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March 18


It's raining on the day that Nanako gets into the car with her dad, and rides with him down to the train station to pick up their house guest for the year. She'd forgotten her umbrella, too, and the rain is hard enough to make her shiver.

"I'm sorry, Nanako," he says, which is how he starts most of the things he says to her these days. "I didn't think it would be raining so hard."

"It's okay, Dad," Nanako says, which is how she always answers her apologies. It's always okay, because he's always so busy and worried that she doesn't want to make things worse for him. 

They stop at a stop sign, and he turns for a second to look at her, his eyebrows raised. "Nanako," he says.  "Are you sure? You sound--"

"I was just thinking," she says, all in a sudden rush. "He's really coming to stay with us for a whole year?"

"You know he is," her dad says, as he starts driving forward again. 

Nanako does know this. They'd spent a week getting the guest bedroom cleaned out and dusted (Nanako had done most of the dusting, because her dad had been too busy to help, but he'd moved all the heavy furniture, and taken out the junk they haven't touched in years). She knows that they wouldn't have bothered to do that unless their house guest was going to be there for a good long time.

She'd kind of hoped it wasn't too late to change their minds, though. She's kind of nervous about having a stranger in the room next door for a whole entire year.

"This is going to be good for you, you know," her dad says. "It'll be good for you to have someone else around the house."

Nanako thinks that this is probably the only reason he'd agreed to this in the first place, which makes her feel guilty. Has she been complaining too much? Asking for him to come home early from work too often? Is it her fault that there's going to be a stranger in the house, now?

"Are you sure he has some come home with us?" she asks.

Her dad smiles. Nanako does not. She's never met him before, and she's nervous that he's going to be like the boys at Kindergarten last year, who tease her because she doesn't have a mom to come walk her home anymore, because she has bento boxes from the store because her dad doesn't know how to cook. 

"It's only for a year," he tells her, and pulls the car into the train station parking lot. "Who knows? Maybe you'll even like him."

Nanako doesn't think she'll like sharing a house with an older boy who is also a stranger. What if she's mean? Or thinks she's just a dumb kid?

What if her dad likes him better than her? It's not like he spends that much time with her the way things are now, this might make things even worse.

But he keeps telling her things like that. Just give him a chance, try and be friends with him, maybe you'll like him more than you think...

She hops out of the car, sticking close behind her dad, head ducked low both out of shyness and because the rain is still coming down. It's even harder now than when they'd left the house, and Nanako really wishes she'd brought an umbrella.

"Come on, Nanako," her dad says, and she she dutifully follows him toward the small station. "We're running a little bit late, I'm sure he's waiting for us already."

They speed up a little, and soon the small, covered overhang next to the tracks comes into sight. Nanako peeks out from behind her dad and sees their guest, a huddled lump sitting on top of a suitcase almost as big as he is. He looks up when he hears their footsteps coming close, and his dark hair falls in front of his face. 

"Akira, isn't it?" Nanako's dad says, when they come close.

The boy--who Nanako knows from being told is five years older than her, but doesn't quite look like he's eleven--nods. He stands up, looking nervous, and that actually makes Nanako relax a little bit. After all, if he's that nervous, then they have something in common, right? "Yes, sir," he says.

"No need for that," Nanako's dad says with a little chuckle. "We're going to all be living together for the next year, right? I'm Ryotaro Dojima, this is my daughter Nanako." He reaches back to put his hands on Nanako's shoulders, and gently steers her out to stand in front of him. 

"Hello," Nanako says, barely whispering the word.

"Hello," he says, trying to smile. Then he looks back up at her dad. "What... should I call you, then?"

"Ah--" He obviously hasn't thought this through. "Dojima is fine, I guess."

Akira nods, and says, "Thank you very much for letting me stay with you this year."

"Well..." he waves the comment away, trying to seem casual. "Everything's all set up for you. Let's just get your things thrown in the back of the car."

He does most of the heavy lifting himself, with Akira trying to help and then being sent back to stand under the station awning with Nanako.

They look at each other for a second, and then away again. Akira seems as awkward about all this as Nanako, which for a second time makes her feel better about the whole thing. She also feels like it's probably a little bit her job to make him feel better. He is going to be their guest for the year, after all.

"Why did you want to come here?" she asks.

"I..." He doesn't meet her gaze. "I heard about the school program, and... it seemed like a good idea."

"Dad says no one else signed up," Nanako tells him. "And everyone at school says there's no one that wants to come to Inaba." She's never been more than half an hour away from Inaba herself, so she doesn't know what's so great about the rest of the world that everyone else wants to stay away. But apparently they do, which is why Inaba's government and a few other small towns in the area had set up a kind of scholarship and exchange program, where students could sign up to come spend a year in a small town, to learn about it and hopefully get younger people moving into town instead of out.

A lot of the adults seem to think this is a doomed idea. Since Akira is the only person that Nanako has heard of that actually signed up, she thinks they're probably right. It makes her wonder why Akira had wanted to come.

Akira flushes and stumbles over an answer, but doesn't actually manage to get a real answer out. It's like it's a secret, for some reason.

When he has half mumbled something that's too quiet for Nanako to hear, he changes the subject. "What about you?" he asks. "Or your dad, I guess. Why did he volunteer to host me?"

Nanako has to stop and think about this, and it distracts her for the moment from wondering why Akira had come. She doesn't know exactly why her dad, who usually doesn't usually make friends easily and hasn't talked to almost anyone since her mom died, had suddenly decided to just let someone new in. She tries to guess anyway.

"Well," she says. "He keeps telling me that he hopes we can be friends. He..." She scuffs her shoe against the curb. "I think... he thinks I'm lonely."

"Are you lonely?" Akira asks.

"Sometimes," Nanako admits. "My mom died. It's really hard to not have a mom."

Akira gives a quick little intake of breath, but before he can say anything at all, Nanako's dad comes back, without Akira's suitcase.

"Is that it?" he asks. "You don't have any other stuff?"

"That's it," Akira says.

"Are your parents sending the rest of it later, then?" 

Akira hesitates, and the silence between the group stretches out so awkwardly that even though Nanako doesn't understand it, she feels it. "Can we go home now, Dad?" she asks.

"Yes," he says, snapping out of the awkward way he'd been studying Akira. "Come on. It's not a long drive."


March 18


The tiny town of Inaba is pretty much exactly the way Akira had pictured it since the first time he saw the description on the application website. Dojima had said it wouldn't be a long drive back to the house, but from what Akira sees of the town as it flashes past the car window, it doesn't feel like it would take very long to drive anywhere at all. A lot of the shops they pass are closed, and plenty of houses are dark and empty. When they finally get to the neighborhood where it turns out the Dojima house is, Akira is relieved to find out that it's not as half empty and sad as some other parts of Inaba that they'd driven through. There are no vacant houses, like some of the other areas they'd driven through on the way here. There are a few middle aged women on the far end of the street chatting over a garden plot, and a small group of kids playing what looks like tag in one of the yards.

"This is it," Dojima says, pulling the car into the driveway by an unremarkable looking house in the middle of the street. "Home sweet home."

"Home sweet home," Akira echoes, a little more quietly. Dojima shoots a look in his direction, and Akira very quickly straightens up and wipes the glum expression off his face. He's been here for less than half an hour--the last thing he wants is to start making his new host suspicious already.

He follows Dojima into the house (this time hauling his own suitcase--it's not that heavy, and he's brought it this far already, he can manage a little farther), and up a short flight of stairs to a small landing, with three doors leading off it.

"This one's Nanako's room," Dojima says, rapping a knuckle against the door to the left. "Bathroom's straight ahead, and you're on the right." He squeezes past Akira to open the door on the right, letting him see a glimpse of a small room holding a futon, a couch, a low table and a small TV. "My room's right underneath you on the ground floor. If you start making trouble up here, I will hear it."

"I'm not planning to make trouble," Akira assures him quickly. He tries not to look guilty as he says it. He hasn't actually done anything wrong. Or at least... he hasn't done anything worse than lying. Not really wrong, just... a little bit of lying, that's all.

Dojima doesn't seem to pick up on any of that, so apparently Akira is doing a pretty good job of keeping what he's thinking off his face. He nods, and says. "Then this year should go pretty smoothly." He steps back, and gestures Akira toward the room. "You can rest or get unpacked or whatever you need to do. I have to head back to work for a while--"

"Dad!" Nanako whines. "Do you have to?"

"Just for a while," he says, and by the way he doesn't quite look at her, Akira thinks this must be an argument they've had plenty of times before. "I'll be back before dinner, and you'll have Akira here with you." He points at Akira.

Akira thinks about what Nanako had told him at the train station. He wonders if maybe Dojima had been more interested in getting a live in babysitter for Nanako than making her a friend.


"Just a few hours," Dojima says again, already heading down the stairs.


"I'll be back for dinner, Nanako!" he repeats, half shouting it over his shoulder.

Nanako stares down after him, looks up at Akira for a bare second, then runs into her room and closes the door behind her.

That leaves Akira alone on the landing, suitcase in one hand, trying not to listen to the soft sounds of crying coming out from behind the thin walls leading to Nanako's room. He considers knocking on Nanako's door and trying to say something to her, but then doesn't. He doesn't know her, and doesn't know what she'd actually want to hear. Instead, he goes into the room that will be his for the next year, and starts to unpack his single suitcase.

At first he's listening hard for any sound of movement from outside his room, waiting for Nanako to come out or Dojima to get back from work. Neither happens immediately, and soon enough Akira is distracted by the contents of his suitcase, and forgets to keep listening. Every item he pulls out is a memory, and Akira... right now, he doesn't have a lot of memories he particularly wants to revisit.

It all started six months ago, when his parents died.

They've always traveled a lot, for work, and when Akira was younger, before he started school, they'd usually taken him with them. After he got old enough for school, that had changed. Sometimes one would stay behind with him while the other went travelling, sometimes they'd uproot and take him with them to a new neighborhood and a new school. 

Then, last year, when work took them away somewhere up north, they'd put him into boarding school for the year. Akira had still been there when they died. 

He found out when he saw it on the news. Just a short segment about a car accident, a pileup that put several people in the hospital. He'd looked it up online, and seen his parents' name in a news story.

He kept expecting someone to tell him, officially. He kept waiting for someone to tell him what to do, and what's going to happen to him now--but no one ever had. When Akira thinks about it, he wonders if there had been anyone that could even tell the police that he existed. He doesn't have any other relatives, they move so much that they don't have any close friends or neighbors that might have mentioned it. He's at a boarding school with his tuition paid all the way through the end of the year...

No one ever comes to tell him anything, which leaves Akira with two choices. Going to his teachers and telling them everything, or trying to figure out a way to keep going on his own.

That's why he's here, in Inaba. He's not particularly interested in learning about small town life, but it's a whole year with his school expenses covered by the exchange program, with somewhere to live and something to eat, and all he'd had to do is submit an online application and fake his parents' signatures a couple of times.

...he hadn't really expected it to work. 

But it had, and here he is, pretending that everything is fine and normal and he's not just one giant fake for being here at all.

Akira shakes his head furiously and tries to drive away the guilt. He's here now. Time to unpack. 

Half of his suitcase is filled with clothes, most of them a little big on him, but he'll grow into them. Clothes for summer and winter, two pairs of shoes, a jacket that will hopefully be warm enough for whatever winters are like around here, and a set of pajamas. The rest of the suitcase has the things he hadn't wanted to leave behind.

A handful of pictures of his parents and his friends from back home. A couple of souvenirs his parents had brought back for him after unusually lengthy trips. The stuffed cat he's had since he was a baby, because he is eleven and that's too old for toys but maybe not too old for every toy, especially this one that his parents had given him.

He holds it for a second, before setting it on top of the couch where he can see it no matter where he is in the room.

And then that's it. Akira is completely unpacked and done moving in.

This is home until the end of the year.

He loses track of time then, looking around the room, thinking hard, and when he suddenly blinks and comes back out of his thoughts and into the real world, it's dark out. Akira switches on a lamp that's been left against the wall, and leaves the bedroom at last. His cautious exploration of the rest of the house turns up no sign of Dojima, but Nanako is in the kitchen pulling ingredients out with a determined expression on her face.

"I thought your dad said he would be back before dinner," he points out.

"He said that," Nanako answers.

Akira glances at the clock on one of the walls, and realizes it's later than he'd thought. Definitely past dinner by now. "But... he's not back," he finishes for her.

There's a pause, then Nanako says, "It's okay. His work is very important."

This is going to be a very awkward year, if the two of them are going to argue the whole time. Akira wonders if he'd be better off trying to do something about it, or just sticking to the shadows and trying to stay out of their way.

Nanako is currently trying to reach someone on a shelf six inches too high for her.

"Do you need any help with the food?" he asks, because changing the subject seems like the best choice for right now, and because at least getting dinner ready seems like a pretty safe topic.

Nanako glances at him, then admits, "Yes, please."

He stands on his toes, and because he's older and taller than Nanako is, he manages to reach her out of reach shelf. The two of them put together microwave noodles, and eat them in front of the TV, watching the news and the weather in silence.

Akira is back upstairs and drifting off to sleep when he hears Dojima coming home.


April 8

After School

A month passes, and Akira gradually settles into life in Inaba. School starts, and while he doesn't make any friends, no one bothers him much. The coursework is pretty much the same as what he'd been doing at his old school, except that the textbooks are older and the coursework is a little behind. There's the same gossip about different classmates, and the same rumors about different teachers. Akira has noticed, as he goes from school to school, that the names and the details change, but there's always a kid that's a little too weird, and there's always a teacher that everyone hates, and that's as true in Inaba as anywhere else. Right now, the thing that everyone's talking about is something called the Midnight Channel--a haunted TV show or something that's supposed to show you who your true love is if you watch at midnight on a rainy night.

Of course, since they're in sixth grade and not very interested in romance yet, most of the gossip is focused on whose older siblings are currently obsessed with it. Since Akira just has Nanako at home, and since neither of them has any interest in stuff like that, he doesn't pay much attention.

He splits his time after school between the Dojima house and lengthy wanderings around town. Inaba is small enough that he can walk anywhere he wants to without worrying about getting a bus or a train, and it doesn't take very long to reach the town's outer limits, and beyond that there's nothing but farmland, mountains, and a half hour drive to the next town over.

He likes Nanako, once she starts to warm up to him and let her guard down a little. She's obviously excited to have someone else in the house, and since Akira had spent a lot of time saying goodbye to his parents when he was her age, he can understand how she's feeling. He doesn't mind spending time with her, even when she insists that they trek up to the big department store, Junes, twice during his first month in Inaba, and even if she sings their jingle so often that he ends up with all the words memorized himself. 

By the time the first month comes to a close, and the two of them are walking together to school every morning, Nanako's nervousness around him has vanished completely. Akira has gotten used to having her around all the time, sometimes just working on her homework or watching TV, sometimes driving him crazy, but--in a way that he doesn't actually mind.

He's never had siblings, or even cousins, anything like that. It's kind of nice to have someone else around all the time.

Dojima is a little harder to get along with, and he sometimes makes Akira a little bit nervous. When he signed up for the exchange program, he hadn't thought that he would be staying with a police detective, and if Dojima gets suspicious, Akira doesn't know what will happen to him. He doesn't know how much trouble he'll be in if anyone finds our his parents are gone.

Probably a lot. 

So Dojima makes him nervous, and Akira tries his best to stay on his best behavior around him, and out of his sight as much as possible. It's usually not too hard, because Dojima's work sends him out of the house early in the morning and doesn't let him come back until late at night, usually. On the rare occasions where he is home, Akira heads out to wander Inaba instead of risking any awkward conversations inside.

It's on one such day, when Akira had walked home from school to find Dojima's car waiting in the house's driveway, that he finds himself walking along Inaba's small shopping district. 

He doesn't usually spend much time here, because he doesn't have money to spend and also because half the shops are empty, and the ones that are still open kind of bore him. Today though he lingers, because there's nothing else to do and nowhere else to be, and it's when he's wandered nearly all the way down to the bus stop at the end of the street, that he sees a flash of blue out of the corner of his eye. He turns, curious, and--there's nothing. Akira frowns at the empty space next to the bookstore, wondering if he'd imagined it. He doesn't think so. The color had been weird and distinctive, kind of shimmering and almost but not quite transparent. He turns his head, slowly, and manages to catch another glimpse of the blue shine out of the corner of his eye. It takes a few more minutes of effort and experimentation to kind of squint and focus so that he can see it when he faces it straight on, and finally get a good view of it.

It's a door. A blue, glowing door that isn't attached to any of the buildings nearby, and doesn't seem to actually be made out of anything. It's just there, floating gently, so pale that Akira can see through it to the other side, and absolutely more interesting than anything he's seen since getting to Inaba. He's crossed the street by this point and is standing right in front of the door, eyes half crossed as he struggles to keep the door in sight. He hesitates, then reaches a hand out to touch the door.

"Hey, kid."

He jumps and turns around, to find that a woman in a gas station attendant's uniform is watching him.

"Uh," Akira says, which is probably not the most intelligent answer he could have offered.

The woman certainly doesn't seem all that impressed. "What are you doing?" she asks.

"I was just looking at..." He turns back to where he knows the door is, but now that he's been distracted, and let his attention wander, the door has flickered out of being visible again. Akira sighs and feels his shoulders slump slightly. "Never mind," he says. "I... wasn't looking at anything."

"Are you sure?" she asks, and for some reason the question seems... heavy. It feels like the answer means more than it should.

"I just thought I saw..." He looks up at her, not sure how to answer. It would probably sound crazy to admit that there's a door here that he can't exactly see, and isn't exactly sure is real.

The woman smiles. Apparently, for whatever reason, this is the correct answer. "You're new around town, aren't you?" she asks. "I haven't seen you before." She jerks her head back toward the gas station. "And trust me, I spent a lot of time standing around with nothing much to look at. I've seen pretty much everything there is to see on this street."

Akira wonders if this includes magic blue doors.

"I'm new," he agrees, which is the safer part of the question to answer.

"Well," she says, holding out a hand. "Welcome to Inaba, kid."

Akira shakes her hand, feeling a little weird about it. "I should... probably start heading home."

"And I should be at work," the woman says. "Nice meeting you, kid."

She lets go of Akira's hand retreats back across the street to the gas station. Akira watches her go, vaguely confused by the whole interaction. For several seconds he just kind of stands there, trying to figure out whether he's crazy or she is, and then a wave of unexpected nausea passes over him. He sighs, feeling drained and tired, and decides to head back to the Dojima house after all. Maybe he can avoid a conversation with Dojima by heading straight up to bed.

Unfortunately, this plan is foiled when Akira gets back to the house and finds Dojima sitting at the kitchen table, a thoughtful expression on his face, and a mug of coffee cooling on the table in front of him. Akira takes a quick, instinctive glance at the clock, but it's still half an hour before he's been told he needs to be back in the house. He's not going to get in trouble for skipping out on curfew or anything, at least.

"Akira," Dojima says, beckoning him over to the table. "There's something I need to talk to you about."

Akira stares at him like a deer in headlights, and Dojima actually laughs at the expression. "You're not in any trouble," he says. "Just come over here."

He does as he's told, padding across the floor in his socks, and settling himself in the chair opposite Dojima. "Did something happen?" he asks, mentally running through a list of things he's done recently that Dojima might not be happy about. He's behaved himself at school. He's doing well in classes. Outside of school, he hasn't gotten into any fights, hasn't broken any of Dojima's ground rules... he hasn't done anything wrong.

Please don't let it be about his parents. It's only been a month, it cannot possibly be about his parents. Not already.

"You could say that something happened, I guess," Dojima agrees. "I got a call from my sister this morning."

"Your...?" He's not sure what that has to do with him.

"My sister," Dojima says. "Yea." He runs a hand through his hair, and his voice takes on a slightly more irritated tone. "She's always been one to do things a little last minute. She forgets to tell people that she's made plans, and then by the time she does think to mention it, it's too late to say no."

Akira continues to feel confused.

"What I'm trying to say," Dojima says. "Is that apparently my nephew is coming to stay for the year while my sister and her husband are travelling internationally."

"O-oh," Akira says. Now he understands why Dojima had wanted to talk to him about this. After all, if he has a relative coming to stay for the year, he's not exactly going to want Akira here too, taking up even more space.

"So unfortunately for you," Dojima says, and Akira braces himself for the bad news. "I'm going to have to put him up in the room with you. He's in high school, so it might be a little cramped in there for the two of you, but--"

"Wait," Akira interrupts, suddenly jerking forward and putting his hands on the table. "You mean you're not kicking me out?"

"What?" Dojima stares at him like this was not even a consideration. "No. This isn't ideal, but I'm not sure how I would even go about getting you assigned to a different host family for the year." Under his breath, in a tone that Akira is not entirely sure he was meant to hear, he adds, "It would involve a ton of paperwork, I'm sure."

Akira feels lighter, suddenly--saved by the threat of paperwork. "When is he coming?" he asks.

"Monday," Dojima says. "So that gives us a couple days. I know you don't have much stuff upstairs, but I need you to just make sure there's enough room for Yu when he gets here."

"No problem," says Akira. He could probably fit everything he owns in one corner of that bedroom. He half stands, waiting to see if he's going to be allowed to leave. "I can go work on that now, if that's okay."

Dojima waves him away, and Akira is halfway to the stairs when he hears Dojima calling his name.

"Yea?" Akira says, turning back to look at him.

"I don't have a problem with you staying," Dojima tells him. "But I'd understand if you want to leave."

"I'm okay," Akira says.

"You're okay?"

"I'm okay," Akira repeats. After all, he doesn't have anywhere else to go.

"Well," Dojima says, voice slightly gruffer than usual. "I appreciate it anyway."

Akira nods and hurries the rest of the way upstairs. Now that the immediate danger of being kicked out to make room for Dojima's nephew is gone, he's free to worry about what it's going to be like sharing a room with him for the year. He doesn't know anything about this kid, whether he'll be older or younger or nice or a jerk or anything. This year, which so far has looked like it's going to shape up to be pretty quiet, suddenly has a chance of getting a lot more chaotic.

He finds Nanako in his room when he gets there, sitting on the couch with her knees drawn up to her chin and her arms wrapped around them. She shoots Akira a slightly guilty look when he pauses in the doorway, and then says, "Did Dad tell you my cousin is coming to stay?"

"Yes," Akira says.

"Do you think..." Nanako squeezes her knees a little tighter. "Do you think he'll be nice?"

Akira sighs. He really, really wishes he had a definite answer to give her, because he really, really wishes he had a definite answer for himself. "I hope so, Nanako," he says, moving over to sit on the opposite end of the couch. "I really do."


April 8


Dojima sits at the table for a few minutes after sending Akira upstairs, stewing to himself and considering whether or not to call his sister and go back to the shouting match they'd been having before the kids got home. It's probably a bad idea. It's only going to scare Nanako, and she doesn't need that right now. She'd been upset enough when she got home from school to the news that she was going to be sharing the house with another stranger in a few days.

It's just so--it's just absolutely typical of her. She'd booked the kid's train, gotten him enrolled at Yasogami High, made all of her plans--

And then three days before, remembered that she hadn't actually asked if it was okay for Yu to come and stay. And of course by that point, what is he supposed to do? Punish the kid for having a mother that never stopped to consider what other people were thinking? Tell him he couldn't come, force him to scramble to find somewhere else to stay, or apply to a different high school a week after the academic year had started? The kid's still family, even if Dojima hasn't seen him since he was practically a baby. He'd had to say yes, when it came to it.

He grunts to himself and stands, thinking vaguely that he should go upstairs and check on Nanako. She'd run up to her room when Dojima had told her there would be another newcomer in the house in a couple of days, and Dojima had decided to give her some time to cool down before following her. She should have had enough time by now.

Halfway up the stairs, he hears voices and pauses to listen.

"...if he doesn't like me?" Nanako is saying, voice so quiet that Dojima can barely hear her even when he strains.

"He'll like you," Akira says. "You're his cousin, and you're nice, and I'm sure he'll like you."

Nanako pauses before answering. "Really?"

"Yea," Akira says. "I mean, he might not be too happy about sharing a room with me, but he'll like you."

"He'll like you too!" Nanako says, voice rising in protest. "He'll like both of us, okay? I decided."

"I don't think that's how it wor--"

"I decided!" Nanako says again, and Akira laughs. It's not a sound Dojima has heard too much from the kid over the past couple weeks. He never seems to let his guard down enough for that.

"Okay!" Akira says. "Okay, okay, I guess you decided, so it's official."

Dojima hears footsteps then, and retreats back down the stairs before either of them can see him standing there listening to them. Maybe, he thinks, this isn't going to go as badly as he expects. After all, these two have started to make friends already--he's sure Yu will fit right in when he gets here.

Everything, he tries to convince himself, will be fine. A little crowded maybe, and he's sure there will be some arguments, but everything will be fine.

As soon as everyone's settled, things will get back to normal. It'll be a quiet year.

He settles himself back at the table with the day's newspaper, still feeling slightly out of sorts, but... less so now. He's about halfway through the paper when he hears a creaking on the stairs, and looks up to see Akira coming down.

"Everything okay?" Dojima asks. 

"Fine," Akira says. 

Dojima waits. Akira says nothing, just shifts awkwardly as he stands at the bottom of the stairs. Eventually, Dojima asks, "Was there something you wanted to say?"

"I... had a question," Akira says. "It's..." 

"About Yu coming?"Dojima asks.

"No," Akira says. "It's... something stupid that I thought I saw in town today, and I just wondered... if..." Again, he fidgets. "In the shopping district, is there anything there that's supposed to be... I don't know. Haunted, or anything?"

"Haunted?" Dojima echoes.

Akira nods. "When I was there earlier today, I saw... I thought I saw a door. It was blue, and glowing."

Dojima stares at him for a second, then smiles and turns back to his paper. "You should try to get to bed earlier tonight," he says. "I know you're older than Nanako, and it's fine if you're staying up later than her, but if you're seeing haunted doors in town, you probably need to get more sleep."

He watches, amused now and smiling a little, as Akira turns red and goes back upstairs. They're all just kids, after all. Nanako and Akira and even Yu, when he gets here. Sixteen is still a kid, in Dojima's opinion.

They'll make it work. The year will pass. Things will calm down, and settle into a new normal. 

It'll be a quiet year. He's sure of it.


April 11

After School

It's sunny on the day that Nanako gets into the car with her dad, and rides with him down to the train station to pick up their second house guest for the year. She'd wanted Akira to come too, but her dad had gotten the train times mixed up, and Akira is still in class, so they'd had to leave without him.

"I'm sorry, Nanako," he says, which is how he starts most of the things he says to her these days. "I thought Yu's train was coming in a couple hours later."

"It's okay, Dad," Nanako says, even though it's not sure if it really is. She would have felt better meeting her cousin if she had Akira and her dad with her. That way, if Yu is mean, or if he doesn't like her, she'll have someone to hide behind.

They stop at a stop sign, and her dad turns for a second to look at her, his eyebrows raised. "Nanako," he says. "Are you sure? You sound--"

"I was just thinking," she says, all in a sudden rush. "He's really coming to stay with us for a whole year?"

"You know he is," her dad says, as he starts driving forward again.

"Well," Nanako says. "Yea, but..."

"You didn't want to have Akira around at first either," her dad points out. "And two weeks later, you're already upset that he couldn't come with us to the train station. I'm sure you'll like Yu just as much."

Well, maybe. But maybe not. Nanako starts worrying again, thoughts going around and around in familiar circles.

"Are you sure he has some come home with us?" she asks at last.

Her dad smiles. Nanako does not. She's just worried. She can't help it.

"It's only for a year," he reminds her, and pulls the car into the train station parking lot.

Nanako hops out of the car, sticking close behind her dad, looking around curiously for a glimpse of her cousin, even though she doesn't know what he'll look like. There's no one in sight right now, and she instinctively looks toward the same area where she'd first seen Akira, waiting for them in the rain.

Sure enough, as they walk closer, Nanako sees an older boy, a teenager, standing with his phone out, the other hand in his pocket.

"Yu Narukami," Nanako's dad calls as they get closer. "Right?"

He looks up at the sound of his name, and half smiles. "Right," he says. "That's me."

Nanako watches her dad step forward, and shake her cousin's hand. "Welcome to Inaba, Yu," he says. 

It's going to be a really weird year, Nanako decides, as their second year long house guest gets into the car. Really weird.