Reigen Arataka is sweating.
He’s well aware that he’s got some kind of problem about sweating. The slightest whiff of physical exertion, nerves, or effort will make his hair start dripping almost instantaneously.
In this case, though, he’s justified. Everybody is sweating right now.
It’s the height of summer and no one has adjusted to the heat yet. Citizens of Spice City stagger around in a collective haze of sticky misery, nursing sugary cool drinks and fanning themselves with hands and newspapers.
Reigen has already sweated straight through his suit, and he hasn’t even made it to the office yet.
He shades his eyes with a hand and glares up at the sun that dares make him look unprofessional. It’s not a hygiene issue, it’s not like he can help how much he sweats. He slows to a stop at the crosswalk and presses the pedestrian signal button and settles in to wait. He can feel the heat radiating from where the sun touches his suit.
A dog pants next to its owner at the crosswalk. The woman holding the leash is jogging in place, eyes focused straight ahead. After a moment of hesitation, Reigen pets the dog behind the ears and pours a bit of water from his water bottle into a cupped hand for the dog to drink. The dog gives him a wary look for mere second before caving and lapping up the lukewarm water. Reigen grins sloppily and rubs the top of the dog’s head.
The signal beeps, and the owner darts forward, taking the dog trotting along with her. Reigen sighs, his eyes trailing after the dog, before getting a move on and stepping into the intersection.
A boy running across the hot sidewalk across the street catches his eye.
His clothes look too warm for the weather, and his hair sticks up in big chunky tufts all over his head and bounce with each step. He reminds Reigen of a archetypal Charles Dickens ragamuffin, just in how cute and scruffy he looks.
“ Kids ,” Reigen huffs. “It’s too hot to run.”
He drags himself to work, and the light feeling from petting a dog and waxing imaginative about some random child on the street wears off.
It’s going to be a long day.
He thinks he sees the same boy again when he’s on the walk home, though he can’t be sure. The child in question is walking slowly, feet dragging in exhaustion. Reigen stares across the street in the special kind of nosy curiosity unique to people watching.
The boys eyes are glued to his scuffed up sneakers, and his arms are locked around his torso.
Reigen feels concern mingle with his idle curiosity, but it’s definitely not enough to move him to act. Maybe if he weren’t tall. And a man. If he were the kid, he would feel uncomfortable with someone like him approaching him on the street.
The boy sticks in Reigen’s mind all the way home, through dinner, and to sleep. He kind of wishes he’d said something, at least checked to make sure the kid was okay. After all, there wasn’t an adult around, and the kid couldn’t have been older than ten.
I’m overthinking this, Reigen told himself firmly. He was probably just tired from running around all day and was headed home.
He fell asleep, feeling vaguely uneasy.
Now Reigen looks for the boy every morning when he walks to work. He isn’t sure why he does, and chalks it up to nosiness. He wonders if the kid lives or goes to school nearby. Maybe he was visiting a relative over the weekend and lives in another city entirely.
Reigen has made a game out of it, checking the face of every kid he sees on the street, and speculating about him.
It’s not until a week or two later that Reigen sees him again. He’s carrying a small bag of dog treats, the kind that are made to look like pieces of bacon. Alone, like both times before.
Reigen doesn’t even really think about it, he takes the crosswalk to the other side of the street instead of towards work. He has time.
The kid is walking along at a normal pace, eyes fixed on the middle distance. His hair is even messier than it was before, a huge rat’s nest. He must be the type to hate brushing his hair. Sensitive scalp.
Reigen awkwardly walks up behind the kid, not sure how to broach the subject. You need anything? Everything alright? Can I get your life story?
Okay, this is a bad idea. What is he doing ?
“Can you hold this, please?”
The boy has turned around, and is holding out his dog treats.
Reigen blinks. So the kid is offering the creepy adult treats. What a reversal.
Reigen takes the bag, and the plastic crinkles as it changes hands.
“Thank you.” The boy crouches to re-tie his worn shoes, small round face pinched in concentration.
“No problem,” Reigen says, recovering. “What’s your name, kid?”
“It’s Shigeo, sir.” he straightens and holds his hand out for his treats. Reigen passes them back, trying not to be let down by the anticlimax.
“Who’s the treats for?” he asks.
“For Ricchan,” Shigeo says. “It’s the best I can get for him. I feel bad… They taste really bad.”
Reigen laughs. He knows he thought about eating that stuff plenty of times as a kid.
“It’s alright. I’m sure he’ll love it,” Reigen says, trying to be comforting.
Shigeo looks up at him with wide eyes. “You think so?”
“Yeah. It’ll be great.”
“Oh….” Shigeo stares blankly down at the treats, processing this. “I’ve just been worried for him… it’s so hot, he’s been sick and I wanted to try to make him feel better but…” he breaks off before starting again. “Mom said I needed to take care of him…”
Reigen thinks he’s gotten in too deep. But then, he guesses he brought this on himself. He knows this type of mother, she probably terrified this kid way more than necessary into being a responsible pet owner.
“Look,” Reigen says, crouching. “You can’t help if your dog is sick, alright? Most people don’t even bother to get their dogs treats like this. Just make sure he has water and food and he’ll be fine.” An empty promise, but that’s how you deal with kids this young, right?
Shigeo’s face got more and more confused the longer Reigen went on. Reigen wondered if he was being unclear.
“What, did I confuse you?”
“Yeah… I mean, I don’t think I have a dog,” Shigeo said.
Now Reigen frowned.
“Oh, these are for my little brother,” Shigeo says helpfully.
Reigen crashes to his ass ungracefully, and scrabbles backwards. He gives the kid a wide-eyed look of shock. “Your….brother?”
Shigeo nods, looking confused.
“You’re going to feed your little brother… dog treats.”
“It’s all I could find,” Shigeo says mournfully. “Is it not okay after all?”
Reigen’s mind is whirring into gear, the morning fogginess completely gone now.
He puts into context the unwashed hair, the ratty clothes, and the general lack of a nearby responsible adult. Could it be abusive parents? Neglectful foster home?
Maybe they had no home at all?
It was barely hot yet, the sun was only recently beginning to warm the pavement. And here Reigen is, sitting with his palms braced against the pavement, staring at this kid who wanted to feed his brother dog treats.
“How about…” Reigen says slowly, glancing at his watch, “you take me to him. Is that okay?”
He was already a few minutes late for work. But honestly, fuck that. This was more important anyway.
Shigeo suddenly looks distrustful. “I don’t know. Ricchan says that if grownups see where we live, they’ll separate us.”
“I promise I won’t,” Reigen says, looking back up. “I just want to meet your brother. Uhh…”
All the phrases coming to mind were unbearably creepy. I just want to be friends. Please? I’ll buy you some food. It’ll be our little secret.
Reigen’s whole body shuddered. He needed to get this kid off the street and somewhere safe, whatever that meant. He may not be a criminal, but the next person who noticed Shigeo might be.
Shigeo gave him a long look. “Fine. But if you break your promise…” He didn’t say anything, but his eyes flashed with a stoniness that Reigen wasn’t prepared for.
“I promise,” Reigen repeats numbly, and gets to his feet. “Lead the way, Shigeo.”
Shigeo gives Reigen one last long look, and then starts walking. Reigen walks by his side and shoves his hands in his pockets.
They don’t go far before they reach [some truly tragic location where two homeless kids might hole up].
Shigeo crawls under the [something], and gestured for Reigen to follow.
Reigen looks down at his cheap suit, shrugged, and then got on hands and knees to follow.
The first thing that he notices was that the air down here is stale and warm. The second and much more lasting realization is that it smells terrible. Like, truly horrible, and it’s only made worse by the heat and the lack of air flow.
Shigeo keeps crawling easily, like it’s natural. Reigen is having trouble not hitting his head.
They come to a stop where there’s a heap of blankets and some piles of possessions strewn about. There’s a little bit of light coming from above.
“Ritsu, wake up, please,” Shigeo says, reaching into the blankets to shake what is presumably a shoulder. Reigen watches, his stomach twisting. This is all so bad, so so bad, and he doesn’t know how he could help aside from doing the obvious thing and turning these kids in to the authorities, which he already promised he wouldn’t do.
Shigeo sighs. “He’s asleep,” he explains helpfully, and puts the bag of dog treats to the side. He shifts so that he’s sitting crosslegged and comfortable on the ground. Reigen doubts he has that kind of flexibility anymore.
“Sorry, sir,” Shigeo says. “He hasn’t been waking up a lot lately.”
Reigen swallows dryly. “Can I… Can I take a look at him?”
“Are you a doctor?” Shigeo asks.
“I’m… I took a first aid course once,” Reigen says with as much confidence as possible. It comes out pretty hollow sounding, but Shigeo seems satisfied with this and scoots to the side to grant Reigen access.
Reigen carefully brushes aside the blankets. The first thing he sees is a bare shoulder, and excavates from there.
His stomach turns. This kid is way too thin. And worse, he’s not moving at all. He’s grey and ashy and very very still.
His brain shuts down and goes off the rails simultaneously.
He can see the future unfolding in a domino pattern ahead, checking and finding this kid is dead, having to deal with having touched a dead child, that’s why it smells so bad, that’s why it smells so bad , having to somehow relay this information to his brother, having to deal with the authorities, and how did it all come to this when he was peacefully walking to work this morning just an hour ago.
It’s silent and sunny and Reigen is having an adrenaline rush in [place] sitting completely still, staring at this kid.
Reigen takes a deep breath, and forces himself to touch, and feels for a pulse on the child’s arm.
There’s a weak, thready pulse there. Reigen lets out a relieved, messy gush of air. Moreover, the arm is warm.
“How long have you two been staying here?” Reigen asks as adult-like as he can, determined to recover from his mini panic attack.
“I’m not sure…” Shigeo says. “It’s been a while.”
Not helpful , Reigen thinks, as he brushes back the rest of the blankets off -- Ritsu, right, Ritsu. “How long--”
He breaks off with a sharp inhale.
He has to peel away the last blanket layer because it’s stuck to Ritsu’s skin, or more accurately, the open wound that stretches down his chest to his stomach. It looks horrible. There’s too many colors and all of it is gooey and it’s the most horrible and disgusting thing Reigen has ever seen and he’s never been the squeamish type but this is making him feel sick.
What’s worse, putting the dirty blanket back down or leaving the wound open to the thick, foul air?
“How long what?” Shigeo asks.
“How did this happen?” Reigen asks breathlessly, feeling in his pocket for his phone. He has to call 119. He has to. He can’t handle this.
“Uh…” Shigeo says nervously. “Ritsu said I’m not allowed to tell. We could get in trouble.”
“I won’t get you in trouble, I promise,” Reigen says. He’s being quite free with his promises today.
“We were finding…” Shigeo sighs. “We were stealing some food, and someone caught us. And he did that to Ritsu, he… he hit him, really hard, with a….” he trailed off, swallowing.
“And then?” Reigen asked as gently as possible, his fingers hesitating over his dialpad.
“He hit me too. And I don’t really remember what happened after that,” Shigeo explains. “But then we were somewhere else. And… I’m not as good at all this stuff as Ritsu is. I’m not smart like him,” Shigeo says mournfully. “He would be able to find something much better than this.” He kicked his bag of treats. “I’m a bad big brother.”
The call goes through. “119, what is the nature of your emergency?”
Reigen, shaky and sweating, takes a deep breath.
At the hospital, Reigen holds Shigeo’s hand at Ritsu’s bedside. The boy might never reach full strength again, but he would live.
“You’re not a bad big brother,” Reigen says. The dried sweat caking his clothes make him feel like he’s wearing stiff sackcloth. The stark cold of the hospital did nothing to stop his sweating until Ritsu came out of surgery a couple hours ago.
Shigeo takes another nibble on the cookie that Reigen got from the hallway vending machine. “I am. Ritsu and I are going to be sent away.”
Reigen hesitates, and then lightly pats the top of Shigeo’s head.
The nurses bustle around the other patients in the room, and the white noise fills the space enough for Reigen to think.
He hates what he’s thinking. But what the hell, following his intuitions on a whim have served him pretty well before.
“I’m going to have to look into adoption paperwork.”
“Oh. Why? Are you adopting someone?” Shigeo gives him a confused look.
“Yeah,” Reigen says with a shaky grin. “I mean. If you want.”
“Why are you asking me?”
“I… Would you like me to try to adopt you and your brother, Shigeo?”
Shigeo processed this for a long moment, and solemnly met Reigen’s eyes. “Is it okay if I like to drink a lot of milk? Milk is expensive…”
Reigen wants to laugh even though, oh god, that’s so sad. “Yeah kiddo.” He ruffles Shigeo’s hair, and it actually feels kinda natural. “You can drink all the milk you want.”