tight, and like a coward, he kept his eyes trained on the TV, resolutely not looking down at those bright blue eyes. “Do you know where Tokyo is?”

“It’s the—the capital!” One of Satoru’s hands flew out of the blanket, stretching towards the ceiling. A bit of milk ran out of his mug. “And the houses all go really really high!”

“That’s right.” Gaku watched the commercials slide by. “My grandfather lives there.”

“You have a grandpa?” Satoru’s eyes blew wide. “What’s he like?!”

Gaku raised an eyebrow at his sudden curiosity, before turning his eyes to the ceiling. Now that he thought about it, Satoru had never mentioned any family outside of his mother. If Sachiko’s parents were still alive, they clearly weren’t in the picture. He supposed it was natural that the concept of a grandparent would appeal to Satoru: he didn’t even have a father, let alone an extended family.

Except Gaku, now. He poked at the boy’s cheek, feeling the skin squish underneath his finger. “I don’t know,” he admitted, watching as Satoru deflated. “I’ve never met him before. But we’re going to visit him.”

Satoru’s eyebrows furrowed. “In… Tokyo?”

He bit at the inside of his cheek. “Yes.”

Gaku could practically hear the gears turning in Satoru’s head. His eyes roamed across the older boy’s face. Slowly, the confusion on his face twisted into something more afraid, his voice cracking. “G-Gaku-nii—is going away?”

Gaku threw his arms around Satoru again, pulling him in tight. “Only for a few days, I promise. I’ll be back before you know it,” he assured him, the words tripping out of his mouth, giving Satoru an encouraging little shake. “I’ll even come back with presents for you. They have lots of big stores there, I’ll find you something. Doesn’t that sound fun? I bet they have all the newest toys. I’ll get you anything—anything you want.”

Satoru watched him, his shoulders shaking under the blanket. He sniffled. “I w-want you to not go.”

Gaku sighed. “Satoru—”

“You said anything!” Tears streaked down his face, and his hands balled into angry little fists, blunt nails digging into his hands. “You c-can’t go! I-If you’re alone, then—then you’re gonna g-get ouches again, and—!”

Gaku pulled him closer then, pressing Satoru’s hiccups into his shirt. The boy’s balled up hands smacked weakly against Gaku’s chest, and he limply thrashed around, putting up a token struggle in Gaku’s arms. Ever since Satoru’s first tantrum in the field, Gaku had learnt how to deal with this; he tightened his hold and waited out the storm, until the only movement was the quivering of Satoru’s breaths.

Against the sound of the rain, Satoru’s voice was quiet and tight. “I-I need to protect Gaku-nii.”

Gaku tucked his face against Satoru’s head. This dedication, this affection—it still sent pleasant chills across his skin. “I won’t get hurt,” he said, resisting the urge to grin. “I’ll be with my mother, and my father—”

“Bad man.” Satoru nestled closer. “I hate him. He always takes Gaku-nii away.”

He couldn’t really argue with that logic. “But I always come back, don’t I?”

There was a beat of silence, before Satoru shakily nodded.

“And I’m going to come back this time, too.” Not that Gaku had much of a choice: he needed Satoru, like he needed water and air. Even if Gaku ever wanted to leave, their friendship fed something in him that had been starved for far too long. He stuck out his pinky finger, curling it towards Satoru. “You said it yourself. I’m like Wonder Guy. Even if I have to beat the bad guy first, I’ll always come home in the end.”

Satoru stared at the outstretched finger, before turning to look up at Gaku. “Promise?”

“Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Satoru swallowed thickly, before grasping their fingers together. “Okay. Promised.”

Oblivious, Gaku shook their hands together with a smile.


The next day, Gaku stuffed himself into his parents’ sedan, his duffel bag on the seat beside him.

His mother had told him to pack only the essentials—so he’d grabbed a few days’ worth of clothes, along with his first aid kit. He hadn’t been lying when he told Satoru he wouldn’t get hurt: his parents had never raised a hand against him, and there was no incentive for them to start now. But some habits were harder to kill than others.

On the way out, he’d also plucked a book off his shelf, carefully tucking the picture of him and Satoru in between the pages. The key from Sachiko was slipped underneath the book cover, wedged against its spine. Gaku gave the whole thing a gentle shake, but nothing came loose. Satisfied, he wrapped the book in some of his shirts, burying it in the bottom of the bag.

Like she’d said: only the essentials.

Gaku leaned his chin on his palm, and watched as Ishikari disappeared outside the window. He didn’t really care about the town itself—but it was where Satoru was, and for that reason alone, he wished he didn’t have to go. It wasn’t easy on either of them: even after Satoru had calmed down, the boy had held on to him all afternoon, as if Gaku would disappear the moment they weren’t touching.

Gaku sighed, his breath fogging against the window. All he could do now was try to make the best of the situation. Hopefully he could grab enough presents to make it up to Satoru; it had worked before.

Not that it helped right now . His eyes narrowed, and he glared at the highway signs as they flew by. They were only a few miles out of town, and he could already feel the thin ice of his resolve cracking. His fingers drummed against the car door, angry and impatient. What was Satoru going to be doing while Gaku was gone? Would he go straight home after school, like Gaku had told him to do?

What if one of his classmates called out to him?

Gaku held his breath, trying to strangle the anger building under his skin. Satoru willfully kept himself at a distance because he needed to protect his Gaku-nii—but now Gaku wasn’t there. There was no reason for Satoru to keep himself isolated and alone; nothing to stop someone from luring him away, snatching him up while ‘Gaku-nii’ was gone.

In the window, Gaku’s reflection sneered. If he came back and found that someone else had wormed their way into Satoru’s heart—if someone had tried to take Gaku’s place—well. Children tend to dawdle around, after all; who knows what kind of trouble they could get themselves into.

Especially when no one was watching.

A small smirk spread across Gaku’s face. Whatever happened while he was gone, he would fix it. Simple as that.

The tick-ticking of the turn signal started up again, and the car merged onto the off-ramp. Gaku frowned as the highway fell away. It had been a while since they had left Ishikari, but they weren’t anywhere near Tokyo, that much was obvious: there was barely a building in sight, let alone a whole city. Out of the corner of his eye, he stared at his father’s reflection through the rear-view mirror, his voice as flat as the asphalt all around. “Where are we going?”

His mother flinched. His father said: “Dinner.”

Gaku’s eyes wandered to the clock on the dashboard. It was later than he’d thought. “I see.”

The “town” they pulled into was little more than a cluster of boxes, pressed against the highway like a leech. The only street was a line of convenience stores and gas stations, their sterile fluorescent lights spilling onto the street. The whole thing could have been made of cardboard, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The car rolled passed them all, before turning into the parking lot of a family diner, a franchise that played at being homely. Gaku resisted the urge to roll his eyes and unbuckled his seatbelt.

The air outside was thin and tasted like exhaust; shoving his hands into his pockets, he followed his parents inside. The heat was oppressive and heavy, sickly sweet with the smell of synthetic dessert. The hostess plucked up a few menus, before motioning for them to follow; Gaku passed by the chatting tables, and the three of them silently slid into their seats.

They stayed like that until the waitress came, her smile too wide and concealer smudged under her eyes. “And what can I get for you folks today?”

His parents muttered some response, and Gaku stared down at the list, before folding up his menu. “A hamburg steak, please.” He didn’t particularly enjoy heavy meat dishes—but he’d made this once or twice, back under Sachiko’s roof. Satoru had insisted on helping, squishing the meat and bread crumbs together with his little fingers.

She nodded and gathered the menus up, before placing a serrated knife on Gaku’s napkin. “Coming right up!”

Gaku wordlessly watched as she walked away, before leaning back into the booth. Both of his parents sat opposite him, his mother crammed between his father and the wall. Her napkin had already been twisted to death, so her fingers tore at it, plucking pieces off its edges and letting them fall into her lap.

Too anxious, even for her. Gaku felt suspicion spread like a shiver against his skin, and he turned his attention to the other adult. As always, his father was the picture of composure: leaning forward with his elbows on the table, his fingers interlocked together. Gaku half-expected him to play at being a good parent, but there wasn’t so much as a smile on his face. Only the firm look of an executioner, ready to let the axe fall.

“Gaku,” he said, “your mother and I have something to tell you.”

Obviously.

His father watched him for a moment, and said: “We will not be going back to Ishikari.”

Every thought in Gaku’s brain died.

The meaning, the words—the individual syllables and sounds—were stringing themselves together, but Gaku couldn’t grasp it. Not when the world itself was shifting under his feet, sending his stomach plummeting to his toes. Gaku felt his breath quicken, the cold sweat trickling down the back of his neck; the panic was pulsing in time with his blood, and the only thing that fell out of his mouth was a quiet whisper of: “What?”

“My company offered me a position in Tokyo,” he explained, but the words may as well have been water in Gaku’s ears. “The house has already been sold, along with the furniture. You’ll be starting at your new school on Tuesday. I trust you will not fall behind.”

No, no, no. Gaku could feel the shock falling away, and it was like he was standing in front of his brother all over again: the rage was bubbling up from his belly, twisting his face into a rabid snarl. Like hell he was going to let them force his hand—force him away from Satoru. His fingers gripped at the edge of the table, his joints popping. “You said we were visiting, ” he snapped. “You can’t just—”

“I can, and we have,” his father interrupted, glaring across the table. “This is not up for discussion, Gaku.”

“Fine,” he growled back. “But I’m still not going.”

He’d made a promise . But more than that—more ugly and selfish—was the possessive growl he could feel, rumbling in his chest. They belonged together, belonged to each other. Satoru was the only reason he got up in the morning, the only thing that distracted him from the torture of being alive. Without that—without him—

“Don’t be so dramatic,” his father spat. “Is this about that Fujinuma child?”

Gaku saw red. “Don’t talk about him,” he warned, but his father didn’t listen.

“Do you have any idea what it looks like?” His parent’s eyes narrowed. “It’s strange. You should be mingling with your peers, not some brat you barely even know. You’re about to go into middle school, you need to start acting like it.”

His mother tore a strip from her napkin. “P-people were starting to talk.”

“Exactly,” his father nodded. “This— fascination of yours isn’t healthy, Gaku. It’s sick, and it’s perverted.” He set his jaw, his hands gripping each other tight. “And if you won’t nip it in the bud, then we will. No son of mine will turn out like that Shiratori boy.”

Yuuki. The image of him flashed to the forefront of Gaku’s mind: awkward and lanky in a way he never outgrew, crouching in front of them like a predator ready to pounce. Even now, he could be moving in, trying to lure Satoru away with honey-sweet words. He glared across the table, venom dripping from his tongue. “You don’t understand anything.”

“Nor do I care.” His father’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “You’re going to Tokyo, Gaku. And that’s final.”

No. Gaku’s hands snapped into fists, his dull nails biting into his palm. Shiratori was definitely strange, likely depraved—and maybe even desperate enough to do something about it. No one was that interested in children out of kindness . Gaku wasn’t naïve. If he didn’t get back when he was supposed to—if he didn’t manage to get back tonight, then Satoru—

Then Satoru would think Gaku abandoned him.

Gaku felt the air cut in his throat. Already, he could see it: flashes of a life without Satoru, empty and cold, like an unheld hand. Already, he felt like he’d been shoved into a box that was too small—and Gaku could feel himself, suffocating to death with every breath. Claustrophobia sidled along his skin, and Gaku’s eyes widened, desperately gulping down air. He couldn’t move, could barely breathe, his hands sweat-soaked and shaking.

Satoru would move on. And Gaku would be left alone again, a corpse rotting away with every breath.

The table jumped. Cutlery clattered to the floor, glasses tumbling against the tabletop. Gaku could feel the water, slipping over the edge and onto his shoes—and the restaurant went silent, the faceless mob turning to stare . His mother’s eyes widened, her fingers fretting and twitching—but he didn’t care. Gaku stood, glaring down at them with his eyes wild, his chest heaving violently under his shirt.

“I am not going.”

Something in his father’s expression shifted, from stern to something more—calculating. “Gaku,” he said, slower. “Sit down. You’re making a scene.”

“I know.” His fist clenched at his side, grip tightening. That was the only way to get them to listen. “I don’t care.

“H-honey,” his mother interjected, her hands hovering placatingly in front of her. “Just—put it down, and we’ll—we can talk. Okay?”

Gaku blinked, and looked down at his hands.

The serrated knife shined in the light, winking at him from his fist.

Slowly, he stared back at his parents’ pale faces, and finally placed the expression there.

Fear.

Gaku stared at them, and felt the grin grow on his face. A hysterical laugh crawled up from his stomach, and it spilled out over his teeth as he gripped the knife tighter. Seeing them there—shivering and scared, like rodents, like vermin—god, it felt so good. It was liberating, gratifying, restitution. The hysteria rushed his senses, and Gaku’s hand clutched at his face, unable to keep it all in. His nails dug in, and he laughed and laughed and laughed.

It had been so obvious, why didn’t he think about it before?

Gaku wasn’t the problem. His parents were.

The knife felt so nice and steady against his palm.

His father’s face darkened. “Gaku—”

“Why should I?” They wouldn’t change their mind. The grin on his face stretched wider.

“Gaku,” his father started again, leaning forward, his elbows balanced on the table. His voice didn’t so much as quiver, but Gaku could still see that flicker of uncertainty, reflected behind his glasses. “What do you think is going to happen now?”

Freedom, pulsing hot and sticky between his fingers. Satoru.

“You’re only a child,” he said, and Gaku felt himself falter. For the first time, staring between his fingers, he sized his father up—not as a parent, but as a threat. The man was past his prime, muscles weak from years toiling at his desk. But Gaku’s hand, wrapped around the knife as it may be, was small.

Just like it had been with Yuuki—if it came down a fight, Gaku wouldn’t be able to do anything. Not for himself, and not for Satoru. His grin twisted into a bitter scowl.

“Even if you could,” his father continued, “you know what happens to vicious children, don’t you?”

His brother. Gaku shifted his grip on the knife, his fingers drumming against the hilt. He’d been sent away—abandoned and locked away in a box made of concrete and children’s screams. Even if Gaku managed to end things here, he would be devoured, too; fed into a system to rot behind closed doors, out of sight, out of mind.

And he would never see Satoru again.

His father leaned back, satisfied, and Gaku tried not to scream. His fingers pressed at the blade’s teeth, feeling them puncture his skin.

“Sorry for the wait, folks!”

The waitress rounded the corner, plates balanced in her hands. As soon as she stopped at their table, his mother pressed her face into her hands, her shoulders shaking—and the woman’s smile faded, the corners falling. Her tired eyes moved from his mother, to Gaku, still standing above his seat—before finally landing on his father, smiling in his seat. “Is… is everything alright here?”

His father nodded, holding his hand out for his plate. “Perfectly fine, thank you.”

Her brows furrowed, but if she had anything to say, she thought better of it. “My pleasure,” she said, flashing a plastic, handbook-approved smile. One by one, she set the plates down on the table. Her gaze wandered to Gaku’s face, before gently setting a steaming dish down in front of him. A familiar smell wafted up his nose. “And a hamburg steak for you!”

Gaku pressed his lips to a thin line. It was covered in sauce—just the way Satoru loved it.

His father spread a napkin across his lap. “Have a seat, Gaku.”

Gaku breathed against the ache in his chest, before sinking down into the booth. Picking up his abandoned fork, he turned his attention to the plate. “Thank you for the meal.”

Then they ate, like a family.


Gaku walked in to his new bedroom. His father locked the door.

He didn’t bother to turn on the lights. The Tokyo skyline spilled in from the window, bright even in the middle of the night, cutting shadows across the floor. Gaku sank down onto his new bed, the fresh springs squeaking under his weight. Carefully, he pulled his duffel bag onto his lap, slowly unzipping it and watching the teeth come apart, one by one.

Piece by piece, he pulled out his clothes, and dropped them to the floor. At the bottom of his bag, the book sat undisturbed, and he cracked open the pages.

The photo of himself and Satoru smiled up at him.

Gaku’s breath shuddered, and he curled forward, pressing the book against his chest.

They say that you never know your happiness until it’s gone.

Gaku knew, and he’d lost it anyway.

 

Chapter Text

 


Morning came, and Gaku ran away.

Which sounded dramatic, but was really rather simple. He’d never unpacked, so all he needed to do was grab his bag, put on his shoes and slip out the door. The walk to the train station didn’t take very long. Getting back to Ishikari, though—that would take a lot of connections, and even longer hours. But it was feasible, and that was all that mattered.

Ducking under the turnstiles was simple enough. Then it was just a question of blending into the crowd.

Until the attendants on the train asked for his ticket.

The police delivered him back to his parents before lunch. Running away wasn’t so easy, after that.

 

 

The car stopped with a gentle lurch, and Gaku considered vomiting just for the satisfaction of it.

On the other side of the window, his new school waited for him, as prim as proper as lipstick on a pig. Boys and girls filtered through the gates, their expensive clothes iron-pressed to perfection. He could feel his own collar tight around his neck like a noose, buttoned the way his father liked it. His eyes narrowed, and in the glass, Gaku caught his own sour reflection, glaring back at him.

His father drummed at the steering wheel. “I trust you remember what to do.”

Fury burned in his stomach, but his voice came out cold. “Go straight to your office after school.” Not that he had the option to go anywhere else: his wallet and savings had been confiscated, and his parents had started hiding their own. He’d checked. “I have half an hour to get there after last bell.”

“And if you don’t?”

His fingers curled into his bookbag. “You’ll ruin it.”

“That’s right.” His father’s fingers gripped at the leather. “I trust you’ll behave yourself in school, too.”

The or else went unspoken. Gaku glared at his feet, but nodded, slipping out onto the sidewalk. He slammed the car door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary, but if his father had anything to say about it, Gaku didn’t stay to hear it. He marched towards the school like a prisoner on death row, his blunt nails digging into the flesh of his palm. Gaku focused on the pain, and forced a smile.

For all his parents’ posturing about how this was ‘such a good school,’ nothing was really different. Sure, the faces were new, the building well-kept and reeking of old money—but in every way that mattered, it was the same as any other class. After his unremarkable self-introduction, Gaku settled into the flow of things, playing the same role. Slipping into a new environment was always a chore, but never a particularly difficult one.

His eyes darted to the clock. In Ishikari, he’d prayed for the final bell. But those days were gone now, and the thought hit harder than any of his brother’s punches ever had. He’d rather eat glass than see his father, frankly—but unfortunately, no one was offering him the choice. The bell rang, and Gaku reluctantly gathered his things.

Half an hour was tight, especially since his parents didn’t let him have a bus pass: it gave him too much freedom, apparently. Shrugging on his backpack, Gaku strolled out of the classroom, and mulled over his options. He didn’t have to go to his father, obviously. He could just run away, but—

Gaku thought about Satoru’s smiling face, beaming from under the brim of his ducky hat. The way they clutched at each other’s hands, fingers threaded together. It was just a picture, he knew that, obviously—but it was all he had. That photo was the only proof that he and Satoru had existed together, that there was something that he had lost. Something that was worth fighting for.

And it was the only way he could see Satoru at all, anymore.

His chest clenched, fingers curling around the straps of his bag.

He could just let his father destroy it. Sachiko had a copy, and if he managed to get back to the real Satoru, it wouldn’t matter anyway.

But it was a gamble: even attempting it meant he’d lose the photo, guaranteed. Besides, how would he get to Ishikari? The trains were clearly not an option, not when he didn’t have a ticket. Even if he got his hands on his father’s keys, he couldn’t really drive. And he would only get so far before the car was reported stolen. The only other option would be hitchhiking, but there was no point if he wound up dead in a ditch somewhere.

Gaku gripped at his chin. Even if he did manage to get to Ishikari—then what? His parents would know where he’d gone. What would stop them from just dragging him back? From blaming Sachiko and Satoru for everything? They wouldn’t be so lenient a second time: if Gaku was caught running away again, they would probably ship him off to some facility, like they did for his brother. And any centre for “troubled youth” was liable to have security to prevent run-aways.

Getting back to Satoru would be nearly impossible, then.

Gaku glared at the pavement. Trying now was a guaranteed loss. As much as it hurt—as much as it made him want to crush something just to feel it pop and squirm—he had to think more long-term. The shadow from a passing skyscraper cut across the sidewalk, and Gaku stepped into it, eyes burning.

All he needed was less of his parents, and more of their money.

Huh. Well, when he looked at it that way, the answer was almost comically simple.

His father’s building loomed in front of him, and Gaku slipped into the elevator, a sudden skip in his step. Generic music rolled out of a tinny speaker, a generic classical sound. Gaku drummed his fingers along to it, adjusting the grip on his bag. It would take time, surely—but it could be done. The certainty filtered through his blood, and the elevator dinged.

The doors slid open, and a coffee pot shattered against the floor.

Gaku stood in the lift for a second longer, his hand catching the door. In the centre of his father’s formerly pristine office, a young woman raked manicured nails through her hair. With wide and wet eyes, she stared down at the dark stain growing in the carpet. The smell of coffee crowded the room, and she bent down, wobbling atop her high heels.

“Damn it,” she whispered, plucking at the glass. “Damn it—”

Gaku watched for a second, unimpressed.

Dropping his bag on the coffee table, he walked over, pushing up his sleeves. The woman’s head whipped up, and Gaku offered her a sympathetic smile, crouching down. “Here, let me give you a hand.”

“Oh,” she said, shoulders slumping in relief. “Thank you.” She pushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear and she returned to the task at hand, dropping broken glass into her open palm. “I have no idea what happened. The handle just snapped off, and—” Her free hand made a wild motion.

“It was probably cheaply made.” His father only cared about quality when it was something he actually had to use. “I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”

“Tell that to my boss,” she mumbled.

The door behind her desk swung open, his father’s stern face glaring down at them. The receptionist jumped, panic flushing across her face. Glass crunched under her shoes as she staggered to her feet. “S-sir—I—”

“It’s my fault.” Gaku didn’t raise his head, but he could feel the weight of his father’s stare, like a beast breathing down his neck. His fingers skidded along the carpet, chasing sharp edges. “I bumped into her.”

His father made a low hum as he checked his wrist, lips pressed together into a line. “At least you’re on time,” he said, tugging his sleeve back into place. As he turned, he nodded towards the stain. “We have clients coming in an hour. I want that gone by then.”

The door closed in their faces. Gaku huffed, and the woman muttered: “Asshole.”

Before immediately slapping her hand over her mouth, whirling to stare in his direction. Gaku just gave a small shrug, an amused look settling on his face. “It’s fine,” he said, dropping a piece of glass into his hand with a little clink. “You’re not wrong.”

Her shoulders relaxed, and she crouched back down, tugging over a garbage can on the way. “Thanks for that, by the way,” she said, offering a feeble smile. “You didn’t have to.”

“Don’t worry about it.” He turned his hand over, letting the glass fall into the garbage. “I’m already on his bad side.”

“I can’t imagine living with him,” she mumbled, scratching at the carpet with her nails. “Must be tough.”

“It’s hell.”

Her eyes tipped his way—not surprised, or even pitying, a simple acknowledgement. Then, a playful smile stretched across her face, pushing at her cheeks. “Hey, why don’t you let me handle the rest?” she asked, nudging him with her elbow. “Least I could do, since you took the fall and everything.”

Gaku frowned. “But—”

“Don’t ‘but’ me! Go on!” Her hands shooed at him, swatting at his shoulders. “You just get comfy, and I’ll get this sorted, okay?

Gaku watched the flurry for a second, before pushing himself to his feet. “If you’re sure…” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. “You’ll let me know if you need a hand?”

“You know you didn’t actually break it, right?” she laughed. “Chill, I got this. Don’t you have homework to do or something?”

He feigned a wince, reaching down for his bag. There was a couch pushed into the corner of the room, crammed in by a little coffee table, and he moved towards it. “Can I sit here?”

“Be my guest,” she offered, pulling cleaning supplies out of the little supply closet behind her desk. Gaku glanced at the labels—disinfectants, carpet cleaners—and immediately discarded them. He settled onto the stiff cushions, pulling out his biology textbook. Nothing was ever that easy.

But there was more than one way to skin a cat.

His eyes slid over to the receptionist, scrubbing at the stain on all fours.

It would do.

 

 

Things settled into a kind of routine. His father would have a drink in his office at the end of the day, before dismissing his receptionist and ushering Gaku into the car. They drove home in strained silence, the radio spitting out news and numbers from the Nikkei. Their condo building had an indoor garage, and they took advantage, riding the elevator up to their floor.

When they got in, his mother set supper on a table made for three.

Gaku pushed the food around his plate. He didn’t have an appetite—hadn’t, ever since they left home. Across the table, his mother smiled, placing a manicured hand on his father’s arm.

Of everyone, she seemed to be thriving the most. Her nails had been filed and painted over, her baggy sweaters and fears stored away in some closet somewhere. She had shed their old life like a second skin. Here, no one knew about Ishikari; no one knew about the beatings, about the weeks he spent, seeking refuge in the Fujinumas’ home. No one knew that she’d abandoned one of her children, without so much as a second thought.

No one knew she failed as a mother. And that was the point.

Gaku swallowed a bitter spoonful, and watched her laugh. Satoru had taught him all about playing pretend. He could play, for a little while. When the time came, he would tear it all down.

Until then, his smile stretched around his fork, and he laughed along.

He cultivated his space at school, planting seeds and settling into that comfortable distance: well-liked enough to be respected and admired by his peers, but never attracting too much attention. His classmates asked him for help with homework, but never invited him out to karaoke—and that was how Gaku liked it. Coming up with excuses was a hassle, and there was no point faking friendships he’d just have to cull.

The course material was slightly more challenging, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. Gaku made a point of visiting his teachers, asking questions he already knew the answers to. His biology teacher, especially: a tall, thin man with a wide smile, he made a point of commending Gaku on his dedication, happy to answer any non-questions he had.

Gaku stopped by a few times a week, just in case.

On the other days, he spent his time holed up in the school library. Not for the books, but for the machines. His parents didn’t own a computer—his father used the one at his office, and he suspected his mother wouldn’t even know what to do with one. But Gaku typed at the keyboard with purpose, dozens of tabs loading at once, loading screens flickering in front of his eyes.

First, the familiar searches:

Ishikari “phone book” + Fujinuma

“Fujinuma Sachiko”

“Fujinuma Satoru”

Ishikari + “Fujinuma”

As always, nothing.

Gaku bit down the bitter disappointment, rubbing at his eye with his palm. He just—he needed to explain what happened to Satoru. Needed to tell him he was coming back for him. Just wanted to hear his voice, even it was only through speakers and wires. But no. He could only assume that their phone was under their landlord’s name, impossible and out of reach.

He tried calling Sachiko’s work, but the business had apparently shut down. Satoru’s kindergarten had been his safest bet. Gaku had rushed to his school’s payphone and dialled the number as soon as he had found it, clutching the scrawled digits in his hand. Turns out, they don’t let strangers on the phone speak to kindergarteners—and despite Gaku’s pleading that it was an emergency, to at least leave a message, all he got was a dial-tone, ringing like a death knell in his ears.

(If anyone had bothered to check the alley by his father’s office that day, they would have found a stray cat, its neck snapped in two.)

So, he moved on. Gaku researched as much as time would allow, wading through the legal jargon. Inheritance law in Japan was relatively straightforward, but the rules around foster care and emancipated minors were more complex. Short of a certain age, orphans were shunted into the system, until they were old enough to be on their own. Gaku’s finger tapped impatiently at the mouse, the gears turning in his head, until the bell beckoned him back to class.

Then the familiar trek to his father’s office. As he pretended to do his homework, Gaku kept an eye on the receptionist, offering a small wave when he caught her eye. Over the edge of his textbook, he watched as she put on her lipstick and touched up her mascara. When she was done preening, she slipped her make-up back into the top drawer of her unlocked desk.

Every so often, she brought him a cup of coffee—always burnt, though he forced his way through it anyway—and they talked. Gaku always asked about her day, and she seized the opportunity to complain about his father. They commiserated in quiet tones, and it was easy for Gaku, not having to fake his own disdain, for once. Pretending to give a shit about her problems was harder.

Eventually, his father would send her home. They would exchange quick goodbyes, his father would finish up his work and his drink, and they left. Gaku would fall asleep running his thumb over the key, reciting Satoru’s favourite things and the promises they’d made. Exhaustion would take him, and then it would all start again.

Rinse, repeat. The school year came and went.

And time ticked by.

 

 

His junior high uniform was modern, gakurans replaced with a blazer and tie. That was fine by him: there was no way to untangle the clothes from the image of his brother, burned into the back of his mind. Some part of Gaku wondered what would have happened, if looked in the mirror wearing that uniform. What he would do, if he saw his brother looking back.

Some things he didn’t need to know.

The school was on the same campus as his old one, a closed ecosystem for the rich and the elite. All of the students were the same, and a lot of the teachers were too. Gaku smiled as his biology teacher took up the blackboard, and pretended to take notes about photosynthesis. Instead, he sketched out Wonder Guy’s mask, dedicating every detail to the page.

Objectively, the best plan was to lay low. His parents were suspicious, still watching him out of the corner of their eyes, like guard dogs straining at their leashes. One wrong move, and everything would be ruined. So Gaku played at complacency, biding his time even as it burned, like a red-hot coal in his hand. When it became too much, there were always the cats in the alley, an itch waiting to be scratched.

In the meantime, Gaku kept up his research, dutifully looking up Satoru’s name as much as he could. If something happened, he would know.

The receptionist began to confide in him more. Gaku bit his tongue and listened as she lamented her love life, his father’s attitude at work, how slow her landlord was at fixing things. And Gaku played at sympathy, nodding along and sipping at the terrible coffee she made. When she asked about him, he opened the canned lies—how school was interesting, even if the homework was hard; how he just loved living in the big city, far away from where he grew up. He didn’t know what would get back to his father, after all.

In the evenings, he sidled up to his mother, helping with the dishes and asking about her day. Bit by bit, he could see her defenses falling, all too eager to believe that her son was a good boy, and not wondering about why. After bidding her goodnight, he would wash up, go to sleep, trace the teeth of the key, and blissfully dream of Satoru.

The alarm clock rang, and months still passed.

 

 

He was running out of things to ask his teacher, so he changed tactics. On the days he wasn’t holed up in the library with his real studies, he offered to help around the biology lab. The chores were dull: sweeping the floor and washing the blackboard, mostly. But it gave Gaku the chance to familiarize himself with the shelves, his eyes scanning the bottles locked behind the glass.

One day in his second year, as he wiped the workstations down, that he asked: “Sensei?”

The teacher looked up from his papers with a hum.

“When do we get to do dissections?”

“You mean like, frogs?” He folded his arms, leaning back in his chair. “Well, we don’t actually do that anymore.”

Gaku’s hand stopped. “Why not?”

“Animal protection issues, mostly. Though it wasn’t popular with some of the girls, either,” he laughed. “I heard it was getting more expensive, too. Most schools have phased it out.” He looked over, brows furrowed. “Why do you ask?”

Gaku stared at his own reflection in the metal table, before feigning a sad smile at his teacher. “I want to go into medicine.”

“Ah. That’s why you’re such a good student,” he said, half-joking. “Were you looking at becoming a surgeon, then?”

He nodded. “I thought it could be like… practice. To make sure I really liked it. But…”

His teacher hummed. “Well, if it’s something you’re serious about, then it’s not impossible. Have you considered cram school?” He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his desk. “There’s a few specifically for kids who want to go into medicine, to prep them for university exams. I think they still do dissections for the high school classes. Probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, if that’s the path you want to take.”

Gaku didn’t hide his displeasure, rubbing at an invisible stain. “I don’t think my parents would approve.”

His teacher frowned. “Why’s that?”

Shit. “My father wants me to take over the business,” he said, the words tumbling awkwardly out of his mouth. “Uh, I think. He’s never said as much, but…”

“I see.” Gaku felt some of the panic in his chest loosen. Luckily, that kind of problem wasn’t too rare at schools like this. His teacher tapped at his chin for a few seconds. “Well, I can bring it up at the next parent-teacher meeting, if you want. Might be a bit more convincing coming from me.”

“That would be great!” Gaku chirped, bending at the waist into a bow. “Thank you, sensei!”

His teacher laughed, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “Please, it’s my pleasure! Especially for my best student.” He smiled warmly, something like pride shimmering in his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll save lots of lives one day, Gaku-kun.”

Ha. Gaku grinned wide, nodding. “I hope so, too!”

 

 

“M-Mikohara-kun, what should I do?”

Gaku stared at his classmate, profoundly bored, despite the sympathetic look on his face. She was one of the popular ones, someone who was used to getting what she wanted—which is how, he supposed, they got into this situation in the first place. The hamster cage took up most of the space on his desk, the sound of squeaking coming from somewhere inside. “Your parents won’t let you keep it?” he asked.

She shook her head, sniffling. “They said they don’t want rodents in the house… but the store won’t take him back…”

Gaku didn’t want it either. What he wanted was to get to the library and search for Satoru. But the girl was standing there, hands clasped together and pleading with wet eyes. He could refuse, but would risk ruining his reputation. If she turned on him, then the rest of the popular kids would likely follow, like lemmings. What a hassle.

Gaku grinned up at her, tugging the cage closer. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him.”

The cats couldn’t have all the fun, after all.

After the last bell, he walked towards his father’s office, carrying the cage against his chest. As he often did, he ducked into the alley, setting the crate down on the grimy pavement. The hamster inside was still busily burrowing into its bedding, hiding in the wood chips and squeaking loudly. Gaku crouched down, tugging open the little door and forcing his hand in.

Right away, a ball of black fur went barrelling for his fingers. Gaku braced himself for the bite—the cats had all tried, though few succeeded—but the pain didn’t come. Instead, the hamster pushed itself back onto its hind legs, ears alert and nose twitching against his skin. It was all too easy to pluck the critter up, cupping it in his hand.

Gaku craned his neck, looking each way down the alley. No one was passing by. The fastest way would be to dash the thing against the wall. If that didn’t do the job, his foot would.

Meanwhile, the animal stretched out across his palm, yawning. Dumb thing. “You should probably be more worried, you know,” Gaku muttered, poking at it with a finger. Some creatures had no survival instincts. Even now, it grabbed at his fingers with its grubby paws, more concerned with play than escape.

Gaku watched it, curious. It should be trying to run away. But it didn’t, content to sit in the palm of his hand, grooming at its head. The thing looked small, probably young—naïve and trusting, like Satoru. Unaware of how cruel the world could be, that not every friendly face had friendly intentions. The hamster got comfortable against his fingers, rubbing its little head against his knuckles. Its black fur caught the light in a familiar way.

Gaku dragged a finger down its spine. It was just as soft as he remembered.

He brought his palm up to his face, staring the animal in the eyes.

The hamster pressed its nose to his, and Gaku smiled.

Somehow, his parents let him keep it. In hindsight, Gaku shouldn’t have been surprised. It was an attachment: if Gaku had something he cared about here, then he probably wasn’t going to run away anytime soon. So his mother welcomed the pet with open arms, eagerly helping Gaku clear space in his room for the cage. In the end, he set it down on his desk—it’s not like he did homework at home, anyway.

He opened the door to the cage, and the hamster scrambled out, tumbling into his open palm. “Careful,” he cautioned, gently stroking at its spine.

His mother smiled brightly, looking between the two of them. “Do you have a name for it yet?”

The hamster squeaked, and Gaku smiled again. “Spice.”

Later, alone in the dark quiet of his room, he whispered: “Satoru.”

 

 

Life became marginally more tolerable.

Every evening, Gaku beelined for his room, to be met with the excited squeaking of his companion, pressing up against the bars of his cage. Gaku usually let him out when he was home, content to watch Satoru roam across his floor. More often than not, he was a furry little blur of energy, rushing around in circles and squeaking all the way.

Gaku would sit down and let his paws scurry all over him. It was nice to have Satoru waiting for him after school again.

Eventually, he would tucker himself out, curling up into a sleepy ball. Gaku happily lay back on his bed with Satoru’s little weight slumbering against his stomach. His fingers lightly stroked at the hamster’s fur, feeling his tiny chest rise and fall, like another heartbeat under his hand. He tried to think of the last time he felt so at peace.

Which is, of course, when someone knocked. Gaku jumped at the sound, and Satoru was immediately scrambling, limbs tangling in his shirt. Carefully, he cupped his hands around him, ignoring the angry chittering from inside. “Come in.”

He expected his mother, but it was his father who pushed the door open. That was never a good sign.

Gaku dragged his thumb soothingly down the hamster’s spine, stepping up to Satoru’s cage. “Is something the matter?”

His father stayed in the doorway, hand on the doorknob. “I spoke with your teacher today.”

Right. The meetings were tonight. Gaku gently set Satoru down back in his home. The critter stood on his back legs, huffing and puffing; Gaku slipped him a sunflower seed in apology. “And?”

“He recommended a cram school for you. For science.” His father’s hand flexed on the knob. “He was quite adamant.”

Gaku watched as Satoru sank his teeth into the sunflower seed, frantically chewing. Still such a messy eater. “Is that a problem?”

“I didn’t know you were interested in medicine.”

He shut the door to Satoru’s cage. “It’s a recent development,” he explained, turning to face his parent. “I thought you would approve.”

“We had discussed this.”

It was less a discussion, and more like his father dictating exactly what he expected. Gaku leaned back against the desk, his fingers gripping the edge, wood groaning under his hand. “This would be mutually beneficial.”

The man frowned, raising an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“It is admirable for a son to take over the business,” he explained. “But compared to having a son who is a surgeon… well, I thought you were prefer it. Seeing as I have the aptitude, it seemed like the logical choice.”

His father watched him, his fingers drumming against the doorknob, considering. Gaku placed a hand on the hamster’s cage. “Spice is here.” The hamster squeaked, scurrying to sit below his palm. “The cram school has an attendance system, as well. They’ll call if I don’t come to class.”

They stared each other down, Gaku’s fingers slipping through the bars of the cage. Satoru reached him and pressed his nose to the tips, gently nipping at the skin. Finally, his father’s shoulders lost their tension, pulling the door closed behind him. “I’ll consider it.”

The lock clicked shut, and Gaku huffed, frowning. Satoru was still scurrying around where Gaku’s hands had been, hungry for attention—and he crouched down in front of the desk, until the two of them were staring eye-to-eye. “Sorry you had to see that,” he mumbled, rubbing his finger against the hamster’s cheek. “I know how he upsets you.”

Satoru squeaked, and Gaku laughed. “I know,” he said, patting his head. “He’s a bad man.”

The hamster closed its eyes, leaning into the touch, drowsy and content. Gaku felt the warmth spread throughout his chest, a familiar longing that he held dear to his heart. “Don’t worry,” he whispered, a smile curling across his face. “He won’t be here much longer.”

 

 

Surprising no one, his parents signed him up for the cram school.

It was a welcome reprieve: twice a week, Gaku was saved from the boredom of his father’s office. Pretending to care about the receptionist’s life was beyond dull, so he dove into his studies when he could, content to lose himself in the quiet of his own head. The classes were thankfully small, and filled with equally antisocial students, so he didn’t even have to go through the effort of “making friends.” It was structured, simple, and solitary.

In other words, bliss. If he could bring Satoru with him, it would have been perfect.

Oh well. He had an adequate distraction.

The school loaned everyone a laptop for note-taking. Gaku couldn’t take it home, of course—but it had an internet connection, and that was good enough. While the teacher prattled on about cell structures, Gaku pulled up the search engine.

He didn’t really expect anything anymore: Satoru was still so young—around ten by now, by his count. But Gaku tried anyway, scouring the web with a fine-toothed comb. He had never really understood religion; the idea of going through the same motions on blind hope alone always seemed like a fool’s errand. He was starting to see the appeal.

After a few years, even this had become mundane. In a moment of desperation, he’d signed up for every social media site he could think of, searching for Sachiko’s profiles—but no. It was like they had never existed. If it weren’t for that picture—which his father kept hidden from him, even now—he might have even believed it.

He sighed, propping his head in his hand. Once he had exhausted his searches, he moved on to the Ishikari news. Maybe Sachiko had put something up in the classifieds. Gaku clicked the community tab, lazily looking through the wedding announcements and obituaries. If he had the funds, he’d take out an ad himself; maybe then he’d be able to find the Fujinumas again.

Gaku scrolled down, and his breath caught.

“… Satoru?”

It had to be him. The picture was small, but Gaku would recognize him anywhere: the blue of his eyes, the slope of his nose, even the edges of his smile. He pulled the computer closer, desperately zooming in, leaning towards the screen. His smile was a little awkward, edging on sheepish—and Gaku let out a shuddering breath, his voice catching in his throat.

Above the photo was the headline: Mikoto Elementary congratulates its sixth annual essay winners!

With one hand, Satoru held up a paper, a crude drawing of Wonder Guy taking up nearly half the page. Gaku pressed a hand to his mouth, stifling the crazed laughter bubbling up his throat. It was him, it was Satoru: a bit older, sure, but still the same little boy that Gaku had always known. Still in Ishikari, still alive—still waiting for him.

Gaku breathed through his fingers. The caption read: Satoru and Kayo from Mikoto’s class 5-A, posing with their winning essays.

Only then did he see the little girl, half-hiding behind Satoru’s shoulder. She looked away from the camera, holding her own essay up near her face, ready to duck for cover at a moment’s notice.

And in between them: their hands, holding on to each other.

Gaku’s fists slammed down onto his desk.

The class went quiet. At the front of the room, the school’s tutor stared at him, the marker in his hand still awkwardly pressed against the whiteboard. “Is… something the matter, Mikohara-kun?”

His fists snapped open, and Gaku raised his head with a smile. “Sorry, my computer froze,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “May I bring it to the technician? I think something’s broken.”

The teacher opened his mouth, but Gaku was already gone, laptop tucked under his arm.

The door closed behind him, and Gaku spun around, slamming his knuckles into the nearest wall. His head was spinning, lost in the rush of bloodlust stampeding through his veins. After all these years, he had finally found Satoru again—and his soul was still soaring, like a bird finally freed from its cage. It felt like he was actually breathing for the first time in years.

But then there was her. Gaku slammed his fist into the wall again, snarling.

Someone was taking what was his.

And he wasn’t even there to stop it.

He tried to swallow his scream, but it escaped; a quiet cry, pushed through grit teeth. Tears hit the ground by his feet, and Gaku glared down at them, grinding the drops under his heel. This wasn’t productive. No matter how hard he tried, wishing wouldn’t kill Kayo. 

So he leaned his forehead against the d and took a deep breath. Eventually, the drum beat in his blood lost its time, slowing to a leisurely hum. His body was still dizzy, the aftershock of an emotional earthquake; he blinked to clear his vision, shoving off the wall and stumbling back into himself. There was no more time to waste.

But first. He raised his aching knuckles to the door, knocking twice.

The IT technician poked his head out, brows furrowed. Gaku smiled like his world wasn’t falling apart, holding up his laptop. “Sensei said I could print something?”

 

 

In the comfort of his room, Gaku pressed the picture up against the hamster’s cage. “See?” he whispered, pointing to the boy’s smiling face. “That’s you.”

 

 

He had planned to take his time. Plans change.

Gaku stood at his mother’s side, elbow-deep in dishes and suds. She was humming something she’d heard on daytime TV, drying the plates with a cloth. He scrubbed at the pot, rinsing the caked-on food down the drain. If only everything was so easy to deal with. It was hard to flush people down the pipes without a bit of mess.

He laughed at the thought, and his mother smiled up at him. He liked being taller than her. “What’s so funny?”

“Ah,” he said, sheepish. “It’s just—something Dad’s receptionist said to me.”

“Oh,” she hummed, looking down at the utensil in her hand. “Do you two get along?”

“Yeah!” Gaku grinned, beaming. “She’s really nice and keeps me company. It’s good to have someone I can talk to about stuff.” He turned on the faucet, swirling the pot around under the tap. “I don’t know what I would do without her, really.”

His mother’s hands stopped. “I’ve… never heard you talk about her before.”

Gaku shrugged. “There’s usually not much to tell.” He turned towards her, the picture of innocent confusion. “Doesn’t Dad mention her?”

Her face twisted. “Why would he?”

“I don’t know,” he said, watching the water overflow. “They just seem really close.”

“Is that so.” She ran the towel across the knife, the teeth catching the fabric before she set it aside. “Well, it’s good to have dependable workers.”

“Yeah, she seems to be a big help.” With a twist, he dumped the cold water down. “She’s in his office all the time—”

There was a crash, and Gaku tried not to smirk as porcelain hit the floor. Shards of a bowl were scattered around their toes, and he set down his pot, wiping his hands on his pants. “Mom, are you okay?”

“O-oh,” she said, looking down at the mess as if seeing it for the first time. “I’m sorry, I just—”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, giving her hand an assuring squeeze. “I’ll go grab the broom, okay?”

It was only in the corner of the room, but he toed his way over carefully, laughing. “You know, it’s kind of funny. When I met her, we accidentally broke Dad’s coffee pot,” he said, picking up the dustpan. “We had to clean it up then, too.”

When he looked back, she was crouching down, staring at the biggest shard in her hand. “Yeah,” she whispered. “That’s great, honey.”

 

 

“Hey, Gaku-kun?”

He looked up from his biology textbook. The receptionist was hunched over in her seat, rifling through her drawer. With a huff, she flipped her hair out of her face, pulling things out of her desk. “This is going to sound really stupid, but have you seen my lipstick? I can’t seem to find it anywhere.”

He frowned, pretending to think. “No?” He tucked his finger against the page, half-shutting his book. “Is it in your purse, maybe?”

“That’s where I checked first,” she huffed, planting her hands on her hips. “I’ve lost lip balm and stuff before, but I’m usually pretty careful with my real makeup...”

Gaku hummed, tapping at the hardcover. “Maybe you dropped it, then.”

“I guess I must have,” she sighed, slumping back into her seat. “This sucks. I lost my little bottle of perfume a few weeks ago, too.” She leaned forward, plopping her jaw into her hands and whispering. “Replacing them is such a hassle… I don’t exactly get paid a ton here, you know.”

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he said, dead-pan. “But, sorry.”

She laughed, throwing her head back and scooting back to her computer. “Don’t worry about it. You’re a good kid, Gaku.”

The lipstick in his pocket said otherwise, but she didn’t have to know that.

After dinner, he helped his mother with the dishes, as had become routine. It had been weeks since he had planted the seed of doubt, and from his place at the sink, he watched it bloom. Her fingertips from red from bitten nails, the skin on her lips chapped from biting. Gaku pretended not to notice, filling the space with mindless chatter.

And if some wine found its way into the kitchen, he didn’t mention it.

Eventually, his mother retired to her room, bottle in tow. His father was sitting in the living room, reading something by the lamplight. Gaku crept into the laundry room under the pretense of tossing some towels in the wash. Opening up the washing machine, he threw the dirty fabric in—but not before digging through, pulling out one of his father’s shirts.

Luckily, he didn’t have to pass by the man in question to get back to his room. Gaku gently shut the door behind him, giving a little sigh. In the corner of the room, he could hear Satoru’s wheel squeaking, followed by the pitter-patter of little feet. With a smile, Gaku watched him go, tossing the shirt over the back of a chair.

He set the lipstick down on the night table and pulled the perfume out of its hiding place. In an ideal world, there would be a more—elegant solution to this. But it was the results that mattered, so he grabbed the make-up and walked to the mirror. The cap came off with a small pop, and Gaku leaned forward, pressing the stick to his upper lip.

Satoru squeaked. Gaku glanced through the mirror, and saw the hamster—alert and curious—pushing up against the bars. He grimaced. “Don’t look at me like that,” he mumbled, staring at his own face. “This is embarrassing enough as it is.”

Slowly, he dragged the lipstick around his mouth, smearing red across his lips. It wasn’t the least bit dignified: he couldn’t even get it on straight, the colour wobbly and sitting awkwardly on his skin. Sucking in his lips, he rubbed them together, like he had seen his mother do. It evened out a little, actually. He didn’t know that actually worked.

It still wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. Gaku turned away from his own reflection, pointedly not looking in Satoru’s direction. His father’s shirt was a perfect, stainless white; Gaku lifted it up towards his face, rubbing the fabric between his fingers as he thought.

Where would be the best place for this? He knew about fucking, in a clinical sense. But the actual act interested him as much as a root canal, so he’d never considered it too deeply. He knew there was more lead-up than he knew: kissing, touching—but he’d never really considered where that would happen. He frowned, inspecting the shirt this way and that, as if the answer would fall out of one of the folds.

People… kissed on the neck, right? He had seen one or two of his flustered classmates scrambling to cover their throats. Every once in a while, if one of the girls tilted her head just right, he could see the dark purple bruise, peeking over the collar of her uniform.

The collar of his father’s shirt was stiff. Gaku pressed his lips to it. It smelled of cologne, and he gagged, recoiling. At least it was done—the lip-mark was branded onto the fabric, as stark as blood on snow. Gaku couldn’t help but grin, holding it up to the light. It was a little smudged—but if anything, it just added to the effect.

There was one other place he knew lips could go. Emboldened, Gaku grabbed the bottom hem, pressing another mark to the edge. His father always tucked his shirt into his pants—his mother would catch the meaning. The finishing touch: two light sprays of perfume, concentrated around the stains. He waved it around a little, airing the fabric out; it wouldn’t do if the smell was suspiciously strong.

Gaku gave it a sniff. His father’s cologne and the receptionist’s perfume mingled perfectly. Satisfied, he threw the shirt into his own laundry basket. He’d sneak it back in with his father’s clothes in the morning.

Luckily, he’d had the foresight to nick some make-up removing wipes too. He eagerly scrubbed the colour off his mouth, destroying the evidence. Satoru was still watching him, having partially climbed up the bars of his cage; Gaku smiled, playfully poking him in the stomach, and watching him tumble down. “I’m doing this for you, you know.”

Satoru stretched out on his back, showing his belly. Gaku tickled it with a fingertip, and the hamster curled up around it, clutching the nail as he gently nibbled at the skin. He plopped down in the chair and happily watched, Satoru’s little feet kicking at his hand.

 

 

Time marched on, and Gaku watched as the puzzle pieces began to move into place. It was slow, like watching tectonic plates shift—and there were times he wanted to scream, to shove the actors into their places, to grab the kitchen knife and just get it all over with. His fingers itched with the urge, the familiar black water rising in front of his eyes, like the ocean at night.

When it became too much, as always, he went to Satoru’s side. Over the years, all of Gaku’s birthday presents had been for the hamster: a bigger cage, more sophisticated toys, little sand baths for his fur. For far too many nights, he assuaged his soul by watching the critter rush around in his ball, bumping into walls with a startled squeak.

At least his mother was advancing according to plan. Alcohol had found its way into the kitchen again. Every so often, Gaku refreshed her paranoia with another round of lipstick and perfume. To the receptionist, he quietly whispered his concerns: that his mother was stressed, that the move had been hard on her, that he was trying as hard as he could. The woman squeezed his hand tight as he cried, and Gaku ticked another item off his list.

Sometime this year, his cram school should do its dissections. Then the stage would be set.

In the meantime, he continued his search for Satoru online. Aside from that picture—which he had saved, printed, emailed to himself, and uploaded on a USB drive, just in case—there had never been another mention of the boy online. He knew he should be grateful that he’d found even that, but it had given him a taste of something, and he wanted more.

His father still hadn’t returned the photo he’d taken from Gaku all those years ago. Even now, his heart ached for it. Once, he’d vaguely asked the receptionist about it—but she didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. His father really didn’t trust anyone. It might have been admirable, if it wasn’t so frustrating.

Gaku sighed, tapping a pen against his notebook. All that was left to do was wait.

The elevator dinged. Out of habit, Gaku glanced over.

His mother staggered out of the elevator, and Gaku’s pen fell out of his hand.

Then, his heartbeat promptly skyrocketed. His brain was running a mile a minute, neurons firing so fast he couldn’t keep up; he saw what was in front of him, but it just wouldn’t stick. Because it didn’t make any sense. Why was she here? What was she doing? This wasn’t part of the plan, and panic flushed across his skin, a burning-hot cold sweat. As if in slow motion, he watched as she shuffled towards the receptionist’s desk.

Gaku leapt to his feet, but it was too late—the young woman was already smiling up at her, oblivious.

“Good afternoon! How can I help you?”

His mother worked at her lip, eyes snapping into a glare. “Whore.”

“Mom!” Gaku leapt over the coffee table, grabbing her shoulders. “Mom, what are you—have you been drinking?”

She had been: he could smell it on her, sharp as a knife in his nose. Her eyes were wet and tinged pink, her body swaying between his hands. It took a moment for her to realize he was there, but when she did, her face softened, giving him a soft pat on the cheek. “Oh, Gaku,” she slurred, “don’t worry. This has nothing to do with you, honey. You’d never do something like that, such a good boy…”

The receptionist’s eyes went wide with understanding. “Ma’am—”

Fuck you—”

“Mom,” he pleaded, trying to angle her towards the exit. “Come on, let’s—let’s just go home, okay?”

“What the hell is going on here?”

Oh, fuck. Gaku cringed, turning. His father stood in the doorway to his office, shoulders squared back and hands fisted at his sides. All too easily, Gaku saw his brother—chest puffed and knuckles swinging—and his teeth sank into his tongue. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all. 

His mother tried to jerk forward, and Gaku threw his arm in front of her. “As if you don’t know,” she spat, straining against him, thin fingers curling into his sleeve. “You think I’m stupid, don’t you? You think I wouldn’t notice what you’re doing?” Her voice cracked, and she pushed, clinging for dear life. “And in front of our son—”

“Enough.” His mother was yanked out of his grip, and Gaku watched as his father dragged her by the wrist. With a pointed glare at the receptionist, he said: “You’re excused for the night.”

The door slammed closed on them both. There was a strained moment of silence, before the voices rose on the other side. Gaku’s eyes bored into the wood, his ears straining to catch the words, but no. All he could tell was that they were yelling and—as much as he hated his parents, as much as he wanted them to suffer for what they did to him—

This wasn’t part of the plan.

This wasn’t part of the plan.

Gaku brought his hand to his mouth, biting into his thumb. His mother was never supposed to bring it up, not directly. If they compared notes—if they realized that someone had set his father up—then everything was over. And once they thought about it, they’d realize that Gaku was the only possible suspect. He was the only one with the motive, and opportunity to act on it.

This was the worst-case scenario.

Everything he had been working for would fall apart.

And then they would ship him off somewhere, and they would lock him away, and he’d never see Satoru again, and—

A hand fell on his arm. Gaku jumped, an ugly gasp tearing itself from his throat as he whipped around. The receptionist’s mouth was a thin line, her eyes damp and breath shaking, but her hand was steady as it squeezed his shoulder. “Breathe, Gaku-kun,” she said, her voice soft. “It’s okay. Just breathe.”

He’d forgotten she was here. He pressed a hand to his chest, swallowing down precious oxygen. It felt like his heart was going to explode into pieces. His parents were still screaming on the edge of his consciousness, and it felt like he was drowning in the sound, his lips barely skimming the surface.

“It’s okay,” she whispered, a quiet in the storm. “It will be fine.”

And Gaku nodded, because she was right. He could still fix this.

His clammy hand clamped down on hers, giving it a reassuring squeeze. “I—thank you,” he croaked, giving her a wobbly smile. If there were tears in his eyes, all the better. “I… I feel better now.”

“Don’t worry about it.” She rubbed comforting circles into his shoulder, looking back towards the closed office door. “I… I didn’t realize it was this bad.”

“Me neither,” Gaku said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what she’s talking about.”

“Are they going to be okay in there?”

He opened his mouth, and shut it. “I… I don’t know,” he said, before turning back to her. “But you should… you should probably go.”

“And leave you here to deal with this on your own?” she scoffed. “No way.”

Please,” he asked, grabbing the hem of her sleeve. “I just—if you’re still here, it… I think it might make things worse.”

She considered this for a second, chewing at her lower lip. “I really set her off, didn’t I?”

“Yeah.” He gave a wet, mirthless laugh. “For some reason.”

The receptionist sighed, pinching at her nose. “God, this is so fucked up.” With a long-suffering sigh, she crossed her arms, scanning him with a concerned wrinkle in her brow. “Are… are you sure you’re going to be okay here, Gaku-kun?”

“Y-yeah,” he said, rubbing at his arm. “I think so. They’re all bark and no bite.”

“If you’re sure…” She pointed at him with a forceful stare. “But if you don’t show up here tomorrow, I’m calling the fucking cops. Deal?”

That was the real worst-case scenario. “Deal.”

She stared him down for a few seconds, before nodding and grabbing her purse from her desk. “I’ll—I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” With a press of a button, the elevator doors slid open. She paused in the lift, hands gripping the strap of her bag. “Get home safe, okay?”

“I will,” he promised, giving her a little wave. “You too.”

The doors closed with a hiss, and Gaku slumped down onto the couch, leaning his head back against the wall. Through the plaster, he could hear his parents, voices shrill, and still at each other’s throats. He tried to pick out the words, but it was like trying to pull thick wool through a needle. Resigned, he stared up at the ceiling. The paint was cracking.

The fact that his parents were still yelling was a good sign. If they had realized something was amiss, then they would have turned on him already. If they just kept slinging accusations at each other, then this may still work. Any hard evidence wouldn’t work in his favour, but his mother didn’t seem to suspect him—or, didn’t want to, judging by the way she talked coming in here. If his father denied it, would she even believe him? If it was her son’s word against her husband’s, where would she land?

Gaku leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. Not all was lost.

The voices stopped. Gaku leapt to his feet, watching as the door swung open.

His mother looked like a wreck—more so than before, if that was possible. Her hair was everywhere, her eyes puffy and red. Her entire face was flushed, wet with tears and sweat. For a second or two, she just hovered there, one hand pressed against the doorframe. Gaku inched closer, as if approaching a wounded animal. “Mom?”

She raised her head, barely looking at him, before stumbling to the receptionist’s desk. She tugged it open, rifling with both hands. It didn’t take her long to find a bottle of perfume. With shaking hands, she sprayed her own wrist and brought it up to her nose. Recognition flashed across her features, and she threw the bottle down.

“Come on, honey,” she said, voice hoarse. “We’re going home.”

He nodded, hastily gathering his things and rushing to the elevator. His mother immediately grabbed him by the hand, tugging him inside. He squeezed back, and watched as a brittle smile settled on her face. Her nails dug into the back of his hand, and Gaku buried his grimace behind the mask, murmuring soft words in her ears.

Across the room, his father came out of his office, jaw set in a firm frown.

Gaku watched him until the doors hissed closed.

 

 

It was amazing how little things changed, after that. Neither of his parents addressed what happened with him: both seemed hell-bent on avoiding the conversation, which was fine by him. Gaku didn’t particularly feel like it either. No one had come out and accused him; if anything, his mother seemed to cling to him more, which was as good a sign as he was probably going to get.

Not that she was doing well, of course. The woman was unravelling faster than the old sweaters she’d dug out of the closet, edges fraying and full of holes. Any effort she put into making dinner was gone; more often than not, it was something half-heartedly thrown together, if there was something on the table at all. Most evenings, Gaku came home to find her in the living room, half-asleep with a bottle of wine.

Always the dutiful son, he walked her to bed. His father noticed, of course—but he clearly didn’t care.

All things considered, this may have been for the best. The receptionist witnessing his mother’s downfall was not something he had arranged for, but it had clearly worked in his favour. She was more concerned, going so far as to bring chocolates to the office for them to share. Gaku preferred hard candy, personally, but it was alright.

The cram school had given him the syllabus for the upcoming module. Gaku circled the dissection date in red, before tucking it under his mattress, right next to the photo of Satoru. The hamster in his hair squeaked happily, and Gaku smiled, reaching up to stroke his fur. It wouldn’t be much longer, now.

 

 

On the fated day, Gaku strolled to the cram school with his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face, and murder on the mind. The sun was bright and the weather was warm; the cherry blossoms had fallen a week ago, the petals strewn across the pavement, crushed to a paste underfoot. He kicked at them with his shoe.

Class didn’t start for another hour or so, but that was the point. Gaku had kept his school attendance immaculate, just for this day. The moment he said he was ill and asked to see the nurse, he was excused from last period. No one batted an eye when he took his backpack with him.

It was nice not to be rushed, for once. It gave him time to savour the moment. As he waited for the light to change, he hummed the Wonder Guy theme, shifting his weight from foot to foot, bobbing with the beat.

The cram school was nearly empty when he walked in. None of the other students had started to trickle in yet, but Gaku poked his head into the classrooms as he passed by, just in case. The fewer people around, the better.

The science lab was located in the very back of the building, down narrow, winding corridors. Through the little frosted glass windows, Gaku could see the lights were on. Not ideal, but manageable; he knocked twice, before sliding the door over.

The smell hit him immediately—like a concrete punch to the face, he could feel it storming through his sinuses. Despite all his research and preparation, Gaku still gagged, doubling over and smacking a hand to his face.

The tutor whirled around, a thin surgical mask stretched over his face. “Ah, Mikohara-kun! Are you alright?”

Gaku nodded, squinting through his watering eyes. On the other side of the classroom, the windows had all been thrown open—he didn’t want to think what it would smell like if they weren’t. Burying his nose in his sleeve, he stepped inside, towards the teacher’s station. Several jars were lined up on the desk, their tops screwed off and set aside. Inside the glass, dead frogs bobbed in the chemicals, watching him with empty eyes.

“Sorry about the smell,” his teacher said, digging through the box for another mask. “I was hoping to have it aired out before anyone arrived. Would you like to wait outside?”

“I-I’m fine,” he choked out, but accepted the offered mask, strapping it over his ears. It didn’t really help. “I didn’t realize it would be that bad,” he lied.

“Ah, that’s the chemicals,” the teacher explained, tapping the glass with his finger. “Formalin. A fancy way of saying formaldehyde and alcohol. Nasty stuff, but it does the job.”

Gaku knew that very, very well. There were little metal trays spread out at the end of the table. “Are you getting them ready for class?” he asked. “Can I help? I kind of want to get used to it, before we…” He motioned towards the scalpels.

The teacher watched him for a second, considering. “How old are you, again?”

“Sixteen,” he said, straightening his spine. “Almost seventeen.”

The older man took a moment, before pushing a box of latex gloves over. “Take off your jacket and strap these on,” he said. “There’s safety glasses in the cabinet.”

Gaku nodded, hurriedly throwing it all on and shrugging off his blazer. The gloves felt comfortable, and were nice and thick at the fingertips. He pulled his school tie loose, throwing it over the back of the chair. “What would you like me to do?”

Carefully,” the teacher started, holding up a finger, “reach in and pick up the frog. Let the chemicals drip off before you put it in the tray. And if you’re feeling sick, go out into the hall and take a breather, okay?”

Gaku smiled behind his mask and flashed him a thumbs up. “Yes, sensei!”

The cats had given him experience dealing with dead things. Gaku didn’t bat an eye as he grabbed hold of one of the frogs, yanking it out of the jar and letting it hang in his hand. It was heavier than he thought it would be, its skin slimy and slick, even through his gloves. Gaku watched its limp limbs swing, giving it a little shake, watching the as last of the formalin dripped off.

He moved it over to the tray, the corpse hitting the metal with a small splat.

He craned his neck in his teacher’s direction. “What should I do with the jar?”

“Can you put it there?” With an un-frogged hand, he pointed towards a cart by the door.

Gaku nodded, setting the lid on top of the glass and walking it over. He stole a glance over his shoulder. His teacher was focused on the task at hand, organizing supplies and amphibians in neat rows. Gaku tried to calm his nerves, setting the jar down on the cart.

It was a small thing, really—a quick, nearly effortless gesture. A bead of sweat trickled down Gaku’s neck. He reached into his pocket.

The stolen perfume bottle was empty, but felt impossibly heavy in his hand.

With a slow, steadying breath, he lowered the bottle into the jar. Pockets of air floated to the surface, chemicals swimming into the glass. Gaku waited until the bubbles stopped. He pulled the bottle out and twisted the cap back on, and with steady hands, he slipped the formalin back into his pocket, patting it once for good measure.

Five years of planning, done in five seconds.

“Everything okay over there, Mikohara?”

He turned to his teacher an awkward laugh. “Sorry, my hands are just a little slippery,” he said, holding up his gloves. “Makes it hard to get the lid back on.”

“Be careful,” he droned. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

Gaku laughed again. “Right.”

They made quick work of the rest of the frogs, putting the animals in the trays and the trays on the tables. By the time they had finished, the first of his classmates had started to trickle in; Gaku happily took his place at one of the dissection stations, smiling pleasantly in front of the animal’s corpse.

As the other students heaved and squealed, Gaku slit the frog’s belly open, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

 

 

He had everything he needed—except opportunity.

His mother wasn’t cooking at all, anymore. Gaku and his father usually bought dinner on the way home now, something pre-made, microwave-ready and covered in plastic. Not ideal for a number of reasons. Besides, that was only his father’s food. He had two birds, and only one stone. He needed to aim carefully.

He paced back and forth across his bedroom, Satoru nestled and asleep in his breast pocket. His plans needed to change, obviously. The situation had shifted since they arrived in Tokyo, nearly—what, six years ago, now? It felt infinitely longer. Yet the wound from that day was still fresh: a gash that Gaku kept poking and pulling at every night, until even the infection was a comfort.

The hamster yawned, and Gaku slipped a finger in, rubbing at his head. He only had one shot at this. If he made a mistake, if something went wrong—Gaku let out a harsh breath, feeling Satoru snuggle against his nail. It simply was not an option.

He’d waited for years. He could wait a few months more.

So he did. Gaku bit back every urge, every restless midnight thought. The formalin was a constant weight in his pocket, and he took to rolling it between his fingers in class, feeling the chemicals shift and roll against his hand. Knowing what this little bottle could do, knowing what it will do—it was intoxicating. Who knew that a life could weigh so little?

Meanwhile, the world kept moving. Satoru kept him company in the dark hours, bits of grey peppering his fur. His parents kept going through the motions of their routine, oblivious. The receptionist kept confiding in him, like an old friend—though he supposed they were, in her eyes, at least. His classmates prattled, his teachers taught, and he kept attending the cram school, if only to keep up appearances.

And still, he waited. Softly, patiently, always—waiting.

Until he’d waited too long.

Gaku stared down at his hands. The world had gone roaringly silent, the sound of nothing rushing into his ears like a flood. Even the hamster cage was quiet, the wheel abandoned, a squeaking voice snuffed out. Satoru lay cupped in his palms, and Gaku dragged his thumb through his fur, softly stroking his motionless chest.

Gaku stared down, face blank, as a yawning chasm opened where his heart should be.

“Oh, sweetie,” his mother whispered in a rare moment of sobriety, placing her hand on his elbow. “I’m so sorry. I know how much he meant to you.”

She didn’t. Nobody did. Gaku nodded anyway.

“We can have a little ceremony, if you want,” she offered, rubbing his arm. “We can—we can go bury him in the park, even. How does that sound?”

He continued to pet the hamster, rubbing his finger in comforting circles, eyes dry. “I… I think I’d like to do it alone,” he said, finally. His throat felt oddly tight, like someone was squeezing down on his wind pipe. He didn’t know why. “If that’s alright.”

“O-of course, honey,” she whispered, giving him one last assuring squeeze. “Just let me know if you need anything.”

With a promise to be back in half an hour, Gaku slipped out the door, with nothing but Satoru’s corpse nestled between his hands. Aimless, he wandered through the city streets, passing the park without so much as a glance. The evening air was compressing all around him, too thick to breathe and too tight against his skin. He kept walking.

Only when he was half-way over a small bridge did he stop. Dusk had settled in, and Gaku stood in the shadows of a building, feeling the evening chill underneath his clothes. In the distance, he could hear the thrum of traffic, the hum of a city run on machines—but here, all was quiet, the river flowing silently beneath his feet.

For the first time since he left home, he opened his hands.

Satoru was curled into a little ball, as if asleep. Gaku stared down at him, waiting for the moment when he would wake up, squeaking for food and affection. But nothing happened: the animal was dead, and Gaku clenched his jaw, breathing through his teeth.

He’d been careless. And he lost Satoru again.

The pain crested, spilling over and out of his mouth with a quiet, strangled scream. He drew out the sound, letting it bleed his throat dry, his own voice echoing all around. For a few moments, Gaku stood there, shoulders hunched against the wave. But his eyes remained steadfastly dry, even as he stared at the little, dead thing, carefully cupped in his shaking palms.

Then, all at once, it was over.

He glanced down at the hamster with fresh eyes. In the end, it was just like the cats in the alley, or the frog on the tray. Craning his neck, he checked for witnesses, before dropping the body over the railing. There was a soft splash, and Gaku brushed his hands against each other, shaking off the excess fur. It had probably been half an hour by now.

He turned and began the trek back to the apartment. On the way, the streetlights flickered on, one by one. The chasm was still there, as gaping and empty as it ever was, settling beneath his ribs. It was a familiar companion now, but sharper and colder than he remembered. The hamster had held back the tide, but now the dike had burst. The feeling stormed in, the same black ocean he had always known, crawling up his throat.

Gaku paused at the crosswalk, watching the traffic breeze by. The solution, at least, was simple.

If he lost one Satoru, he’d just have to get another.

The light turned green, and an ugly smile twisted his face.

 

 

The next day, Gaku sat in his father’s office, pleasant as can be.

As far as he could tell, everything was going according to the same routine: the receptionist was typing away at her computer, a pot of coffee bubbling away in the corner of the room. His father had been holed up in meetings for most of the day, not that it made a difference—he rarely showed himself until it was time to go, anyway. But the man still had his vices: all Gaku had to do was sit there, and…

Like clockwork, his father pulled his door open, loosening his tie as he walked towards the elevator, a pack of cigarettes in one hand. Over the edge of his textbook, Gaku watched him go.

The moment the doors shut, he was on his feet, darting towards his father’s room.

The receptionist’s head snapped up. “What are you doing?”

“My mom said she forgot something last time,” he said, biting his lip. “I don’t think she wants to ask him for it, so…”

Her eyes darted to the elevator, before giving him a nod. “Go.”

Thanking her with a smile, he slipped inside, closing the door behind him.

A few minutes later, he reappeared, tugging the doorknob in his wake. The receptionist cocked her head. “Any luck?”

“No,” he said, sighing and returning to the couch. “I’m going to ask about it later, though.”

The elevator dinged, and both of them pretended to turn back to their work. His father re-emerged, eyes narrowed and the smell of tobacco clinging to his clothes. Gaku pretended not to notice, licking his thumb and flipping the page. Only when the door clicked shut again did the two look at each other, and Gaku gave a huff, flopping back against the couch.

“Good luck with that,” she muttered with a sympathetic smile. “You’ll need it.”

Gaku went back to his pretend studying, keeping a close eye on the clock. Time crawled, slower than it had all these years, if it was possible—but eventually, the little hand found five. Gaku gave a dramatic sigh, setting his book aside as he pushed himself to his feet. “I’m going to do it.”

“Waiting until the end of the day?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow. “He’s going to be tired and grumpy, you know.”

“More than usual?” he asked with a wry smile. “I’ll deal with it.”

He brought his knuckles to the door, knocking twice before entering. His father was writing something down on his desk, and he looked up, frowning through his glasses. “What is it, Gaku?”

He pushed the door closed behind him, hearing it click. “I’m turning seventeen in a few weeks,” he pointed out. “Nearly time for entrance exams. I was hoping to discuss my future.”

His father hummed, setting his pen aside. Bundling his papers in his hands, he tapped the stack against his desk, before setting them aside. “I see.” Pushing himself up from his desk, he motioned for Gaku for take a seat. He sank into one of the thick leather chairs opposite, crossing his legs and folding his hands in his lap.

“I trust you still intend to go into medicine,” he said, moving towards the bar. The bottle of scotch on the bar winked in the light, and his father pulled over two glasses. Alcohol tumbled into the crystal cups, and his father held one out to Gaku. “I have considered some universities that would be suitable.”

He accepted the drink, resting his hand on the armrest. “Actually, I was hoping to discuss high school, first.”

His father raised an eyebrow, reclaiming his seat with a long sip. “How so?”

“I was thinking of finishing my last year at another school, actually,” he explained, swirling the scotch around in his glass.

His father leaned back with a hum, lips tight before taking another taste. “Such as?”

“Mikoto High School,” he said, beaming. “In Ishikari.”

His father’s face froze, eyes hard and cold. He set his empty cup down, knuckles white. “I thought you had grown past such childhood fantasies, Gaku.”

“Well, I have always been driven,” he said, leaning back. “I’ve been told it’s an asset.”

“Did your mother put you up to this?”

“Ha.” Gaku smirked, staring down at the drink in his hand. “No, I assure you—this was all me.”

The older man frowned, the wrinkles in his face twitching, considering. For a long moment, the two of them simply stared across the desk, the tension thick in the air. Gaku’s finger tapped at the rim of his glass, his nail pinging against the crystal, a tick-tick-tick in both of their ears. His father reclined in his seat with a low breath, before opening his mouth, and vomiting blood all over his desk.

With a hoarse, gurgling noise, the red splashed against the polished mahogany. His father’s hands flew up, one clutching at his throat, the other at his mouth—but it didn’t stop the flood that came spilling out with the next wet heave, crimson splattering out between his fingers. There was a wet and ugly gasp as the man looked up at his son, fear in his eyes, and—

Gaku laughed. A cold, hollow sound—it died quickly in his throat, and he gave a happy sigh, settling comfortably into his chair. “How does it feel?” he asked, positively beaming at the sight. “I’m told it’s excruciatingly painful. Like every organ is melting from the inside out.”

The man wheezed. “G—Ga-k—” But whatever he tried to say was swallowed by the blood and bile in his mouth, and his entire body seized. His chest slumped, as if caving in, shoulders landing with a soft thump against his desk. Hazy eyes stared through glasses speckled with red. “W—wh—”

“Shh,” Gaku said, leaning back into his leather armchair, swirling the poisoned drink with a grin. “I’m trying to watch.”

Pink foam fizzled out of his father’s mouth, his lips open and gaping like a fish. Every breath rattled wet in his chest, and the man’s eyes rolled back in his head, blood vessels bulging. Pale fingers twitched in the blood, drops dripping off the edge and onto the carpet. Gaku nudged his foot out of the way, leaning his head in his hand and sighing, content.

His father heaved once or twice more, his weak coughs lighter than a whisper, before he went still.

It was like that—pitiful and afraid, stinking of shit and vomit—that Mikohara Gaku’s father died.

And the room went blissfully, beautifully silent.

Gaku released a shaking sigh, leaning his head back in the chair. So many years.

He let himself relish in the moment, the smell of death and blood filling his lungs.

Cracking his eyes open, he watched the fan above spin, smirking to himself. There was no better satisfaction than a job well done, but there was still more to do. Gaku pushed himself to his feet, carefully avoiding the puddles of blood scattered around the desk. He’d been careful so far; he didn’t plan on breaking that habit now.

Moving behind his father’s desk, Gaku tugged a handkerchief out of his pocket. The drawer handles had managed to avoid any of the blood, shining in the low light. Hiding his fingerprints in the fabric, Gaku pulled the drawer open, a soft smile breaking out on his face.

Gently, he lifted up the picture, Satoru’s grin beaming out under his ducky hat.

To think, it had been here, this whole time. Gaku barely recognized himself, the boy in the picture smiling, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He supposed he didn’t, back then. Softly, he traced Satoru’s face with his fingertips, before slipping the picture into his pocket, over his heart. Gaku looked down at the slack-jawed corpse, his face blank. “You shouldn’t have taken him from me.”

But no one can change the past. Gaku had come to terms with that a long time ago.

He paused on his way out, raising his glass one last time. “Thanks for the drink.”

Then he stepped out of the office, pulling the door behind him closed with a heavy sigh.

The receptionist looked up from her compact, snapping the mirror closed. Her brow creased in concern. “How did it go?”

“Better than I thought it would,” he said, honestly. He swirled the alcohol around, staring down at it. “He said I gave him a lot to think about, and told me to meet him at home.”

“Huh,” she said, leaning her head in her hand. “Well, that’s something, right?”

“Yeah,” he laughed, rubbing at the back of his neck. “I just hope he comes around. Oh!” Gaku held out the glass, poison sloshing around inside. “He, uh, gave this to me but… I don’t really drink. After everything with…” His voice dipped down low. “Well, you met my mom.”

She winced in sympathy. “Right.”

“Do you want it?”

Her eyebrows shot up into her bangs. “Are you sure?”

“I’d just end up pouring it out,” he said, shrugging a little. “It seems like a waste.”

“And you’re underage…”

“Ha! True.”

“Well,” she said, scooting her rolling chair closer with a smile. Her manicured nails curled around the glass. “I’m never one to waste a good drink, especially if it’s free. Thanks, kiddo.”

His smile widened. “It’s my pleasure. I hope you like it.”

Grabbing his backpack, he shrugged it over his shoulder. “I don’t have a ride, so I’m going to head out and try to get home early,” he explained, giving a wave as he trotted towards the elevator. “Have a good night, Nishizono-san!”

“Thanks!” she chirped back, cupping the alcohol in her hands. “See you tomorrow, Gaku!”

He bit his tongue, stifling a hysterical laugh as he stepped into the lift. “See you then.”

The doors closed, and he never saw her again.

 

 

Gaku inhaled the damp evening air as he walked, hands in his pockets and soul as light as a feather. The feeling carried him all the way to his front door, and Gaku turned the key in the lock, stepping in and toeing off his shoes.

The lights were all on, not that it meant much. Dropping his things in the hallway, Gaku sauntered in, humming to himself. As expected, he found his mother on the living room floor, half-slumped over the couch. A bottle of wine was abandoned on the coffee table, and he sighed, crouching next to her.

“Mom,” he whispered, gently shaking her shoulder, as he had a hundred times before. “Come on, Mom. Time to go to bed.”

She gave a garbled groan, lifting her head from the cushions. “Gaku,” she slurred, leaning her heavy skull on his shoulder. “Welcome home, sweetheart.”

“Thanks,” he said, looping his arm around her torso. He pushed himself to his feet, pulling her along. She sagged against him like a dead weight, half-stumbling as she tried to stand. Slowly, Gaku made his way down the hall, gently coaxing her along. “Come on.”

She groaned, her feet dragging against the polished floor. “Wh—where’s your—?”

“Dad isn’t here right now,” he said. They passed by her bedroom door. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Oh,” she said, huffing. “Where’re we going?”

“I thought you could use some fresh air,” he said, pulling the balcony door open. “It’s a nice night.”

It was. The balcony wasn’t big, and it looked out onto a parking lot—but in the distance, the lights of the city shimmered, a kaleidoscope of light and glass. He paused and took in the sight, a light breeze ghosting across his cheeks. For the first time, he understood why people found Tokyo so beautiful. Maybe he’d bring Satoru here one day, when all of this was over.

His mother hunched against the railing, and Gaku smiled down at her.

“Here,” he said, wrapping his fingers in the handkerchief and reaching into his pocket. “I have something for you.”

She looked up, confused, and Gaku dropped the empty bottle into her hand. Her fingers curled around it, and she stared, nose twitching at the chemical smell. For a moment, it was like she didn’t even register it, didn’t understand—before her face softened, eyes widening, before settling into something achingly soft.

“Oh, Gaku,” she whispered, looking up at him. “What have you done?”

Gaku didn’t answer. He pushed.

And she didn’t fight, didn’t scream. His mother just fell.

Gaku stared at the empty space where she’d been, and listened to the dull, wet sound of her body meeting the pavement.

Then he turned on his heel, and closed the balcony door behind him.

Someone will notice the body. Someone will call the police. And when they arrive, they will find Gaku: in his pyjamas, half-asleep, assuring them that his mother went to bed hours ago, as if he didn’t already know she was a splatter on the parking lot lines.

Gaku stretched, swinging his arms at his sides. He’d better brush his teeth.

 

 

The news broke like this:

His mother, in a fit of paranoia and alcohol, poisoned his father’s scotch. The poor receptionist had told her friends all about the woman, how she showed up to the office belligerent and drunk, going off about some imaginary affair. In a sudden moment of horrifying clarity, his mother leapt from her apartment balcony to her death, the evidence clutched in her hand as penance.

The crime left their only son, orphaned and grieving the senseless massacre.

Or, so they said. Gaku stared at the TV, head in his hand, more bored than anything. It had been a few weeks since that night, but the news cycle had refused to move on. It made sense—a well-to-do family, struck by infidelity, poison, and a dramatic murder-suicide? The public was salivating for every juicy detail, like a dog with a particularly bloody piece of meat.

It didn’t help that Nishizono’s family was disgustingly rich. An up-and-coming socialite, murdered by a jilted older woman? The tabloids practically wrote themselves. Gaku sighed, tapping at his chin and glaring at the screen. In an ideal world, the incident wouldn’t have made the news at all, but he supposed that was his own fault. He’d just have to deal with the consequences.

“Mikohara-kun?”

Gaku straightened up, putting on the face of a suffering, frightened boy. “Yes?”

The social worker turned the TV off, giving him a sympathetic glance. “You shouldn’t be watching this.”

His lips shook as he pressed them together, nodding and staring at his feet. “I know,” he said, voice cracking. “I’m sorry. I just—”

“Don’t apologize,” the man said, dropping a hand on his shoulder and giving it a squeeze. He motioned towards the open office door. “If you’re ready—?”

Gaku nodded, and allowed himself to be led out of the waiting room, clutching his bag against his chest. The social worker’s office was pretty bare, the blinds drawn over the windows, dust floating through the air. Gaku collapsed into an uncomfortable chair, swallowing down the lump that wasn’t in his throat. “Is—is there anything I need to do?”

“Not really,” he said, leaning back in his own seat. It squeaked under his weight. “You’re the only living person named in your parents’ will. Normally, we’d wait until you’re eighteen to transfer all their assets to you, but seeing as you’re only a few months away…”

“R-right,” he said, nodding. He had briefly considered waiting until he was eighteen, just in case. It was good to know he hadn’t shot himself in the foot. He needed that money. “I, uhm… I’m not going into the foster system, am I?”

“Not unless you want to,” he said, opening his hands, leaving the offer on the table. “You’re almost an adult, so it feels a bit pointless. Though you should stay with someone.”

“There’s some family friends in Hokkaido,” he said, biting his lip. “I was planning on going back there.”

The social worker raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure? You wouldn’t rather stay here, with all your friends?”

Gaku nearly, nearly scoffed. “Tokyo has… too many memories,” he said, his voice cracking. “I just—I just want to get out of here.”

The man’s face softened. “Okay,” he said, scooting closer to the computer. “I can get the transfer process started, so you’re registered with the school there. I take it you probably want to sell the apartment, too.”

“Please,” he whispered, staring down at his shoes. “I don’t really want to go back there.”

“We’ll get that sorted too, then,” he said, pushing his glasses up his face. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Mikohara-kun? Anything?”

Gaku drummed his fingers against his bag. “Actually, there is one thing…”

 

 

Morning lazily broke above the train station. The platforms were empty and bare, still a few hours and several coffees away from the proper morning rush. Every so often, a sleep-deprived commuter would shuffle through the turnstiles, dragging themselves towards the tracks. Nobody was ever up this early by choice.

Nobody except Gaku, of course. He stood in the middle of the station, his smile wide, a duffel bag flung over his shoulder. It had been nearly ten years since the last time he was here, trying to sneak aboard the north-bound train. Some part of him was still jittery, waiting for the inevitable, police officers swarming from all sides—but no. Things were different now.

He let out an excited breath, a puff of white fog trailing in its wake. With a skip in his step, he walked up to the kiosk labelled ‘Ticket Pick-Up,’ smiling at the attendant behind the glass. “Good morning! I have a reservation for the five-thirty Sapporo train?”

The woman blinked up at him, suppressing a yawn. “Name?”

He slid his new ID forward, beaming. “Yashiro Gaku.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Hundreds of miles north of Tokyo, a train sat in an empty station, waiting. A petty old thing, the machine groaned and hissed as it dawdled on the tracks, its gears and joints aching in the cold. Frost had set in, creeping over the nuts and bolts, a spider web of ice spreading across the metal. It was closer to dawn than not, but the sky was a sheet of black; the train’s headlights were the only beacon in the dark. A light snow fell across the beams, cutting shadows against the light.

With a long exhale, the train heaved, steam hissing out from somewhere deep in its bowels. The doors fell open with a long, rusted screech.

A single, lonely passenger stepped onto the platform, wet snow crunching underneath polished shoes.

Gaku tilted his chin up, to the rusting sign hanging above the tracks. Welcome to Ishikari!

To the empty platform, he announced: “I’m home.”

 

 

Gaku had dreamed of what he would do when he came back.

How he’d run to Satoru’s front door straight from the station, how his key would still turn the lock, the joy on Satoru’s face when he realized who had come. The way they’d throw their arms around each other, as if they never wanted to let go again. The whole affair was scripted in his head, like the worst kind of TV drama.

His fantasies had never accounted for how long the trains to Ishikari would take. Stepping out of the station, he checked his phone.

2:48 A.M.

Gaku grit his teeth, looked up at the falling snow, and hailed a cab instead.

For all his dreaming, Gaku was, ultimately, pragmatic. All his desires, hungry and starved, were nothing compared to seeing Satoru smile—and he would probably be terrified if he heard someone trying to come in in the middle of the night, even if that someone turned out to be Gaku.

Satoru deserved better than that.

Even if his body was burning with the urge to run to that little apartment, he swallowed it down like bitter medicine, leaning towards the front seat.

“Hiyoshi Apartments, please.”

The driver grunted and rolled away from the curb. Gaku let himself sink into the stiff upholstery, staring out the windows. In Tokyo, there would still be lights everywhere, the city buzzing with sounds and light. But Ishikari was asleep, lit only by the dim streetlamps, uneasily flickering in the cold. Gaku watched the empty streets crawl by, filling in the blank map in his memory. Not much had changed: a few stores had been swapped for others, of course, but Gaku had been prepared for more. Then again, Ishikari had always been a quiet town.

They drove passed the Children’s Centre, and he couldn’t resist a smile. Maybe that was for the best. It was a comfort to know that Satoru had grown up here: safely incubated in a calm, peaceful corner of the world, until Gaku could come find him again.

His new building was, like most things in Ishikari, old—but well-kept, as far as he could tell. The lobby smelled of cleaning products, despite its dated appearance. The elevator creaked as it carried it up to his floor, and he wandered the empty halls, scanning the numbers. Stopping in front of a door, Gaku tried the key he’d been given, and the new lock turned over easily. He flipped on the light.

The place was, for lack of a better word, plain—but in that trendy, modern way, supposedly. The little kitchen was crowded against one wall, a small table separating it from the living room. A single couch faced the TV, the hallway tucked off to the side. Cardboard boxes were stacked up near the table, and Gaku sighed, dropping his bag and closing the door behind him.

It might have been bigger, but it couldn’t compare to the Fujinumas’ home, not by a mile. But it would have to do.

As he wandered through the home, he pulled out his phone and shot an email off to his social worker to let him know he’d made it safely. The second bedroom was a plus: perfect if someone wanted to stay over. Or move in.

The thought shot through his blood like a bullet, and Gaku tossed his phone onto the couch, flexing the feeling out of his fingers. His heart was beating like an earthquake in his chest, shaking up his breath as it pushed past his throat. Nerves, anticipation, excitement—he could feel it all, like a cocktail of adrenaline, setting every atom on fire—and he all knew too well that he wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight.

Pulling open the kitchen drawers, he rifled under his fingers found a knife, and he pressed his finger to the sharp edge, testing. With surgical precision, he slipped the blade under the tape, and cut the cardboard box open. He might as well unpack.

 

Exactly 6 hours and forty-two minutes since he arrived in Ishikari, Gaku set off to find Satoru.

Unpacking hadn’t taken too long, namely because Gaku hadn’t brought much from Tokyo—just clothes, his mementos of Satoru, and, in an odd moment of sentimentality, his hamster wheel. Putting it away had taken no time at all, so the rest of the night was spent getting ready. Gaku had never been particularly focused on his appearance, as long as it met his needs, but today was special.

It wasn’t a first impression, exactly—but he still wanted to be presentable. He didn’t know if he’d grown up into the person Satoru would want him to be, but he could at least look the part.

In the steam of his bathroom, Gaku took his father’s straight razor to his own throat, scraping the teenaged stubble off his chin. He’d never really gone out in Tokyo, socially, so his clothes were—limited, for lack of a better word. He’d have to fix that. In the end, he settled for a simple white button-up, leaving the collar open in a way he hoped was casual. Shrugging on a black blazer, inspected himself in the mirror. It would have to do.

Slipping the picture of them into his inner pocket, he grabbed and keys and stepped out the door.

The overnight dusting of snow had already succumbed to the sun, leaving the air heavy, damp and fresh. Gaku released a breath and watched it fog in front of his eyes.

Years of searching the internet meant he knew the Fujinumas’ address by heart. Gaku marched through the streets, trying to keep his feet from trying to race his heartbeat. He was excited, of course—more, even, than when his father took that last, bloody, vomit-stained breath. Gaku’s chest had felt empty since the day he’d left Ishikari, and he wanted nothing more than to crush Satoru against his ribs and feel his warmth again, humming where Gaku’s heart should be.

He turned the corner, and his steps slowed. Sure, he’d known the way to the Fujinumas’ home, but he hadn’t considered what that actually meant until Sachiko’s old workplace was staring him in the face. Gaku stared through the blown-out windows into the dirty darkness inside. By the looks of it, the building been abandoned years ago; the sign hung crooked, the letters faded and covered in a thick layer of grime.

But he didn’t care about that.

Gaku hastened his pace, and let out a sigh of relief. Unlike the building, the field hadn’t changed at all. The tall grass was still stretching out of the mud, dry blades rustling in the breeze. Bits of construction equipment—pipes, lumber, old tarps—were still strewn about, their bodies rusted and torn. The path he used to take in and out was still stamped down, cutting across the dirt like a scar. It had been ten years since he’d set foot here, but the dirt still remembered his feet.

Gaku stood there and soaked it all in, blinking away the burning in his eyes. Something was surging up in him, a sad kind of happy that he had never known—but staring out at the dump site, it felt like coming home.

Until he heard the camera click.

It took a second before he found them. Someone was crouching by a stack of steel beams, and Gaku’s good mood immediately soured in his chest, his lips twisting into a scowl. He couldn’t see their face, but Gaku could hear the clicking of the phone’s camera, and his hackles rose. This was his place with Satoru, and the mere idea of people trampling over it, snapping pictures and gawking, lit a fire in his blood.

The intruder pushed themselves to their feet, swiping a hand against their knees, and Gaku’s breath cut out.

Glasses. He’d never considered glasses.

But there was no denying the blue eyes behind them. Satoru stopped suddenly, like a cornered animal, and stared at him from across the field. His grip tightened around his phone, a Wonder Guy charm hanging off the case. God, he looked so different. His childlike limbs had turned long and lanky, and he held himself as most teenagers did: awkwardly, as if waiting for his oversized hoodie to swallow him whole.

But Gaku would recognize him anywhere: behind it all, he could still see the four-year-old he once knew, calling his name.

The cold had turned those soft cheeks pink, and Satoru breathed, puffs of white passing his lips.

And Gaku was frozen. He didn’t expect to find Satoru here; he hadn’t prepared for this, wasn’t ready. His carefully crafted plans were lying shattered at his feet. His mind was screaming at him to say something, but all his rehearsed apologies had fled. Even his legs had rooted themselves to the ground, and his fingertips twitch, itching to grab the boy standing in front of him.

The boy that was just staring back at him. Satoru tilted his head, bangs falling across his frames. A soft frown pulled at his mouth as he took Gaku in. For a heartbeat, no one moved, the wind ruffling both their hair.

Then, all at once, Satoru’s eyes lit up, sparkling like twin saucers. His whole body inhaled excitement until he looked like he would burst, the overflow filling his face with a smile. Shoving his phone in his pocket, he began to rush across the field; his feet stumbled over the junk, his arms swinging to keep himself upright. Old instincts flared to life, and Gaku jerked forward, ready to catch him, to hold him—

Satoru waved wildly with both arms, grinning wide. “Kayo!”

What?

A girl appeared at his elbow. Gaku recognized the narrowed eyes, the defensive curl of her shoulders, and felt his heart shatter.

“What are you doing?” Hinazuki Kayo asked, her face buried in the collar of her red coat.

“Sorry, sorry,” Satoru laughed, slowing to a trot near the field’s edge. “Just getting references!”

“It’s a field,” Kayo said, though there was no bite in it. “Just draw a line.”

Satoru let out an affectionate huff, toeing his way over the bank. Gaku watched it happen in slow motion: Satoru’s battered shoes met the incline and slipped, his heel twisting in the wet mud, and Gaku’s hands shot out like a bullet.

The familiar weight of Satoru settled against his chest and knocked his breath away. From this close, he could feel Satoru’s hot breath on his skin; could feel his heartbeat, wild and erratic under his hands. Satoru’s hands fisted in Gaku’s sleeves, and he teetered dangerously before finding his balance, his hair tickling at Gaku’s chin. They stared at each other, and for a moment, Gaku dared to hope.

But Satoru just laughed, sheepishly stepping out of his grip. “Ah, thanks—sorry about that.”

“No problem,” Gaku croaked, his hands hovering where Satoru had been.

“Come on,” Kayo muttered, giving a short bow to Gaku before grabbing Satoru by the sleeve, pulling him down the street. “We’re late. Hiromi’s already worried.”

“He’s still texting you, huh?”

Shut up,” Kayo hissed, and Satoru laughed again, the sound beautiful and bright.

Gaku watched as all he ever wanted turned its back, and started to walk away.

 

(But Ishikari was small: if Gaku wound up also wandering in that direction, following their footsteps towards the tiny downtown, it could be chalked up to pure coincidence.)

 

Which is why, when they were about half a block down, Gaku shoved his hands in his pockets and took after them. His heart was still pounding like a war drum, and his thoughts were a hurricane of confusion and pain, but he moved at a leisurely stroll, never taking his eyes off Satoru. Even from afar, he could tell that Satoru and Kayo were close: their shoulders brushed as they walked, their heads dipping in, as if sharing secrets—and Gaku could feel his jealousy grinding inside of him, like metal against metal.

“Are you an idiot?” Kayo said, but her smile was fond. Satoru elbowed her in the side, and they fell back into each other’s orbit, like satellites. Gaku tried not to vomit.

How had this happened? Satoru had been young when he’d left—but not so young to forget him entirely, was he? Gaku flexed his hands in his pockets, his fingers tapping a staccato rhythm against his ribs. He could feel the picture, nestled against his breast, and knew. He shouldn’t have been erased from Satoru’s heart that easily.

And yet.

He stared at the back of Hinazuki Kayo’s head, mind churning. If Satoru remembered Gaku, he would have remembered their promise.

If that was the case, then what was she doing here?

They turned the corner, and Gaku shuffled forward faster, desperate to catch up. As he approached the intersection, his feet slowed, before stopping entirely. Gaku stood, struck dumb on the sidewalk, watching in dismay as Satoru and Kayo waved their hellos to a gaggle of teenagers. They were immediately brought into the fold, a boy with a round face stammering awkwardly as he stepped up to Hinazuki’s side. Satoru was immediately accosted by a larger boy with a pompadour of all things, planting a playful punch to his arm that sent Gaku’s blood boiling. Satoru gave an exasperated smile as the boy threw an arm around his shoulders, pulling him into a loose headlock.

It wasn’t just Hinazuki Kayo. There were more of them, swarming around Satoru like vultures.  

A girl in pigtails began trying to herd them into the karaoke bar, literally pushing some other glasses-wearing boy through the entrance as he feigned a struggle. They started to filter in in groups, gesticulating and chatting wildly to each other until they stepped inside. Gaku watched Satoru until he disappeared behind the double-doors, and the stragglers followed, eager to be out of the cold.

Except one.

The last of them paused in the entryway. Gaku hadn’t noticed the blond boy before—but the blond had clearly noticed him. The boy’s hand was curled tight around the door handle, sharp eyes narrowing as he stared. It was too late to turn or pretend he was on his way, so he just stood there, smiling jovially at the younger boy. Gaku didn’t know if it was simple curiosity or suspicion, but there was a prickling at the back of his neck, a whispered warning in his brain.

Threat.

“Kenya?” Satoru asked, poking his head out. “Is something wrong?”

The boy snapped out of his stare. “Ah, no. Sorry.”

They both slipped inside, and Gaku released a slow breath, his shoulders sagging.

The snow was starting up again, the occasional white falling to his feet and melting on the concrete.

Standing there, alone on the sidewalk on a quiet street, Gaku finally felt the weight of it all settle in his chest like an anchor, the cold hard lead dragging all of his organs down. He wasn’t so naïve that he thought their reunion would go perfectly. But this… Gaku didn’t even know what this was. Both his brain and his body felt numb, like he was separate from himself, his hands twitching at his sides. Shock, probably.  

He didn’t know up from down, but he knew enough to know he couldn’t just stand there. Rumors travelled fast in small towns, especially when it came to strange out-of-towners. So he turned to go, flipping his up collar against the wind. He needed to get out of the public eye, gather his thoughts—take the time to sort through all this and regroup.

Once he had a new plan in place, he could approach Satoru again. Somehow.

Gaku ambled down the street, breathing fast, when his shoulder collided with someone else’s. He felt his steps stumble slightly, and the stranger’s grocery bag hit the ground, its contents spilling out onto concrete. Something in his mind whispered politeness and appearances in his ear, and Gaku crouched to his knees, quickly gathering the scattered groceries in his arms. “Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”

He looked up, holding a can up out to the stranger.

But the woman had stopped dead, her face pale, as if she’d seen a ghost.

“… Gaku-kun?”

Oh. From down here, staring into that familiar face, Gaku felt like a little boy again. The phantom pain of home-cooked meals and warm baths rushed over him in a tidal wave, and he ached for it. But all he had was the wet chill from the sidewalk beneath him, bits of gravel biting into his knees. “Hello, Sachiko-san.”

Something flashed across her face, but just as quickly it was gone, an achingly sad smile taking its place. Crouching down, her fingers brushed against his, pulling the can from his fingers.

“Do you like coffee?”

They wound up in a little tucked away café, its storefront crowded into a side alley. The place itself was cozy bordering on claustrophobic; the moment they walked in, Gaku got the distinct feeling that the walls were creeping in, like curious spectators at the scene of a crash craning to catch a peek of the wreckage. The floorboards groaned under his weight, even as he settled down in a seat with his drink.

Sachiko did the same, smiling wryly down at their cups. “Ordering black like a grown-up now, huh?”

Gaku took a sip. “I’m almost eighteen.”

“Wow.” One of her feet grazed against her grocery bag, and it crinkled loudly in the quiet room. “It’s really been that long, hasn’t it?”

Gaku nodded. It had been a long time—even for Sachiko. This wasn’t the same young mother who had taken him in all those years ago. Her hair had been cropped into a sharp bob, and when she smiled, little wrinkles appeared at the corners of her eyes. Even her clothes had changed, the slacks and button-ups traded in for a high-heels and a blazer. Something about it left a sour taste on his tongue, bitterer than coffee.

“I saw Satoru today,” he said, cutting right to the heart of it. “He didn’t know who I was.”

Sachiko sighed, both her hands curling around her mug. “That’s… it’s complicated, Gaku-kun.”

“I have time.”

She took a long, deep sip of her drink, staring out the distant window. A clock ticked loudly above their heads. The cup bumped against the table as she set it down again, her nails scratching at an invisible stain on the porcelain. “He was so young when you left,” she started, gently swirling her coffee. “Kids that age—they don’t know how to… deal with certain things.”

“He took it badly,” he guessed.

“Inconsolable,” she said. “The screaming, the crying—when you didn’t come back, he…” She stopped and took a deep breath, gripping her mug with both hands. “He was convinced he didn’t protect you. That you were going to get hurt, and it was all his fault.”

And, well, Gaku couldn’t pretend that wasn’t the best news he’d heard all day—but Sachiko couldn’t know that. So he kept his face schooled into something like sympathy, nodding along with a frown on his face.

“Nothing helped, and—he wasn’t eating. He wouldn’t go to school.” She gave a dark laugh, shaking her head. “I caught him one night trying to sneak out with a backpack. He said he was going to go to Tokyo. Can you imagine?”

He could. To think that Satoru had missed him—had tried to come for him. No one else had ever loved Gaku so much, had never wanted him like Satoru had. He felt the heat of it settle beneath his ribs, burning like a little furnace in his gut. But Sachiko had gone cold, her voice steel. “I couldn’t let him go on like that, Gaku-kun. I couldn’t.

Suspicion prickled at his skin. “What did you do, Sachiko-san?”

There is was: a flash of guilt, her lips twisting into a frown—but then it was gone, her eyes resolute.

“I told him that you were,” she pressed her lips together, “imaginary.”

Gaku straightened in his seat, eyes wide. Sachiko continued, the words spilling out of her mouth. “I said that—that sometimes, we make up friends. They aren’t real, and that when we grow up, they go away. And—” She looked back up at him. “You have to understand—he was hurting, Gaku-kun. And I didn’t know if you’d ever come back.”

The thoughts were swirling rapidly around his head, a storm of pain and questions crashing into each other. But all he said was: “He believed you.”

Sachiko gave a dry smile. “When you’re five, you believe whatever your mom says.”

“But,” his hand rushed to his pocket, “there were pictures, and—”

“Just one,” she corrected. “I threw it out.”

Gaku didn’t realize he was angry until then, the rage that had been locked in his bones erupting with a roar. He felt it flare like a hot flash across his skin, his jaw snapping closed before it fired the acid in his throat. He’d trusted Sachiko—she had given him a shelter at Satoru’s side, the closest thing to a place called “home” that he had ever known. And then she had taken it all, and thrown it in the trash. Like it was garbage. Like it was nothing.

He forced his lungs to go slow, schooling his face into a blank slate. “Does he even remember?”

Sachiko shook her head. “No. I don’t think so.”

Of course not. Why would you remember someone who didn’t exist? But the words still left a hollow in his chest, screaming where his heart should be. “I see,” he hissed.

The bell above the door rang, and they both killed the conversation, mouths glued shut. The customer chatted with the man behind the counter, laughing at some horrible joke. Sachiko pretended to be occupied with her coffee, but Gaku didn’t even bother: he stared unblinking down at his hands, his mind rearranging around the bomb that had exploded in his reality.

Satoru hadn’t just forgotten him—he didn’t even know Gaku existed.

Not because he hadn’t loved Gaku, but because he had been tricked.

It wasn’t Satoru’s fault. He had always been so trusting, so eager to see the good in people that Gaku had long learned didn’t exist. And then he had been lied to, manipulated, brainwashed into forgetting the one thing that had mattered most. Gaku grit his teeth, guilt and shame strangling his throat. He had thought Ishikari had been safe for Satoru, but he was wrong. If he had been strong enough, if he had just been here, then he could have protected Satoru from all this.

From her. Gaku stared across the table at this woman he used to know, and felt any love for Sachiko Fujinuma die.

The door to the café closed with another jingle of the bell, and Sachiko set her coffee aside.

“I know this isn’t what you want to hear, especially now,” she said, staring at him with clear eyes. “But when I saw how Satoru reacted after you left—I realized how close you two were, and…” She shook her head again. “It wasn’t healthy. If it had gone on like that—I don’t think it would have been good for either of you.” She looked at him across the table, her eyes pleading. “It took some time, but Satoru—he’s doing so, so well now. He’s happy.”

Because he’s living a lie, his brain hissed.

“I don’t think either of us want to ruin that,” she said, folding her hands over each other. “Do you… understand what I’m trying to say, Gaku?”

Ah—there it was. There had been something bothering him ever since he had seen Sachiko Fujinuma again, and now he knew. The business clothes, the tone of voice, the carefully crafted hair; Gaku blinked, and the café was gone, replaced by a plastic diner he hadn’t seen in a decade, a serrated knife heavy in his hand.

His father glowered at him from across the table, blood bubbling past his lips. “This fascination of yours isn’t healthy, Gaku. It’s sick, and it’s perverted.”

Sachiko’s hands were folded, just like his. Her nails carefully manicured, just like his mother’s used to be, before she took a dive from the eleventh floor balcony.

“And if you won’t nip it in the bud, then we will.”

To think, he used to believe that Sachiko was different. But it had just taken her longer to get there. He stared down at his cup, a drop of cold coffee sitting alone at the bottom. He wondered how thick the porcelain was. How much force it would take to break it into pieces. Whether or not a shard would shatter before it got deep enough.

Sachiko frowned, leaning in to the table. “Gaku-kun?”

Gaku set his cup down, and smiled. “Of course, Sachiko-san,” he said. “I understand everything.”

His parents, Satoru’s friends, even Sachiko—everyone was going to try to keep him away from Satoru.

It was cute, how everyone thought that they could.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

There was one benefit of living in Ishikari, she supposed.

When Kayo was caught in her mother’s temper—when the high heels hollowed out holes in her skin, when the fists came crashing down—at least Kayo could stumble out into the cold. Getting to the backdoor was the hardest part, not that her mother was ever paying that much attention. After that, it was all too easy for her to slip outside, her knees shaking and fingers fumbling at the locks.

The musty dark of the storeroom was an old friend. The sun had already set, but its shadows brought her in regardless, swaddling her like a baby in a blanket. Kayo finally let her limbs sink to the familiar floorboards. Her nightdress did nothing to stave off the chill, but that was how she liked it: the cold was already numbing the pain, freezing the heat in her eyes before it had the chance to burn.

But it didn’t stop her lungs from hiccupping in her chest. The noise started as a whimper and bubbled up into a wail, and she smothered the sound in the crook of her arm, her breath hot and wet against her skin. At the time, she thought she had been quiet. Thought that her mother had beaten the silence into her, as thoroughly as she had beaten everything else.

But in hindsight, that was probably how he found her.

The storeroom door jumped open with a crash, and Kayo didn’t even have it in her to flinch. A shadow fell over her, smaller than her mother’s had ever been.

“Hinazuki?”

She peeked under her hair. It took a second for her to place him: despite sitting next to Satoru Fujinuma all year, they’d never even talked, let alone seen each other outside of school. But there he was: a winter coat thrown over his pyjamas, a heavy bag hanging from his shoulder. His hand was still clutching at the door, his boots rooted to the ground.

And staring. Kayo twisted her face away from him, legs curling in tighter. “Don’t look at me.”

That seemed to snap him out of it. He dropped the bag to the ground, contents spilling out across the snow. “You’re freezing,” he said, tearing off his coat. “Here—”

“Don’t touch me!” She hadn’t meant to scream. “G-go away!”

For some reason, he took another step forward. “But—"

“What’s going on here?”

Fujinuma jumped and whirled around. Kayo was past being surprised by her mother—instead, she just felt dread, sinking into her stomach like a stone. Pressing her hands to the dusty floor, she pushed herself up, voice weak. “Nothing.”

“Come on, then,” her mother said, grabbing at her arm. Kayo bit back a wince as the finger closed around a bruise. “We don’t want you to catch a chill, do we, Kayo?”

“No,” she agreed, letting herself be dragged to her feet. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Fujinuma looking between them, his mind slowly putting two and two together. His head whipped in her direction, but Kayo resolutely looked at her feet, refusing to meet his eyes. She didn’t want to see what he saw.

But Fujinuma stumbled after them anyway, his boot skidding in the snow. “H-Hinazuki!” he called, still clutching at his coat like a lifeline. “I-I’ll… I’ll see you at school tomorrow?”

She frowned, her stomach giving an uncomfortable twist. But under her mother’s watchful eye, she nodded. For better or for worse, she’d have to face Fujinuma in the morning.

But for now, she walked back inside, and didn’t look back.

 

 

The mornings after were always worse. In the middle of it, even when it hurt more than she thought she could bear, Kayo knew it would end eventually. Her mother’s moods were never that long; a quick flare-up, and then it died, smouldering until the next time. And in between, Kayo coasted through her mother’s indifference, a ghost creeping around the apartment.

The problem were the aches. Shrugging on her coat, Kayo bit back a hiss as the weight settled on her bones. This part wasn’t short. It was going to linger all day, and into the next, and then into the one after that. And instead of just lying there, like she did under her mother’s hands, she had things to do: she had to get to school, run around in gym class, and—

See Fujinuma.

Kayo scowled. At least she knew Fujinuma didn’t tell anyone. Not because she trusted him—but sitting next to him for so long, she’d noticed that no one ever really talked to him. He didn’t try to talk to them, either: aside from going to the bathroom, Fujinuma spent his breaks on the playground doodling in his notebooks, not even looking at the other kids.

Like Kayo, Satoru Fujinuma didn’t have any friends. Which was good—no one was coming by and bugging her during class.

It also meant he had no one to tell about last night.

Still, he had seen it—and asked if she was coming to school. Which meant he probably wanted to talk about it. Her backpack felt like a mountain on her shoulders, but she shrugged it on anyway, tip-toeing past the living room and her mother’s snoring. Carefully, she twisted the doorknob, peeking out of the front door.

She half-expected to see Fujinuma on her doorstep, but luckily, no one was there. Letting out a breath, Kayo stepped out, gently shutting the door behind her. It wasn’t like he was a stalker, or somethingthough she couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing out so late. Oh well. It wasn’t her business, and she didn’t particularly care anyway.

But just in case, she peered around the corner that led to the backyard. Fujinuma wasn’t there either, though she could see the footprints he’d left behind. The snow was rumpled where he had found her, probably from the stuff he’d dropped. For some reason, it all just felt—obvious, like anyone looking could tell what had happened. So Kayo gripped the straps of her bag and walked over, kicking the snow around to cover up the evidence.

Her boot caught against something, and Kayo stopped. A bit of plastic wrap was poking out, and she bent down, plucking it up and shaking off the snow.

It was stars. The cheap, glow-in-the-dark-kind that people stuck up on walls and stuff. Kayo had seen them around sometimes, and a tugging in her chest had always wondered what if, imagining the kind of family would buy this for their kids. The parents would probably help put them up. Once or twice, she’d wondered what it would feel like to fall asleep in a house like that, staring up at the glow.

Kayo held the package in her hands, the plastic crinkling under her fingers. Fujinuma must have dropped them last night. Gripping the stars tight in one fist, Kayo wound her arm back, intent on chucking them over the fence and forgetting about the stupid things. But her arm refused to move, and eventually, she let it fall.

Shoving the stars in her pocket, Kayo turned and marched back towards the road.

She made it to class just as the bell began to ring. The second she opened the door, Fujinuma’s head was snapping in her direction. Kayo pretended not to see him, shutting the door and trudging over to her seat. She could feel Fujinuma’s eyes on her as she sat down—but he didn’t say anything, fixing his gaze back down at his notebook. Kayo pulled out her things and settled in next to him, silently relieved.

Fujinuma, unfortunately, had other ideas.

At least he waited until after school to do it. Kayo was wandering by the river when she heard someone call her name. Turning, she watched as the last person she wanted to see jogged towards her, his face red and sweaty. Fujinuma came to a stop in front of her, pressing his hands to his knees as he caught his breath, rubbing his nose on his sleeve.

“S-sorry,” he huffed, stumbling back to his full height with an awkward smile. “I thought I’d lost you!”

I wish you had, she thought bitterly. Instead, she stared off to the side, eyes narrowed. “Are you an idiot?”

“Is that how you say hi to someone?” he asked, before immediately clamping his mouth shut, a mortified look on his face. Definitely, then.

“What do you want?” she mumbled.

“I, uh.” Fujinuma shifted his weight from side to side, his fingers flexing anxiously at his sides. Now he was the one who wasn’t looking at her, his eyes darting everywhere but forward, his shoulders tight. If Kayo didn’t know better, she’d say he looked scared, which was dumb. “I… wanted to know if y-you—w-wanted to be… f-friends?”

Kayo blinked at him, staring. “Friends.”

“Y-yeah,” he muttered, shoving his fretting hands into his pockets, staring down at his feet. “I mean, we sit next to each other, a-and we go home the same way, so…”

Liar. They’ve been sitting next to each other for months—it made no sense that Fujinuma would suddenly want to be friends now. Not after what he had just seen. Whatever this was, she didn’t like it, her eyes snapping into a glare. “Where were you going last night?”

He looked actually surprised, taking a small step back. “Huh?”

“Last night,” she repeated, her hands curling into fists. “You had your pyjamas on, but you had a bag. Where were you going?”

“T-that’s…” He swallowed thickly, his shoulders hunching closer, like a turtle trying to hide in its shell. “I…”

Kayo watched him for a few seconds, a cold breeze rustling through their clothes. When it became clear he wasn’t going to answer, Kayo gripped at her backpack, adjusting the weight to stay off the worst of the bruises. “I understand, a little bit,” she admitted. “We’re both fakes. And we both have things we don’t wanna talk about.”

Fujinuma’s face fell. It wasn’t just sad—there was something weird and helpless there, like something that had been kicked one too many times. Kayo would know.

Without another word, she turned to the stairs and started to walk away. Fujinuma didn’t stop her.

But that night, hidden under her blankets, she pulled out his stars, and watched them glow.

 

 

Maybe it was naïve, but Kayo had hoped that would be the end of it. The next day, Fujinuma didn’t even look up when she sat down—he just kept drawing, his pencil furiously scratching against the paper. That was what she liked about him: they didn’t talk, didn’t ask questions, didn’t bother each other. In that way, she supposed Fujinuma was probably her favourite classmate.

But it didn’t make them friends. She was sure of that.

He didn’t follow her after last bell, which was a relief. It meant Kayo was free to wander around the town, resolutely going anywhere but home. But as the sun set and the sky turned dark, her feet eventually carried her back to the same place they always did. The park was always empty at this hour, and the lamppost meant it never got too dark, making it as good a place as any to wait out the evening.

Except this time, it wasn’t empty. Kayo scowled from the sidewalk, and Fujinuma gave a small wave from his spot on the bench, that same awkward smile stamped on his face.

Kayo considered just turning around and walking away, but that felt like losing, somehow. So she bit down her frustration and began to shuffle across the park, fresh snow crunching underneath her boots. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” he said, reaching into his bag. He came out with two little cans. “Want one?” he asked, holding it out to her. The words Hot Cocoa! were printed on the side. “It might not be very hot, though.”

“Whatever.” The metal was still warm, and she cupped both hands around it, feeling the heat melt into her fingers. Reluctantly, she sat down, leaving ample room between them as she cracked the can open. The smell of rich, creamy chocolate wafted into her nose, and she took a tentative sip.

Next to her, Fujinuma did the same, his legs kicking off the bench. “I was thinking about what you said yesterday,” he said, staring off into the snow. “About being a fake.”

“So?” she mumbled, her lips pressed to the rim.

“I think you’re right,” he admitted, looking down at his own drink. “I’m ‘performing,’ I guess.” He reached up and scratched at the side of his nose, thinking. “Sometimes it just feels like… something is missing. Like there’s a big hole in my chest where something used to be, and it just makes me sad.” His face softened into a cold smile as he swirled the cocoa around, the drink sloshing in the can. “So I just try to pretend it’s not there. It makes it easier, you know?”

Kayo stared at him, and felt something warm wash across her skin. “Yeah,” she agreed. “When I’m performing, it feels like it might become real, somewhere down the line.” She frowned then, tilting her head. “Why are you telling me this?”

Satoru blinked, surprised, giving a little shrug. “I decided to stop lying to you, I guess.”

“Oh.” She dropped her eyes again, before looking out across the park. “Thanks.”

Silence fell, heavy like the world after a snowstorm, and Kayo’s hand wandered to her coat pocket. Before she had the chance to regret it, she held her hand out to him, the packet of stars sitting on her palm. “Here,” she mumbled, “you… dropped these. Before.”

Satoru’s eyes widened, before his face split into a beaming smile. “I thought I’d lost them!” he exclaimed, holding them tight with both hands. For a second, he just stared down at the stars, relief causing his shoulders to sag. “Thank you, Hinazuki. I really thought they were gone.”

“Don’t mention it,” she muttered. Especially when she almost didn’t return them to start with. Just thinking about it and staring into Satoru’s stupid happy face made her stomach curl with guilt. “What are they for, anyway?”

Satoru froze, a bit like a deer in the headlights. “Do you want to see?”

Kayo leaned away from him, suspicious. “See… what?”

“Where I was going that night.”

She stared at him. “Are you an idiot?”

“Mm,” he said, nodding. “I think so.”

Kayo sighed, looking away. She could—should—say no. But the only other place to go right now was home, and she had asked him, so…

“Fine,” she muttered. “Show me.”

They left the warmth of lamplight and cocoa behind, two thieves sneaking back into the cover of night. Fujinuma led her through the town’s forgotten maze of back-alleys, ducking through holes in fences and cutting through backyards. Only after they left the houses behind did he finally relax, throwing an awkward smile over his shoulder. “Almost there.”

Kayo followed him through the trees. “Where are we going?”

“My hideout,” he said, pointing ahead. Kayo followed his finger, her feet slowing to a stop.

It was a school bus. Not a particularly new or nice one—it looked like it hadn’t been used in a while; the wheels were buried in snow drifts, and the paint was fading, but otherwise the whole thing was in pretty good shape. Satoru scratched at his cheek, suddenly embarrassed. “I think it used to belong to Izumi Elementary’s hockey team, but they got a new one, so… I’ve kind of been using it.”

“This is your hideout,” she said, disbelieving. She never even knew this was here.

“Yeah.” He walked over to the door, kicking the fresh snow out of the way. Gripping the edge of the door, he pulled it aside with a hollow thunk, shaking out his cold hands. “Uhm, it’s even better inside. If—if you want.”

She didn’t come all this way just to stand outside. Balling her fists, Kayo stepped past him, her boots echoing against the metal steps. She could hear Satoru coming after her, grunting as he pushed the door closed behind him. “It’s a bit hard to see in the dark,” he explained, shimmying past her. “Just let me—”

From the corner of the room, a lantern began to glow, and Kayo forgot how to breathe.

The place was less of a hideout, and more like a home: pillows and blankets had been thrown over the bus seats, and there was even a thin rug on the floor, a buffer between their feet and the cold. She could spy a heater in the corner, strategically located under the emergency vent in the ceiling. Cardboard had been taped over the windows, but the rest of the walls were covered in tear-away posters from anime magazines, with dozens of Satoru’s own drawings thrown in here and there.

At one point, he must have found a small bookcase in the garbage, because there it was: a bit worse for wear, but standing sturdy up against the wall. Random manga volumes had been tossed onto its shelves, alongside a single action figure, the red figure pointing triumphantly to the sky.

Fujinuma had clearly put effort into this place, and she suddenly felt like an intruder, a dirty piece in a pristine picture. “This is where you were going?”

“Mhm,” Fujinuma said, hopping onto one of the seats. He looked up at the ceiling. “I was thinking I could put the stars up there, but now that I look at it, I don’t think I can reach…”

Kayo didn’t answer, instead looking all around, letting herself take it all in. There was even a snack pile, stacked on top of a crate. “How often do you come here?”

“Most days,” Fujinuma admitted, kicking his feet. “My mom isn’t usually home until suppertime…”

And there’s no one else, Kayo guessed. “It’s pretty cool.”

Satoru’s eyes and cheeks both lit up. “You think so?”

“Mm.” She ran her hand along the battered seats. “Thanks. For showing me.”

“Of course!” he said, grinning. “Now, it can be your hideout too!”

Her eyes widened, and she turned to face him. “Mine?”

“I-if you want,” Satoru added, suddenly awkward again. Kayo was starting to realize that Fujinuma was both far too outgoing and far too shy, like a frightened puppy that couldn’t help but want to play. “I mean, it’s… better than just wandering around, right?”

Kayo frowned. “You barely know me.”

“That’s what the hideout is for,” he threw back. “It’ll be, like, our secret spot.”

“Don’t you think I’ll ruin it?”

He looked surprised, and Kayo realized that the thought hadn’t even occurred to him. “No. Why would you?”

Kayo just shrugged, ducking her face into her scarf. “I dunno.”

“Besides,” he said, pulling out the stars again. “You can help me put these up. It’ll be easier with two people, don’t you think?”

It all came back, then—all those little ‘what if’s that had been piling up in her chest ever since she’d found Satoru’s stars in the snow. All the dreams of comforting ceilings that she’d shelved a long time ago. Something in her chest melted and fell loose, and Kayo felt her throat twist closed. A small sniffle popped out of her nose. But all she could manage to mumble was a choked-up: “Okay.”

Satoru’s hand reached forward, giving hers a squeeze.

Years from now, when she looks back on this moment, Hinazuki Kayo will realize she had been saved.

 

 

They fell into a routine. They never really spoke at school, despite sitting next to each other—something about it seemed to make Satoru anxious, like he was about to be scolded for something, so Kayo dropped it. Besides, if they got all chummy now, people might ask questions, and that was the last thing either of them wanted.

The bell rang, and they went their separate ways—only to meet back up at the hideout, not even ten minutes later. And Kayo found it oddly fun, like they were playing a spy game, where no one could know they were friends. It felt like they had something secret—something special, that only good friends could do. It was… nice.

Besides, Satoru usually showed up with snacks, which was a good bonus.

They put up the stars, like Satoru said they would. When Kayo sat on his shoulders, she could reach the ceiling, so that’s how they did it. Satoru insisted on moving this way and that until Kayo had picked the perfect place for each and every one. When they finished, they congratulated themselves with cup ramen, courtesy of the kettle Satoru had set down on the heater.

“I think they look good,” Satoru concluded, slurping at his noodles. “You did great, Hinazuki.”

“I didn’t really do anything,” she said, smiling all the same. “But thanks.”

“If you want to add more stuff, you can,” he offered. “It’s your place too, you know.”

Kayo hid her face by sipping at the broth, feeling a warmth in her gut that had nothing to do with the soup. “It’s okay,” she said. “I don’t really have anything.”

The stars were all she had really wanted. Besides, she liked how much of Satoru there was here. Anything she brought would just remind her of home, which was the last place she wanted to be. The hideout felt like another world—a softer, nicer one, where kids got to dream of superheroes and fun-filled adventures. Her things would just ruin it.

When Satoru wasn’t there—pulled away by classroom duty or what have you—Kayo entertained herself with his drawings. She’d never been to a museum, but she imagined she was in one then, stopping in front of each one. Most of them were relatively simple: a doodle of a cat on the side of the road, something that looked vaguely anime, a monster with a gakuran.

But only one really caught her eye. It must have been drawn by a much younger Satoru: the whole thing was hastily scribbled on with crayon, and the paper was peeling at the edges. Curious, Kayo leaned closer. One of the figures, the smaller one, was Satoru himself, if the messy ‘Me!’ written underneath was any indication. But the taller one was coloured a stark red, and instead of a smiley face, there was a harsh line where its mouth should be.

Something was written underneath that one, too—but it was hard to read. Kayo squinted, leaning in.

“What are you looking at?”

Kayo yelped. Satoru was standing in the entrance, a pack of gummies in hand. He didn’t look angry—just curious—and Kayo knew that, but…

Her shoulders curled, her pulse jumping inside her clenched fists. “It’s… it’s nothing.”

Satoru ignored her. He moved closer, peeking past her—before his face burst into mortified pink. “Oh.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay,” Satoru assured her, rubbing at his neck with his free hand. “I just… forgot that one was here, is all.”

Kayo wrung her fingers, unconvinced—but if Satoru said so, then… it was probably fine. She turned back to the picture. “Is that you and your Dad?” she guessed.

“No,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “My Dad isn’t really… around.”

Oh, that made sense. “Me neither,” she said, turning to him. “Who is it, then?”

His blush thickened to red. “It’s dumb.”

“I won’t laugh.”

Satoru chewed on his lip, and Kayo gave him the time to mull it over, pretending to inspect a loose thread on her sleeve. After a few seconds he took a long gulp of air, like he was trying to inflate his courage, before letting it all out in a big puff. “It’s my imaginary friend,” he blurted out, before adding, quieter: “Or, was, I guess.”

Kayo blinked at him. “Oh.”

“I didn’t have any friends back then, either,” he explained, mumbling through the burning on his cheeks. “My Dad was already gone, and my Mom was working all the time, so… I just made someone up to play with.”

Huh. Kayo turned back to the picture, staring at it in a new light. She supposed that made sense—but at the same time, only made her more confused. If Satoru had been that lonely—if he still was that lonely, then…

“Hey, Fujinuma.” She turned to look at him. “Why don’t you have any friends?”

“That’s a little harsh, don’t you think?” he grumbled.

“You don’t even try to talk to anyone in class. You don’t have any clubs after school. Whenever there’s a group project, you look like you’re going to be sick. If you want to make friends, why don’t you just do it?”

He curled in on himself, biting back. “It’s not that easy—”

“You said you wouldn’t lie.”

Satoru’s eyes widened like he’d been slapped. His eyes slid away from her—and Kayo felt a little guilty too. Satoru had shared so much with her already, and maybe she shouldn’t have pushed him so hard, but—he’d promised. So she stood firm, until Satoru gave a tired sigh, slumping into a sit on the floor. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Hinazuki.”

Kayo watched him for a second, before sitting down as well, leaning back against one of the crates. “It’s fine.”

He brought his knees close to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. He looked so small. “It’s not like I don’t want to,” he admitted. “But whenever I think about it… I get this really scary feeling. Like something really, really bad is going to happen if I try.” His voice sounded tight, and Satoru pressed his forehead against his knees. “I know it sounds dumb.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Kayo knew that feeling: she’d felt it that night when Satoru found her in the storeroom, after all. Whenever she thinks of telling someone about her Mom… it wasn’t that she was scared of what her Mom would do—she was just scared, plain and simple. In a moment of panic, she raked her eyes over Satoru, searching for the bruises she’d only ever found on her own skin.

“Why do you think you’re scared?” she asked. Satoru didn’t look up, and just shrugged.

Kayo made a short hum, and looked back up at the picture of Satoru and his grim-looking imaginary friend. The entire time since then, he had been too scared to reach out—even though he’d wanted to. As if the second he did, some big, scary, evil thing was going to come and get him. It was… weird to imagine that the boy that had jumped into her life had always been so afraid.

Wait. “Fujinuma?”

He raised his head. “Yeah?”

“Why did you ask me to be friends?”

He stared at her, straightening up a little, even as he squeezed his legs tighter. “I was scared to,” he admitted, his voice quiet. He gave a wobbly attempt at a smile. “But I realized that… something bad already was happening, you know?”

Kayo felt the heat creep up from her neck, bursting on her face like fireworks. “Are you an idiot?”

Satoru laughed then, the sound bright like a bell. “Yeah, I think I am!”

Good, Kayo thought, smiling. She liked it that way.

 

 

The weather lately had turned from bad to worse. Satoru and Kayo stood inside by the school doors, watching as sheets of snow and sleet pelted against the glass, the winds wailing outside. Most kids had been picked up by a parent in a car—but Satoru nor Kayo had that particular luxury.

“I don’t think going to the hideout is a good idea,” Satoru whispered, looking around to make sure there was no one to overhear. “When it snows a lot, it blocks the door.”

Kayo had guessed as much, but her heart still fell. Ever since they’d “become friends,” Kayo had gone with him to the hideout every day after school—and even on the weekends sometimes, though Satoru didn’t need to know about that. It felt safer than the storeroom, and the heater seemed to melt the pain, even if the bruises stayed.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

Satoru frowned, tilting his head to one side. “Normally, I’d go home, but… that’s kind of far. Oh!” His eyes lit up, but the sparkles faded as soon as they had come, his smile weak and wobbling. “H-have you ever been to the Children’s Centre?”

Kayo reached over and gave Satoru’s hand a squeeze. It seemed to help, when that weird fear of his reared its head. “I don’t… think so?”

“Okay,” he said, nodding to himself. “Do you think you can run?”

They managed: fingers tangled together, heaving each other forward as they skidded in the snow and ice. It was messy and awkward and cold, but Satoru was laughing every time they went down, and Kayo had to stifle her own giggles in her scarf. By the time they burst into the museum, they were both battered and frozen, but in the fun way—a concept that Kayo still didn’t quite understand, staring down at her skinned knees. But she liked it.

Satoru’s hair looked more white than black, at least until he scrubbed his nails through it. “Are you okay, Hinazuki?”

Her lungs were burning. “Yeah.”

She patted the snow off her coat, and Satoru slid out of his entirely, tying his wet sleeves around his shoulders like a cape. “Over here,” he said, jogging up to the big bear statue in the centre of the room. He motioned towards it with a heroic flourish. “This is my friend!”

Kayo felt a small pang in her heart. So far, Satoru’s only friends were either imaginary, statues, or—well, her. It wasn’t the best list. “Idiot.”

They wandered through the empty halls, Satoru pointing out all the little things he loved along the way. It wasn’t exactly like the hideout, but it wasn’t too different either: Kayo still felt like they were the only two people in the world, like shipwrecked survivors on a deserted island of their own making. Every so often, their sleeves would brush, and all Kayo wanted was to lean into the feeling.

Satoru was rushing ahead—saying something about animals and foxes—when Kayo stopped. He’d blown past the thick, orange doors, but she took her time, reading the sign standing to the side. She’d never been inside a planetarium before, and her eyes fell to the time sheet. One of the shows was coming up soon.

“Hey, Fujinuma?”

Guessing by the way he whirled around, he didn’t realize she wasn’t behind him until he spied her from the opposite end of the hall. He came back at a light jog, his jacket flapping loudly behind him. “What is it?”

She pointed at the sign. Satoru quietly recited the katakana as he read it through. “Do you want to go?”

Kayo shrugged, and Satoru smiled. “Okay,” he said.

The doors were heavier than they looked. Satoru pulled until it was a little open, and then Kayo worked at pushing, at least until Satoru had scurried inside behind her. Only then did she let it go, the door swinging shut with a soft hiss and a heavy click, leaving them both panting inside.

“Maybe we weren’t supposed to do that without an adult,” Satoru said, wiping the sweat from his brow.

“Maybe,” Kayo agreed, but oh well. “Have you ever done this before?”

Satoru frowned, tilting his head back and thinking. “I don’t think so.”

Good. This entire time, Satoru has been the one showing her things—it was sweet, but it also made her feel like she was always a step behind. It was nice, to be the one showing him something for a change. “Where do you want to sit?”

It didn’t really matter, since they were the only ones there, so they wound up just picking a random spot. Somewhere in the distance, there was the whirl of a projector, the crackling of speakers from some corner of the room. A woman’s voice rippled out, and Satoru jumped, his hand leaping to Kayo’s own, gripping tight.

Kayo turned to ask what was wrong—but then the stars came out.

Two of them, at first—hanging alone in the deep, dark sky. Kayo entwined her fingers with Satoru’s, feeling his heartbeat against her palm. But then the Milky Way poured in: a river of soft light, wrapping them together, hundreds of stars and galaxies bursting above their heads. Kayo felt her breath stop as she watched the universe unravel in front of her eyes. It was big and beautiful and bright, and for the first time since she could remember, Kayo didn’t want to disappear. She was right where she wanted to be.

Smiling, she turned to Satoru, and found him crying.

He was still watching the stars, the little lights dancing in his eyes—but tears were cutting down his cheeks, his lips twisted like he was trying to keep it all in. His hand was shaking in hers, his shoulders skipping with every hiccup he tried to bury in his chest. When he realized Kayo was looking, he buried his face in the crook of his arm, scrubbing his face on his sleeve. “I-I’m sorry,” he choked out.

“It’s okay,” Kayo whispered, squeezing his hand.

“I—I don’t know why I’m—”

“It’s okay, Fujinuma. It’s fine.”

After a long moment, Satoru nodded, dropping his arm. But the tears didn’t stop—he just sat there, crying over something neither of them understood, wet sobs bursting out of his mouth. The planetarium continued to spin around them, and Kayo waited out the storm, until, one by one, the stars faded to black.

The last one went out with a whisper, and Satoru’s shaky breath in the dark.

“Is—is it over?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

Kayo looked over. Even in the dark, he looked terrible, his eyes red and face swollen from crying. He looked like he could start crying again any second, so Kayo leaned back in her seat, staring at her feet. “We can wait for the next one,” she offered. “If you want.”

Satoru sniffled, and rubbed at his face. “Okay.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Kayo watched him cry.

Kayo was hurting, and Satoru had found her. But someone had hurt Satoru too.

His grip on her hand weakened. Kayo held on harder.

Neither of them had to be alone in the dark.